Def Jam Records, created by hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons, is one of the most successful black-owned record labels in the history of the United States. Its success and influence on music and popular culture are paralleled only by Motown Records in the 1960s and 1970s.
Russell Simmons founded a production company called Rush Productions in the early 1980s which housed Run-D.M.C. and Kurtis Blow. In 1984 Simmons met Rick Rubin, a rap and rock producer who was then attending New York University. The two met in Rubin’s dormitory room where Def Jam Records was born.
The first single released by Def Jam was “I Need a Beat” by teenage rapper LL Cool J. This single was shortly followed by another single, “Rock Hard” by the Beastie Boys. The success of these two singles earned Def Jam a distribution deal with CBS Records which dramatically raised the profile of the young company in the music industry.
Def Jam early artists such as Public Enemy were aggressive and confrontational and their music reflected that style. Def Jam increased its appeal to young music listeners and found new audiences by incorporating heavy metal and rock music into rap music.
Def Jam also expanded into motion pictures when it released the semi-biographical film Krush Groove in 1985 and the Run D.M.C. film Tougher than Leather in 1986.
When Rick Rubin left Def Jam in 1988 to form his own label, Russell Simmons became the head of the company. Def Jam continued to expand in the early 1990s, attracting a new generation of rap artists such as West Coast producer/rapper Warren G. In 1999 Simmons sold his controlling interest in Def Jam to Universal Music for $100 million dollars.
Def Jam has continues to be a successful label in the post-Russell Simmons era, making lucrative business deals with Roc-A-Fella Records and creating subsidiaries like Def Soul Records. The Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam merger would prove fruitful for both corporations and ultimately led to Shawn Carter (Rapper Jay-Z) being named company CEO in 2005.