When Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin joined forces 25 years ago to create Def Jam Records, there wasn’t a hip-hop label like theirs, and there will probably never be another as innovative or impactful. The storied history of Def Jam has been thoroughly recounted in the newly released book Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label.
On Friday (October 14th), Simmons and the elusive Rubin spoke at the New York Public Library in front of hundreds about the history covered in the book. Before moderator Paul Holdengraber brought the duo to the stage, he read their self-written seven-word introductions. “Def Jam showed me power of faith,” were the words selected by Simmons who rocked a Yankee’s cap, red hoodie, black t-shirt and jeans. Rubin’s self-description stated, “Rick Rubin is a fan of music.”
After all were seated, Holdengraber informed the audience that Rubin, dressed in a black t-shirt, shorts and bare feet, requested everyone in the room close their eyes for three minutes to focus on their breathing and meditate before the conversation got started. The exercise may seem strange, but it must have been effective, because there was a lot of knowledge, wisdom and good vibes in the room.
When Def Jam was created, Rubin and Simmons were not doing it for the money, and they had no idea that their little label founded in Rubin’s New York University dorm room would influence a culture. “I’m surprised it ended up being out jobs,” said Rubin.
Their shared goal for the label was to take the hip-hop that was previously only heard in the clubs and put it on wax to “document what hip-hop was like,” Rubin explained. He also just wanted to “help artists make the best music they possibly could.” Simmons observed about Rubin, “He gave people room to breath.”
Rick Rubin was in a punk rock band before Def Jam was launched, and Russell Simmons described his longtime business partner simply, by calling him a “genius.” Rubin wasn’t from the streets, and was first exposed to hip-hop at Manhattan nightclub Negril. But his upbringing didn’t prevent Rubin from getting “swept up” in the culture during its early days.
When talking about Rubin’s process as a producer of some of hip-hop’s most successful early recordings, Simmons recalled, “he made them the way no one could.”
Rubin saw the parallels in rock and hip-hop, and he successfully merged the two genres with “Fight For Your Right (To Party)” by the Beastie Boys and Run-DMC’s groundbreaking collaboration with Aerosmith, “Walk This Way.” Rubin explained his strategy back then and said, “Walk This Way” had an “actual purpose. I wanted to find a song to help bridge the gap” since rock and hip-hop weren’t that different. Public Enemy even seemed to draw inspiration from legendary punk rockers the Clash.
As a Black man working with a White man, Simmons recognized their obvious and latent differences, but described them as “inspiring.” Rubin’s lighter skin didn’t prevent him from connecting with pro-Black material, and he had a deeply emotional reaction to Public Enemy’s pivotal It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. He remembers tearing up and then crying after hearing it for the first time, because “it was so beautiful, so revolutionary, so strong.”
As a White man, Rubin recognized that some of the messages rapped by Public Enemy’s Chuck D weren’t always easy to hear because “it’s a lot of truth that’s hard to digest.” Nevertheless, Rubin consistently defended the group’s right to free speech.
Public Enemy had an important impact on hip-hop culture as a whole, and especially Black people. Simmons described the effect of the PE’s leader Chuck D and credits him for “taking the gold chains off people’s necks and putting on black medallions.” He adds, “It was a positive change.”
End Of An Era
Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin built Def Jam, so when they severed their business ties, many assumed it affected their friendship, but that wasn’t the case. The reason for their professional split was stemmed around the rapid growth of their business. Rubin remembered how they lacked infrastructure, which led to confusion and tension.
Simmons and Rubin may not be with Def Jam anymore, but they are forever linked to this legendary record label. Even though they are the unofficial faces of the company, they didn’t do it alone, and Simmons concluded the conversation by stating, “I went along for ride with a lot of talented people.”
If you want to read the full history of Def Jam, order Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label, which is co-authored by TheUrbanDaily‘s Editorial Director Dan Charnas.