It wasn’t all nostalgia and back-patting Friday night (October 14th) at the New York Public Library, where Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons recalled their shared piece of hip-hop history as co-founders of Def Jam Recordings. There was also group meditation – led by a barefoot, suntanned and sublimely calm Rubin, who kicked off the evening with breathing exercises and a three-minute moment of silence.
“There’s a power that happens when a big group of people gather together,” explained Rubin. “I just thought it would be nice for people to share a moment and create a space for something new.”
“You want the world to move slow so you can watch it unfold,” echoed Simmons. “Music does that…in between the spaces of the notes, there’s an awareness. All the other shit disappears, and it’s just the music. It brings you to the present. That’s what meditation is for, too.”
In the years after Def Jam was officially born in 1984 at 5 University Place – the street address of Rubin’s college dorm room at New York University, which also doubled as the company’s first mailing address – Rubin and Simmons elevated hip-hop’s potential and minted some of its earliest superstars, from LL Cool J and Run-DMC to the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. Their legacy is now the subject of a book, Def Jam Records: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label.
“It was about street culture,” said Rubin, who remembered his first experiences hearing hip-hop at the downtown nightclubs Negril and the Roxy. “I would say the closest parallel would be punk rock. It was music made by people who weren’t usually educated in music but who really loved this art form. At the time when we started, there was no real upside in doing it… I’m surprised that it ended up being our jobs.”
By the time Rubin and Simmons met, the latter was already an established hip-hop promoter and the manager of acts like Whodini and his brother’s own Run-DMC. “On the radio, it was Patrick Juvet’s ‘I love America’ or ‘YMCA’ by the Village People,” recalled Simmons. “It was just foreign to the hood. We didn’t want to use any instrumentation…[or have] anything to do with black radio. It was counter to them, but it was ours. It was us, intentionally being young.”
As the library’s Paul Holdengraber played highlights from Rubin and Simmons’ partnership – from LL Cool J’s “I Need a Beat,” one of Def Jam’s first releases, to the Beasties’ “Fight for Your Right” – Simmons credited the label’s early hit streak to Rubin’s “genius” as a producer. “He stepped up and made records that were just better than everybody else’s,” said Simmons.
Rubin said that “Walk This Way,” the hybrid smash that brought together Run-DMC and Aerosmith, was the first song he conceived with “an actual purpose” in mind. “Up until that point, rap music was so alien to anyone who wasn’t in the hip-hop culture,” he explained. “I wanted to find a song that would help bridge that gap so that people understood it really wasn’t that different. And the Aerosmith song was very close to a rap song already.”
Rubin also talked of how he relentlessly pursued a 21-year-old Chuck D, who was disillusioned with the music industry and hesitant to compete with younger rappers like a then-teenage LL Cool J. “Chuck felt he was too old to be a rapper,” said Rubin. He was surprised when the MC finally showed up to the studio with the members of Public Enemy, and admitted that he was later moved to tears when he first heard the group’s “Fight the Power.” “That was what made it OK for him to do it…he didn’t have to go one-on-one with LL. He saw it as a punk band, kind of like the Clash.”
The talk focused almost entirely on the years leading up to Rubin’s controversial exit from Def Jam – or the moment when, as Rubin euphemized, “because of our love for each other, I felt it’d be best if we did the same thing separately.” But two brief video segments cast a light on the pair work apart from one another: first, the world’s introduction to a young Kanye West via Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam, and then the video for Johnny Cash‘s “Hurt,” which Rubin produced before the iconic rocker’s death in 2003.
“He had been discarded by his label…and he had really lost faith in himself,” Rubin said of Cash, whose daughter Rosanne was in the audience. “I met with him and talked about the idea of making the best music he has ever made, which was a radical idea for someone who had made maybe 70 or 80 albums by then.”
“Rick gave people room to breathe,” added Simmons, bringing the night full circle. “Every time we went in the studio, he made that person the best he could be.”