I Review Def Jam 25, the Overstuffed Illustrated Oral History of a Record Label that Helped Change American Culture

It’s hard to underestimate the influence that Def Jam Records brought to bear on contemporary culture. Not only did the label help to legitimize rap and hip hop as commercially viable (and artistic) art form, it also helped to redefine attitudes about fashion, culture, race, and even business. At its core, the early days of Def Jam were an energetic experiment in synthesis, combining the DIY spirit of punk rock with the nascent rhythms of hip hop, all twisted up in a graffiti writer’s aesthetic. Def Jam 25, a huge, overstuffed illustrated oral history of the label’s first quarter century, details the fascinating beginnings, successes—and many, many troubles—of the strange child of Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons.

Rick Rubin Hard at Work

Def Jam 25 focuses its initial energy on Rick Rubin, who comes across as the dark, eccentric spirit whose aesthetic and temperament would come to define the label’s early successes. Rubin started the label out of his NYU dorm to release a single by his artcore band Hose. Rubin was soon introduced to Simmons (by Vincent Gallo, of all people), and the duo would go on to produce and release huge hits from the Beastie Boys, L.L. Cool J, Run DMC, and a host of others.

Early Flyers

Def Jam 25 combines photographs and essays with shorter eyewitness commentaries from the artists, designers, musicians, producers, and business guys who helped define Def Jam. The effect is intriguing, often insightful, occasionally funny, and especially fascinating when folks share very different accounts of how things went down. The early years of the label are documented with an energy that matches the verve of Def Jam’s pioneering work in the ’80s, and if I dwell on the first thirds, it’s only because there’s something so electrifying about those early years, when Slayer and Public Enemy were labelmates and Aerosmith and Run DMC could craft a top ten hit together.

From the "Walk This Way" Sessions

Def Jam’s success continued unabated after Rubin’s departure in 1988, and it’s hard to argue that a label putting out records by EPMD, Nas, De La Soul, Public Enemy, and the Roots was somehow less artistic and more commercial after that point. Still, Rubin’s strange punk rock energy was clearly irreplaceable, and while it remains part of the Def Jam template to this day, it’s hard to get as psyched about Rihanna and Ja Rule as it is about Slick Rick or even Onyx. But that has little to do with the actual book I suppose, which is lovingly crafted and impeccably designed.

Def Jam 25 is a great big coffee table book for people who actually like to read (and for your guests who don’t like to read, the book explodes with vivid imagery). The book reveals (and reflects) Def Jam Records as a marvelous synthesis of art, design, fashion, and business, a label that was (and is) dramatically unstable and also wildly innovative. The book will appeal to fans of music and culture alike. Def Jam 25 is new in hardback from Rizzoli.

Rubin and Simmons, 2009

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