I’m old enough to remember the beginning of Def Jam. I grew up in the Bay Area and was only 6 when they started in 1984, so I wasn’t there for Rick Rubin’s dorm parties 3000 miles away at NYU where, Rubin said, “it was a 10x10 room that had two refrigerator-sized speakers with turntables on top of them" and the Beasties, Run DMC and LL Cool J were frequent visitors. Def Jam’s first release wasn't hip-hop, it was punk- a 7” 45 RPM single by Rubin’s punk band, Hose, in a brown, paper bag without a label. But, I do remember the first time I heard each of Def Jam’s groups from Beastie Boys to Run DMC to LL Cool J to Public Enemy and even later artists, each of them were so influential to my love of hip-hop.
It had a lot of things that I LOVED about it: Oran "Juice" Jones coming out and doing a freestyle to "The Rain", hearing the behind the label stories, seeing some amazing collaborations, watching my old skool favorites performing just as hyped as ever and some amazing DJ talent. But, the show definitely had its not-so-hot moments.
In 1986, Hose broke up when Rubin turned his passion to hip-hop. He had made friends with Zulu Nation’s DJ Jazzy Jay, who can easily be called the most influential person in his life- he taught him hip-hop production and introduced him to Russell Simmons. They also produced rapper T La Rock’s “It’s Yours” and released it on their independent label, Def Jam Records. It was the first single to be released with the Def Jam logo.
The first album released under the Def Jam label was LL Cool J’s Radio in 1985. LL Cool J said, “I used to stalk Rick…and he’d have nothing to do with me,” in an interview that aired for VH1’s Hip-Hop Honors: Def Jam. Rubin finally heard the demo because Adrock from the Beasties made him listen to it and called LL to make history, though they didn’t know it at the time. When LL met him, he said, "you’re Rick? I thought you was black." Rubin answered, “Cool.” LL wasn’t there to perform, but probably the best overall performance was the Eminem, Cut Chemist and The Roots’ opening performance of LL Cool J classic, “Rock The Bells”.
Then, there was the I-can’t-believe-I’m-so-lucky-to-be-watching-this performance by Public Enemy, backed by The Roots which were the house band for the night. DJ Jazzy Jeff was their DJ for “Rebel Without A Pause”. Public Enemy was signed to Def Jam after Rubin heard Chuck D freestyling on a demo. The group’s politically charged lyrics help put Def Jam on the map as the label where you could say what you wanted and, at times, what needed to be said.
Another one of those moments for me was when, Onyx performed "Slam!" and not without plenty of shout outs to Jam Master Jay. It has been forever since I’ve seen these guys and to be honest, I hadn’t kept up with their whereabouts so I had no idea if they were even still alive. Well, not only are they still alive but, they killed it. They reminded everyone why 90s hip-hop is called the Golden Era of Hip-Hop, jumping on speakers, stripping off their shirts, losing their minds to the music and bringing so much energy. If kids were too young to know who Onyx was before the show, they definitely know who they are now.
Def Jam’s never been a label to listen to the word no, they’re a hip-hop label that signed hardcore band Slayer in its early days. Rubin paired Aerosmith with Run DMC for the classic crossover hit “Walk This Way”. Def Jam and Rubin turned hardcore punk rock Beasties into the rap trio that we know and love today. Def Jam is hip-hop and no one is going to change that. The show did an OK job at portraying the full depth of influence Def Jam has had.
One of them was Tracy Morgan as the host. This was definitely the worst choice from his ridiculous preacher impersonation to his incredibly lame skits that would have been SO much better if Mos Def or Dave Chappelle had performed them. But, the skits weren’t funny, they were just time fillers and you could tell. With Chris Rock sitting right next to Lyor and Russell, you have to wonder, you didn’t even want to ask Chris to host it?
Another moment was Jimmy Fallon. What was he doing there? Is it because The Roots is his house band for his late night show? He looked awkward and out of place. I still have no idea what he was doing there. I’ve never thought of him in connection to Def Jam…ever!
Was it the best it could've been? No. It would've been a much better idea for the originals to cover their own songs (Beasties withstanding) and where was Run DMC? Where was Jay-Z? They had his ad for his newest album but, he was nowhere to be seen. The Beasties had far more compelling interviews in the outtakes than the one that made it on air about recording "Hold It Now." But, they were trying to honor 25 years of Def Jam's influence on hip-hop in two hours and that's damn near impossible.