Def Jam is turning 30 years old this year. The house that Russel Simmons and Rick Rubin built still stands as a pillar of Hip Hop excellence. They’ve ushered through the maze of the recording business seminal artists and classic groups, and, through all it’s ups and downs, have continued to bring forth the best in Hip Hop talent from throughout the country.
That sort of dedication led to a brand image that is as recognizable as any in the world, and a reputation for quality Hip Hop known from NYC to Tokyo. So, on the day of their 30th anniversary concert at Barclays (how fitting) HipHopDX got gifted with a mixed list of both Lyor Cohen’s and Kevin Liles’ favorite Def Jam’s over the past three decades. And, of course, we had to let them “Rock The Bells”.
LL Cool J – “Rock the Bells”
Of course, this means that LL Cool J has had a 30 year career as well. And, with three solid decades in the Rap game under his belt, the man has done every style there is as well as survived multiple stints in Rap purgatory. He’s destroyed more than a few careers (Canibus, anyone?) and shifted the landscape multiple times. “Rock The Bells”, though, was the third single off his classic debut LP Radio produced by Rick Rubin, which includes the classic opener “LL / Cool/ J/ Is/ Hard/ As/ Hell!” But there’s another version out there. An original twelve inch with actual bells in the song. Cowbells, that is. Whether or not that secretly inspired SNL’s classic “More Cowbell” skit is unknown, but our money’s always on Todd Smith.
JAY Z – “Public Service Announcement (Interlude)”
The album would eventually go triple-platinum, but Jay Z (with dash at the time) needed a pick me up after the relatively lukewarm reception to ’02s The Blueprint II: The Gift & The Curse. No one said anything outright disrespectful, but Ethan Brown of New York Mag’s Vulture called it a “retread” and metacritic lists its average at a paltry 64. That isn’t quite Jay territory. Yet, one year later, with rumors of his retirement looming and relationships coming to a head at Roc-a-Fella, Jay got back to work and created his second classic of the aught’s, The Black Album. The album saw Jay return to his masterful best, and no track excelled in pure lyrical wizardry like an interlude labled “Public Service Announcement”. Just Blaze whipped up another buttery track, and as Jay Z reintroduced himself, again, no one knew what would come next. That he’d quit as a Rap hero, and return as a CEO. Neat trick.
Kanye West – “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”
Kanye West was a late entry on to the Roc-a-Fella roster, and he ended up there on the basis of talent, confidence and guts. Everyone knows that Jay signed Ye’ for his beats, not his rhymes, and Dame Dash has come out in recent years to say that he was the one who advocated for the Chi kid with the pink polo. But, what a decision it was. And after breaking his jaw in a devastating car wreck he created “Through The Wire”, catapulting him into the collective college-kid consciousness. Now, and for all people in their 20s everywhere, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” is the theme song of your lives. How many of you have felt that? And that’s what Kanye’s great at. He takes what you already know in your bones and he makes it accessible to you. If that’s not genius, what is?
DMX – “Who We Be”
“Who We Be” rang out off X’s fourth album The Great Depression with the maniacal energy we’d all come to know and love. While being panned by critics as his weakest release, the album still went triple-platinum and this song was nominated for a Grammy in the best Best Rap Solo Performance category. Still, this may have been one of the last projects where we caught X at his best. Legal troubles and drug problems had begun to shutter his life in a media-cycle-mystery-vortex. And while his next album, Grand Champ did well commercially with the Swizz Beats assited “Get It On The Floor”, the man known as Dark Man X’s life would soon take a turn.
Public Enemy – “Rebel Without a Pause”
The first single from their masterpiece It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, “Rebel Without A Pause” was a siren call that rang through communities throughout the country. Not only did it establish Public Enemy as innovators, but it ushered in a new, more serious time in Rap lyric history.
Beastie Boys – “Paul Revere”
In 1986 the Challenger explosion shook U.S. space exploration to the core, someone named Oprah and her show went National and the Bears won the Super Bowl, but one of the most exciting developments was the Beastie Boys debut album License to Ill topping the Billboard charts. On that record setting album was this song, which not only has the iconic “drop!” but established the Beastie Boys as national Rap icons.
Method Man and Redman – “How High”
“Excuse me as I kiss the sky!” And with that classic line Meth and Red solidified themselves as the Rap Cheech and Chong. The Wu-killer who talked slicing your eyelids off and the green-eyed-bandit would go on to drop at least one classic album as a duo, but it began here with Eric Sermon on the boards and mary jane in their blood.
Ludacris – “Move Bitch”
Showing up as a bonus track on ’02s Ludacris Presents Distrubing Tha Peace, this song might be the embodiment of the height of the crunk era. Featuring a blistering verse from Mystikal that forever etched in Rap consciousness the quip “what are youuu doing,” this early aughts cut allowed you to prep for the Southern Hip Hop take over.
EPMD – “Please Listen To My Demo”
The reminisce is one of Raps most notoriously well-used tropes, and here, Eric and Parrish spit the days when no one thought they were fly. The “can you please listen to my demo” days are over, finally. But they’ve been replaced with the “please click my link” generation of Twitter bombers. Nevertheless, you just might find something amazing that way, as we’re sure Def Jam did.
Run DMC – “Sucker MC’s”
“Sucker MC’s must get dissed!” A classic line from one of Raps first super-groups, the sentiment rings true today as suckers continue to make themselves more well known as social media blows up. And now, as then, these folks must get dissed. Just ask “black Twitter.”
Slick Rick – “The Ruler’s Back”
Naming your debut The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick was merely the beginning of Slick Rick’s Brit-accented charisma. Not only did one of Rap’s great storytellers come out of the gates swingin’, but “The Ruler’s Back” was the slickest way of announcing your arrival the Rap world may have ever known.
T La Rock and Jazzy Jay – “It’s Yours”
T La Rock would go on to make The Lyrical King (From The Boogie Down Bronx) but in 1984 he’d inspire every little future emcee with the line “Its Yours” with DJ Jazzy Jay. With the Beastie Boys in tow in the studio, T La Rock would lay down a hit that would stand the test of time. Though, an attack in ’95 saw him wake up to no memory of his prior classic, and would initiate, perhaps, the first time Hip Hop was used to jog an amnesiac’s memory.
Nice & Smooth – “Funky For You”
Gregg Nice and Smooth Bee were the masters of non-sequiturs ( Lay back and let my girl play the cello/ Hello/ I hate Jello?) but the New York City duo wore suits that weren’t shiny, and “Funky For You” was a signifier of new-jack-swing moments to come. The fly guys’ careers lasted up throughout the ’90s, as well, as they released solid project after solid project.
3rd Bass – “Steppin To The AM”
Sampling Kool & The Gang’s “Mother Earth”, this one featured MC Serch on the boards with 3rd Bass on their debut The Cactus Album, and the group came out holding nothing back. They took shots at both MC Hammer and the Beastie Boys on their initial album proving that it was protect your neck season in Hip Hop forever.
Ja Rule – “Holla Holla”
“Holla Holla” was Ja Rule’s lead single of his debut LP Venni, Vetti, Vecci (which means “I came, I saw, I conquered”), and who knew the kid from the hot guest verse on Jigga’s “Can I Get A…” would lead to Grammy nom’s and Ashanti ballads. Either way, the skin-shirted Ja would cement his talent with that introduction, bringing an infectious energy and a grizzly voice that was part DMX, part ‘Pac and all Queens.
Jay Z feat. Foxy Brown – “Ain’t No N*gga”
“Ain’t No Nigga” saw the future of Jay Z’s next few years of female collaboration records with Foxy Brown, as the Big Jaz cut helped soften the hard edge of Jay’s rhymes on his classic debut Reasonable Doubt. When we say soften, we don’t mean by much, as Foxy wasn’t yet all begets and shopping sprees just yet. Pushed by being on the superlative soundtrack to Eddie Murphy’s The Nutty Professor, the single became an entry way for Jay, for as the story goes, it led Def Jam to pick up young Hov’ and the fledgling Roc-a-Fella Records.
Onyx – “Slam”
Onyx’s signature energy and raucous production had no better representation than “Slam”, a booming, Queens-bred cut maestro’d by Chyskillz and Jam Master Jay. Released in May of 1993, the single showed the variation in New York Rap itself, as there were several different groups and styles operating at the same time in America’s most famous port-of-origin.
Warren G – “Regulate”
The first track off the debut album of young west coast-ian, Warren G, “Regulate” cemented him along with gangsta’-crooner Nate Dogg as stars spinning a tale of stick up kids, revenge, and PYTs with perfection. Little did the perpetrators in the story know G had backup, and the rest is Hip Hop car-music history. Did we mention Warren produced that entire album?
Domino – “Getto Jam”
“Getto Jam” is still played at BBQ’s all over the country. The G-funk era track was co-produced by Domino, and rocketed to number seven of the Billboard Hot 100, making it a summer jam of epic proportions. Think Tupac and Janet in Poetic Justice.
Run DMC – “Jam Master Jay”
Probably one of the most heartfelt odes to your DJ of all time, “Jam Master Jay” makes the adage “give the drummer some” look like a whisper in the dark. We’re assuming that with all the attention, 1984 was a very good year for the DJ of the future rap-supergroup.