Spotlight: After 25 Years at Def Jam, Jennifer Hirsch Davis Shares Her Favorite DMX, Jay-Z Stories & More
Jennifer Hirsch Davis was managing a restaurant in Greenwich Village when she asked a friend, who worked for Rush Artist Management at the time, to set her up with an internship at Def Jam. It was 1996, and the then-22-year-old had dropped out of college and was trying to figure out what was next in her life when she took the unpaid, five-days-a-week internship in the publicity department at the company’s old 160 Varick St. office.
“I don’t remember that working at a music label was something that I wanted to do; I don’t think I even knew much about it,” she says now. “I immediately fell in love with it — the energy of the office, being involved in the way that I was, and I felt like, ‘Wow, I could really see myself sticking around here if they would have me.’”
Hirsch Davis was officially hired full time April 28, 1997 — 25 years ago today — as an assistant to Julie Greenwald, Def Jam’s longtime head of marketing at the time, beginning a career that would span a quarter century at the venerable hip-hop label, and a slew of changes to not just Def Jam, but also the music business at large. Along the way she worked in various roles across marketing, booking print advertising campaigns, supporting artists development and production initiatives, working on video campaigns, and even working the door at Def Jam events, before eventually in 2006 shifting into finance, where she now serves as senior vp of marketing administration/finance.
Now, Hirsch Davis is celebrating 25 years at the label where, in addition to her duties overseeing marketing budgets and signing off on expenditures, she has helped launch the Women of Def Jam initiative, celebrating the extensive number of women who have helped build Def Jam into a frontline, diversified company, as well as the many women leaders who currently make up its executive ranks. “We now have a huge staff of women; for the first time since maybe 2006 or 2007 we have an all-female marketing department; there are more women than ever on the A&R staff; [in publicity almost the] entire staff is female; and there are a lot of women in leadership roles around the company, so I feel like it’s come full circle, where we have a great story to tell alongside the Women of Def Jam campaign,” she says. “Having my hand in it has been super exciting, but it’s in honor of all current and former female employees and artists.”
Of course, spending 25 years at such an institution leaves a person with one main, overarching gift: stories. And Hirsch Davis has plenty of them. Some of them underline the family feel of the label in the early years, like how she would often babysit for Greenwald and for Lyor Cohen, who was president of Def Jam until 2004, or how, following the release of Kanye West’s The College Dropout, his mother Donda West called Hirsch Davis asking for “as much as she could get of the posters and stickers that we made,” then sent Hirsch Davis a thank you card three weeks later after she had sent as many of the Def Jam promo items she could get her hands on. There were the times when Hirsch Davis would bring her young son, who idolized Jay-Z, to the office while Jay was CEO of the company, and Jay would bring him into his office to sit and talk with him; her son is now a photographer who has worked on several Def Jam projects through the years.
And then there are stories that could only stem from a record label at the time, like the one day she brought her mother to the office, only for DMX to punch his manager Chris Lighty in the face right in front of them. (“My mom goes, ‘Where the f— do you work? What is happening in this office?’” Hirsch Davis recalls. “It was surprising, but not really surprising, to me.”) Or when DMX showed up with his two pit bulls in tow and freaked out the staff, who asked the rapper to put the dogs in his product manager’s office; after which they then “shit all over the carpet” and no one wanted to clean it up, ultimately leaving it to fester over the weekend and causing building staff to tear out the carpet and replace it. Or when Damon Dash showed up with the entire Roc-A-Fella staff in tow, berated then-Def Jam executive Kevin Liles in the Def Jam office, and told everyone they would revolutionize the way the label marketed music. “I just remember all of us being stunned and Kevin just being super chill,” she says. “And that was our introduction to Damon.”
And then there are the details that history may overlook, but that Hirsch Davis had a hand in at the time, like pulling National Geographic footage of lions eating prey for a promotional campaign for the label’s Survival of the Illest tour, or auditioning toddlers in the Def Jam conference room in order to bring the Def Squad logo — a drawing of a baby with building blocks that spelled out D-E-F — to life. Another incredible but overlooked fact: for the cover of Foxy Brown’s 1999 album Chyna Doll, Foxy didn’t have enough jewelry to wear; the cover shot features the emcee wearing Greenwald’s engagement ring.
“Putting the artist first was always what Lyor and Kevin and Julie said was most important,” she says about that time. “ Any of our efforts always have to do with the artist and making sure that we’re translating their vision and doing them a service. That was something that all of them really dug into us about a lot.”
Years later, before the pandemic, Hirsch Davis was at a lunch at the home of a former colleague, when she was struck by the number of women there who had worked at Def Jam and stayed in touch over the years, continuing their friendships from that common thread. “I started to think about all of the different, amazing women that I had worked with through my career, and so I brought this idea of the Women of Def Jam,” she says. “I thought it would be so cool if we could bring more current and former Def Jam women employees together, and I felt like it could be inspiring to some of the younger women who worked at the company to see how many women had worked there before and what they had gone on to do, like Julie Greenwald, Amani Duncan, Gabby Peluso and so many others.”
Hirsch Davis asked the creative department to come up with a logo, and the first celebration was timed to Women’s History Month, with T-shirts, a luncheon and a staff photo. Later, BET and Spotify began to create playlists around the Women of Def Jam and the history of female artists on the label; in subsequent years, the company has hosted panels and interviews, and this most recent March there was an in-person luncheon in Los Angeles, while the commerce team put together a 24-track box set compilation of songs by some of the artists that have released music on the label over the years, including Foxy, Ashanti, Amerie, Teairra Marí, Shawnna, Teyana Taylor and more. “That was super cool to have and to see that product be a real thing,” she says. “There was so much good energy around it.”
Now, Hirsch Davis can reflect on the journey of the past 25 years while she continues to run her finance department and soak in the small victories of her job, one of which comes around every year: “I love watching the Grammys,” she says, “And telling my kids, ‘I paid for that.’”
The best advice I received is: Kevin Liles would walk around the office every morning and say hello to everybody, whether it was the mailroom guy, the intern, all the way up to Lyor. He would always speak about the idea of, you never know where this person is going to cross paths with you again in your career, so you always want to make sure that you’re respectful of everybody. That’s something that has stuck with me and I tell new people all the time. You make sure that you treat everybody equally. And I respected that a lot about Kevin.
I would tell people coming up in this industry: To humble themselves. I talk about humility and understanding, being willing to spread yourself anywhere you can. Ask questions and figure out where in the company you want to be. Go sit and talk to your peer in publicity or A&R. Don’t have so much ego that you can’t ask questions and learn from what’s going on around you.
Something most people don’t understand about what I do is: How integral finance is to the day-to-day business. I think sometimes finance is thought of as an afterthought, so understanding the importance of how to manage a budget, how to manage funds, it affects your bottom line and how successful a project can be. People don’t understood how it connects back to the bottom line of the company and how we do as a company and how it affects their bonus. I don’t think people think in those terms often enough.
What’s changed in my line of work is: The different ways in which we market music. You see the money go towards what’s important, and the shifts on where we spend mirror what the priorities are for the marketing team to get records out the door. So obviously digital, which was such a tiny part of a marketing budget 15, 20 years ago, is now the bulk of it. And even money that’s not spent directly on a platform — whether it’s advertising or marketing — the music video, in a sense, is a part of that digital plan, because you’re seeing it on YouTube not MTV, and that’s where they’re finding it. And even publicity for that matter. So much of that has become the internet and the digital world and that’s been a huge change.
In my job, it’s good to have: Patience. I often joke to people that I’m going to adopt them and file them as a dependent on my taxes the following year. I feel like I’m a momma bear and I’ve had to have a lot of patience with a lot of employees and managers and not let my feathers be ruffled.
Spotlight: After 25 Years at Def Jam, Jennifer Hirsch Davis Shares Her Favorite DMX, Jay-Z Stories & More Jennifer Hirsch Davis was managing a restaurant in Greenwich Village when she asked a friend, who worked for Rush Artist Management at the time, to set her up with an internship at Def Jam. It was 1996, and…