Friday afternoon’s announcement that Paul Rosenberg will be stepping down as CEO of Def Jam Records caught nearly everyone by surprise — including, briefly, the label’s parent company Universal Music Group, sources say. But the company pivoted quickly, appointing well-respected UMG chief counsel Jeff Harleston as interim chief while the suddenly public search for a new CEO accelerated.
While it’s not uncommon for labels to install the company’s head of business affairs or general counsel to fill in during a leadership gap — as Sony Music did when temporarily relocating EVP Julie Swidler to Music City for several months before Randy Goodman was appointed chairman/CEO of Sony Nashville in 2015 — sources say this vacancy brought with it a sense of urgency. On Monday, Harleston held an all-hands meeting at the label’s New York headquarters during which he reasserted the importance of the label to UMG.
Although Def Jam enjoyed four No. 1 albums during Rosenberg’s tenure (two each from Kanye West and Logic), it never really regained its previous momentum, commercially or creatively. Thus, some staffers were concerned that Def Jam might be downsized or reduced to a small, A&R-driven imprint. But sources say Harleston reassured the team on Monday that UMG is fully aware of the iconic label’s global strength. One hallmark of UMG chief Lucian Grainge’s administration has been an effort to capitalize on the company’s iconic brands and assets, and Harleston stressed that UMG plans to grow Def Jam significantly in the coming months and years. Under Grainge, UMG has done that with expansion of Capitol Records into a fully fledged label group. Indeed, it appears that such an effort was already underway even before Rosenberg’s departure.
With all of that in mind, the biggest question is: Who is the right person to lead Def Jam into its next era? As anyone who’s done it will tell you, running a major label is a monumentally difficult job that entails leadership, experience, diplomacy, savvy, musical instincts, lots of luck, and not least a knowledge of how a major label works — and in this case, an ability to work within the famously competitive system of UMG, the world’s largest music company. It’s also a safe bet that executives with side-hustles may not be ideal candidates: Rosenberg, who has managed Eminem for nearly all of the rapper’s long career, continued to do so throughout his tenure at Def Jam, which saw the rapper releasing three albums in just over two years. While multitasking is common in the hip-hop world, it seems likely that UMG will lean toward an executive who will devote most of their focus to Def Jam.
Def Jam has had many phases: Over the years it has released iconic albums by LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Method Man, Ghostface, DMX, Ludacris, the Roots, Young Jeezy, Frank Ocean and, via a deal with Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella and Roc Nation labels, Jay, West, Rihanna and others. Its leadership, which we’ll dramatically oversimplify here, has been equally multifaceted: The Rick (Rubin) and Russell (Simmons) era of the years immediately after its 1983 founding; the Simmons-dominated late ‘80s and ‘90s, which saw the rise of Lyor Cohen; the Lyor-and-Julie (Greenwald) era of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s; the L.A. Reid (when the company merged with Island Records), including the brief period when Jay-Z was president; the Steve Bartels era, when the company moved more toward pop but enjoyed ample commercial success; and finally the Rosenberg run.
It’s a deep and vastly influential legacy that will need a strong leader for its next chapter. Here, some not-entirely-informed suggestions for who might be eyed for the role.
Jay Brown: While he’s a former employee of Def Jam — and also an alum of Elektra, PolyGram and Quincy Jones’ publishing company — Brown is also a cofounder and recently appointed vice chairman of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, which makes him a long shot for this job. But the depth and diversity of his experience, which ranges from labels and publishing to merch and sports, make him one of the most versatile executives in the music industry.
Ethiopia Habtemarian: Currently the chief of both Motown Records and an EVP at Universal Music Publishing Group (UMPG), the last thing this veteran needs is another job title, but her background and recent strength with Quality Control’s Motown-distributed acts Migos, Lil Baby and Lil Yachty would seem to make her a front-runner. While a merger of Motown and Def Jam seems unlikely, it’s possible, but a more probable scenario would see her making an internal move to Def Jam — and presumably to New York from Los Angeles — and leaving Motown, where she has more than made an indelible mark.
Shawn “Tubby” Holiday: Appointed last year to run Columbia’s urban music department with Phylicia Fant, this veteran publishing exec presumably has a contract that would take him out of the running for at least the next couple of years. However, recent changes at the top of Warner Records show that top executives can be let out of their agreements early (COO Tom Corson leaving RCA) or not (CEO Aaron Bay-Schuck had to cool his heels for several months for his Interscope contract to expire). Holiday gets marks for signing Travis Scott and Lil Nas X to publishing deals at Sony/ATV, but the New York native’s influence goes far beyond his Culver City office.
Michael Kyser: Atlantic’s long-running powerhouse status in hip-hop and R&B is due in no small part to Kyser, the company’s president of black music since early 2011. The past three years alone have seen blockbuster releases from Lizzo, Cardi B and A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie among many others, but the company’s twin towers (co-chairmen Craig Kallman and Julie Greenwald) cast a long shadow.
Kevin “Coach K” Lee and Pierre Thomas: The duo at the top of Quality Control Records — home to Migos, Lil Yachty, Lil Baby, the City Girls and more, with Cardi B under its management wing — are already in the UMG building via their deal with Motown-Capitol. While their track record tops that of virtually any indie label (and even some majors) over the past five years, it’s hard to imagine them giving up QC, or even merging it with Def Jam in some complicated fashion — let alone leaving their home and power base of Atlanta.
Kevin Liles: A veteran of Def Jam’s Lyor Cohen era (and former president of the label), Liles has seen big success with the 300 Entertainment label — which he essentially inherited when cofounder Cohen left for YouTube — via early and far-sighted signings like Young Thug, Migos (who fought a tenacious and reportedly expensive battle to get off the label and sign with Quality Control), Megan Thee Stallion and others. He has also managed Mariah Carey and D’Angelo in the past, so it’s safe to say he’s familiar with the behavior of unconventional artists.
Mark Pitts: RCA’s head of black music since 2011 and a veteran of Sean Combs’ Bad Boy Entertainment, Pitts has helmed hits from artists ranging from SZA and Khalid to Chris Brown and Miguel, although his simultaneous role as chief of his own Bystorm Entertainment management company could be an issue.
Gee Roberson: The comanager of Lil Nas X (with Adam Leber), Roberson also managed Lil Wayne, Drake and Nicki Minaj throughout his career; he also ran a UMG label before — he took over the Geffen imprint in 2011 — although without major success. It wasn’t all that long ago that his name was being bandied about in the context of Epic Records, suggesting his interest in a top major label position.