In the ever-evolving business of music, streaming services have eclipsed CDs and even downloads. So it was with awe and more than a little nostalgia that Steve Bartels (CERT ’92) — CEO of Def Jam Recordings and a special guest at UCLA Anderson’s 2017 Pulse conference — recalled hauling luggage carts full of vinyl to his early gigs as a DJ in the 1980s, when he brought a New York sound to the San Fernando Valley.
Bartels began his industry career under the wing of late legendary executive Charlie Minor as national director of promotion at A&M Records. “He completed people,” Bartels said of Minor, whom he called “happy and energetic.”
Bartels describes many people and things he admires with a string of positive adjectives: When Dean Judy Olian asked him about Def Jam’s origin story and his early days with the label, he replied, “Eclectic, vibey, authentic, honest.” Asked who he thinks perfectly represents Def Jam, whether a type or particular artist, he tossed out descriptors like “reverent,” “genuine” and “icon.” He cited underground newcomer Amir Obé and rising talent Alessia Cara as unconventional artists poised to join the pantheon of greats. That’s high praise considering the label has included legends like LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Jay-Z, Nas, Ludacris and The Roots, as well as contemporary stars Big Sean, Jeremih, Jhene Aiko and 2 Chainz, who just won a 2016 Grammy for Best Rap Performance. Iggy Azalea, Bartels said, is “quietly working on something that’s going to blow your socks off. She definitely says what’s on her mind.” And, he finished, “if anybody exemplifies what Def Jam subscribes to, it’s Kanye” — to whom he applied the terms “topical” and “genius.”