The Perkins Perspective | Books | Spring 2012
Def Jam Recordings
By Maurice Dolberry
Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label
Russell Simmons, Lyor Cohen, and Kevin Liles
New York: Publishers Group UK (2011), 311 pages
Bearing the subtitle The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label, the Rizzoli published coffee-table damager Def Jam Recordings is a hefty tribute – literally and figuratively – to hip-hop’s flagship business endeavor.
Equal parts historical timeline, picture vault, and cultural archive, this enormous 311-page purple book (what other color could it have been!?) chronicles the rise and rise of Russell, Rick, Lyor, and Kevin’s vision for hip-hop. The story in Def Jam Recordings is told primarily through pictures, essays by Bill Adler and Dan Charnas, and interviews from various other sources. It serves as an eclectic chronology of events, beginning with stories from Def Jam’s inception in 1985, and concluding with praises of its status as an industry stalwart in 2010.
This book is not intended to be read straight through cover to cover, no more than Def Jam expects its listeners to line up all of its recordings and listen to them in chronological order. This is a story told in bits and pieces, many of them anachronistic, but almost all of them entertaining. It follows the paradigm of the not-so-far-fetched urban legend involving MTV, in which its show’s producers are told to change camera angles approximately every three seconds in order to keep the mercurial attention of their viewers.
Pick up the book at any point, open it, and you’ll be treated to a one- or two-page anecdote about some detail in the Def Jam storyline. Turn to page 117, for example, and you’re greeted by a dope picture of Slick Rick, circa 1999 -- eye patch, royal blue and gold robes, and a crown tilted to the right. Classic Ricky Walters. You’ll need to turn back about nine pages to see the beginning of the “Slick Rick section,” though, through pages of Public Enemy photos, paintings, and album covers, a Davey D picture, and even a shot of Original Concept, the Long Island DJ’ing crew that helped represent for the DJ in “Def Jam.”
On the Bus
Once you turn back, you can read the short story about Russell's and Rick's discovery of Slick Rick in London, and how they ended up going to a rehabilitation clinic to try to sign the then smoked-out Slick Rick to Def Jam. A page or so later, you can read Chris Lighty’s anecdote about how Slick Rick later snubbed LL Cool J while on the Def Jam tour bus.
Those of us immersed in hip-hop culture know that MC’ing involves an incredible amount of braggadocio. We also know that if LL Cool J’s ego is large enough to deserve its own zip code, then Slick Rick’s would barely fit into its own state. The more interesting part is actually picturing Lighty, LL, Slick Rick, and the entire cast of Def Jam artists and executives on a tour bus together, and having the story told from the perspectives of the participants.
Def Jam spares us from the sordid tales of debauchery and lascivious happenings that we know happen in the lives of many famous people. But it does dig into the internal conflicts that have both plagued and sustained Def Jam throughout its existence: Russell’s aloof indifference, Rick’s ambivalence about how to create and make money doing it, Lyor’s chauvinist stance on women who MC (“Female rappers are wack!”). All are offered up for scrutiny.
This is far from a tell-all or a full “insider’s look,” but Def Jam doesn’t hide from the turmoil and the ugly parts of its history, most of which is told through the numerous pictures in the book. There’s plenty of hyper-masculine posturing and angry young black faces, sprinkled with candid pictures of these same young men smiling and enjoying the life Def Jam has afforded them. They are dressed in A-shirts and sagging jeans, Starter jackets and baseball hats, argyle cardigans and slacks, tuxedos and three-piece suits, and everything between.
The women, on the other hand, are almost all dressed scantily, and most of them assume provocative poses. I’m not sure if the message of misogyny is intended or accidental, but it does scream on you like an excited MC, and is reflective of that dark side of Def Jam, hip-hop, and American society in general.
This is the type of book that hip-hop heads will want to have at their cribs (its $60 U.S. price tag makes it the 311-page equivalent of a four-finger ring or diamond-crusted bracelet), and that the cursory fans who visit them will pick up and find intriguing.
While Def Jam’s story isn’t new, this method for telling it is, and it’s a fitting over-sized tribute to a larger-than-life corporation. As Russell Simmons has always said, “Dej Jam isn’t a label, it’s a movement!” This is a book representative of that bold statement.
Maurice Dolberry is in the doctoral program for curriculum and instruction at the University of Washington. His research interests include science education and hip-hop epistemology, critical pedagogy, and public scholarship. Before this, he taught science and math for 12 years. He says he is a sci-fi nerd, hip-hop head, pop-culture junkie, and wrestling coach.
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