Feature

Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label by Bill Adler and Dan Charnas

Like all great companies, there is great story behind Def Jam: the demo that James Todd Smith sent to Rick Rubin at his New York University dorm room almost didn't get opened.

(Rizzoli, $60)

It was a seminal moment in hip-hop that almost didn’t happen, said Ted Mann in TheAtlantic​.com. “When James Todd Smith’s home-recorded demo tape arrived at Rick Rubin’s New York University dorm room, Rubin didn’t even listen to it at first.” Smith, who had been writing rhymes since he was 12, had sent the cassette to a fledgling label called Def Jam. Fortunately, a friend of Rubin’s rescued the demo from the mail pile, and soon the Kangol-hat-wearing teenager was working in the studio with Rubin and label co-founder Russell Simmons. Thus was born the million-selling rapper LL Cool J, as well as a juggernaut of a recording label whose vision of mid-1980s New York “spawned a global culture.”

Def Jam “fundamentally altered the sound of pop music,” said Tim Marchman in The Wall Street Journal. Artists like LL Cool J and Public Enemy, and later Jay-Z, were marketed as if they represented the inner city’s indigenous soundtrack. But the text of this coffee-table history tells a somewhat different story: that because Rubin and Simmons worked from the beginning to wed rap to the squall of punk and metal, they were repeating a trick pioneered by two other great labels—Sun Records and Motown. “The myth of Def Jam is that it found something in the streets of New York and presented it to the world. The more interesting truth is that Def Jam invented it.”

Declaring Def Jam to be “hip-hop’s equivalent of Motown doesn’t quite do justice to the company’s achievements,” said Gareth Grundy in the London Guardian. Besides being “the most significant” label to export hip-hop to the world, Def Jam could fairly be credited with helping elect America’s first black president. In 2008, deflecting criticism from Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama famously pretended to brush specks of dust from the shoulders of his suit. A reference to a 2004 Jay-Z hit, the gesture was a signal to a broad generation influenced by Def Jam artists that the potential leader of the free world “spoke their language.”

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