Ladies Behind Hip Hop Labels

The stories about the rise of hip hop record labels focus heavily on men. Little is said about the women in the game, moving, shaking, trailblazing and mentoring. Too often women of color are reduced to caricatures – the ratchetness of reality TV. The notion of sisterhood and Latifah style U-N-I-T-Y is overlooked or dismissed. Despite attempts to reduce women of color to the lowest common denominator, still we rise.

When I moved to NYC, I was afraid that I would not find kindred spirits. It is after all the concrete jungle, not exactly known for hospitality. Ironically, I found sisterhood were I first learned to celebrate it, at the hair salon. My first article for HuffPost was a hair article, Back to My Roots. It was about my journey going natural. I am not a hair person. I would rather clean an entire house than do my hair. Therefore, my relationship with my hair stylist is important.

In rediscovering my natural hair, I recalled how communal maintaining black hair can be. Just like soul food is a vehicle for passing down tradition and history, likewise maintaining natural hair is a cultural expression and experience. It was during this time that mother’s wit and wisdom was passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter about lessons learned from relationships, cooking, child rearing and everything in between.

My NYC hair stylist, Ruth, at Blossom Hair Salon, fulfilled that role. In addition to maintaining my mane, she would tell me about other fabulous women of color that I should connect with that visited the salon. I remembered one woman that I admired because she was fearless with her hair. She would wear bold colors: pink, purple, and blonde. I thought she must have a cool job to rock that hair. I never introduced myself, just admired her boldness from the other chair. I moved back to Chicago a year ago, but I keep in touch with Ruth. Whenever I am in NYC, Ruth handles my mane. Recently, I saw an Instagram picture of Ruth with the bold hair color lady. I was all in her IG feed. I reached out to Ruth. “Why haven’t you introduced me to her? Her story is the kind I want to profile.”

She is Emmanuelle Cuny-Diop, VP of Music Video Production at Atlantic Records. She is a native New Yorker with the accent. She is that round the way, cool, lower east side girl. Her story is one of perseverance, working hard, mentorship, and sisterhood. Naturally, we start the interview talking about our love for Ruth, our hair stylist.

How long have you known Ruth?

Emmanuelle Cuny-Diop (ECD): I have been going to Ruth for 15 years, since Roc-A-Fella moved to 8th Ave. I did not feel like going downtown and Ruth was a couple blocks from the office. I wanted a style. Ruth said, “Do you trust me?” And I’ve been going to her ever since. She’s good people.

So, how did you land at Roc-A-Fella?

ECD: I was your typical NYC club kid. I started Baruch College a couple days after my 17th birthday. I went to French school for junior high and high school. French school was more rigorous than American college. I was bored to death in college. You know how they say in a couple of years things should click and you’ll know what you want to do? Well, that did not happen. At 19, nothing clicked and I was still bored. Me and Datwon Thomas [now Editor-in-Chief at Vibe] decided that we would get internships. He landed one shortly after at Vibe magazine. I wanted to intern at Flava Unit or Violator Management, but wasn’t able to get in. Eventually, I connected with Pain in da Ass on the set of Streets Is Watching and he connected me with Ray Ray in radio promotion at Roc-A-Fella Records. The day I called Ray Ray he happened to be leaving Roc-A-Fella to work at another label. Ray Ray connected me to Damon Dash’s brother, Bobby Dash. I interviewed with Bobby Dash later that day then started interning and assisting Bobby the next day. I eventually got hired full time to be the receptionist and continued assisting Bobby as well as other folks in the office.

It seems like it just clicked and happened over night. Was it that easy?

ECD: I am from the Lower East Side (LES) before it was trendy when you’d see dope addicts on the street. My mother and I lived in Section 8 housing. My mother got me into SAG (Screen Actors Guild) early on. My mother is French and my father is from India. Ironically, I was booked to play the “token Spanish kid” in movies and videos. Life was not easy. When I started interning at Roc-A-Fella, I still lived with my mom. I would not have been able to make it without my mom’s support.

Were you paid for your internship?

ECD: I started off unpaid. When I did get bumped up to a paid internship, the stipend was $15 for a weekly MetroCard. I was interning, modeling/acting – working three plus jobs. Roc-A-Fella was still a small company. We’d all be sharing a Popeyes $2.99 three piece or $1.99 sandwich from Blimpie’s. One moment you would be on a private jet and the next day I was back to my room with my mom in Section 8. But it was the best times because we were all family. The artists and everyone was like family.

It seems like you found your calling.

ECD: Working at the label I figured out what I liked and didn’t like. Now that I was at the office full-time I would constantly ask people if they needed help and learned so much from typing up lyrics for Lenny S, faxing paperwork for Dara McIntosh, or clearing Chaka Pilgrim’s voicemail. Chaka Pilgrim always had something. I met my match and mentor in her. She was head of video production, marketing, and film production. She had her hands in pretty much everything that Roc-A-Fella Records had going on. My background in SAG and movies was the perfect fit. I knew how sets operated. I had friends from when I did movies who were willing to be extras in videos. It was a natural fit for me to work with Chaka. I realized that I was good at production and loved it.

Did your hard work pay off?

ECD: I figured that I would get promoted or fired when we moved from 79 Fifth Avenue to Def Jam offices at 825 Eighth Avenue because Def Jam already had an in-house receptionist. With the merger, Damon gave long timers the option of a raise or a bonus. I took the bonus and bought an apartment in Jersey.

You were smart to buy the apartment as an investment?

ECD: I wasn’t, but thank goodness for the sisterhood. I was going to pay the landlord $6k up front for six months’ rent. I was making approximately $35k, but knew it would be a struggle with bills and rent. My friend Keiva, a realtor, asked why would I give a landlord that money when I could use it as a deposit on an condo in Jersey? With the bonus and money that I saved, I bought a condo in Jersey.

After the closing, I could only afford a bed or sofa. I settled on a sofa bed. When Beanie heard that I didn’t have furniture, he asked how short I was. He gave me the money I was short to buy my bedroom set. That was the vibe at Roc-A-Fella. We were a family and we had each other’s backs.

But how were you paying a mortgage on $35k?

ECD: I was still concerned about making my mortgage and homeowners dues, so I started freelancing with other artists. I was hustling working with Twista, TI, Killer Mike, David Banner, Kanye and his other GOOD music artists booking shows, video production, marketing.

Okay, I want to circle back to Chaka and the ladies behind Roc-A-Fella. What was it like with the women? Today, women in the hip hop industry seem pitted against each other.

ECD: It was not like that. There were about six other women working at Roc-A-Fella: Chaka Pilgrim, Dara, Omi, Carline, Shari, Yves, Latrice, and Adrienne. We were a close-knit group, very tight. Chaka and the other ladies looked out for us, mentored us. It was like having a best friend – sisterhood. They not only helped me in the industry, but through life lessons. I could call Dara and Chaka for stuff that I could not confide in my own family. We were so close that Chaka could read me and know me better than my own family, so it really helped my growth.

Around a year later in 2005 changes started taking place. A few of us were moved from Roc-A-Fella to RocaWear. Shari Bryant, Osayamen, and I were no longer product managers at Roc-A-Fella. Damon hired us at RocaWear as Entertainment Marketing Managers. He also moved John Bartleson and Anthony Drakeford to RocaWear. The rest of the staff ended up going in different directions. Some went to work with Jay and others started their own companies.

I loved being at RocaWear. I didn’t always have to work seven-day weeks at RocaWear. Unfortunately, less than a year later there was another shift. We would move back to working at a label. I just really needed a moment to figure out life again. We were all a family and now some of us were split up and working on different things and it started to take an emotional toll on me. I work off vibes and passion and everything was changing. It was then that I went independent, freelance. It offered me more flexibility and control. I freelanced for three years. In 2008, I joined Atlantic as senior director of music video production. A few years later I was promoted to Vice President of Music Video Production.

What advice do you have for young girls in the Bronx, Brooklyn, the southside of Chicago, or East LA wondering how they can be in music video production like you?

ECD: First, get an internship. If you can’t intern then become a PA (production assistant) on set. Being a PA is the best hands-on training that you can get because you run around and get to see what everyone is doing from wardrobe, makeup, art, lighting, etc. Also, work hard and stay focused. I had a lot of discouraging days, but had to keep on pushing.

Do you need a degree to be in music video production?

ECD: Not necessarily. Video production is not as discriminatory. You have people come out of prison and work their way up from a production assistant. If you are interested in the more technical aspects of production like lighting, then not necessarily a degree but schools that offer classes like NY Film Academy could be helpful in learning the more technical aspects.

What about mentors?

ECD: I am still in touch with the ladies I started with at Roc-A-Fella. We’re all involved in the industry at different levels. If we see hard working people, we refer them to each other. I wouldn’t be here without Chaka giving me the opportunity to shine.

Last words of advice?

ECD: You must be willing to work hard. It’s being on set at 5am and not leaving until midnight or possibly no sleep. It’s dealing with melt downs. It’s not all popping bottles. I am the VP and I still get artists hot chocolate or get down to tie shoes. Some people get caught up in the life. Stay grounded in reality. If you’re doing what you love, it will never feel like work. Money was never my goal. It was about pursuing what I love and makes me happy. I truly believe when you are doing that if it is meant to be, money will follow. Also, don’t forget where you came from and how you got here. The same way Dara, Chaka, Omi, Bobby, and Damon took me under their wings and gave me opportunities, I now have the responsibility to pass that on.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Ronda Lee
Founder, Editor-in-Chief
Ronda is an attorney, writer, and entrepreneur. She is a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. Originally from Chicago, she has lived in Los Angeles and New York. She loves to travel and is passionate about education equity, especially for first generation college students.