It’s no secret that Def Jam Recordings, as much as any artist, has been integral to the development of hip-hop as a musical force and a cultural phenomenon. For 25 years and counting (though admittedly with a few lapses here and there), the label has been at the forefront of the music they helped take from the streets to the masses. The label’s roster through the years reads like a who’s who of hip-hop: LL Cool J, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Slick Rick, 3rd Bass, EPMD, DMX, Jay-Z, The Roots, Ghostface Killah, Kanye West... and on and on. That Def Jam also released one of the most important heavy metal albums, Slayer’s Reign in Blood, just shows that their prowess wasn’t limited to one niche. (The world probably could have done without Def Comedy Jam and Def Poetry Jam, however.)
Def Jam got its start when Rick Rubin released an EP by his punk band Hose in 1983, but it wasn’t until Rubin hooked up with impresario Russell Simmons that the label that we know now began in earnest. Rubin was then still a student at New York University and initially Def Jam operated out of his dorm room in Weinstein Hall. After an unnumbered single by T La Rock and Jazzy Jay, Def Jam released LL Cool J’s “I Need a Beat” and the Beastie Boys’ “Rock Hard.” The rest, as they say, is history.
It is that history that Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label attempts to capture. At approximately 12 inches square and 312 pages, it is essentially a hefty coffee table book. As such, it is largely photo-driven, but there are forwards by Rubin; Simmons; Lyor Cohen, the Warner Music Group CEO who once ran Def Jam’s management division and managed Run-DMC before heading up Def Jam after the label merged with Island in the ’90s; and Kevin Liles, the current Def Jam president and CEO. There are also longer essays by Bill Adler, Def Jam’s first publicist, and Dan Charnas, the author of The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop, but the book’s text is mostly set-up as an oral history that bounces somewhat disjointedly from one source to the next. In this manner, it traces Def Jam’s beginnings to Rubin’s departure and onto the label’s more recent history. Hearing it from the horses’ mouthes makes for an enlightening and lively read.
Again, though, the real impetus here is the photos. But while there are some great shots (Ricky Powell’s snapshots from the early days, in particular), ultimately the collection of images amounts to an odd mishmash. Why a full-page illustration of De La Soul, who was never on the label? Why a drawing of Cohen and Liles taken from The Source and not more full-page album covers? In short, the book doesn’t possess the gravitas that it should because it doesn’t have the cumulative visual impact that it very easily could have. With Def Jam’s history being as impressive as it is (though it’s a bit much to call the imprint “the last great record label”), this book, lavish as it may be, doesn’t quite do it justice.