The story of Def Jam Records is almost a reflection of the culture that it has substantially enhanced over the past three decades.
Founded in a New York University dorm room in 1983 by a burly, bearded producer named Rick Rubin, who would later be introduced to an ambitious young hustler from Queens known as Russell Simmons, Def Jam rapidly rose from its humble beginnings to become one of the most commercially and culturally significant labels of all time.
Simply put, Def Jam is the hip-hop label.
From the jump, Def Jam was instrumental in bringing mainstream success to the then-young rap genre. Early LP releases like LL Cool J's 'Radio', Beastie Boys' 'Licensed to Ill' and Public Enemy's 'It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back' were all certified platinum, capturing the label's lofty ambitions in Billboard rankings and RIAA sales.
Despite Rubin's departure – giving way to a future industry juggernaut named Lyor Cohen – in 1988, the jams remained def, so to speak.
Acts like Slick Rick, EPMD and Onyx enjoyed success in the early '90s; Jay-Z, DMX, Method Man and Redman were devastating towards the end of the decade; Ja Rule, Ludacris and Cam'ron prospered in the new millennium; and greats like Nas, Kanye West, Rick Ross, Young Jeezy and Ghostface Killah dominate to this day.
Let's not forget the label's fruitful foray into R&B with Rihanna, The-Dream and Frank Ocean, either.
With this year marking 30 years of Def Jam, and with the label's former longest-serving artist, LL Cool J, releasing his new 'Authentic' album – his first studio set not on Def Jam – Clash looks back on the 10 best tracks to have come from hip-hop's most storied record label.
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10. T La Rock and Jazzy Jay – ‘It's Yours’ (1984)
Not just the first single to bear the iconic Def Jam logo, T La Rock and Jazzy Jay’s ‘It's Yours’ was the very record that brought Rick Rubin and his bubbling indie label to the attention of Russell Simmons. A street favourite in the summer of 1984, ‘It’s Yours’ captured rap's harder-hitting aesthetic and lyrical progression from its disco-influenced predecessors; a track that was ahead of its time.
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9. Nas – ‘Daughters’ (2012)
Though most rap summer smashes today contain the names Drake, Lil Wayne and/or Rick Ross in the credits, it was Nas who reminded the hip-hop world that deeply touching records can also heat up the sunny season last year. An ode to his teenage daughter, Destiny, ‘Daughters’ caught Mr. Jones in a rare state of vulnerability as he shared his struggle of "rais(ing) a girl as a single man". It was one of the final track leaks before his latest album, 2012’s 'Life Is Good', arrived to almost universal acclaim.
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8. Beastie Boys – ‘(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)’ (1987)
On the heels of mildly successful efforts like ‘The New Style’, ‘Paul Revere’ and ‘Brass Monkey’, Beastie Boys' brash 1987 single, ‘(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)’, stormed its way to seven on the Billboard Hot 100, earning Ad-Rock, Mike D and MCA (RIP) their very first top 10 hit. Not only a perfectly executed merger between hip-hop and punk rock, it became the party soundtrack for teenagers around the world. And, in turn, a hellish audio nightmare for parents (sorry, mum).
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7. LL Cool J – ‘I Can't Live Without My Radio’ (1985)
If T La Rock and Jazzy Jay’s ‘It's Yours’ signalled a shift in rap's sound, LL Cool J’s ‘I Can't Live Without My Radio’ took the formula and ran with it. The drums hit harder, the bars came in bunches and the track paid tribute to one of hip-hop's timeless relics: the boombox. ‘I Can't Live Without My Radio’ would earn even more pedigree as the opening cut on 17-year-old LL's pioneering 1985 debut album, 'Radio'.
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6. Warren G featuring Nate Dogg – ‘Regulate’ (1994)
Warren G, a promising rapper from Long Beach, was Def Jam's first signee from the west coast, but the gamble paid off. Big. Topping the Billboard Hot Rap Singles chart, his Nate Dogg-harmonised ‘Regulate’ single was one of 1994's most popular hits – and the label's biggest success in years. The groovy, synth-heavy jam still resonates today as a true G-funk anthem.
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5. DMX – ‘Ruff Ryders’ Anthem’ (1998)
Despite peaking at 93 on the Billboard Hot 100 – waning in comparison to previous top-10 efforts like ‘Get At Me Dog’ – DMX's ‘Ruff Ryders’ Anthem’ would go on to become one of the Yonkers MC's best-selling singles not only of his career, but of the ‘90s. Picking up traction like the motorbikes in its music video, the Swizz Beatz-produced record captured the raw energy of X's movement, which arrived as a much-needed refresher to Diddy's shiny suit dominance. The skewed sitar loop still incites riots to this day.
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4. Jay-Z – ‘Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)’ (1998)
He flipped a children's musical into one of the hottest hip-hop songs of all time; what else can Jay-Z say? ‘Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)’ was a series of firsts for Hov: it was the highest-charting single (in the UK, too) of his career to that point; it helped his 1998 album, 'Vol. 2... Hard Knock Life', claim the top spot on the Billboard 200 (still his most commercially-successful full-length to date); and earned the LP the award for Best Rap Album at the Grammys. Oh, and it cemented Shawn Carter as a fully-fledged rap star.
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3. Slick Rick – ‘Children’s Story’ (1989)
A London export with a peculiar accent, a trademark eye patch and a taste for extravagant jewellery, Slick Rick is one of the most unique characters in hip-hop's history. Not just intriguing to the eye, Rick introduced his brand of vivid, cohesive storytelling to the masses with this 1989 top-five single. Influencing a whole generation of lyricists like Nas and Raekwon, the record has been sampled and even covered by everyone from Run-D.M.C. and A Tribe Called Quest to Lupe Fiasco and The Game.
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2. Public Enemy – ‘Rebel Without A Pause’ (1987)
Widely considered one of the greatest hip-hop collectives of all time, if not the greatest, Public Enemy represented a very real movement in African-American culture in the late '80s. And few records personified this energy quite like ‘Rebel Without a Pause’. The insta-classic cut, taken from the group's equally esteemed 1988 second album ‘It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back', had crowds busting moves while contemplating pressing issues like racial oppression and political activism. The blend of Chuck D, Flavor Flav and The Bomb Squad was a beautiful thing.
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1. LL Cool J – ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’ (1991)
As the story goes, Grandma Cool J encouraged her hip-hop star of a grandson to rock the mic even harder following the critical backlash of his flashier 1989 album, 'Walking With A Panther'. Born was one of hip-hop's hardest anthems of all time: ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’. A return to his grittier sound of old, thanks in part to the punishing production of Marley Marl, the inspired record would go on to scoop Best Rap Solo Performance at the Grammys and forever etch the words, "Don't call it a comeback/I've been here for years," into hip-hop's diction.
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Words: Andy Bustard
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