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Label Spotlight: '80s Def Jam

by Mosi Reeves

Label Spotlight: '80s Def Jam

About this playlist

This year, Def Jam Recordings celebrates its 30th anniversary. The label isn't what it was when Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin formed the label out of Rubin's NYU dormitory room in 1984. Much like Motown and Stax, it has turned into just another famous brand absorbed by a multinational corporation, which, in this case, is Universal Music Group. Regardless, as the duo wrote in an open letter they posted this winter, "Def Jam remains the gold standard for taste, culture, and revolutionary thought," at least when it comes to music. This playlist is the first in a series charting the history of the iconic imprint.

Here's a bit of trivia: Before meeting Simmons, Rubin had already created the Def Jam logo for his joke-metal band Hose. (99 Records, an imprint best known for post-punk anthems by ESG and Liquid Liquid, distributed those now-rare 7-inches.) Simmons was an established force in the then-fledgling rap industry as the head of Rush Management, managing pioneering acts like Whodini and Run-D.M.C., the latter organized around his brother, Joseph "Run" Simmons. (Run-D.M.C. recorded for Def Jam, but changed their name to Hollis Crew due to contract obligations with Profile Records.)

When Rubin and Simmons joined forces, the former handled production and artist development, while Simmons handled the business end. Def Jam's first big 12-inch, T La Rock's "It's Yours," was a joint release with Arthur Baker's Partytime/Streetwise Records. In 1985, Def Jam scored its first distribution deal with Columbia Records and signed its first major stars, teenage Queens rapper LL Cool J and the Brooklyn punks the Beastie Boys. With LL Cool J's Radio and, especially, the Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill, Rubin became the first rap producer celebrated by the mainstream press, which gleefully noted his "whiteness" in a largely black art form. The cofounders' flair for self-promotion -- Simmons with his hyper-caffeinated talking style, Rubin with his imposingly massive beard and long hair -- only amplified their early success. Simmons even made a lousy but entertaining film based on his life story, 1985's Krush Groove. Rubin also produced two classic albums with L.A. metal band Slayer -- Reign in Blood and South of Heaven.

By the time Rubin left Def Jam in 1988 to form Def American (later called American Recordings for legal reasons), the label was the biggest in the rap game, with the possible exception of Jive Records (home to DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince and Kool Moe Dee). Some of its roster is barely remembered today. Save for Oran "Juice" Jones' "The Rain" and a few minor New Jack hits by Alyson Williams, it failed to impact R&B, which back then was still the dominant sound in black music. On "Bring the Noise," Chuck D of Public Enemy complained about how radio programmers were biased against a sound widely perceived as threatening and violent. "Radio stations I question their blackness/ They call themselves black but we'll see if they'll play this," rapped the self-proclaimed "Rightstarter." He need not have worried. Def Jam's best days were ahead.

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