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October 2007
An Interview with Producer Damon Dash

An Interview with Producer Damon Dash

By Brad Balfour

October 26, 2007


Former hip-hop music impresario Damon Dash used his platform as the co-founder (with Jay-Z) of Rock A Fella Records to build a business that now includes film production and fashion design. But before all that he had some substantial success with signing Cam'ron, developing Roc-A-Wear, and a production company.

Once he split from the label as it was sold off to Def Jam, he started his own music group signing Nicole Wray, producing music for Victoria "Posh Spice" Beckham and developing a reality show. His film group, Dash Films, has tackled some projects that had authentic cinematic credibility like "The Woodsman" and some commercial credibility like "Paid in Full" (starring Mekhi Phifer). Lesser film endeavors by Dash include "State Property" and its more successful sequel were still serious money-makers.

So Dash makes for an intriguing character--one who worships his Harlem home turf yet aspires to a world well beyond it. Dash seems to be a mogul on the move--with his fashion and music empire being reborn--but being a film producer seems to stirs his greatest passion.

When he got involved with "Mr. Untouchable," his main experience was with narrative features; those ventures made money so he figured, "why not?"--it's cheaper to make docs. He hooked up with producer Mary Jane Robinson and veteran director Marc Levin (who has a long history of doing docs on urban subjects); they managed to capture the story or notorious Harlem drug dealer Nicky Barnes--once the kingpin of the New York narcotic underground during the '70s and part of the '80s. Barnes reigned supreme for a number of years until the government took him down; when he realized he was going in for life, and was also betrayed by an associate, he turned government witness and was eventually released, only to be tucked away in a witness protection program.

Q: When did you become first aware of Nicky Barnes?

Damon Dash: When I was 10. It wasn't an awareness, it was always there. I was born into it. I don't know life without him. I'm from Harlem and the people were very affected by what he did. So, even when I got involved in the project, the majority of my family, excuse my language, their first reaction was, "Fuck Nicky Barnes. Do not bring him back to life. Let him die. Let his memory die. We don't want to remember Nicky Barnes." But then they saw the movie, and then they realized it was important because if this guy ever come along again, you better watch him.

We all came from Nicky Barnes. Nicky Barnes came from Harlem. Nicky Barnes is a product of Harlem, Harlem is the genesis of "swagger," of cool. You know what I mean? We're snobby and all. We think we're cooler than everybody. We know we dress better, we talk better, we walk better, we get our cars done better...just because you black doesn't mean you're accepted and all. You understand what I'm saying?

Nicky Barnes was the epitome of that. He was the president of that, he was the mayor of that. So what you have to understand is, the seduction of this movie is not the fact that that was him, it was the betrayal. That the betrayal was so severe that we haven't recovered from it. I've been betrayed by really good friends and I haven't recovered from it yet. So I know exactly how Harlem feels because I've been there.

Q: When actors do films about gangsters they get praised, but when musicians make music about gangster life they get vilified. Why do you think that is?

DD: For music, a rapper, when he speaks, it's a truthful point of view. It's reflection of himself. An actor is acting. He's just doing a job, he's stepping into a role. When a rapper raps, he's speaking on his personal feeling and view. It's a representation of them. One is acting and one is real.

Q: Does this sort of film glorify "gangsterism" or crime?

DD: Let me make it mathematical for you. Sell drugs. Make a lot of money for a short period of time. And you end up dead, or going to jail for snitching on your friends. So any intellectual or intelligent individual will look at that and say: "Wow, if I sell drugs, I can make money for a short period of time, but I can either end up dead or in a witness protection program, or jail." So I don't see how it could possibly glorify, it's just showing the whole equation.

Q: When you're speakin about young minds, do you think they can grasp that?

DD: I think the responsibility relies on the parent to translate that equation but yeah, if I saw someone, as a young individual, selling drugs, and then saw them die, then that would make me not want to sell drugs. I think we can't underestimate the youth like that. But also I think it's also the person that's delivering the message. Hopefully I'm credible enough in that demographic, so hopefully they'll listen. But I think the question gets asked because that's an obvious question.

Q: In some way are you or could you be seen as an heir to Nicky Barnes?

DD: I think I could see myself as the heir of what he could have been. If he had taken a different path. Yeah. But never call me the heir to Nicky Barnes. There are greater men than me who did survive and did it correctly. He's just the one people know about.

Q: Are you conflicted about the way he was, and in what way are you conflicted?

DD: Well when I was young, I made a lot of money putting a lot of wrong values into the world and the repercussion of it was watching my family, watching my younger cousins and nephews, do the wrong thing thinking it was the right thing. And I knew I was directly responsible for that. I mean that's why I don't make hip-hop music anymore, because I could never watch some kid rap about something negative, and me knowing that a bunch of other kids are going to watch that and be a part of it.

The karmic repercussions of that are very severe and it's just wrong. So definitely I've combatted that is by changing my hustle. You know as an individual, you evolve as you grow. I'm sure Nicky Barnes today, isn't the same as he was 30 years ago. And he would probably go about things a lot different. But because of his ego and because he's so stubborn, he would never publicly admit it.

Q: How did you ever get Nicky Barnes on film; director Marc Levin and producer Mary Jane Robinson eventually convinced to do this film--was that because of "American Gangster" [about his associate Frank Lucas] or because he liked Marc's other films (such as "Slam") and wrote poetry?

DD: Even with the poetry and all that, the real reason was that he knows what he was in history and he ended up a snitch. He knows what Frank Lucas was in history and there's no way in the world that Frank Lucas was going to take his shot. There's no way. Because he snitched too. He's like, that's not fair. I snitched, he snitched, he shouldn't be glorified, Denzel [Washington, who plays Lucas in American Gangster"] should not be playing him, Denzel should be playing me. So that's the reason why he came out.

He was content with not saying anything, but you know "Alright, I snitched...I got to eat that and now I won't have my place in history and the movie won't get made. I won't say nothing." But I think in his mind he was like "Yo Frank Lucas snitched too. He's going to be able to go down in history as the man?" Never that.

Q: Do you think that making this film launched a turning point in your career?

DD: No. I mean that it'll definitely help legitimize my brand and validate me as someone who likes to do things that are real, as opposed to things that are fantasy. That's not afraid of subject content, and the way I'm perceived, that's brave enough to be a part of things that people may not understand. I've traveled the world. Everywhere I go, the people have very different mentalities. A very different way of being.

If you go to France, they live very differently than people in America. If you go to London, they live very differently from people in France. You go to Harlem, you live way different than the rest of America. It's a whole other mentality. What this is, is a tool to understand that mentality. You'll understand the mentality of a Harlem individual if you watch this movie.

Q: Do you feel like this movie legitimizes something that's very strong for you?

DD: In building any brand, you have to validate your brand. You spend a lot of time doing that... like Ralph Lauren, or anybody. You hear "Steven Spielberg movie"...you know its a good movie. When you hear "Sean Penn's in a movie"...he started out in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and now he's in "Mystic River." There's that transition from an actor that did almost anything, to an actor who does only good things. Of course I want my brand to be legitimized.

Q: In light of that, how has Harlem has changed in your eyes?

DD: It's inevitable in Manhattan that everything will be upgraded. Every piece of land on this island will eventually be made into something that will be profitable, period. Whether it's Harlem, the Meatpacking district, or Tribeca. Any part of this island. That's inevitable, there's nothing you can do about it. But the ideals, the mentality is totally different.

Barnes was the first "nail in the coffin" for that. He was the most influential, he was the biggest nail, he was the one that made it alright. When you're born and raised up in Harlem, selling drugs is just a part of life. Like if you're in a neighborhood where nobody sells drugs and all of a sudden someone sells drugs, then you're shocked. But when you're born into it, it's a condition. Whether you look at it as a bad thing, doesn't matter. It was looked at as economic.

People in Harlem will never leave Harlem. They don't want to get a job, they don't want to be told what to do, whether it's excusable or not...it is what it is. So within that... you have to have honor. You have to have rules and regulations regardless whether its not the rules in America--it's the rules of Harlem. And if you don't live by those rules, you're supposed to be shunned. It's not supposed to be acceptable.

What happened was, the one that was president of those rules, the one that damn near wrote the rules violated them. So what happened was, everyone else didn't have strong people around them and thought: "If Nicky Barnes can do it, then so can I." And that's what happened and that's why Harlem is where it is today. That was the beginning of the end.

Q: The film shows that he only became a snitch because of revenge.

DD: We're taught though, that no matter what it is... there's no place for snitching. So to me it seems like bullshit. He's intelligent enough to smokescreen things for their true intention. Just like what he might say, "he likes poetry." Nah, its not about poetry. He ain't fuck with Mark because of that. He fucked with Mark because Mark's the only one that's going to give him a platform, because Frank Lucas had a bigger platform.

Q: What was Frank Lucas's platform like?

DD: I recently saw a tape of Nicky Barnes and Frank Lucas and everything Nicky Barnes said was right. The way he talked, you could tell he didn't have any organizational skills. Frank Lucas sounded like he had courage it didn't feel like he had any "swagger." It just felt like he was a person who just had muscle. But Nicky Barnes was an intellectual. And that's the reason why he was able to lead. The rule of thumb is: Never believe Hollywood, never believe the press.

Q: Do you think that there was a higher moral rationale to justify that kind of betrayal?

DD: To justify snitching? Not from someone that's dedicated to the game. Once you decide to do a crime ith somebody, you'd have to be responsible for it. I'm trusting you and you trusting me. Now you're my brother, you're my partner. I'd never betray my partner. Whether it's a criminal, or whether it's real. We'll probably get to know each other. I'll know your family, you'll know my family. You understand? So if I get caught, instead of me doing the time, I'm going to put you in jail? When you considered yourself my friend? That's bullshit. There's no honor in that, no matter what it is.

Q: Did Nicky Barnes think he was going to prison for life?

DD: You know I don't believe that. You know why I don't' believe that? Because he's out of jail. I honestly believe in my heart, that he can say that, but they might've said there's a slight chance you can get out of jail. Or they might have gave him that out. Because he's that smart. I believe they said it like this: "Listen, there's no way you can get out of jail, that it's better for the kids." When you go up there as a lawyer...he has no reason to lie. Coming out of jail. Only reason why he's telling him is to get himself out of jail. So if it's out there that he's got no reason to lie, that he's not getting anything out of it...that makes the case stronger.

Q: Let me ask you about the bigger problems to this film besides even securing the story, how did you get the rights to all the music and made the decisions about the music. Music is such a critical part.

DD: I agree. I wish I could take credit for it, but they did it, they made great choices and they did a great job. You know, listening to those mix tapes as well. If you compare the two movies...that's what I was thinking when I was watching the movie, I was thinking what's the budget for this movie? 120 million dollars? You couldn't' clear a million for samples? Just because it's a smaller scenario it's probably easier to clear. They cleared it. I'm sure if anybody hears that soundtrack they'll be reminded about that time because that's how real that music is. That's how good this movie is.

That's the thing about this movie, you walk into Harlem, you're in Harlem for those two hours. You want to wear those clothes, you want to party, you want to be at the party. You want to be hanging out with Nicky Barnes and dancing. And you can understand why Harlem was so seductive. Why Harlem was so bright and strategic. And it was so arrogant. It was like, "I'm selling drugs, and I'm not even going to hide it. I'm going to floss, I'm going to let everybody know that I'm the best that does it."

It's because there was a party everyday that he was showing off for. A stage was already set because he wasn't the only gangster doing it, he was just the only one who wanted to tell everybody. The reason that he wanted to do that is because he was so good that he did not fear getting caught. He got framed, he did not get caught selling drugs forthright. The government didn't do something right, they cheated and they wanted him in jail.

And that also tells you, you could be the best at what you do, you could sell drugs and not be caught, but they'll still put your ass in jail. Because if you embarrass the government, they're going to do what they got to do regardless. And that's another lesson in this. Don't ever think you're too good not to get caught. Because they'll cheat, and nobody plays fair. Not the cops or the gangsters. In this game, it's kill or be killed.

Q: Why did you want to switch to the documentary form--your previous films were narrative features?

DD: Narrative costs a lot of money and you need a partner. This cost way less. To make a movie in Hollywood, it costs at least 50 million dollars. Especially to make a period piece and [it takes] another 50 to promote. That's a 100 million dollars.

No one's going to invest that kind of money unless they can control it and unless they believe in it. As I said in the very beginning, no one believes in it. And look what happens when someone controls it, you get "American Gangster." No disrespect. You don't get the real. I'm an independent individual as it is, just by right, I don't want to be told how to make this movie.

Q: Will Harlem always be interwoven in your projects, or do you hope to do things out of that?

DD: I'm from Harlem and I understand it. I know the value of it and the importance of it. I really do believe Harlem is the genesis of the whole world. It's like the heart and it pumps the blood of the whole world. Everything else to me seems like a watered down version. And they don't even know it. Because Harlem dictates style, attitude, and swagger. Once it hits France, it's already been through America, it's already been through Brooklyn, it's already been through Manhattan...it all starts in Harlem.

Q: What's it like working with Mariah Carey?

DD: I know Mariah Carey really well. I know she's a hard worker, so nothing surprised me about Mariah. I was just surprised was that Lee Daniels saw the gem in her.

Q: What's next for you?

DD: Evolution. I just continuously want to evolve. It's just like the guilt of how I treated my mother before she died...I wouldn't do that now. As a thirty-six year old man, I have to evolve in everything that I'm doing, whether it be my movies, my clothing, even the way I am as an individual. I'm constantly trying to make myself better and try to make opportunities for the people around me that deserve it. There is no such thing as what's next, it's what's current.

Q: Are you working on another film?

DD: Of course, we have a lot of work to do together. What I try to do is capitalize off of people's strengths and isolate the weakness and try to get those weaknesses out of there.

Q: And what going on in your other worlds like fashion?

DD: Well, I've moved from urban fashion like "Roc-A-Wear." I want to do things and sell to people my own age...I want to do the fashion world. I love Vibe, The Source, and XXL, but I'm pretty intrigued by Vogue and Vanity Fair. That's where I'm at as an adult.

Also I'm also trying to find out how to sell clothes in a better way. I have to figure out a way, there's a distribution group called "Market America." I'm going to release my first CEO group with them. I also think the internet is a great way to network and socialize with people with no overhead. I've been going to clubs my whole life, but you can only fit about 300 to 1000 people in a club. But on the internet, you can have millions of people at the same time, anywhere, at the safety of their home. That's why I got BlackSavvy.com. It's like I'm going to the club everyday.

Q: Is there a question that you asked when working on strategy or determining situations that you want work with?

DD: I have emotions and I'm very emotional. So I try to never make a decision based on that. So I think about it, bounce through it, think about what the other person's thinking and think about what they're going to do if I do something. And I think about what I'm going to do if I do something. You know. I think it's from smoking weed [laughs]. Sorry to disappoint you.


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