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Aug. 04, 2005

Def Jam, Inc.
By Gregory McNamee

Bottom line: A fly-on-the-wall account of how the anarchic, dangerous, and ever so hip record label Def Jam became part of the music establishment.

By Stacy Gueraseva (One World/Random House, 352 pages, $23.95)

Build a little laboratory. Fill it with brilliant inventions that are unusual enough to intrigue, impress or frighten the neighbors. Then let the rest of the world know what you've done.

If you're lucky, you'll have an Apple Computer on your hands. On the other hand, the neighbors might be coming at you with pitchforks and torches, or the world might not have the slightest interest in your creation.

Most of the neighbors didn't much care when a noise-addicted suburbanite named Rick Rubin decided to turn his New York University dorm room into a combination dance floor, rehearsal space and party center. After all, he wasn't the loudest distraction in the city, or even in the dorm -- a fellow student down the hall, as it happens, had rigged up his electric typewriter to an amplifier so that the keyboard sounded like gunshots being fired. Even so, Rubin soon ran afoul of the dorm elders, hauled before their bench by an enterprising law student on the charge of being a nuisance for all the racket he was making.

Writes music journalist Stacy Gueraseva in "Def Jam, Inc.: Russell Simmons, Rick Rubin, and the Extraordinary Story of the World's Most Influential Hip-Hop Label," Rubin mounted a spirited defense. "I am a punk rock musician," he said, "and volume is integral to the music. To have punk rock without volume is to diminish its artistic value and merit. Therefore, volume is a necessary part of me doing my art."

To judge by that incident, Rubin would have made a fine lawyer. Instead, he parlayed his love of loud, unmediated and -- at least to some ears -- annoying music into an artist-friendly record label, Def Jam. What's more, he devoted most of his attention to acts that were in the process of creating the dominant sound of today -- not rock, but rap, sung by inner-city kids who came in over the transom, at first, and were then scouted as diligently as champion athletes.

At Rubin's side, early on, was another young suburbanite with street credentials and a love of all things loud. As obsessed as Rubin with music, Russell Simmons also had a flair for stagecraft and buzz-building and a big-picture way of seeing the music business. The two were a natural team, and they recruited such local acts as LL Cool J (whose 1984 song "I Need a Beat" was Def Jam's first release), Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys to become hitmakers with an uncommonly good track record.

The walls of the city began to shake with the new sound, and soon kids all over the country were buying Def Jam records, and the majors began to take notice of the noise of cash registers ringing. They came knocking, and, in 1985, Rubin and Simmons signed a multi-album deal with CBS for $2 million, not paying much attention to the implications of a proviso that mingled the proceeds of the boutique label's entire output. "Def Jam's 14 royalty points did not mean a whole lot," Gueraseva notes, "because if they released a hit album along with two or three stiffs, they could possibly not see any royalties: CBS would recoup the stiffs' deficit from the hit album's royalties."

That, of course, is how the big guys do business. The hits kept on coming, though, even as Def Jam became just another imprint within a succession of machines that treated music as product and musicians as employees -- if well-rewarded ones. "I go in my bathroom, my sink is filled up with ice and 40-ounces and Hennessy bottles," one artist recalled of Def Jam's golden age. "Blunts laying on my bed with like a quarter of weed!"

By that time Rubin was on the way out the door, well rewarded himself; he would go on to produce such acts as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Tom Petty and Johnny Cash. Simmons, who sold the label in 1999, would extend his production and management skills to embrace most of the known media. Others would do the day-to-day work of making Def Jam's roster known to the world, a roster that came to include middle of the road artists like Mariah Carey alongside rap acts.

A handful of casualties aside, there are few cautionary tales in this anecdotal, sometimes even gossipy book; the story ends happily for almost everyone involved. Even though, as Gueraseva notes, "the Def Jam Records founded in Rick Rubin's dorm was a faint echo of the giant conglomerate it had become," you can bet that there are young MBAs across the world wondering how to replicate the label's success. Lesson one, "Def Jam, Inc.," instructs: play it loud.