Symbolic Weight & the Def Jam Aesthetic

“Who would have thought, back in the ’80s, that we’d ever see a coffee table book about rap?” asks music industry titan Lyor Cohen in his preface to Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label (hereinafter referred to as DJ-25). Cohen’s concise three paragraph preface sits alongside opening remarks from Def Jam’s founding fathers, Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, as well as words from former Def Jam president Kevin Liles and a more formal introduction from Kelefa Sanneh.

It’s a fitting beginning for a rather unusual book. It’s “fitting” because each of these men — Rubin, Simmons, Liles, and Cohen — played vital roles in the success of not only Def Jam but also the success of hip-hop as a viable commercial commodity. Def Jam set industry standards for the style, imagery, marketing, and promotion of rap music. Still, this book is “unusual” because, well, it’s just like Lyor Cohen said: it’s a coffee table book about rap. Isn’t that the sort of thing that’s not supposed to represent “real hip-hop”? With glossy photographs and occasionally sentimental testimonials from the insiders who remember the magic? Sounds kind of “soft”, doesn’t it? Totally not gangsta, right?

That’s exactly right. A hardcover coffee table book about rap that’s the size of a vinyl record sleeve, and boasting a list price of $60? That’s not the kind of thing anyone in the ’80s would have imagined. I’m not sure it’s something anybody would’ve wanted to imagine back then. Most likely, it would have represented the ultimate in “selling out”, epitomizing the age-old fear of having one’s insular authenticity co-opted and mainstreamed. Rappers used to be worried that hip-hop’s cultural identity would merge with its surroundings and become indistinguishable from the “norm”. These days, hip-hoppers seem to celebrate such normalization. Dan Charnas, one of the authors of DJ-25 along with former Def Jam publicist Bill Adler, championed the commercialization of hip-hop in his excellent 2010 work, The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop.

I recognize that this is a lot of symbolic weight for a single coffee table book. Nonetheless, such is the import and gravity of its subject — Def Jam Recordings — that the company’s very existence speaks to the essence of where hip-hop has been and where it may still go. Def Jam was the brainchild of Rick Rubin, who not only started the lab in the ’80s from his New York University dorm room but also designed its trademark maroon DJ-centric logo. Rubin joined forces with Russell Simmons, whose Rush Artist Management enterprise garnered him industry contacts as he managed the careers of rap artists like Kurtis Blow and Run DMC while also working with R&B acts like Oran “Juice” Jones and Alyson Williams.

The partnership between Rubin and Simmons seems to encapsulate hip-hop’s commercial struggle at large. On the one side, there is the love of the aesthetic, and the impulse to make records to suit the taste of the artist (see also: Rick Rubin). On the other side, there’s the very real and necessary drive to make money, to propagate hip-hop as a lucrative enterprise (see also: Russell Simmons). In DJ-25, Rick Rubin summarizes it thusly: “Had [Russell Simmons and I] stuck together with the idea that ‘we’re gonna make great art and someday get a check’, it would have been fine. But I felt that, sometimes, the ‘get a check’ choices were made over the ‘great art’ choices.” In my cynical moments, I might apply his comments to hip-hop in general.

DJ-25 does demonstrate Def Jam’s impressive catalog of “great art” choices. Coverage includes sections on the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Slick Rick, Public Enemy, Redman, Method Man, Foxy Brown, Jay-Z, Kanye West, DMX, Ja Rule, and Ashanti. Within the Def Jam ranks, you’ll find some classic hip-hop albums: LL Cool J’s Radio (although I think both Bigger & Deffer, Walking with a Panther, and Mama Said Knock You Out are far superior), Beastie Boys’ License to Ill, Slick Rick’s The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and Redman’s Whut? Thee Album (credited by Lyor Cohen with saving Def Jam during its “darkest moment” in the 1990s).

As the book depicts it, Def Jam’s “first 25 years” (going back to 1986 from 2011) are characterized by structural change and adaptation behind the scenes, usually with shifts in corporate interest (i.e., from managing artists to producing records) or in leadership (i.e., watershed moments, such as when Rick Rubin exits the company, Russell Simmons exits, and Lyor Cohen exits). To the fans and to other subscribers of the Def Jam mystique, the musical output has always been at the forefront and, beyond that, there’s Def Jam’s position as standard bearer in the expansion of hip-hop culture into wider markets, such as television, movies, magazines, and fashion.

Def Jam the record company, then, sits at the intersection of commerce and artistic expression, and the question of whether the two can comfortably coexist has never been an easy one to answer. As society at large eventually confronted, and then engaged with, hip-hop culture, the music and style of the culture has become thoroughly embedded in the popular consciousness. Does this level and intensity of exposure change the art? Does the music become, as some might argue, increasingly “watered down”? Or does the proliferation of the music into a medium of global import give it a fresh perspective?

DJ-25, the coffee table book, makes me want to assert both positions at once. In this book, you can read about and, most importantly, see — through visual documentation — how Def Jam and its artists changed over the years. The benefit of having more ears on hip-hop as it has grown has meant having to handle more eyes on hip-hop as well. The pressure for rap to remain successful, and to continue to be “popular”, makes me wonder when the “great art” choices, to again use Rick Rubin’s phrasing, endure the greatest sacrifices in favor of the “make money” choices.

More than a coffee table conversation piece, DJ-25 is reminiscent of a yearbook. You almost wish you could read handwritten messages from one artist to another, like, “Hey, Ad-Rock! Stay cool. See you on tour next summer.” As it moves chronologically through the history, DJ-25 organizes and presents commentary from artists, executives, and key figures in a conversational format, with one person’s quote following another’s. Designed by acclaimed artist Cey Adams, the aforementioned visual documentation comes in the form of photos, original drawings, cover art, and flyers from the archives. Sometimes, the visuals are presented like a scrapbook.

At other times, it’s like looking at selections from a museum exhibit. Photographs by talents such as Glen E. Friedman, Ricky Powell, Janette Beckman, Martha Cooper, and Annie Liebovitz (among many others) drive home the point that hip-hop has offered a visual aesthetic along with an aural one, espousing images of everyday life, urban decay, machismo and coolness, in addition to wealth and influence.

© Rizzoli

It’s telling that the origin of the Def Jam empire owes as much to the rise of, say, LL Cool J as its post-2000 vitality owes to the high profile status of Jay-Z when he assumed the Def Jam presidency. Jay-Z’s time as president is a full-circle moment, wherein rappers who were nurtured, even indirectly, by the Def Jam legacy could ascend to its heights, not only as tastemakers of their craft but also as decision makers. Yet, the LL Cool J of the ’80s stands for a much different proposition than that of Jay-Z as the Def Jam head honcho. LL Cool J, like his handlers Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, was hungry and eager to impress. The Def Jam way was to crank everything up a notch, to make everything loud. As LL says in his ’80s single “I Can’t Live Without My Radio”, “Don’t mean to offend other citizens / but I kick my volume way past 10”.

Jay-Z, of course, is certainly not known for being loud — quite the opposite. Even his Rick Rubin-produced “99 Problems” features his characteristically relaxed vocals over a hyperkinetic background. LL Cool J’s “Radio” is about a young man’s assertion of identity and space, chiefly expressed through his love for his radio. Jay-Z, especially in his post-retirement years, speaks to the choir of upward mobility, most particularly in the corporate world.

It’s often said that hip-hop has gone from the street corner to the corner office — and apparently to coffee table books. Yet, anyone arguing that this result is an unqualified success is ignoring the complex web of hip-hop history, the impact of the music on youth culture, and the interplay between art and commerce. Did Def Jam succeed in bringing hip-hop to a wider audience? No doubt. Can you really knock the hustle of Russell Simmons when it comes to marketing and promoting hip-hop culture to the masses? Of course not. I’m just saying that every hustle has a consequence, a byproduct.

With DJ-25, both a monument to hip-hop achievement and a hip-hop product, it’s tough to identify the target audience. Consider it a wellspring of information for hardcore fans of rap and its history, and then you also have to consider that these types of fans are likely to be familiar with the material already. Consider it a tool for educating interested fans about a cornerstone of hip-hop’s foundation and ascent, but then you also have to consider that the book doesn’t really position the company within a full historical context and, at full price, it’s a little pricey.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a beautiful book that’s painstakingly rendered, from the engraved cover to the useful index and the acknowledgments. I’m still excited to have figured out that the book matches the size of a typical vinyl record cover, giving a bit of life to the record needle on the back cover that’s part of the Def Jam logo. Aside from my musings regarding commerciality and commodification, my only real wish is that there had been more commentary from, and about, Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith of EPMD. I can’t prove that EPMD was as integral to Def Jam’s success as LL Cool J or Slick Rick — I can only say that EPMD is one of my favorite acts on the label. There was a little, but I would’ve enjoyed a bit more.

For that matter, I wouldn’t have minded more information about female rappers like Bo$$ and Nikki D, although Nikki D got a couple of photos and Bo$$ did get a brief mention. Overall, these are minor skirmishes.

In fact, after DJ-25‘s neat presentation, it’s the project’s honesty and sincerity that comes through most convincingly. That Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons had a difference of opinion about how to run Def Jam back in the ’80s is undisputed. However, it’s also true that they cared a whole hell of a lot about their creation. More than that, they cared about the music they wanted to distribute.

And they weren’t alone. Testimonials and anecdotes from the artists and executives (including true insiders like Julie Greenwald, Chris Lighty, and Bill Stephney) are humorous and insightful but most of all candid. When, for instance, Beastie Boy Adam “Ad-Rock” Horowitz admits his disdain for Rick Rubin’s now-famous album cover for the group’s seminal recording License to Ill, you can tell he’s for real.

In the end, maybe the best answer we have to the difficulties of melding “great art” choices with “get a check” choices resides in the ability to be truthful. For this, Russell Simmons’ perspective is most instructive. “Those who are locked out create something of their own,” he says. “They do it so well — it’s such an authentic expression of truth — that it spreads.”