Pop culture moves on two tracks simultaneously — the fast-paced, ever-quickening one that picks stuff up, lifts it to the heights of popularity then replaces it with something new, and the one where truly significant, long-lasting artistic endeavors continually chug along.
Which is which? Well, figuring that part out is the challenge.
This year’s edition of VH1’s “Hip Hop Honors” series, which debuts Tuesday night, offers examples of both as it celebrates the 25th anniversary of Def Jam Recordings by making it the first record label to be inducted. The historic hip-hop label, famously started in an NYU dorm room by Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin, has built careers for everyone from LL Cool J and Jay-Z to Rihanna and Ne-Yo in the past 25 years.
The show’s host, Tracy Morgan, opens the evening as a preacher, extolling the virtues of the label while backed by a choir that eventually busts into Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks.” “Def Jam became the voice of hip-hop,” Morgan says, before dubbing it “the greatest hip-hop label of all time.”
He mentions as an aside, “The Lord forgives you, Kanye,” referring to the now-notorious incident at MTV’s Video Music Awards last month where West took the microphone out of Taylor Swift’s hand, just as she was delivering her award acceptance speech, to complain that her award should have gone to Beyonce. It’s a moment — along with rapper Wale’s “Peace, Taylor Swift!” interjection into his version of West’s song “Touch the Sky” — that seems a little played-out, though, to be fair, the show was taped at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Sept. 23, while the Kanye controversy was still red hot.
What a difference two weeks — and new scandals from David Letterman and the Gosselins — make in today’s culture. But that little lapse in timeliness only makes the timeless contributions of Def Jam all the more awe-inspiring.
“I wanted to make loud-ass records,” Simmons says to explain the roots of the label in a taped interview.
Rubin adds quickly, “It was a musical revolution, so anyone who was part of the old guard, to them, it wasn’t even music. People who liked us and wanted to work with us would tell us it wasn’t music. ... They didn’t understand.”
Public Enemy made any further explanations unnecessary, though, with its powerful performance of “Rebel Without a Pause,” backed by The Roots, Street Sweeper Social Club and DJ Jazzy Jeff. Sure, it was music, but it sounded more like chaos — a dizzying mix of thunderous rhythms, Chuck D’s revolutionary rhymes and Flavor Flav’s comic relief.
(Equally stunning is Simmons, now a Phat Farm, multimillionaire mogul in several different industries, delivering the heart of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” off the top of his head, complete with expletives and disses for Elvis Presley and John Wayne.)
“You could always recognize a Def Jam record back in the day,” explained Kid Rock. “A Def Jam record was always louder, bolder, colder than the rest. Being on Def Jam meant you spoke your mind.”
Former Def Jam president Lyor Cohen, who now runs Warner Music Group, explained how the label would be different from its competitors. “We’re gonna be the Aamco of this,” Cohen recalls telling a companywide staff meeting. “Artists, labels, they come in for a transmission job. You think Death Row with their swollen muscles can squeeze underneath that car? You think that Bad Boy with their shiny Versace suits are going to risk getting some oil dripped on them? We’re going to be the blue-collar hard workers of this thing. From now on, everything you do, you do it for the logo.”
That work ethic, combined with Def Jam’s appeal to both the streets and the suburbs, helped guarantee its success. The “Hip Hop Honors” producers paid tribute to the Long Island roots of Def Jam — not just Rubin and Public Enemy, but also LL Cool J and EPMD, who performed, as did Ashanti, who delivered her chart-topping “Always on Time” with Ja Rule, and Chrisette Michele, who sang the hook on Ghostface Killah’s “Back Like That.”
In fact, Michele is part of Def Jam’s current roster of hitmakers, landing her first No. 1 this year, along with Rick Ross, who rolled out his hit “Hustlin’.” This year’s “Hip Hop Honors” winners prove that great artists, with the help of great labels, can deliver on both of pop culture’s tracks. They can deliver both heat and light.