Pass the mike

Def Jam went from a dorm room to a music empire. Its famous founders are gone -- is the label still good?

Published October 20, 2005 12:00PM (EDT)

In the early 1980s, a white film student from Long Island, N.Y., and a black party promoter from Queens, N.Y., ran a tiny record company out of a New York University dorm room. Today, that little venture is known as Island Def Jam Music Group, and is a wholly owned subsidiary of Universal Music Group.

Last year, Universal controlled one-third of the music market in the United States. It used to be the biggest of music's Big Five labels; the August 2004 merger of Sony Music Entertainment and BMG Entertainment -- awkwardly rechristened "Sony BMG Music Entertainment" -- made it the biggest of the Big Four. If this sketch of corporate hierarchy is confusing, or if you're generally outraged by the concentration of vast wealth and cultural capital in only a few hands, then you probably won't be pleased to learn that Universal is itself merely a division of another larger company, France's Vivendi Universal. Stacy Gueraseva's book, "Def Jam, Inc.: Russell Simmons, Rick Rubin, and the Extraordinary Story of the World's Most Influential Hip-Hop Label," traces the company's path from that dorm room overlooking Washington Square Park to its current spot on the Paris stock exchange. Gueraseva filters the Def Jam story primarily through Rubin's and Simmons' own recollections, but she fleshes it out, too, with memories from their successors, employees and the artists who made the label famous.

Def Jam was one of the first hip-hop enterprises to make the leap from independence to the corporate world. The jump was possible, at least in part, because founders Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons embodied the principal contradiction of the hip-hop industry. Rap music is widely assumed to be a poor, urban and largely African-American art form. But while hip-hop culture has obsessed over the authenticity of this streetwise image, the hip-hop business has turned images and narratives of the inner city into corporate cash. Simmons' and Rubin's relatively privileged backgrounds put them in a position to sell hip-hop to the masses -- not just to urban youth, but to every kid with money in his pocket. The epithets one former Def Jam employee uses to describe the label's original style could today be applied to all of commercial hip-hop: "downtown meets uptown meets socialite meets gangster." That list would be more complete if she added, "meets the suburbs."

A Jewish music geek from Long Island, Rick Rubin was an unlikely candidate for the title "king of rap," as the Village Voice called him in 1986. Four years earlier, he was learning to DJ, playing guitar in a punk rock band, and studying film production at New York University. He was a consummate culture snob, the kind of guy who sneered at his friends and roommates for listening to music that he didn't consider cutting edge. He explains to Gueraseva how, when he shopped for the latest rap records, he would "buy them all," even though he felt that "most of them were terrible" and was convinced he could make better records himself. He owned a professional-quality sound system that he cranked in his dorm room, much to the chagrin of his more studious neighbors; and whenever he got in trouble, he parlayed his partying into a political cause.

Rubin recalls appearing before an NYU disciplinary board for disrupting his dorm mates and arguing: "I am a punk rock musician, and volume is integral to the music ... to have punk rock without volume is to diminish its artistic value and merit." Displaying an unscrupulousness that surely came in handy in the music business, Rubin even paid other students to do his homework and write papers for him. Rubin's old friends and acquaintances told Gueraseva that he was usually flush with cash: He'd go out to clubs at night, pay for his friends at restaurants, and he funded the recording of an EP by his rock band Hose. (At the time, Rubin convinced the small label that distributed the Hose record to stamp its sleeve with a logo he had designed for "Def Jam Recordings," even though no such entity existed yet.)

Like Rubin, Russell Simmons was born to college-educated parents in suburban Long Island, but he actually grew up in the Hollis section of Queens. When the Simmons family moved to Hollis, it was a safe, professional neighborhood. Soon after their arrival, it went downhill. Most of the middle-class families fled, and poverty and drugs were rampant. The oldest of the three Simmons brothers, Danny, got mixed up in drugs and dealing. The younger sons, Russell and Joey -- who went by the nickname "Run" -- steered clear of street life and escaped into music.

The Simmonses wanted their children to become educated professionals, and Russell came close to living up to his parents' aspirations. He enrolled in the Harlem branch of City College in 1974, and spent most of his time in Manhattan promoting parties and concerts. Simmons' brother Danny recalls that, to support the business, Russell "went to my mother ... my father ... my grandmother -- they had all given him thousands of dollars to promote these parties." The family remained supportive as long as he remained in school, believing that Russell's interest in hip-hop music was just a phase. It turned out it wasn't, and when Russell dropped out of college to become a promoter full time, he was completely on his own.

Long before they met, Simmons and Rubin each made contributions to New York's hip-hop scene. "Def Jam, Inc." recounts how, through party promotion, Simmons was able to meet and befriend hip-hop's rising stars, and through these contacts turn his promotion business into one of the first professional management companies for hip-hop artists. Rush Management handled around 10 rap acts, including Run DMC, which featured Russell's brother Joey (aka Run) and Kurtis Blow, who was both the first rapper to sign to a major record label and the first to have a gold record, 1980's "The Breaks." In 1983, the Wall Street Journal published a profile of Simmons that dubbed him "the mogul of rap." Meanwhile, Rick Rubin was still trying to make records in his dorm room. With $5,000 of his parents' cash, Rubin, DJ Jazzy Jay and Rubin's friend Adam Horovitz recorded a song called "It's Yours" and worked on getting it picked up for the soundtrack for an upcoming hip-hop movie called "Beat Street." The song made the film, and when the single was eventually released on Party Time records, Rubin convinced the label to put a large "Def Jam Recordings" sticker on the sleeve.

When Simmons and Rubin met in the summer of 1984, "It's Yours" was a surprise hit. Simmons remembers that he was shocked to discover that Rubin, the producer of what he considered "the blackest hip-hop record" ever, was white. They became friends immediately, going to clubs and booking shows together, and trading fashion tips (Rubin thought Simmons dressed "like a substitute teacher" rather than a hip-hop tastemaker). Simmons lined up shows for Adam Horovitz's rap group, the Beastie Boys; at the time, Rubin happened to be their DJ. Promoting the Beastie Boys -- a group of self-consciously rowdy Jewish teenagers who switched from guitars and screams to turntables and rhymes at Rubin's behest -- was just one part of Def Jam's strategy to make hardcore rap part of the mainstream of American youth culture. Rubin thought that hip-hop could become the new New Wave.

Several moments in "Def Jam, Inc." could be taken to mark the official founding of Def Jam Recordings: the release of "It's Yours," or that first meeting between Rubin and Simmons. But a more convincing argument could be made that Def Jam began the day Rubin and Simmons together listened to an unsolicited demo tape from a rapper named LL Cool J in Rubin's dorm room. Simmons tells Gueraseva that while he and Rubin didn't think the demo was that great, it "just struck us as funny, and we wanted to hear it over and over again." Within days, the pair had met the shy 17-year-old rapper, and with Rubin as producer finished recording the song that became the first official Def Jam single, "I Need a Beat." With $1,000 of Simmons' Rush earnings and $5,000 of Rubin's -- or rather, his parents' $5,000 "donation" -- Def Jam was born. Rubin got credit from NYU for running the label, and Simmons worked on Def Jam projects when he wasn't busy at Rush Management. By the end of 1985, before they had released even a single full-length record, Simmons and Rubin signed a $2 million multi-album deal that made their new label a subsidiary of CBS Records, home to Bruce Springsteen and Barbra Streisand.

Though he isn't named in the title of Gueraseva's book, a third Def Jam executive influenced the direction of the company at least as much as Simmons and Rubin. Lyor Cohen, a Los Angeles music promoter and club manager, met Simmons at a Run DMC show in the summer of 1984. Unlike Def Jam's founders, Cohen had a college degree in finance and management. Exactly how he got started at Def Jam is a bit of a mystery. Cohen says Simmons invited him to move to New York and become a third partner in the company, while Simmons says Cohen simply showed up and started helping around the Rush Management offices. Either way, while Rubin and Simmons maintained the company's edgy public face, Cohen worked late at the office, personally managed Def Jam tours, kept the other employees in line, and did all of the other things that made Def Jam a competitive player in the corporate music world. Both Rubin and Simmons jumped into the business as music fans, and seem to have been easily bored by the day-to-day details of running a company. On the other hand, when Def Jam employee Cey Adams found a crate of records in Cohen's apartment, he remembers being so surprised that he asked: "You listen to music? Since when?"

While Cohen dreamed up marketing ideas (like getting Run DMC to endorse Adidas), Rubin worked on new records as a hands-on producer, and Simmons put pressure on CBS to promote Def Jam's acts. The only tension that seems to have arisen between the three came when Simmons tried to sign R&B singers to the label. Rubin totally opposed the idea of expanding Def Jam's reach to include more traditional, adult-oriented music, but Cohen sided with Simmons, and Simmons eventually won.

After a series of more serious disappointments, Rubin ended his partnership at Def Jam. First, CBS records declined to release Hose's record, and then it decided at the last minute not to release one of Rubin's pet projects, an album called "Reign in Blood" by a then-relatively unknown band called Slayer. Finally, after a bitter contract dispute, the enfants terribles in the Beastie Boys declined to work with him, or with Def Jam, on their second album. Feeling that his "vision was being compromised," Rubin officially parted ways with the label he founded in 1988. Simmons invested more and more of his time in his other enterprises, like the Phat Farm clothing line, several projects for HBO and the failed magazine OneWorld. And in the limited time he did spend at Def Jam, Simmons continued to focus his attention on R&B acts rather than on hip-hop. So from the late 1980s through the turn of the 21st century, as former Def Jam executive Julie Greenwald insists, "For the most part, it was Lyor's company."

Just over halfway through "Def Jam, Inc.," with Rubin out of the picture completely and Simmons on the margins, Gueraseva loses her focus. The 1990s were a productive decade for the company, but Gueraseva rushes through them in under 100 pages, peppering the somewhat skeletal story of the label with amusing but tangential celebrity cameos. Even though Simmons was still the public face of Def Jam, Cohen and his staff did almost all of the hard work -- Simmons merely consulted on major decisions, such as deciding which member of the Wu-Tang Clan to sign. (Simmons gave his A&R person permission to choose between the obvious star, Method Man, whom she eventually picked, and the more avant-garde Ol' Dirty Bastard.) In 1999, Simmons sold his 40 percent stake in the company to Universal for $250 million, and left Def Jam behind completely. Several years later, when Cohen and the rest of the old Def Jam team left, Simmons published a letter on a popular hip-hop Web site questioning "whether the legacy that Def Jam established" could continue.

Unfortunately, Gueraseva doesn't take Simmons' consideration very seriously. The book isn't an elegy for the good old days of Def Jam, and Gueraseva doesn't appear to be particularly concerned with outlining the failings of the company or its leaders, or interested in showing how or if the changes that took place at Def Jam over the years had anything to do with corporate consolidation. As it has grown, Def Jam has continued to release good records; but among the reasons that Rick Rubin left was the fact that his freedom to decide what to release, especially in terms of non-hip-hop artists, was limited by Def Jam's parent company. As Def Jam has expanded into making video games and as it has begun to focus more intensely on brand marketing, its ability and desire to find and release music by groundbreaking artists has been compromised. The name Def Jam used to mean something: If you were in a record store and you recognized the label, you could bet you were holding a quality record. But when a hip, popular label gets sold outright to a huge corporation, applying the logo becomes merely another deceptive step in the marketing process. There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part companies like Def Jam play it safe these days.

At the end of her book, Gueraseva devotes three and a half pages to the departure of Def Jam president Lyor Cohen along with practically all of the label's staff. When they left, the company was handed over to Antonio "L.A." Reid, the co-founder of the R&B label LaFace, a corporate executive with almost no experience in hip-hop. Turning a blind eye to this incredibly important change, Gueraseva assures readers that Reid's arrival was merely an example of business as usual at the company. She even uses a recycled quote from Lyor Cohen, seemingly out of context, to downplay the takeover: "We did what we had to do to survive."

Admittedly, Def Jam has survived, and since Cohen left and Reid took over, the label has made some very smart moves. It named superstar Jay-Z as its president; it promoted the hell out of Kanye West; and it started signing more up-and-coming Southern rappers, including recent chart-topper Young Jeezy.

Even still, by using Cohen's statement -- "We did what we had to do to survive" -- to describe the departure of Def Jam's leaders in 2003, Gueraseva ends her book with an unresolved contradiction. An earlier passage gives the impression that Cohen and others left Def Jam precisely because of the corporate sprawl that had engulfed their company. He and his staff made an informed decision to go to work for Warner Music Group, technically the largest "independent" record company left in the world, where they all stood to make a lot less money. The overly sunny conclusion of "Def Jam, Inc.," then, points toward a larger problem with the book. The story of Def Jam Records practically cries out to be written as a parable of the ever-tightening grip of the corporate plutocracy on America's means of pop culture production. Sadly, that isn't the story that Stacy Gueraseva decided to tell.

By Mark Hatch-Miller

Mark Hatch-Miller is a writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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