Notable artist :LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Slick Rick, Beastie Boys
1. Def Jam
Founding and CBS Records Group era (1983–1994)
Def Jam was co-founded by Rick Rubin in his dormitory in Weinstein Hall at New York University with DJ Jazzy Jay. and its first release was a single by his punk-rock group Hose. Russell Simmons joined Rubin shortly after they were introduced to each other, according to one story, by Vincent Gallo. Another cites DJ Jazzy Jay as their connector. Rubin has said he met Simmons on the TV show, Graffiti Rock and recognized him then as “the face of hip hop”: “He was five years older than me, and he was already established in the music business. And I had no experience whatsoever.” The first single released with the Def Jam Recordings logo was T La Rock & Jazzy Jay’s “It’s Yours.” The first releases with Def Jam Recordings catalog numbers were LL Cool J‘s “I Need a Beat” and the Beastie Boys‘ “Rock Hard,” both in 1984. The singles sold well, eventually leading to a distribution deal with CBS Records through Columbia Records the following year.
This created a short-lived subsidiary label called OBR Records, short for Original Black Recordings, catered toward R&B artists—the first artist signed to that imprint was Oran “Juice” Jones, who enjoyed success with his hit single “The Rain”. A few years later, Russell Simmons and Lyor Cohen started an umbrella label called Rush Associated Labels to handle Def Jam and its numerous spinoff labels. RAL became the home to Nice & Smooth and EPMD after both acts were acquired due to the folding of their former label Sleeping Bag Records. Other acts under the RAL umbrella included Redman, Onyx, Flatlinerz, Domino, Warren G and Jayo Felony. Def Jam also signed its first and only thrash metal band, Slayer, in 1986, and the band’s third and fourth albums were the only two Def Jam releases to be distributed through Geffen Records under Warner Bros. Records as opposed to Columbia/CBS. As the decade drew to a close, the label signed Public Enemy, whose controversial lyrical content garnered the company both critical acclaim and disdain. Lyor Cohen became president of Def Jam/RAL in 1988, after winning a power struggle with Rubin, who would shortly thereafter leave the company to form Def American Recordings. Rubin would take Slayer with him to Def American in its initial stages.
PolyGram era (1994–1998)
By 1992, despite recent multi-platinum selling releases from Public Enemy, and EPMD, Def Jam ran into severe financial troubles and was faced with folding. However, in 1994, PolyGram purchased Sony’s 50% stake in Def Jam Recordings—subsequently bringing the label into its fold. Following PolyGram’s purchase, Def Jam distributed the Violator Records-signed artist Warren G‘s Regulate… G Funk Eraalbum, which went triple platinum and brought much-needed revenue to Def Jam through its distribution deal with Violator.
PolyGram acquired an additional 10% in Def Jam Recordings in 1996, further strengthening its ownership of Def Jam. Shortly thereafter, Rush Associated Labels was renamed Def Jam Music Group. The label remained profitable as its veteran star LL Cool J released his successful album Mr. Smith in 1995. The label later signed Foxy Brown, whose debut album Ill Na Na became a platinum seller in 1997.
The Island Def Jam Music Group founding (1998–2000)
In 1998, PolyGram was purchased by Seagram and merged with the MCA family of labels, which became Universal Music Group. It then purchased the remaining interest of Def Jam Recordings from Russell Simmons for a reported $100 million. UMG merged 14+ record labels including: Def Jam, Island Records and Mercury Records to form The Island Def Jam Music Group. Despite the formation of IDJMG, the Def Jam, Mercury, and Island labels continued to operate as separate imprints underneath the bigger umbrella.
Lyor Cohen was appointed co-president of IDJMG, and Kevin Liles succeeded him as president of Def Jam. In 1999, IDJMG created a R&B spin-off label called Def Soul Recordings to run alongside Def Jam Recordings, which inherited many of Island Records’ urban artists, including Dru Hill and its lead singer Sisqó, the Isley Brothers and Kelly Price. Def Soul also issued recordings by Musiq, Montell Jordan, Case, 112, Patti LaBelle, and Christina Milian. Island’s 4th & B’way Records was also folded into Def Jam. Kevin Liles also served as President of Def Soul Records.
Also in 1999, the label began to distribute releases by Murder Inc. Records, run by former Def Jam executive Irv Gotti. Murder Inc.’s roster of artists would include Ja Rule, Ashanti, Lloyd, Vita. The following year, it launched another subsidiary, Def Jam South, which focused on Southern rap and distributed releases from labels such as Disturbing tha Peace, whose artists have included Ludacris, Chingy, and Bobby Valentino. Russell Simmons tapped Texas-born and raised rap legend Scarface as the original head of Def Jam South. After about a 4-year run at Def Jam South, Scarface negotiated a release from the company in 2003.
In 2000, The Island Def Jam Music Group announced the formation of Def Jam Germany, the first international Def Jam company. This increased the label’s presence around the world. Def Jam Germany signed German rappers Spezializtz and Philly MC. The label was located in Berlin and opened on May 23, 2000. In addition to signing and marketing local artists, Def Jam Germany also marketed all U.S. signed Def Jam artists in the German territory. But the German division folded just two years later in 2002. Many of the artists were picked up by Universal/Urban, while others did not get a new contract.
The second international label is a Japanese branch, Def Jam Japan (デフ・ジャム・ジャパン Defu Jamu Japan), also founded in 2000. Their artist roster has included AI, Teriyaki Boyz, Nitro Microphone Underground, and South Korean boy band BTS.
In 2003, Murder Inc. became the center of a money laundering investigation involving illegal profits from drug trade, leading to the label’s eventual release from its distribution contract by 2005. The final shares of Roc-A-Fella Records were sold to The Island Def Jam Music Group in 2004, by which time it had launched the career of producer-turned-rapper Kanye West.
In 2004, Cohen left IDJMG for Warner Music Group, and was replaced by former Arista and later Epic executive L.A. Reid. An unhappy Liles eventually decided to follow Cohen to Warner. A bidding war for Jay-Z‘s contract began, and Reid appointed Jay-Z president of Def Jam.
Under Jay-Z’s leadership, Def Jam launched the successful careers of contemporary R&B singers Rihanna and Ne-Yo. At the end of 2007, Jay-Z decided not to renew his contract as the President and CEO of Def Jam in order to start his new venture, Roc Nation. Following Jay-Z’s departure, L.A. Reid took over leadership of the label, as opposed to hiring a replacement. In June 2008, Shakir Stewart was appointed as Executive Vice President of Def Jam, a position that was previously left vacant since December 2007.
In March 2012, it was announced that former Warner Bros. Records executive Joie Manda would become the first president of Def Jam since Jay-Z. Until March 2013 when he exited his post at Def Jam and it was announced he’d be heading up the urban division of Interscope Records by his former boss, Barry Weiss. The-Dream served as Def Jam’s executive vice president of A&R at Def Jam between 2012 and 2014. No I.D. upholded the position of executive vice president after helping to establish GOOD Music with Kanye West. No I.D. is now the executive vice president of Capitol Music Group.
On April 1, 2014, it was announced that Island Def Jam would no longer be active following the resignation of CEO Barry Weiss. A press release serviced by Universal Music Group stated that IDJMG, and all of its assets would be reorganized into Def Jam Recordings, Island Records and Motown Records, all as separate entities.
Def Jam Recordings operates as a stand-alone label within Universal Music Group. Def Jam signed DaniLeigh to the label in early 2017. Steve Bartels served a time as President/CEO of Def Jam Recording until it was announced on August 3, 2017 that as of January 2018, Eminem‘s longtime manager and co-founder of Shady Records, Paul Rosenberg has been appointed Chairman/CEO of Def Jam Recordings.
- Lyor Cohen (1988-1998)
- Kevin Liles (1998-2004)
- JAY-Z (2005-2007)
- L.A. Reid (2007-2012)
- Joie Manda (2012-2013)
- Steve Bartels (2013-2017)
- Paul Rosenberg (2018-present)
Executive Vice Presidents
- Shakir Stewart (2008-2014) (EVP of Def Jam)
- Karen Kwak (2011-2014) (EVP of Def Jam)
- The-Dream (2012-2014) (EVP of A&R at Def Jam)
- No I.D. (2011-2017) (EVP of Def Jam)
- Steven Victor (2017-Present) (EVP of A&R at Def Jam)
Notable Artist : Dr. Dre, Eminem, 50 Cent, Kendrick Lamar
Aftermath Entertainment is an American record label founded by hip hop producer and rapper Dr. Dre. It operates as a subsidiary of, and is distributed through, Universal Music Group‘s Interscope Records. Current acts include Dr. Dre himself, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, Anderson Paak, Jon Connor and Justus with former acts including 50 Cent, Busta Rhymes, The Game, Raekwon, Eve, Rakim and many others. The label’s acts over the years have earned RIAA certifications of platinum or higher on 19 of its 27 released albums.
3. Rocafella /RocNation
Notable Artist : Jay-z, Kanye West, J Cole ,
1995–2000: Formation and early years
The foundation of the label occurred in 1995, beginning as an independent outlet for rapper Jay-Z’s 1st album. After being turned down by several major labels, Carter, Dash and Burke started their own label through Priority, using money from the music videos provided by Payday due to their singles only deal. Though Reasonable Doubt didn’t immediately attain commercial success, it spawned several hits, and procured Jay-Z a reputation in the hip-hop community. Starting out as Roc-A-Fella’s only artist, Jay-Z was supported by The Notorious B.I.G.‘s producer DJ Clark Kent and DJ Ski, who was then working with Camp Lo; affiliated rappers, Sauce Money, Jaz-O, and a young Memphis Bleek, though only Bleek would eventually sign with the label. According to Dame, the label had intended on releasing Nas‘ group The Firm, but the deal fell through:
Nas and AZ was supposed to be on ‘Bring it On,’ they kept not showing up. That’s when we wanted to put out the Firm. They didn’t show up. We was meeting and they was saying, ‘Yeah,’ but they wasn’t showing up. We would be waiting and we would be getting offended. So we brought Sauce [Money] and [Big] Jaz on the song.— Dame Dash, MTV News
The snub, and a sample clearance issue with the Nas-sampling Reasonable Doubt song “Dead Presidents II,” were elements that contributed to tension between Jay-Z and Nas. As such, Roc-A-Fella Records’ only release in 1997 was Jay-Z’s second album, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1, but the label and its figurehead artist saw increasing popularity, mainly due to a high-profile appearance by Jay on B.I.G.’s posthumous Life After Death, complete with Roc-A-Fella and Damon Dash references. While Memphis Bleek signed with the Roc, Sauce Money chose to pursue a deal with Priority, and Jaz refrained from signing anywhere and provided production for only 1 song on Vol. 1, “Rap Game/Crack Game.” In 1998, Roc-A-Fella Records released the movie Streets Is Watching and the accompanying soundtrack; the film compiles various Jay-Z videos into a continuous story, and the album introduced more affiliated, future Roc-A-Fella Records signees Noreaga, M.O.P., and DJ Clue, as well as producer Irv Gotti and the short-lived group, Murder Inc. (namesake of Irv’s record label, Murder Inc.).
Jay’s 1998 album, Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life, saw him largely depart from his previous entourage and venture forth with producers Swizz Beatz, Timbaland, The 45 King and Jermaine Dupri. Vol. 2 spawned his 1st major hit, “Hard Knock Life”, and became the label’s first Platinum-RIAA certified release; it was the last Roc-A-Fella release to see appearances by Jaz-O or Sauce Money, and the 1st to feature new Roc artists Beanie Sigel and Amil. DJ Clue released the 1st of his collaboration-album-style series in The Professional, which saw the 1st Roc-A-Fella appearance of Cam’ron; meanwhile, DJ Ski had, at the time, formed the production company Roc-A-Blok, although the company folded when Ski moved out of New York to take a break from music.
Though Da Ranjahz put in appearances on Memphis Bleek’s 1st album, Coming of Age, in 1999, they soon parted ways with Roc-A-Fella. Jay-Z’s 1999 album Vol. 3…Life and Times of S. Carter continued Jay’s new affiliations with then-popular producers; in 2000, the label saw a redefinition in both sound and roster. Jay-Z put out The Dynasty: Roc La Familia as a solo album. Originally intended to be a collaboration project, it nonetheless featured heavy appearances by Beanie Sigel, Amil and Memphis Bleek, along with a Philly rapper Freeway guest spot that led to him being signed to Roc-A-Fella. Rather than return to Timbaland or Swizz Beatz for production, Jay selected beats from a new crop of producers: Kanye West, Bink, The Neptunes and Just Blaze. Each beat-smith would go on to become consistently involved in future Roc-A-Fella projects.
2000–2005: Prominence and Split
The new millennium saw Roc-A-Fella begin to expand 1 figurehead artist. While Jay-Z remained the label’s prominent image—with the acclaimed release of The Blueprint and the closing of his trial for the 1999 stabbing of producer Lance Rivera—other Roc artists began to gain popularity and acceptance. In 2000, Beanie Sigel released The Truth and reached #5 on the Billboard charts, DJ Clue released The Professional 2, and Memphis Bleek released The Understanding. While Clue and Beans’s albums hit the Top 5 on the Billboard charts, Bleek’s album was in the Top 20. Nonetheless, all 3 albums were certified Gold by the RIAA for selling over 500, 000 copies in the United States of America. Amil’s album, however, had lackluster sales. Jay-Z and Damon Dash began signing up new talent, including Cam’ron, Freeway, and several young Philly rappers that were later compiled into the Freeway/Sigel-led group, State Property. During this time, Jay-Z and Beanie Sigel were embroiled in a feud with Ruff Ryders Entertainment artists Jadakiss and DMX. Disses back and forth between Jay-Z and Jadakiss implied a conflict between Jay and former groupmate DMX, led to a full-on war of words between Sigel and Kiss, and eventually culminated in a diss by Beanie Sigel over Jada’s hit “Put Your Hands Up,” after which the rivalry faded.
Cam’ron put out his Roc-A-Fella Records debut Come Home with Me in 2002 to Platinum-RIAA certified status, and shortly after signed his group The Diplomats to Roc-A-Fella, as well. From 2002 to 2003, Damon Dash signed several artists in response to Jay-Z’s talk of retirement after his 2002 album The Blueprint2: The Gift & The Curse. He signed M.O.P. and Ol’ Dirty Bastard, gave Grafh a joint-venture deal, and attempted to sign Twista and Joe Budden. Roc-A-Fella experienced its height in product releases and overall popularity as a brand name during this period, seeing the release of State Property’s Chain Gang albums, Juelz Santana‘s From Me to U, Freeway‘s debut Philadelphia Freeway, The Diplomats’ group debut album Diplomatic Immunity, Memphis Bleek’s M.A.D.E. and Jay-Z’s alleged final album, The Black Album.Rumors of friction between Carter and Dash became apparent; though denied by both camps at the time, problems involving Damon’s media attention and Jay’s alleged inaccessibility had been brewing since the video shoot for “Big Pimpin’“.
After Jay-Z’s supposed last hurrah, it was revealed that he had accepted a position as CEO and President of Def Jam Recordings, and The Island Def Jam Music Group purchased the remaining 50 percent stake of Roc-A-Fella Records that IDJ didn’t already own. Dash, poised to take greater control in the company, began heavily promoting artists Cam’ron, The Diplomats, State Property, Kanye West and Twista. In 2004, Kanye West’s album, The College Dropout, became a huge commercial and critical success, selling multi-Platinum-RIAA certified sales, and Foxy Brown was signed and began work on her album, Black Rose. The infamous ‘split’ between Dash, Carter, and Burke occurred when it was revealed the trio had sold their 50% interest in Roc-A-Fella to The Island Def Jam Music Group, making the label full owners. As President, Carter retained control of the Roc and his masters, ousting his 2 former partners. He later explained that he had offered to turn down the position and ownership for the masters to Reasonable Doubt alone:
So I was like, let me get Reasonable Doubt and I’ll give up [the rest of] my masters. I’ll give up Roc-A-Fella, I’ll give up president and CEO of Def Jam—everything. Just give me my baby to hold on to so 10 years down the line, I can look back and I got something—I’m not empty-handed. And I was the 1 being offered everything. I thought it was more than fair… And when that was turned down, I had to make a choice. I’ll leave that for the people to say what choice they would’ve made. That’s about it. I don’t really wanna talk about Dame or Biggs. I don’t have nothing negative to say about them.— Jay-Z, XXL
As Dash and Burke set up their own fledgling record label, originally called Roc4life and later rechristened to Dame Dash Music Group, each artist was offered their choice of labels. The Diplomats were the first to make the move to Dame Dash Music Group, and began a public campaign against Jay-Z, dissing him in songs and interviews, backed heavily by Dame; Cam’ron was especially vocal, claiming Jay-Z blocked him from an executive position Dash had offered him at Roc-A-Fella.
Beanie Sigel, then doing a year’s incarceration on an attempted murder charge, put out his album The B.Coming on Dash’s label; this was accompanied by accusations from Dash that of all the members of State Property, only Oschino had gone to visit Sigel in prison. Though Beanie had initially chosen Dame Dash Music Group, the rest of the group refused, preferring to remain on Roc-A-Fella Records; in response, Beanie Sigel effectively put the group on hold, claiming disappointment in his groupmates. M.O.P. and Grafh also left Roc-A-Fella for Dame Dash, though both acts parted ways with Dash soon thereafter. Due to the 2004 death of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Dash also brought with him masters of the rapper’s project and promises to release the album, A Son Unique, though this never occurred.
Memphis Bleek and Kanye West released 534 and Late Registration, respectively, in 2005, along with the Young Gunz‘ sophomore effort and Teairra Mari‘s debut, though only Kanye West’s project saw significant reviews or sales. It was stated by Memphis Bleek that Cory Gunz had signed, but nothing materialized. By the end of the year, Dash had split his label from Def Jam and Jay-Z’s role overseeing his project, after asking for more money and a bigger role in the company. Dame Dash Music Group left Def Jam and was subsequently dissolved.
2006–2009: Roc Redefinition and departure of Jay-Z
In 2006, releases were largely limited to those of Roc-La-Familia, a Latino-geared label under Roc-A-Fella that followed the trend of Reggaeton. Hector “El Father” and N.O.R.E. both put out albums, and the label was home to New York rapper Tru Life, but has since folded. Jay-Z made his return that year with Kingdom Come, to mixed reviews. He stepped down from his Def Jam position and put out a second album in 2007, American Gangster, to more positive reviews and sales, along with Kanye West’s Graduation, Beanie Sigel’s The Solution, and Freeway’s Free at Last; Kanye West’s album sold multi-platinum to rave reviews. Freeway’s project received acclaim but not major sales, and contained comments aimed at Kanye West and Just Blaze for not supplying production. He later amended his comments, stating he desired to work with Just Blaze but the producer hasn’t reached out. This may have been due to Just Blaze’s work on American Gangster and complications regarding his Atlantic-distributed label, Fort Knocks, and his artist Saigon.
The signing of Ruff Ryders artist Jadakiss, former rival to both Jay-Z and Beanie Sigel, also came in 2007, as did Uncle Murda. Foxy Brown was dropped from the label after 2 years, in light of a jail sentence. Though Young Chris and Peedi Crakk continued to appear on projects, neither seemed any closer to solo projects, and in 2008 Peedi Crakk announced that State Property had been dropped from the label.This was countered by Beanie Sigel’s manager, who confirmed that Beanie Sigel and Freeway were still part of Roc-A-Fella. Young Chris also apparently signed as a solo artist. 2008 saw only the release of Kanye West’s 808’s & Heartbreak, garnering decent sales. It also brought repeated disses in songs and interviews from Peedi Crakk towards Jay-Z, claiming he held up his project on purpose, though he claims to have moved on. During that year, Jay-Z had inked a $150 million deal with Live Nation that included concerts, endorsements and recordings, and included a platform for him to launch his Roc Nationlabel. Uncle Murda left the label after a year and a half with no release, citing lack of executive interest after Jay-Z’s exodus from parent label Def Jam.
In March 2009, Freeway procured his release from Def Jam, claiming a need to explore his options; shortly, he announced his signing to Ca$h Money, while stating he would always respect Roc-A-Fella.Longtime signee Memphis Bleek also reported his departure from Def Jam, deciding not to travel to Roc Nation in favor of starting his own record label, but he is still very close with Roc-A-Fella. Additionally, Tru Life has been referred to as a “1 time [or past] affiliate” of Roc-A-Fella upon his turning himself in to authorities for his connection to a retaliatory stabbing. On May 21, 2009, Jay-Z had bought back his contract from Def Jam for an unprecedented $5,000,000 and started his deal with Live Nation.