Lyor Cohen Explains How Redman Led Def Jam’s Comeback (Video)
During the 1980s Def Jam Records reigned supreme. The label, which burgeoned in co-founder Rick Rubin’s New York University dorm room, issued several classic albums from legendary artists. These include LL Cool J’s Radio, Slick Rick’s The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, Rock & Rock Hall of Fame inductees Beastie Boys and Public Enemy with their touchstones Licensed To Ill and It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, respectively, just to name a few.
Music industry mogul Lyor Cohen, former Def Jam President and current YouTube Head of Global Music, saw all the peaks and valleys during his more than 20 years working for the iconic label. In an interview on Complex‘s The Blueprint series, Cohen details a rough patch for Def Jam. Following the departure of partner Rubin to start his own imprint Def American in 1988, chairman Russell Simmons and Cohen had redeveloped the company’s infrastructure change with a sister label named RAL, or Rush Associated Labels. The Beastie Boys left, and Slick Rick would spend the better part of the ’90s incarcerated.
At the 10:40 mark, the one-time Run-D.M.C. road manager reflects on how he began to lose confidence in his talent-scouting abilities. “I didn’t want to be the person who f*cked up Def Jam,” Cohen recalls of the post-Rubin period. “It was a very scary period, and by the way, I also had a very cold period. I couldn’t sign a good artist. I acted desperately, and it was a period in which I was in deep question about my abilities. I was confused and didn’t have the confidence that I needed to be successful at that point.” At the time, Def Jam was releasing tepid solo albums from members of its 1980s groups. Meanwhile, new acts included No Face, Nikki D, and B.W.P. (B*tches With Problems)—all releasing just one LP on the label.
Although their gold and platinum-selling acts like 3rd Bass, LL Cool J, EPMD, and Public Enemy had brought some success during Def Jam’s RAL “Rush Hour” campaign in 1990 through 1991, it was one of the label’s darkest hours. Cohen recalled a moment of clarity that made him change his frantic approach to success as Def Jam’s ship was rapidly sinking and began his mantra to “ask the logo” for guidance on brand marketing.
“I remember one day I just got quiet, and I closed the door, and I tried to understand, ‘what is it about me that is losing personal confidence and that is making desperate moves, and where is the light going to come from that is going to guide me?’ Then I realized it was the Def Jam logo.” Earlier in the conversation with Noah Callahan-Bever, Cohen recalls watching Rubin paint the striking silver and magenta colors for Def Jam in the early ’80s in deciding its record jackets. He used that as an illustration of the standard that should go into thought, quality, and care. He continues, “I brought everybody together and said, ‘Our light will be the logo. It will shine the light on who we shine, how we market and promote that artist,’ and that’s when Redman appeared. And that was a very powerful moment for us because Redman is Def Jam, and that was the moment that things started changing for us.'”
Redman’s 1992 debut Whut? Thee Album was not Def Jam’s highest charting 1992 release. That distinction belongs to Red’s mentors EPMD, and their Business Never Personal. However, Reggie Noble’s standout guest verse on “Head Banger,” from that album, kick started a streak of 10 albums at Def Jam, which includes two platinum and five gold releases. Notably, Redman has previously stated that the label passed on him when he and Lords Of The Underground’s DoItAll auditioned in 1990.
After bringing in Red, and acts to follow including ONYX, Method Man, and Warren G, Def Jam re-positioned itself in the 1990s. A household brand to music consumers in the ’80s, the label played the background to its artist imprints, including Roc-A-Fella, Murder Inc., and DTP.
Cohen tells The Blueprint how he competed in an era when Death Row, Bad Boy, Rap-A-Lot and other labels were branding overtly in lyrics, jewelry, and merchandising. Lyor says he was inspired by watching New York City street figure Lorenzo “Fat Cat” Nichols act quietly in Manhattan club The Red Parrot (14:30). “The fact that he was quiet, the whole club would go, ‘Yo, that’s Fat Cat.’ So I realized very early on that I didn’t need Def Jam to be on the back of a Roc-A-Fella record. Everybody would end up knowing [anyway. That] is much more powerful than saying [‘Def Jam’]. Subtlety, I learned from that moment. That era of powerful branding was actually Def Jam in the most subtle phase.”
Earlier this year, in Combat Jack’s Mogul: The Life and Death of Chris Lighty podcast series, Russell Simmons spoke about Warren G’s success giving the label breathing room during the same difficult period. “For short: ni**a, we was dead. We was gone,” said label co-founder and then-president. “It was a very special moment for us, ’cause it gave us breathing room, it gave us freedom, and it gave us billing. It made the company hot.”
Last week, Redman revealed that he and Busta Rhymes collaborated on a song for Phife Dawg’s upcoming posthumous LP. He is currently at work on Muddy Waters 2, a sequel to his third Def Jam title.
#BonusBeat: The most recent LAST 7 episode features Redman speaking about why he still lives in the same Staten Island, New York as he showed on MTV Cribs: