Def Jam Spotlight: Millennial Superstars
From 1995, when LL Cool J launched his comeback hit Mr. Smith, to 2005, when Kanye West's first two albums went triple-platinum, the house that Russell Simmons built was arguably the biggest rap label in the world.
Def Jam's meteoric turnaround after nearing bankruptcy in the mid-'90s was partly due to good luck. The decade had been dominated by G-funk, a sound that Def Jam couldn't quite claim as its own despite the presence of Warren G on its roster. But by the late '90s, the West Coast's virtual stranglehold on mainstream rap loosened. As Puff Daddy's New York-centric "jiggy" hits took over the clubs and radio, Def Jam was poised to capitalize.
Label president Lyor Cohen and producer/A&R representative Irv "Gotti" Lorenzo signed Foxy Brown, a Brooklyn emcee whose platinum-selling Ill Na Na unveiled her as a Lil Kim-like thug mistress. The label initially balked when she helped Jay Z on his 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt, which he released independently through Roc-A-Fella and Priority Records. But after "Ain't No N*gga" became a big hit, Def Jam gave the Roc-A-Fella imprint a lucrative distribution deal. And when Notorious B.I.G. was murdered in 1997, the rap industry turned to Jay Z as the next king of New York, an expectation he fulfilled by selling more than 5 million copies of 1998's Vol. 2 … Hard Knock Life.
If Jay Z was the heir apparent, then DMX was the prodigal son, a self-described "Born Loser" who bounced around the industry for years before Gotti brought him to Def Jam. DMX landed two No. 1 albums in 1998, but his sometimes-violent temperament, legal problems and struggles with drug addiction made for a combustible mix.
Then there was Ja Rule. Before Irv Gotti's stint at Def Jam, he worked at Blunt Recordings, a NY label that featured Ja's Ca$h Money Click. With Gotti's rising fortune at Def Jam, he relaunched his friend as a pop-friendly thug superstar. Ja Rule landed two triple-platinum albums in Rule 3:36 and Pain Is Love, then nearly had his career destroyed by rival 50 Cent, and finally went to prison on weapons charges. His meteoric rise and fall epitomized an era in which big-budget rap became synonymous with tabloid fodder.
Meanwhile, the business was changing. Universal Music Group bought out Simmons' stake in Def Jam in 1998, resulting in Island Def Jam Music Group. Simmons may have sold his company just in time; by the early 2000s, the Internet's disruptions led to a historic decline in music industry profits. Kanye West may be one of the label's last multiplatinum superstars. (Two others, Young Jeezy and Ludacris, will get their spotlight in a future installment on Def Jam South.) Nevertheless, Def Jam continues to enjoy a chairman emeritus status as the most powerful brand in hip-hop history.