Hey Kris Kringle, get this for the whip; it’s gonna be a hot spring/summer 2012. Pump some old beats and bring back the classics while waiting for your daughter after her dance recital.
Madonna? The opening act on her 1985 Virgin Tour was a trio of white rappers known as the Beastie Boys, signed to a fledgling label run by Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin: Def Jam.
The filmmaker Brett Ratner? He began his career directing hip-hop videos for Def Jam. Bret Easton Ellis? The soundtrack for the film version of his novel “Less Than Zero” was released by, yep, Def Jam. Robert Mueller, director of the F.B.I.? During his tenure the bureau brought money-laundering charges against the blockbuster record label Murder Inc., home to the rapper Ja Rule and distributed by — you guessed it.
Point taken, then: a quarter-century after its birth, Def Jam is not just a record label — well worthy of being called “the Motown of hip-hop” — but a bona fide chapter in pop-culture history. Chuck D likens the label to the Yankees, but Lyor Cohen, a pioneering Def Jam executive, one-ups him: “We never bought A-Rod to join us. We created A-Rod.” The A-Rods of rap, that is, from the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J to Jay-Z and Kanye West, all born of the storied label. This sort of cultural weight justifies the literal weight (six pounds) and hefty price tag of DEF JAM RECORDINGS: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label (Rizzoli, $60), a commemorative picture book that’s duteous oral history, nostalgia-inducing treasure-trove and, as its subtitle connotes, protracted obituary — not just for Def Jam but for record labels in a digital age.
Designed by the label’s founding creative director, Cey Adams, and edited by Leah Whisler, the book is crammed with short essays and interview snippets from journalists (like Kelefa Sanneh of The New Yorker) and Def Jam artists and executives. There are exquisite portraits by the likes of Annie Leibovitz and Jonathan Mannion, along with noteworthy newspaper clippings; behind-the-scenes shots; Def Jam paraphernalia, including an early ad with a droll tag line: “Our Artists Speak for Themselves (’Cause They Can’t Sing)”; and unexpected goodies, like the artist Shepard Fairey’s redolent rendering of Public Enemy.
Ultimately, the book serves up three narratives. The first lies in the text, cobbled together like a documentary on paper: insider accounts — histories and historiographies, if you will — of Def Jam’s various incarnations. This is a well-worn tale — recounted in innumerable magazine articles and Stacy Gueraseva’s 2005 book “Def Jam, Inc.” — about turbulent business dealings, improbable friendships and ’80s-era New York City, where, as Lyor Cohen says, the worlds of Basquiat, Madonna and Kurtis Blow were colliding. It’s the ultimate American-dream story of a hybrid art born the archetypal American way: from cultural crossbreeding and a seemingly unlikely interracial pairing — the rock fan and college student Rick Rubin, the rap and R&B maven Russell Simmons — that’s in fact perfectly aligned with musical history. From Al Jolson to George Gershwin, after all, much of American music has been the fruit of complex exchanges between African-Americans and Jews.
The other two narratives, contained in the book’s vivid imagery, are the real gems here. Hip-hop photography is rich because it depicts a genre in which the line between person and persona is intensely fraught: name another art form so profoundly caught up in notions of authenticity, in “keeping it real.” But the contrast between the posed and the candid shots in “Def Jam Recordings,” which tell different stories, underscores how wonderfully unreal rap artistry often keeps it. Glimpse, on one page, candids of rappers mischievously goofing off behind the scenes, being boys having a grand old time. On another, see the same boys turned men, soberly engaged in “being a rapper”: exit the goofy grins; enter the don’t-mess-with-me stares and hip-hop visual clichés in all their glory — dollars and diamonds, muscles and minks, cars and cigars.