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Def Jam Records

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Def Jam Records

Russell Simmons

Copyright Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Def Jam Records: The Basics:

  • What: Hip hop label Def Jam Recordings, part of the Island Def Jam Music Group
  • Where: Headquartered in New York City, New York
  • Founded: 1984
  • Founded by: Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons (see more details below)

Starting Def Jam:

Technically speaking, Def Jam was founded by Rick Rubin alone. He started the label in his NYU dorm room to release a single by his band Hose (a punk group). DJ Jazzy Jay introduced Rubin to Russell Simmons, who quickly became his Def Jam partner. With Simmons, the single It's Yours (T La Rock and DJ Jazzy Jay) became the first single to bear a Def Jam logo, and as such Simmons is often credited as a co-founder.

The first releases to bear both a Def Jam logo and catalog number were released in 1984 (I Need a Beat by LL Cool J and Rock Hard by the Beastie Boys).

First Distribution Deal and OBR:

The first Def Jam singles garnered enough attention to allow the label to land a major label distribution deal with Columbia Records (which was a subsidiary of CBS Records, which was subsequently bought out by Sony). LL Cool J's classic Radio, released in 1985, was the first Def Jam release to receive major label distribution and their first full length album.

Around this time, Def Jam tried to get into the R&B business and founded the label OBR to cater to R&B artists. They had a hit with The Rain by Oran "Juice" Jones, but the label folded shortly after.

Def Jam: Varied Sounds and Rising Success:

During the course of the 1980s, Def Jam's success steadily increased. The 80s marked the move of hip hop from the underground to the mainstream, and Def Jam was instrumental in helping the genre make that transition. During the 1980s, however, the label was never completely a hip hop label. One of their biggest signings of the decade was metal group Slayer.

Def Jam achieved one of their biggest successes of the decade - and became the subject of a great of controversy - when they signed Public Enemy at the end of the decade.

Rubin vs Cohen :

During the 1980s, a power struggle was going on behind the scenes at Def Jam between founder Rick Rubin and Lyor Cohen, who had been working with Simmons on Simmons' management work with Run D.M.C. In 1988, Cohen was able to trump Rubin and landed the role of president of Def Jam. Rubin left the label and started Def American Records, which was soon renamed American Records.

Rush Associated Labels and Financial Troubles:

Cohen and Simmons founded Rush Associated Labels (RAL) in the early 1990s as an umbrella group for several different labels, including Def Jam. The new business ventures proved expensive. Def Jam had several multi-platinum releases in the early 1990s, including releases by ONYX and EPMD, but they were still facing severe financial troubles by 1992.

On the cusp of bankruptcy, Def Jam was bailed out when Polygram Records purchased 50% of the label. Polygram eventually gained a firm control, buying another 9.8%. Warren G's Regulate...The G Funk Era was a sales success and helped the label further recover financially.

RAL to Def Jam Music Group and Island Def Jam. :

In 1995, RAL was renamed Def Jam Music Group. Sales were good for the label at this time, thanks to releases by LL Cool J and Foxy Brown. Def Jam ended up under the Universal Music Group umbrella when Polygram was bought out by Seagrams, a division of Universal. Universal merged their Island label, creating Island Def Jam. Universal bought out Simmons for $100 million.

Simmons became distant from the label at this time, but Cohen stayed on. Def Jam launched several new ventures during this period, including Def Jam South. They also distributed Murder Inc. Records, which would land Cohen in legal trouble.

Power Struggles in the 2000s:

Def Jam Germany was launched in 2000 by Cohen, to expand the label's profile internationally. Trouble arose for Cohen in 2003, when Murder Inc. Records was investigated for money laundering. Cohen had championed the label, and the investigation led to a raid in Def Jam's building. Around the same time, Cohen left the label for Warner Music Group.

Antonio L.A. Reid took over Def Jam after Cohen's departure. Reid and Cohen fought for Jay-Z's contract, and to win the artist, Reid made Jay-Z president of Def Jam. Jay-Z's own Roc-a-Fella label had already been bought by Def Jam. Jay-Z's presidency contract expired in 2007, and it was not renewed, leaving Reid to step back into that role.

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