Hip Hop History, Part III – Building the Empire

I’ve talked a bit about the history of hip hop music and how it quickly evolved into a profitable form of music, but no other company was able to capitalize on hip hop like Def Jam Records, and no other person could have done it like Russell Simmons.

In 1984, Simmons candidly told Gary Harris, a former Def Jam executive, “I’m sick of making people rich. I want to own my own shit, my own record label, my own movie company.” 1 It was this mentality that drove Simmons to find Rick Rubin. When Simmons found Rubin, he was surprised to find a white kid, but then “realized that Rick Rubin and I had a lot in common.” 2 Simmons decided to ask Rubin to co-produce an album by RUN-D.M.C., a group that Simmons was working with that also included his brother, Joseph Simmons. RUN-D.M.C. were probably the most popular and successful hip hop act of the time, but that did not mean they garnered much chart success. It wasn’t until Rick Rubin convinced the boys of RUN-D.M.C. to collaborate on a song with Aerosmith. The result was “Walk this Way,” which became the first rap record to appear in heavy rotation on MTV. By this time, Simmons knew he did the right thing in pairing up with Rubin, even though Simmons had been working with the group prior to meeting Rubin, and the group was never signed to Def Jam. His mind was made up, and with visions of success in his eyes, he went to create Def Jam Records with Rubin, using the signature name and logo that Rubin had come up with for the T. La Rock & Jazzy J record.

Simmons and Rubin each put up four-thousand dollars for the formation of Def Jam Records. Simmons immediately started using his contacts from his promotion and management business, Rush Management, to gain the attention of Billboard magazine. Def Jam was officially founded in the summer of 1984. Simmons stated that, “The purpose of this company is to educate people as to the value of real street music by putting out records that nobody in the business world would distribute but us.” 3 Surprisingly, it was their work with people not on the label that gave them their initial notoriety. It was working on the album King of Rock by Run-D.M.C. that gained Rubin and Simmons recognition from major labels interested in what Rubin and Simmons were doing with the new phenomenon called hip hop. Not only was Simmons having huge success as a concert promoter, manager of such acts as Kurtis Blow and Run-D.M.C., but he also orchestrated one of the first hip hop clothing partnerships.

Simmons and Lyer Cohan, who worked for Simmons’ Rush Management and would become head of Def Jam Records, set up a deal with German shoe manufacturer, Adidas. While playing at New York’s Madison Square Garden, Run-D.M.C. played thousands of fans, and the two Adidas representatives, the group played their song “My Adidas,” a song about the preferred shoes of the group. When the song came on, the thousands of fans in the Garden took off their Adidas and held them in the air. This was quite impressive to Adidas, impressive enough to offer a deal to the group. The Run-D.M.C. Adidas were shipped in a black box with no laces, the style that was set by the group. If not for Simmons, hip hop’s first sponsorship deal might not have been made.

About the same time that Rubin and Simmons started meeting with major labels for distribution, a young MC from New York came to the attention of the pair. He was LL Cool J, real name, James Todd. Rubin started working with the sixteen year old when Todd refused to quit calling Rubin to see if he had listened to his demo, a demo that had been sitting un-opened in a pile in his NYU dorm room. Rubin finally gave it a chance and saw Todd becoming the next big thing. After recording some tracks, Rubin and Simmons saw Todd as the future and decided to take the song “I Need a Beat” to Los Angeles for a meeting with associates from Warner Brothers Records. According to Simmons, when they put on LL Cool J’s “I Need a Beat,” “the whole room just sat there- some of them stared at the speakers, some of them just sat looking at their hands. It was like they were hearing music from another planet.” They left the building that day without a distribution deal with Warner Brothers. But before they left LA, they were playing “I Need a Beat” twelve times a day on KDAY, which had recently become an all-rap format station. 4 This success with an un-established artist later helped pave the way for negotiations with CBS Records. “I Need a Beat” was just the first of seven singles released that first year by Def Jam. After meeting with CBS, they settled at a six hundred thousand dollar promotion and distribution deal. 5 Todd’s next single, “Rock the Bells” went on to sell over nine hundred thousand copies, his biggest single to date. 6

Coming up Next: Movin’ on Up. Def Jam Moves Out of the Dorm and into the Corporate World.

  1. The Men Behind Def Jam
  2. Life and Def: Sex, Drugs, Money + God
  3. The Men Behind Def Jam
  4. Life and Def: Sex, Drugs, Money + God
  5. The Men Behind Def Jam
  6. Ibid.