Looking Back on the First 30 Years of Rap's Most Influential
Label, From Rick Rubin to Steve Bartels
The story of Def Jam’s beginnings is now such a familiar part of music-biz lore that the fundamental implausibility of the label’s genesis and early success no longer registers the way it did in the mid-’80s. That Rick Rubin, a Jewish college kid, somehow managed to launch what would soon become a bastion of black music and ultimately the most influential rap label in history is bizarre enough, but add the fact that one of Def Jam’s first breakthrough acts was the white Jewish rap group the Beastie Boys and we’re entering "you can’t make this stuff up" territory. Further, only Rubin would even think of signing a thrash-metal band, Slayer, to a dedicated hip-hop roster that included LL Cool J, EPMD and Public Enemy. As it evolved, Def Jam continued to develop hitmaking artists under a succession of corporate owners, morphing with every change yet retaining its unique identity—and this part of the story is every bit as fascinating as the label’s early days.

Rubin left the company in 1988, only four years into its existence and three years into its deal with Columbia. The label’s founder was reportedly forced out by yet another Jewish guy, Lyor Cohen, who’d gotten in the door as the road manager for Run-D.M.C., managed by Russell Simmons, Rubin’s original partner in the label. Rubin formed Def American and hooked up with Geffen Records, while Cohen initially did double duty as Def Jam prexy and Simmons’ #2 at Rush Management before putting his focus on the label side. Under Cohen, Def Jam’s relationship with CBS Records/then Sony Music ruler Tommy Mottola and Columbia boss Al Teller (replaced by Don Ienner in 1989), strained to begin with, failed to improve. And despite a string of big hits on Def Jam/Columbia, including the Beasties’ Licensed to Ill, LL Cool J’s Radio and PE’s Fear of a Black Planet, the label found itself in severe financial straits by’92. Two years later, Mottola and Ienner found a way out of the deal, eagerly accepting an offer from PolyGram’s Alain Levy for Sony’s 50% stake in Def Jam.

Simmons found his new corporate home more accommodating, taking a smaller role in the running of Def Jam as his clothing company increased in value, and setting the stage for him to eventually become one of the most important entertainment execs in the business. After some maneuvering by Cohen, Def Jam in 1995 became part of the PolyGram Label Group, initially run by Rick Dobbis, who was succeeded by Johnny Barbis. At the time, PLG comprised Polydor, headed by Davitt Sigerson (later made head of EMI by Charlie Koppelman); Island, headed by founder Chris Blackwell and a succession of execs including Hooman Majd and Larry Mestel; Mercury, headed first by Ed Eckstine and then by Danny Goldberg; and London, headed by Peter Koepke; with Joe Riccitelli overseeing promotion for the group. When MCA owner Seagram bought PolyGram in ’98, renaming the combined company the Universal Music Group, Def Jam was merged with Island and Mercury as the Island Def Jam Music Group under Jim Caparro, Englishman John Reid and Cohen. Caparro lasted less than two years before Cohen muscled him out, installing his henchmen, Kevin Liles and Julie Greenwald, in power positions.

When Seagram heir Edgar Bronfman Jr. left UMG to buy Warner Music Group in late 2003, he took Cohen with him, and in early 2004, Universal CEO Doug Morris hired former Arista chief L.A. Reid, who brought EVP Steve Bartels with him, naming Bartels IDJ President. The timing couldn’t have been better for Reid, who’d come out on the short end of a power struggle with Clive Davis at BMG, as Davis took command of a combined RCA, Arista and J Records. Several years of stability and prosperity followed for IDJ under Reid and Bartels, with Shawn Carter, better known as Jay Z, serving as President of Def Jam from 2005 through 2007. After Lucian Grainge succeeded Morris as UMG head in early 2011, he and Reid were unable to come to terms on a deal, so Reid left, only to be hired later that year as Epic Chairman by Morris after he took the top spot at Sony Music. Meanwhile, Grainge brought over Sony veteran Barry Weiss to oversee IDJ, Motown and Republic, and Bartels was named head of IDJ.

That remained the case until April 1 of this year, when UMG’s East Coast operations were reorganized. IDJ was dissolved after 16 years, Island was moved to Republic and Bartels was anointed CEO of the once-again freestanding Def Jam. The move paid immediate and sustained dividends, as Bartels’ team broke a succession of new and developing artists including Iggy Azalea, August Alsina, Jhene Aiko and Jeremih, with albums expected from Kanye West, Justin Bieber and Frank Ocean. Six months into Bartels’ reign, all signs point to this being the dawn of another golden age for the storied label.
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