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BARTELS' CANNES CRUISE

Def Jam boss Steve Bartels was the main attraction at Midem on the French Riviera in Cannes Wednesday (6/7), where he discussed the Island Def Jam Music Group split, working with Kanye West and Logic, and his go-to records when moonlighting as a DJ. Read the highlights within.

Bartels was in conversation with Village Voice and Rolling Stone writer Joe Levy. Upcoming releases from Def Jam include a “big summer smash” from Justin Bieber and David Guetta that’s set to drop tonight, while new priority projects include rappers Amir Obe and Dave East, singer/songwriter Bibi Bourelly and Belgium artist Fanny Neguesha. As for new Kanye music, “When he’s ready to go, it’s go time,” said Bartels. “We don’t always get a warning! I’ve gotten a call on New Year’s Eve when he wanted to put a song on iTunes at midnight… We try to make it work; we’re here to help the artists.”


What was it like after the separation of the Island Def Jam Music Group? What was your plan for the label?
For us it’s a renaissance. At Def Jam, a lot of big albums had come out when the split happened, so we had to look at what we were going to do in the future in terms of releases and signings. We look at the honesty and integrity of artists and what their point of view is. Our A&R team is this incredible young group of execs that each have different taste, signing acumen and strategy. We are starting to see that now with some of the signings and things that have happened in the process of breaking through.

Big Sean has had his second #1 album, Logic hit #1 with his third and we’ve had Alessia Cara’s breakthrough over the last two to three years. All of these artists are somewhat unique. Even Young Jeezy had his first #1 album in eight years since his last. So we’re taking care of icons and new artists. It’s an exciting time for us.

Speaking about Logic, what’s that moment like when a guy comes to you and says, I have a third record, it’s a concept record about a guy named Atom who dies and is reincarnated by an encounter with god. That’s my hip-hop record.
I’m proud of the artists that have a point of view and that our label is a collective and a home for innovation. When Logic and his management team came to us, we sat in the studio in L.A., and he literally played every song through by himself. He told us about the songs and went through the lyrics. It was a hugely emotional morning, and we all knew that we wanted to march towards the Grammys. He has such an incredible connection with his fanbase, they all came out and supported him—more so than I’ve ever seen in an opening week for an artist.

"What we always look for is genuineness, what we don’t necessarily already have and uniqueness."

He’s a guy who took his album on a bus tour that started on the West Coast of the U.S. and drove through 10-15 markets to the East Coast, and stopped and played his album for fans before we even heard it. Broadening that base is what our overall objective is because his message is so positive and powerful.

You worked at Arista, which was a place that knew how to engineer a hit song. Are you ever tempted to bring that knowledge to bear?
Music comes from all kinds of different places. I started at A&M Records with Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, which was a very artist development-oriented company; then I went to Arista, then Island. I’ve been a DJ most of my life, so I found myself in this incredible scenario in the Island Def Jam component where I could really be involved with something I love so much, which is hip-hop and R&B.

To me, there is room for everything, but having an artist with a dream and a vision come to you and develop is just invigorating. Every time Kanye West comes out with a new album, it’s this most magical moment because it’s always new—he pushes boundaries and tests the limits. Some of the albums he’s done three or four albums ago are still testing today at radio, as if it’s the freshest music. That’s what genius and icons are made of—music that stands the test of time. I’m all in for that.

When you’re looking at your new generation of artists, what is it that each of them say for the next phase of Def Jam? Bibi Bourelly, Earl St. Clair and Kacy Hill are artists who profile in certain ways as throwback singer/songwriters.
We do talk about that. In the case of Bibi, who is an incredible singer and has had hits as a songwriter; now she is shaping her own artist career. Earl St. Clair is just happy, great music that makes you move. Both of those artists came through us through a venture under Circa 13, and Good Music has Kacy Hill.

What we always look for is genuineness, what we don’t necessarily already have and uniqueness. Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons did an interview for the 30th anniversary of Def Jam and said that there were a few years where they never signed an artist. I thought that was very powerful—not necessarily that there weren’t great artists to sign, but that maybe they didn’t fit what was happening at the time.

Finally, what is your go-to record as a DJ?
Patrick Hernandez
, “Born to be Alive,” Sylvester “Do you Wanna Funk,” Rob Base “It Takes Two,” Strafe “Set it Off,” and the ultimate was “Let’s Dance to the Drummers Beat” by Herman Kelly.

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