Twenty-five years is a long time, particularly in the fickle record business.
Such is the relentless turnover of tastes and attitudes that few record labels can survive the ebb and flow without making deep concessions to popular taste.
For a quarter of a century, Russell Simmons’ hip-hop label Def Jam has done just that.
With the vinyl-only re-release (what, you don’t own a record deck?!) of label highlights on gain-friendly double albums and 12″s, musicOMH has received its license to ill and offer its surfing public a brief overview of the label’s history…
With the fashions, attitudes and vernacular of hip-hop so ingrained in the collective imagination, its hard to imagine a time when the tag-team braggadocio, buffalo stances and boom-bap timing wasn’t the default setting for any would-be star giving it the big I-am.
Though Sylvia Robinson’s Harlem label was the first hip-hop label to have a chart hit (The Sugar Hill Gang‘s Rapper’s Delight in 1979), and rival label Profile first signed the groundbreaking Run DMC, it was Def Jam who took the form into the mainstream.
With seven full-time staff, Def Jam released three platinum-selling albums in three years (Run’s Raising Hell, LL Cool J‘s Radio, and Public Enemy‘s Yo! Bum Rush The Show).
There may be wailings and gnashing-of-teeth from purists but given Def Jam’s success, Russell Simmons’ (possibly revisionist) claim that he had identified the true orientations of ‘modern, mainstream, young, urban America’ is difficult to argue with.
If you add the recent words of Def Jam’s reigning CEO (one Shawn ‘Jay-Z‘ Carter), that ‘the hip-hop lifestyle has proven to be a globally financial powerhouse’ then its clear how far the biggest US black-owned music business has come.
That said, Hip-hop’s assault on the mainstream didn’t happen without some degree of miscegenation. Though inarguably the voice of specifically black New York street culture, the harsher, less party-friendly sound that characterised early Def Jam recordings was the province of Simmons’ Jewish business partner, Rick Rubin.
Having produced one of the most potent early hip-hop records outside of Sugarhill and Afrika Bambaataa (T La Rock and Jazzy Jay‘s It’s Yours) Rubin’s hook-up with Sociology student and ex-Queens gang member Simmons proved to be a mercurial mix. Once the first true Def Jam release, LL Cool J’s brutally minimal I Need A Beat, shifted 100,00 copies, it wasn’t long before the major-label finance of Columbia began to underwrite the label’s success.
“Simmons’ creed of “if it’s real, don’t change it” has remained a constant throughout the label’s history… “
However, corporate backing didn’t alter Simmons’ refusal to compromise the label’s integrity. Simmons creed of “if its real, don’t change it” has remained a constant throughout the label’s history, even when ‘real’ means conspicuous consumption and a multimillion pound property starring on MTV’s Cribs.
Def Jam’s major breakthrough came with the genius conflation of rap’s street vernacular with its white-as-Christmas diametric opposite, Heavy Metal. Aerosmith‘s Walk This Way had long been a block-party favourite with DJ’s, the band themselves long missing in action. Run DMC’s late Jam Master Jay had even used the break himself, even though the Hollis trio had no idea who Aerosmith were. Now Simmons’ RUSH Management had firmly established Run DMC as a Def Jam act (Simmons is the elder brother of ‘Run’ himself), the brief alliance with Aerosmith broke down more metaphorical walls than the memorable video.
After the Hollis trio’s Raising Hell’s unapologetic amalgam of rock dynamics with hardcore rap attitude, it was a short leap to the frat-boy antics of The Beastie Boys. By the time Licensed To Ill hit the high street, Def Jam had the youth vote all sewn up.
Def Jam could have coasted. Success with the unique Slick Rick, the smooth EPMD, and Simmons’ ultimately doomed attempt to run a sustainable R’n’B offshoot quickly followed. Rather than waiting for the competition to catch up (and for a genre that was consistently reinventing itself, there was plenty of competition), the label raised the bar to a height that has been rarely matched within or without hip-hop, the eponymous release of Public Enemy‘s first single.
Composed principally of the Bomb Squad (DJ’s Hank and Keith Boxley (nee Shocklee), Eric Sadler) and the socially-aware fireball flow of Carl Ridenhour (Chuck D to the rest of us), Public Enemy really were hardcore, and still had rhymes galore. Once PE truly got into a groove, righteous indignation became a thing of frightening intensity.
…Chuck D’s epigrammatic prophecies of rage would never have achieved the same impact without the Bomb Squad’s understanding of glorious sonic assault
Like PE’s true antecedents The Last Poets, Chuck D was unflinching in his criticism of white America’s hold on US philology, but equally unafraid to turn the spotlight back on black America when necessary. Though ably assisted by the comic turns of William Drayton (Flavour Flav) and the sharp mixes of Norman Rogers (Terminator X), Chuck D’s epigrammatic prophecies of rage would never have achieved the same impact without the Bomb Squad’s understanding of glorious sonic assault.
Once into their stride, PE made any other calls to the barricades, from The Clash to Crass, sound like Brotherhood Of Man. In many ways, Public Enemy were the full flowering of the Simmons / Rubin partnership.
The success of Public Enemy marked something of a watershed for Def Jam. So broad was PE’s impact, rival crews were now sprouting everywhere way beyond the B-Boy capital of New York’s five boroughs. This was the beginning of the hip-hop diaspora, proving to be a far more diverse beast than that other world-wide Afro-American export, the blues. Though it was never the only game in town, Def Jam would now have to hustle on a much larger scale for that hip-hop dollar.
Despite the arrival of NWA, and west-coast Gangsta Rap re-prioritising hip-hop concerns (the gun-worship, overbearing machismo, aspirational materialism drawing sales-boosting protest from world media, while much else, including ‘conscience hip-hop’ became ‘underground’), and the departure or Rubin to form his own label (now American Recordings, formerly Def American), Def Jam’s success continued pretty much unabated.
Like any good American entrepreneur, Simmons has since stretched the Def Jam brand into any number of cross-marketing shapes…
Signing Dr Dre‘s half-brother Warren Griffin III (Warren G) in 1994 didn’t hurt, his radio-friendly laid-back ‘G-Funk’ groove signalling another twist to hip-hop’s ever flexing spiral. Multi-platinum sales duly followed. And though Def Jam unforgivingly missed out on signing the Big Apple’s Wu-Tang Clan, they still managed to pick up clan-member Method Man for the same year’s Tical.
Like any good American entrepreneur, Simmons stretched the Def Jam brand into any number of cross-marketing shapes (Comedy videos, computer games, designer wear ad infinitum) while he and long-time business partner Lyor Cohen let the label surf commercial waves. Deals with Irv Gotti’s Murder Inc. and Roc-A-Fella records have added to the Def Jam empire, and though a recent high-profile fraud case has seen the label in the dock, the multimillion award is sure to be only a pit-stop in the label’s ever-forward propulsion.
As for the music, though current headliners like Ja Rule and DMX may express a level of self-absorption and unwarranted wealth uncommon outside of Premiership footballers, brand extensions like Def Jam South ensure the label keeps a keen eye on developments outside its traditional East Coast catchment area.
Although staying on as chairman, Simmons sold his remaining share in the label to Universal in 1999. The label is now run by LA Reid, co-founder of Atlanta’s LaFace label, home to Outkast, TLC, Usher, and Toni Braxton. With Reid at the helm, Def Jam’s commercial future appears secure, even if its creative one is less certain.
With the honourable exception of KanYe West, Def Jam’s current output reflects much of contemporary overground hip-hop; at its best, an impressionistic display of high-production sonics and dazzling wordplay; at its worst, irredeemable solipsistic sensibilities wrapped up in am-dram gothics, coupled with a deathless parade of ‘playaz’ and ‘ho’s’. Despite Russell Simmons professed intentions, modern-day Def Jam is as ‘real’ as you want it to be.
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