First, Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, the founders of hip-hop's most influential label, Def Jam Recordings, led the standing-room-only crowd at the New York Public Library's majestic Celeste Bartos Forum in five-and-a-half minutes of silent meditation.
Later, they blasted Public Enemy's revolutionary call for protests, “Fight the Power,” so loud it was bouncing off the room's 30-foot-high glass ceiling Friday night.
That range seems about right for a celebration of the publishing of “Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label” (Rizzoli), a coffee table book of heft and substance about the anti-establishment early days of hip-hop.
“It was only the counterculture if you were on the outside,” Simmons told Paul Holdengraber, director of “Live from the NYPL,” during the two-hour interview. “To us, it was just culture.”
Rubin, dressed in a black T-shirt and black shorts, sitting with his bare feet tucked under him in a yoga pose for most of the night, said he and Simmons launched Def Jam out of his NYU dorm room because they wanted to document the hip-hop culture they saw in the clubs and in the streets. When Holdengraber pulled out a quote from Rubin in the 1981 Long Beach High School yearbook – “I want to be loud, I want to be heard, I want you all to know I'm not part of the herd” – the Long Island native laughed and said, “I'm still the same.”
After songs and videos of Def Jam's numerous early successes played – a young LL Cool J doing “Rock the Bells,” the Beastie Boys fighting for their right to party, Slick Rick's “Children's Story” – Rubin revealed how Def Jam wanted to use Run-DMC's “Walk This Way” as a bridge for rock fans to access hip-hop.
He also talked about how he called Chuck D of Public Enemy every day for six months to convince the rapper from Roosevelt to sign to Def Jam. Though Rubin was looking to sign Chuck as a solo artist, when Chuck showed up at Def Jam offices with Flavor Flav and the entire crew that would become Public Enemy, Rubin says he didn't hesitate to sign them all.
“I loved Chuck,” Rubin said. “I was willing to go on any trip he wanted to go on.”
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Rubin said he cried when he first heard “Fight the Power.”
When asked why, Rubin said, “I could tear up now ... It changed what rap could be.”
Simmons added, “It helped to change the black community,” referring to how it raised political consciousness and moved hip-hop culture away from the flashy gold chains in the late '80s and early '90s.
Though Simmons, now the magnate behind Rush Communications as well as author and philanthropist, and Rubin, the co-chairman of Columbia Records as well as legendary producer, went their separate ways in business years ago, they remain close friends. Close enough to finish each other's thoughts and close enough to rib each other about their work.
Simmons called Rubin “a musical genius,” noting how he has produced everyone from Krishna Das to Slayer. “He does everything from deep, spiritual records with alternative spiritual teachings to devil worship records,” said Simmons, with a laugh, before turning serious. “He's maybe the greatest producer ever.”