As told to Jennifer Vineyard
It started with my own punk-rock band. I recorded a single and an EP. I was friends with Ed Bahlman, who ran 99 Records, and he put out like ESG, Bush Tetras, Glenn Branca, Liquid Liquid—just kind of cool, more underground records. He walked me through the process of putting out my own records independently. As my love of hip-hop grew, I felt like it would be fun to make a hip-hop record. At that time, there were no hip-hop albums, only 12-inch singles, and the 12-inch singles that were coming out weren’t really reflecting what the hip-hop scene was like. The hip-hop records that were coming out were slick, and were basically like R&B records, just with people rapping on them. The club I was going to in those days, Negril on Second Avenue, one night a week they had a hip-hop night put on by Ruza Blue of Kool Lady Blue Productions, then she moved to the Roxy. I went religiously every week. The music there was more rooted in breakbeats, and scratching, and it just had a different energy. The idea of the DJ as a musician, that wasn’t something we had really seen before. The one-man band who manipulated records to make new music, either combining sounds or making new sounds, or using a tiny little part of a song over and over and over again, to create a whole new song—it was a very exciting thing to hear. I just remember really liking it and thinking it was really important. Even the name Def Jam—the reason the D and the J are so big in the logo was that I felt that the DJ was a very important aspect of this music. The inception of Def Jam was really more to me about bringing the DJ to the forefront and the fact that it’s the DJ and the MC together that makes hip-hop. It’s not just a guy rapping over an R&B track. That’s not hip-hop culture.
“It’s Yours,” by T La Rock and Jazzy Jay, was my first hip-hop record. First I met Kool Moe Dee from the Treacherous Three, who were my favorite group. And I said, “Let’s make a record together. Let’s make a Treacherous Three record.” And he said, “We can’t really do that. We’re signed to Sugar Hill, but talk to Special K, another guy in the group, because he has a brother who can rap, and maybe he’d be good for you to do this with.” I didn’t know that there were contracts, I didn’t know anything. I had no experience whatsoever. I was just a fan. So I met with Special K, and Special K introduced me to his brother T La Rock, and he wrote the words. T La Rock was going to do the record, and Jazzy Jay was my favorite DJ. They didn’t know each other, but I introduced them with the idea that the DJ was as important as the MC. I wanted it to not just be a T La Rock record like a Kurtis Blow record. I wanted it to be Jazzy Jay and T La Rock, like it was a group, a DJ and an MC working together, to create this new thing, and that to me is what the hip-hop revolution was about.
I met Russell Simmons about nine months after “It’s Yours” came out. I met Russell at a party, and it was his favorite record! I was excited to meet him, because his name was on all these records that I bought, and he couldn’t believe I had made “It’s Yours.” He couldn’t believe I was white. There were no white people involved in hip-hop at this time at all. We became friends. He had an office on Broadway, and I would just go to his office every day and hang out, just to try to learn things and be around the culture.
I met the Beastie Boys through another kid named Dave Scilken, a punk-rock kid who was close with Adam Horovitz. They were in a band together called the Young and the Useless. I was DJ’ing, but I wasn’t that good. I could play the break of a record over and over for a while, and the Beasties could rap over it. It was very rudimentary in those days! We went out and hung out all night every night. That’s when we wrote the majority of the lyrics for the Licensed to Ill album, just hanging out at Danceteria, writing rhymes, just writing things to make each other laugh.
Because of “It’s Yours,” we started getting demo tapes sent to our dorm at NYU, and LL Cool J sent in a cassette that said, “Ladies Love Cool J.” Adam Horovitz from the Beastie Boys would listen to all the tapes that came in, and if he heard anything he liked, he would play it for me. I remember we listened and we both laughed about it and called LL to come meet with us. He came with pages full of lyrics, like just notebooks full of lyrics. His debut, “I Need a Beat,” really did well, and that was the first proper Def Jam record in that it was the first one where we felt like we really were in the record business. That was the first one where we did everything ourselves.
Licensed to Ill changed everything. In those days, this was really before samples clearances. Nobody even knew how to do that stuff. During the making of Licensed to Ill, the sampler got developed. In the earlier songs for the album, there was no sampler, and everything where it seems like a sample is either DJ’ed in with records, or a tape loop around the studio, which was kind of cumbersome and complicated. Sampling didn’t really exist yet. So the idea that you could clear a sample, or a sample was something you could use on a record, that all came later. So they’re very renegade records.
I think the one-two punch of Run-DMC’s “Walk This Way” with Aerosmith allowed people who liked rock a view into hip-hop to see, “Oh, this isn’t so foreign.” And then the Beastie Boys came along, and they were white, and could get played on radio stations that Run-DMC couldn’t, because of how racist our country is. I think that combination of the familiarity of “Walk This Way,” and the accessibility of the Beastie Boys being white, really allowed hip-hop to spread in a way that wasn’t possible before then.
D.M.C. from Run-D.M.C. played me a tape of Chuck D’s radio show. I heard that and I felt like that sounds like something that belongs on Def Jam. We need to get this guy. But he didn’t want to be got. He had already made records with Spectrum City, and nothing much happened. And he felt older. LL, who was probably the most popular MC at the time, was 16. Chuck was probably 21 or 22 and felt like he was over the hill. He thought his artist days were behind him. I called him every day for six months and just badgered him. We hired our first employee, Bill Stephney, who was friends with Chuck. Eventually I got so frustrated I told Bill, “You either got to convince Chuck to make records for us or you’re fired.” In our minds, there was no one good enough to be on Def Jam. Except Chuck D. He was the guy. Public Enemy was a very self-contained group, and between them and the Bomb Squad, they had their own thing going, and I just supported their trip. I can remember when Spike Lee decided to enlist Chuck to do “Fight the Power.” Spike shot the video, and that was a breakthrough for Public Enemy. That took them to a whole new level.
The whole thing, back then, was about self-expression and creativity. There was no one thinking, “I’m going to get rich doing this.” And once people started getting rich doing this, the intentions that people brought to hip-hop were more calculated. It felt like less this creative community. I felt like I was part of a movement, and it got more lonely and less fun as it got successful. Hearing N.W.A got me excited again, and when I heard the Wu-Tang Clan, that got me excited again. Then Jay-Z asked me to work on a song with him. He was making his last album, at the time, and he wanted one song from each of his favorite producers. I met him, and I really liked him, so that was the inspiration to go back and make a hip-hop song. That was my first one since the early days, and that was “99 Problems.” He was incredibly inspiring as a lyricist. Actually Chris Rock had the idea for the chorus. He said, “Ice-T has this song, ‘99 Problems,’ and maybe there’s a way to flip it around, and do a new version of that.” The Ice-T song is about him talking about his girls and what a great pimp he is. And our idea was to use that same hook concept, and instead of it being a bragging song, it’s more about the problems. Like, this is about the other side of that story.
*This article appeared in the March 24, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.