The birth of Def Jam records is one of hip-hop’s most cherished tales: Run out of a ramshackle New York University dormitory by Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, the label’s first wave of releases by artists like T La Rock, the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J defined an a good portion of ’80s hip-hop. A quarter of a century later, the label still exists; though corporate ownership might have changed hands, this year’s biggest rap record, Jay-Z and Kanye West‘s Watch the Throne, is still stamped with the Def Jam logo.
Appointed the label’s first director of publicity in 1983, Bill Adler saw Def Jam’s growth from the front-lines. Now he’s co-authored an oral history of the label, Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years Of The Last Great Record Label (out this week) in tandem with one-time industry A&R guy Dan Charnas. So what sticks out? Adler recalls for us his five fondest moments from the label’s formative years.
1. The Beastie Boys Scandalize Madonna’s Madison Square Garden Show
Madonna‘s Madison Square Garden show in 1985 was one of the most punk experiences I’d heard about in my life. She’s on the Like A Virgin tour; she’s still pretty new but getting big so she’s selling out Madison Square Garden. It’s 15,000 little 12-year-old Madonna wannabes and they’re there with their parents and dressed up like Madonna and it’s just cute and it’s kids stuff. The Beasties come out and opened up the show and they were just foul-mouthed! They were overtly sexual! They didn’t dress up, they dressed down! They were swilling beer — it was really jarring for them to act that way in the context of a Madonna show. It was really kinda avant garde.
That’s who the Beasties were though, right through until 1987, these punk rocking rappers. I think the creation of the Beasties persona was a joint thing between them and Rick Rubin, and he was deeply influenced at the time by professional wrestling and it was very over the top with cartoon-style outrage and the costumes. That inspired Rick with the Beasties.
2. Rick Rubin’s Infamous NYU Dorm Room
Rick used his dorm room to run part of the label. It was a mess! It was just a guy’s dorm room and I don’t think the aesthetics of those change much over time. It was smallish, it was messy, it was cluttered with tons of records, turntables and speakers; there were stacks of porn and not much else! There probably was a bed, but I don’t remember seeing a bed! Most of the room was taken up by the DJ set-up — some turntables and some giant speakers.
By the time I met Rick, he and Adam Horowitz [Ad Rock from the Beastie Boys] had gotten very tight, so Adam spent a lot of time at his place. It was a very in and out place; you’d see LL Cool J coming by all the time. The vinyl records Def Jam put out weren’t produced there, but beats were made in that room on the varying machines Rick had and there were raps that were worked out there and a lot of pre-production done in that dorm room.
3. Working The NYC Party Circuit With Russell Simmons
One of the greatest nights of my life was hanging out with Russell Simmons at a club called Disco Fever in the Bronx. I was writing an article for People magazine about the rap scene, so I hung out with him doing research. We started out at Disco Fever at midnight and got in a car with a rapper called Sweet G, who had a song called “Games People Play” and whose day job was one of the MCs at Disco Fever. So we go pick up Sweet G and drive back downtown because one of the things Russell did at the time was promote records to DJs. So over five hours we went to Bonds, a great giant massive kind of disco in Times Square; we went to Bentleys, which was like a black bourgeoisie club; and Paradise Garage, a mostly underground gay club, and the Roxy. At about 4am we turned around and went back uptown to Disco Fever.
The thing about Russell is he was welcome wherever he went — “down by law” was the expression. So we’d walk right in the door, beyond the velvet room in every one of those clubs, and up to the DJ booth. Russell’s social range was remarkable; he’s someone who likes to be in the mix, and likes the party for sociological, cultural and business purposes. That’s what makes him enduringly fascinating for me.
4. LL Cool J Is Lean in Leather
A lot of demo tapes were sent to the dorm, but Rick didn’t listen to them; Adam Horowitz would though and he played LL Cool J’s demo for Rick. I think LL’s was the only demo tape that turned into anything — that was just a fact of life back then. LL was 16-years-old and ambitious as hell and if you put him behind a microphone he was titanic. Certainly he was a tremendous student of the records that made it onto the radio and one of them was “It’s Yours” by T La Rock, which was on Def Jam. The thing about rap is that, especially then, it required you to be a battler, to be tough, and as long as you could imagine yourself with a lot of power no one was going to check you on it physically. The question was could you hold your own on the mic? By that measure, LL was just as powerful as he thought he was.
But let me say this about LL: These days he’s a very built-up guy, very powerful looking, but back then he was lean and long. That was actually one of his rhymes: “I’m the Ladies Love, legend in leather, long and lean.” The lean part is the key part of that! He was six feet and no more than a buck 65. He was not ripped and he was not big!
5. Rap’s Great Culture Clash
The partnership between Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin wasn’t remarkable to them, but after a while some people thought, “What is this black kid doing with the white kid making music?” The idea that Rick Rubin, this young Jewish kid, could somehow be involved in rap music struck some people as outlandish! But it didn’t strike Rick as outlandish — he’s got big ears and he’s gonna listen to whatever moves him. It didn’t strike Russell as terribly outlandish; he was surprised when he met Rick and found out he wasn’t black, but he accepted that he had these skills and they had a common ground with the love of the music and the culture.
The Beastie Boys, too, were blessed to come into the game under the wing of Russell Simmons. They were a white rap group managed by a black man, but under Russell’s guidance they were going to be okay. In the summer of ’86 they broke into the rap game at the bottom of the bill on the Raising Hell tour: Run-DMC, Whodini, LL Cool J, then these white Beastie Boys. They’d run out, perform to an all black arena audience, and then scamper off. They ingratiated themselves by having dope beats and hitting it and quitting it.