Def Jam Records is the most dominant and successful record label in the music industry today. Def Jam lives and breathes by one rule: continuity, and the men behind the legendary label are: Kevin Liles, Lyor Cohen, and founder/CEO Russell Simmons are the brains and life behind the label. Def Jam is the home of many of raps greatest names like LL Cool J, Run-DMC, Jay-Z etc. these are the names and this the label that brought rap music to the mainstream without changing or sugar-coating anything just to get to the top.
Lyor Cohen co-president of Island Def Jam music who oversees black music at Universal Records. In a January 2001 interview in “The Source” magazine Cohen says “we tend to our own gardens here, we don’t look into our neighbors garden. We are happy to see them do whatever they want to do, drive whatever they want to drive. No matter how much they “bling-bling” we don’t care about that”. This is what makes Def Jam so successful, they don’t “lean” with the trends that other labels and artists set, they make their own trends and do a great job at it. Cohen, ex-manager of Run-DMC, and longtime partner of Russell Simmons has been with Def Jam since almost Day one. Cohen Says “not only are we selling the most records consistently for the longest period of time” he points out ” we have the most diversified hip-hop empire period.” Cohen is an up in your face businessman and compliments the laid back demeanor of his two other partners. Cohen who seeked out most of the “power artists’ that Def Jam has on their legendary label, he also oversees money and the contract of all the artists on the label. His greatest asset, according to insiders is his ability to persuade white execs for extra money. But Cohen’s a big talker who can be heavy handed and it makes working with the powerhouse a bit hard to work with.
Kevin Liles who is over Def Soul Records, who started out as an intern, is now part of the three-headed monster and when the 5’3 giant barks people listen. Liles states in the January 2001 “The Source” magazine ” Def Jam is more than a company name and logo it’s a lifestyle. It all comes back to foundation, Def Jam just keeps it in the trenches”. Liles says later in the interview “we spent 18 years building a brand that represents the best of hip-hop. And now the brand is repaying us for all that hard work. Artists and DJ’s throughout the world want to be on Def Jam; that is the ultimate compliment”. Liles also picks out videos and clothing for each of his Def Soul artists. Liles says ” picking videos requires a balance between gut instinct, understanding that parameters of business and keeping a close ear for the streets”.
Mr. Russell Simmons is arguably the godfather of hip-hop. His record label paved the way for hip-hop’s mainstream success. In 1985, Simmons and old partner Rick Rubin joined forces and started Def Jam Records amid a musical climate that slammed rap. But, CBS Records signed a $600,000 production deal with them. Today the label worth approximately $400 million, although he sold Def- Jam to Universal Records, he still has a hold in all of its business. Ins some ways Simmons has brought hip-hop mainstream, the music is way too important to go unnoticed. He’s also found out that the music crosses color barriers, no matter if your black or white, hip-hop’s vibe mesmerizes anyone. Luckily Simmons was in on the ground floor, although it’s been dismissed as a fad, hip-hop has endured and as a major force in today’s music. Simmons took the potent musical force and directed its infiltration into America’s culture. Some has described Simmons as the “Berry Gordy of his time”, referring to the man who brought the cross-over black Motown sound to pop America in the 1960’s, yet Simmons’s approach is fundamentally different.
According to Kevin Night of “Vibe” magazine “like Gordy, Simmons is building a large, diverse, organization into a black entertainment company, only Simmons motivating impulse is to make his characters a black’ as possible”. Simmons is insistent on presenting rap images that are true to the tough urban streets from which rap arose; as a result, his groups don such recognize street garb as black leather clothes, high top sneakers, hats, and gold chains. He explained his objectives to Stephen Holden of the “New York Times”. “In black America, your neighbor is much more likely to be someone like LL Cool J or Oran “Juice” Jones than Bill Cosby.” A lot of the black stars being developed by record companies have images that are so untouchable that kids just don’t relate to them. Simmons later says, ” our acts are people with strong, colorful images that urban kids already know because they live next door them”.
Throughout Simmons has been the manager of all Def Jam acts and has emphasized authenticity with each particular group. Artists are people who you can relate to, people like Michael Jackson is great for what he has done for music, but people who live an everyday black or white does not know anyone like him. Simmons says’ the closest Run – DMC comes to an outfit is an black leather outfit it’s important to look like your audience, if it’s real don’t change it!”
Some critics find the image of rappers disturbing; it is the look of artists not the lyrics and antics of some male/female rappers. Women’s groups who find misogynistic messages in the songs and stage acts, while public officials have brought charges of lewdness against some rappers in concert, none of Def Jam has been accused of such acts. Simmons distances himself from censoring the content of his rap groups; ultimately uphold rappers as positive role model for many of the black youths. Simmons also says ” artists are more than musicians they are from a particular community, if you are a 15 year old black male in high school and look around, you wonder what you can do with your life.” Though he sold his empire in Jan. 1999 for $130 million, he now donates much of his time to causes like the Million Family March, in the January ” The Source” magazine Simmons says ” when you watch Hillary Clinton’s birthday party you will seem sitting next to her. You cannot put Puff Daddy or any of them next to me. I spent three hours with Louis Farrakhan before he made his speech” he says ” that was a personal accomplishment”.
One of Def Jam’s first successes was not in the music business but in movies. In the mid-80’s Def Jam produced the movie “Krush Groove”, modeled after Def Jam’s rise to fame. Although Def Jam didn’t like the final cut of the now classic movie, it received horrible reviews from critics. The movie had significant financial success, what took $3 million to make the movie, reaped $ 20 million in returns. Def Jam tapped into a market despite having significant sponsors, because black music was so third world, executives did not want to put there money into it. Def Jam soon diversified their business by exploring new media and cross-promoting artists. Diversifying was an intelligent move and made the record label a media mogul! They launched Def Comedy Jam in 1992, which was a comedy show that aired late on HBO, and launched the careers of some black comic greats like Martin Lawrence, Jamie Foxx, Chris Tucker, and Bernie Mack just to name a few.
Def Jam even ventured into the fashion world with their Phat Farm clothing line, debuting in 1993 with store opening in SoHo, New York. The clothing lines preppy, street look is just one more success hitting home and feeding suburban America’s hip-hop appetite. By the end of 2001 Rush Communication, the holding company for Def Jam, Phat Farm, tours, and advertising company that represents Coca-Cola and film and T.V. projects pulled in a staggering $600 million in billings. Also Phat Farm being the first ever “black owned” clothing line pulled in $120 million by itself!! And last but not least founder/CEO Russell Simmons launched a new television show ” One World Music Beat”, featuring model/writer Veronica Webb as a correspondent. This “Entertainment Tonight” for hip-hop was well received, and picked up for a late night slot on cable network UPN.
What makes the Def Jam family complete is their legendary roster of artists. Hip -hops most storied label captured a whopping 2.95% market share of the country’s top selling albums in one month, not to mention the yearlong average of 2.71%. Def Jam Records held the number on slot on Billboards Top 100 for 18 weeks (a rap record) with three different artists. All three albums are already certified platinum, Jay-Z, DMX, and Ja Rule are the frontrunners of the Def Jam empire. Jay-Z’s album “The Blueprint” sold whopping 700,000 units in its first week on the shelves. Ja Rule’s album “Pain is Love” came and bumped him to second with an impressive 500,000 units a week later. And to add fuel to the fire DMX s album “The Great Depression” sold 450,000 units the very next week making Def Jam the first label to do such an amazing feat since Berry Gordy’s Motown empire did the same with, The Supremes, The Jackson 5, and Stevie Wonder did it in the early 70’s. Not to mention the top three sellers of rap, they have established veterans like the self proclaimed G.O.A.T. of rap (Greatest Of All Time) L.L. Cool J, the marketable Sisqo, Method Man and Redman and countless amounts of artists, Def Jam has just began to start, and there is much more to go.
That is the Def Jam mantra: discover new superstars while nurturing the careers of established giants all help up by a strong infrastructure of managers and street teams who keep the engine maintained. Def Jam’s pockets are even deeper than ever but they seem to realize a common goal: using hip-hop’s influence to improve economical and political conditions for people of color. Russell Simmons and his partners struck gold and will keep digging farther and farther because they have a whole culture behind them. They set the trends we, lay the trends out, they make the music we buy as long as this cycle occurs Def Jam will still dominate because the Def Jam “mafia” works 25 hours, 8 days a week, 367 days a year insuring that they keep thriving well into the year 3000.