Def Jam Spotlight: The Early '90s
by Mosi Reeves | May 2, 2014
This year, we're celebrating Def Jam Recordings' 30th anniversary with a series of playlists dedicated to the groundbreaking label. Check them out here.
At the dawn of the '90s, Def Jam was the biggest hip-hop label in the world. Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet, which portrayed planet Earth in the shadows of black consciousness, could have been a metaphor for the way Russell Simmons' company was redefining urban music.
So how did Def Jam stumble into such a state that it neared bankruptcy in the mid-'90s? In a memorable VH1 Behind the Music episode, Simmons explained the problems that almost befell it: overextension into too many sub-imprints like Rush Associated Labels, a few bad deals and, more quixotically, underperforming material by its top stars. "I was finished!" Simmons said in his typically blunt style.
That last point is debatable: How could Public Enemy go from leaders of a movement to near also-rans in less than four years? Perhaps it's a sign of how fast hip-hop culture evolved. Public Enemy's nation-conscious rap and EPMD's urban funk was hot at the beginning of the '90s. But by mid-decade, EPMD had disintegrated from nasty breakups, and Erick Sermon's solo career didn't reach the same heights. Meanwhile, Death Row and Bad Boy supplanted Def Jam as hip-hop's premier labels, and California G-funk dominated urban radio stations. (We'll cover Def Jam's G-funk imprint, DJ West, in another playlist.) New signees like Redman and Method Man sold well, and the latter scored a monster hit with his Mary J. Blige duet "I'll Be There for You/You're All I Need to Get By." But they didn't move units like Snoop Dogg and Coolio.
Still, one man's disappointment is another's satisfaction. Def Jam made plenty of jewels in the golden age of boom-bap, from Nice & Smooth's "Hip-Hop Junkies" and Onyx's "Slam" to underrated singles like Bo$$' "Deeper" and Nikki D's "Daddy's Little Girl." Montell Jordan's "This Is How We Do It" signaled how Def Jam would soon become a force in R&B, a genre it had struggled with for years.
And Def Jam's flagship artist, LL Cool J, had a track record during this period that was emblematic of the label's growing pains. In 1990 he released a double-platinum classic in Mama Said Knock You Out. Three years later, he dropped the lackluster 14 Shots to the Dome. Of course, LL Cool J was on the verge of a comeback that confirmed his reputation as one of the greatest rappers ever. And Def Jam would bounce back bigger and deffer, too.