Rick Rubin Revisits the Origins of Def Jam Records & the NYU Dorm Room Where It All Began

There may have been no more influential a label in the late 1980s than Def Jam Records. Founded by Rick Rubin, Def Jam launched the careers of The Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, and dozens more hip-hop pioneers. But its beginnings were humble. The earliest Def Jam releases list the mailing address “5 University Pl. #712.” Current and former NYU students out there may recognize this address—it’s a dorm room in the university’s Weinstein Residence Hall, where in 1984, Rubin set up shop and began trying to reproduce the sound, as Rolling Stone writes, of “the raw performances he heard in clubs and the wild parties he threw.”

In the short Rolling Stone documentary above, “Rick Was Here,” see the pioneering producer revisit his origins, returning to his old dorm for the first time in 30 years. He talks about the “very specific feeling” of early hip-hop, and his desire to shift the focus of hip-hop records from R&B backing tracks to the DJ, who was all-important in live performances. Def Jam’s first release, T La Rock and Jazzy Jay’s “It’s Yours,” remains a classic of the genre. At the time, says Rubin, “it didn’t sound like anything else,” and through that record, Rubin met Russell Simmons, already “a big fish in the small pond of hip hop.” Simmons brought along a host of artists and gave Rubin more credibility in the community. Now the two are superproducers and moguls, but their origin story is one of scrappy determination that sparked a musical revolution.

The short film also features interviews with Simmons, LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys’ Adam Horowitz, and some of Rubin’s former dorm-mates and accomplices. For more on Def Jam’s early years, MetaFilter points us toward the histories Def Jam Recordings: The First 35 Years of the Last Great Record Label and Russell Simmons autobiography Life and Def: Sex, Drugs, Money, + God.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Groundbreaking Art of Alex Steinweiss, Father of Record Cover Design

Steinweiss Grieg

Given the visual perfection and ubiquity of album covers by designers like Storm Thorgerson and Peter Saville—given the popularity of blogs featuring monumentally bad album covers—it’s hard to feature a time when records came wrapped in plain brown paper like cheap booze or covered in nondescript bindings like business ledgers. But this was the case, before another widely admired designer, Alex Steinweiss, more or less invented the album cover in 1939 at the age of 22.

Steinweiss Boogie

There had been cover art before, during the age of the 78 rpm record, but only for the rare special release. Most music came stamped with its contents and little else. Initially contracted by Columbia Records to produce better jackets for the unwieldy 78, Steinweiss soon became the label’s art director and convinced them to try out several full color designs inspired by French and German modernist poster art. When Columbia released the first vinyl LP in 1948, Steinweiss not only designed the cover, but he invented the paperboard jacket that still surrounds records today.

Steinweiss Gershwin

You can see a few of Steinweiss’ covers for classical and jazz albums here. At the top of the post, see that first LP cover, for a recording of Grieg’s Violin Concerto in E Minor. The design may seem pretty restrained, but Steinweiss quickly broadened his palette. Just below the Grieg cover is a classic design for the jazz compilation Boogie Woogie, and just above, we have a colorful block design for a Gershwin album. Steinweiss also drew inspiration from abstract expressionist painters like Wassily Kandinsky, as you can see in the Bartok cover below.

bartok cover

Steinweiss’ designs were extremely popular and sent record sales soaring. In one instance, Newsweek reported that sales of a recording of Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony “increased 895% with its new Steinweiss cover.” A savvy, fearless artist, Steinweiss left the field with the same ease and grace with which he’d entered it. After designing album covers, movie posters, and graphics for “countless other products” for 33 years, writes Jeff Newelt for the Art Directors Club, Steinweiss retired to become a painter, “noting the rise of Swiss Modernism and minimalism, and the increasing preference for photography in the field” of graphic design. While Steinweiss wasn’t afraid to incorporate photos into his designs on occasion—as you can see in a 1940 Bessie Smith cover below—it was the rare occasion. Mostly what interested him were bold colors and geometrical shapes.

Steinweiss Bessie Smith

Though it’s certain that someone would have come along and created record covers eventually, it’s hard to underestimate the tremendous influence Steinweiss had on the form—the way his work has guided our experience of staring in awe at a mysterious album cover, even in the MP3 age, and trying to imagine the kind of music it describes. For much, much more on Steinweiss, you could purchase this enormous, and enormously expensive, Taschen book. Or save a few bucks and browse through some extensive online collections of his work, like this Steinweiss tribute site, this six part biography, and the Birka Jazz Archive from Columbia, which also features iconic covers by such artists as Jim Flora, Neil Fujita, and Saul Bass. Steven Heller, who teaches at the School of Visual Arts in NYC, presents a talk on Steinweiss’ art here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Download The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe: Macabre Stories as Free eBooks & Audio Books

With Halloween fast approaching, let us remind you that few American writers can get you into the existentially chilling spirit of this climatically chilling season than Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). And given that he lived and wrote entirely in the first half of the 19th century, few American writers can do it at so little financial cost to you, the reader. Today we’ve collected Poe’s freely available, public domain works of pure psychological unsettlement into five volumes of eBooks:

And five volumes of audiobooks as well (all the better to work their way into your subconscious):

And if, beyond perhaps reading here and there about pits, pendulums, ravens, and casks in Italy, you’ve never plunged into the canon produced by this troubled master of letters — American Romantic, acknowledged adept of the macabre, inventor of detective fiction, and contributor to the eventual emergence of science fiction — your chance has come. If you feel the understandable need for a lighter preliminary introduction to Poe’s work, hear Christopher Walken (speaking of American icons) deliver a surprisingly non-excessively Walkenified interpretation of “The Raven” at the top of the post. Below, we have a 1953 animation of “The Tell-Tale Heart” narrated by James Mason:

After watching these videos, you’ll surely want to spend Halloween time catching up on everything else Poe wrote, after which you’ll understand that true scariness arises not from slasher movies, malevolent pumpkins, or tales of hooks embedded in car doors, but from the sort of thing the closed-eyed narrator of “The Pit and the Pendulum” means when he says, “It was not that I feared to look upon things horrible, but that I grew aghast lest there should be nothing to see.”

The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe permanently reside in our twin collections: 550 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free and 600 Free eBooks for iPad, Kindle & Other Devices

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch The Simpsons’ Halloween Parody of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and The Shining

For the past 25 years, the highlight of every season of The Simpsons has been its Treehouse of Horror Halloween special – an omnibus episode filled with morbid, and frequently hilarious, horror spoofs. It’s the one time of the year when the creators of the long running series feel comfortable with disemboweling Homer, flaying Marge, and letting Maggie wield an axe. Arguably the best one of these segments was its 1994 parody of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining – called “The Shinning”. This year, The Simpsons return to riffing on Kubrick in a segment called “A Clockwork Yellow.” You can watch a section of it above.

The episode centers on cankerous bartender Moe Szyslak as the bowler-bedecked Alex who, along with Lenny, Carl and Homer (playing Dim, of course), spouts nonsense Nadsat and terrorizes London. When they decide to break into a house, Moe and the gang end up crashing an Eyes Wide Shut-style orgy hosted by Mr. Burns. From there, the Kubrick references start flying thick and fast, with nods to Full Metal Jacket, 2001: A Space Odyssey and even Barry Lyndon (“Even I forget what this is in reference to”). And then a scene cuts to a Simpsonfied version of Kubrick, watching the segment from an editing bay. “Let’s burn this,” he bellows at an assistant. “Let’s rewrite everything. And let’s start all over.”

The full episode is available on Hulu Plus, if you have a subscription. If not, you can watch it for free after October 27th. And you can watch a portion of “The Shinning” below.

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

Are You a Psychopath? Take the Test (And, If You Fail, It’s Not All Bad News)

We’ve all heard the old philosophical scenario known as the trolley problem: as the runaway vehicle of the name careens out of control toward the edge of a cliff, you must choose whether to pull the lever to switch it to another track. The catch: while the trolley would then no longer plunge off that cliff, bringing about the certain deaths of the five people aboard, it would instead kill someone standing on the other track, who will survive if you don’t pull the lever. In a more fraught version of the problem, you must choose not whether to pull a lever, but whether to shove a person of considerable bulk onto the (single) track, stopping the trolley but killing the bulky individual.

In the Big Think video above, Oxford psychologist Kevin Dutton, author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success, uses the trolley problem to illuminate the condition of psychopathy. While non-psychopaths may dither about the first version of the scenario, they eventually come to the conclusion that they prefer one death to five. They have much more of a struggle with the second version, which requires them to actually push the lone stranger to head off those five deaths. Psychopaths, by contrast, experience no such difficulty: the trolley problem, for them, hardly amounts to a problem at all, and Dutton explains, neuroscientifically, why: “Imagine that I were to hook you up to a brain scanner and present you with those two dilemmas. I would see the emotion center of your brain, your amygdala and related brain circuits, the medial orbital frontal cortex for example, light up like a pinball machine.”

And if he’d scanned a psychopath? “Precisely nothing.” All this assumes, of course, that you do not yourself suffer from psychopathy. If you don’t know whether you do, Dutton offers a handy multiple-choice “psychopath challenge” on his site that can give you an idea of the direction your brain may lean. If you’ve got a touch of the old psychopathy, don’t lock yourself away; as Dutton explains in this Time interview, “you don’t need to be violent,” and you can even attain greater success in certain fields than non-psychopathics — especially if you consider vigilantly and unhesitatingly minimizing the death tolls at diverted cliffside trolley tracks a field.

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Different From the Others (1919): The First Gay Rights Movie Ever … Later Destroyed by the Nazis

From Albert Kinsey, to Sigmund Freud, to Magnus Hirschfeld, prominent social scientists have offered dissenting opinions to prevailing mainstream ideas about homosexuality as a consequence of parental or societal influences. This doesn’t mean those researchers have agreed with each other, or with current ideas, but their conclusions were controversial and startling to a consensus often complicit in the criminalization and political repression of gays and lesbians. If you haven’t heard the last name on that list above, there’s probably a good reason: Hirschfeld—a gay, Jewish physician, sexologist, and advocate in Weimar Germany—had much of his work burned by the Nazis in their 1933 rise to power.

One of Hirschfeld’s works destroyed in Nazi fires was a film he co-wrote and co-starred in called Different From the Others, the first gay rights movie in history. Released in 1919, and banned in 1920, the film explored a doomed relationship between a violinist, played by silent star Conrad Veidt, and his student. Extensive flashback scenes show both characters’ early sexual experiences, their failed attempts to change their sexual orientation (including treatment with bogus “ex-gay” therapies), and their eventual self-acceptance. In their present day, the couple is openly affectionate, until the violinist is blackmailed and dragged into court by an extortionist, then abandoned by his friends and family. He commits suicide, and his lover vows to fight the law that criminalized homosexuality in Germany, known as Paragraph 175.

Different From the Others would be lost to history were it not for Hirschfeld’s preservation of 40 minutes of footage in a separate documentary. You can view the surviving film above, with English title cards. The film was part of a didactic series on themes of sexuality that Hirschfeld made with director Richard Oswald. In each one, Hirschfeld appears as a doctor who intervenes on behalf of persecuted individuals. In Different from the Others, he does so with the violinist’s parents, telling them, “You must not condemn your son because he is a homosexual, he is not to blame for his orientation. It is not wrong, nor should it be a crime. Indeed, it is not even an illness, merely a variation, and one that is common to all of nature.”

In many other such scenes, most of them now lost, Hirschfeld explicitly states his argument that, as The New York Times writes, “homophobia, not homosexuality, was a scourge of society.” The then-radical point of view found little contemporary support—screenings were restricted solely to medical practitioners and lawyers until the film’s destruction—but it makes this artifact of tremendous interest to film historians and activists today. In addition to Hirschfeld’s pioneering activism, the film is notable for starring Viedt, who went on to fame for his role in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Despite its many lacunae and entire missing scenes, and characters, Different From the Others is currently being restored and turned into an expanded, “watchable feature,” using the surviving remnants, along with found photos and film stills, by the Outfest-UCLA Legacy Project (see their fully-funded Kickstarter here). Many scenes—such as a lengthy theoretical lecture by Hirschfeld—will be reconstructed from a synopsis, “a few reviews, and little else.” “You’re not seeing the original,” admits UCLA Film & Television Archive director Jan-Christopher Horek of the coming reconstruction, “because we don’t know what the original looks like.” Nevertheless, in whatever form, Different From the Others represents a perspective at least “50 years ahead of its time,” says Horak, with an “enlightened theory that you wouldn’t see in this country probably until the ‘70s or ‘80s.”

Different from the Others will be added to our list of Great Silent Films, part of our larger collection, 700 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Lynda Barry, Cartoonist Turned Professor, Gives Her Old Fashioned Take on the Future of Education

With college tuitions ballooning to the point of implosion, and free educational content proliferating online, the future of education is a scorching hot topic.

So where are we heading?

Coursera and Khan AcademyVideo game-based curricula? Experience-driven microlearning?

Or school buildings that moonlight as candy?

So suggested one of the younger participants in a workshop led by the University of Wisconsin’s Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Creativity, cartoonist and author Lynda Barry (aka Professor Long-Title).

Barry’s messianic embrace of the arts has proved popular with students of all ages. When the university’s Counterfactual Drawing Board Project invited faculty, staff, and others to consider what the “appearance, purpose, atmosphere and community of the campus” would be like in 100 years time, Barry deliberately widened the pool to include children.

Yes, their innovations tended toward volcano schools that erupt at dismissal, but presumably some of those same children will be in the vanguard when it’s time for initiatives that seem unimaginable now to be implemented. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and all that.

Or as one gimlet-eyed youth put it, in a hundred years “the teachers will all be dead.”

No wonder few adult participants can see past a button-driven, hermetically sealed, digital future wherein every student has a chip implanted in his or her head.

Barry, no stranger to depression, manages to laugh such gloomy forecasts off, despite what they portend for the tactile, handmade ephemera she reveres. A sense of humor—and humanity—is at the core of every educational reform she practices.

Rather than rip each other’s writing to shreds during in-class critiques, her students call each other by outlandish pseudonyms and draw meditative spirals as each others’ work is read aloud. Every reader is assured of a hearty “good!” from the teacher. She wants them to keep going, you see.

Surely there are institutions where this approach might not fly, but why poo-poo it? Isn’t fueling the creative spirit a practical investment in the future?

“It’s there in everybody,” Barry believes. “You have to give people an experience of it, a repeated experience of it that they generate themselves.”

Maybe someday, some kid who hasn’t had the love of learning squelched out of him or her will apply all that creativity toward curing cancer. That’d be great, huh? At worst, that carefully tended spark can give solace in the dark days ahead. As fans of Barry’s work well know, art exists to carry us through times of “sorrow and grief and trouble.”

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Pablo Picasso’s Two Favorite Recipes: Eel Stew & Omelette Tortilla Niçoise

picasso stew

Back in 1964, Pablo Picasso shared with Vogue’s food columnist Ninette Lyon two of his favorite recipes — one for Eel Stew, the other for Omelette Tortilla Niçoise. If you live in the South of France, as Picasso did, the recipes probably won’t be entirely foreign to you. But if you aren’t so lucky, you might want to add these recipes, now reprinted by Vogue, to your culinary bucket list.

Below, we’ve highlighted the ingredients for the recipes. But, for step-by-step directions on how to prepare the dishes, head over to Vogue itself.

For more recipes from cultural icons — Hemingway, Tolstoy, Alice B. Toklas, Jane Austen, David Lynch, Miles Davis, etc. — head to the bottom of this page.

Eel Stew for Four People

6 tablespoons olive oil
6 tablespoons butter
12 small white onions
1 teaspoon sugar
2 yellow onions, chopped
12 mushrooms
⅓ pound salt pork, cubed
2 shallots, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 eels of about 1 pound each, cut into four- to five-inch sections
1 bottle of good red wine
1 tablespoon flour
Salt, pepper, cayenne pepper
Bouquet garni: thyme, bay leaf, parsley, fennel, and a small branch of celery

Omelette Tortilla Niçoise for Four People
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion
4 peppers, red and green
3 tomatoes
2 tablespoons wine vinegar
8 eggs
Salt and pepper

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Google Makes Available 750 Icons for Designers & Developers: All Open Source 

google icons

If you’re a designer or developer, Kottke.org thought you’d might like to know: “As part of their Material Design visual language, Google has open-sourced a package of 750 icons. More info here.”

Over at Github, you can view a live preview of the icons or download the icon pack now.

Our friends at BoingBoing add, “They’re licensed CC-BY-SA and designed for use in mobile apps and other interactive stuff.” Use them well.


Hear The Flaming Lips Cover All of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s: Streaming Free for a Limited Time

In 2012, Rolling Stone issued a revised list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, at the very top of which sits The Beatles’ 1967 recordSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Justifying making the album its number one pick, Rolling Stone wrote:

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the most important rock & roll album ever made, an unsurpassed adventure in concept, sound, songwriting, cover art and studio technology by the greatest rock & roll group of all time. From the title song’s regal blasts of brass and fuzz guitar to the orchestral seizure and long, dying piano chord at the end of “A Day in the Life,” the 13 tracks on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band are the pinnacle of the Beatles’ eight years as recording artists. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were never more fearless and unified in their pursuit of magic and transcendence….

Sgt. Pepper formally ushered in an unforgettable season of hope, upheaval and achievement: the late 1960s and, in particular, 1967’s Summer of Love. In its iridescent instrumentation, lyric fantasias and eye-popping packaging, Sgt. Pepper defined the opulent revolutionary optimism of psychedelia and instantly spread the gospel of love, acid, Eastern spirituality and electric guitars around the globe. No other pop record of that era, or since, has had such an immediate, titanic impact. This music documents the world’s biggest rock band at the very height of its influence and ambition.

Given Sgt. Pepper’s iconic status, it’s hard to imagine a contemporary band deciding to cover the entire album. (Can you really improve upon it?) But that’s just what The Flaming Lips have done with With a Little Help From My Fwends. Scheduled to be released next week, the album features contributions by fwends like Moby, My Morning Jacket, Miley Cyrus, and others. Proceeds from the album — which is now streaming free for a limited time at NPR — will go to the Bella Foundation, a non-profit that assists low-income, elderly or terminally ill pet owners with the cost of veterinary care when it cannot be afforded. You can pre-order the Flaming Lips album on Amazon and iTunes.

In other news, Paul McCartney announced today that he has unearthed a Wings’ song he played (back in the day) with John Bonham on drums. An intriguing idea. Catch it here.