The Daily Grind Video

Bill Adler, legendary publicist, journalist, critic, gallerist, archivist, record label executive, biographer, documentarian, and co-author of Def Jam: The First 25 Years of The Last Great Record Label, spoke to GlobalGrind on Thursday about his work and about Def Jam in the early days. (The book, published by Rizzoli, and in stores on October 11, can be pre-ordered online now.)

Here’s some of what Bill said.

GlobalGrind:  How did the idea for the book came about?

Bill Adler: I think the idea for the book originated with Lauren Wirtzer.  She works at Def Jam Enterprises and it’s her job to dream up new ways to exploit the brand.  Once the deal was cut with Rizzoli, Lyor Cohen said, “Bill should write it.” I recruited Cey Adams to design it, Dan Charnas to write the text for the second half of the book, and Kelefa Sanneh to write the introduction. 

How difficult was it to pull everything together?

I wouldn’t exactly say that this is a job I was born to do, but you could say I’ve been preparing for it for the last thirty years.  It was hard work, but it was also tremendously pleasurable.


A lot of the images are pulled from your personal archive. Are there any specific images that you are fond of?

That’s almost like asking me if I have a favorite among my children.  I’ve been collecting hip-hop memorabilia since before I started working at Def Jam in 1984, and anything that I’ve held onto is something that I feel deserves to be held onto.  I’m somebody who’s always believed that these cultural artifacts need to be preserved.  So it’s very gratifying for me to be able to reproduce images of these artifacts in a beautiful book.  It confirms my belief in the value of these materials.

When did you realize that hip-hop was taking over the world?

Well, almost from the beginning.  If you think about it, hip-hop was basically contemporaneous with punk rock. And punk rock may have been a giant critical phenomenon, but it always was a very iffy popular phenomenon. Hip-hop, by contrast, was a huge critical and popular success from the very, very beginning. “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang came out in 1979.  It was not only a sensation here in America, it charted in a dozen countries worldwide.  (This at least partly explains why there’s a French language edition of the Def  Jam book). 


What’s your first recollection of meeting Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons?

In the fall of 1980, I wrote a freelance article for the Daily News about Kurtis Blow, who had a big hit then with a song called “The Breaks.”  And that when I first started hearing about Russell, because Russ managed Kurt.  Then in 1983 I’m still freelancing and I convinced People magazine to let me do a story about rap. And I ended up calling Russ for advice.  He took me with him as he ran around one night – it was one of the great nights of my life — and we ended up at Disco Fever in the South Bronx, which was such an amazing place that I made it the focus of the story.

But finally Russell himself was even more amazing:  brilliant, funny, and a non-stop crusader for rap and hip-hop as legitimate and fascinating forces in American culture.  When I first started working with him in the summer of ’84, I went out clubbing with him every night for two weeks.  But I gave it up when I discovered that Russell was invariably the most interesting person in the room.  Given that I was already spending my daylight hours at the Rush offices, I didn’t need to hang out with him at night as well. I could go home to my wife and have a life outside of the record business.

I met Rick through Russ.  It was only a few months after I started working that the pair of them released DJ001, LL’s “I Need a Beat.”


What other projects do you have in the works? 

What I’d really like to do next is find the money for a feature-length documentary about Public Enemy.  It turns out we need more money than usual for a project of this kind because there are a ton of uncleared samples in PE’s music that need to be cleared.  But we’re continuing to beat the bushes.

Another dream project is centered around my hip-hop archive.  I want to move it the hell out of my basement and into a respectable academic institution or museum, where it can be preserved and digitized and grown.  But I also want to accompany the archive as its director.  And that’s going to take money. In academic terms, I need a chair endowed for me to do this work.  I’ve only just broached the idea to Russell and I have yet to sit down with Lyor about it, but I hope they’ll both pitch in to help make it happen.  We can call it the Def Jam Institute for Hip-Hop Studies and it will live forever.

What were some of the surprises you discovered when putting this book together? 

You know, I was on the premises at Def Jam from 1984 till 1990 and even so, once I started doing interviews for this book, I learned all kinds of things I never knew. Everybody was so open and thoughtful and vivid:  Russ, Rick, Lyor, Kevin Liles, Ad-Rock, LL, Chuck D, Julie Greenwald, and the rest.  I’d thought in the beginning that I would write the book as a third-person narrative, but the interviews were so strong that I decided instead to let the people who built Def Jam over the years tell their stories in their own words.  I was fascinated by how little agreement there was among the principals about some of the label’s huge turning points: why the Beastie Boys left the label, why Rick and Russell’s partnership disintegrated, why it took so long for Russell to name Lyor president of the label, etc.  As a student of Def Jam myself, I think it all makes for instructive and entertaining reading.