The foundation of the label occurred in 1995, beginning as an independent outlet for rapper Jay-Z's 1st album. After being turned down by several major labels, Carter, Dash and Burke started their own label through Priority, using money from the music videos provided by Payday due to their singles only deal. Though Reasonable Doubt didn't immediately attain commercial success, it spawned several hits, and procured Jay-Z a reputation in the hip-hop community. Starting out as Roc-A-Fella's only artist, Jay-Z was supported by The Notorious B.I.G.'s producer DJ Clark Kent and DJ Ski, who was then working with Camp Lo; affiliated rappers, Sauce Money, Jaz-O, and a young Memphis Bleek, though only Bleek would eventually sign with the label. According to Dame, the label had intended on releasing Nas' group The Firm, but the deal fell through:
Nas and AZ was supposed to be on 'Bring it On,' they kept not showing up. That's when we wanted to put out the Firm. They didn't show up. We was meeting and they was saying, 'Yeah,' but they wasn't showing up. We would be waiting and we would be getting offended. So we brought Sauce [Money] and [Big] Jaz on the song.
The snub, and a sample clearance issue with the Nas-sampling Reasonable Doubt song "Dead Presidents II," were elements that contributed to tension between Jay-Z and Nas. As such, Roc-A-Fella Records' only release in 1997 was Jay-Z's second album, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, but the label and its figurehead artist saw increasing popularity, mainly due to a high-profile appearance by Jay on B.I.G.'s posthumous Life After Death, complete with Roc-A-Fella and Damon Dash references. While Memphis Bleek signed with the Roc, Sauce Money chose to pursue a deal with Priority, and Jaz refrained from signing anywhere and provided production for only 1 song on Vol. 1, "Rap Game/Crack Game." In 1998, Roc-A-Fella Records released the movie Streets Is Watching and the accompanying soundtrack; the film compiles various Jay-Z videos into a continuous story, and the album introduced more affiliated, future Roc-A-Fella Records signees Noreaga, M.O.P., and DJ Clue, as well as producer Irv Gotti and the short-lived group, Murder Inc. (namesake of Irv's record label, Murder Inc.).
Jay's 1998 album, Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life, saw him largely depart from his previous entourage and venture forth with producers Swizz Beatz, Timbaland, The 45 King and Jermaine Dupri. Vol. 2 spawned his 1st major hit, "Hard Knock Life", and became the label's first Platinum-RIAA certified release; it was the last Roc-A-Fella release to see appearances by Jaz-O or Sauce Money, and the 1st to feature new Roc artists Beanie Sigel and Amil. DJ Clue released the 1st of his collaboration-album-style series in The Professional, which saw the 1st Roc-A-Fella appearance of Cam'ron; meanwhile, DJ Ski had, at the time, formed the production company Roc-A-Blok, although the company folded when Ski moved out of New York to take a break from music.
Though Da Ranjahz put in appearances on Memphis Bleek's 1st album, Coming of Age, in 1999, they soon parted ways with Roc-A-Fella. Jay-Z's 1999 album Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter continued Jay's new affiliations with then-popular producers; in 2000, the label saw a redefinition in both sound and roster. Jay-Z put out The Dynasty: Roc La Familia as a solo album. Originally intended to be a collaboration project, it nonetheless featured heavy appearances by Beanie Sigel, Amil and Memphis Bleek, along with a Philly rapper Freeway guest spot that led to him being signed to Roc-A-Fella. Rather than return to Timbaland or Swizz Beatz for production, Jay selected beats from a new crop of producers: Kanye West, Bink, The Neptunes and Just Blaze. Each beat-smith would go on to become consistently involved in future Roc-A-Fella projects.
2000–2005: Prominence and Split
The new millennium saw Roc-A-Fella begin to expand 1 figurehead artist. While Jay-Z remained the label's prominent image—with the acclaimed release of The Blueprint and the closing of his trial for the 1999 stabbing of producer Lance Rivera—other Roc artists began to gain popularity and acceptance. In 2000, Beanie Sigel released The Truth and reached #5 on the Billboard charts, DJ Clue released The Professional 2, and Memphis Bleek released The Understanding. While Clue and Beans's albums hit the Top 5 on the Billboard charts, Bleek's album was in the Top 20. Nonetheless, all 3 albums were certified Gold by the RIAA for selling over 500, 000 copies in the United States of America. Amil's album, however, had lackluster sales. Jay-Z and Damon Dash began signing up new talent, including Cam'ron, Freeway, and several young Philly rappers that were later compiled into the Freeway/Sigel-led group, State Property. During this time, Jay-Z and Beanie Sigel were embroiled in a feud with Ruff Ryders Entertainment artists Jadakiss and DMX. Disses back and forth between Jay-Z and Jadakiss implied a conflict between Jay and former groupmate DMX, led to a full-on war of words between Sigel and Kiss, and eventually culminated in a diss by Beanie Sigel over Jada's hit "Put Your Hands Up," after which the rivalry faded.
After Jay-Z's supposed last hurrah, it was revealed that he had accepted a position as CEO and President of Def Jam Recordings, and The Island Def Jam Music Group purchased the remaining 50 percent stake of Roc-A-Fella Records that IDJ didn't already own. Dash, poised to take greater control in the company, began heavily promoting artists Cam'ron, The Diplomats, State Property, Kanye West and Twista. In 2004, Kanye West's album, The College Dropout, became a huge commercial and critical success, selling multi-Platinum-RIAA certified sales, and Foxy Brown was signed and began work on her album, Black Rose. The infamous 'split' between Dash, Carter, and Burke occurred when it was revealed the trio had sold their 50% interest in Roc-A-Fella to The Island Def Jam Music Group, making the label full owners. As President, Carter retained control of the Roc and his masters, ousting his 2 former partners. He later explained that he had offered to turn down the position and ownership for the masters to Reasonable Doubt alone:
So I was like, let me get Reasonable Doubt and I'll give up [the rest of] my masters. I'll give up Roc-A-Fella, I'll give up president and CEO of Def Jam—everything. Just give me my baby to hold on to so 10 years down the line, I can look back and I got something—I'm not empty-handed. And I was the 1 being offered everything. I thought it was more than fair ... And when that was turned down, I had to make a choice. I'll leave that for the people to say what choice they would've made. That's about it. I don't really wanna talk about Dame or Biggs. I don't have nothing negative to say about them.
— Jay-Z, XXL
As Dash and Burke set up their own fledgling record label, originally called Roc4life and later rechristened to Dame Dash Music Group, each artist was offered their choice of labels. The Diplomats were the first to make the move to Dame Dash Music Group, and began a public campaign against Jay-Z, dissing him in songs and interviews, backed heavily by Dame; Cam'ron was especially vocal, claiming Jay-Z blocked him from an executive position Dash had offered him at Roc-A-Fella.
Beanie Sigel, then doing a year's incarceration on an attempted murder charge, put out his album The B.Coming on Dash's label; this was accompanied by accusations from Dash that of all the members of State Property, only Oschino had gone to visit Sigel in prison. Though Beanie had initially chosen Dame Dash Music Group, the rest of the group refused, preferring to remain on Roc-A-Fella Records; in response, Beanie Sigel effectively put the group on hold, claiming disappointment in his groupmates. M.O.P. and Grafh also left Roc-A-Fella for Dame Dash, though both acts parted ways with Dash soon thereafter. Due to the 2004 death of Ol' Dirty Bastard, Dash also brought with him masters of the rapper's project and promises to release the album, A Son Unique, though this never occurred.
Memphis Bleek and Kanye West released 534 and Late Registration, respectively, in 2005, along with the Young Gunz' sophomore effort and Teairra Mari's debut, though only Kanye West's project saw significant reviews or sales. It was stated by Memphis Bleek that Cory Gunz had signed, but nothing materialized. By the end of the year, Dash had split his label from Def Jam and Jay-Z's role overseeing his project, after asking for more money and a bigger role in the company. Dame Dash Music Group left Def Jam and was subsequently dissolved.
2006–2009: Roc Redefinition and departure of Jay-Z
In 2006, releases were largely limited to those of Roc-La-Familia, a Latino-geared label under Roc-A-Fella that followed the trend of Reggaeton. Hector "El Father" and N.O.R.E. both put out albums, and the label was home to New York rapper Tru Life, but has since folded. Jay-Z made his return that year with Kingdom Come, to mixed reviews. He stepped down from his Def Jam position and put out a second album in 2007, American Gangster, to more positive reviews and sales, along with Kanye West's Graduation, Beanie Sigel's The Solution, and Freeway's Free at Last; Kanye West's album sold multi-platinum to rave reviews. Freeway's project received acclaim but not major sales, and contained comments aimed at Kanye West and Just Blaze for not supplying production. He later amended his comments, stating he desired to work with Just Blaze but the producer hasn't reached out. This may have been due to Just Blaze's work on American Gangster and complications regarding his Atlantic-distributed label, Fort Knocks, and his artist Saigon.
The signing of Ruff Ryders artist Jadakiss, former rival to both Jay-Z and Beanie Sigel, also came in 2007, as did Uncle Murda. Foxy Brown was dropped from the label after 2 years, in light of a jail sentence. Though Young Chris and Peedi Crakk continued to appear on projects, neither seemed any closer to solo projects, and in 2008 Peedi Crakk announced that State Property had been dropped from the label. This was countered by Beanie Sigel's manager, who confirmed that Beanie Sigel and Freeway were still part of Roc-A-Fella. Young Chris also apparently signed as a solo artist. 2008 saw only the release of Kanye West's 808's & Heartbreak, garnering decent sales. It also brought repeated disses in songs and interviews from Peedi Crakk towards Jay-Z, claiming he held up his project on purpose, though he claims to have moved on. During that year, Jay-Z had inked a $150 million deal with Live Nation that included concerts, endorsements and recordings, and included a platform for him to launch his Roc Nation label. Uncle Murda left the label after a year and a half with no release, citing lack of executive interest after Jay-Z's exodus from parent label Def Jam.
In March 2009, Freeway procured his release from Def Jam, claiming a need to explore his options; shortly, he announced his signing to Ca$h Money, while stating he would always respect Roc-A-Fella. Longtime signee Memphis Bleek also reported his departure from Def Jam, deciding not to travel to Roc Nation in favor of starting his own record label, but he is still very close with Roc-A-Fella. Additionally, Tru Life has been referred to as a "1 time [or past] affiliate" of Roc-A-Fella upon his turning himself in to authorities for his connection to a retaliatory stabbing. On May 21, 2009, Jay-Z had bought back his contract from Def Jam for an unprecedented $5,000,000 and started his deal with Live Nation.
2010–2013: Final years and TufAmerica vs. Roc-A-Fella
Jadakiss briefly moved to Roc-A-Fella and released an album The Last Kiss before reuniting with Ruff Ryders. On May 3, 2010, Damon Dash relaunched Roc-A-Fella after nearly a year of inactivity with his 1st artist being former Young Money rapper Curren$y. Curren$y's third album, Pilot Talk, was to be released under the newly relaunched Roc-A-Fella however, Curren$y stated in interviews with both XXL and Complex that the album would be released under Damon Dash's DD172 record label division, BluRoc Records and distributed through Def Jam. On August 8, 2011 Jay-Z and Kanye West, released a collaborative album titled Watch the Throne, it was later revealed that Jay-Z was part of a short relaunched Roc-A-Fella, as the album was released on Roc-A-Fella, Roc Nation and Def Jam.
In September 2012 Tuff City, a record company; filed a lawsuit on the grounds of copyright infringement by Roc-A-Fella, seeking undisclosed damages. The complaint filed in federal court in Manhattan claims Roc-A-Fella and their parent Island Def Jam paid them a $62,500 license fee to sample Eddie Bo's "Hook and Sling, Part 1" in Kanye West's "Who Will Survive in America?" and "Lost in the World". Despite this, Tuff City says UMG and Roc-A-Fella "failed and refused to enter into written license agreements that accounted for their multiple other uses of ['Hook and Sling']". The unmentioned uses TufAmerica refers to are the "Lost in the World" video and the short film based on Kanye's "Runaway". Tuff City is represented by New York attorney Kelly Talcott. On June 16, 2013, Jay-Z announced with a tweet : "VII IV XIII Roc A Fella/Roc Nation", hinting a possible relaunch and revival of Roc-A-Fella and a possible merger with Roc Nation. However, it meant that Roc-A-Fella was only relaunched for the purpose of releasing his new album, Magna Carta Holy Grail.