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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.
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 4 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?
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