Powered by RedCircle
Today’s episode and memo is about the one, the only, Def Jam Recordings. It’s hip-hop’s most influential label, and its backstory was fun to dig into. I’m joined by friend of the pod, Zack O’Malley Greenburg. We talk about the highs, like Def Jam’s peak years. But we can’t talk about Def Jam without mentioning the lows, like co-founder Russell Simmons’ numerous allegations of sexual assault and misconduct. It’s nearly a 40 year history, and we covered it all.
You can listen to the episode here or read highlights below.
More Def or more Jam?
In an interview with VladTV, Russell Simmons shared why he and Rick Rubin parted ways in 1988:
“It kind of split us apart because I’m making Oran “Juice” Jones [R&B singer] “Walking in the Rain” and he’s making Slayer [thrash metal]… so then he left… He and Lyor [Cohen] didn’t get along that well at the time… if we had all stayed on hip-hop and we didn’t think about Oran “Juice” Jones or Slayer, God knows what we would have done.”
Simmons once said Def Jam got its name because Rubin was more “Def,” while Simmons was more “Jam.” At best, the combo paved the way for LL Cool J, The Beastie Boys, and Run DMC. But at its worst, the split identity left a label and its artists straddling multiple worlds.
Ironically, each Def Jam phase has leaned one way or the other. Redman’s successful 1992 debut, Whut? Thee Album, was a turning point for Def Jam. The label was $19 million in the red at the time—bleeding money. But Reggie Noble’s success set the tone for Def Jam’s 1990s focus on hardcore New York rap.
A decade later, though, once Def Jam was entirely under the major record label umbrella, it leaned more into the “Jam.” Then CEO L.A. Reid was in superstar-building mode. L.A. admittedly dropped Lady Gaga too soon, but he was there for the rise of Rihanna, Ne-Yo, Justin Bieber, and “Stadium Ye” Kanye West.
By the mid-2010s, though, Justin Bieber was the most bankable artist on the roster. His 2015 album Purpose is the label’s highest-selling album release since Ye’s 2007 classic, Graduation.
People often comment on Def Jam’s shift away from its core, but to be fair, Def Jam’s co-founders couldn’t agree on its core either!
Like most companies, the brand evolves with each of its leaders. The major label incentives pushed those leaders to focus on market share, efficiency, and landing hot artists. And those incentives make it hard to turn down a commercially successful artist like Bieber.
Listen to the full episode here or read below for more highlights.
The infrastructure for new entrants
To prep for this episode, I asked a handful of industry execs which Def Jam CEO was most effective at their job. Most of them gave me different answers. There’s no correct answer, but here are two wise moves worth mentioning.
In the mid-90s, Russell Simmons was reportedly frustrated when Bad Boy and Death Row execs got on the cover of VIBE, but Russell couldn’t get on.
It was humbling, but Def Jam saw an opportunity to shift its brand. Instead of being the brand in front, Def Jam became the infrastructure for several sub-labels to stand out in front. Def Jam had deals with Roc-a-Fella Records, Murder Inc., and Disturbing Tha Peace. Def Jam backed them like an institutional VC firm that invests in emerging fund managers.
Those labelheads were younger, closer to the ground, and tapped into their respective regions. It allowed Def Jam to stay present and benefit from those companies. We covered Roc-a-Fella’s story recently. Murder Inc. had its moment with Ashanti and Ja Rule, and every Ludacris album in the early 2000s was a hit.
In most cases, record label imprints or labels housed under other labels gain little traction. Many are merely vanity projects. In hip-hop, the best examples are Def Jam’s sub-labels and Young Money under Cash Money Records. There are a few others, but the list of good examples is few and far between.
How DMX and Jay-Z fueled the Def Jam sale
The other smart move in Def Jam’s late 1990s run was its sale to Seagram, which owned Universal Music Group at the time. Seagram recently bought PolyGram, which had owned 60% of Def Jam, and now Seagram’s UMG wanted the rest.
In our episode, Zack told how Def Jam was offered $50 million but turned it down. Then, Seagram countered with $34 million, so Def Jam went to the drawing board.
Seagram had valued Def Jam on a multiple of revenue, not EBITDA. So Def Jam set out to maximize its revenue. Lyor and Russell went to their top two artists on the label, DMX and Jay-Z, and asked them to release another album by the end of 1998.
X gets a $1 million bonus for Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of my Blood released just seven months after his debut album, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot. Jay-Z released Vol 2… Hard Knock Life just ten months after In My Lifetime, Vol. 1.
Here’s a quote from former Def Jam exec Kevin Liles in a 2016 interview with The Fader:
KEVIN LILES: “The consumers were starving. X fed that hunger — that hunger for realness, that hunger for the street. And what better way to serve it up than to give two full entrees in the same year? … LYOR COHEN: There was a huge demand and very little supply. We don’t typically do what you’re supposed to do. We focus on what we should do.
In 1998, Def Jam made $40 million in profit on an estimated $176 million in sales! Seagram bought the remaining 40% stake for $100 million, double the initial offer.
DMX was feeling himself after that one, and rightfully so. From The Fader in 2016:
DMX: I made $144 million dollars for [Def Jam] that first year. I felt vindicated. I knew I was fucking dope. Not in an arrogant way, but in a way that was like, “Yes, I dare to believe in myself.” And I turned out to be right. And dropping two albums in one year, it sped up the pace of how music is put out. It set a new standard.
I’m sure X would have felt even more vindicated with an even larger bonus thought!
This is still one of my favorite hip-hop best business deals. It’s a high-stakes M&A deal at the industry’s peak. It was well-timed. Def Jam did give up ownership and control, but at least it maximized the check in the process.
In the rest of the episode, we also talked about:
-Jay-Z’s tenure as CEO
– Def Jam Vendetta, Def Poetry Jam, Def Comedy Jam
– which CEO was most effective?
– underrated moves, missed opportunities, and more
Listen to the episode here or watch below:
Dan Runcie [00:00:00]:
You can’t tell the story about hip hop without telling the story about Def Jam. This company is the blueprint. It set the foundation for the music, the fashion, the culture, the entertainment, and so much of what hip hop is still considered today. And in this episode, we break it all down. We start from the beginning. Who were the founders? Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin. The company they built, how they connected, and the vision that they saw together. Other we talk about the highs. We talk about the lows. We talk about the different leaders that this company has had and the different evolutions that this company has had as well. From a young and budding independent record label trying to break through with a unique sound, to making some of the biggest deals in the 90s, recovering, making its comeback, and making some big bets to eventually have one of the big landmark deals in hip hop at the time. We also talk about where the label is today and where the label has been since it’s been under the major record label umbrella. We talk about some of the highs, some of the lows, some of the best signings which CEO we think was the best as Def Jam CEO and so much more. So if you’ve loved the breakdown episodes we’ve done on Trapital, you are going to really enjoy this one. So let’s dive in, let’s go back to the early eighty s and let’s revisit Def Jam. All right, I’m back with Zach Greenberg and we are about to break down a company that’s been on the list for a minute. We’ve been circling this one for a while, so I’m glad we’re finally about to dig into Def Jam. How you feeling?
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [00:01:28]:
Not too bad, not too bad. I feel like we kind of talked around a lot of Def Jam stories on prior episodes, but there’s like a whole bunch that I wanted to get into. So now we have the whole episode to take. I’m stoked.
Dan Runcie [00:01:40]:
Yeah, same here. The Cash Money episode we did, we started with this whole question about was Cash Money the greatest record label of all time? And I think we landed on both of us agreeing that Def Jam was. But the distinction that you made, which I agreed with, was that Cash Money, better business, Def Jam more influential, greater record label. And I think that’d be a good place to start from a high level. Why do you think that? And then I can share my thoughts, too.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [00:02:08]:
Yeah, I think just it’s kind of a basic smell test, right? When somebody asks you what’s the greatest hip hop label of all time? It probably would jump to mean maybe you throw out a bunch of names. But I think for most people, Def Jam would be the first name that comes to mind. It’s kind of synonymous with hip hop. It was the first big early label. It maintained its influence over many decades, and then you’d probably be like, oh, yeah, but also Cash Money. And then you start to go down the list and talk about some other labels. But I think just like the cultural clout, the know, that sort of thing puts Def Jam up. You know, is it really the better Business? I mean, if you look at the numbers that Def Jam ultimately sold for, and we get into that as we go through the mean, cash Money, I think, has actually gotten a pretty comparable valuation over the years, know, maybe bigger, depending on when you kind of take the snapshot. Of course, like, you don’t really hear as much about Def Jam artists not getting paid. So maybe that’s part of the better business. For whom? But there you have it. I think with Cash Money, it’s like a pretty tight focus on a certain sound in the early days, kind of pivoted more in the recent era, but you kind of have more of a through line of what Cash Money is over the years. And Def Jam, I think, particularly over the past decade or two, has lost some of its identity. It’s kind of floating. It’s a little bit adrift in the maze of the corporate record infrastructure, but still relevant. And it’s got a lot of heritage to lean on. So, yeah, I think that’s the Def Jam versus Cash Money. I don’t know, what do you think?
Dan Runcie [00:04:01]:
Better business for whom? Is probably a good place to put it. But I agree with the broader sentiment of if you’re trying to tell the story of hip hop, you’re trying to capture the journey, especially once you get past the early years of hip hop’s founding and what really helped craft the art form to what it is. And this is probably a good place to get into some of the backstory here. Def Jam created what people identify as the modern record label, and its founders had a big influence on what people consider to be hip hop and how people think about hip hop, not just the music, but all of its various extensions. And those two founders, Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin, I think it’s interesting to look at what they were doing before Def Jam and how they got to this spot. How they got to this spot. So, of course, famously, the record label idea comes from Rick Rubin himself. And he’s a student at NYU, and he’s in his dorm room. He was really interested in rock music and producing and making music, but really wanted to lean into a record label and he wanted to create his own imprint. And he really identified with a lot of hip hop. I think one of the things that he said that stuck out to him was a lot of the hip hop at the time was much more focused on taking soul records or taking disco records and then rapping over them. That was definitely a lot of the Sugar Hill record style production. But there wasn’t as much of the true beat making The B-Boys and the style and the aesthetic that was a bit more native to what people think about. When you think about hardcore New York hip hop in that type of way or even things like how a verse leads into a chorus and then you have another verse and then you repeat that chorus again, something that sounds so obvious. It really wasn’t that. And I think that’s one of the things that Ruben really helped craft, especially in those early years.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [00:06:01]:
Yeah, definitely. And it’s such an unlikely pairing, right? I mean, you have Russell Simmons, who was kind of bouncing around the early days of hip hop, helping elevate some of the early superstars like Curtis Blow selling fake weed on the side, or so he says. And, you know, like Rick Rubin, who’s just but I don’t know. Was he a hippie back then, too? Did he have the hair and the beard? I don’t know. But he know this hard rocking college student know really into thrash metal and stuff like of it’s kind kind of a strange mix. But like you say, that’s kind of the magic that created Def Jam. And I think Rick Rubin really did give hip hop a harder edge. And weirdly, I think it came from rock, right? It was that rock, that kind of like metal sensibility that maybe kind of took the flashy shine off a little bit of that sort of early disco rap, like the early kind of stuff that Russell Simmons was pushing and gave it that a bit of an edge. Which is funny because hip hop, of course, originated from the streets in the South Bronx and stuff. But it did have that disco element. So in a way, it was like coming downtown, getting the rock aspect added to it that made it musically sound like a little harder edge. And certainly when you start to see like, Cool J and you know, it sounds definitely different from the very disco inflected kind of early hip hop. Yeah, quite an OD marriage, I think. Not the most harmonious marriage all the time, but I think in the way that sometimes that’s how you get the best creative work. Lenon, McCartney, or if you look at even Jay Z and Nas over the years, I know they didn’t necessarily work together, but like pushing each other know, inspiring each other to create better know simply through their rivalry. And so, yeah, I think that’s kind of what you got in some way from Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons and.
Dan Runcie [00:08:21]:
How these two met always sticks out to me. So they met at this party for this TV show in the early 80s called Graffiti Rock. It’s this pilot episode that they were having. And then they meet there and they knew of each other’s work. Ruben was really admiring what Simmons was doing, especially at the time, he had had Rush Productions and he was having several artists on his roster. And he was also wanting and Simmons himself, he was the one that wanted to meet Rick Rubin because he’s like, oh, who’s the guy that made this record? Who’s the guy that did this? And then someone points to Rick Rubin, and of course, Russell Simmons sees him point to this white guy and he’s like, Wait, the white boy. So it’s this pretty common thing that we see, where you see someone, you’re like, oh, this is who it is. But they are able to figure it out. And I think what stuck for Simmons is that, okay, it doesn’t make sense to have these two things separate. Meaning the record label that Rick Rubin is trying to start and the management and the production that Russell Simmons is trying to do. So he wants to bring them together, and then they get things going. And then that’s when, 1984, they officially do start Def Jam recordings. And deaf, of course, as Rick Rubin says it, we’ll get to this later. But Def being word to describe, okay, this is something that’s cool. This is hip, this is what’s up. And then, Jsm, more so the aspect of making the music and enjoying it. But it’s funny because if you ask Russell Simmons, he’ll say that Rick Rubin was more of the deaf and that he was more of the Jam. So they’ve always kind of had an interesting split in terms of how they saw things. And I think, as you alluded to, we’ll get into this, but how some of that led to some of the challenges that they have. But they were able to at least get the first few records off the ground, get things moving, and things really start to change for them when they get the first big deal that they get for the record label is a deal with CBS. At the time, through Columbia, they were able to get a six figure production and distribution deal for Def Jam. And that then gives them the ability to then pick four acts per year. I saw some reports that said it was around 600,000. I’m not sure how exact that is, but I do know that it was a six figure deal. And this is a landmark because this is the first time that a major record label at the time had done a deal with hip hop music in this type of way.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [00:10:57]:
Yeah, and it’s a landmark deal for sure. But don’t forget, Russell Simmons was making moves like this, not just on the musical side. In that period of time in the mid 80s, you think of the Adidas deal that he got Run DMC bringing the Adidas executives to the garden in a skybox. And of course, Run DMC goes out, they say, Everybody put your Adidas in the air. They put their Adidas in the air, 20,000 screaming fans, and then Run DMC plays my Adidas. And that’s how Russell Simmons convinced these executives to give Run DMC a million dollar sneaker deal. So it’s kind of interesting. This is all happening around the same time, right? The music and the know with Def Jam, with RunDMC, et cetera.
Dan Runcie [00:11:46]:
Yeah. And the first big deal that they have is with Ll Cool J. They sign him? He has a song. I need a beat. And in a lot of ways, Ll Cool J you talked about this before, but he was the type of artist that they wanted to bring together. He had this vibe where they’re trying to push him on to do the street thing, especially with some of the more aggressive records like I’m Bad. And it had a lot of that production style and focus that we’re talking about. But he would also do a song like I Need Love. He was trying to straddle a lot of the two of these. And that’s why I think now when people always talk about the rappers that would sing and would rap as well, you always got to go back to Ll Cool J because of what he was doing, especially at a young age. He was 16 when he first connected with these guys, taking the train up to be able to go connect with them and stuff. At this point, these two are grown men. So it just shows that you have someone like ELO Kulujay, who’s even as recently as now, recording this now in September, he performed on the VMA stage a couple days ago, performing many of the songs from the same era that we talked about when he was a teenager. So it’s fascinating to see how his career continued since, you know, I think.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [00:13:00]:
Ll, in addition to being a really special artist, is just a really special personality. I say this in the context of, like I’ve interviewed probably hundreds of musicians, met multiple US presidents. Ella Cool J is the most charismatic human I’ve met in my entire life. And I think the first time I interacted with him was at he was pushing this thing called Boombotics, which was a sort of like ill fated suite of music editing tools or something at the Sony headquarters. But I don’t know, there’s just something about the way he walks into a room and just opens his mouth and people are just like it’s not even because he’s famous. There’s just something about him it’s hard to put your finger on. And so I think you could really imagine how even at age 16, if you have the beginnings of that sort of charisma, that you could really kind of pull in somebody like Russell Simmons, who’s trying to find the beginnings of this label, like, who’s going to be some of my big artists going forward. I think he recognized that charisma in Ella Cool J early on. And that definitely shines through in his music and certainly later paved the way for his acting career as well.
Dan Runcie [00:14:26]:
Right. He had this energy where, as you said, he’s someone that clearly had this unique aspect about him, but he was also malleable in a way at that point, just given how young he was. And I think that worked out well to their advantage because I remember Rick Rubin was telling the story about how he would tell Lo Cool J, for instance, not to wear jewelry in certain music videos like going back to Cali, because that’s what all the rappers were doing at the time. And he was always trying to be a bit counterculture. I think that’s something that is been on brand for Rick Rubin in general. But then he also because he was early, he was also seeing some of the challenges, like anything that Defdm had, especially in those early days. We know that they did have the success and I think the three big artists that they had at the time, at least at the record label, were Ll Cool J, Run DMC and Beastie Boys, at least early on. But I think they all came in at a different point and had a different journey. And Ll was the one that saw some of those early ups and downs. For instance, when Russell Simmons is going around and trying to shop the I Need a Beat record, he’s seeing how the industry still doesn’t quite get Def Jam and the broader industry still didn’t quite get hip hop. This was of course, before they signed the deal, but it wasn’t until Simmons then had his Crush Groove movie that he puts out after them. People see that and they’re like, oh, okay, this is what you were talking about. So I think a lot of that full package of how Russell saw things like whether it was, as you mentioned, holding up the Adidas sneakers at MSG or any of the brand things that he did that we’ll get. Into. I feel like that complete focus is something that did help Def Jam get off the ground, even beyond just having the initial production.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [00:16:14]:
Absolutely. And at the same time, it was kind of this Wild West atmosphere at the Def Jam offices. It was a startup. Right, that’s exactly what it was. And so in my book, Three Kings, I interviewed some folks about the early days of Def Jam, including Russell, but some of my favorite anecdotes were from MC Search from Third Base. And he talked know, just kind of hanging out in the Def Jam offices. And there would just be like piles of fan mail for Slayer who Rick Rubin had signed, and then he would actually open it and check out the phone numbers. And he would call the fans pretending to be the lead singer of Slayer and just thank them for their fan mail and all this stuff. So there was these kind of lighthearted parts of it. And then there was kind of the shady side, right? Like Paola was really big back in the day. And, you know, I think in my reporting, people people didn’t sort of like, want to point fingers or anything, but, you know, it was known that if you wanted to get on the radio, you had to kind of grease the skids a little bit. There were radio DJs making like 50 grand on the side, plus from Paola. And I think Def Jam was not immune from being involved in that either. So we talk a lot about Russell Simmons and obviously there are a lot of parts to him on the personal side that are reprehensible, honestly, and we don’t need to rehash all that. But speaking of him as a businessman, certainly a brilliant businessman, but also very machiavellian businessman, I think that all kind of checks out on my hand as well.
Dan Runcie [00:18:05]:
Yeah, I would agree with that. And the interesting part, too, is that once you get past the label starting and being formed, that’s when things start to evolve, because then you have the Beastie Boys being signed. And at least from a commercial perspective, this was the most successful group that they had had, at least in that mid 80s run, at least in terms of album sales that they had had. And a lot of people think of them especially just given the success of the Fight for Your Right Song and the album and everything tied up with that. But they were only at the label for two years. They ended up leaving in 1987, and they left for Capitol Records. And at the time, and I think still is, but at the time, Capital Records was seen as the major label. So they almost looked at Def Jam as a stepping stone. Almost in the way that, let’s say someone would look at signing with an independent label now, but then they end up getting a bigger deal at one of the Big Three or something like that, or individual music distributor. And then they go on to sign a big record deal. So they were dealing with some of that. And I remember at the time, Will Smith had had this story as well, where he was trying to help Mariah Carey get a deal. This is a little bit later in the he was like, oh, I could get you an interview at Def Jam. But Mariah was the one that was like, no, I think I’m going to go try to talk to the Sony folks, because this is what she wrote in her memoir. She’s like, I view myself as the star here. And that’s how she was able it. I think it worked out for her, just given the time frame and where the label was at the time. But this was some of the things that they started to deal with. And if you ask the Beastie Boys team or you ask others. This is when they started to see that there was a little bit of a difference in Def Jam in terms of what Rick Rubin had in mind for where he wanted the record label to go and where Russell Simmons and what Russell Simmons had in mind for where he wanted the record label to go. And it’s ironic because at this time, Run DMC is doing its thing, and they have the huge song that they have the collaboration with Aerosmith Walk This Way, but Rick Rubin actually wasn’t. Well, it’s funny because there was some tension about that song because some folks felt like, okay, this is a great collaboration to help bring Aerosmith back. But others felt like, okay, well, you just gave Aerosmith this platform to then benefit from Run DMC, but how much should Run DMC actually benefit from that? So there was a bit of this back and forth, and that’s a common thread that we’ve seen from a few times. And there was this memorable quote that Russell Simmons had about why he felt like he and Rick Rubin eventually had to part ways. And it was 1988 that Rick Rubin decided to part ways in his thing was like, Well, Rick Rubin is working on Slayer, and I’m trying to get Orange Juice Jones here. So he has the heavy metal, I have this R and B soul act that I’m trying to push here. How do we have the two of these together? And they both felt like they didn’t necessarily have the skills to be able to communicate this in that way, so they ended up parting ways.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [00:21:18]:
Yeah. And in some ways, I think it’s kind of inevitable when you look at how different they were and what they wanted. But they were together long enough to create that foundation for Def Jam, which really did mix that sort of rock sensibility, the hip hop sensibility, and came up with something that was kind of its own sound in a way. Right. When you talk about labels having a particular sound, motown or that kind of thing, def Jam, without sort of being so methodical about it, ended up with at least you could kind of tell the types of acts that might come out of Def Jam. It wasn’t just the same as every hip hop act that was coming out in the early 80s. It wasn’t the same as every rock act, but it really did have an identity. And through their differences, they created something beautiful.
Dan Runcie [00:22:10]:
And I think this is where some of that identity questions start to come. Because I think a lot of times people will talk about where Def Jam has been let’s say the past 15 years or so and some of the artists that have been signed and some of the identity differences there about. Okay, well, is this label more of a pop and superstar place? Is it more of a hip hop, or is it more of an R and B place. But this tension that Ruben and Simmons had had, even the 80s, highlights some of this ongoing identity, where if you ask someone, is Def Jam more, this is Steph Jam More, that different people could have different definitions of it. And that in some ways is the beauty of Defcam and what makes it so cool. But I think it also is why there have been these at different points, whether it’s shifting identities where, I mean, no different than any other company, you have a different leader in place and we’ll get to some of this. They have their own different scope and their own different vision for where they take things, but that can change the identity of the company quite dramatically, especially when you’re dealing with music and culture.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [00:23:16]:
Yeah, and definitely, I think when you get big enough, even if you had a particular identity for your record label, just kind of by necessity, you have to just expand into whatever is big that is kind of related to where you were to begin with. So if you’re Def Jam and as the 90s go on, you’re just kind of like trying to get the biggest X in hip hop on your label, they’re not going to all sound the same or they’re not going to sound like Def Jam sounded originally. Like, you got to evolve if you’re going to be sort of like the King Kong of hip hop labels. You can’t just kind of be stuck in the past, even if that’s the sound that you were kind of known for.
Dan Runcie [00:24:03]:
Right. And this, in some ways ties to the Cash Money point we were saying earlier, where, yes, Cash Money does have that identifiable sound and vibe where even if you listen to a song like Number One Stunna, you could hear a through line from everything they did in the then everything that they’ve done after that, even some of the Nicki Minaj stuff. You could still see the connection there. But again, a tighter run ship, but a smaller breach of what it’s trying to achieve. Versus this is a label that we’ll get to it, but was acquired by the major labels and very much acted like one to try to work up and be at the same level as everyone else.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [00:24:43]:
Yeah, and I think, again, like any startup, at some point you got to have your exit, right. And that gets into the involvement of Polygram, I think 1994, maybe skipping ahead a little bit, but Polygram bought half of the label for $33 million 1994, which in today’s dollars, I don’t know, I have to look up my inflation calculator. I’m guessing it’s probably something like $60 million in today’s cash. Belling it at 120, which it’s not a huge valuation and that’s like a pretty big chunk of it to sell. But if you’re a startup and you’ve been kind of working for a decade, almost a decade, even if you’re doing pretty well, most of your wealth is coming from the equity and you want to get paid. So I think as you start to incorporate bigger investors again, you have to chase that bigger pop prize. We’ve seen with so many startups. It’s like, yeah, this is a nice 100 million dollar idea, but if I’m going to invest in this company and I’m a VC, I need this to be a billion dollar idea. I need to see a path to 10 billion if I’m going to be investing now because I want to 510 X my investment. So I think, like any business, even though it’s a creative business, def Jam ultimately did have to keep growing in order to sort of satisfy the financial backer side of it. And that necessitated just chasing the larger pop prize, even moving away from its roots, right.
Dan Runcie [00:26:18]:
Each time you try to increase the growth and increase the potential, you have to reach another concentric circle of the audience. And that means pushing in, having artists that aren’t necessarily there. And I think one of the things that heightened that deal was the journey that they had, especially late eighty s and early 90s, because at this point for Def Jam, the two of these artists, Simmons and Ruben, have split. Ruben is now off doing his own thing and Russell is still in charge of the brand. But at this point, Leor Cohen comes in and he had already been working on the production and management side. He was the tour manager for Run DMC and then he gets more tapped into the business itself. And I think he actually starts an interesting point because this is where a lot of the downturn for Def Jam was, where by the late 80s they’re not quite as strong as they were. Beastie Boys isn’t there. Ll Cool J had had a bit of a dip himself trying to figure things out. The one bright spot was Public Enemy, but I also think that they probably got a little bit stuck there because they could have continued to have even more successful albums, even continuing on in the 90s. But I do think that some of the they got a little bit mixed in the mix with the Deck Jam piece of it as well. But by the early 90s, Lo Cooler J makes his don’t Call it a comeback. A comeback with Mama Said Knock You Out and that album. And then that then leads the way for this big deal that we see in the early 90s with the Polygram deal. Because at this point, Depp Jim was bleeding money. Leor has said on record that they were $19 million in the red at that point. And he was pretty candid about he didn’t think that he was doing the best job early on running the label. They were signing a lot of artists that just didn’t necessarily click. He had had this quote I. Think this from a complex interview he did with Noah that was there. He said, do you remember the Afros, the family BWP bitches with problems? He’s like, I didn’t think so. It was bad. And I was scared, and I could understandably. I get where he’s coming from. But boom. Here comes red man. And Red Man ends up being, in a lot of ways, the saving grace that comes through in this time. So he’s able to drop his album that was highly regarded. It didn’t do as well as maybe some of the other albums at the time, but it paved off the way for all of his successful albums. And then that’s when you get Method Man and Warren G and Onyx and that whole run. There were still other labels that were likely more influential in that mid 90s run. Of course, we’ve talked about Bad Boy and Death Row before, but this is where Def Jam really starts to make at least a little bit of that resurgence. It still isn’t out of the clear just yet, but the momentum was starting to build.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [00:29:13]:
Yeah, and Polygram coming in, buying half of the label for 33 million. We talked about it a minute ago. That doesn’t seem like a lot given Def Jam, but 1994, it’s like, right before, I think, hip hop sort of exploded into the mainstream and then also got kind of, I think, toxic to mainstream brands with the East Coast, West Coast thing for a minute there. So I think if this thing had happened, we’ll see when we get to the late 90s. Def Jam is worth quite a bit more. But you may wonder, like Polygram, why is Polygram investing in a hip hop label of this Dutch company? Actually, the connection between Polygram and Def Jam, or at least Russell Simmons, goes way, way back to the very beginning. This is another fun story that I reported for Three Kings in 1980 right after The Breaks by Curtis Blow came out. It was a big song. It was a Billboard charting song in the US. But it was also really big in Europe. And so they went out on this little run to the Netherlands, and Russell told me they knew they made it big when an executive from Polygram met them at the airport. And Russell being Russell, when the guy asked know, what did he want? Could he get him anything? Russell said cocaine and pussy. And the executive, you know, Russell at least went way back with the Polygram folks. And I think as Dev Jam evolved into slightly more buttoned up operation, they maintained their relationship. And so I think paved the way for that deal to go through. But this was not some kind of random thing. They actually had a relationship dating back almost a decade and a half at that point. So fun little anecdote from the early days pays dividends later on, perhaps.
Dan Runcie [00:31:24]:
And I feel like that echoes something else that I had seen through my research about some of the tension that was there even in the late 80s with Russell and with Rick, because Russell had benefited from having these relationships and being able to sell this broader vision and being able to get the big checks to be able to do that. And we saw that with a lot of the multimedia expansion that he eventually had. But with Rick Rubin’s initial split, one of the tension points that many people said was that when it came time to have the renegotiations of the contract with CBS, at that particular point, ruben was the one that had wanted to try to take a bet on Def Jam as a company and keep more ownership of the company. Take less of the advance up front and see what they could do. Meanwhile, Russell wanted to try to get the biggest advance and the biggest check possible from the distributors. And I think that as well speaks to some of this. Because if you’re someone that is investing in these relationships with a company like Polygram who at the time they were investing in Def Jam but they were also doing stuff with some of the other record labels that were involved with hip hop and black culture and music, whether it was with MCA and what they were doing with Uptown Records, Andre Harrell and some of the other moves. So there was something to be said for the people that wanted to try to capture this moment because there clearly are many ups and downs in the industry and they saw this as one of the high ones, especially actually for black culture. But then we obviously understand how important ownership is in music. So that was an interesting distinction that I think carried through, especially since Russell was the one that continued that that mentality carried through with a lot of the ways that they made deals moving forward.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [00:33:14]:
That’s a really interesting point. I mean, we always think about Russell as, on the business side, this brilliant businessman, and in the context of Def Jam, rick Rubin maybe being more of like the bleeding heart, the artist going to die for his craft kind of guy. But in a funny way, it was Rick Rubin agitating for what would have been the better business decision. Of course, I don’t know what their exact financial circumstances were individually at the time in terms of who kind of had more to fall back on or what have you, what their family situations were. But certainly, yeah, it is a bit of a dichotomy, especially, you think about down the line, Russell preaching being an owner and having equity, that kind of thing. I guess Rick doesn’t really talk about it that much, or he’s not super public. I guess neither of them are super public these days for different reasons. But Rick Rubin has never really been running around talking about the merits of equity. And he seems to be more focused on music, but I guess he turned out to be a pretty brilliant business guy as well, right?
Dan Runcie [00:34:28]:
Every interview that he’s done, even the most recent time, not time, even the most recent 60 Minutes one that he had done, he’s very much presenting himself as, I am this exacting person when it comes to music. I know what I like and I know what I don’t like, and how he just continues that. And even the TV shows and spots that he’s been in, he was on an episode of Dave the Little Dicky Show and he’s doing his old Zen like, master thing and he’s like, oh, I have to go to Rick Rubin. I have to go see the Master himself to be enlightened. That’s the whole vibe of it, right? And he’s leaned into that, even though he probably has just as many insights on how to actually run the business side of things. So, yeah, I’m sure a lot of this is the branding there, but I will say that I think a lot of this probably, in many ways, leaned into how Russell Simmons operates and what works well for him, because we’ve talked about all these entrepreneurs on these deep dive episodes we’ve done. And it’s most effective when they’re picking businesses that line up with their mentality, with their perspective. And Russell did have this vision of, okay, how can I extend this brand? And we obviously saw a lot of that in the 80s with the movies like Crush Groove and things like that, but we also saw it in the 90s because this is where you start to have Deaf Poetry Jam and Deaf Comedy Jam. So he’s expanding these brands. He has these partnerships with HBO to then have these shows out there. And Deaf Comedy Jam ends up becoming the ground floor foundation for so many popular black comedians that went on to have so much success after that. I often think back to Bernie Mac’s initial sketch that he had had there. I think it’s like a six or seven minute bit. I don’t want to repeat the things that he says on it because he could probably get canceled for it now, but it is epic and it’s something that explodes him into a stratosphere. I can remember Chris Tucker on Deaf Comedy Jam and so many others, and Deaf Poetry Jam continued its influence as well, even dating back to Kanye West, where years later, where he’s literally reciting the lyrics to All Falls Down as this spoken poetry thing. And then it ends up being a huge hit that he has. It’s been really cool to see how that has continued. And obviously Russell did this in fashion as well, which we’ll get into, but it was cool to see him build a company that I think did work.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [00:36:50]:
Well to his you know, you kind of alluded to it. But they were also able to cross promote and keep signing artists now also with some additional capital coming in from Polygram. But to keep signing the artists that were going to keep them at the forefront. And so whether skipping way ahead to somebody like Kanye, but that kept them in the conversation and he put out the music and also showed up on Death, Poetry, Jam and that kind of thing. I think they really mastered the art of cross promotion and that was definitely a big key to the success.
Dan Runcie [00:37:32]:
Yeah, agreed. And the thing is though, the challenge with taking any money from different people is that they now have a stake in what you do and they have much more influence and may do things differently. And in the 90s, during Leor’s tenure, we do start to hear more complaints about certain things. And there was a time that Russell was a bit frustrated with where things were going in the business, even after Red Man and all of that, because there was a moment he had tried to get on the COVID of Vibe or one of those magazines in the mid ninety s and he couldn’t get on the COVID They wanted to have puffy and Biggie. They wanted to have suge. Knight and Dr. Dre. And of course, this whole East Coast, West Coast thing has taken over hip hop. Def Jam feels like it invented East Coast hip hop and now someone else has the right to it. So how do you navigate that? And one of the things that started to shift was that Def Jam started to see itself less as the label with the brand that’s out in front and more as a label that can become the infrastructure for these other labels that have a bit more front facing personalities and things like that to take over. We saw that more famously with the deal that they did with Rockefeller Records, but you also saw this with Murder Inc. Because Irv Gotti, of course, was an A R on Def Jam and then went off to go do his own thing. You also saw this with disturbing the piece as well with what Ludacris had done. And that started to work in their favor because they had seen some of the challenges. They had their own frustrations later on with Polygram and Mercury about getting promotion for their records and they felt like they weren’t getting the full promotion for the records because it was less incentivized for the folks at Mercury to push the Def Jam records as opposed to their own. So they’re like, okay, how can we help build our own infrastructure and kind of tap into some of the challenges that we’re experiencing? And this is one of the things that I think we or did really push there to say, okay, how can we even if Def Jam isn’t at the forefront of being all in the video, you still knew that it was a Def Jam record and that’s what he was banking on. And I think that led to some of the later success that they ended up having.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [00:39:50]:
Yeah, absolutely. And I think it is kind of a pattern you see with successful businesses in culture and particularly in music. When you have founders who came up in their early twenty s and were really in the mix and could identify who was the next hot act that they had to sign and figure out how to promote them in a really intelligent way, that’s one thing. But when you’ve been doing that for, you know, suddenly you’re, you know, you’re, you’re like our age, you’re, you’re, you’re and you know, you’re just not, you’re just not going to that many shows. And if you’re Russell Simmons, by that point you’re worth quite a lot of money and you’re living a very different lifestyle than you were when you were in your early twenty s. And so not only do you not really know who’s the hot new act coming up, you’re not really in a position to even find them or notice them. And you really have to hire people or in this case acquire or invest in other labels that are younger that do have their finger on the pulse. And so I think that same eye for talent that you had identifying acts now you have to use to identify other executives, other founders who have that eye for the younger up and coming acts. And I think Def Jam did that really brilliantly. In fact, many of the executives that came out of Def Jam you see going on to do that down the line with whether it’s Leor or Kevin Miles going on to do 300 some of the other kind of endeavors. Def Jam was always a really entrepreneurial place, but part of it was spotting the next generation of entrepreneurs who could spot the next generation of artists. And I think that defined Def Jam’s success in the 90s.
Dan Runcie [00:41:40]:
Agreed. Julie Greenwald is another person you throw in that mix where had the career there and then you start to see her just have more success afterward. Michael Kaiser there was a whole crew of them that were able to do it. It was really fun to see. And in this particular part about the 90s here, this is probably a good place to talk about everything leading up to 1998. Both the sale that they had but what they did leading up to that sale and how our friend from Yonkers, the late DMX, helped change everything for this.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [00:42:14]:
You know, we’ve talked about this before, but when DMX was at his peak, I don’t think there’s any artist that has ever been at that level sustained that sort of white hot energy for a couple of years. And I guess you could compare modern day Drake to it, but there was just something about the intensity like DMX burns so bright. Even if Drake is ultimately selling more or something. He’s a little more laid back about it. It’s just amazing that DMX was able to maintain that ferocity in addition to the commercial viability over those couple of albums in the late 90s. So the prelude to the big Def Jam buyout is, of course, Def Jam investing in Rockefeller 1997. They buy a 50% stake, I think it was, for a little over a million dollars. Great deal for Def Jam, but really kind of brings Jay Z into the fold there. You think about Jay Z starting to become a commercial giant. His first album, obviously, Reasonable Doubt, arguably one of his best, maybe his best, depending who you ask. Second album, Not So Hot, but then he really kind of hits his stride commercially. You’ve got hard knock life. He’s really thriving. DMX is thriving. They’re bringing Def Jam to greater and greater heights. They end up in the situation. And I’m actually just going to make sure I get all my numbers right here because it’s kind of mind blowing. But looking how I reported in my book, Three Kings, so 98 comes around. Russell Simmons is in negotiations with Polygram to sell the rest of the label. Initially, they offer 50 million. He declines it, they go down to 34 million. And then he realizes that they’re just doing the valuation on a multiple of revenue. And so revenue as opposed to earnings, all you need to do is just sell more music. It doesn’t really matter how much you spend on it. So Russell goes to DMX and Jay, and he know two biggest artists on the album. Can each of you put out another two albums in the space of one year so that we can really juice our numbers going into the sale? Both of them do. And they both put out incredible classic albums in the span of less than a year, two of them each. And obviously they get paid and it works. And so the number let me make sure I get this right. The number goes up to 98. Def Jam did a record $175,000,000 in billing. And then in 99, Polygram bought the remainder of the company for 135,000,000, which is $100 million more than they had offered before this gambit of Jay and DMX. And Russell said, and this is a quote, a direct quote. He said, Where is this quote? We sold it definitely because of those guys, as free as it gets. And interestingly. He said I thought DMX was greater than Jay Z. So there’s a little hot take. But, yeah, I mean, I think certainly at his commercial peak, I think DMX was selling better than Know. You could argue. I mean, such different styles. But, yeah, there you have it. If it weren’t for JayZ DMX, I think that Russell and the rest of those Def Jam execs would have been a lot less wealthy than they are today.
Dan Runcie [00:46:21]:
Epic. And I remember hearing that DMX got an extra $1 million advance to drop that second album that he did in the year the Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of my Blood. Do you know if Jay Z got a similar advance?
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [00:46:38]:
I don’t remember, but knowing him, he probably negotiated something different, like some kind of back end thing. I don’t know. I’m just guessing or if kind of like he’s saying, I do think that’s glad we’re not live.
Dan Runcie [00:47:09]:
We’ll edit all that out. You need water or anything?
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [00:47:16]:
Just getting over a little thrift thing.
Dan Runcie [00:47:20]:
And I guess barbara, you good. Water or you need a.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [00:47:30]:
Dan Runcie [00:47:33]:
At the time, I’d probably assume that DMX’s advance or whatever he got may have actually been bigger because he was the more commercially successful artist, at least at that particular time. I bet that Flesh of My Flesh, blood of My Blood, or even his third album. And then they were x. And then there was X probably sold even more than Jay Z’s volume Three, which came out at the end of 1999 life and Times of Sean Carter because both that went in and then There Was X came out around a month of each other or so. And the numbers are crazy. I know we talked a little bit about this in the Rockefeller episode that we had done, but it’s one of those things where, yeah, those guys got the advances. But was 1 million nearly enough? DMX has been on record to say, oh, I helped make Def Jam $100 million. And he’s not wrong. And I don’t know if DMX ever quite ever got $100 million, but, again, it’s part of the deal you sign. And this is why we do see more of these things. But I wouldn’t be surprised if this particular instance is one of the things that reinforced things even more for Jay Z to be like, okay, we did the ownership thing. That worked out well for us, but there’s a whole nother level that I need to eventually get to that sees, okay, this is how much the work that I put in. I got this check. But then that leads to this massive sale for more money than I probably would have even imagined at the.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [00:48:58]:
I don’t I don’t really think that Jay Z did some kind of backroom deal where he’s like, all right, I’ll do it. But you have to promise to make me the CEO of Def Jam in a few years. I don’t think that happened, but I could envision him thinking, like, hey, if I do this and make all this money for Def Jam, and I really kind of show what I’m capable of doing in sort of like a leadership way. This kind of builds my case for moving up the ranks, not just as a musician, but as a businessman. And clearly already he was starting to think about how he could expand his portfolio. Of course. And we’ll get to it in a bit, but ends up being the CEO of Def Jam himself down the line. So in a way I wonder if this move kind of helped make his case. I mean, I guess it was different owners ultimately, but having that kind of foresight was the kind of thing that perhaps could serve you well in your candidacy for such a post in the future.
Dan Runcie [00:50:07]:
And I think that this deal as well, it helped set up a few things. One or before I get to that one. I do think it highlighted just the way that Leor was willing to think and push things, because I don’t know if everyone that had been in that position probably would have made that same move, because it was unthought of to have an artist drop another album so close at that particular time. It’s Dark As Hell is hot with still having singles that would have went through. And there’s a pretty easy line to see where you didn’t technically another executive could have said, okay, well, if we plan to have X drop his debut album May 1998, you could maybe do another 1 December 1999, which is when his third album was, and not even have another one in the middle. And then similar with Jay Z to a similar extent. So there was always a bit of the uniqueness there. And I think one of the things that Def Jam had also done was just how it thought about marketing. We talked a little bit about Radio and Paola earlier, but they, as well as some of the others were early on thinking beyond Radio promotion, where, okay, how can we get street teams, how can we get the posters, how can we get the things out? And we obviously saw this perfected later on in the 90s with whether it was Live Records or Bad Boy and others, but they were always pushing things. But I think the big thing about this whole deal is that it restructures things because it brings Def Jam under the Universal Music Group umbrella and then the island Def Jam Group forms. Leor then becomes president of that, and then Kevin Lyles, who had been with him during a lot of this time, then moves into the president role where he is then overseeing the Def Jam label. But still, technically Leor is the one that’s overseeing a lot of these other conglomerates. And this is where I do think things shift, where we’re now in 2000, the label is firmly leading into its stage of trying to take the backseat and let other labels come through and do their thing. But it’s also the point where any of the ownership stakes or anything like that from original founders is gone. Like they made their money, they’ve cashed out, and now this is part of the major record label.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [00:52:16]:
Absolutely. But still you have that Def Jam lineage there, even with somebody like Kevin Lyles who had worked his way up from being a Def Jam intern to being the president within, I think, seven years. It’s like one of the great hip hop stories that is maybe not as well known as some of the artist journeys, but Kevin Lyles making his way up in just seven years, so you got him there. He was somebody who really understood how you could empower artists, executives like Jay and Dame to go out and sign the next wave of folks and to really embody the strategy that Russell had started a couple of years before the big sale.
Dan Runcie [00:53:01]:
And one of the big wins for him during his tenure was getting into video games. As we talked about, part of Dev Jam’s identity was always getting into different things. Russell had done it with the comedy and poetry in the 90s, but then video games was big. So he was having this conversation with the folks at EA. They wanted to license their music for an upcoming Madden game. And he says, all right, well, if they’re making all this money licensing our music, what if we actually get involved with these games? And it was the perfect combination of things where they had this dormant game, it was called Kung Fu Fighting, but it really didn’t have a home. So there was a basis for this. It was this wrestling style game that they had had, but then they also had these well, EA Sports was the company that they were talking with and this is the time where EA Sports big was doing its thing. And you had NBA Street, so there was a lot of the culture that I think aligned with it. And then wrestling was popular too, because this is at the peak of WWF’s attitude era with The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin doing their thing. So them having this wrestling game was big, but they had eight months to do it. Just given the timeframes that were there, that’s an incredibly short amount of time to be able to release a video game. But with people that are used to being able to spin up albums, as we’ve seen in a short amount of time, they’re like, all right, we’re going to do this. Let’s make it happen. So they work with the artists, they get all of the ones to be involved with it. There’s definitely a very interesting story. I recommend you check it out. Okplayer had interviewed a lot of the folks like Kevin Lyles and even some of the artists and others that talked about it. But they were able to spawn that as a successful game. And they had a few different sequels after that that did quite well. And I think that was one of the things that stuck out. And every once in a while you’ll see things on social media go viral, where people start tagging Kevin Lyles and say, hey, when are you going to make another Def Jam vendetta game? Even though he hasn’t worked at the company for over a decade now. But it’s always funny to see that come up.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [00:55:08]:
Yeah, it goes back to Def Jam’s entrepreneurial roots. Right. Starting out with co founder Russell Simmons. He was an entrepreneur from the very beginning days of hip hop and kind of coming up in that culture. I think somebody like Kevin Lyles was empowered to be able to think outside of the box. This is not just music, this is poetry, comedy and video games was kind of a logical next step. So I think we talk about go back to the Def Jam Cash Money debate. I think Def Jam was able to succeed outside of music in a way that perhaps cash money was not. And part of it know, this sort of like very expansive entrepreneurial know, and certainly like having some institutional funding to be able to go and do that sort of, you know, I think hip hop is entrepreneurial, Def Jam is hip hop, Def Jam is entrepreneurial. And it makes so much sense that they were able to go out and.
Dan Runcie [00:56:14]:
Do that kind of thing because around this time too, russell Simmons had officially left the company as part of this sale. But he was timing the market perfectly with Fat Farm and Baby fat brands that he went on to then sell for a nine figure amount as well. He tied that well. So he was already leaning into this. We started to see his brother and the whole family have more TV shows and things like that. So they were doing the thing, they were checking all of the boxes.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [00:56:46]:
Yeah. And I think also we talk a lot about the startup angle and how Def Jam really was a startup. But if you’re a startup entrepreneur, you sell your company, you’re getting back at it as soon as your non compete is up. Right. And I don’t know the specifics of it, but if you have a non compete in music, you could just go right into fashion or whatever the next thing is without having to know if if Def Jam is an entrepreneurial company. So much of that DNA comes from Russell and he kind of can’t help going on to create the next business. He’s always got his eye on what he can conjure up that is different from, but kind of ties back to the original business, to the heritage of something like Def Jam. So that all does kind of square up.
Dan Runcie [00:57:43]:
Right. And one of the things that stands out too about this era is that by the early 2000s we’re starting to see the CD era decline. But Def Jam is still doing its thing. These albums are still putting up numbers, whether it’s Jay Z with his Blueprint Two, an album that isn’t necessarily maybe the most highly regarded, but it was a double album and it sold a ton of records and it worked out quite commercially. Successful for them. All the Murder, Inc. Artists are doing their thing, whether it’s Ashanti, who was very successful at the time, or Ja Rule, of course, peak 2000 2001 time frame, and then Ludicrous, of course, doing his thing with whether it’s the chicken and beer album back for the first time, the red light district, all of his singles from there. And then you have Kanye West coming too. But then you have this interesting moment where again, some type of fracture or difference paves the way for an opportunity. Where we talked about our Rockefeller episode, the Jay Z and Damon Dash split with part of that split, it was Dame Dash that went off and he had Rock for Life and was starting to do his own thing, but he had Cam with him as well. But then Jay Z is the one who eventually becomes the CEO of Def Jam, and this was a big move for him. Interesting how it all developed, but I think his tenure in many ways was interesting because it laid a lot of the foundation for what he was able to eventually do with Rock Nation. But him being under the major record label was a bit of a challenge in terms of him being able to do all the things he wanted to do, but then realizing that there were many more people that he had to answer to.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [00:59:28]:
Yeah, I mean, it was kind of a fascinating time. 2003, JayZ at this kind of crossroads. I think he just started dating Beyonce. He was kind of moving into a zone where he was no longer just seen as a hip hop act, but he was kind of looking to the broader you know, I think there was some rumor that he and Beyonce were going to go start something at Apple together. There was some thought that Edgar Brockman wanted to bring him over to Warner, maybe to work with Leor Cohen, who was going over there. But in the end, there was this kind of game of musical chairs when Leor left. And I think La reid got bumped up a spot to take Leor’s place. And then Def Jam and La. Reid brought Jay Z on to run Def Jam. And part of the deal was because there were other labels, including Warner, that wanted him to be an executive, I think part of the deal was they dangled some control of his masters in addition to I think it was a $10 million a year deal. So he goes over and of course, awkwardly, then Def Jam buys out the rest of Rockefeller for like $10 million. So suddenly Jay Z is just like Dame’s boss because now he’s at the company they’re running, the company that just bought out Rockefeller. And so this kind of finalizes their split. They go their separate ways. Like you say, Dame goes and does Rockefeller, although for a minute he had the Dame Dash Music Group or something within the greater universal umbrella and that lasted like 5 seconds and before he went on to do his next thing. So I think, yeah, the Jay Z Def Jam era is the beginning of his transition from mostly artists to mostly businessman. And I think he gets mixed reviews for his tenure. And I think there’s some question as to who deserves credit for the successes and Kanye and Rihanna and Rick Ross, and I think it depends who you you know, at the end of the day, jay Z presided over, I think, an extension of Relevancy for Def Jam at a time when it could have really started to decline. And by kind of overseeing that period of time, kanye and Rick Ross and mean, I think you could say La Re deserves credit for them. You could argue that Kanye wouldn’t have really been in a recording artist anyway if it weren’t for Dame believing in him. There’s a lot of cooks in this particular kitchen. But I think certainly transitioning from being mostly an artist to mostly an executive isn’t easy. And the fact that Jay Z was able to do it and be a part of that kind of success know, certainly a credit to know it’s like rookie quarterback in the NFL. Yeah, Jay Z was an executive before with Rockefeller, but it was a totally different dynamic, know, running a company like that’s that’s you’re in the league, man. To have any kind of success off the bat like he did, I think it speaks volumes to him, but also to Def Jam kind of like seeing that ability. Obviously now we look at Jay Z, he’s this billionaire many times over. It would be obvious that you should hire Jay Z to run your record label, but it was probably a little less obvious at that, you know, so credit to the decision makers to put him in that position.
Dan Runcie [01:03:16]:
It really is such a completely different job. To echo what you’re saying there, running Rockefeller Records is more so Jay Z is the big artist that we have. How could we structure the releases around that? But how could we make sure we give everyone else an opportunity to have different people featuring off of each other? And in some ways there’s harder aspects because you may be running a business independently, especially if you only have a production deal, but running one of these houses under a major record label, you’re looking over the release schedules, you’re managing this broader PNL, you’re trying to manage up and deal with these stakeholders. You’re trying to compete with this other label who’s also in house with you as well, but you’re all trying to essentially compete under this broader universal Music Island Def Jam group as well. There’s a lot of politics at stake, but there’s a lot of challenges too. And one of the quotes that stuck out, jay Z had done this interview with Rolling Stone shortly after he left the position and he said, quote, I told Def Jam, how about this idea? Instead of spending $300 million to break four acts out of 57 at the time, he said, why don’t you give me a credit line and I’ll just do things. I won’t make music, I’ll go buy some headphones or I’ll go buy a clothing line and just be part of the culture. But the money scared them off because they’re not used to thinking in that way. And he’s absolutely right, because that isn’t how at least that type of record label is doing things. The closest you saw to this was what we talked about in our Interscope conversation, where you have Jimmy Ivine and he’s able to use Interscope as a testing ground and as many ways an incubator for what Beats by Dre. Led. But it’s very different for the founder of Interscope to be able to do that under that same umbrella. And the influence that he had at the time is a little bit tougher. Even though it is Jay Z, it isn’t Russell Simmons that had been doing this for several years, and it’s just been up and up and up. Not all of these record labels are treated the same under the major record label system. And I do think that part of that was him running up against the wall and seeing them do things like they’re still pushing these legacy acts from the waiting on their releases. And a lot of that didn’t necessarily work from that perspective. But again, I think he was able to see a lot of the vision for what he did want to do with Rock Nation, because that’s where a lot of these same things he mentioned now, he was actually able to do. And even in different iterations of that with different companies and different things over the past 15 years.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [01:05:49]:
Yeah, and I think it’s important to note all of the corporate shenanigans going on in the background here. It’s no longer just def. Jam is under polygram. Now you have a merger, there’s this whole reshuffling buyouts and everything, and suddenly Def Jam is under the Island Def Jam umbrella, which is I think Def Jam is under the island umbrella, which is under the Island Def Jam umbrella, which is under the Universal umbrella, which has all these other labels and blah, blah, blah. And it’s just like a very complicated.
Dan Runcie [01:06:30]:
Universal republic on this side, universal, and.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [01:06:34]:
Suddenly you’re just kind know, lost in the shuffle a little bit, and you don’t really have the ability to just go and do something like Jay Z was saying, you can’t just go buy a headphone line. That’s exactly what he said. He wanted to do something like Beats, but he was just not empowered to do that under this sort of corporate umbrella, series of corporate umbrellas, if you will. And I think that that entrepreneurial heritage that Def Jam started out with, like any startup. At some point, if you get bought up in layers and layers and layers of corporate oversight, it just becomes very hard to do things in an entrepreneurial way. And I think that speaks as frustration. And I think that it is what really led to Def Jam being not quite as relevant as it had been in the past.
Dan Runcie [01:07:30]:
And I think this next era that we’re talking about, that we get into where La Reed’s tenure starts, he takes over after Jay Z to lead Def Jam for several years. This is where I do think that a few things happen. One, you mentioned this earlier, but a lot of the credit for some of the artists that did succeed at that time. There is debate on who gets it, but some people may attribute Kanye and Rihanna’s success to Jay Z. Other people may contribute it to La reid. I do think there’s a bit of the evolution of where, depending on who you ask, in the Jay Z timeframe, the label was still deciding, okay, is it going to be Rihanna? Is it going to be Tiara Marie? Remember that whole thing? Who’s going to be the princess? And then now or not now, but then years later, you have umbrella, and you see how that record is able to take off under L. A. Reid for that time frame. But then you also have Kanye becoming stadium Yay and doing his thing. And La reid’s whole thing is, how do we develop these superstars? He does it with Justin Bieber as well. Neo was huge at the time to doing his thing on the label. But this is where things start to shift, I think, from a vision perspective, because much of that late Leor tenure and early Kevin Lyles and even early Jay Z was much more of that hardcore New York thing that I think a lot of millennials and older Gen X folks grew up with, identifying with Def Jam’s culture and Def Jam’s identity. But then it shifts more into the superstar status where, how can we compete with the biggest labels in the game? How do we just get the biggest artists possible? And Yay was clearly a shift in this, rihanna was clearly a shift in this, and then even Jeezy and some of the other artists. So you still had a bit of the mix, but La Reed’s tenure was much more about how do we get the superstar artists? Some people definitely had some concerns from a branding and identity perspective, but the commercial success was there. But again, I think it depends on what your flavor is there. But I do think that the Neo piece is one piece that I do think gets a little forgotten there. But there were some successful acts to come from that era.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [01:09:41]:
Yeah, definitely. But I think especially with Bieber, it’s like, Wait a minute, I get that. Okay, Jay Z is different from Cool J DMX is different from the Beastie Boys, but Justin Bieber, like, we’re really we’re really going to a whole different range, more into the pop R B thing, which I guess was sort of island was that in that lane. But things started to get blurry. Like, Def Jam was more of a brand in some ways than island was. It was island def Jam. What does that even you know, you started to mush things together in a way that they didn’t really have that much of an identity anymore. Then again, you can’t really not sign Justin Bieber, I guess. Guess we they signed him through. It was never just that Def Jam went and signed Justin Bieber. Another complex umbrella of different labels and relationships and so forth. But at any rate, if you have Justin Bieber on your roster, if you have an opportunity to do that, you’re not going to be like, well, you’re not hip hop, so I’m going to kick you. You do what you can and you lose your identity a little bit along the way. But, yeah, I don’t think you can fault Def Jam for sort of going in that direction when you have the chance to do it.
Dan Runcie [01:11:00]:
Yeah, I don’t either. And it’s something I’ve thought about a lot because I think that even in past episodes I’ve done on this podcast, I’ve looked at it as, wow, that was a diversion from the image. But even if we think back again, there was tension in the 80s where Russell Simmons had Orange Juice Jones and all of these other R and B acts that he was trying to push as well. And then even with La Reed, one of the things that he speaks publicly about often is his misread on Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga was signed to Def Jam. She puts out her demo, he doesn’t like it, and he says, admittedly, he was impatient about it and he dropped her, and then she sides with Interscope and that her career takes off on Interscope after that, and he views that as a missed opportunity. But again, Lady Gaga isn’t someone that necessarily may have fit that Def Jam identity of what we thought to be a Def Jam artist, but it did for La reid, given how he thought about things. So it was definitely an interesting time there as well. You also look at things that he had tried to do as well, whether I think he flew down to Belize to try to sign Skyne at one point. And I remember that was a whole big media thing. So it was an interesting era. And I think a lot of people do have different opinions about it, but it’s a fascinating one in this record label’s history.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [01:12:13]:
Yeah, and with the Lady Gaga aspect, of course, she just got signed by a different universal label, ultimately. Right? And I think it was Akon who’s like, yo, Interscope, you should pick her up. And I think she was initially signed through his Interscope imprint, which is like it’s just reshuffling under the same umbrella. And people talked about it like it’s very high stakes, but it’s the same people getting rich off of it either way, ultimately, at the tippy top.
Dan Runcie [01:12:43]:
Right. It’s this whole like the labels want to create the inner competition, where even if you’re running Def Jam, def Jam is competing with Interscope, no different than it’s competing with Atlantic Records to you as the label head, but you’re all owned by the same right?
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [01:12:58]:
Right. And like, you’re definitely not going to get into a bidding war with another label under your same umbrella. I think that would really be frowned upon, but maybe you’ll pick up somebody who got dropped from the other. So I think it’s not as much of a tragedy for Def Jam. Maybe it’s a tragedy for Def Jam, but for Universal it doesn’t really matter. She got big either way. Universal got its coffers lined a little bit more one way or the other.
Dan Runcie [01:13:27]:
Agreed. And then after this era, things start to shift even a little bit. You had Joey Mando was in the role for a little bit, but it was very brief after that. You had Steve Bartles was in the role as well. And then I think you start to see more of the shift where I feel like he tried to replicate some of that identity that L. A. Reed had as well, where he’s signing Alessia Cara. He’s signing Logic as well. But he’s also continuing Ye and having a lot of these big records that Ye puts out as well. You have Frank Ocean, but then, of course, you have the whole entire drama where they weren’t able to have Blonde on the label because he then releases endless the day before, and then that whole thing happened. And then after that you had Paul Rosenberg, who someone that probably shouldn’t have been in that role to begin with just because I think that this was around the time when you had a lot of people that were already multi hyphenates doing their own thing. And he had eminem. He was never going to give up having Eminem as well, but someone that I think was much more focused on how do I do the artist manager role, how do I work that to be as well as I can? And I don’t know if, again, looking over P LS and looking through different schedules and things like that was necessarily something that he had focused on there. And then more recently, you have Tunji Balagun from RCA that had done a lot of the mix of both R and B and hip hop as well. That I do think speaks a lot to the identity that Def Jam has had over the past 15 years or so. And he’s still early in his tenure. But it’s been very interesting to see how these different instances have lined up and got us to where we are today.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [01:15:13]:
Yeah, 100%. And I do think Def Jam, in a way, when you have JayZ as your if you have Jay Z running your label, you do feel some kind of pressure to have a name with every subsequent hire. But as time has gone on, I think the executives running the show have been a little bit less famous and you kind of got to juggle. Do you want a name or do you want like a bean counter? And I think Def Jam maybe can’t quite figure that out. There’s been a lot of back and forth on that. But I think really we’re increasingly and we’ve talked about this on prior episodes, but we’re in a place where labels don’t matter so much, right? You’re just not necessarily aware of who’s on what label. You’re not picking up a record or a CD and putting it into a CD player or record player. You’re not really seeing what the label is when you’re streaming something on Spotify or Apple Music. And so I think it makes sense that labels are fading into the background in terms of their popular perception or their image, what their sort of heritage is, what their identity is. And I think Def Jam is no different in the end. Although I think that Def Jam will always mean something in hip hop to kids listening to music these days. It probably won’t. Maybe it’s just for us old farts.
Dan Runcie [01:16:44]:
And I think recently with some of the moves, they have leaned more into who is the best person we can find to run this business as opposed to the flashy names? Because if you listen to the word on the street, DJ Khaled wanted that position, especially when it was open after Rosenberg left and maybe even before they signed Rosenberg as well, and it didn’t happen. Snoop Dogg wanted that position as well. But Snoop Dogg as well, he was signed on to be a consultant at one point and then this whole Death Row thing happened, so that was there. Jeezy wanted this role as well and eventually ended up being similar in the Snoop Dogg way. You could be a consultant, you could do this as we’ve so we started to see this pattern time and time again and then even times more recently. Like the guy from Griselda West Side Gun, I think he said himself, oh, let me be president of Deck Jam as well, or let me be CEO of Dexium. So I do think that the shift to Tunji was more okay. You could see a track record of what this person did at RCA and that’s more so the vision there. So it’s been interesting how they found ways to say, especially as you said, the label isn’t necessarily this outward brand as much as it is this internal company we’re trying to run almost in the way of Paramount Pictures or something like that. And in the movie side, it’s less of the name you need that is this external that is always talking to the press and being in videos, but who’s the person that can run the company? If we’ve seen these record labels, the record label CEOs that have been more successful, it started to be a little bit more like that in a way. We’ve moved a bit more away from folks like your Jimmy Ivines and it’s a bit more of your John Janak, someone who really doesn’t do as many outward interviews like that, but is highly regarded in terms of the work that he does. Or folks like the Lippmans, who I think people outside the music industry probably don’t know. But if you’re in the industry, you do and things like that. So I feel like that’s where some of the more recent shift has gone.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [01:18:57]:
Yeah, but at the same time you have labels like Quality Control or 300 or some of the labels that have come up over the past decade or so. And you do have sort of like charismatic founders who are fairly well known, who are kind of out there more. And I think that’s what you do if you’re that kind of founder, if you’re that kind of executive. Whereas maybe the type of folks who would be more drawn toward running a label that is now nested under several other labels in a giant conglomerate would be more bean counters. But then again, of course there is the Prestige and that’s why you have the Snoops and the Khaled’s interested in it too. And I think a lot of it is sort of the afterglow of Jay Z being there.
Dan Runcie [01:19:46]:
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [01:19:46]:
It’s like this really prestigious thing and he’s sort of the prestige name, the number one prestige name in hip hop. So that has left a certain shine to that position and probably always will, as long as Def Jam is out there putting out music.
Dan Runcie [01:20:01]:
Maybe the distinction then is the independent labels that are coming up doing their thing versus the ones that are in house part of the major system already. Right, because Def Jam has been part of the system for like 2020 plus years now. But if you’re coming up in your Quality Control, you’re coming up in your 300, you do need a showman to some extent to sell the vision in a way where it’s less that for that particular way. So maybe that’s the distinction here. It’s still absolutely beneficial in some ways, but you see it a bit more on the independent side. Yeah, I totally agree with that. I think it’s a good time to get into some of these topics here. What do you think is the biggest signing that Def Jam did in its history?
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [01:20:46]:
It’s a tough one, but I think I’d probably go with Ll Cool J just to start off with that kind of a bang to have an artist who was rooted in the very early days of hip hop, who kind of grew with the label, helped the label grow the label helped him grow this great symbiotic relationship. Hip hop legend been there for consistently putting out music, more or less. I mean, I know he’s been more in the Hollywood world for the recent couple of I think, you know, if I had to think back, would Def Jam have been Def Jam without any one artist? I think Ll Cool J is the first one that comes to mind of the identity of the label, and it all kind of grew out from there.
Dan Runcie [01:21:40]:
Yeah, here’s my answer, too. I think it has to be him. He set the tone. He hit that hybrid that we’re talking about that was part of this label’s identity for a lot of time. He’s always stayed close to the label to some extent that I think has worked well with him. And then even as recently as two, three years ago, I forget when the exact date was, but he resigned with the record label. And I know that he wants to continue to put out music and do everything he’s been doing there. I think there’s other artists you can make a case for in particular ways just to kind of highlight some honorable mentions here. Of course, Kanye’s continued relevancy with the record label the past 20 years has clearly been influential for them, as you talked before. Red man, even though he was never the biggest commercial artist, I think was very pivotal at the moment that he came. Just given things that Leor has shared as well, and then DMX during the late 90s was just another level of success as well. I think Rihanna is another one, too, that you could put into that same category just in terms of how she was signed to the label when literally every summer she was releasing an album from, what, 2005 up until she started working on Fetty Beauty. Right. And they were able to reap the rewards from a lot of those.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [01:22:55]:
Dan Runcie [01:22:56]:
Which Def Jam CEO did the best job. This is one where, oh go, well.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [01:23:04]:
I was going to say this one’s kind of I think the obvious answer is Russell, because if he didn’t kind of get it off the ground, then none of the rest of the stuff would happen. That’s kind of a boring answer, but that’s my answer.
Dan Runcie [01:23:18]:
You could I hear that.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [01:23:20]:
Yeah. It’s like the Ll answer is maybe a little bit boring. You could make a case for others, but if you kind of don’t start the thing, if you don’t have the idea for the thing, give the thing the identity, then it’s not going to be so easy for anybody else to come on and do a good job with it later on either.
Dan Runcie [01:23:40]:
The case for Russell with a number of reasons is that one of the reasons why people have so many strong opinions about what Def Jam is or should be is because of how he was able to build things. How he was able to craft things with his vision and what def meant, whether you put it in front of different things and how he’s able to extend the brand. So I get that the one I’ll say, and I want to preface this before I get into mine, because I reached out to a few people who I respect in the industry to get their opinion on this same question. Everyone gave me a different answer. And it’s fascinating because I think it highlights a lot of this topic where people have a different idea of what Defgm is or what defG should be, depending on who you ask, depending on what era they romanticize and all those things. So that’s one thing that stuck out to me and people that know the business and we’re in it. My answer, though, my answer is Leor. And my answer is Leor because I think he was able to see the record label in so many iterations. He was able to see it in its downturn and take over in its downturn. And being able to help bring the label back from that, especially when you’re $19 million in debt, is huge. I think he was also able to see. How do you get this independent label? Kind of like we’re saying a few minutes ago about QC and some of these others. Now, how do you get this independent label to then be something that you can then sell for nine figures and have multiple sales where you have the initial polygram deal, and then five years later, or four or five years later, you have the, UMG deal? And even just the thought around pushing X and pushing Jay Z as hard as you did to say, hey, these are the two artists. This is what the street needs. Let’s run this back and let’s maximize this from a business perspective. Because you see that this company is doing things on revenue multiples instead of other metrics. There’s other people that I think you can make a case for, but I think he’s the guy.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [01:25:44]:
So, yeah, it’s hard to invent something, but it’s even harder in some ways to reinvent something. And he certainly did that, right? I mean, it could have gone a totally different way if he hadn’t kind of pulled it back from the brink. And, yeah, certainly he got a lot bigger number for that deal than I guess it. Was Russell still running the show with the polygram deal, the first half in 94? Or was that El Two? I don’t know. Anyway, did you remember?
Dan Runcie [01:26:16]:
Yeah, so with that, Leor was the CEO of the company at the time, but Russell was chairman, so he was still quite involved at the time.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [01:26:24]:
Yeah. So, I mean, even to go from selling half of it to 33 million to selling half. Of it for 133,000,135, whatever. It was all under your own tenure. That’s quite an evolution. So good point on that one. Yeah, hard to argue.
Dan Runcie [01:26:45]:
Yeah. I was thinking about asking you who was the least effective, but I said, no, we can leave that where it is. This question, who is the most influential furries each decade? I guess we already did that in the 80s since we both said Ll Cool J was the most important signing there. But who would you give it to in the 90s?
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [01:27:07]:
DMX, definitely. Again, it was a pretty concentrated period of time, but just like that level of concentration of lyrical firepower and just intensity, and I think really driving even more than Jay driving that sale number, I think I got to get DMX. How about you?
Dan Runcie [01:27:30]:
Yeah, we probably may be similar on these, but yeah, it has to be him for those same reasons. Two thousand s.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [01:27:40]:
Two thousand. I think I would go with Kanye. Okay. Right. Because that was like, basically all of peak old Kanye happened under, you know, I think both in terms of him being the evolution of Def Jam’s identity, what it was building up to, obviously not so great right now, but really, I think Kanye perhaps being the most significant artist of any genre of the past 20 years. I mean, he’s certainly in the conversation. I’ll give it to Kanye.
Dan Runcie [01:28:28]:
Kanye is a good answer, I think I’m going to give mine to Rihanna. And I’ll give it to her because once she started, it was consistent, it was reliable, it was there. I would have to check the sales numbers to see how well Good Girl Gone Bad did, compared to graduation, for instance, because I think those were both of the same year. But I think those are the two strongest ones you had that decade by far. And this is probably where it gets more interesting, though. What would you say for 2010?
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [01:29:01]:
I guess you kind of have to say Bieber. Again, he wasn’t like somebody who just came in the front door. Def Jam assigned him this is kind of complicated umbrella, but if you’re listing him as one of your big artists, it doesn’t get much bigger than Justin Bieber. And even though he didn’t really quite match the Def Jam identity, he was super significant, sold ton of records, and he’s under the umbrella. So I probably have to give it to Bieber.
Dan Runcie [01:29:35]:
Yeah. I wish I could say Frank Ocean here. I wish I could I can’t, because there wasn’t enough output, and the Masterpiece Blonde that he put out wasn’t even on Def Jam. Right. So you can’t say him. Bieber is the most successful they’ve had. I mean, that record that Sorry was on was huge. That has to be one of the biggest albums that Def Jam had this entire decade. I think Logic was another artist on the roster that was commercially successful as well. I forget what his current deal status is right now. I think he may be off the label and doing his own thing at the moment. But yeah, I think it would have to be logic. Dark horse.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [01:30:20]:
Do you think it would have to be Bieber or oh, if I had.
Dan Runcie [01:30:24]:
To pick, I would still pick Bieber, because I think his records are still bigger than yeah, I think that album that like Sorry and Love Yourself were on, I think it was called Purpose. Justin bieber purpose.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [01:30:36]:
Yeah, that was huge.
Dan Runcie [01:30:38]:
And I think he has the most he’s one of the artists with the most billion stream song on Spotify, either himself or featured it’s at least ten of those songs, which is more than anyone else. So I know that he’s had some trouble on the touring side and things like that, and of course, drama with Masters ownership and management right now. But on the commercial side of the record, he does put up streaming numbers, and that’s the side that a record label is concerned about, at least.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [01:31:09]:
But I like the Logic call out, too.
Dan Runcie [01:31:12]:
Yeah, for sure. A Dark Horse business move that doesn’t get discussed enough from Def Jam.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [01:31:21]:
Okay, so I’m going to combine this with biggest Miss. I’m going to say signing Jay Z. It is both a Dark Horse business move that doesn’t get discussed enough, and it’s a big miss. So when Def Jam signed Jay Z to be right, we talked about this. Jay Z’s tenure has gotten mixed reviews. Who really deserves credit for the signings? Whatever. But I think just simply by having him be CEO in the early aughts, mid to late aughts, when he was CEO, extended Def Jam’s relevance for years, maybe decades. The fact that we’re still talking about Khalid and Snoop wanting to be CEO of Def Jam potentially, or they did, or they do or whatever again, I trace that back to Jay Z. And as long as you have a list artists kind of craving that position, it means that there’s still a shine from when he was there. And I think that alone, regardless of whatever decisions he made, gives Def Jam kind of an ongoing viability that it might not have had. Who knows? I mean, the brand was pretty strong, but I think having Jay Z’s luster on it has extended it, I think, for a pretty long time as well. At the same time, I think that was the biggest miss kind of came with hiring Jay Z as CEO and not really empowering him to do the things that he wanted to do. And if you look what he did right after, like you said, he started Rock Nation, he went to Live Nation, a touring company, to do it. He could have totally done that through Def Jam. He could have really pioneered a model within the Def Jam umbrella, within the universal umbrella. Maybe not pioneered, but he could have extended the model, the 360 model, you get a piece of the touring, you’re doing other things, you’re doing something like a Beats by Dre. And if they had really empowered him to do it in the way that Live Nation has, which is do a joint venture, give him a credit line and the resources to really put his genius to work, I think it could have been a whole different story for this next chapter of Def Jam.
Dan Runcie [01:33:54]:
That’s a good one. And huge missed opportunity, like you said, because the labels could have done this. Because remember at this time, that’s when people were trying to figure out how do they get the most of what they can do in the CD era? How can they figure things out? And it actually reminds me, Rick Rubin, when Rick Rubin had of this quote from ended up having his job at Warner because he was in the middle of this debate that was happening right now. Just give me 1 second here. I want to find the quote here because I think it’s interesting to share that ties to this. So he talks about where music should be going at the time. And at the time, Steve Bartnett, he wanted Columbia to have their artists essentially do these massive deals where they get a piece of the tour and they got a piece of the merchandise, the online revenue, the whole 360 deals that you saw. So this is at the same time when people were trying to push these deals. And even as early as 2007, rick Rubin was one of these people that was pushing the record labels to try to do online subscription based music streaming. And his quote was, quote, you could pay 1995 a month, and the music could come from anywhere you like. In this new world, there’d be a virtual library that we could access from your car, cell phone, from your computer, with your television, anywhere. The ipod will be obsolete, but there will be a Walkmastyle device. You could turn your speakers and say, hey, now I want to listen to Simon and Garfuckle, and the service can have demos, bootlegs, et cetera, and the industry will grow ten times the size that it is now. So that’s a quote that he was saying then. And people thought that he was crazy. Remember, Steve Jobs didn’t think that anyone steve Jobs was against music streaming as a paid service. But I highlight this because at the time, the other popular sentiment was pushing these 360 deals. And the only reason, or one of the main reasons that Live Nation had done this 360 deals, because the record labels were coming in on their corner, trying to take a cut of theirs. So they’re like, okay, well, Madonna, you too, you want to have a big deal. I think the first big one they had was with Madonna for her nine figure deal, and then they do the one with jay Z. So the record labels, just based on where their thought mindset was obviously streaming, was something they weren’t even music streaming a subscription service. They thought Rick Rubin was crazy at the time for pushing it. But if you were already offered 360 deals, you could have offered Jay Z that Live Nation deal the same way that you discussed. Would they have offered him $150,000,000 the same way that Live Nation did? Who knows? But they probably should have, right? Because Live Nation got a cut of the albums that Jay Z released after that, like Blueprint Three. I think that was the first release that came after that deal. And then watch the throne bag in the carter. So there were a bunch of them there. So I share that to say that’s a really good call out. And, yeah, it could have been that way for the labels, and it wasn’t. It could have been Defgm doing that deal instead of Live Nation.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [01:36:59]:
Yeah. And I mean, in some ways, it’s hard to really fault them for that. I mean, that’s almost like a Netflix pivot. Like, why didn’t Blockbuster do that kind of thing? I mean, yeah, they should have done it, but it’s hard to fault somebody for not sort of reinventing a category. It’s hard to fault somebody for not doing a brilliant you know, they were just doing the obvious thing. They were doing the brilliant thing. It probably goes back to being under this very complicated corporate umbrella, and it just is harder to do the brilliant thing. You just want to not get fired for whoever’s reporting up, the motivations are a little different.
Dan Runcie [01:37:39]:
And I think to your point, too, I think it’s a little bit easier for an events promoter to offer you an advance on your next album than it is for a major record label to offer you guarantees and events promotion services. 1 second. The dark Horse business move that I’ll mention, I talked about a little bit earlier, but it was Def Jam’s ability to take the slight step back and let the other labels on the forefront under its umbrella take the reins to some extent and push things forward. But the Def Jam brand still remains strong. Talked about murder, inc. Talked about Rockefeller Records, talked about disturbing the piece and how successful each of those was with their own flagship artists behind that, and DefCamp reaped their awards for all of that. You had laid out why it was so effective earlier. I do want to echo that one again, because I don’t think that that piece gets discussed enough. And for all of the times that people have tried to launch vanity labels or have different sublabels under them, especially in hip hop, it’s this one, and it’s cash money, young money. And after that, I think that the list is slim of how effective these actually are when they do happen.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [01:38:59]:
Yeah, no, that’s a really good point. Totally agree.
Dan Runcie [01:39:05]:
And with that closing things out yeah. Who do you think won or lost the most from Def Jam?
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [01:39:10]:
It’s a really tough one. I mean, if you want to get kind of philosophical about it, you could argue that any number of artists who went on to become billionaires jay Z, Kanye, Rihanna got their platform in part from Def Jam for who won. Right. But I’d probably go with Russell because he got all that plus a lot more of the proceeds every time the company sold it’s. Maybe the easy answer, but I think it’s pretty straightforward. You can make a case for Leor. He did pretty well. He went on to a whole bunch of lucrative and prestigious posts. As far as who lost the most, I might say, relative to what he could have had, I’d say DMX. Obviously, he won a lot at Def Jam. He made a good amount of money. But I think if he’d played his cards differently, he could have made a lot more money. And if you look at sort of those two cases of Jay Z and DMX as two artists who were the hottest artists on the label and probably in all of hip hop at the time, they followed, obviously, really different trajectories. And it’s hard to say. I don’t know that he lost the most from Def Jam. He could have gotten more of the spoils, for sure, but I think he could have also gone on to benefit from the platform greater, which wasn’t really you know, I don’t think it was DMX’s fault. He just had these know, rest in peace, poor guy. But I think that DMX’s commercial his business legacy nowhere near matches his artistic legacy. But maybe he didn’t really care as much about the business side, and he really did care about the art more. And that’s cool.
Dan Runcie [01:41:13]:
Yeah. Yeah, those are good. I’ll actually do Jay Z for mine in terms of who won the most, and I think it’s for a lot of the reasons you mentioned him being in that CEO position. I do think we talked about the impact for Def Jam, but I also think it helped him as well. Even if there were mixed reviews about what he was actually able to do during that three, four year stretch, it benefited him everything after that, and even the whole line of, I’m a businessman, I’m not a businessman like him being able to do that, saying that while he literally is in that role on the Diamonds remix. And I do think that that is the most frequently mentioned hip hop lyric that I’ve heard since that came out just from people. And with all the things he’s able to do since then, I think that works out for him. The person that I think lost the most, this is dating back to earlier in the conversations, but I do wonder how things could have looked different for the Beastie Boys because they have this quick moment not quick moment, but they have this stretch where fight for your right and they’re doing their thing there. They switch to Capital records. I don’t know if their career necessarily was quite as successful, but then they do have this late 90s moment with Intergalactic and those holes in the album that that song came from. What would it have looked like if they were able to still continue from Russell and Rick being able to figure things out and their career being able to be successful? We’ve clearly seen how rappers and artists that look like them have went on to have very commercially successful careers in hip hop music specifically. They were the most commercially successful artists on the label of the don’t think they ever quite recaptured that again, even though Intergalactic was a popular song. So I think they are the ones that even though I think they’re highly regarded, especially within New York and hip hop and Def Jam circles, I don’t know if they quite reached some of that potential that they probably could have had.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [01:43:15]:
Yeah, I think with Intergalactic they were really poised to come back into this huge sort of mainstream success. And they were following, obviously, in this long line of white artists profiting off of black music and sort of like being more palatable in some ways to mainstream white audiences. Can talk about the thinly veiled racism and kind of embedded in some of those audiences and why that know all the way from Elvis to the Beastie Boys up to you know, in a way, it was Eminem who just kind of preempted them after intergalactic by bursting on the scene. And he was sort of like the white rapper that I think sucked up a lot of oxygen and suddenly their stuff sounded very tame. Right. They were kind of the rebels and then you have Eminem and it’s like, Holy shit. They’re not like that kind of level of rebelliousness. And I kind of wonder if Eminem took up a space that they might have gone on to Occupy after Intergalactic. But also, don’t you kind of get the sense that they’re totally fine with being just like, cool dads? They just hang out, they go to their kids soccer practice, they don’t really want to be famous, whatever. That’s kind of the vibe I get. And they’re just really, I don’t think, putting themselves out there in a way like they’re really seeking fame. They can play whenever they want to play. They make good money on their old records. They put out music, they want to put out music. I just don’t know that they maybe crave the spotlight or I wonder if they almost don’t crave the spotlight. They’d rather not be in the middle of things these days in the way that they were before.
Dan Runcie [01:45:08]:
Yeah, I think there’s probably part of them that does enjoy the fact that, yeah, they can walk in their neighborhood and they can go pick up their kids from school, and it’s only some diehard fan that’s going to walk up to him and be like, oh, are you Adam Horowitz? You know what I mean? That isn’t necessarily going to happen to them in that way. I’m more so referring to they go on Capitol Records, they leave because they think it’s going to be bigger, and then what happens, right. And you do have this moment, I think, especially like early mid 90s, where if you think about kind of like how you said the space that a white rapper takes up and obviously all of the veiled racism and unfortunate reasons why that happens. But you had Marky Mark for a little bit. You had vanilla ice. So the landscape was fragmented with these one, two, three hit wonders that come and go, and it really wasn’t until Eminem that someone had that space there. So I think it probably worked out for them where I’m sure they’re just fine. But when you think about the history of the record label, they’re one that stuck out versus I do feel like others definitely reach their full potential for.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [01:46:13]:
The most part, and obviously hard to say what the feelings are after you lose members of the band. Whether folks want to go on with the musical act, I think kind of is a pretty personal decision. I think that must play part of it, too.
Dan Runcie [01:46:32]:
Agreed. Agreed. Yeah. With that, anything else on Def Jam before we wrap things up?
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [01:46:38]:
I think we just about covered it all. Sorry to end on the somber note there, but no, I think that’s all she wrote.
Dan Runcie [01:46:49]:
I think so, too. I don’t have anything else. Legendary run for this record label. I’m excited to see what the rest of I’m excited to see what this next decade brings as well. I think it’s in an interesting spot, and I do think that music think in general is in an interesting spot right now just with how major record labels work and behave. And it’s been interesting to do this one and the interscope one because there’s definitely some similarities, but I think there’s some key differences, too. But, yeah, this is fun.
Zack O’Malley Greenburg [01:47:18]:
Yeah. Well, thanks, Dan.
Dan Runcie [01:47:19]:
All right. Thank you. Appreciate it.