Rick Rubin, Russell Simmons, Lyor Cohen, Jay Z, L.A. Reid…Def Jam has apparent a assumption of iconic leaders during its 30 years, and on April 1, Steve Bartels begin himself aing in line. And while his glassy bend appointment in the Midtown Manhattan architecture of Universal Music Group (UMG) is worlds abroad (if alone 50-odd blocks) from the New York University abode area Rubin abundantly founded the characterization in 1984, Bartels brings his own bona fides to the job. Built-in in Ohio but aloft in Spring Valley, N.Y., he entered the music business as a DJ about the time Def Jam was born. A job in ball advance at A&M Records, area he was assassin by the backward allegorical controlling Charlie Minor, led to a decade ceremony at Arista and Island Def Jam, alive with Clive Davis and Reid, the advisers who, with Minor, he considers his music business mentors. Bartels’ active attributes has apparent him acceleration through the ranks and, during the accomplished 10 years, he has played a cardinal role in the careers of Jay Z, Kanye West, Rihanna, Fall Out Boy and Justin Bieber, to name aloof a few. Now 51, the affiliated ancestor of two (a son, 16, and a daughter, 10) is at the captain of a characterization with a archive that includes LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Nas, Ludacris and The Roots, amid added contempo signings like 2 Chainz, Frank Ocean, Iggy Azalea, YG, Jeremih and Jhene Aiko. Abounding of those acts will arise at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on Oct. 16 at the 30th-anniversary concert for the label, which is additionally actuality acclaimed with a abundant box set aggregate by Rubin and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson.
Bartels’ affiliation to his artists is axiomatic in the photographs decorating his office, including assorted shots of the label’s citizen diva, Mariah Carey, whom he artlessly calls “incomparable.” After agilely spinning new songs from Axwell & Ingrosso, Roc Nation signing Sam Romans and, not least, a new song from Bieber that finds the accompanist branch in an abrupt direction, the CEO and cycling enthusiast talked to Billboard about Def Jam’s anniversary, its approaching and his agrarian weekend in Tokyo.
You aloof got aback from agitated it up at the Ultra Music Festival in Tokyo. Is that adapted behavior for a CEO?
(Laughs.) I anticipate it’s a abundant attending for a CEO — abnormally aback you’ve got three of your new signings [Afrojack, Alesso and Axwell & Ingrosso] headlining the closing night. It was abundant — awash out, 30,000 bodies there. I could see it possibly acceleration in admeasurement aing year. But I aloof went to abutment my guys — I was alive for 24 hours. We went to banquet and were out all night.
Do those signings beggarly you’re blame harder into ball music?
I’ve consistently accurate ball music and will abide to. Their music is unbelievable, and they are absolutely a fit for Def Jam. Now, will we assurance 20 added DJs? If they’re abundant and fit that criteria, I will never aphorism annihilation out. I appetite to aces up the aesthetics that Russell and Rick had in agreement of assortment and breaking genres.
Bartels’ “Special Presentation” Lifetime Achievement MTV Video Music Award.
What’s in abundance for the Def Jam celebration? Will it go as far aback as, say, the label’s aboriginal release, T La Rock?
A lot of our aboriginal antecedents will be performing. You’d be afraid at how abounding bodies are advancing out of the woodwork: “I’ll do a song! I’ll do a brace of songs!” There are some account we accept that we’re not abiding if they’re activity to appear off yet, and I accept complete hopes for some moments not currently on the slate.
Island and Def Jam afar beforehand this year into two stand-alone labels. Was that breach by genre?
Not at all. We’re not genre-specific. The apriorism was that the artists went area they were signed, although Bieber, Iggy Azalea and Afrojack did appear over to Def Jam. But for a lot of the added artists, I was like, “Wow, all these guys I’ve formed with…Fall Out Boy, The Killers.” We bankrupt Avicii and he’s on Island. There’s an affect to it, but I’ve confused forward.
How has your job afflicted during the accomplished 10 years?
A lot – it’s abundant broader than aback I came in. I’m complex added carefully with artisan relations and A&R and ambience the accent with [UMG chairman] Lucian Grainge and Michele [Anthony, UMG controlling vp], and authoritative abiding we’re technologically assertive to backpack the characterization into whatever’s advancing next.
What array of beat did you do with retailers afore Jay Z’s accord for Magna Carta … Holy Grail in 2013, area anyone with a Samsung buzz got the anthology for free?
We were upfront actual aboriginal with them. I went to retailers with John Meneilly, who was his administrator at the time, and [Island Def Jam controlling vp] Pat Monaco. I said, “This is activity to happen, this is why it’s happening, this is the bulk of announcement Jay is getting.” And we ample out commodity different and complete for [retailers like] Target and Best Buy, to accomplish the accounts feel special. It wasn’t annihilation ever over the top, but it was abundant area they got it and were actual blessed with the honesty.
A applique assuming all the countries in the apple area Jay Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne hit No. 1. “There were alone a brace made,” says Bartels.
What can you say about the new Kanye West album?
It sounds incredible. He’s focused, energetic, blessed and authoritative awfully abundant music. Kanye consistently wants to accomplish abiding that aback it absolutely arrives it’s at the best accessible abode it could be, that the aboriginal song is as big as the last. He’s the complete bar of accomplishment in agreement of that. I acquaint him all the time: Some of his antecedent albums are still testing out in the exchange as high, if not higher, than aback they aboriginal came out because the music is still beginning to people.
What do you anticipate happened with Carey’s latest album, which spent aloof eight weeks on the Billboard 100, her beeline break for a flat LP?
Listen, sometimes an artisan — and in the case of Mariah, an artisan I’ve formed with for 10 years — makes an amazing anthology that aloof doesn’t affix with the audience. Of advance that is actual disappointing, but it would be absurd to define that bottomward to aloof one thing. I’ve enjoyed absurd success with Mariah and abounding of those hit songs and albums accept fabricated Billboard history. But this latest accomplishment aloof didn’t go all the way.
What are some your best “I can’t accept this is happening” moments over the years?
Oh, that happens to me a lot. Apparently with Rihanna aback we absitively to put calm the 777 tour, area we accountant a plane, brought forth columnist and chock-full for shows in seven cities about the world. It was actual confusing and actual air-conditioned — and she concluded up accepting her aboriginal number-one album. Another was aback I came aback from vacation and Jay Z alleged and said “I anticipate I’m accessible for you to apprehend my anthology [Magna Carta].” I went into the flat and all these artists were there — Justin Timberlake, Pharrell, DJ Khaled. I was aloof sitting there and Jay leaned over and said, “We’re gonna do this anthology with you.” Or Kanye speaking to me about his eyes of Yeezus and how he capital to [preview the anthology via video projections on barrio in assorted cities], and to accept it be the best alarmingly acclaimed anthology of the year. Or actuality at the Swedish Abode Mafia’s aftermost concert in Miami [in 2013] and seeing that atomic ability of music and culture. There are so many.
Do you bethink the aboriginal time you met Rihanna?
She was active in [then Def Jam president] Jay Z’s appointment — I bethink her eyes and how amazing her attendance was in the room. I bethink demography [“Pon de Replay”] to a flat in midtown, this was apparently 2006, I anticipate LA Reid was there, and we played it to a agglomeration of radio programmers. Everybody was like, “I’ve gotta leave and put this on the radio appropriate away.”
How do you handle an artisan who has become overexposed, like Bieber arguably has?
I don’t anticipate he is overexposed. I anticipate he had the adverse assignment of growing up in advanced of the world. I don’t apperceive how you could be advised by every larboard turn, every shoelace you tie — it’s a actual arbitrary trajectory. It’s allotment of what comes with [stardom], but for somebody to abound up through that…being with him and [seeing paparazzi] allurement him and catalyst him, and accepting bodies actually bandy themselves beyond the car — I anticipate with abundant scrutiny, annihilation you do is activity to get bizarre or accent to a amount that maybe isn’t fair.
Do you still DJ?
I DJ in my music allowance of my house. I’d adulation to [do more], and I’ve had bodies acquaint me, “Let’s get you out there!” I aloof don’t accept time. But I’d adulation to go to a big club and … “Wait, who is that up there? Oh my God, it’s Steve.”
A adaptation of this commodity aboriginal appeared in the Oct. 18 affair of Billboard.
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