def jam records -- 4/30/21

Today's selection -- from The Big Payback by Dan Charnas. Def Jam Recordings, the legendary multinational record label based in Manhattan, started in a dorm room at NYU in 1983:

"If you heard a rap record on the radio in 1984, Russell Simmons had some­thing to do with it. Run-DMC, Kurtis Blow, Fat Boys, Whodini -- Simmons got paid off of them all as either a producer, manager, or promoter.

"Then Simmons caught a record that wasn't his. The song had no music. No Sugar Hill house band, no cheesy melody, no keyboards, no bass line. The re­cord took Simmons's stripped-down, beat-box sound and amplified it. The drums were bigger, the scratches louder, the rhymes harder. The rap was noth­ing like he had ever heard, the MC talking in polysyllables, calling out to the 'analyzing, summarizing, musical myth-seeking people of the universe, this is yours!'

"It was as if the MC were speaking directly to him. Here was the rap music Simmons envisioned when he made 'Sucker MCs.' It was street; it was uncompromising. And it wasn't his record.

"Whose record is it? thought Russell Simmons.

"Simmons eventually tracked it down -- 'lt's Yours,' by T La Rock & Jazzy Jay. He knew Jazzy Jay very well: Afrika Bambaataa's DJ, Red Alert's cousin. Jay spun regularly at the hottest club in town, the Roxy.

"But Simmons didn't know anything about the label that released Jay's record, Def Jam, nor the person listed as the song's producer, Rick Rubin.

"Whoever this n****r is, Simmons thought, he just made the Blackest record ever.

"A White, Jewish college junior hailing from suburban Long Island, Frederick Jay Rubin operated 'Def Jam Recordings' out of his dorm room at New York University. As for the song that electrified Russell Simmons and the streets of New York during the summer of 1984, Rubin recorded it with a drum machine and $300 from his parents, who had been funding his dreams for years.

"'Ricky,' his mother exclaimed, 'can do anything!'

"Linda Rubin -- a big, bleached-blond, boisterous woman -- often regaled family, friends, and visitors with tales like this: One year when Ricky was in grade school, she and her husband, Mickey, took him to one of the Jewish resorts in the Catskills. These hotels, like Grossinger's and the Concord, packed their daily schedules with activities, classes, and games for children. When the Rubins arrived, there was already a science competition in full swing.

"'All those other kids had been working for days on their projects when Ricky entered it,' Linda later bragged. 'And would you believe it, he F***­ING WON?!'

"When Ricky wanted to learn magic tricks, Linda and Mickey drove him into the city to mix with real magicians at their friend's Irv Tannen's legend­ary magic shop. He conversed well with adults as he plied them for tips and tricks. Soon he was performing professional-level magic shows for kids and grown folks alike, pocketing hundreds of dollars for his efforts. …

"Rick -- a big, stocky kid with long hair -- stayed above the fray. He quietly disdained many of his White classmates for their pedestrian tastes. While he was in the city listening to the latest cutting-edge music, his peers on Long Island remained stuck on the old stalwarts of rock radio: Led Zep­pelin, Yes, and Pink Floyd. The only people at school who listened to new music, in fact, were the Black kids. And all the Black kids were listening to rap.

"Where many White kids hated rap, Rick was curious. Every week, it seemed the Black kids at Long Beach High were all about some new group. One week, it was the Crash Crew. The next, it was the Funky Four. Whoever had the new record out, that was the new favorite. In this way, Rick grasped that rap and punk were a lot alike. Punk and rap groups made songs for the moment and tossed them away a minute later, because there was always something newer, better, and fresher. Both were created by near amateurs, for the sheer fun of it. Both were rejections of the puffed-up, dressed-up pretention of 1970s music -- whether art rock or disco. In both punk and rap, if it sounded raw, it was authentic. The 'worse' it was, the better.

"Rick tore into hip-hop the same way he did his other childhood fixations, trading magic for Mr. Magic. Rick recorded the DJ's WHBI show every Sat­urday night and listened to it all week with the rest of the Black kids in school. He bought every 12-inch single he could lay his hands on. He pur­chased a mixer from a local DJ and practiced turntable techniques. By the time he graduated in the spring of 1981, rap had become Rubin's second all­-consuming musical passion. The school's yearbook printed a parting proverb from Ricky: 'I wanna play loud. I wanna be heard. I want all to know. I'm not one of the herd.'

"In the fall Mickey Rubin moved his son into NYU's Weinstein Hall dor­mitory at 5 University Place in Greenwich Village. When Ricky moved out of the house, Linda Rubin left everything in both of Ricky's rooms exactly the way it was. Yellowing stacks of old rock magazines and newspapers. Curling posters of Devo and the Dead Kennedys. Dusty records and car repair manuals on the shelves. On a cabinet in the living room was Ricky's school portrait. Linda always liked looking at his smiling baby face in that photo. She might never see that face again.

"Ricky was growing a beard."



Dan Charnas


The Big Payback


New American Library


Copyright Dan Charnas, 2010


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment