Is Def Jam’s Icon Series That Iconic?


This year marks 30 years since the first Def Jam single was released. Originally formed in NYU’s Weinstein dorms after Russell Simmons was introduced to Rick Rubin by Vincent Gallo, Def Jam quickly became a brand early hip-hoppers could trust. Whether you fall in the camp who considers T La Rock’s “It’s Yours” or LL Cool J’s “I Need a Beat” to be Def Jam’s first single, there’s no denying the legacy and impact the label’s had on the world at large.

In celebration, electronics giant Best Buy released bargain-priced collections of notable Def Jam artists as part of their Icon collection. But since, as Bruce McCulloch of “Kids in the Hall” once put it that “Greatest Hits are for housewives and little girls,” as well as the tumultuous relationship Def Jam seems to have with some of their artists over the years, you could question whether the selections are truly their most iconic works.

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Before we begin, it’s worth pointing out that some very notable Def Jam artists are absent from this string of releases. The reason you don’t see label stalwarts LL Cool J, DMX, and Public Enemy here is because Best Buy had already released their Icon selections years ago. So, they aren’t being omitted from the lovely Def Jam 30 cutout cardboard displays for any political or budgetary reasons.

In 1999, BET named EPMD the most sampled group in hip-hop. Influential in everything from production to slang to fashion, the duo of Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith made hip-hop their Business with a consistent and always relevant list of releases to their name. Along with launching the careers of Redman and K-Solo, EPMD have some of the strongest singles in the genre. While there’s been EPMD collections in the past, their Icon release is the definitive offering of their career with the best moments of each of their album represented with no solo cuts, just an focus on the group itself.

Our Verdict: Iconic

Foxy Brown
Foxy Brown’s alluring presence behind the mic commanded attention and respect regardless the subject matter. She had a surprisingly long tenure at Def Jam, but her Icon collections doesn’t really reflect all she did. While you do get pretty much everything you could want from her first two albums, and two out-of-order hits from her early 2000s work, notably absent is her duet with Jay-Z “Ain’t No N*gga,” a hit from the Def Jam released Nutty Professor soundtrack. Its omission is absolutely perplexing, but given you can get pretty much any other Foxy Brown verse you could desire on here, it still gets our approval.

Our Verdict: Iconic

New Jersey’s favorite son, Redman helped usher in an era of unpredictability at the label. And we mean that in the best of artistic ways, not in the DMX stealing an ambulance way. Anyway, Redman’s first four albums are one of the strongest four album streaks in the genre, and not only does the Icon collection focus mostly on these albums’ singles, but it also includes his collaborations and soundtrack cuts with Method Man, as well as two additional late era singles. No complaints here.

Our Verdict: Iconic

Method Man
The first MC who seemed like he was going to be the Wu’s first break-out star has, for some reason, always struggled with his full length releases, so the idea of cherry-picking his best moments should be an ideal way to experience Mr. Meth. Unfortunately, while the right choices were made for Meth’s first two albums, his Icon release has a disappointing amount of redundancies with the Redman release. Couple that with weaker entries from his mid-2000s work and the opportunity for an optimal Meth sampler seems squandered.

Our Verdict: Not Iconic

Ghostface Killah
When Ghost left Epic Records for Def Jam after the sample clearance debacle of his third album Bulletproof Wallets, he hoped Def Jam was going to give his projects the proper backing and attention they deserved. Right off the bat, we’re given the task of evaluating a “Best of” Ghostface Killah collection that can’t include any music from the first two albums that made him one of rap’s absolute best. Still, between Pretty Toney and Fishscale alone, a suitable compilation could be made. Unfortunately, this is the biggest disappointment of the series. While the selections from his aforementioned first two Def Jam albums are adequate, we get his Ghostdini album completely overlooked with perplexing selections from his other later Def Jam albums, as well as a slot wasted on the “Back Like That (Remix).”

Our Verdict: Not Iconic

Slick Rick
Rick the Ruler’s decade-plus stint on Def Jam before retiring from recording is a peculiar one to try to condense into a career-spanning release. After releasing The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, an album iconic enough itself to be considered a hip-hop essential, Rick’s next two releases were either rushed due to an impending half-decade incarceration or compromised due to the obvious limitations of prison time. Rick’s return in 1999 with The Art of Storytelling was a proper follow-up and really Rick’s second proper album, so it’s no surprise his career bookends make up seven of the eleven tracks. The singles from the two middling albums at least highlight Rick’s best storytelling moments to give a taste of where he was. Overall, it’s a surprisingly great Slick Rick retrospective.

Our Verdict: Iconic

Def Jam 30th Anniversary Video Collection
Finally, we have the Best Buy exclusive DVD, Def Jam 30th Anniversary Video Collection. Even in this post-YouTube world, we still love a good music video collection, but some of these choices are really weird. No LL Cool J, no Beastie Boys, no Warren G, no Jay-Z, and half the choices are R&B. While a lot of these videos are great, especially the Lionel C. Martin directed clip for 3rd Bass’ “Steppin to the AM,” and there are a lot of important clips like Montel Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It,” Onyx’s “Slam” and the turn-of-the-millennium captured in DMX’s “Party Up,” it’s weird that some of these cuts make such a storied label’s proper 30th Anniversary release.

Our Verdict: Not Iconic

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