Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label
Everybody associated with Def Jam looked cool for a decade, then not so much after that. They also appear to have stopped doing cocaine when the ’90s rolled around, for better or for worse. These are the first two things I noticed as I got into Rizzoli’s Def Jam Recordings, the “illustrated history of the greatest hip-hop hit-making machine in history.” The five-pounder consists of hundreds of crisp (and many never-before-seen) photos of Def Jam artists, management, friends, and associates taken by Jonathan Mannion, Annie Leibovitz, Ricky Powell, and others, interspersed with essays and quotes.
The formation of the label and its rise to prominence have been told in greater and more interesting detail elsewhere (most recently in The Big Payback by Dan Charnas), which is to be expected when you’re reading a company’s officially licensed coffee table picture book. But it does offer some insights into parts of the label’s early creative processes. The founding of Chung King Studios (where much of the label’s seminal output was recorded) in downtown Manhattan pins the label’s genesis to a specific setting: 1980s New York City. In very few places could African-American street music, avant-garde artistic sensibilities, and access to money and recording technology at a low cost dovetail to create an enduring phenomenon like the Def Jam juggernaut. Seminal producer Rick Rubin, pictured early on posing with a handgun, blue bubble jacket, and Blimpies paper cup, decided to record there only so long as the owner, John King, spent his money (which was paid up-front, in cash) on the equipment they wanted. Def Jam could create their own unique sound while King could expand his studio’s available equipment. After Rubin listed “Chung King, House of Metal” (“Chung King” was how local Chinese merchants pronounced John King) on the back of Run–D.M.C.’s Raising Hell, he decided to officially change the name. This is where MCA (Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys) produced “Paul Revere,” despite a competing claim by the Reverend Run. It’s anecdotes like this that make the book worthwhile. Another gem comes from iconic graphic designer Cey Adams, who describes one of the Beastie Boys’ early shows in Queens, where the predominantly black and Latino crowd (normal for early hip-hop shows) saw their matching Puma tracksuits and began laughing, saying “Menudo! Menudo, what’s up?”
There is mercifully little in here about the movie Krush Groove.
The book’s essays and anecdotes will not bring major revelations to Def Jam fanatics. The book’s many sleek and large photographs are its main attraction. A young Slick Rick looks incredibly cool in 1989, wearing a fashionably skinny suit and tie ensemble. The book features so many dominant rap artists who enjoyed long-term success: many as rising stars of a niche genre, then as bona fide celebrities. Seeing them in their early days, posing, acting raucous, and trying out their newfound celebrity (and money), is a big part of the book’s appeal. Gold chains and matching leather jackets abound. We see the Junk Yard Band, an eight-piece teenage go-go group that released one single with Def Jam in 1986 (“Sardines”), mean-mugging behind their van. We see Jay-Z with the weird makings of a little moustache, like he missed a small spot above the right side of his upper lip. We see a group portrait of early Def Jam rappers hanging out with Slayer and record producer George Drakoulias in an N.Y.U. dorm, which makes me want to build a time machine to 1987. We see a Def Jam “reunion” portrait of Simmons, Rubin, Run–D.M.C., and Public Enemy, with a now middle-aged Flava Flav wearing an L.A. Clippers sweat suit tucked into black combat boots, a white clock, steampunk goggles, and a viking helmet. Incredible.
But the most consistently interesting portraits are of the Beasties, the best one being a July 1986 photo by Ricky Powell. They are on the beach with Lyor Cohen, who is wearing a pretty small-looking pair of swim trunks. Mike D is wearing boxers under his, while MCA wears a lifesaver around his neck, holding a pool skimmer. Priceless!
We also witness the great decline in rapper attire from the late ’90s and early 2000s: ample press shots of the label’s roster document the move from gold chains and sunglasses to matching velour tracksuits and headbands. The Dipset section is woefully lacking—although a picture of Juelz Santana throwing a stack of hundred-dollar bills in the air, beneath a New York Times review describing him as “arrogantly charismatic and effortlessly intricate,” helps somewhat.
Santana is as good an embodiment as any of what Def Jam succeeded fantastically in doing: They sold street records to the American mainstream. As rap became America’s dominant form of pop music, Def Jam’s story became one of maintaining their dominance, and less about breaking and promoting new and interesting talent. This is reflected in the contrast between the book’s strong first half, with its colorful photos and stories of wide-ranging artists working under the same open roof, and its less varied second half, with staged press shots and insistences of the label’s importance, as if acknowledging its waning relevance once it ceded to a more risk-averse mainstream hip-hop.
Russell Simmons says in one of the book’s prefaces that “hip-hop itself hasn’t changed one bit. It still spits truth to power.” I don’t know if that holds true, but it can still be direct, funny, and obscene, especially when its creators are teenagers. This is most certainly the case with L.A.-based rap posse Odd Future. In the relatively short span of two years they’ve gone from Internet celebrities to budding superstars, especially the crew’s outspoken leader Tyler, the Creator. He, along with six friends (including two Odd Future members, Taco Bennett and Left Brain), take the photographs that comprise Golf Wang, the group’s first book of photographs. The cover is a rather eerie photo of an assembled group of children, some skateboarding, others sitting around. The inside cover offers a seemingly stream-of-consciousness rant by Tyler, featuring a lot of profanity, talk of “eating soup,” and occasional glimpses into his feelings about weed (he doesn’t smoke and hates that everyone around him does) and home (he misses it).
In his short introductory paragraph, Tyler says that this isn’t “some prissy art book.” From my experience with the group’s antics and brazen demeanor and my own past life as an American teenager living in a giant city, I expected a no-frills chronicle of antic teenage life. The book delivers: These are pictures of teenagers hanging out, skateboarding, getting hurt, being gross, smoking weed, sticking up their middle fingers, urinating, not wearing shirts, playing shows, and getting famous. There are lots of skateboards, MacBooks, bacon, Supreme-brand clothing garments, and take-out Chinese food. There are a number of photos of Tyler eating hot dogs, pizza, or noodles, often with the food falling out of his mouth. There are about as many of the young Taco Bennett standing around, looking confused.
Some photos intrigue me more than others. Hodgy facing the camera with his arms in a modified “Walk Like an Egyptian” pose seems to contradict his angry public image. A photo of Left Brain holding a giant bag of weed in front of a gold and platinum plaque-covered wall is proof positive that pictures of drugs (and guns) always result in a captivating photo; and gold and platinum don’t hurt either. A pair of hands squeezing a girl’s breasts seems to confirm the continuing existence of a “rock ’n’ roll lifestyle”—but the hands are small, child-like, so it comes with one of their typically uncomfortable twists. Tyler holding up a mouse trap with a dead mouse hanging from it with this thumb up is sad (because the mouse is dead) and surprising (I didn’t know they still sold old-fashioned mouse traps). A toothless fan screaming in the middle of a rock ’n’ roll show is frightening, and also confusing: Is he getting ready to fight, or is he enjoying the show? Or both? In one, Tyler is doubled over the edge of his bed, with vomit on the floor. He doesn’t drink or do drugs—so maybe he was sick, or just exhausted from a long show. Or maybe he threw up on purpose. Bodily secretions on tour can become unpredictable, especially after consuming a diet consisting entirely of pizza, hamburger patties, hot dogs, and noodles (according to photo evidence). Either way, they make for eye-grabbing visuals.
The repetition of certain images (donuts, crosses, wolves) creates a sense of continuity amid the sometimes random-feeling collection of prints. The sameness actually keeps the collection from getting boring—it induces a kind of dazed, raptured hypnosis. Crew friend Lucas Vercetti (the cover of their latest release is a close-up of his face) makes several appearances in the book. He has a peculiar, virginal, rat-like face. He doesn’t look “American” so much as lunar man-child, of maybe of Swedish descent. There are photos of giant cockroaches in a box, from the set of Tyler’s breakout video “Yonkers” (in which he pretends to eat one, and then vomit it back up). There is also a photo of a television showing Tyler jumping on Jimmy Fallon’s back after the group’s first (and quite successful) TV appearance. These behind-the-scenes photos of already well-documented parts of the group’s successes are sure to be welcomed by die-hard fans.
I recently heard freshly returned crew member Earl Sweatshirt complain about his newfound lack of anonymity in his old neighborhood. Golf Wang documents him and his friends right before that happened. The crew’s adoring fanbase consists of kids who, in a lot of ways, resemble Odd Future itself—they’re probably taking essentially the same kinds of photographs at this very moment. Most are around the same age as the group, enjoy skateboarding, dress similarly, and share a similarly blasé attitude about the group’s sometimes misogynistic and ultraviolent lyricism. This explains why so many photos of the crowd appear in Golf Wang: The subject of these photographs isn’t Odd Future themselves so much as the lifestyle they embody.