Lyor Cohen’s name does not appear in the title of Stacy Gueraseva’s chronicle of the Def Jam record label, but were he to pen his memoirs, he might well be more critical of himself than she is. Casting a sycophantic eye over Rick Rubin, Russell Simmons and their rap music empire, Gueraseva’s “Def Jam, Inc.” skirts messy issues and dirty dealings by accepting the spin that posits the principals as men who always emerge on top.
Gueraseva, who was once editor-in-chief of Russell Simmons’ magazine Oneworld, has collected a great many memories of life in the rap world, from the formation of Def Jam in Rick Rubin’s college dorm through the label’s assimilation into Universal Music Group.
What the book lacks are the numbers — the gritty details of who profited at whose expense and by how much — not to mention the cost of records and tours that stiffed. She notes, for example, that Def Jam never registered its songs with ASCAP or BMI, the orgs that collect fees for radio, film, TV and live play, but fails to note how much may have been lost and if monies were ever recovered.
Book is so ensconced in Def Jam’s corner, it incorrectly rationalizes the flop film “Tougher Than Leather” as a door opener for black filmmakers rather than the collapse of Run-DMC’s career. And as the label is reinvigorated, under Cohen, in the 1990s, she leans on terms such as “monster hits” rather than provide full details.
Sure, the oft-told story of Rubin creating Def Jam in his NYU dorm room and using the university’s address as the label’s HQ is amusing and stimulating for any young entrepreneur. But Gueraseva provides little if any context and doesn’t seem to grasp how far underground rap was positioned as the 1970s gave way to the ’80s.
Rubin and Simmons joined forces in the early 1980s and created the label that birthed Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J and Public Enemy. It was the label that made critics, record buyers and music industry execs take rap seriously as an art form and a commercial force.
Rubin’s genius was to incorporate rock elements, whether in the mixing of drum beats or samples, and Simmons provided the combination of street and business smarts that made the team work. Cohen made sure every dime was accounted for.
They wrote a blueprint for nearly every indie rap label since: Find a major with a void that needs filling and align with it to handle back-office duties. Def Jam found that partner in what was then CBS Records, now Columbia.
As Rubin grew more interested in hard rock and living in L.A. while Simmons was obsessed with breaking R&B acts like Nikki D. (yes, you may ask, who?), the duo splintered and Def Jam fell apart, only to be rescued by, who else, Cohen.
Without noting it, Gueraseva shows how the current team leading Warner Music — Cohen, Julie Greenwald and Kevin Liles — came to know each other and how their union is more a fluke than any great plan.
Writer seems not to grasp the genius of the Def Jam/Rush Management arrangement that provided a reasonable cash flow to the operation. Most record companies have no role in management and make no money from concert revenues; as indies, Simmons and Rubin made money from both and, through low overhead along with an appreciation for music that would hit big, they built the first dominant rap empire.
“Def Jam, Inc.” starts with sufficient anecdotes about Rubin and includes stories about Simmons’ affinity for angel dust, but it doesn’t capture the artistry. For a book that has such a fly-on-the-wall perspective, there’s not much sense of how the acts functioned as artists in the studio or on the concert stage.
Rush Management’s package tours were amazing feats — the best rap shows in their day — and with the decline of rap as a concert attraction, they have taken on Beatles-like nostalgia for those who were there. Trust me, few have ever delivered as great a 15-minute show as Public Enemy.
Book makes a troubling reference to the Beastie Boys’ “Brass Monkey” as a No. 1 record — it never entered any top 40 — which makes one wonder about other numbers referenced here. Was LL Cool J’s “I Need Love” really the first hip-hop record on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart? As most hip-hop goes, is that crooned ballad really a true “hip-hop” number? That’s for another book to decide.