The birth of Def Jam Records is the stuff of legend. Rick Rubin launched the label out of his NYU dorm room in the mid-’80s, and the stories of his collegiate escapades, documented in a 2011 oral history assembled by New York Magazine, seem straight off the pages of a Judd Apatow movie script:
Adam Horovitz, Beastie Boys: “Nick Cooper knew about this guy Rick Rubin who went to NYU and would throw parties and had turntables. And a bubble machine. We were like, ‘If we had a fucking D.J. and a fucking bubble machine, we’d be fucking killing it.’
Eric Hoffert, college classmate: “Rick Rubin was in a hardcore band called Hose. They would play downstairs in the cafeteria of the Weinstein dorm. It was crazed, almost Charles Manson–like. They were pretty awful. And people couldn’t make sense of what he was onto—the fact that he was in this band, and then he’d come back from these hip-hop clubs at night. He was already a budding impresario. He was a complete powerhouse; he worked fourteen, sixteen hours a day.”
Adam Dubin, college roommate: “Rick’s most famous dorm party was the bikini contest. It was about 150 people. Packed. Everything about it was unsafe. Surging crowds, straight vodka, gin, tons of beer. Finally the time rolls around for the bikini part, and girls start stripping and people start throwing drinks. I kind of remember Adam Horovitz pouring water over some of those girls.”
Around this time, Rubin met Russell Simmons, a man five years his elder who was already a power player on the fledgling New York hip hop scene. Rubin’s creative vision and Simmons’ connections and business savvy were the twin rockets that launched the the careers of Run-DMC, LL Cool J, and Beastie Boys into the stratosphere. Indeed, Rubin’s coarse, rock-driven sound was instrumental in the establishment of hip hop as a bonafide commercial force.
This piece revisits 10 of his most significant early productions: T La Rock and Jazzy Jay’s “It’s Yours,” the first record that Def Jam ever released, and seminal records by Run-DMC, LL Cool J, & the Beastie Boys. Rubin took an extended break from rap production in the ’90s before returning to the fold in the early ’00s with songs like Rage Against The Machine’s “Maggie’s Farm.” System of a Down’s “Chop Suey,” and Jay Z’s “99 Problems.”
T La Rock and Jazzy Jay – “It’s Yours” (1984)
Rubin on “It’s Yours,” as told by Genius:
“‘It’s Yours’ is the very first record I made. At the time, the only place you could hear hip-hop on the radio in New York was on WHBI, WBLS, or 98.7 Kiss, for an hour or two. Magic was on WHBI and then moved to WBLS, and Afrika Islam was on WHBI, where Red Alert was guest of his. Then Red got his own show on 98.7 Kiss.
“I felt like all of us made really interesting, challenging records. And they were all different, and cool, in their own way. And then when you listened to a DJ like Mr. Magic, every record sounded different.”
Run DMC – “Walk This Way” (1985)
DMC on “Walk This Way,” as told by Loudwire:
“We always loved to rap over ‘Walk This Way’ at block parties and park parties. Before ‘Rapper’s Delight,’ every MC rapped over ‘Walk This Way.’ We didn’t know it was ‘Walk This Way.’ It was, ‘Yo Jay, get out that Toys in the Attic album out and play number four!’ And we had never heard the lyrics. The DJs would never let it play that far.”
LL Cool J – “Rock the Bells” (1986)
LL Cool J on how he signed to Def Jam, as told by Complex:
“I used to send out demo tapes out to all different labels. They would send me rejection letters. Then I met Rick Rubin. I didn’t meet him, I actually sent him a tape and called him every day and bugged him. And finally he called me back. I had bought a T La Rock record, he had Def Jam productions, and I sent it in based on that.
“First time I met Rick, I walked in the dorm area at 5 University Place. He was like, ‘I’m Rick.’ I was like, ‘You Rick? I thought you was black!'”
Run DMC – “It’s Tricky” (1986)
Rubin on how Def Jam challenged the hip hop status quo, as told by NPR:
“Up until the time of Def Jam, pretty much most of the rap records at the time were R&B records with people rapping on them. And then I think one of the things that separated our records from the ones that came prior was that they had more to do with what the actual hip hop culture was like, and that was only because we came as fans from this culture and, in making the records and producing the records, the goal was to capture the energy that you felt at a hip hop club — and they weren’t really clubs then, they were more like a hip hop “night” at another club. So if you went out and you saw DJs and MCs and the energy that would happen on that one night, that’s was really what we tried to get into the records.”
Beastie Boys – “No Sleep Til Brooklyn” (1986)
Rubin on the genesis of “No Sleep Til Brooklyn,” as told by Rolling Stone:
“All four of us always wrote lyrics and then kind of pooled ideas, and we hung out a lot. We would go out to Danceteria pretty much every night and hang out and come up with lines to make each other laugh. Usually we’d only be working on one song at a time, so let’s say that song was the song of that month. So for that month, every time we’d go out, we write rhymes and collect them all. Then eventually, we’d put them all together and try to figure out the best order for it to happen in.”
Beastie Boys – “The New Style” (1986)
Russell Simmons on the Beastie Boys’ fateful decision to leave Def Jam, as told by DJ Vlad:
“They couldn’t get along with Lyor [Cohen] and Rick. Lyor wanted to manage ‘em and make them a big movie at a big movie studio… Rick being the genius he was, I’m sure their next album would have been greater. I’m sure that had Rick stayed with the Beastie Boys they would have been Eminem or greater.”
Beastie Boys – “Girls” (1986)
Rubin on “Girls,” as told by Consequence of Sound:
“Adam Horovitz and I wrote ‘Girls’ on a train. We trained down to DC to record with the Junkyard Band, this band of kids who played D.C. go-go on garbage cans. We put out a Junkyard Band single on Def Jam.
“On the train back, we wrote ‘Girls.’ It was rooted in an Isley Brothers song, ‘Shout.’ It was written with that music in mind and then we sort of did our version of what that would have been. We just wrote really stupid, offensive words.”
Beastie Boys – “Fight For Your Right” (1987)
Rubin on the incredible success of Licensed to Ill, as told by XXL:
“That one was recorded over a long period of time, and I think one of the reasons it’s as good as it is is that each song really has its own life, which I don’t think would’ve been the case had we made the whole album in two or three months, it wouldn’t have had the breadth and depth that it does, especially musically. That was kind of two years of our lives. Not two years of our lives in the studio every day, but we’d work on a song for a couple of days, then we might not go back in the studio for another month or six weeks, then whatever was sort of speaking to us at that moment would be the next one. So it really came together over time, with all of the influences—both of the day and the influences we’d grown up with. I’d grown up with Led Zeppelin and AC/DC and more hard rock, and they’d grown up on punk rock, and you can feel all of those influences in that record.”
Run DMC – “Christmas in Hollis” (1987)
Rubin on turning music into a career, as told by NPR:
“My parents always wanted me to go to law school, but at the same time were supportive of the things that I liked. I looked at it as a hobby, I never looked at it as a job, and then the hobby sort of took on a life of its own and ended up becoming a job, but I never knew that it could be, I didn’t even know that it was possible to be.”
LL Cool J – “Going Back to Cali” (1988)
Rubin on “Going Back to Cali,” as told by Rolling Stone:
“LL sometimes likes to say, ‘Give me concepts,’ because he can write about anything. ‘Going Back to Cali’ was more of a personal story for me, because I had been spending time in California and going back and forth. I think that was the last record we made together.
“I don’t know what the inspiration for the horns was, but that was the first time we used them. Maybe it’s because we would scratch in horn stabs often and thought it would be interesting to do them ourselves. That part was all improvised. I would just say what to play and the musicians would play them. We had a horn solo in it, too, which is an odd choice because it’s typically not something I like. But for some reason we did it.”