LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Beastie Boys, Slick Rick, Jay-Z, Ludacris, Kanye West, the Roots, Rihanna. The artists that have graced Def Jam’s roster read like a who’s who of hip-hop and urban pop. All of the above and many more are captured in “Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label.’’
The hefty tome is part oral history, part photo collection, and all engrossing. It chronicles the tale of two seemingly unlikely collaborators - Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons - building a groundbreaking, major music industry player out of very humble, and sometimes naive, street corner and dorm-room beginnings.
The book is shot through with loads of archival photos and pictures of memorabilia, but it isn’t simply a pretty coffee table ornament - this is a true biography. Although its unwieldy dimensions aren’t ideal for comfortable reading, the Def Jam story is worth sitting up for. Most of the major figures are on hand and add much more than two cents; from label employees - with extensive contributions by Rubin and Simmons - to the artists, to competitors in the industry, to fans weighing in about what Def Jam has meant over the years as it morphed from shoestring to bling and branched out into the television, fashion, and lifestyle worlds. And this being hip-hop, there are plenty of blunt statements - and few pulled punches - as different people tell the story from their perspective. A handsome addition to any hip-hop fan’s library.