Learn the Interesting History of Def Jam Recordings Recording Company


Owned by Universal Music Group, Def Jam Recordings primarily focuses on urban, pop, and hip-hop music. It was found by Rick Rubin in his dormitory at New York University, but now it’s one of the biggest record labels in America and in the world. Some of the notable artists for Def Jam Recordings include Iggy Azalea, Ludacris, Afrojack, Pusha T, Desiigner, Kanye West, 2 Chainz, Jeremih, Big Sean, among others.

Company Overview

Founded in 1984, Def Jam Recordings has established its reputation in producing, recording, and distributing cutting-edge hip-hop music for more than 35 years. It began as an independent label inspired by downtown New York City’s vibrant street culture and hip-hop, pioneered by artists like The Beastie Boys, Slick Rick, LL Cool J, and Public Enemy.

In the UK, the label goes by the name Def Jam UK and is operated through EMI Records. Meanwhile, in Japan, it is known as Def Jam Japan and operates under Universal Music Japan. The label distributes releases from record labels like Kanye West’s GOOD Music and Listen Up Forever Records.

In February 2020, chairman and CEO Paul Rosenberg stepped down from his position to launch Goliath Records, a new joint venture with Universal Music Group. UMG appointed chief counsel Jeff Harleston as interim chief while searching for a new CEO.

Company History

Def Jam was co-founded by Rick Rubin in his dormitory in Weinstein Hall at New York University. Its first release was a single by his punk-rock group Hose. Russel Simons joined Rubin shortly after they were introduced when Rubin saw Simmons as the face of hip hop.

The first songs released with Def Jam Recordings were Cool J’s “I Need a Beat,” and the Beastie Boys’ “Rock Hard,” both released in 1984. The singles sold well, which lead to a distribution deal with CBS records in 1985. This created a short-lived subsidiary label named OBR Records, which stood for Original Black Recordings. The subsidiary label focused on R&B artists.

After a few years, Lyor Cohen and Russel Simmons started an umbrella label called Rush Associated Labels to handle Def Jam and its spinoff labels. During the 80s decade, Def Jam’s success grew. It marked the move of hip-hop from the underground to the mainstream. One of their biggest signings was metal group Slayer. As the decade came to a close, the label signed Public Enemy, whose controversial lyrics garnered the company both critical acclaim and disdain.

There has also been a power struggle that was working on behind the scenes between Lyor Cohen and Rick Rubin during their time of success. Lyor became president of Def Jam/RAL in 1988, and Rubin left the company to start Def American Records, which was soon renamed American Records.

Despite multi-platinum selling releases from Public Enemy, Def Jam experienced severe financial troubles by 1992. Def Jam was saved on the cusp of bankruptcy when PolyGram Records bought 50% of the label. PolyGram eventually gained further control, acquiring an additional 10% in Def Jam in 1996. Rush Associated Labels was renamed Def Jam Music Group. The label remained profitable, thanks to the sales success of albums Mr. Smith by LL Cool J and Regulate…The G Funk Era by Warren G. The label also signed Foxy Brown, whose 1997 debut album Ill Na Na became a platinum seller.

In 1998, Seagram purchased PolyGram and merged it with the MCA family of labels, which later became Universal Music Group. Seagram bought the remaining interest of Def Jam Recordings from Russel Simons for about $100 million. UMG then merged more than 14 record labels, including Def Jam, Mercury Records, and Island Records, to form The Island Def Jam Music Group (IDJMG). Despite the formation of IDJMG, the three labels continued to operate separately underneath a bigger umbrella.

Lyor Cohen became co-president of IDJMG, with Kevin Liles succeeding him as president of Def Jam. In 1999, IDJMG created an R&B spinoff label named Def Soul Recordings. Island Record’s 4th &B’way Records were also merged into Def Jam. That same year, the label also began distributing releases by Murder Inc. Records.

In 2000, The Island Def Jam Music Group formed Def Jam Germany in an effort to expand the label’s profile internationally. However, the German division folded after just two years, and many of the artists were picked up by Universal/Urban, while others did not even get a new contract. The second international label they established was Def Jam Japan, which was also founded in 2000.

Trouble arose for Cohen in 2003 when Murder Inc. Records became the center of a money-laundering investigation. Cohen was the face of the label, and the investigation led to a raid of Def Jam’s building. It caused the label’s eventual release from its distribution contract.

The shares of Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella records were sold to IDJMG in 2004 – the same time it had launched the career of producer-turned-rapper Kanye West.

In 2004, Cohen left the company for Warner Music Group and was eventually replaced by L.A. Reid. Liles eventually decided to follow Cohen to Warner. A bidding war for Jay-Z’s contract began, Jay-Z was appointed president of Def Jam.

Under the leadership of Jay-Z, Def Jam launched successful careers of contemporary R&B singers Ne-Yo and Rihanna. At the end of 2007, Jay-Z decided not to renew his contract as the president of Def Jam to start a new venture, Roc Nation. After Jay-Z left the company, L.A. Reid took leadership over the label.

In 2011, former Warner Bros. Records executive Joie Manda became the first president of Def Jam since Jay-Z. He exited his post in 2013, and The-Dream served as the company’s executive vice president of A&R at Def Jam between 2012 and 2014.

Def Jam Recordings operates as a standalone label under Universal Music Group. Steve Bartels became President/CEO of Def Jam Recordings until Paul Rosenberg, Eminem’s longtime manager, has been appointed Chairman and CEO of the company. In 2019, Def Jam South East Asia was launched.

Popular Artists

  • 2 Chainz
  • Alessia Cara
  • Big Sean
  • BTS
  • DaniLeigh
  • Dave East
  • Desiigner
  • DMX
  • Fabolous
  • Jeezy
  • Jeremih
  • Justin Bieber
  • Kanye West
  • LL Cool J
  • Nas
  • Nasty C
  • Pusha T
  • Q-Tip
  • Rihanna
  • Teyana Taylor
  • Valee
  • YG
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