By ALLISON KUGEL
The life of Damon Dash appears to be an epic triumph to some and a Shakespearean tragedy to others. It depends on where you’re standing when you look at him. After speaking with the hip hop mogul turned entrepreneur and filmmaker, it’s clear the ‘Dame Dash’ story is more nuanced and complex; and it is still being written. Dash hopes his new film, Honor Up, a semi-autobiographical story about the code of street honour, executive produced by Kanye West, and starring Dash, Nicholas Turturro, Michael Rispoli and Cam’ron, will give audiences an authentic portrait of who he is beyond the media’s chequered narrative. He says the unwavering code of honour depicted in the movie has informed every choice he’s made in his adult life.
A kid from Harlem, New York, who lost his mother in his youth, Dash quickly took on a hustler’s mentality, adopting the ‘original gangster’ (OG) street code that propelled him from promoting nightclubs and rap artists to reaching the apex of the music industry with the success of his and Jay Z’s Rock-A-Fella records label and the urban lifestyle brand, Roc-A-Wear. It was Dash’s unwavering vision and tenacity, along with his loyalty to artists he believed in, that launched the careers of Jay Z, Kevin Hart, Kanye West and his ex-wife, fashion designer Rachel Roy.
Since splitting from Jay Z and dissolving Roc-A-Fella records, he’s been painted by the entertainment industry as an incorrigible and unruly outsider; a man who wouldn’t drink the Kool-Aid or fall in line with Hollywood or music industry politics. Dash refuses to bow down to corporate demands, and therefore chooses to self-fund his many projects, from film and art to fashion. After years of personal and professional heartbreaks, Dash found an unwavering ally in long-time love and business partner, Raquel Horn. Horn is Dash’s creative muse and collaborator, while Dash is Horn’s mentor and idea facilitator. Together, the two have launched Dame Dash Studios, Dash Diabetes Network, their Poppington fashion line, and the beginnings of an independent movie studio. Damon Dash is a man in his creative renaissance – and in love.
Tell me about the most influential people in your life – birth to present day?
My mother was a big influence in my life. She passed away when I was 15. I would say Muhammad Ali was a big influence on my life. And, my OG Daniel [Dash’s childhood mentor Daniel Jenkins, the inspiration behind Honor Up) is one of the most influential people in my life from when I was younger.
Your mom passing when you were 15 – how did that impact who you became?
It made me fearless. The one thing I was afraid of up until I was 15 was that my mother would die, and then she did. It made me very aware of my mind, in that, if you worry about something it usually realises itself. I try not to worry about anything. Because my mother spoiled me, and she wasn’t there to spoil me anymore, it made me the business savage that I am. I wanted to maintain that lifestyle. At the time, my pops wasn’t going to be able to give me that, so I had to do it myself. I think in a strange way, if my mom was still here I wouldn’t have made the history that I’ve made, because nothing would have felt so urgent. Someone can teach you how to survive, but you really don’t get those skills until you have to. [Her passing] made it where I had to, and she taught me well.
You refuse to take a paycheck. You’re someone who has to have ownership in everything you do. Speaking for myself, I can say there was a time in my life when I asked myself if I was for sale, or if I was not for sale. Can you recall a defining moment when you asked yourself that same question, and determined that you were not for sale?
I’ve been a street entrepreneur since I was very young, since my mother died, because I had no choice. I’ve never had a boss. I’m from Harlem and I think I’m cooler than everybody, so it would be hard for me to have someone telling me what to do. It’s not about working for somebody, because I always have equity. I have something, and then I may need to take it to another level, so there would be a business relationship or a partnership. But I would always walk away from certain partnerships, because I didn’t like the moral value of that person. I would probably end up having to strangle them because it’s very frustrating when people don’t have principals and morals. It’s offensive when someone that I don’t respect presents me with an opportunity to work for them and tries to control me. I don’t even know what that means, working for someone else. It’s not a mathematical equation that makes sense to me.
What did you learn about love from your time with Aaliyah?
I learned exactly how happy love can make a person. It was a feeling that I never knew existed before. What it did teach me is to recognise love, and to appreciate love. It also taught me never to mess with an artist, because they’re always on the road. You never see them. The more you love them, the more you miss them. It made me appreciate what I had in that moment, and it made me recognize love with my girl Raquel. I knew that feeling. It was familiar to me, because I felt that with Aaliyah.
Describe Aaliyah’s character; the person you knew her to be.
Aaliyah loved life. She loved to laugh. She was colour-blind, a great soul, a ridiculous amount of swag and great taste. And those were the same exact qualities I saw in Raquel. For me, the greatest thing about Aaliyah was that we were both from somewhat of an extreme circumstance – you know, urban, in the hood. And we both had such a desire for things that were so unhood. But in those environments that were unhood, we would still have that hood swagger and we could laugh at things. Aaliyah and I used to spend a lot of time laughing at the corniness of life. We both found people’s insecurities very funny.
Would you like to see a movie made about your beginnings, during the rise of Roc-A-Fella Records, and that time in your life?
That’s inevitable, whether I make it or somebody else does. I am very aware and clear of what I have done, and my impact on this world. They’ve already made Aaliyah’s story, and I was in that. Let’s say they don’t do my story: do everyone else’s story that I’ve been a part of, I’ll be in there. At the end of the day, I like to control my likeness, so I’ve already started that process. This movie, Honor Up, is about me and my ideals growing up.
What is your opinion about how the media has cast you over the past decade? What have they gotten right, and what have they gotten wrong?
I’ve been able to manipulate them exactly the way I’ve wanted to. I’m very aware that an independent person like me who does things on his own would have success that would mean other people’s failure. Everyone that’s getting robbed, and everyone who’s doing the robbing, will fail. I’m the guy that doesn’t rob and does everything honorably. If I can show that I can do things honorably, that would make other people need to do things honorably. The way they were portraying me in the newspapers wasn’t very intelligent.
Do you think you’ve been caricaturised?
In the beginning, it was more brazen and arrogant, and about me pouring champagne on women, which was a character. That was Champagne Dame. They never showed Damon Dash the businessman; Damon Dash, the single father raising his son alone from the time he was eight years old; Damon Dash living with Type 1 Diabetes; or the man who’s running all these different companies.
Where did the negative portrayals of your character come in?
I didn’t want to do Rock-A-Fella anymore. I wasn’t trying to just do music. I didn’t want to be typecast. I wanted to do fashion. I wanted to do things that were multicultural, and I wanted to run around the world. And I knew walking away from Jay Z, that all Jay Z fans were going to start with me and try to get at me. I know that controversy sells papers. At that point, I was like, “Yo, I’m about to Makaveli myself [a reference to the late Tupac Shakur]. I’m out. I don’t really need to be here no more. I want ya’ll to leave me alone.” I needed everybody to think I wasn’t doing well so nobody would ask me for nothing no more. But all those years, I was owning Rachel Roy, a $75 million company. I was running around the world, I had galleries and things like that. But Dame was under the radar. And they left me alone. I always thought it was funny that they made me the underdog. I could have been nice. I could have worked with these people that have no morals and no values and spent their money instead of having to keep re-investing my own money.
But you walked away.
I decided freedom was priceless; that happiness is priceless. I needed to raise my daughters. It wasn’t conducive for my daughters in a hip hop environment, because you have a bunch of young, insecure, aggressive men. And I didn’t want to have to go to jail for nothing. I realised that with the internet there is no buffer, and I can tell the truth whenever I want. No one can stop me. Whoever wants me will come find me, and they’ll see the truth.
Let’s talk about your new movie, Honor Up. You wrote and directed this movie, you play a central character, and you put up your own money to make it. How long has this story been in you, wanting to come out?
I always knew I would tell this story, but what made me want to tell it now, and in this way, was a moment when I was hearing a lot of things about people I was close to from my past, that contradicted all our morals and values. It bugged me out, because these were the people I respected the most. I just couldn’t believe it, and it hurt. Then there were other things going on that were bringing me down. [Director] Lee Daniels (Precious, Lee Daniels’ The Butler) owes me $2 million. He’s doing well and he’s running around, and he’s not paying me. That’s pissing me off. Where I’m from, he would have ended up in a trunk. You know what I’m saying? I can’t do those things, and I’m not going to do those things. So I made a movie about it. I want people to understand my morals and principals, why I don’t look the other way and who taught me. I also ran into Daniel Jenkins, who I hadn’t seen in about 25 years. He was a guy who was very influential in the neighborhood. Because he was cool with me, all the dangerous guys looked at me a certain way as well, so I never had to be scared. One day I saw him walking across one of the toughest blocks in Harlem and he had his kids with him. He was fresh, his kids had little motor cars and they were fresh, and I was like, “That’s the kind of dad I want to be.” I want to be that guy as a dad. That was probably the most impactful lesson he ever taught me, because I’m a great dad and that’s more important than anything. When I finally got back with him, I knew I had to make a movie about our story.
Honor Up will help people to better understand you and what makes you tick.
I think people need to know the rules. Maybe people aren’t living by them now, and that’s the reason I kind of stay in my bubble. Maybe now people will understand why I don’t compromise, why I won’t bend over for a dollar. Because I was taught the right way by certain kind of people. With this movie, I want people to hear the voice that taught me, from the voice that taught me. When you see this movie, you’re going to see my real OG, the voice I heard when I was 15.
A big theme in Honor Up is the street code of not being a snitch, not talking to the police. Let’s set up a scenario. In December 1990, John Gotti was arrested by the FBI and NYPD. He was indicted on multiple counts of racketeering, extortion, jury tampering and murder. He strongly believed in the oath of silence he took as a “made man” with the Gambino family. He didn’t provide any information to the government; he didn’t strike a deal with prosecutors. John Gotti went away for life and he died in prison. Weighing everything: family, life, everything… had that been you, would you have stuck to the street code like he did, and gone away for life?
You’re joking right?
No. I’m not joking.
If you’re gonna do the crime, do the time, period. Two people sign on to a contract, whether everybody else’s principals are different, you sign on to a contract, and you have to abide by it.
You do know that a lot of guys don’t abide by it.
That’s why I made the movie. That’s why I got out of the streets. I knew that at some point I would have to kill, or I’d have to go to jail and I would have to do the time.
You would not make a deal or rat anybody out. You would go away for life?
Yeah. If I did the crime? Yeah. That’s the game. You think I would be so low as to put one of my friends in jail? Someone that I hung out with, I know their kids, I know their girl? Just so I don’t go to jail, I put him in jail? Nah, I couldn’t live with myself. If you make a conscious choice to do something, you got to stand behind it. Now if you’re a civilian, and let’s say someone accused you of doing something you didn’t do, you never hustled and all that other stuff, you didn’t sign on to that game. That’s a different story. But for someone that signed on to the game, you know you’re not supposed to be doing that.
Is there a spiritual component to your beliefs?
I understand spirituality. I read The Seat of the Soul [by Gary Zukav]. That book changed my life. That was actually the connection between Aaliyah and me.
Did you read that book together?
All of those books, yes. And I made my whole crew read that book. Me and Aaliyah, that was our connection. That book scares me, because when she died I had all those books around me. I had one book called When You Lose Your Soulmate right on the bed. I was so into that, that I almost felt like it was to prepare me for her death. If I hadn’t read those books, I don’t think I would have dealt with it the same.
Kanye West executive produced Honor Up. The two of you go way back to when you launched his music career. What was different about working with Kanye on a film, versus musically?
This time I’m the artist and he’s the businessman. Whereas, I used to showcase his art, he’s now showcasing mine. He used to play his records for me. Now, I was coming back and playing cuts of the film for him. It was a total role reversal. It was a great example of the OG being happy that someone younger than you can have more power than you with certain things, and can help you. You build people, so they can build you. I wasn’t expecting him to do all that he did. You never know what Kanye’s going to do, but I know that he’s inspired by art. It was the first time that, instead of me helping somebody, somebody was helping me. He gets it. Some people don’t understand that helping people makes you the happiest. The happiness that Kanye got from helping me, it was contagious.
Can you see you and Kanye West forming an ongoing partnership with a film production company?
We just started one, that’s what we’re doing! You know me; I don’t play. I hit you with flurries. I’m prepping to shoot my third movie right now. This film was the first time, to my knowledge, that I have ever seen Kanye put his name on something that he can’t control. The fact that he acknowledged my art in that way, shows that this is some real art. Kanye is not going to co-sign something corny. But the respect level was there, which is what I appreciated the most.
What do you say to people who feel that a movie like Honor Up, which depicts street violence, is perpetuating a stereotype, or that it’s a negative influence on your younger fans?
In any movie that’s about war, you have to show the war to learn from it. Whoever looks at it like that, isn’t from the street. They don’t understand. I’m not trying to preach to the converted. That was my reality, and that’s what I learned from. That’s what smartened me up. I hope that people can see every element in this movie. The story is authentic. There’s so many different artistic levels. It’s not just bullets. It’s about the message. It’s art, and I think anyone who really looks at it will recognize it as art.
When you wake up in the morning and your feet hit the floor, which is foremost on your mind, making money or making art?
Making art. Never making money. I think money is overrated. That’s why I spend so much of it. I don’t even want to hold it; get it out of here. It makes people go crazy. I wouldn’t do anything for money that I wouldn’t do for free.
A lot of people may not know that you are a Type 1 Diabetic and have been since the age of 15.
I made it public a long time ago, but people don’t talk about those kinds of things. I always thought it was important to bring awareness to it, because I’ve had it since I was 15 and I have noticed all the misconceptions that come with it. It’s a 24-hour disease. And for me, as a diabetic, I always want to hear about another diabetic’s story. I know if they are winning, that I can win. And there are a lot of celebrities that have it, and they don’t want to talk about it. I’ve never understood that. They think it’s a weakness, whereas I think it’s a strength. I want people to know that every great thing I’ve done, every time I’ve made history, it’s always been as a diabetic. We started a network called the Dash Diabetes Network. We talk about diet, working out, mental well-being and just being healthy, overall. When you’re a diabetic you have to live a healthy lifestyle. You have no choice. I’m a vegan. Well, let me say I eat a plant-based diet. I can’t say I’m completely vegan, because I still own a leather jacket or two and I have leather seats in my car. Rocky (Dash’s nickname for his girlfriend and business partner, Raquel) has created a vegan handbag as part of our Poppington fashion line.
Let’s talk about your network, Dame Dash Studios. It features your films, your radio show, musical projects, your Poppington fashion line, Dash Diabetes Network and your personal travels around the world. It’s like a VIP ticket to all things Dame Dash…
At the end of the day, the direct to consumer relationship is the new wave, and it keeps me independent. I can stay uncensored and I can say what I want; can’t nobody fire me. I can do whatever I want, and above and beyond anything, I can pass it down to my children. I can pass it on to my wife. Raquel is wifey for lifey. She is the one who inspired me to embrace my artistic nature after watching me make everybody else famous. Falling in love, embracing art, that’s why I say that I’m purple right now [referring to the color associated with spirituality], because I’m elated. I’m happy. I just love the fact that I’m being artistic, that I’m being unapologetic about my point of view and fearless about speaking on my art.
Damon Dash’s movie, Honor Up, is released on February 16, 2018.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment and pop culture journalist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A Memoir Of A Life Unhinged And On The Record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel.