Rick Rubin, Russell Simmons: Def Jam's First 25 Years Host Audie Cornish speaks with Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin about the early days of their label, one of the most important in hip-hop.

Rick Rubin, Russell Simmons: Def Jam's First 25 Years

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Behind every great pop music genre, there is a record label that's launched its stars. Blue Note pushed Theolonius Monk and Art Blakey into the mainstream. Sun Records brought us Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. Motown had its glittering roster of the Supremes, Stevie Wonder and more. For hip-hop music, in the early 1980s, that label was Def Jam. A new book tries to capture that history in photos, interviews and essays. It's called "Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 years of the Last Great Record Label." And depending on your tastes, now might be a good moment turn the volume on your radio down - or up - because this story is about to get loud.


L.L. COOL J: (Singing) My radio, believe me, I like it loud, I'm the man with the box that can rock the crowd. Walking down the street to the hard-core beat, while my JVC vibrates the concrete. I'm sorry if you can't understand, but I need a radio inside my hands. Don't mean to offend other citizens, but I kick my volume way past 10...

CORNISH: That's LL Cool J's song "I Can't Live Without My Radio." He was just 17 when he became one of the first artists signed to the label. The guys who founded the Def Jam record label in 1984 weren't much older. There was Rick Rubin, a 21-year-old NYU art school student from Long Island making music in his dorm room.

RICK RUBIN: I was a bit of an oddity in the early days of hip-hop because at the time everybody was black, so nobody was expecting me to be white.

CORNISH: And then Russell Simmons, a 27-year-old from Queens. He was already making a name for himself in the downtown scene with his brother's rap group, Run DMC.

RUSSELL SIMMONS: I was a promoter, club promoter - that was so much excitement and fun and inspiring and it kept me going, you know, just the idea to promote the shows and eventually to manage and produce the artists.

CORNISH: We spoke with each of them separately about the early days of the Def Jam record label. First, Russell Simmons spoke with us from the NPR studio in New York. And later Rick Rubin spoke to us from his personal studio in Malibu.

RUBIN: Russell and I met at a party. It was in a loft somewhere on the west side in the teens - I can't remember exactly. But I remember being really excited when I met him because as a fan of hip-hop, he had already, you know, his name was already on a lot of the rap records that came out - Kurtis Blow and Run DMC. And I already had a rap record out called "It's Yours."


T LA ROCK: (Singing) Commentating, illustrating, description giving...

SIMMONS: And it was that record - I remember that was commentating, illustrating, description giving, adjective expert, analyzing, surmising musical myth seeking people of the universe, this is yours. And I heard that on the radio, I flipped.


T LA ROCK: (Singing) ...giving, adjective expert, analyzing, surmising musical myth seeking people of the universe, this is yours.

RUBIN: And when I met Russell, it turns out that "It's Yours" was his favorite record, which was surprise to me.


T LA ROCK: (Singing) Do you like it? (Yeah) Do you want it? (Yeah) If you had it, would you flaunt it? (Hell, yeah) Well, it's yours...

CORNISH: At the time you were a student at NYU, and when did you finally say I want my own label? And when did that end up being a partnership with Russell Simmons?

RUBIN: Well, I got a demo tape of an artist named Ladies Love Cool J, who was 16 years old. And I was listening to demos that were coming into the dorm room. And Adam Horowitz from the Beastie Boys played me LL Cool J and we both laughed and loved it.

CORNISH: Why did you laugh? What about the music?

RUBIN: It was funny. It was funny. I don't even remember if there was music. I think he might have been a cappella rhyming. He was just really, you know, you could hear the youth in his voice but he was really yelling and using, you know, these big words and it was just interesting. We hadn't heard anything like it really, and it was good. So, we called him and he came and visited the dorm room and we made his first single. It was called "I Need A Beat." And we recorded "I Need A Beat."


RUBIN: And then I brought it over to Russell to play for him and he said, well, we could give it to one of the independent labels that he dealt with. And I said, well, why don't we do it ourselves?

SIMMONS: Well, I had a lot of experience and I was going start a company called Rush Records.

RUBIN: He didn't want to do it at first, and I said I'll make the records and I'll do all the work and you be my partner.

SIMMONS: And the more I got to know Rick, the more I felt that my efforts should go into the partnership and not into a separate company. 'Cause I already had Run DMC and Whodini and Jimmy Spice and Kurtis Blow and The Village Four. I was managing a lot of acts. I had a lot.

RUBIN: I knew that if he was involved, it was a real label, whereas if I was doing it myself, it was a kid in a college dorm.

SIMMONS: The first record, "I Need A Beat," sold so well. And it was not the sales of the records, it was the sound of the records that inspired me to be his partner. He was a great producer, I thought we could do a lot together.

CORNISH: What was it like trying to negotiate with these big labels who don't really understand the music?

SIMMONS: Well, you know, I think that they bought us because we were different, in all fairness to them. I mean, it was a moment that the R and B guys didn't like me very much. When we tried to sell "I Need A Beat," we were sitting with a lot of senior executives at Warner and the record was on the radio. And the chairman at the company brought me into the room full of A and R directors and they bowed their heads and they listened intently, like something was going to jump out the record and grab them...


SIMMONS: ...you know, some melody. I mean, what are you looking for? But it was a weird scene for us 'cause, like, imagine all these guys in these suits and ties and they're bend their head down...

CORNISH: Right, 'cause it's one thing in a club...

SIMMONS: ...they're listening to "I Need A Beat" by LL Cool J. They're not bobbing their heads either. They're just listening.


SIMMONS: I knew that I didn't belong in that room. And then we left and no one ever called us again.

CORNISH: Ironically, they LL Cool J ended up having first top 40 rap ballad with "I Need Love." So, you know, probably all their daughters ended up listening to that music later on.

SIMMONS: They got forced to listen to it too when they turned the radio on.


CORNISH: What do you perceive was the common theme between Def Jam artists? How could you know who was a Def Jam artist?

SIMMONS: Well, early on there was a fingerprint, you know, not really subscribing to any mainstream kind of sounds or philosophies, to try to brand the acts and letting them dress the way it made sense. I mean, taking what was honest from them and making it theatrical is real.

CORNISH: So, like the Beastie Boys is probably a good example of that.

SIMMONS: Yeah, like, they came and they were like they wanted to be rappers so they wore red shiny sweat suits. So, I thought that was, you know, a little nutty for them. And since they had such an original sound, original ideas, you know, they should dress, you know, from their heart. And I think they did eventually. And I think it's important that they did.


RUBIN: I didn't even think the Beastie Boys album had come out yet, and Russell got a call from Freddie DeMann, who was Madonna's manager. And they called him for The Fat Boys, who he didn't represent. So, Russell said, The Fat Boys aren't available and the act that you want is the Beastie Boys. And I'm there in the room with him and I'm shaking my head, no. Like, this is terrible idea. And he made that happen. And I was just thinking we weren't ready for that. You know, it was like we were a baby band and she's, you know, this was Madonna's first arena tour, you know?


RUBIN: And it ended up being a really, a wild tour and an interesting launch to the Beastie Boys career, like really memorable.

CORNISH: Because of the audience? 'Cause I'm imagining these are audiences full of kids.

RUBIN: Yeah, it was so, it was so inappropriate. It was little kids. It was like 14-year-old girls with their parents and the Beastie Boys coming out and just cursing. And it was so offensive. And we really played up the offensive part, not necessarily because of the audience, just because that's what the Beastie Boys was. It had a punk rock/pro wrestling attitude of ridiculous hip-hop boasting and aggression.



CORNISH: Rick, why do you think that Def Jam mattered so much to rap in those early days? What do you think that you guys accomplished?

RUBIN: I think it was really a label by and for the hip-hop community. In making it, we were really trying to make something just for ourselves, you know, something that we would love. And the idea of anybody else liking it just seemed it wasn't - didn't seem realistic. It was a real surprise that it ended up sort of breaking out and affecting people all over the place. It's strange.


SIMMONS: Authenticity sold Def Jam - and honesty. And I think that that's what made rap so - have such a stable footprint in culture, that it's so honest. You know, like, that's what poets have done throughout the ages though, right? Tell you what you're thinking? And sometimes, you know, put a capsule around where you live and the time that you're experiencing. So, you look back and say, damn, they told us what we was doing.


CORNISH: To read more from Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin and to hear a special mix of songs from Def Jam's catalog, visit NPRMusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

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