shawn carter, Def Jam president-CEO

Well-choreographed path takes young rap producer to platinum singer & mainstream music like 'M:i:III'

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Def jam president-ceo Shawn Carter, 36, knows an artist's potential for success because he himself has traveled a similar path. Mr. Carter, better known as rap icon Jay-Z, first used Chicago-born Kanye West as a producer on songs like "Izzo [H.O.V.A.]" for his own 2002 album "Blueprint." Mr. West worked with Brandy, Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey and Alicia Keys, among others, before convincing Mr. Carter and then-partner Damon Dash to sign him as an artist to their Roc-A-Fella label.

"We figured if we kept him close, at the very least we'd still have some hot beats," Jay-Z told Rolling Stone about his initial doubts. "It went from skepticism to excitement." Mr. West's 2004 debut "College Dropout" was certified triple-platinum, with worldwide sales of 5 million, 10 Grammy nominations and three awards. By the time Mr. West released the 2005 follow-up, "Late Registration," Jay-Z was now head of Def Jam, and the album marked Mr. West's ascension to mainstream visibility, bowing at No. 1 and selling 3 million copies in the U.S., with hit singles like "Gold Digger." Jay-Z soon realized, as the son of two college professors, Mr. West's upscale, designer image proved a magnet to mainstream advertisers leery of gangsta rap.

So Jay-Z helped foster that approachable image. Mr. West's first self-directed video, "Through the Wire," was the single most important factor in his initial breakthrough. Utilizing footage from the aftermath of an October 2002 car accident that almost took Mr. West's life and left him with a "wired" jaw, he presented a vulnerability-as well as a clever sample of Chaka Khan's "Through the Fire"-marking a watershed shift from the violence of hip-hop at the time.

Even the rapper's much-publicized remark that "George Bush doesn't care about black people" on the Hurricane Katrina telethon or his controversial Rolling Stone cover as Jesus with a crown of thorns failed to dissuade major accounts like PepsiCo's Pepsi to pull his 30-second, Spike-Lee directed "Timeline" spot.

Mr. West now runs his own G.O.O.D. (for Getting Out Our Dreams) Music label, featuring fellow three-time Grammy winner John Legend, and will introduce his Pastelle Clothing line this spring. He also performs the famed Lalo Schifrin theme in the high-profile summer Tom Cruise film "Mission: Impossible III," which opened May 5. A label insider says Jay-Z has been instrumental in his discovery's success story, "He's been there from the start as the one constant."

Selected for: Kanye West

* Similar path as Jay-Z, producer first, recording artist next.

* Developed an approachable image, making rapper attractive property to mainstream advertisers such as Pepsi.

* Nails the plum assignment updating the powerful Lalo Schifrin theme to "Mission: Impossible."