In 1984, Def Jam Records, the label that defined hip-hop's commercial and artistic potential, was born in a very unlikely location: a tiny New York University dorm room. Founder Rick Rubin — now a record-industry legend who's shepherded the careers of everyone from Jay Z to the Red Hot Chili Peppers — hadn't returned to that Greenwich Village double-occupancy room in three decades. But for Rolling Stone Films' premiere documentary, Rick Was Here, he ventured back to Weinstein Hall, room 712, to remember how it all began. "I can't believe it's 30 years," he says. "It's really trippy."
In the film presented by MaggieVision Productions and director Josh Swade, Rubin recalls the energy of Eighties New York, the attempt to make records that sounded like the raw performances he heard in clubs and the wild parties he threw in the dorm room listed as the label address on the first Def Jam 12-inch, T La Rock and Jazzy Jay's explosive, drum machine-driven "It's Yours." The Beastie Boys' Adam Horovitz remembers how he plucked a demo out of a pile in the room and told Rubin, "Man, this is really good, Rick. You gotta check it out." (The tape belonged to a teenage MC named LL Cool J.)
Once he teamed with burgeoning mogul Russell Simmons, the Def Jam age — and hip-hop as an unavoidable market force — officially began. Rubin started DJ-ing for the Beasties and spent two years working with them on their legendary debut album, Licensed to Ill. "Nothing that happened was intentional," he tells us. "Everything was trying to make something cool to play for our friends that they would like."
In Rick Was Here — which arrives as Def Jam is celebrating its 30th anniversary with a new box set and special concert tonight at Brooklyn's Barclays Center — Simmons, LL Cool J, Rubin's college roommate Adam Dubin, former Def Jam president Lyor Cohen and more tell the story of how it all became possible. "Make it yours," Rubin says. "That's the thing that can change the world."