Among those few were two visionaries: Russell Simmons, a young black man from Hollis, Queens, and Rick Rubin, a Jewish kid from Long Island. Though the two came from different backgrounds, their all-consuming passion for hip-hop brought them together. Soon they would revolutionize the music industry with their groundbreaking label, Def Jam Records.
Def Jam, Inc. traces the company’s incredible rise from the NYU dorm room of nineteen-year-old Rubin (where LL Cool J was discovered on a demo tape) to the powerhouse it is today; from financial struggles and scandals–including The Beastie Boys’s departure from the label and Rubin’s and Simmons’s eventual parting–to revealing anecdotes about artists like Slick Rick, Public Enemy, Foxy Brown, Jay-Z, and DMX.
Stacy Gueraseva, former editor in chief of Russell Simmons’s magazine, Oneworld, had access to the biggest players on the scene, and brings you real conversations and a behind-the-scenes look from a decade–and a company–that turned the music world upside down. She takes you back to New York in the ‘80s, when late-night spots such as Danceteria and Nell’s were burning with young, fresh rappers, and Simmons and Rubin had nothing but a hunch that they were on to something huge.
Far more than just a biography of the two men who made it happen, Def Jam, Inc. is a journey into the world of rap itself. Both an intriguing business history as well as a gritty narrative, here is the definitive book on Def Jam–a must read for any fan of hip-hop as well as all popular-culture junkies.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
When New York University freshman Adam Dubin arrived on campus in September of 1982 to move into his new home– Weinstein Hall, at 5 University Place, in Greenwich Village–the view that greeted him inside his tiny dorm room was uncanny. An industrial-size Cerwin-Vega speaker stretched across the top of the dressers; and both of the desks had been pushed together to hold two turntables, a mixer, and a drum machine. The bookcases were stacked with milk crates full of records; old magazines were scattered around the floor. The only light source was a bandanna-draped lamp by his roommate’s bed (he had unscrewed all the other lightbulbs in the room). It would turn out to be the roommate’s second year in room 712, and he made it clear that this was his territory. "I noticed nothing in the room that let you know that there was any schoolwork to be done," Dubin recalled. "No textbooks, notebooks, binders, loose-leafs. Nothing."
"Where am I supposed to do my work?" he asked, a bit surprised.
"Work’s to be done in the library," his new roommate announced in a commanding baritone. "I like to do deejaying."
He introduced himself as Rick Rubin, a sophomore film and video major, who, like Dubin and a large portion of NYU’s student body, came from Long Island. A heavyset kid with shoulder-length brown hair and tinted eyeglasses, Rubin had on black jeans and a black T-shirt, topped with a biker-style leather jacket–his dress code on most days of the week. His friends had nicknamed him Rick Rock because of his passion for music and his rebel persona–similar to the "menacing aura of a character in an urban psycho-killer film," as one reporter wrote, that Rubin would cultivate several years later as one of music’s most eccentric and visionary record producers.
Over the next few weeks, he took the time to show Dubin his world and seemed to enjoy playing the role of teacher. "It was important that I understood why he was gonna dominate the room," Dubin recalled. "He wanted to make sure that he didn’t have some medical student for a roommate who’s like, ‘I can’t study.’ "
"What do you like to listen to?" he asked Dubin during their first conversation. "Led Zeppelin," said Dubin. Rubin frowned. "Rolling Stones," Dubin continued, and Rubin frowned again. He said that he was more excited by current sounds like a hard-core band from San Francisco called Flipper, which specialized in a subgenre of punk known as art-noise and was putting out records on an independent label. Rubin loved Flipper and their 1981 EP Generic Flipper, inspired him. The band had slowed down the superfast pace of hardcore for a few songs, chopping up each note. Their album cover was minimalist with black type on a yellow background, and a bar code that spelled out the name of the band instead of the usual numbers. The tracks on both sides of the record were listed as "Active Ingredients," and also came with quirky instructions like "Caution: If bleeding persists, contact your physician." Generic Flipper was "what Hose was trying to sound like," says Dubin. Hose was Rick’s art-noise band, which he started during his freshman year at NYU.
One day Rubin showed his roommate an EP that he had recorded with Hose that past April of 1982. A fan of anything high-concept and cutting-edge, Rubin wanted Hose to be "more associated with an artistic movement," recalled Mike Espindle, a fellow student who would become the group’s second lead singer. Rubin designed the professional-looking jacket after one of his favorite artists, Piet Mondrian, and his famous Tableau II painting. Just like the thick black intersecting lines and the red, whites, and yellows that fill the rectangles in Mondrian’s painting, Rubin used bass and drums to create "a framework" for the song and "vocals and guitar to fill it with color," recalled Espindle. Along with original tracks there were covers, including Rick James’s "Super Freak," but slowed down to its barest minimum. In his presentation of the band, Rubin made every attempt to avoid convention, even identifying the band members on the back of the album as Joel Horne, "Bash" (as in bass); Rick Rosen, "Truth" (vocals); and Rick Rubin, "Screech" (guitar). The black-and-yellow sticker on the EP advised, "This LP is to be played loud at 3311/3 RPMs."
The remarkable thing about the group was not its music, but how far Rubin had taken his passion. He didn’t just record a demo and pass it around to friends, like most kids his age did; he actually finagled a distribution deal with the independent label 99 Records, owned by producer Ed Bahlman, who also operated a record store of the same name in the East Village. Rubin had been hanging out there since his senior year in high school and knew Bahlman well. "He kind of walked me through the process of how you go here to press the record, and you go here to have your labels made, and you go here to have your jacket covers made," Rubin recalled. Like a fledgling record executive, Rubin stopped by local record stores to keep track of how well his records were stocked. "I gotta check my inventory," he would say to Dubin, and together they made the rounds. "I had never met such a motivated nineteen-year-old," Dubin recalls of Rick.
Rubin applied the same level of commitment to any new endeavor he picked up. As a young boy, he had become obsessed with magic, practicing tricks for five hours a day in front of the mirror. He would commute into Manhattan from his Lido Beach, Long Island, home for the sole purpose of exploring his favorite magic stores, where he spent hours soaking up their atmospheres, and connecting with fellow magicians, most of whom were adults. "I’m a researcher by nature," he says. When his interest shifted to music in his early teens, Rubin picked up the guitar and became proficient with it within months. He started a punk band of his own, called The Pricks, and although he "wasn’t the greatest [guitarist]," says Mike Espindle, "he did a lot with a little."
Rubin recalls having "mixed feelings" about his hometown, where he lived comfortably in a modern house with his parents, Mickey and Linda. "At the time, I wished that I was in Manhattan," he says. "But in retrospect, I think it very much played a role in who I am and gave me a different perspective." His suburban upbringing lacked the grittiness of city life and provided "a filter on what I got to see and hear," he says, "which probably led me to having more commercial taste."
Rick first became interested in hip-hop as a senior at Long Beach High School, a racially mixed school on Long Island, where Rubin was known as a music aficionado. (Next to his senior photo in the yearbook, Ricky, as he was called, had a quote: "I wanna play loud, I wanna be heard, I want all to know, I’m not one of the herd.") Rubin paid attention to the rap music his black classmates were listening to and noticed that their favorite groups changed weekly, depending on who had a new record out. Rubin liked their obsession with the newest and latest.
When he moved to Manhattan to attend NYU–where he originally enrolled as a philosophy major with the intention of going to law school–Rubin used the opportunity to navigate the hip-hop subculture and make important connections with key DJs around the city. He was one of the few white teenagers venturing into uptown hip-hop nightclubs like Harlem World or Disco Fever deep in the Bronx, which was known as a testing ground for new rappers. Negril–on Second Avenue and Tenth Street in Manhattan–had been one of Rubin’s favorite nightspots, and the first club to bring hip-hop downtown. It was a small, dark space in the basement of an East Village restaurant, and Rubin went there for hip-hop night every Tuesday.
Within a few months the scene outgrew Negril, and the weekly party was moved to the Roxy, where Rubin would go to see rap groups like the Furious Five. He loved the immediacy of the contact between performers and the audience there. The Roxy had no proper stage back then, so when acts performed, the organizers would just rope off an area on the dance floor. Rubin observed the action intensely, sometimes dancing ("He was a good dancer," points out Dubin), but mostly just listening. "There was a lot of standing around on the side of the floor at the Roxy, and seeing if the beat worked or not," recalls college friend George Drakoulias. "And [Rubin] was bold," Espindle recalls. "He would go right up to the DJ tables and talk to them about their equipment and find out which records were hot." "Watch, and learn," Rubin would say to his friends, only half-jokingly, as he would introduce himself to an important person at a club.
Rubin also loved the hip-hop slang he heard in the clubs and decided to attach a logo called Def Jam Records–which he also designed himself–on the Hose EP. "To emphasize it’s about the DJ," he explains, Rubin made both of the first letters–the D and the J– bigger, chunkier, so that they stood out. Def jam was a phrase that hip-hoppers often used to describe the ultimate sound, the greatest "jam," or record. "For info, records, or criticism," a label on the back of the Hose record read, "send all mail to: Def Jam Recordings, 5 University Place, #712."It was important for Rubin to create the aura of a real company behind-the-scenes, even if Def Jam was still just an idea.
When he wasn’t experiencing hip-hop live, Rubin was scouring record stores for the latest hip-hop releases. "I would buy them all," he recalled, "and most of them were terrible. None of them accurately portrayed what I heard when I went to Negril. There was nothing that was true to what hip-hop was, the real hip-hop scene." He was right: if you picked up any Sugar Hill record in 1982, you would hear a disco track with an MC rapping over it, with no basic song structure. "So as a fan, even though I would buy a rap record," said Rubin, "I still really couldn’t wait to go to Negril next week."
Rick not only got access to all the edgiest clubs in the city by virtue of his endless networking, but going out with him was "always a blast," as Mike Espindle recalled. "He always knew the most intereesting people." Those not invited to Rubin’s outings felt sorely left out. One disgruntled Weinstein dorm resident even wrote a one-act play for his theater class about what it was like not to be invited out with Rick Rubin–"to sit around in the lobby of the dorm and know that me and Rick and a few other guys were out at this really cool thing, and how bad that made them feel," recalled Espindle.
When Rubin became interested in the new sounds of go-go–a percussion-based, jam-style music that used elements of hip-hop and funk–he called the manager of Trouble Funk, the most well-known go-go band at the time, and offered to book them at the Roxy. "It would have never dawned on me to try and call the guys and arrange this shit," says Dubin. "It seemed like something that people in the business do, but not nineteen-year-old kids."
Rubin liked staying up late and could often be found at Weinstein’s reception desk at 3 a.m., hanging out with the night-shift desk clerks. Ric Menello, a graduate film student, was the head clerk, monitoring the reception area from midnight until eight in the morning. He and Rubin became close, spending many nights discussing movies, music, art, women, and ordering food from all-night restaurants like Cozy Soup’n’Burger and DeLion on Broadway. "I’ll pay for it if you call in the order and make sure to get everything the way I like it," Rubin would often tell Menello, who would oblige. The two of them would stay up as late as 6 a.m. "philosophizing," as Menello called it.
By his sophomore year, academics had already taken a backseat to Rubin’s real interest: music. Adam Dubin, who usually stayed up– and got up–late with him, learned by his second semester not to schedule any classes for the morning. Although he missed most of his classes, Rubin still got passing grades. One of the ways he managed to do this was by paying other students, like Ric Menello, to write papers for him.
The money came from Rubin’s parents, who doted on their only child. "They were truly a remarkable family," recalled Mike Espindle of the close-knit Rubin clan. Mickey Rubin would often cook breakfast for his son and even collected tickets at a show Rick promoted in college. A self-made businessman in the wholesale shoe industry, Mickey understood the entrepreneural spirit well. Linda Rubin often drove her son to rock shows, waiting outside the club for him in her Cadillac until the show finished.
Access to money allowed Rubin to make mistakes without major consequences. The best example was a concert that he organized during his freshman year at NYU at the Hotel Diplomat near Thirty-fourth Street, called "Uptown Meets Downtown." Featuring a mix of hip-hop groups like the Treacherous Three and punk bands like Heart Attack and Liquid Liquid, it was one of the first live meldings of rap with punk. The show was even reviewed by the Village Voice and was referred to as a great fusion point in music. But Rubin’s guest list outnumbered the ticket holders and the concert lost money as a result.
Rubin was not satisfied with just having a band; he also loved to deejay. Because he knew that dorm parties would provide him with a perfect opportunity to spin his records, Rubin convinced his friends to join the party committee. The Weinstein dorm had a long history of infamous parties and pranks. When the Ramones played there in the late 1970s, Dee Dee Ramone’s girlfriend got kicked out for starting a vicious catfight; and once, there was a shooting at a student dance. The five-foot statue of the dorm’s namesake, Joe Weinstein, was constantly being stolen and met its end one day when it was thrown off a roof, dangerously shattering into pieces. Students were also fond of pranks like "penning," in which coins, placed between the doorjamb and the door, resulted in the door being pushed in so tightly that the person inside couldn’t get out. There was even a makeshift bar in the basement, called Joe’s Pub (fourteen years later, another Joe’s Pub would become a New York City hotspot).
Rubin was "a little rough around the edges" as a DJ, as college friend George Drakoulias recalled, but he wasn’t trying to be Grandmaster Flash–he just wanted to mix good records. Since he had all the necessary party equipment right in his dorm room, he spent all the money the dorm party committee gave him on food–usually from White Castle–and alcohol (this was before the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, which changed the national legal drinking age from eighteen to twenty-one). Rubin was such a fan of White Castle that once he got their truck to deliver burgers right to his dorm.
With the Weinstein party committee at his disposal, Rubin threw parties every month. Sometimes he hired DJs that he had seen at the Roxy, but mostly he preferred to deejay himself. Rubin would only spin hip-hop, go-go, and some rock. "Anything but the conventional radio fare," recalled Dubin. If a student came up and requested a song like "Centerfold" by J. Giles Band, which was a big hit in 1982, Rubin would just stare at them with disdain out of his dark glasses.
He was fond of using his glasses as a tool of intimidation. During dinner with friends, Rubin took off the glasses when he started a meal, and put them back on when he was done, as if to say, "Hurry up." Rick was almost as passionate about food as he was about music. "Come down, we’re gonna go eat," he would buzz his friends from the lobby each day. "Yo, but it’s Empire Szechuan. It’s your favorite bullshit," he would respond when there was any resistance. (The Rubin-coined phrase favorite bullshit was often used by him and his friends to describe something great.) It seemed that Rubin had a little more cash than his friends, and he often pitched in extra for meals. "Whatever I have, it always costs seven dollars, ten dollars more," he complained. But he still paid. If he ever wanted to do something, his parents usually gave him the money to make it happen. Still, he "wasn’t the guy who was flashing a wad," recalled Espindle.
Rubin’s elaborate sound system was a convenience when it came to deejaying Weinstein’s parties, but it was a major nuisance for a few of his neighbors. His upstairs neighbor Nancy liked to go to bed at around 11 p.m., which was when Rubin’s night usually got started. He and his friends would blast their music through the Cerwin-Vega speaker, waking up Nancy almost every night. When she would call Rubin and yell at him or bang on the floor, he only turned the music up louder. "This is what I do! This is my art," he yelled back at her. "He really went out of his way to make her life miserable," Espindle recalled.
The conflict continued for months, and culminated one night in a near-fight. Rubin and his friends had just returned from a show amped and in the mood to party, so they sat around his room, laughing and listening to something really loud. Nancy started banging from above. Rubin increased the volume and, for added effect, started vacuuming the ceiling. Everyone was laughing hysterically, until suddenly the door blasted open, and there stood Nancy. "You motherfuckers!" she yelled, and ran into the room, wielding a small knife, according to Rubin. He made a quick getaway.
As a result of the incident, Rubin was threatened with being kicked out of the dorm. He appeared in the "Weinstein Court" to argue his case. "I am a punk rock musician, and volume is integral to the music," he said in his defense. "To have punk rock without volume is to diminish its artistic value and merit. Therefore, volume is a necessary part of me doing my art." He argued that when he listened to his music, he was studying, just as Nancy studied for her law classes. Rubin enlisted Menello to testify that he had heard few, if any, noise complaints about Rubin during his front-desk shift. "Someone has to have extrasensitive hearing like Superman to think it was too loud!" Menello proclaimed. Besides, there were noisemakers far worse than Rubin in the dorm, like one guy who liked to annoy his neighbor by hooking up his electric typewriter to stereo amps and typing so furiously that the keyboard produced gunshotlike sounds.
Rubin’s defense worked. He was allowed to stay in the dorm– under some strict regulations. "I was the first person brought up on charges in the fifteen or twenty years that they had a court," Rubin remembered proudly. His upstairs neighbor Nancy moved soon after.
As long as he wasn’t being punished, Rubin often encouraged and took part in the troublemaking. He could convince almost anyone to do almost anything for him. "You gotta do it," Rubin would insist. "You know you want to." Back when he played with his high school band, The Pricks, Rubin frequently encouraged and got a real kick out of watching the lead singer jump into the crowd during a song, walk up to a person, stare at him intensely, and then just slap him for no good reason. During a summer tour with Hose in 1982, Rubin instructed one of the group members to set the sprinklers off in the club with a lighter right in the middle of their set. Sure enough, the sprinklers went off, but Rubin escaped getting blamed for the incident. "Which is also kind of Rick’s personality," said George Drakoulias. "He was just fearless."
Rubin was not afraid to defy authority. A few months into his sophomore year, he decided that he wanted to replace his bed with a futon. The problem after he bought it was that he had both a bed and a futon in his room. "No problem for Rick," says Dubin. "He just threw [the bed] out into the hall." The dorm wrote them complaint letters about the bed’s fire hazard in the hall, and one day the roommates came home to find that maintenance put the bed back in their room. Rubin threw it back out in the hall, then appealed to the dorm to let them put the bed in storage. "He just wanted things his way," says Dubin. "His personal comfort was important to him. It wouldn’t have occurred to me at that time to challenge the dorm as he did."
When not out at hip-hop clubs or throwing parties at Weinstein, Rubin and his friends went to see punk and rock shows at Manhattan clubs like Peppermint Lounge, Folk City, and the Continental Divide. On November 20, 1982, they attended a two-day benefit for a local punk label called RATcage at the legendary CBGB’s venue. The first night had three local groups on the bill: the Beastie Boys, Reagan Youth, and The Young and the Useless. RATcage had recently put out Polly Wog Stew, the first EP by the Beastie Boys, which included Adam Yauch and Mike Diamond, as well as guitarist John Berry and future Luscious Jackson drummer Kate Schellenbach. None of them were older than sixteen. Their music was loud, energetic, and bold. The boys liked to jump around so wildly onstage that during the CBGB benefit show, Yauch–who was on bass–fell backward off the stage, landing on his back with the bass on top of him. Within seconds, however, he was back onstage, picking up the next song. He shrugged off his pain, screaming, "Fuck it! Fuck it!"
At that time, the "art-core" group The Young and the Useless– who had recently returned from a gig opening for Sex Pistol John Lydon’s band PiL in Boston–was even more popular, and edgier, than the Beastie Boys. A downtown kid named Dave Skilken, who published a local fanzine, had founded the group and had recruited his best high school buddy, Adam Horovitz, to play guitar. "They had the potential to be larger than the Beastie Boys," recalled Dave Parsons, who put out The Young and the Useless’s only known recording on the RATcage Records label, a 1982 EP called Real Men Don’t Floss. "I can recall people calling from California wanting to book The Young and the Useless. They would have been the biggest punk band from New York. Everybody wanted to see them."
Among them was Rick Rubin and it wasn’t long before he met Yauch, Horovitz, and Diamond, striking up a casual friendship.
By Rubin’s junior year, Hose had changed lead singers–from Rick Rosen to Mike Epsindle–after "a sing-off " at CBGB’s, and at least once a month the band managed to secure a gig. Sometimes they opened for hardcore bands like the Meat Puppets, at clubs like Folk City in Manhattan, City Gardens in Trenton, New Jersey, and Maxwell’s in Hoboken. Espindle and Bell wrote a few songs with Rubin, and a few he wrote completely by himself, including "Happy," a love song.
A few weeks before summer vacation started–during which Rubin had planned a tour for Hose in the San Francisco region– Rubin brought home a hip-hop record called "It’s Like That," backed with "Sucker MCs" by a new group, Run-DMC. From the moment he played it for Dubin, "Sucker MCs" was all he could talk about. He was excited about its beat-heavy and spare sound. "This is the real shit," he proclaimed, and then: "I could do this better."