In reuniting Def Jam founders Rick Rubin, Russell Simmons and George Drakoulias (missing from Billboard’s shoot was Lyor Cohen, who was traveling abroad) — you can easily imagine the mile-a-minute conversations about music that took place in a New York University dorm room on many a night in 1983.
“There were no goals,” says Rubin today. “When we were in it, it wasn’t clear that there was a revolution going on. But looking back, the whole world of music changed.”
Simmons recalls a sort of blissful naivete. “We didn’t know how to do anything the wrong way, much less the right way. We were excited about the records we had in front of us. We didn’t have to worry about the future.”
Indeed, thanks to out-of-the-gate successes by LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys, the boutique label was able to secure a partnership with Columbia that would bring it into the major leagues. A decade later, Universal bought in. Today its roster includes Kanye West, Rihanna and Justin Bieber.
Is there a through line from Def Jam then to now? “There’s a consistency in the poetry, which is amazing,” says Simmons. “And it’s still giving voice to underserved communities. Whether it’s ‘F— the Police’ or ‘Jesus Walks,’ it’s the same conditions and the same questions.”
?THEN: Officially, the “intern” at Def Jam. “It was the greatest time — to be 21 or 22 in New York running with the Beastie Boys… We were the princes of the city.”
NOW: An in-demand music supervisor based in Los Angeles whose credits include The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and the Hangover series.
THEN: Co-founder/CEO; later named chairman. “We were making records we loved and building careers we believed in — the way we saw fit.”
NOW: The founder of Rush Communications and a devout vegan, Simmons opened Tantris, a wellness center based upon the concepts of yogic science, in the same building as West Hollywood’s Soho House.
THEN: Co-founder. With an ear for hip-hop and metal, he launched Def Jam while in college, teaming with Simmons and Cohen for their then-limited industry know-how.
NOW: The Grammy-winning producer (Adele, Metallica, Dixie Chicks) is rehabbing Malibu’s Shangri-La Studios, once owned by Bob Dylan.