Title(s): Founder of Def Jam Recordings
Artists They Worked With: Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Run–D.M.C.
Sylvia Robinson signed the first successful rap record; and Cory Robbins signed rap’s first superstar recording act. But Rick Rubin is the first bona-fide rap A&R man because his label, Def Jam, was the first to claim hip-hop as its main territory.
As a college freshman at New York University, Rubin fell in love with the rap shows taking place at downtown clubs. He wondered: Why didn’t rap records sound as energetic and raw as the stuff he heard live? Thankfully, somebody else was asking that same question: Russell Simmons, who imparted that ethos to Run-D.M.C.’s debut single. Rubin heard it on the radio and, inspired, vowed to produce his own record. The result, T. La Rock & Jazzy Jay’s “It’s Yours,” took Simmons’ “no-music-just-beats” aesthetic to its logical conclusion, and eventually brought the two men together as partners in Rubin’s nascent label.
Rubin’s proposal was simple: “I’ll do all the work. You just be my partner.” And while Simmons indeed toiled greatly to build the business, a definite division of labor emerged: Rubin signed and produced the artists. Simmons promoted them.
Rubin’s signings at Def Jam included L.L. Cool J, Public Enemy featuring Chuck D, Beastie Boys. Original Concept featuring Doctor Dre., and Slick Rick. He’d wanted to sign DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, but Simmons dissuaded him.
Like all A&R executives and entrepreneurs, Rubin retained indispensable talent scouts. It was Ad Rock of the Beasties who dug L.L.’s demo out of the rubble of Rick’s dorm room. And it nearly took a nation of millions to sign Chuck D. to a record deal: Both D.M.C. and Doctor Dre are said to have brought Rick the demo on separate occasions, and Def Jam’s head of promo Bill Stephney eventually convinced Chuck to sign.
Rubin and Simmons’ partnership began to fall apart when Simmons tried his own hand at A&R. While one record proved to be a hit — Oran “Juce” Jones’ “The Rain—his other signings, like Alyson Williams, Tashan, Blue Magic, and the Black Flames, ended up falling flat. And Simmons didn’t think much of Rubin’s much more successful expansion into heavy metal with the signings of Slayer and Danzig.
Rubin jumped his own ship in 1988 to found Def American Recordings, taking his heavy metal acts and leaving Simmons with the rap roster. While Def Jam would struggle artistically and commercially until the arrival of Chris Lighty (hits by 3rd Bass and Redman notwithstanding), Rubin resumed his success with Def American artists the Geto Boys and Sir Mix-A-Lot, and would go on to have a huge career as a rock record producer.