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JEFF HARLESTON:
IT'S A NEW WORLD, MOST DEF

Jeff Harleston is a busy man. In addition to running Def Jam as "interim" CEO (about which more below), he continues to be UMG's General Counsel and EVP Biz & Legal as Sir Lucian Grainge's giant group maneuvers toward an IPO, not to mention co-head (with Ethiopia Habtemariam) of the company's Task Force for Meaningful Change. Given the fascinating changes at Def Jam of late, we wanted his take on the label's current evolution. Why did he make time in his impossible schedule to answer our questions? We'd ask, but we don't want to interrupt him again, especially in the wake of the Clippers' big win.

How goes the multitasking?
I have my coping mechanism, which I'm sure a good psychiatrist would say is damaging, but it’s compartmentalization. So I can really be in the moment and just block everything else out. Oh, by the way, have we mentioned there’s a global pandemic that everyone's suddenly decided is over?

Now seems like a good opportunity to get your gloss on what all of these changes at the company represent. Let’s start with the most obvious one: Snoop. How high were you when you came up with that idea?
Well, for broader context, my “interim job” has now gone on for almost 16 months. From my viewpoint and dashboard, I saw some things I felt could further strengthen Def Jam. The Snoop decision was one that's really driven from a creative standpoint. I've known Snoop for a long time; I actually brought him into the company when I was at MCA Records. Not long after that we got absorbed into Interscope and I was GM of Geffen under Jimmy. We had a good run with a few records over there. You may remember one called “Drop It Like It’s Hot.” So we have a long relationship.

I will tell you that this position was 100% his idea. He called me one day—to talk about Warren G, actually—and he asked what was happening at Def Jam. The next day he called me and said, "How can I be involved?" I'm sure you've seen the announcement video, but he literally said if it wasn't Death Row, it would have been Def Jam.

It seems like he has virtually a lifelong connection to the idea of Def Jam and what it represents in terms of hip-hop and its development.
Correct. And also its importance to the culture. It was his idea, but one reason I warmed to it and wanted him to be a part of what's happening is how it resonates with him. He understands the importance of a team and the importance of a family. And part of the reason he became enamored of Def Jam when he was coming up was the way they moved. By “they” I mean the artists, the Def Jam family. They worked as a team; they'd often tour together, and it just felt like that family thing, which was really important to him. And that's something he feels could be greatly enhanced. That certainly resonated with me as a real positive.

Snoop has become something of a branding expert in the last couple of decades and really gets how to advance a brand, especially one that he understands and cherishes.
Exactly. He’s at an interesting point in—I don’t want to say his career, but in his journey—where he’s really become knowledgeable about how to manage, cultivate and enhance a brand. Some of us are old enough to remember the Lee Iacocca moment with Snoop trying to sell cars; now we see him selling Corona. He's a household name. But more importantly, he understands brands and their connections to communities. That’s something he's focused on with Def Jam, because the brand is still very strong, but the connection can be stronger.

He has an unusual title: Executive Creative and Strategic Consultant. What does it encompass?
The focus and drive of the job are creative. The immediacy is A&R, but it will expand into other creative aspects such as content creation and even marketing. But basically I said check us out and give us the benefit of your experience and wisdom to help not only enhance the brand and the artists’ individual brands but also the content we're creating and how we're connecting with the community and the fans. It’s all-inclusive in a very “Uncle Snoop” way, which is a term he uses a lot. It’s been barely two weeks, but the impact is there already; he's met with a variety of artists and executives.

I sense that Snoop is really affecting the vibe.
Very much so, and that is exactly what I wanted. I wanted to bring in a new energy, and he's definitely providing that.

Which brings me to some of the other people who've been brought in or promoted. Let’s start with Nicki, whom we’ve known and loved forever as a promo person. What does she bring to the GM post?
Nicki was such an easy choice; she's got a rare combination of talents. She has a great understanding of the business and a great understanding of people and how to communicate—which really speaks to the “manager” part of General Manager. She’s a natural leader. She wasn't running for the post—she was appointed to the post because of her natural way of conducting herself, particularly with the staff. They listen to and respect and follow her. And I think she brings a dynamic that is really healthy for our company and for our team.

And of course she oversaw a very effective promotion team, now run by Noah Sheer.
We haven’t said so formally, but yes, the promotion team is now under the direction of Noah. Nicki did an exceptional job with the promotion team, as recognized by everyone in the industry. The other thing I should add about Nicki is that she's 100% home-grown Def Jam—she’s been at the company for 18 years—which is very important in terms of continuity of the culture. By the way, she was 12 when she started!

Nicki knows the through line of the company, how the pieces work together. She’s jumped in headfirst and is just cranking away. We talk every morning, every evening and about 17 times in between. She’s killing it.

Let’s talk about the A&R piece. Bringing in Chelsea Blythe was among the splashier moves in that regard. But I wonder if you can say a little bit about the department as a whole.
It’s a very interesting department because there have been several leadership moments at Def Jam over the last 10 years or so. Our team reflects the continuum of that in the sense that there are different people from different eras. But they are now working better than they ever have as a team and really supporting each other in their signings and the creation of music content.

We're blessed to have some incredible superstars such as Justin Bieber and Kanye, but right now the emphasis is on getting some of our new artists over the line and reflecting the work that's been done over the last two or three years that, in my opinion, is about to really pay off.

One example is Kaash Paige, who's really poised to make a statement. Another is 070 Shake, who came to us through the G.O.O.D. Music label and is also right on the precipice of making a strong impression. There’s also Fredo Bang, a rapper from Baton Rouge whom we've been really working to build from the ground up. We feel he can really make a difference. These artists show how focused we are on getting some new names out there to join the likes of our biggest stars.

Then you look at an artist like Jhené Aiko, who’s been with us for about eight years and is in many respects a terrific artist-development story. That’s about two and a half years longer than Billie Eilish has been with Interscope. It takes that long at times and there are different ways of doing it, but I think that Jhené is right in the middle of her moment. I'm excited to see where she can go. So we’ve got some really exciting things going on, and when you add a dose of the energy and perspective that Snoop brings, it'll be really interesting to see what the future holds.

Is there anyone else on the team you’d like to mention?
Yes, we haven't announced her yet, but we recently brought on a new VP of marketing named Lena Franklin, who comes to us from Interscope. She did a lot of work with the TDE crew there—Top and Kendrick, that whole unit, along with other artists. We’re very excited to have her experience and sensibility on board.

I have to ask about Snoop’s blunts, one of which we saw him smoking as he modeled his Def Jam jacket and other branded tchotchkes on Instagram. I understand they’re quite pungent.
That they are. I would say they are to be observed but not for partaking.

That would not help with the multitasking.
That's right. If you have anything else you want to do that day, pass that joint to someone else.

 

Photos (from top) multitasker in chief; trading verses with Snoop and Nicki Farag; with Snoop, who makes bowties look cool; Farag in a triumphant moment with Biebs; Kaash Paige; O70 Shake; Fredo Bang; Clippers fanatic Harleston with UMe boss Bruce Resnikoff.

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