A recipe that includes a nondescript New York University dorm room, a heavyset Jewish kid from Long Island and a street-wise black guy from Queens seems like an unlikely one to cook up musical history.
But when Def Jam Records came on the scene a quarter of a century ago, it did just that and more.
What began as a boutique indie label quickly caught the ear of a generation and elevated a style of music that had existed primarily in the clubs and block parties of the city boroughs into a thriving new genre.
“Def Jam meant to the music industry as much as Stax, Atlantic and Motown meant to their respective music,” said rapper Chuck D, whose group Public Enemy is one of the most famous to appear on the label. “It started from the same humble beginnings that all of those other companies started, very small, but very much passionate about the music.”
When Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons joined forces to co-found the label, their business savvy — combined with their love of rap — resulted in a company that, despite changes in the music business and the label itself, retains a notable name.
Max Gousse, now an executive with the Island Def Jam Music Group, was a young man in the New York borough of Queens when he first fell in love with the tunes of Def Jam artists such as LL Cool J, Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys.
“Def Jam was the label that you kind of grew up with, so it was definitely a goal of mine to work here,” Gousse said.
What is now one of the largest labels in the world was initially a two-man operation featuring the forefathers, Rubin and Simmons.
According to the 2005 book “Def Jam, Inc.: Russell Simmons, Rick Rubin and the Extraordinary Story of the World’s Most Influential Hip-Hop Label” by Stacy Gueraseva, Rubin was a film and video major at New York University in 1982 when he fell in love with rap music.
After parlaying the connections he made at clubs into party promotion, Rubin found success producing T La Rock and DJ Jazzy Jay’s single “It’s Yours.”
His path soon crossed that of Simmons, himself a successful party promoter with an ear for a hit. Rubin was impressed.
“Hip-hop was a tiny little cottage industry, and Russell [Simmons] was the center of the hip-hop world,” Rubin said during the 2009 VH1 Hip Hop Honors program that celebrated the label’s anniversary. “And there was no one else even in that business really except Russell. He was it.”
Their first release was LL Cool J’s “I Need a Beat” after the teen mailed his demo to Rubin’s dorm room.
The company soon graduated to a 600-square-foot former dance studio on Manhattan’s East 19th Street (Simmons and future label executive Lyor Cohen shared an apartment next door).
Despite the new address, the company was anything but conventional. “Def Jam, Inc.” author Gueraseva describes the many meetings Rubin held in his SoHo apartment “amid its clutter of paperwork, porn magazines, and records” as well as the occasional scurrying rat.
Before long, mainstream America would become aware of Def Jam, partially thanks to the crossover success of the rap group Run-D.M.C. (which included Simmons’ younger brother Joseph), whose collaboration with the rock group Aerosmith, “Walk This Way,” received heavy rotation on MTV.
Now, the list of artists that can claim Def Jam in their lineage is vast.
“Def Jam is the Motown Records of hip-hop, and that is without question,” said writer and pop culture expert Kevin Powell. “You really can’t talk about a significant chapter in hip-hop history over the last 25 years without talking about Def Jam.”
The company didn’t just stop with one genre.
Def Jam was purchased by the Universal Music Group in 2000 and was merged with Island Records to form Island Def Jam Music Group.
R&B singers, including Ne-Yo and Chrisette Michele, have joined pop artists such as Duffy and rockers such as Fall Out Boy to extend the label’s reach even further.
“I think the label attempts to reflect the experiences the youth culture is going through,” executive Gousse said. “I think that as long as we mirror what’s happening that the label will continue to be relevant.”
And for hip-hop artists, Def Jam remains iconic.
“I think Def Jam has done a whole lot for hip-hop, for music in general. It’s just given us a face of hip-hop for us to want to become a part of something,” rapper Snoop Dogg said. “Even the rappers from the west[ern U.S.] wanted to be a part of Def Jam. Def Jam was like the Mecca of hip-hop.”
Not that it has all been smooth sailing.
Chuck D said he remembers feeling like “it was us against the world” because initially, so many looked down on hip-hop.
“We figured that in order for the genre to survive, we weren’t just fighting for ourselves,” he said. “We were fighting for the respect for the whole art form.”
That family atmosphere is gone now, Chuck D said.
The rapper lamented that he doesn’t think the current executives grasp or respect the very strong place hip-hop holds in the hearts of the music-loving public.
“I don’t think the people that run Def Jam today have a clue,” Chuck D said, adding that he floated his name as a replacement after rapper and former Def Jam President Jay-Z left in 2007. “I think that the brand and the name stand up because it’s been around for a long time, but I don’t think the folks at Universal have a clue.”
Rubin and Simmons have moved on to continue their success, the former as a celebrated producer (and sometime record exec) and the latter as an entrepreneur whose business interests have included a thriving clothing empire, Phat Farm.
Yet Def Jam remains.
Speaking during the 2009 VH1 Hip Hop Honors, Island Def Jam Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Antonio “L.A.” Reid said he believes that it will continue to live on for years to come.
“When Def Jam was founded, it was founded upon an amazing idea,” he said. “And it’s an amazing idea that’s bigger than all of its founders, bigger than all of its presidents, bigger than all of its chairmen and bigger than all of its artists. My guess is that it will be around a lot longer than any of us.”