With beginnings in Rick Rubin’s bedroom three decades ago, Def Jam’s credibility and ability to outlast its competitors as one of the world’s most known imprints for hip-hop is something not to be reckoned with.
Now it is in the hands of Universal Music’s South-East Asia CEO, Calvin Wong who is tasked with expanding its footprint. His approach to maintaining the label’s integrity whilst elevating it regionally is that of building authenticity and a strong community to support new artiste signings.
Armed with decades of industry experience, having built F Records (Hong Kong) and Black Hat Cat Records (Malaysia) from the ground-up with successful signings such as Dough-Boy and Alif during his time at Warner Music, Calvin is aware that living up to expectations of a brand so iconic will certainly not be a walk in the park. Despite all that, it is a challenge that he relishes with a dose of healthy realism: “Yes, Universal Music is a commercial entity, but we want to do it the right way. I don’t look upon Def Jam as cash cow and needing to milk it whilst there’s still money in it. Take for example, Indonesia. Hip-hop isn’t big there yet so why are we still signing the acts there? It’s because we believe that if we make exciting content and bring artistes to the forefront, the market will go for it.”
To ensure they have the right ears spotting talent, the label recently appointed former manager of Fariz Jabba and Yung Raja, Ezekiel Keran (Flightsch) to head up A&R, as they recognize he is someone with a deep understanding of hip-hop culture. With foundations as a music producer 12 years ago under Joe Flizzow’s Kartel Records, Ezekiel immediately jumped at the opportunity to be part of a global brand to bring a whole new dynasty to bring hip-hop to the region: “Running an indie label plateaus you. South East Asia hasn’t seen an opportunity like this, ever. Our end-game is to ensure all artists signed on to the Asian imprint are exportable. We want to push them to the next level and enlarge the hip-hop community.”
Calvin is steadfast in his resolve to match an artiste’s ambition with strategies to help them breakthrough globally. Though, this must be in parallel with aspirations held by the artistes and mutual respect between parties so there is flow when pushing boundaries further. He quips, “We always ask artistes if you’re doing it for fun, or wanting to build a career out of it. If you’re doing it for fun, then joining a multinational label isn’t for you. We are here to develop careers.”
This is definitely matched by the passion from Def Jam’s roster of regional artistes that are currently signed-on. At the recent Maison 21G collaboration for his new perfume, “Royalty”, Yung Raja talks about this breakthrough: “It’s a matter of support. The West used to export talents to the East. Now we’re exporting our talents to them. Our brand, identities and culture. The first movers in the region were 88 Rising with Rich Brian and Higher Brothers. There comes a time where people in America will know Singapore music. When that day comes, all our truths, our cultures and our differences in music will be understood by everyone. We’ll be supported by people who enjoy music, yet not necessarily understand our culture.”
Presently on the label’s South East Asian roster are hip-hop legends in their own right: Joe Flizzow (Malaysia), Daboyway (Thailand), Yung Raja (Singapore), Fariz Jabba (Singapore), Alif (Singapore) and A.Nayaka (Indonesia). The all-star crew has played at numerous events such as MTV Yo Raps, Culture Cartel, hit 1,000,000 hits on Spotify and have a whole host of plans up their sleeves over the next couple of months. Would such visibility of the label be a fair metric of success? Calvin is not easily convinced. Citing “This is What Feels Like” by Armin Van Buuren as a prime example – with no proper pop plays, not a chart-topper. It has, however, somehow managed to be embedded as a earworm of the masses such that when Armin plays it, everyone sings to it.
“Why do you like a certain song? It’s not led by lyrics. It’s led by the feel, the emotion, the hummable factor or the sing-along factor. It’s pure fun in the community that has been created in dance. Language becomes secondary.” – Calvin Wong
He re-emphasises this is why building the community of like-minded music lovers is extremely important and is wary not to stereotype “hip-hop”, or what the genre represents. It might have been historically associated with basketball, flashy cars, ostentatious jewelry or a certain race, but the genre to him is much more than that: “Hip-hop to me is authenticity when you let people express themselves in their own way. Everyone used to like to show off much wealth they’ve got. It’s not like that anymore.” Pointing towards Kendrick Lamar’s 2017 album as illustration – the hip-hop star dons a plain white tee in his release “DAMN”, which completely disrupts the stereotype of what hip-hop is traditionally known for.
Taking a considered approach of celebrating the success of others and a workplace culture driven by passion, Calvin keeps his feet firmly on the ground: “Success doesn’t come when you’re very political, or if you’re good at using people. When you’re naturally passionate about things and you can rally people towards a common goal, that drives people on. That’s positive pressure.”
The team will roll up its sleeves in the next 24 months, with a constant ebb and flow of releasing new works and project. Some might work, some might not. Calvin believes in patience. “You can’t force things to happen very quickly. I always tell my team, Joe, David, Yaniz – everything will happen in the right time. More importantly, don’t lose focus on the artistes.”
With a detailed game plan and firm focus on work ethics as well as a broader, credible value system, Paul Rosenberg will definitely be assured that Def Jam’s expansion into Asia will do the label’s longstanding history the justice it deserves.