Def Jam – In pictures

From humble beginnings in student digs, the record label Def Jam is credited with bringing street culture to the masses – and helping to elect a president. As a new book celebrates the label's first 25 years, Gareth Grundy examines its legacy
Rubin: Russell Simmons
Def Jam co-founders Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin in New York, 1987, on the set of Run-DMC film Tougher than Leather, three years after they had established the label

As a manager and promoter, Simmons was connected to a new generation of artists hungry for success. Rubin, still a student when the label began, was a creative visionary, and not just as a record producer: he also came up with the name and logo design.

Rubin: “When I first met Russell he was dressed like a substitute teacher, in a sports jacket with elbow patches. He was really funny and fun to talk to. Full of energy.”

Simmons: “Rick had fresh ears and he affirmed that what I thought I was doing had greater legs even than I thought”
Photograph: Adler Archive
Def Jam: Photo of Public Enemy
Public Enemy

Hyde Park, 1987 by David Corio

Extreme both lyrically and musically, the intensely political, thrillingly innovative Long Island group were the jewel in the crown of Def Jam's early years. Chuck D: “What Public Enemy did would have been impossible with any other label. That’s because of the deal we made with Rick Rubin. He agreed to leave us alone. Rick is one of the greatest producers of all time, but he had the intuition to let us do what we wanted in the studio”
Photograph: David Corio/Redferns
Photograph: David Corio/Action images
Def Jam: LL Cool J by Michael Benabib
LL Cool J

New York, 1987 by Michael Benabib

From left: DJ Bobcat, LL, E Love and Cut Creator Born James Todd Smith in Queens, New York, LL Cool was signed to Def Jam while still a teenager and dropped out of school to become one of rap's most successful solo stars. Although now better known for TV and film roles, he released twelve albums on Def Jam, finally departing in 2008

LL Cool J: “When I heard It's Yours (first single on Def Jam, by T La Rock), I sent a demo tape to the address on the label, 5 University Place. Rick Rubin's phone no. was on there too, 212 420 06666. So I called him every day for, like, two weeks”
Photograph: Michael Benabib
Def Jam: Beastie Boys with Lyor Cohen by Ricky Powell
Beastie Boys with Lyor Cohen

Florida, July 1986 by Ricky Powell

Beastie Boys debut album 1986's Licensed to Ill, produced by Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin was the first rap album to top the US chart. A masterpiece of teenage rebellion it capitalised on their bratty early persona, although they swapped tabloid notoriety for buddhism after leaving Def Jam in 1988

Here they're pictured on Run-DMC's Raising Hell tour from 1986, alongside tour manager Lyor Cohen. Cohen would become president of Def Jam and is now chairman of the Warner Music Group.

Adam Horovitz, right: “The tour was so much fun. Hanging out with all these dudes, travelling and partying. For a teenager, it was awesome. We were so into rap music and to watch Run-DMC every night was amazing"
Photograph: Ricky Powell
Photograph: Action images
Def Jam: Jay-Z at the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn by Jonathan Mannion

Marcy Projects, Brooklyn, New York, where he grew up, in 1997 by Jonathan Mannion

Always the entrepreneur, Jay-Z's debut album was released on his Roc-a-Fella records, with which Def Jam quickly went into partnership, prompting another boom period for the label. By 2004 Jay-Z was named President/CEO of Def Jam itself, buying himself out to go solo again five years later, his moves in the boardroom almost matching his considerable achievements on record.

Jay-Z: “I think it sends a great message to artists: if you put enough work in and pay attention, maybe one day you can run a company”
Photograph: Jonathan Mannion
Photograph: Action images
Def Jam: Shawn
Kanye West, Jay-Z and Rihanna

Madison Square Garden, 2009

Jay-Z signed Rihanna while president/CEO of Def Jam, while Kanye came to prominence producing much of his Blueprint album in 2001
Photograph: Kevin Mazur/WireImage
Def Jam: Kanye West by Willy Vanderperre
Kanye West

From sleeve of album 808s & Heartbreak, 2008 by Willy Vanderperre

Chicago-born Kanye West came to Def Jam via the label's alliance with Jay-Z's Roc-a-Fella. Having made his name producing much of Jay-Z's Blueprint album West's subsequent solo work, and relentless ambition, pushed hip hop beyond mere genre.

Kanye West: “I want to just apologize to everybody out there who says I’m arrogant. I apologize to everybody for believing in myself. The only thing arrogant about me are my goals...I want everything to be perfect. I want to compete with U2. My goals are so lofty”
Photograph: Willy Vanderperre
Photograph: Action images
Def Jam: Slick Rick by Jonathan Mannion
Slick Rick

New York, 1999 by Jonathan Mannion

Born Richard Walters in Wimbledon, Rick moved to New York as an 11-year-old. His laid back, story-telling rhymes made him an acclaimed MC, while the casual misogyny of tracks such as Treat Her Like a Prostitute attracted notoriety. As did being sentenced to 5-years in prison for attempted murder in 1990. Although Def Jam stuck by him, his career never recovered.

Bill Adler, former Def Jam publicist: “Slick Rick was the ultimate solo rapper. He really did think of himself as the ruler and of every other MC as a peasant or a bum—and he’d tell you so in a minute, too”
Photograph: Jonathan Mannion
Photograph: Action images
Def Jam: Warren G by Jonathan Mannion
Warren G

Los Angeles, 2001 by Jonathan Mannion

Def Jam took a back seat as gangster rap emerged in the mid-90s. Nevertheless, it scored one of period's biggest hits with Warren G's first single, Regulate, which was simultaneously released by Def Jam and Death Row. Warren G was Dr Dre's stepbrother and started out alongside Snoop Dogg in the group 213.

Warren G (from Def Jam Inc by Stacy Gueraseva): “Def Jam flew me out to New York. I think it might have been my first time flying”
Photograph: Jonathan Mannion
Photograph: Action images
Def Jam: Beasie Boys at Unisphere, Queens, New York by Sunny Bak
Beastie Boys

Unisphere, New York, 1986 by Sunny Bak

A similar shot from the same session graced the centre spread of Licensed to Ill
Photograph: Sunny Bak


Gareth Grundy

The GuardianTramp

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