“Def Jam forever,” LL Cool J declared while hosting the 56th annual Grammy Awards in January, reminding the audience that 2014 marked the 30th anniversary of Def Jam Recordings.
It was fitting that the hip-hop icon kicked off the seminal label’s anniversary campaign. One of the first two singles to sport a Def Jam catalog number in 1984 was “I Need a Beat” by 16-year-old James Todd Smith, better-known by the acronym of his stage name, Ladies Love Cool James.
The second single — and equally significant game-changer — was “Rock Hard” by rap trio the Beastie Boys.
“No matter what else I ever do,” LL said at the Grammys, “I will always be proud to have stood with [Def Jam founders] Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin and together started a major musical and cultural revolution.”
That revolution is still going strong 30 years later.
With LL Cool J, Slick Rick, Beastie Boys and Public Enemy pioneering the way, Def Jam cemented its fresh, cutting-edge reputation in the years that followed with acts like Jay Z, DMX, Method Man & Redman, The Roots, Ludacris, Jeezy, Rick Ross, Kanye West and Rihanna.
Now the global brand — also home to pop superstars Justin Bieber and Mariah Carey — is breaking out a new roster of talent. Leading the charge are rising stars Iggy Azalea, Jhene Aiko, Frank Ocean, YG, 2 Chainz and August Alsina.
Throughout the history of pop music, there are labels that define a certain musical and cultural sensibility. Like Motown, A&M and other indie upstarts before and since, artistic freedom was the rallying cry when Rubin launched Def Jam from his New York University dorm room in 1984.
So was bucking the status quo.
Beyond the commercial top 40 and R&B heard on the radio, the streets were humming with the inventive strains of rock, punk and an emerging, beat-driven style dubbed “hip-hop.”
“It wasn’t genius,” says Simmons, a savvy manager and promoter who joined forces with production guru Rubin. “It’s just that we loved b-boy music.
“All we wanted was the freedom to give underserved artists a real chance to build a career, to build a label that respected the culture,” recalls Simmons. “And we were lucky — it got done.”
Adds Rubin: “Def Jam was always about culture, art and lifestyle. Those roots allowed it to endure in an unusual way for a record company.” After landing a distribution deal with CBS Records, Def Jam surprised mainstream gatekeepers in 1986 when the label’s second album, Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill, became the first rap album to hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
Expansions into R&B (Oran “Juice” Jones) and metal (Slayer) followed, as did hit albums by LL Cool J, Public Enemy and EPMD. By 1988 both Rubin and the Beastie Boys had left the label. The new president was Lyor Cohen, who had worked with Simmons at Rush Management.
PolyGram’s 1994 purchase of Sony’s 50 percent stake in Def Jam ushered in another wave of success by way of such artists as Warren G (through Chris Lighty’s Violator Records), Method Man, Slick Rick and Foxy Brown. Three years later, Def Jam signed a distribution deal with another upstart, Roc-A-Fella Records, co-founded by soon-to-be rap superstar Jay Z. Several years later as president of Def Jam, Jay Z added Rihanna and Ne-Yo to the label’s long list of success stories.
A series of corporate ownership changes beginning in 1998 with Seagram’s purchase of PolyGram led to Def Jam’s merger with fellow Universal label Island Records in 1999. Cohen stayed on as president; Simmons exited. Down the road, other executives assumed the helm.
But one constant remained: Def Jam’s street sensibility. Hits by Montell Jordan, DMX, Jay Z and others reinforced the label’s dominance and pop culture impact, as did additional strategic partnerships with such imprints as Ludacris’ Disturbing Tha Peace and West’s G.O.O.D. Music.
This past April, another corporate restructuring positioned Def Jam right where it started: a stand-alone label now helmed by president and CEO Steve Bartels.
The core branding element is still cutting edge as Def Jam expands from hip-hop and R&B into EDM with Afrojack and its newest signing, Axwell & Ingrosso.
Such moves, says Bartels, are “an opportunity for us to be boutique-y and cool — very much how Russell and Rick envisioned the company.”
The same vision is shared by Dion “No I.D.” Wilson, Def Jam executive vp/ co-head of A&R. His Def Jam imprint ARTium recently scored its first No. 1 on Billboard‘s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart with Aiko’s ethereal Souled Out.
“Def Jam may be a major label now,” says Wilson, “but we still have Rick and Russell’s ‘Hey, let’s get hot and make people respect what we do’ indie attitude. “Now it’s our time to carry the torch.”