With the help of his parents’ funding, Rick Rubin founded Def Jam Recordings in his New York University dorm room back in 1983. After being introduced to Russell Simmons, who had already made a name for himself managing his brother and the rest of Run-D.M.C., the duo became partners to launch the iconic label, and the rest is history.
Def Jam has outlasted all of its counterparts it entered the game with, but it hasn’t always been easy getting to this point. The label has endured a multitude of changes at the helm over the years. Rubin left the label to start his own in 1988 after Lyor Cohen was appointed president of the operation, as the duo couldn’t overcome their creative differences.
Even with artists like EPMD, Public Enemy and LL Cool J blossoming, there would still be financial troubles that plagued the label, leading to a revolving door of leadership. Fast forward to the turn-of-the-century and JAY-Z would even experience a three-year stint as president of Def Jam from 2004-2007. Fast forward a decade later and Eminem’s longtime manager, Paul Rosenberg, was appointed president/ceo of the epochal label in 2017.
Throughout their run, Def Jam acquired such legendary talent to their roster as rappers Kanye West and Nas, with their talent pool also ranging to emerging youthful stars of today like Logic, Alessia Cara and Vince Staples. Let’s take a look at the timeline of major events that cemented Def Jam’s legacy in music over the course of the past four decades.
1983: Rick Rubin Creates Def Jam Recordings
The 20-year-old came up with the idea for a label while sitting in his Weinstein New York University dorm room. The Long Island native took a loan from his parents, and Def Jam Recordings began to take form. Rubin’s first act of business was to release a single from his punk-rock band, Hose.
1984: DJ Jazzy Jay Introduces Rubin to Russell Simmons
There are conflicting stories on who connected Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, but according to The Balance, DJ Jazzy Jay introduced the pair. The duo quickly became business partners, as Russell brought Rubin into the business world of hip-hop due to his experience already managing Run-D.M.C..
1984: Def Jam’s First Releases Include LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys
Def Jam made their first splash by releasing LL Cool J‘s “I Need a Beat,” which only cost the label $400 to make, according to Complex. The crossover appeal of the Beastie Boys‘ “Rock Hard” single the next year had the label on the right track. Those records proved to be the first to don a Def Jam logo and register a catalog number. That eventually paved a way towards a distribution deal with Columbia Records.
1985: LL Cool J’s Debut Project Marks Def Jam’s First Full-Length Album
With Columbia Records lending their support, the first project to receive a major push was LL Cool J‘s debut album, Radio. The classic LP saw Rubin’s masterful production on every track. Def Jam was now officially on the map.
1987: Def Jam Branches Out With Controversial Signings
The label made some risky moves to close out the decade. Def Jam didn’t want to be boxed into hip-hop, as they were proven right by signing metal band Slayer. (The band just recently announced a farewell tour, according to Stereogum.) Rubin then signed the politically charged Public Enemy, which consisted of Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Professor Griff, Khari Wynn, DJ Lord, and the S1W group, who went on to experience huge success.
1988: Rick Rubin vs. Lyor Cohen
Later in the decade, a power struggle at the label’s top began brewing. Russell Simmons brought in Lyor Cohen as president of Def Jam, while he was on the road managing Run-D.M.C.. The clash between Cohen and Rubin eventually led to the latter leaving the company, while going ahead and starting his own label, originally called Def American Records.
1992: Financial Troubles and the PolyGram Bailout
Even though Def Jam saw successful releases from ONYX and EPMD to begin the ’90s, the label found themselves in a financial crisis after spreading themselves too thin with separate endeavors under the same umbrella as Def Jam. Prior to the label going bankrupt, PolyGram Records purchased 50 percent of Def Jam, and took control of distribution to save the label.
1999: Russell Simmons Sells His Stake in Def Jam to Universal Music Group
Simmons kept his distance from the label, which was renamed Island Def Jam. Seagram’s Universal Music Group bought out Russell’s share for $100 million, according to the New York Post. Three years later, Russell penned in his autobiography, Life And Def, “My life has largely been about promoting the anger, style, aggression and attitude of urban America to a worldwide audience.”
2003: Murda Inc. Caught in Money Laundering Investigation
SImmons gifted Irv Gotti a label under Def Jam for his help with artists like DMX. Murda Inc. came under fire at the center of an illegal money-laundering scheme, where they allegedly profited off of drug trade. Def Jam dropped Murda Inc. from its distribution deal in 2005 amid legal controversy.
2004: JAY-Z Appointed president of Def Jam
Infamous label executive L.A. Reid looked to lure JAY-Z to Def Jam, as just about everyone sought his signature on the dotted line to join their label. The Brooklyn native negotiated a deal that made him the president of Def Jam from 2004 through 2007, where his contract was not renewed.
2011: Kanye West Announces G.O.O.D. Music Distribution Deal With Def Jam
West’s G.O.O.D. Music (Getting Out Our Dreams) label received their first major distribution agreement with Def Jam back in June of 2011. The first project released through Def Jam distribution on the label was Big Sean‘s major debut, Finally Famous.
2012: Joie Manda Becomes First Def Jam President Since JAY-Z
Joie Manda jumped from Warner Brothers executive to Def Jam president during March 2012. Things went south quickly and Joie joined Interscope Records just a year later. Speaking on Complex‘s The Blueprint, Manda put it, “They were calling me the president of Def Jam, but it didn’t feel like I was the president of Def Jam.”
2018: Paul Rosenberg Takes Over as Def Jam President/CEO
In 2017, the label announced that Eminem‘s longtime manager, Paul Rosenberg, would handle duties as Def Jam Recordings president/ceo starting at the top of the new year. The Shady Records co-founder also brought former Complex chief creative officer, Noah Callahan-Bever, to serve under him in an evp role at Def Jam.