For decades now, hip-hop and fashion have been as intertwined as the strands on a thick gold chain. But it took a creative tear from one enterprising record label in the ’80s to bring the two together. Zach Baron from GQ reminds us how it all got started.
They were kids. We forget that.
Today we know Def Jam as the giant it became, the artistic and spiritual home of guys like Jay Z, who was once president of the label, before Def Jam helped guys like Jay Z outgrow the need for a label at all. We know Def Jam as the outfit that gave us LL Cool J and Public Enemy. The label to land rap’s first-ever No. 1 record, the Beastie Boys’Licensed to Ill. The label to put forward the proposition that hip-hop, which in 1984 was still the stuff of block parties and downtown clubs, could be the kind of music by which all other pop music would eventually set its watch. The label that made this unlikely proposition a reality.
But back then they were kids. Nerds, really. Their cool came from their lack of anxiety about that fact. You could see it in how they presented themselves, how they dressed, in what was basically the detritus of New York City: big scruffed-up parkas, discarded military jackets, work boots, hooded sweatshirts. Worn in that unselfconscious way of people who have yet to see themselves in the mirror, let alone on the cover of a record. Like teenagers, which is what they were.
Here is Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys, describing years ago what it was like to first encounter the music of his future Def Jam label mate LL Cool J: “You could tell that LL was in school. I was in high school, too, so I recognized all these weird science words that he was saying. You could see that he was probably doing homework, then writing rhymes, then doing homework.”
They embraced the things that made them unlike anyone else in pop music. They were even unlike one another. Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin, who for a while ran the label out of his NYU dorm room, had a teenage thing for magic. Not metaphorical magic, like how you might describe certain sounds on the records he would later produce and engineer; actual rabbit-in-a-hat, swirl-of-the-purple-cape magic. “I still think about magic all the time,” Rubin once said. His partner in Def Jam, Russell Simmons, had other interests. He liked screwdriver cocktails and the finer things in life, like gold chains that spelled out his nickname—RUSH—and sneakers fresh out of the box.
They were two guys with nothing in common except that they kept finding themselves in the same rooms with the same records on. Rubin was a student of punk rock and heavy metal and also rap, and he saw no contradiction in that. “I grew up listening to AC/DC and Aerosmith,” he told an interviewer. “And our rappers scream just as loud as they do.” Early on, he dressed like an off-duty professional wrestler or someone looking for a cord of wood to split. He was the type of guy to travel on a private plane with a battery-powered boom box and no shoes.
Simmons was older and more ambitious: He was a party promoter, an artist manager, the guy who could imagine what a rap star might look like before rap stars really existed. Because they didn’t, he managed them into existence, starting with Kurtis Blow—the first rapper ever signed to a major label—and then, later, Run-DMC, Simmons’s little brother’s group. Run-DMC wore white sneakers and wrote songs about those white sneakers. Public Enemy dressed like soldiers, except for Flavor Flav, who dressed like he was AWOL (or perhaps killed in action by a top hat and a clock). Their cool came from their comfort. The thing they were trying to be was themselves.
Consider the Beastie Boys. Three downtown kids with poor hygiene. They played in punk-rock bands, would go to the Mudd Club and hear the Slits and Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” all played back-to-back-to-back—it was that close together. They started rapping. They met Rubin, who impressed them with his DJ rig, in part because it included a giant bubble machine. Rubin made them towering rock ‘n’ roll-inflected beats out of Led Zeppelin drum breaks and AC/DC guitar riffs and bits of old Steve Miller Band songs. Onstage, they’d shower one another with beer. They rapped about Jerry Lewis and White Castle sliders and Brass Monkey, the lethal lowbrow cocktail that was their beverage of choice. They toured with Madonna, menacing her young fans and their dads. (They later toured with a huge inflatable penis.) Their act made no sense, and so of course it became the most popular thing in America.
At the peak of their fame, and even after—though they’d soon disavow the stage penis and the beer showers and the terrorizing of dads and women alike—the Beasties never stopped looking like hoodlums: thrift-store T-shirts, bad denim, baseball jackets, buttoned-up polos, basketball jerseys, cheap sportswear. They established a downtown uniform that persists to this day, precisely because they didn’t regard it as fashion at all; they wore their clothes like it never occurred to them to wear them any other way. The look was deceptively simple; it was clean and replicable and remains so. All you needed was a tee, some sneakers, and a certain brash ease. Even when it was wrong, it was right. Mike D wore a Volkswagen hood ornament around his neck as a chain, and when Licensed to Ill blew up, no Volkswagen was safe. Volkswagen even made an ad about it: “Designer labels always get ripped off,” next to a picture of a Volkswagen stripped of its logo.
It was one of those moments where someone—or some label, in this case—gets a hand so hot that they cannot make a mistake. Russell Simmons flew to what he called a “nuthouse” in Atlanta to sign a rapper who’d been placed there on account of smoking too much angel dust; that rapper was Slick Rick. LL Cool J called a record Walking with a Panther and posed with an actual panther on the album cover. The panther wore a giant gold chain. Walking with a Panther promptly went to No. 6 in the country.
Def Jam represented the kind of assemblage of talent and serendipity that can never last, and it didn’t. First the Beastie Boys left and then Rubin did, and Simmons went to work finishing the job he’d started, of turning hip-hop—and, by extension, Def Jam—from a weird comet flashing across the sky to a fixture that persists, somewhere near the top of the charts and the culture, to this day. Then he left, too. The music remained.
Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin reminisces about the beginnings of hip-hop style
When I lived in New York, I pretty much wore only black. I can remember, when I was a kid, wearing blue jeans and when I made the conscious choice to switch to wearing only black jeans and black T-shirts. They called me Rick Rock at school, because I dressed in black and wore sunglasses. I definitely didn’t fit.
Russell’s uniform in those days was like what a substitute teacher wears—like, a tweed jacket with arm patches. He wore penny-loafer shoes. I think, at the time, he wanted to give off the air of, uh, professionalism.
Hip-hop culture was this thing we submerged ourselves in. The tennis shoes we were wearing became more important, and the warm-up jacket we wore became more important, and goose-down coats became important, and other trappings of hip-hop that were definitely not our style before hip-hop.
Run-DMC, I think, was the first group to establish what we called the B-boy style, more like what the kids in the audience were wearing than what the people onstage were wearing. The people onstage wanted to look more like Eddie Murphy, who wanted to look more like Michael Jackson.
I remember it was hard to buy a T-shirt. People wore button-downs. Seeing it go from button-down shirts and dress shoes to T-shirts and sneakers is radical, because I was always the T-shirt-and-sneakers guy and never fit anywhere.
Once I met Russell, he would take me to Disco Fever, Broadway International, different parties. When we started the Beasties, we would play in all these places in Queens and the Bronx. The Beasties had a youthful swagger about them, and they were always really stylish—each one of them had his own style, and they always had the coolest T-shirts and the coolest tennis shoes.
Russell would book the Beasties into proper hood hip-hop venues, and we went to all those places. It was terrifying; it was clear we didn’t belong there. But once people knew who we were, there was sort of an acceptance. It felt better. It wasn’t just the weird white guy in the T-shirt who doesn’t belong here. It was “Oh, that’s Rick.”—As told to Zach Baron