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Def Jam at 25

The Yankees of hip-hop labels, reconsidered

What is it about hip-hop that, inevitably, almost any conversation revolves around dates—around how far back in the day you can claim to go? Is there a culture as proudly obsessed with its past that still publicly and adamantly refuses to get caught up in a pissing match about nostalgia? Even though those pissing matches are inevitable?

Yet there's just something about what hip-hop has always asked of us—demanded of us. To treat it as bigger than it maybe was, at least at first. To do more than just fuck around with it. To commit. To be hip-hop. That's what Def Jam was, and, at its best, maybe still is: a commitment. Now 25 years old, the beloved label, celebrating New York City rap back when New York City had way more to celebrate, always just felt—oh, God, stop me before I say it—real. Knowing that a rapper recorded for Def Jam signaled that he (usually, he) was clearly, exponentially more talented and important. This label was hip-hop, and just picking up a Def Jam record made us more hip-hop as well.

For many of us—for me, at least—to talk about Def Jam is to talk about and remember the '80s, when I'd spend time in record stores like the now-shuttered Beat Street, asking the in-house DJ to play me this, play me that. And, slowly, I started to differentiate by label—to realize that as with Rough Trade, Verve, or Sub Pop, a Def Jam artist was deeply individual, but also part of an exclusive, narrowly cast collective of like-minded masterminds, led by Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons from the onset, and Lyor Cohen later. They haven't always dominated, but they've survived: Marking a quarter-century is cause enough for celebration, but 25 consistent years of anything hip-hop? Much less from a label? Hip-hop hooray! That's the stuff dreams—and a $60 commemorative box set, and a prime-time VH1 special—are made of.

Russell Simmons, double-fisting
Jeff Kravitz via Getty Images
Russell Simmons, double-fisting

Hey, kids! You want hits? The Def Jam 25 Anniversary Collection box set has got 'em! Five CDs' worth! Chart toppers! Grammy winners! Artists that shaped a generation! The fabric of our lives! The set inexplicably does not contain the first two singles with a Def Jam catalog number—the Beastie Boys' "Rock Hard" and LL Cool J's "I Need a Beat"—but it does include the first single with the official logo: T-La Rock's "It's Yours." And, thankfully, most of the material that follows has aged quite nicely. Arranged by chronology, the five discs come packed in a plastic milk-crate (too cute by half) alongside a cheap-looking T-shirt affixed with the Def Jam and Adidas logos—even legends need corporate sponsorship.

Listening to much of this music is like finding an old friend on Facebook: Method Man's "Bring the Pain" still burns with pot-induced paranoia, Montell Jordan's "This Is How We Do It" still swings, and as for Jay-Z's "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)" . . . perfection. Has the appeal of Boss diminished with time? Does Hollis Crew read a little, oh, I don't know, dated? Yeah—and so what? It was the shit back then, you sad-faced clown. Hip-hop is hotwired to be time-coded. It's about changing up on a dime, and, over the years, Def Jam's had a lot of currency: LL. Public Enemy. Redman. Method Man. Redman and Method Man. Nas. Jay. EPMD. Kanye.

But never Heavy D. To his dismay. Back in the mid-'80s, before he scored a deal with Uptown Records, the Jamaican-born, New York–raised rapper sent his demo to Def Jam three times, and got three rejections. It wasn't so much wanting to get signed—it was wanting to get signed with Def Jam. "Other labels were doing hip-hop," Heavy told me. "But you could see [Def Jam] was a movement and more than just a one-off. They believed in the culture, and that the culture was necessary." Think of it like the Yankees: Even if they never get a ring, those pinstripes demand respect.

I flipped in and out of the recently aired VH1 Hip Hop Honors show, a yearly fete honoring rap's past that, this year, served as an extended Def Jam reunion party and love letter. You can only take so much Tracy Morgan outside of 30 Rock, and TV is notoriously unkind to live music, but the show still worked. DMX killed. Likewise Public Enemy. Foxy Brown looked crazy. EPMD looked bored. (Thankfully, they did "Crossover," the only rap song that bites a Beach Boys lyric, or at least the only good one.)

There were glaring absences: Jay, Rihanna, LL, Ne-Yo, and the Beasties (the latter understandable, of course). Oh, and Kanye, too, but I figure he's laying low these days. (So much for a "Run This Town" sing-along.) As for those who made it, I was pissed that Mary J. Blige and Meth's version of the sublime "You're All I Need" was truncated, especially when Rick freaking Ross got to do all five excruciating minutes of "Hustlin'." It just sounded awful—the cameras kept cutting to Rick, Russell, and Lyor up in the VIP section looking embarrassed, and Lyor signed the guy. Every second of airtime Ross received made me angrier—or maybe just disappointed. Why did Mary and Meth get bum-rushed while this clown got to shine? What does Rick Ross have to do with Def Jam's legacy? With hip-hop's legacy? With the culture?

"He's had three No. 1 albums," my 20-year-old son retorted. "Nobody cares about Method Man. He doesn't sell." Maybe. Maybe it's not my hip-hop anymore. But I'm grateful that my hip-hop still exists at all.

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