Public Enemy in 1987. Left to right: Professor Griff, Chuck D, Terminator X and Flavor Flav.
Public Enemy in 1987. Left to right: Professor Griff, Chuck D, Terminator X and Flavor Flav. David Corio/Redferns
Frannie Kelley, NPR Music Def Jam's recent 25th-anniversary box set compiles some of the most amazing music released in my lifetime: Gorgeous, powerful and surprising, its songs still sound fresh. How did they even do that? I lived, for exactly one semester, in the same NYU dorm Rick Rubin did when he and Russell Simmons started Def Jam. Every day, I walked past the same guard station where Rubin once picked up demo tapes sent in by rap hopefuls after they heard T La Rock's "It's Yours" — including LL Cool J. My roommate had a DMX poster taped up on her side of the painted cinderblock walls; we would drink rum-and-Cokes with the most astonishing ratio of rum to Coke, and sing "Hard Knock Life" (Jay-Z's song, not the one from Annie). Needless to say, during that time, I did not create anything that would later be sold for $100 million. I did not sign Public Enemy.
Thankfully, Rubin and Simmons — and Jazzy Jay, Lyor Cohen, LA Reid, Jay-Z and all others who had a hand in the creation and continued success of the label — are very good at finding, producing, marketing and generally getting excellent music into the world. Just listen to these songs.