This month marked the 30th anniversary of legendary record label Def Jam – whose catalog of artists both past and present – as well as the music associated with the meteoric rise, registers on a cultural label as opposed to just musically. Admittedly, over the years the label has come to be just another place where artists hang their hat, but upon closer inspection, their foresight, execution and courage was a huge push forward to propel hip-hop music and the culture surrounding it into what it is today. Here are 30 ways Def Jam and their artists changed hip-hop for good.
Their origins are universal
In the early 1980s, Rick Rubin, co-founder of Def Jam Records, lived in Room 712 of NYU’s Weinstein Residence Hall on University Place, where he collaborated with Russell Simmons on what is now one of hip-hop’s most influentialcom record labels. While most look at success stories today as being the result of industry connections and cronyism, Def Jam started much like Apple did (although Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak favored a garage). While the label would go on to produce countless acts that would represent the 1 percent, there’s no denying that many can identify with late night, and free brainstorming sessions with like-minded peers.
It embraced controversy
Prior to a dispute that ultimately severed their relationship in 1999, Def Jam released every Public Enemy album since its 1987 debut, Yo! Bum Rush the Show. Serving as a stark contrast to initial releases from the likes of T La Rock & Jazzy Jay and Oran “Juice” Jones who relied mostly on feel-good records, Public Enemy wasn’t in the business of making party anthems. According to Jon Pareles of The New York Times, “From its first album, Yo! Bum Rush the Show in 1987, the group marketed itself as a distillation of black anger and resistance. It set out to be the voice of a community, not just one more posse of boasters.” Chicago Tribune writer Daniel Brogan described Public Enemy’s style on the album as “raw and confrontational,” writing that the group “doesn’t aim to — or have a chance at — crossing over.”
While they may be best remembered for their politically charged “Fight the Power,” years before the 1989/1990 release the group embarked on recording another high-profile, protest song. “By the Time I Get to Arizona” centered on Arizona governor Evan Mecham’s decision to cancel the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday because, according to The Washington Post, “[it] was implemented illegally and required a public vote, [and] poured fuel on the controversy by opining that King ‘didn’t deserve’ the holiday.”
The fusion of genres
Much like an all-you-can-eat buffet, contemporary hip-hop can’t be placed in a single box and given a uniform label. There’s pop infusions, more traditional boom bap and introspective sub genres just to name a few. Thanks to the Beastie Boys and their initial offering of “Rock Hard,” listeners were given their first audio dose of a rock/rap hybrid that ultimately culminated in the 1986 classic, Licensed to Ill.
It gave the world one of the most successful interracial hip-hop groups
Say what you will about 3rd Bass – the collective of MC Serch, Pete Nice and Dj Richie Rich – but their rise to prominence in the late ’80s and early ’90s on the strength of gold records The Cactus Album and Derelicts of Dialect was a major step forward for bucking the notion that hip-hop music was merely a genre for African-American performers and listeners.
Their early music videos were more than just performance footage
Believe it or not, Blondie’s “Rapture” has the distinction of being the first music video to feature “rap” elements to air on MTV. Whether it was actually “rap” is up for debate, but there’s no denying that music video images originally associated with the genre were merely performance-based. Notably with crossover successes like the Beastie’s “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)” and LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out,” viewers were given something completely different than they had come to expect.
Slayer’s Reign in Blood
Despite having roots in the aforementioned rock/rap emergence, Def Jam can hang their hat on the fact that they released a classic, metal record. Produced by Rick Rubin, Rolling Stone’s readers have called the record the sixth best heavy metal album of all-time.
The introduction of storytelling elements
While some would argue that the contemporary hip-hop song registers more like a one-percenter’s shopping list, we’ve slowly come out of the doldrums of luxury rap that was most prominently on display during Cash Money’s reign at the top. While there will always be room for the rags to riches ascent, the story and the way it’s told is often what makes for a great song. Whereas Biggie’s “I’ve Got a Story to Tell” is perhaps the most iconic aural odyssey in hip-hop, it was Slick Rick’s Def Jam “Children’s Story” in 1989 that really set the benchmark for the style.
“Run-DMC, I think, was the first group to establish what we called the B-boy style, more like what the kids in the audience were wearing than what the people onstage were wearing,” Rick Rubin told GQ. “The people onstage wanted to look more like Eddie Murphy, who wanted to look more like Michael Jackson.” This transition from acts wanting to appear like Vegas entertainers to more “of the people” made for an opportunity where the streets that birthed the narratives began to slowly impact the sartorial sensibilities.
It gave the world Krush Groove
Piggybacking off the success of Wild Style, Style Wars and Breakin’, 1985 saw the release of another film that continued the exploration of hip-hop culture in cinema. Krush Groove portrayed the early days of Def Jam’s founding and solidified that the music was becoming much more than something you merely listened to.
They gave solo albums to group acts
In hip-hop yesteryear, there were countless group acts that dominated the landscape. Def Jam was amongst the first major labels to give solo deals/albums to members of already successful collectives. Consider the likes of Erick Sermon (EPMD), Ghostface (Wu-Tang), Jadakiss (The Lox), MC Serch (3rd Bass), Method Man (Wu-Tang), Pusha T (Clipse), Q-Tip (A Tribe Called Quest) and Redman (Def Squad) as just a small sample of those who went on to solo acclaim.
MC Serch’s sage advice to Nas
According to an XXL interview with MC Serch, Nas sought out his help in finding another deal after being hesitant to sign with Atlantic Records subsidiary Big Beat. Seeing that Serch and his group 3rd Bass were signed to Def Jam, it seemed only natural to take Nas’ demo – which at the time had classics like “It Ain’t Hard To Tell,” “Halftime” and “I’m A Villain” recorded – to Russell Simmons. According to Serch, Simons said, “Ah, he sounds like G Rap, and G Rap don’t sell no records, I’m not interested.” Who knows what kind of artist Nas would have ended up like had he signed to Def Jam.
The hip-hop anthem
Def Jam is responsible for arguably three of the biggest hip-hop anthems of all-time: LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock Out Out,” DMX’s “Ruff Ryder’s Anthem” and Onyx’s “Slam.” While all distinctly different in style and production, they all displayed a level of energy that was undeniable.
DMX’s two number one albums in one year
While contemporary rap fans may know DMX for his legal troubles and substance abuse battles, at the height of his popularity, he and his label pulled off the rare feat of having two number one albums in the same calender year. 1998’s It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot and Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood put him in an exclusive club that also featured at the time The Kingston Trio, Led Zeppelin, Garth Brooks, 2Pac and System of a Down – all of whom accomplished the same feat.
Hip-hop in film
From Run-D.M.C., Sheila E., Kurtis Blow, and The Fat Boys’ “Krush Groovin” from Krush Groove to Spike Lee’s usage of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” in Do the Right Thing, Def Jam artists were amongst the first to figure prominently in cinematic soundtracks.
The unorthodox hip-hop sample
At the time of its release, Jay Z’s “Hard Knock Life” from Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life was the most commercially successful venture for the burgeoning mogul. Produced by the 45 King who would go on to flip another out-of-the-box sample on Eminem’s “Stan,” the usage of a Broadway sample from Annie was quite unique given the production sensibilities at the time. In subsequent years, the likes of Kanye West pulled from Wicked for “Popular,” and Freeway used a sample of Helen Gallagher’s take of “Big Spender,” originally from the 1966 musical Sweet Charity.
Def Comedy Jam
Amongst the comedy heavyweights who would hone their craft on the Def Comedy Jam stage were Bernie Mac, Dave Chappelle, Chris Tucker, Eddie Griffin, Martin Lawrence, D.L. Hughley, Mike Epps and more. Russell Simmons wrote in his autobiography, Life and Def: Sex, Drugs, Money, + God, “What I realized in the early ’80s was that the people on line outside the club the second day don’t mean shit. They’d buy a pet rock. They were on line because they’d heard it was cool from someone who’d been there the first day… My whole career has been about cultivating, understanding, and expanding this core audience for hip-hop culture and then watching the impact ripple out to the mainstream.”
When the show caught grief for what people deemed inappropriate language and what Bill Cosby called a “minstrel show,” Simmons responded by saying, “You know, the show got criticized and accused of a lot of shit by journalists and some blacks, who claimed it promoted negative images of black people… The truth is, the comedians used their own real language. That’s how they talk. Those were their jokes. It was their opportunity to do their routines, tell their jokes, and use their language just as they did in a club, except now they were on camera.”
Def Jam spawned important subsidiaries
Notable labels to be spawned underneath Def Jam include ARTium Recordings, Desert Storm Records, Disturbing Tha Peace, GOOD Music, Radio Killa Records and Roc-A-Fella Records – responsible for artists like Kanye West, Ludacris, Jay Z, Jhené Aiko and more.
Musicians as moguls
Prior to Jay Z being named President of Def Jam in 2005, Heavy D was the only other rapper to hold a similar position when he took the same role at Uptown in 1996.
They recognized Kendrick Lamar’s talents when he was only 17
TDE and their various acts have gone to embody an independent spirit and a “we do it our own way” type of attitude that has attracted both commercial rap fans and those that like to support more grassroots artists. While Kendrick Lamar has most notably waved the TDE banner, things could have turned out quite differently had Def Jam and Jay Z snatched him up when he was only 17. “I don’t think even Jay remember that. This was when I was like first turned 17,” Kendrick told MTV. “And I remember coming out here for a meeting and I was too excited man. And all I remember was Jay walking in the room, ‘Yo, what’s up?’ And walked back to the elevator and we was like ‘Damn, that’s Jay.’ So he doubles back, goes back to his office next door and he’s playing my music. [He] put me in the studio and that was just one of those situations where I wasn’t ready.”
Mixtapes still as a means to find talent
Mixtapes continue to be a source of material that serve a multitude of purposes given the current state of the business and the way listeners have come to expect new music to be available for free – whether through legal streaming means, or more illicit methods. Given that even established acts still turn to them as a way to satiate fan bases in between more “official” products, Def Jam still uses it as a way to find emerging talent. Most recently, two of the more notable recent Def Jam signees – Frank Ocean and Big K.R.I.T – were actually plucked up based on the rabid fan support cultivated through mixtapes like Nostalgia, ULTRA. and Return of 4Eva which in K.R.I.T.’s own words allowed him to “[build] my fan base from the ground up, to make my music as organic as possible.”
They recognized “prestige” artists
In 2005, while preparing to perform at the Hammerstein Ballroom as part of the festivities surrounding VH1’s “Hip Hop Honors,” ?uestlove announced to the world that The Roots were aligning with Def Jam. “You know, back in high school in Philadelphia, when the Roots first started, me and Black Thought just used to sit in lunch making our album covers, what they would look like,” ?uestlove said. “We would put the Def Jam logo on the bottom. That was a pipe dream. Now, some 12, 13 years later, nine albums later, we’re putting out an album and there is gonna be a Def Jam logo imprint on the bottom of it.’
Cut to today’s commercial musical landscape and it would have been easy for Def Jam to drop The Roots based on their sales numbers. Yet, they’ve remained. “We just [sign for] two records at a time,” ?uestlove has said. “We have the advantage because even if we don’t sell a gazillion records, there’s still a prestige left that we carry that makes them look good, which is important. I look at it like we’re a prestige artist. I’m sure Joni Mitchell doesn’t move millions and we’re in that plane now.
The origins of viral marketing
In an interview with music journalist Zane Lowe, Rick Rubin recalled his early days playing with a punk band called The Pricks. Perhaps best known for not only brawling with a heckling audience – one comprised of friends they encouraged to do so – Rubin’s father traveled from Nassau County, New York, to Manhattan wearing his Lido Beach auxiliary police uniform as he attempted to “shut down” the show in an attempt to further a “lawless” reputation about the band.
Additionally, in a 2007 New York Times Magazine profile, Rubin recalled having a “physical” funeral for the word “def” after feeling that its usage became too pervasive in popular culture. “Inspired by a documentary he’d seen about the hippie movement, Rubin held a formal funeral for ‘Def.’ When advertisers and the fashion world co-opted the image of hippies, a group of the original hippies in San Francisco literally buried the image of the hippie,” Rubin explained. “When ‘def’ went from street lingo to mainstream, it defeated its purpose. The funeral was lavish. The Rev. Al Sharpton was flown in from New York to deliver the eulogy, the Amazing Kreskin performed and Rubin purchased a cemetery plot and engraved headstone.”
Rick Rubin went “green”
In May 2007, Rick Rubin was named co-head of Columbia Records after departing Def American/American Recordings – and despite the label’s mishandling of the Rubin-produced Neil Diamond record, 12 Songs. As part of the wooing process, Rubin made some unusual demands in order to get a feel of whether or not he’d in fact have freedom to operate as he saw fit. According to The New York Times, “In addition to his ‘never wearing a suit, never traveling, never going to an office; demands, Rubin also suggested (strongly) that Columbia become the first major record company to go green and abolish plastic jewel boxes for all its CDs. They thought about it and agreed.”
They gave No I.D. creative control
With production work spanning from Common’s classic, Resurrection, to more recent commercial smashes like Jay Z’s “D.O.A.” and “Run This Town,” No I.D. finally earned a place behind the boardroom table as opposed to merely behind the soundboard when he was appointed Executive Vice President of A&R for Def Jam Recordings in August 2011. Commenting, “Def Jam is a cultural staple. It’s not just a label, it’s part of the culture that I came up in and that I’ve been involved with for 20 years. It’s very important that the next generation of executives grab it by the horns and keep it on track as it grows.” No I.D. has since ushered Logic, Jhené Aiko and Common into the Def Jam fold.
They thought regionally
During the “golden age” of hip-hop, most viewed it as a coastal yin and yang between the West Coast bounce and the East Coast ruggedness – of course made most infamous by the feud between Death Row and Bad Boy. As the genre became more popular, it was only a matter of time before stars were discovered in places other than Los Angeles or New York City. Def Jam’s foresight in acknowledging the South as a major contributor culminated in Simmons handing over creation of the newly formed Def Jam South division to Houston legend, Scarface.
Dedicated rap stations in video games
With the release of Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto series, not only was the world expansive – where a player could literally go and do as he/she pleased – but it also honed in on the minutia that makes everyday life unique. Specifically, they created a soundtrack for a game that relied heavily on the usage of automobiles. Not surprisingly, the Def Jam catalog has been extensively utilized throughout the evolution of the game – ranging from T La Rock’s “It’s Yours” in GTA IV to 2 Chainz’s appearance on “Ali Bomaye” in GTA V.
The platinum plaque
Many music insiders considered hip-hop to be a fad in the mid to late ’80s, so when Run-D.M.C.’s Raising Hell went three-times platinum and was followed up by the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill which sold over 9 million records, hip-hop had tangible proof that what was seen as an unproven commodity was in fact a financial goldmine.
The sneaker deal for artists
Whereas even casual sneaker fans are well aware of Kanye West’s high-profile departure from Nike and his subsequent landing at adidas along with the likes of Pharrell Williams and 2 Chainz, consider for a moment that without Run-D.M.C., the blending of music and endorsement deals probably wouldn’t be as lucrative. According to Business of Fashion, “Angelo Anastasio, a senior adidas employee, was attending a 1986 Madison Square Gardens performance of the Raising Hell tour when he was struck by the sight of tens of thousands of fans lifting their Adidas sneakers into the air, answering the call of those on stage. Inspired, Anastasio reportedly ran back to the adidas New York headquarters and within days, Run-D.M.C. became the first hip hop group to receive a million-dollar endorsement deal.”
It proved the “machine” doesn’t necessarily mean a successful career
For every successful label, there are always a handful of artists that taste success, but never get the full-course dinner. Most recently, they ushered Trinidad James into the world on the strength of “All Gold Everything.” Ultimately dropped two years after the single exploded – and without releasing a debut album – Def Jam is a reminder that even blue chip enterprises don’t hit every time. While having one-hit wonders isn’t something to necessarily to be proud of, it’s vital for novelty artists to come and go so that new talent can emerge.
Their “top 20” catalog is a classic
As part of the festivities surrounding their 30th anniversary, super executives Lyor Cohen and Kevin Liles curated a list of Def Jam’s best releases over the years. If ever proof was needed of the label’s impact, look no further than their catalog.