Def Jam Founders Rick Rubin, Russell Simmons Bring the Noise -- and Some Meditation -- to New York Public Library Chat
Def Jam Founders Rick Rubin, Russell Simmons Bring the Noise -- and Some Meditation -- to New York Public Library Chat
Karen Elson
Def Jam founders Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons with moderator Paul Holdengraber at the New York Public Library Friday (Photo: Jori Klein)

Def Jam founders, hip-hop pioneers and music icons Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons made a rare public appearance together at the New York Public Library's Celeste Bartos Auditorium Friday night to discuss their new book, "Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label," an exhaustive retrospective detailing the label's storied history. But before moderator and NYPL Director of Public Programs Paul Holdengraber could begin, Rubin -- perched in a lotus position, fully bearded, shoeless and clad in shorts on a chilly October night -- asked the audience to sit in silence and meditate for a full three minutes.

It was more like five minutes and a little awkward, but perhaps not quite as much as witnessing Holdengraber's charming naivety of hip-hop music grow more and more apparent throughout the discussion. Simmons and Rubin had to interrupt their conversation about the genesis of hip-hop and the birth of Def Jam to describe scratching and beats to their moderator, who is clearly more fluent in Das Reigngold than Run-DMC (at one point, Holdengraber asked Simmons to explain the drum machine).

Def Jam
That famous meditation introduction ... (Photo: Lauretta Charlton)

However, the mood became lively when video and audio presentations of such Def Jam classics as Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" and the Beastie Boys' "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)" were played; the audience clapped and sang along. "It was easier to listen to the Beastie Boys [for the first time] than it was to meditate," joked Holdengraber.

And Rubin and Simmons gave the audience what they came for, serving up anecdotes about the bourgeoning hip-hop scene in New York in the late '70s and early '80s, starting Def Jam in Rubin's NYU dorm, and bringing a burgeoning art form fully into the mainstream. "It was counterculture to the extent that we wanted to do our own thing," said Simmons, elaborating on the notion of hip-hop started as an underground, reactionary movement against the mainstream.

Rubin, who was also listening to punk and heavy metal at the time, said he was grateful to be accepted by the predominately black community. While he's widely considered one of the greatest hip-hop producers of all time, he equated his role to that of a documentarian. "I didn't know anything. I came in not knowing anything about music," he said.

He also recounted his oft-told tale of calling Public Enemy's Chuck D every day for six months before he convinced him to sign with Def Jam. "I loved Chuck," he said. "I was willing to go on any trip he wanted to go on." He later said he wept the first time he heard "Fight the Power." "It changed what rap could be."

When the subject of the music industry's rocky recent years was introduced, Rubin remained positive. "It doesn't get in the way of making great art. Our job is to make art."

That sentiment was echoed by Def Jam Recordings co-author and former director of publicity Bill Adler, who told after the talk: "It's easier to make music than ever before, even as it may be harder to make money through music." (Other Def Jam vets/extended family members in the house included Warner Music's Lyor Cohen and Julie Greenwald, Kevin Liles, Andre Harrell and Steve Ralbovsky. Lou Reed was spied leaving early.)

And although Simmons and Rubin had a bumpy parting in the late 1980s -- the former took Def Jam to even greater heights before selling it and becoming one of the era's great musical entrepreneurs; the latter carried on with his Def American (later American) label while becoming one of the era's great producers and co-chairman of Columbia Records -- their camaraderie and mutual respect remains apparent: At one point Simmons called his former partner "maybe the greatest producer ever."

The last video clip of the evening was Johnny Cash's version of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" produced by Rubin. Holdengraber acknowledged Roseanne Cash in the audience who came in support of Rubin's work with her late father. In the spirit of collaborative efforts, conversation came to a close with Simmons promising to help Holdengraber organize a Def Jam Poetry style event at the Library. "Easy," Simmons said. "We can do that."

Def Jamn
(Rick Rubin Photo: Jori Klein)
Def Jam
Russell Simmons signing autographs after the talk (Photo: Jori Klein)
Def Jam
"Def Jam" co-author and former publicist Bill Adler with graphic artist Cey Adams (Photo: Lauretta Charlton)