Nowadays Def Jam Recordings is owned by Universal Music Group, but it started off as the labour of love of its co-founders, producer and heavy metal fan, Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, whose brother was in hip-hop band, Run DMC.
"At that time, hip-hop wasn’t mainstream, it was still the product of Harlem, the product of the South Bronx, it had yet to take over the world."
In the latest in his occasional series on the history of record labels, Jim Carroll joined Seán Rocks to talk about Def Jam Records. The first act Rubin and Simmons signed for their new label was Ladies Love Cool James, or LL Cool J, to you and me. LL Cool J was, at the time, a high school student in New York who sent a demo tape to what he thought was a legitimate record label, but what was, effectively, a start-up label that Rubin operated out of his student dorm room in Greenwich Village.
The next act signed to the nascent label was a trio for whom Rubin occasionally DJed. The Beastie Boys came from a hardcore punk rock background and blended that with hip-hop on their début album, Licensed to Ill in 1986. That record became the first rap album to get to number one on the Billboard charts and was the best-selling rap album of the decade.
"It was exciting. It was a very, very exciting sound."
Despite the success of Licensed to Ill, Rick Rubin left Def Jam Recordings in 1988, as he felt he’d done his time with Def Jam and Los Angeles was calling. (He went on to found American Recordings and produced the majority of Johnny Cash’s late-career output.) Russell Simmons stayed with the label for another 10 years or so, until he got an offer he couldn’t refuse from Universal Music Group.
"Chuck D had a vision for a group which was going to be very black, very, very strong, but would sound like nothing else around."
Before he went west however, Rick Rubin signed Public Enemy to Def Jam, and that band’s incendiary albums It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet were huge critical and commercial successes.
Although now part of Universal Music Group and no longer independent, Def Jam still boasts some pretty impressive acts such as Rihanna, Kanye West and Nas.