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 as “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 his­to­ry Def Jam Record­ings: The First 35 Years of the Last Great Record Label and Rus­sell Sim­mons’ auto­bi­og­ra­phy Life and Def: Sex, Drugs, Mon­ey, + God.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The “Amen Break”: The Most Famous 6‑Second Drum Loop & How It Spawned a Sam­pling Rev­o­lu­tion

All Hail the Beat: How the 1980 Roland TR-808 Drum Machine Changed Pop Music

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

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