The Reeler

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October 25, 2007

The Day the Music Vied

Duelling Harlem kingpin films bring Damon Dash and Jay-Z too close for comfort -- again

(L-R) Damon Dash and Jay-Z, together alone

"You get some music?" Damon Dash asked as I stood to leave his Midtown office. He gestured to a table across from his desk, where stacks of CD's featuring the curated soundtrack to Mr. Untouchable, the hip-hop mogul's latest film producing effort, peered over disheveled sheafs of magazines and miscellany. "Make sure you take that."

Dash's admonition recalled my experience a few days earlier at the Mandarin Oriental, where a Universal Pictures publicist placed a CD of his own on top of my notes for that day's American Gangster press junket. "You'll want a soundtrack," he said.

"Is this the Jay-Z album?" I replied. The publicist shook his head.

It was fine with me, but a gnawing curiosity about Jay-Z's album of "music inspired by American Gangster" persisted -- particularly in the part of my brain that hyperactively analyzes such tectonic overlaps as that of Mr. Untouchable and American Gangster, a doc and semi-biopic (respectively) about Nicky Barnes and Frank Lucas, Harlem's most notorious heroin dealers of the 1970s. For starters there's the obvious timings of their releases within one week of each other (Untouchable opens Friday in New York, Gangster nationwide on Nov. 2), not to mention the subtle and not-so-subtle variations in their subjects' uptown triumphs and ultimate stool-pigeon disgrace.

And, unless you're blind, there's that Dash/Jay-Z (née Shawn Carter) connection looming on the periphery. The former friends and business partners who, with Biggs Burke, launched the Roc-A-Fella music and lifestyle brand to stratospheric success in the late '90s before weathered an ugly public break-up in 2005. Jay-Z took over Def Jam Records while Dash moved on to found Damon Dash Enterprises. Among those enterprises: Independent filmmaking, which Dash had dabbled in at Roc-A-Fella and whose stakes he bumped up last year with his above-the-line involvement with Mr. Untouchable. (Dash, a Harlem native, sought to back a feature film about Barnes for years, going so far as to buy Barnes's life rights from his lawyer, David Breitbart, who later sat for an interview in Marc Levin's documentary.)

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Jay-Z, meanwhile, was reportedly recommended to Gangster producer Brian Grazer over a year ago by the film's star Denzel Washington, who endorsed the rapper to work on the film's soundtrack. ("I just didn’t think there’d be enough for Jay-Z to do,” Grazer told The NY Times, invoking the film's 1970s period setting.) The "music inspired by" followed soon after.

I asked Dash if he thought Jay-Z's album -- his second since returning from "retirement" in 2006 -- and upcoming Gangster mini-tour could be motivated by Dash's involvement with an opposing project.

"You mean did he intentionally do it to undermine something I'm doing?" he asked.

"Not necessarily to 'undermine,' " I said. "But maybe as a creative or, sure, even a personal response to what you're doing with this film."

Dash paused. "If it is, I think he's spending too much time paying attention to me," he said. "If that's the case, I hope it's just because he generally likes the subject. I would never get into a project with the intention of creating a competitive situation with him. That's not my intention, so I don't see how it could be his. At least I hope it isn't. I think he's too old for that, if that's the case. I don't need a nemesis in this world. You know what I'm saying?"

Of course. Where Dash acknowledges relating to Barnes' pursuit of the Harlem dream (if not its means), so Jay-Z has aligned himself with the more modest, enduring profile that nevertheless seduced Hollywood with its outsized ambition. "I'm-a follow the rules, no matter how much time I'm-a get / I'm-a live and die with the decisions that I'm-a pick," goes the track "No Hook," not an especially indirect reference to vengeful sell-outs like Barnes's -- which, for the record, Dash abhors as well.

"I don't know if Damon said this to you, but he talks about what it feels like to be betrayed," Levin told me later that day. "That's it from his perspective: what he went through with Jay and Roc-A-Fella and how that wound never heals. Somehow he relates to Nicky, and not just as the Harlem master of the universe -- the ghetto Gatsby -- but as someone who was wounded by somebody who's a brother. I was kind of surprised, and it made me think, 'Wow, this is weird.' Three years later, it's still these giants in pop culture, and Damon's identification is emotional, not just the business identification."

Contacted today by The Reeler, a representative for Jay-Z declined to comment on Dash's perspective and the connection between the ex-colleagues' latest projects. But don't think for a moment the star has nothing to say. After all, we have the music.

(Check back with The Reeler next week for a look at Mr. Untouchable and American Gangster's more Harlem-centric synergies with Dash, Levin, Washington and Gangster director Ridley Scott, among others.)



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