1. LL COOL J
What would Def Jam be without LL Cool J? Nothing. LL’s debut, “Radio,” was the first full-length album under the label. LL was still a teenager when the album was released. The hip-hop legend would go on to release 12 of his 13 records under Def Jam.
2. Beastie Boys
Beastie Boys only had one official album under the Def Jam label. It just so happens it’s one of the biggest selling rap albums of all time. Released in 1986, Beastie Boys’ debut, “Licensed to Ill,” went on to sell over nine million copies.
Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith (who, when together, make up EPMD) are one of the first hardcore hip-hop acts to be crossover stars. From 1988 to 1990, the duo put out three legit classic albums under Def Jam, “Strictly Business,” “Unfinished Business” and “Business as Usual.”
4. 3rd Bass
3rd Bass still stands as one of the most underrated rap acts of all time. Throughout the ’90s they had some real hits: including “”The Gas Face” and “Pop Goes the Weasel.”
5. Public Enemy
Led by frontman Chuck D (who has one of the greatest hip-hop voices ever) Public Enemy showed the depth of hip-hop. While Beastie Boys were rapping about being the life of the party, and LL Cool J was talking about the ladies, Public Enemy made harsh, politically conscious records. “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” and the follow up, “Fear Of a Black Planet” are both masterpieces.
Onyx (consisting of Sticky Fingaz, Fredro Starr, and Sonny Seeza) was one of the East Coast-based acts that helped bring New York City rap back to relevancy (along with Wu-Tang, Mobb Deep, etc.) Till this day, there aren’t many songs better than “Last Dayz.”
7. Montell Jordan
Montell Jordan is probably best known for his debut single, “This Is How We Do It.” But, man, Montell had some underrated jams throughout the ’90s. (Listen to “Let’s Ride” right now. Lie and say that’s not a great song. We dare you.)
Bar for bar, Redman is one of the greatest rappers of all time. Up to the mediocre “Malpractice” album, Redman constantly made good (“Doc’s da Name 2000”) to classic (“Muddy Waters”) rap albums for Def Jam.
9. Warren G
Although never the most popular rapper from the West Coast, Warren G, Dr. Dre’s stepbrother, has one of the most enduring rap records ever: the Nate Dogg-assisted “Regulate.”
10. Jay Z
After dropping his gold-selling debut, “Reasonable Doubt,” on Rockafella/Priority records, Jay Z and his Rockafella partners, Dame Dash and Biggs, took their company to Def Jam. Jay Z never went gold again.
11. Foxy Brown
Foxy Brown made her rap debut at the age of 16, appearing on LL Cool J’s “I Shot Ya (Remix).” From there, the Brooklyn rapper released three albums under Def Jam, “Ill Na Na,” “Chyna Doll,” and “Broken Silence.”
In 1998, while great, hip-hop was in a weird space. Bad Boy records and their commercial sound were dictating the direction hip-hop was going. All that changed with one album: the dark, violent, and brilliant DMX debut, “It’s Dark and Hell is Hot.”
13. Ja Rule
You might laugh at Ja Rule now, but during those early 2000 years, there wasn’t a more potent hitmaker than the Southside Queens representative.
For years, Ashanti wore the tagline “Princess Of Hip-Hop & R&B.” It was appropriate. The singer was a legit superstar under the Murda Inc/Def Jam label.
The legendary Scarface only released one album under Def Jam (the five-mic classic “The Fix”). But he did something more important: as the president of Def Jam South, he was the one that found Atlanta-rapper Ludacris.
Def Jam South didn’t birth a ton of stars: but they gave us one of the most important rappers ever, Ludacris. Although he has never released a genre-changing classic album, Ludacris has been one of the best Atlanta hip-hop voices.
Jeezy and his classic debut album, “Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101,” changed the sound of hip-hop forever. Jeezy expanded T.I.’s trunk rattling, drug dealing-themed music into something bigger and more inspirational. Jeezy left the label last year, but the two forces made beautiful music together.
18. Kanye West
For years, Kanye West played the background, producing songs for everyone from Jay Z to Talib Kweli to Slum Village. However, West was patient, and in the early 2000s he was given a shot by Dame Dash, who encouraged the rapper to make an album. That album was “The College Dropout.” The rest is history.
In the mid aughts, Jay Z retired from making music. He then put on a suit and became a major player, becoming the president of Def Jam. And while the rap artists on the label struggled to find an audience, R&B acts (like Ne-Yo) thrived.
Nas joined Def Jam late in his career, after spending years with Sony. But he made his time with Def Jam count: in 2006, he released the controversial “Hip-Hop is Dead” album. He then followed that album with the even more controversial “Untitled” project.
It took a couple of albums (remember “Music of the Sun”) but Rihanna would blossom to basically the Madonna of our era.
22. Ghostface Killah
Similar to Nas, Ghostface Killah joined Def Jam later on in his career. Although he was never a huge album seller, Ghost put out some great albums with Def Jam. (Most notably, 2006’s “Fishscale.”)
23. Rick Ross
Who knew Rick Ross would be this? In 2006, when he made his debut with “Hustlin,'” the Miami-based rapper was just seen as another Jeezy knockoff. However, the rapper would continue to improve (both lyrically and musically). It would all come together perfectly in 2010: when he released his classic album “Teflon Don.”
24. 2 Chainz
2 Chainz did something rare: he became a hip-hop star in his late 30s. For years, Chainz, who used to go by the name Titty Boi, was part of the duo Playaz Circle. In 2011 he went solo, changed his name to 2 Chainz, signed a deal with Def Jam and proceeded to release hit after hit.
25. Frank Ocean
For years, label folks had no idea what to do with Frank Ocean. So the singer said fuck it and released his a project, “nostalgia, ULTRA,” on his Tumblr. Thank God he did. That masterpiece would lead to another masterpiece, his major label debut “channel ORANGE.”