For the Record

Left: Rick Rubin, Russell Simmons, and the New York Public Library's Paul Holdengraber. (All photos: Jori Klein)

FROM A CRAMPED NYU DORM ROOM to an SRO event at the New York Public Library, Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin have come a long way. So too has the culture. When the men responsible for introducing hardcore hip-hop to a thoroughly unprepared Reaganite America are honored at one of this city’s most venerable institutions, things have changed. And Simmons and Rubin can lay claim to the title of prime instigators of that change, having racked up an impressive array of firsts: first white rap group (Beastie Boys), first B-boy teen idol (LL Cool J), first rap-rock hybrid (Run-DMC’s “Rock Box”), first rap-rock crossover smash (Run-DMC & Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way”), first political rap group (Public Enemy), first Brit-accented MC (Slick Rick), and on and on (to the break of dawn). Above all, through their pioneering indie label Def Jam, they advanced rap from the disco session-band tracks and novelty themes of the Sugar Hill/Enjoy era to the hard, spare drum-machine-and-DJ-cuts style that authentically reflected the sound of live hip-hop in the few New York clubs that would host it in the early 1980s, setting the stage for what has come to be known as the “golden age” of the genre (roughly 1987–94).

Arriving early to last Friday’s event, I scanned the advance crowd to see who was in the house. Besides Simmons and Rubin themselves, I spotted Lou Reed, longtime Def Jam executive Lyor Cohen, Roseanne Cash, and journalists Nelson George and Michael Azerrad. The twin screens surrounding the stage cycled through ’80s photos and videos of Def Jam artists and staff—Public Enemy looking suitably serious, the Beasties suitably moronic, LL suitably cocky, Slick Rick suitably grabbing his package (in a suit), etc. The occasion was the release of a massive coffee-table book about the label, Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label, published by that bastion of street culture, Rizzoli. After a long clip of Jay-Z and Cornel West’s 2010 conversation in the same forum, “Live from NYPL” director Paul Holdengraber took the stage, introducing the evening’s subjects with outsider awe and thanking his nine-year-old son for helping guide him through the alien realm of rap. (Holdengraber’s uninformed enthusiasm throughout the talk was so great that I half expected him to rush out and purchase a Kangol and dookie chain before it was over.) Rubin looked like a blissed-out Rip Van Winkle (as he has for years), sporting a black T-shirt and shorts. Simmons rocked a red hoodie and Yankees cap. Barefoot and cross-legged in his chair, Rubin asked the audience to join him in a three-minute meditation session, noting that “a gathered mass of people creates power.” Given that Rubin was one of the stars of the Beasties’ 1986 “Fight for Your Right to Party” video, a virtual manifesto of loud, obnoxious behavior, this was progress (I think).

Admitting to standard-issue NYC ADD, Holdengraber quipped that it was “easier to listen to the Beastie Boys than to meditate.” Rubin smiled sagely as Simmons waxed about how meditation makes you aware of “the space between the notes” in music. Holdengraber explained the reasons for his relative ignorance of rap—“I grew up listening to and comparing all the different recordings of The Magic Flute”—before reading from Rubin’s high-school yearbook page, which boiled down to “Future plans: I wanna rock.” Rubin talked about matriculating to NYU from Long Beach High (Long Island) as a punk rock kid and attending Negril and some of the other early hip-hop clubs in downtown Manhattan. He thought rap was essentially black punk rock and saw the two genres as inextricably linked by timing, DIY attitude, sonic austerity, and a big middle finger held up to mainstream society. With great foresight, he also noted that existing rap records bore little resemblance to how underground MCs and DJs actually performed.

Left: Rick Rubin. Right: Russell Simmons.

Simmons had been in the game since the ’70s, managing old-school MC Kurtis Blow and his younger brother Joseph “Run” Simmons’s fledgling group Run-DMC, among other artists. (He came up with Kurtis’s stage name because one of the reigning club DJs at the time was called Eddie Cheeba, and, well, blow is better than cheeba; this went over Holdengraber’s head, though the audience laughed loudly.) Having heard Rubin’s revolutionary 1984 production job on T La Rock & Jazzy Jay’s single “It’s Yours,” Simmons was excited to meet the young, white longhair with baby cheeks and pubescent facial hair. They were, in fact, already mining parallel aesthetics, with Run-DMC’s 1983 single “It’s Like That/Sucker MCs” also making use of a stark drum-machine program and little else. Simmons and Rubin set up shop in the latter’s NYU dorm room, where Rubin had a PA system and a drum machine “full of hits,” as Simmons put it. Speaking on their shared desire to “reduce” rather than “produce” rap tracks, Simmons said that the spare drum patterns “gave the artists room to breathe.” “It was a new, pure form of music,” Rubin said. “You would hear it live at a club, but never on record.” The pair sought to disseminate this new sound through Rubin’s nascent label Def Jam, originally formed to release a single by his punk band Hose. Simmons was quick to call Rubin “a musical genius,” adding that, “he now makes everything from Ram Dass to Slayer, spiritual teachers to devil worshippers.”

Rubin called “Walk This Way” a “record with a purpose.” “Rap was so alien to non-rap people, and I wanted to make a record that would show people that it’s not that different from rock.” Appropriately, early signings LL Cool J, the Beasties, and Run-DMC all incorporated metal guitar stabs and riffs into their records, and the idea for Public Enemy was partly inspired by the Clash. Rubin recalled how he phoned PE’s future MC Chuck D every day for six months to convince him to sign with Def Jam, and, after hearing their paradigm-shifting 1988 sophomore LP It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back for the first time, he wept. “It changed what rap could be,” he said, wistfully. Simmons added, “Chuck D got gold chains off of everyone’s necks and replaced them with red, black, and green medallions. He could make records about killing whitey, and it was fine as long as the music was good.”

Asked about why the pair dissolved their partnership fairly early on (1988), Rubin graciously said that he left partly to protect their friendship. Simmons then summarized the post-Rubin years at the label, which he continued to run until 1998, discussing the Def Poetry Slam, the discovery of Kanye West, business collaborations with Jay-Z, Scarface, Irv Gotti, and other hip-hop notables. Asked about his intimate, career-capping records with Johnny Cash, Rubin said that Cash had been dropped from his record labels and had lost confidence in himself when he met him. Rubin chose modern songs for the elderly country singer to cover, and the result was an extraordinary series of austere, autumnal albums. Holdengraber noted that the Cash records were an aesthetic return to Rubin’s early “Reduced by . . . ” production credit. Rubin pointed out Roseanne and her son in the audience to warm applause. Simmons acknowledged several present-day Def Jam executives in the crowd, saying that they had been interns when they started.

Today, Def Jam is, like rap itself, a more mainstream, commercial proposition. But as James Brown once said, “There was a time . . . ” And no one knew what time it was back then more than Simmons and Rubin.