I spent this morning watching a live stream of a conversation with Def Jam Recordings founders Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin presented by the New York Public Library and facilitated by Paul Holdengraber the library’s Director of Public Programs. They were there to chat about 25 years of Def Jam and to support the release of book, Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label. Holdengraber praised the impressive tome – a comprehensive history of the label – as “utterly magnificent” and “absolutely outstanding” before adding that he believed the book to be “produced in the most exquisite way… the level of passion… the power of the writers.”
Rick and Russell were introduced to the sold out audience using seven words of their own choosing. Russell offered a haiku: Def Jam showed me power of faith. Rick chose: Rick Rubin is a fan of music—both introductions simple and humble, yet powerful; an apt reflection of both men who have “led the way in transforming hip hop culture from a projects-based art form to a popular phenomenon.”
Proceedings kicked off with (a shoeless) Rick Rubin requesting that they begin in a certain way – he asked that everyone in attendance, including himself and Russell, close their eyes for 3 minutes and focus on breathing – inhaling and exhaling, to focus on the breath – a meditation of sorts. He said that the goal of this exercise was to bring everyone together and to give thanks, to create a space in the room for something new. After the 3 minutes silence was up, there was a big collective breath and stretching, Russell asking the audience “isn’t that much better than angel dust?” continuing by explaining how Rick was the first person he ever meditated with adding, “20 minutes twice a day makes you high as hell.” Rick enlightened that, “there’s a power when a big group meditate together.” They have both been meditation practitioners for well over a decade. You can read Russell’s thoughts on meditation here: Why I Meditate.
“Music is one of the most transformative things in terms of happiness… it awakens,” Russell commented, “…it’s powerful, it brings you to the present – like music…meditation is to see the world unfolding in miracles.” Holdengraber admitted he struggled with the exercise and even “peeked” a few times opening his eyes. “The more difficult it is for you, the more you need it,” Rick advised. Russell adding, “Creative people need to be awake.”
Holdengraber ushered the conversation into gear referencing Rick’s high school yearbook quote which read: I want to be loud. I want to be heard. I don’t want to be one of the herd. From there Rick and Russell describe their first experiences of hip hop. Rick recalling his first ever experience was at a reggae club called Negril the “first place I found that you could find hip hop live anywhere… [it was] a whole different world I hadn’t seen before… it moved to The Roxy when it got bigger… there the first night 50 of us were in The Roxy… slowly each week more people came and more people came, it happened organically… the whole scene rooted in word of mouth – I got swept up in it.” Rick noted that Russell was already “in it” with his first experience of hip hop around 1976 at 125th Street – Charles’ Gallery – on Tuesday nights via DJ Eddie Cheeba—“he was playing music that wasn’t on the radio” says Russell, “The Hip hop explosion was people that didn’t want to join the mainstream…that weren’t accepted.”
To Rick hip hop is and was “about street culture…the closest parallel is punk rock… not being educated in music but really, really just loving the music… to me Def Jam was an outgrowth of punk rock expressed through black music.” Rick himself played in a punk rock band called Hose that went on to record Def Jam’s release #1, 45rpm 7 inch vinyl single that came in a brown paper bag.
Both are surprised that music ended up being their job. “It didn’t matter if I slept on the floor in Rick’s dorm for the rest of my life,” Russell pointed out – Rick’s dormitory at NYU where he studied philosophy and later switched to film and television because “all my friends were in it and it felt more fun” became Def Jam’s first home. Rick describing it as a “9 foot by 12 foot cinder block room… with a full p.a. system.” Eventually boxes of 1,000 of records would be shipped in and out of the dorm as Def Jam grew.
The chat continued winding its way through Def Jams colourful history punctuated with audio snippets of important jams – LL Cool J’s I Need A Beat, Public Enemy’s Fight The Power and more – in the Def music back catalog and Rick and Russell’s insight and thoughts about each. Russell described Rick – who produced the early Def Jam recordings – as a “musical genius.” “Def Jam was about purity in intention… our inexperience and innocence let us make music that went beyond the norm,” Rick said.
Also covered in the hour and a half long conversation was their decade’s long friendship – the two met according to Russell through mutual friend DJ Jazzy Jay; according to Rubin after a show Graffiti Rock at a loft party – which Rick cited as playing a big part for them going their own (business) ways in 1988 when Rick left Def Jam. “Our friendship was so strong… our business grew very big very fast and I don’t think that either of us knew how to handle this… to protect our friendship… because of our love for each other it would be better for us to do things separately.” They both went on to have highly successful careers – Rubin went on to produce albums for heavier rock acts such as Slayer, Danzig, Masters of Reality and more as well as artists that run the gamut of the entire musical spectrum from Johnny Cash to Neil Diamond to Green Day. And, Russell went on to become one of hip hop’s most influential entrepreneurs with clothing lines, television shows, magazines etc.
As the conversation winded down with talk of how the music industry is currently going? Rick explained “I just focus on music and help artists make the best possible music …our job is to make great art… the focus has always been purely on the art and luckily everything has worked itself out.” Russell concluding that he just feels blessed and lucky to be surrounded by talented people, “I’m lucky enough to get on the ride.”
All in all it was a wonderful insight into the Def Jam story and of two friends that had a big dream that through hard work, determination, creative hearts and the best of intentions realised that dream.
You can preview parts of the book and purchase it here. For more info try here. You may also be interested in an in-depth conversation (also facilitated by New York Public Library) with Jay-Z about his book Decoded.