Roc-A-Fella Records began like many other successful independent labels; flying under the radar. Before the hip hop label was even launched, numerous executives and labels had the opportunity to add Jay-Z to their roster but none took the chance. In 1993, close friend Damon Dash helped Jay sell his single “In My Lifetime” out the trunk of his car as well as setup meetings in an attempt to get a deal. The only label who bought into the hype was Payday Records, thus giving Jay-Z $25,000-$30,000 in exchange for “a couple of singles and several albums.” Payday helped distribute “In My Lifetime” but didn’t market the single to its potential. This on top of Jay-Z being a fairly new artist led to the single flopping and him being released from the label. While at Payday, Jay realized a lot of the things the label was helping him with he could handle himself.
Early Roc-A-Fella Days
By the time Jay-Z was released from Payday Records Kareem Burke had joined the duo.
The next step for the entrepreneurs was to secure a central location. Sometime in 1994 they rented office space in Manhattan and Roc-A-Fella was established. Although it was not in the best location or the most presentable, rent was low and Jay knew it was only the beginning.
“I like being away from everybody right now, because I can get all my stuff together, then I can move uptown with all those other ****** when everything’s straight. No sense in spending a whole lot of money on office space and moving employees round if your product isn’t bringing in any money yet–that’s a mistake executives make.”
The trio began looking for a new distributor and eventually landed Jay-Z a deal with Priority Records later in 1995.
Roc-A-Fella Records was officially founded in 1996 by Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, Damon “Dame” Dash, and Kareem “Biggs” Burke. “Reasonable Doubt” was the label’s first release and came out on June 25, 1996, with distribution from Priority. Although the album didn’t see much mainstream success, it gained Jay-Z respect and generated enough buzz to catch the attention of A&Rs. A song on the album found its way onto The Nutty Professor Soundtrack, which led Roc-A-Fella into serious talks with record label Def Jam. The parties agreed that Def Jam would own 50% of the Roc-A-Fella Records label in exchange for $1.5 million.
Throughout the next decade, Roc-A-Fella would attain some of the biggest artists and release some of the most popular hits.
1997 only saw the release of one Roc-A-Fella record, which was Jay-Z’s second album “In My Lifetime Vol.1”. In 1998, Roc-A-Fella released their first movie/Streets Is Watching soundtrack, DJ Clue’s album, and Jay-Z’s “Vol.2…Hard Knock Life”. Loaded with top production, features, and the hit “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)”, Jay’s Vol.2 was the first album to go platinum on Roc-A-Fella Records; thus launching him to superstar status. The following year saw the emergence of the Rocawear clothing line, Memphis Bleek’s debut album, as well as Jay-Z’s “Vol.3…Life and Times of S. Carter”.
By now, Jay-Z’s clever rhymes and successful album sales secured his spot as the face of the Roc-A-Fella brand.
Hard Knock Life Tour: Most successful all Hip Hop concert to date! Sold out 52 cities nationwide and spawned the behind-the-scenes film/DVD Backstage.
The first few years in 2000 is when the Roc-A-Fella brand really took over the industry.
With Jay-Z heading this so-called “dynasty” and more people noticing, Roc-A-Fella Records continued to feed the industry. They put out releases by Amil, The Diplomats, Memphis Bleek, Freeway, Cam’ron, Beanie Sigel, Juelz Santana, Jay-Z, and newcomer Kanye West.
Five movies and a concert were released on Roc-A-Fella Films before the company was sold to Def Jam in 2004.
- Streets Is Watching
- State Property
- Paid in Full
- Death of a Dynasty
In 2002, Roc-A-Fella secured the US distribution rights to Armadale Vodka.
Sometime in 2004, Island Def Jam purchased the remaining 50% stake of Roc-A-Fella Records for $10 million. As part of the deal, Def Jam would retain the entire Roc-A-Fella roster.
Jay-Z and Memphis Bleek account for the first artists signed to Roc-A-Fella Records. Some other early Roc-A-Fella artists include Christion, Beanie Sigel, Amil, Freeway, Jadakiss, Cam’ron, Juelz Santana, Foxy Brown, and DJ Clue. Producers involved with Roc-A-Fella include Just Blaze, Ski Beatz, and producer turned artist Kanye West.