‘Come Watch the F*cking Sharks’: Def Jam’s Rap Camp Experiment

Def Jam hired new A&Rs, signed a group of artists, and sent them all to rap camp. Their compilation album, ‘Undisputed,’ represents a new era for the label.

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Complex Original

Photo by Julian Berman

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It all started, as most grand ideas in rap historically have, with a blunt.

The seeds of rap camp—Def Jam’s A&R-led initiative to sequester 17 of their new artists in one studio to record an album together—were born on the Broadway corner of the label’s midtown New York headquarters, thanks to a freezing blunt cypher.

“It was so cold,” recounts vice president of A&R Alexander “A.E.” Edwards. “We was like, ‘We can’t even enjoy this; our fingers are freezing.’” Standing in the huddle with him were fellow A&Rs Pedro “Dro” Genao and Ricardo “Rico Beats” Lamarre, who had recently come back from A.E.’s native California after an especially productive week with one of their new artists, Fetty Luciano.

“We gotta get back to L.A.,” Rico said, shuddering. Cue the lightbulb.

Paul Rosenberg, the titan behind Shady Records who shepherded Eminem and 50 Cent’s careers, assumed his role as Def Jam’s new CEO in January 2018. One of his first orders of business was to enlist former G.O.O.D. Music COO (and Pusha-T’s perennial consigliere) Steven Victor as his EVP and head of A&R. Victor paid it forward with a curiosity-piquing signing of his own when he made A.E., the bottle-blonde taste curator who helped plot Tyga’s comeback, his vice president. Rounding out the squad are Dro (who also hailed from Shady) and Rico, who amassed an impressive production discography lacing the likes of Pusha-T and Nicki Minaj before transitioning into an A&R role.

Along with the new hires over the past year, over 20 artists have been signed to the label, an unprecedented number that’s frankly a little eyebrow-raising. In effect, the rap camp program and Undisputed, its resulting compilation album, out March 8, represent the first big offering from Rosenberg and his presidential cabinet.

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If the program was “camp,” then the stretch of days leading up to Grammy Sunday in early February was parents’ weekend. At Paramount Studios in Los Angeles, droves of journalists, streaming service representatives, and some of the industry’s most respected and influential figures gathered to see what the kids had created during their stay. Everyone was summoned for a presentation that could dictate the shape of not only the artists’ nascent musical careers, but also the future and durability of the historic label they’re signed to. No big deal.

The scene among the artists and their executives featured a persistent curtain of smoke but no signs of anxiety. Posing for photos for this story, Rico Beats ashed a blunt on the bottom of a chunky Balenciaga sneaker, while Dro ice grilled for the cameras proclaiming "since I never graduated from nothing, I treat every shoot like a class photo!” Harlem rapper TJ Porter’s uptown ego was on full display as he held court with his fellow artists on NBA 2K before arguing with Kenyon Martin that he could embarrass his son on the court as an amused 2 Chainz recorded the exchange on his phone. Guests settled in for an introduction from Rosenberg and his team before toggling between two studio control rooms for the main event: presentations from the 15 or so artists on hand to serve as Def Jam’s flashforward.

So who are the freshmen leading the way for a new era of Def Jam? The Undisputed roster spans the country. From New York, there’s Fetty Luciano, of Brooklyn GS9 royal lineage (Rowdy Rebel is his older brother). The aforementioned TJ Porter and Dominic Lord represent both spectrums of a Harlem upbringing; Porter is cocky and charismatic, where Lord reserves his flashiness for fashion. From California, there’s SOB x RBE member Lul G and Sneakk, a longtime affiliate of the group. Putting on for the peach state is the bubbly Bernard Jabs and the more taciturn Atlanta crooner Landstrip Chip. Striipes and Nasaan (who partook in camp and are featured on the album but did not appear at the presentation) are from Boston and Detroit, respectively. Mean-mugged R&B bad boy YK Osiris hails from Florida; YFL Kelvin reps Cleveland. The awesomely named Nimic Revenue comes out of Minneapolis. Rounding out the crew, from Texas, there’s the charismatic, neon-haired S3nsi Molly and Lil Brooke (who release music independently and as a duo) and Ashton Travis, who came up with Travis Scott. Their various backstories, like Nimic’s bout with memory loss, TJ’s first life as a basketball star, and Nasaan being the late Proof of D12’s son, will be explored in an eight-part docuseries filmed at camp, and rolling out alongside the album.

“If the budget allows for it, I'm gonna sign as many artists as I can. And if the budget doesn't, I'll ask for more money.” - Steven victor

The core idea behind rap camp was for all these artists of disparate locations to coalesce in one place, luring them with the prospect of an escape. Most of the artists are in their teens or just barely out of them (25-year-old Dominic Lord is the oldest), and what teenager from Cleveland or Harlem wouldn’t jump at the chance to work in Hollywood? The primary benefit, though, was the prospect of isolation. With the exception of Sneakk and Lul G, L.A. is far from home for the the cast.

“Fetty, TJ Porter, those kids are from New York—it’s cold out here,” Rico explains. “You tell them, ‘We’re going to L.A. for a week to work,’ [the response is], ‘Fuck yeah!’” Dro saw it as a simple equation: Greater distance plus less distractions equals more focus. “Nobody can hit you from your crib, your mom, your lady, your boyfriend,” he reasons. “No one can hit you like, ‘We got this thing tonight. Come on, pull up.’ No, no, no, no. We in L.A. You spent money. You spent money on your budget to get busy. Now I got five rooms open for you. A different producer, different writer, etc. We here to work.”

Dro and Rico had already seen the equation play out in full effect with Fetty Luciano. “We were working on Fetty’s project here for two months before that, and the energy just wasn't right,” he recalls. “Then, when we went to L.A., and the one week that we spent with Fetty, we banged out the whole project.” Faced with over a dozen artists who needed to lock in the same way Fetty did, Dro wondered if whatever is in the air at Paramount would extend to the rest of the roster. From there, the idea snowballed between him, Rico, and, later, A.E. that they would gather the artists they were each developing and put them—and, most crucially, their budgets—together to create a camp where everyone could work.

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The sacrifice for focus wasn’t just to the artists’ benefit, but their A&Rs as well. “[When I’m here], I got my family, and I got things I'm taking care of at home,” Dro says. “I have to obligate myself over there. When I’m in L.A., that is my obligation. Rap camp, all them kids getting to the studio on time, that's [the L.A. version of] getting my daughter to school. Making sure they eat every three hours. Making sure if they want a little smoke, they got a little smoke. That’s my obligation.”

Of course, for rap camp to really work, it needed counselors who were up to the task. Artists are inherently mercurial and at least slightly egotistical. Add the age factor, and you have an experiment that could’ve very easily blown up in their faces. “Rico, myself, and A.E. have strong personalities, and I'm not saying that we're strong-arming anybody, but we’re stern,” Dro says. “We had to tell them this shit is real. You’re spending money here for your career. Let’s handle this, but let’s have fun.”

Juggling the varying needs of multiple artists is par for the course for any great A&R, though, as Victor sees it. “You gotta be able to differentiate from each artist ’cause each artist is different,” he says. “You can't just do the same thing for one artist that you're gonna do for another artist. If it was that easy, then there would be a lot more successful artists in the world.”

The secret science, to this group, at least, is doubling down on the family parallels Dro outlined. “When you walk in the room, I’m giving you a hug. I make sure I get to know you,” he says, laying out the process. “I hang out at a session with you before I play you a beat. What’s your vibe? What are you listening to right now? Give me a vibe, wherever you wanna go.”

A.E. started in the music industry on the other side of the table, initially as part of a rap group called The A’z. They saw plenty of tantalizing but ultimately bad ideas and advice thrown their way, which A.E. had to step up and reject. To be the one shaping career paths now is an irony and responsibility not lost on him. “Now that I have artists that have entrusted me with their dreams and their passions, that’s like the responsibility of a parent: to support, to give that wisdom, to give that constructive criticism, to give that motivation,” says A.E., whose first Def Jam signing was a down-to-the wire battle with Atlantic for YK Osiris. “And I love my artists like my sons, my little brothers. My happiness is their happiness.”

Going into rap camp, the Undisputed compilation album wasn’t the ultimate goal. The directive was simple: Create, create, create. The first summit in August went so well that another bundle of sessions was booked for November, and the subsequent output from both ended up exceeding the team’s wildest expectations. “In a collective, we made maybe 210 records, and if they weren't complete records, they were strong blueprints,” Dro says. “Out of those, maybe, like, 130 [complete] records were made.”

“Every other record label, you better watch what the f*** we doing. We just made an aquarium. Come watch the f***ing sharks.” - Dro

Explaining how a creative rapport was established, Dro continues, “Once you give me a direction, our producer is on deck. You sit next to him, they cook up something special for you right there.” The producer in question for the majority of the camp sessions (and the bulk of the final Undisputed tracklist) was Rico, which helped create an underlying cohesion, even as he aimed to give different sounds to each artist.

A program for new artists would ultimately be meaningless, though, if it didn’t foster growth. Two hundred new songs aren’t worth shit if they’re trapped in stagnancy. So the A&Rs acquiesced to the artists’ preferences while also throwing them curveballs. “When you work with artists, there’s always something that they have inside that they want to get out,” Dro explains. “You let them get that out. But then, that second and third record, you have to say, ‘Let’s challenge ourselves.’ Then you have to ask the producer, ‘Give me something left. I don't wanna hear the regular snares. I don't wanna hear the hard drums. Let me get something with more instrument.’” But crucially: “The artist has to agree with you. Blank canvas. Let’s use colors we never used before.”

Some experiments didn’t take, like Fetty Luciano’s initial sessions with Rico, in which he was steered away from following in GS9’s footsteps too rigidly. “I made him have records with Auto-Tune and singing to make him find his lane.” Rico acknowledges this was a hard left, but a well-intentioned swerve: “I don’t want him to just jump and try to be like his brother and Bobby. I want him to find himself.” Fetty ended up going back to his original sound after testing the records out, but the attempt is what matters.

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Throughout rap camp, TJ Porter would be quick to identify an exact melody he wanted, whereas Landstrip Chip might hone in on something as incisive as the placement of a snare kick. “Fetty was more like, ‘All right, bro. Make it work. You’re the producer. You know what’s fire. You know the hit records,’” Rico says. Dro highlights Nimic as another artist open to experimentation: “I know sometimes she might not want to, but it’s for sport, man. She likes the challenge, and she rises to the occasion.”

Rico, Dro, Victor, and A.E. have all logged significant time with some of the industry’s most successful veteran artists. Still, they capitulate there’s something more fun about working with the new kids and watching them grow. TJ Porter is one of the artists Victor identifies as having undergone a visible change in dynamic after both camp sessions. “I could see his competitive juices flowing,” he says. “Obviously he's competitive because he was an athlete. I gotta outdo this person. I gotta outdo that person. I gotta make better songs. I gotta work harder.”

Dro adds, “Sneakk is a great example. ‘Spray’ was TJ Porter’s session. Porter didn’t like the beat. Sneakk snuck in there like, ‘Shit, I'll fuck with this.’ He started going off, and now Sneakk's first single is featuring Tyga and YG.” That track is now Undisputed’s lead single. “It’s like we’re in a vehicle and we gotta find the direction we gotta go,” Dro muses. “Acts who are established, there's a direction. Here, it’s the crawl, walk, run aspect of it. Those stages are special to me—then to hit that tunnel and come out and see that fucking light, that’s the major win.” Victor adds, “The joy is seeing [talent] in its raw form, before seeing an artist come into their own.”

When Def Jam rolled out the announcement trailer for Undisputed, it was met with dubious reactions to proclamations about the artists that some felt were hyperbolic (“Striipes is, like, the Jimi Hendrix of rap”), to say the least. The team doubles down on their artists, though. Rico tells me he believes Chip will win a Grammy within “the next year or two.” In a conversation unrelated to this story, rising music figure Dro Fe (whose Narcowave collective produced “Big Boss” on Undisputed) declared S3nsi Molly and Lil Brook the best female rappers out: “Brook is right there behind her, but Molly for sure.” As for Victor, he stresses confidence and faith. “Most careers, it takes like three or four years before things are in place,” he says. “Look at any artist five years from the point they got signed to where [they are now], you know what I’m saying? And then it’s, like, a seven-, eight-year process for them to become a superstar. You got to really believe in the talent that you sign. You know, five years, eight years could be the span of an artist’s career.”

The idea to roll out a compilation featuring new artists with no star (yet) to provide a guaranteed draw was also met with wariness, but Victor isn’t sweating it. “I don’t want to say it’s not that deep, but...it’s really not that deep,” he says. A.E. reasons, “It gives all the new artists a fair shot. You can’t be like, ‘Ah, well, if y’all would have gave me a look.’ Nah, we put out the compilation and people are gonna eat up what they like. You’re gonna see the cream rise to the top.”

The Undisputed rollout began in late January, just days after J. Cole and Dreamville dominated the news cycle with a program in which...artists were invited to sequester themselves in a studio and create, create, create in service of a compilation project. “Great minds think alike,” Victor shrugs, while remembering to point out that their camp program started last year. “That's cool,” Dro offers with a caveat: “But you’re riding off a staple artist. Me personally, that’s J. Cole's project. This is just people you don’t know. This is the wolves, man,” he says, referring to album artwork of a wolf and lettering stylized with NWO-red.

“It’s never been this magnified,” A.E says. “We're doing this with untapped artists, putting them in this arena. And we’re gonna film it, and we’re gonna motherfucking bring our producers, and we’re gonna motherfucking televise this shit through social media and let niggas see it play by play.” He adds, “And a label like Def Jam. Usually the subsidiary labels, the imprints, and the joint ventures like Cash Money or G.O.O.D. Music do it. The majors are kinda too busy. Not us.”

It’s a risk, for sure, and an unprecedented move in line with signing a whole group of new artists in one year. “It’s about taking a risk,” Dro points out. “If you’re gonna come into a new atmosphere, in any business, you wanna shake shit up.” Victor is quick to correct the idea that the number of artists signed was part of some preordained game plan: “It's more about just signing great talent. The idea wasn’t to sign a whole bunch of artists—I just kept on meeting dope artists.” Disruption, calculated risk-taking, and experimentation are the operating principles that seem to dictate the Rosenberg presidency. “Listen, if the budget allows for it, I’m gonna sign as many artists as I can,” Victor declares. “And if the budget doesn’t allow for them, I’ll ask for some more money.”

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In the waning days of winter, the focus is on the current freshmen. Dro isn’t leaving room for maybes and bet-hedging. “Everybody’s gonna have a career,” he says. “Everybody’s gonna have multiple ways of making finances because we’re setting them up on a strong platform to go wide outside of music. That’s what is gonna come out of this: a nice platform for these kids to springboard into their careers.”

The experiment has already fostered a sense of camaraderie among the formerly unrelated artists. Dro pulls up Landstrip Chip’s Instagram page as evidence: “The other day, Chip posted a pic [captioned], ‘I could get you hit in every city.’ It’s him, Fetty, Lul G, Kelvin, and TJ. Now he got Harlem, Brooklyn, Atlanta, the Bay, and Cleveland. That shit touched me.”

As far as these four are concerned, whatever happens with Undisputed, rap camp has established itself as a successful template to become a recurring program. Rico says they had songwriters pull up at the maiden camps to help the kids with their craft, and Dro already has ideas of where they can push it further: “Maybe we’ll pluck some [Def Jam] legends and put them in the room with these young kids. Be nice to hear Slick Rick on the record, Method Man, or somebody like LL, and get ’em going.”

As for Def Jam’s new direction overall, Victor is pragmatic. “We definitely have a long way to go. We got some hard work ahead of us. But I feel like with the right talent and the confidence in our sales, we’re gonna bring it back to—I don’t want to say we’re gonna bring it back to where it was, but our goal is to be a place where artists want to sign to. All types of artists, too—not just rappers. Just anyone that’s creative and has a voice.”

Dro, for his part, is ready to throw the gauntlet down.

“Every other record label, you better watch what the fuck we doing. We just made an aquarium. Come watch the fucking sharks.”

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