Def Jam CEO Steve Bartels Talks Justin Bieber, Kanye West’s New Album & Label’s Future
Def Jam CEO Steve Bartels, top honcho at the label behind artists such as Justin Bieber, Iggy Azalea and a past and present key figure in the careers of Rihanna, Kanye West and Jay Z, opens up about his artists and the label’s future in a new Billboard interview.
Incidentally, Justin Bieber announced yesterday on Twitter that he is “Back at it” alongside a snap — presumably of himself — sitting at a recording and mixing desk.
Seguing into Billboard asking how he “handle[s] an artist who has become overexposed, like Bieber arguably has?” the 51-year-old former DJ replied,
“I don’t think he is overexposed. I think he had the unfortunate task of growing up in front of the world.”
(Photo: Justin Bieber posts “Back to it” pic from October 12-13 session at a Los Angeles recording studio.)
Of the mainstream media’s overwhelmingly and intentionally damning Bieber narrative and the paparazzi that hunts a youngster and has done for years, Bartels expressed sympathy for the 20-year-old.
“I don’t know how you could be judged by every left turn, every shoelace you tie. It’s a very unfair trajectory,” he observes.
Bartels adds, “It’s part of what comes with [stardom], but for somebody to grow up through that… being with him and [seeing how the paparazzi] bait him and goad him, and having people literally throw themselves across the car, I think with much scrutiny, anything you do is going to get embellished or highlighted to a degree that maybe isn’t fair.”
Good points, and not heard often enough from big names in the music industry. Brit singer Jessie J, a recent exception.
Intriguingly, Billboard says Bartels played a new Bieber song “that finds the singer heading in an unexpected direction,” which sounds as if the publication heard the anticipated single debut from Justin and Australian idol Cody Simpson’s November-dropping duets album.
Following in the footsteps of Def Jam CEO’s and 1984 founders Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, then Lyor Cohen, Jay Z, L.A. Reid, Joie Manda, Bartels was announced as the CEO of the new stand-alone Def Jam on April 1, 2014, in a split with Island Records.
Along with Motown Records, all three now exist as separate labels within the Universal Music Group (UMG) family.
With a rich music industry history all the way from dance promotion at A&M Records and time served at Arista and Island Def Jam, Bartel dished on Kanye West’s as yet selectively heard new album.
“It sounds incredible,” Bartels said of Yeezus. “He’s focused, energetic, happy and making unbelievably great music.”
Elaborating, “Kanye always wants to make sure that when it actually arrives it’s at the best possible place it could be, that the first song is as big as the last. He’s the absolute bar of perfection in terms of that.”
Bartels adds, “I tell him all the time: Some of his previous albums are still testing out in the marketplace as high, if not higher, than when they first came out because the music is still fresh to people.”
The CEO had an interesting recall of meeting Rihanna and her hilarious/grim 777 tour last year. The Bajan star’s career was launched and nurtured under Jay Z’s 2004-7 presidency of the then Def Jam Records.
Of RiRi, who he first met in Hova’s office, Bartels remembers, “She was signed in Jay Z’s office. I remember her eyes and how amazing her presence was in the room.”
The Ohio native, Spring Valley, N.Y., raised music maven adds, “I remember taking [“Pon de Replay”] to a studio in midtown, this was probably 2006.”
“I think L.A. Reid was there and we played it to a bunch of radio programmers. Everybody was like, I’ve gotta leave and put this on the radio right away.'”
Bartels spoke of having fun at the just wrapped Ultra Music Festival in Tokyo and his new dance signings — Afrojack, Alesso and Axwell & Ingrosso — and plans to sign more DJ’s if they are a fit for Def Jam as a way of continuing Rubin and Simmons’ vision of “diversity and breaking genres.”
Ahead of the 30th-anniversary show at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on October 16, which will showcase some of the label’s roster that includes — Mariah Carey, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Nas, Ludacris, The Roots, 2 Chainz, Frank Ocean, Jeremih and Jhene Aiko, and will feature on a box set put together by Rubin and Questlove — it sounds as if Bieber and co. at Def Jam have someone who knows of what they speak with Bartels at the helm.