It’s hard to imagine that Paul Rosenberg nearly became a doctor instead of the CEO of one of the most powerful labels in hip hop. In a conversation moderated by Rolling Stone Contributing Editor Joe Levy on Monday (May 6) at the Music Biz conference in Nashville, Rosenberg revealed that he initially went to college for pre-med but “quickly learned that wasn’t where my strengths lie.” Instead, he followed his lifelong passion for music and set his sights on law school with the intention of becoming an entertainment attorney.
While interning for the now defunct PolyGram Records, Rosenberg expected to get a job at a record label or be hired by one of the attorneys he was working for. “But it didn’t happen that way,” he said. “I knew the music a lot better than they [attorneys] did, so I figured if I know the music well and I can find artists and producers, I’m going to get my own clients and I’ll just break in that way and they won’t be able to stop me.”
And that’s precisely what he did. Rosenberg met Eminem in 1996 in their native Detroit at the Hip Hop Shop. A clothing and music store by day, it doubled as a venue that hosted rap battles every Saturday night. Rosenberg, who also had aspirations of becoming a rapper when he was a freshman in college, was invited to watch a then-undiscovered Marshall Mathers perform after the battle, painting a picture of the young rapper with a shaved head and wearing an all-white sweat suit.
“The Red Sea did not part, the sun did not shine out of the heavens and make me realize that this was the next biggest artist,” Rosenberg confessed of his first time watching the future superstar perform. “But I thought he was really good.” The two stayed in touch and soon after when Eminem released his debut independent album “Infinite,” Rosenberg purchased a cassette tape from him for six dollars. “He was selling it literally hand-to-hand to people and to stores, whoever would take it,” Rosenberg recalled.
Rosenberg set out to be the rapper’s attorney, and it turned into a loyal, fruitful partnership, with Rosenberg serving as Em’s manager for more than two decades. Additionally, the two co-founded Shady Records, which helped launch the career of 50 Cent and led Rosenberg to form his own management firm Goliath Artists that represents Eminem, Blink-182, Three 6 Mafia and more. Rosenberg became CEO of the iconic Def Jam Records label in 2018 and, since taking over the position, has signed more than 20 artists. In that time, he’s also seen Eminem release two albums in the span of less than year, with 2017’s “Revival” and 2018’s “Kamikaze.”
With Def Jam celebrating its 35th anniversary in 2019, Rosenberg’s focus has been bridging the label’s past with its future. Among the projects on tap is a documentary about the history of the mixtape, which Rosenberg described as “a vital part of the history of the culture and the genre we don’t feel has been really examined thoroughly and properly enough or given its day.” The documentary will be helmed by hip hop mixtape connoisseur DJ Tony Touch and feature interviews with the likes of Fat Joe and DJ Khaled.
Pictured above, from left: Paul Rosenberg; James Donio, president of Music Business Association; Joe Levy; and Scott Maness, Def Jam VP of digital sales.
Fans also got a glimpse into the company’s present with the eight-episode docuseries “Undisputed.” Released in March, it follows 20 current Def Jam artists as they took part in a series of recording sessions in Los Angeles known as a “rap camp.” Rosenberg noted how the experience was meant to build an artistic community and foster collaboration amongst their artists. The docuseries was also part of a larger effort to create in-house content and elevate their artists through digital platforms. Through their partnership with content video blog, WorldStarHipHop, the series has a combined total of 30 million views.
An important part not only of the anniversary, but Rosenberg’s own legacy at Def Jam, is to honor the label’s heritage. That’s why Rosenberg is intent on reconnecting with artists who played an important role in Def Jam’s history including LL Cool J, DMX and Chuck Stanley. “My goal for the label is to make Def Jam a place where all the artists that are connected to the culture that we represent want to sign again — as it once was,” Rosenberg said of his vision going forward. “If we have everybody wanting to be there and sign there, that means we’re doing everything right.”