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Old-School Ties

A coffee-table history of Def Jam, New York’s hip-hop Harvard.

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Larry Smith with Run-D.M.C.'s Jam Master Jay, D.M.C., and Reverend Run, 1985.  

A quarter-century after being founded in an NYU dorm, the record label Def Jam remains relevant: On August 8, it will co-release Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne, probably the most hotly anticipated rap album of the year. Def Jam’s rise to such pop ­prominence was gorgeously scrappy, and it’s told in a gorgeous scrapbook called Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label, which lands on coffee tables next month. Written by Bill Adler, the label’s original publicist, and Dan Charnas, it weaves an oral history through an array of album covers, concert flyers, and photography: Public Enemy’s Chuck D in the streets toting a megaphone, the ominous S1W marching behind him; LL Cool J in the Ivory Coast, rocking a traditional robe along with his Kangol bucket hat; Slick Rick, a bottle of Champagne in one hand, his crotch in the other. This photo, taken by Gene Bagnato in New York, features Run-D.M.C. alongside their producer (and sometime road manager) Larry Smith in 1985, the year their second album, King of Rock, was released. “My whole thing was, I’m the best,” recalls the Reverend Run of his attitude at the time. “You can’t beat me—not you, but no one. I’m the invincible Spider-Man; I climb the walls, leave all suckers in the dust.” Present are most elements of the band’s look—black leather jackets and fedoras. Presumably, the unlaced shell-toe Adidas are off-camera. “We were rebels,” says ­label co-founder and Run’s brother ­Russell Simmons. “We despised the niggas that made R&B, the record executives with the Louis Vuitton clutch bags. And they despised us: We were examples of places they didn’t want to go anymore. The shoes with no laces? That’s jail.”


Correction: The original version of this article mistakenly stated that Run-D.M.C. were signed to Def Jam.

Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label
Rizzoli. $60.


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