The forces behind Def Jam Records and, consequently, Rizzoli’s new tribute to the iconic rap music label Def Jam Recordings, have taken to saying this was the last true record label. This is, in part, both correct and incorrect.
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Rick Rubin started Def Jam with an open-field approach, where anything could fill that space provided it was something that was going to punch his joy button. That meant anything and everything was up for grabs, submitting a range from one of rap’s first pop-crossover superstars L.L. Cool J., to punk-cum-rap color barrier breakers the Beastie Boys, to one of the Big Four of thrash metal Slayer. Rubin knew the underground. He started the label during his college years and was himself a punk rocker, so he must have had a sense of this great untapped vein in the musical strata.
It wasn’t until shortly thereafter where Rubin was introduced to an impresario that had that rare combination of business savvy and street intellect, Russell Simmons. His brother, Joseph “Run” Simmons was a member of the seminal rap collective Run D.M.C., and was already gauging the potential in the marketplace. Run D.M.C.’s “King of Rock,” their choice of eclectic samples for beats, and their later collaboration with Aerosmith on the “Walk This Way” redux confirmed all suspicions that worlds were going to collide. It was just a matter of who would claim the rights first. In Rubin, Simmons must have seen that collision directly.
From a sense of identity, it is entirely true that Def Jam was the last great record label. There was a time when a buyer had a sense of confidence in what a label would offer. The gatekeepers inside, the A&R men, and the agents all had a specific feel for what was right for their company and what was not. They were not judging quality so much, as the stringent pathways to get to the labels tended to weed much of that out already. They were looking for a sense of fit, and do you work in this family or don’t you?
Capitol Records had a pioneering spirit about it, being major supporters of innovation such as Les Paul’s first multitrack recordings with Mary Ford. Here you had symphonies of guitar at many different rates of speed all playing in unison and bricks of Ford’s harmonies both sped up and slowed down. It grabbed attention, but to the first ears hearing it, it must have sounded like Martian music. Capitol also was home to The Beatles, Pink Floyd and The Beach Boys (even though, as legend has it, the label was less enthusiastic about Brian Wilson’s musical growth, seeing their surf pop goldmine eroding).
Columbia was known for two things: beautiful voices and complex ideas. The beautiful voices part was fostered by legendary vocal bandleader and A&R man Mitch Miller. His agenda was a precise one in that his vocalists had to shine, and so under his watch the label hosted Doris Day, Johnny Mathis and Tony Bennett. With a burgeoning generation of restless singer-songwriters coming on, the gateway of folk-rockers Simon and Garfunkel and stark pseudo-traditionalism from Bob Dylan managed to sneak in and take hold.
And so it was with record labels and, with that in mind, Def Jam truly was the last great label. You knew sort of what you were getting with a Def Jam recording, and the overseers of the label made absolutely sure of that. If it didn’t turn them on, it didn’t get the imprint.
Def Jam was purchased by Universal Music, one of the biggest conglomerates in the industry, in the late ’90s and merged with Island Records, itself a pillar of the industry thanks to the singular vision of its founder Chris Blackwell. So you had Def Jam’s urban pop, hip hop and rap blending with Island’s back catalogue of reggae, pop and more modern rock from the likes of U2. Collapsing their hard rock imprint Mercury into this, Universal “signed” Bon Jovi as an Island Def Jam artist, who seemed to be neither/nor, and the concept of the record label as unique identity was diluted. This is not necessarily a knock against Bon Jovi so much as a clear indicator that the familial aspect of such organizations was over, and an up-for-grabs attitude was in full swing now.
Def Jam is still with us and, if you look at the charts, still has a solid presence, but it is somehow not the same. None of the labels are. And what’s more, the structure of the label as a foundation no longer exists; this is aside from the distribution freedom the Internet provides. Every artist wants their boutique label now, the sign they hang above the door, like a vanity plate for their sports car, rendering the concept meaningless if, in fact, that concept was to provide a shelter for many like-minded artists. The label has become little more than a mailbox outside the door of one occupant and, with these examples in mind, you can see why Def Jam is and is not the last great record label. There are tons of them out there now, but what does it mean?
What does that have to do with this book? Perhaps very little, except to introduce what is arguably a labor of love for the book’s creators, about a labor of love from its subjects. Sized approximately 12 inches by 12 inches, like a vinyl record, the heft of it is enough to smash a car windshield. It is filled with the story of the label, testimonies and recollections from the artists and participants, as well as acolytes who express their admiration of what Def Jam, alongside Sugar Hill and Priority, meant for the explosion of hip hop and rap on the pop culture landscape. There are tons of pictures, printed beautifully as only Rizzoli can, but there is something missing.
I wish the book company had been able to contract with Def Jam to include a CD of the highlights so lovingly detailed in the book. As a coffee table archive, it is plain gorgeous and awesome in its size, but it is a book about music. Without the music to go with it, it has the uncomfortable equivalent of watching TV with the sound turned off, and if there was something you never did with a Def Jam record, it was turn the sound down.
Dw. Dunphy is a writer/musician/artist hailing from Red Bank, N.J. He is an editor for the pop culture website Popdose as well as regular contributor.