Recap: Rick Rubin & Russell Simmons at New York Public Library

Posted on: October 17th, 2011 at 10:19 am by

Friday evening at the New York Public Library in Bryant Park, downtown took midtown to school on the birth of modern-day hip-hop.  Producer-moguls Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons were in the house, and sat down with moderator Paul Holdengraber to discuss the history of venerable record label Def Jam.  The high-profile event, which attracted A-list music figureheads (e.g. Lou Reed, Lyor Cohen), was timed to coincide with the release of a new retrospective tome. Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label. That’s right, hip-hop is now repackaged for coffee table consumption.

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Strangely enough, the sold-out engagement kicked off with a spiritual exercise.  An immersion, whereby the audience was asked to close eyes and meditate for three minutes (or five).  The activity was not completely out of the ordinary, though, as the reclusive Rick Rubin is somewhat of a mystic guru. Thereafter, the conversation reached a point of fluidity and never looked back. It didn’t feel like an interview at all, but being a fly on the wall of a few people bullshitting about the old days.

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The candid reminiscing began with the hip-hop clubs in the early years.  Specifically the groundbreaking parties at Negril, which was located at 181 Second Avenue.  Rubin explained how this downtown hang first exposed him to the music, and became the springboard for his foray into the genre. Growth was organic, and eventually snowballed, leading to the rise of the Roxy.

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The conversation meandered through the history of the Def Jam artist roster, from Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys through Slick Rick and Public Enemy.  How the label was driven by a desire to release the niche music only heard in the downtown clubs.  An admittedly hip-hop-challenged Paul Holdengraber walked the producers through it all, resulting in some hilarious moments (i.e. the popularity of blow vs. cheeba) and awesome music trivia factoids.  For instance, Rick Rubin’s NYU dorm room (Def Jam HQ) was at 5 University Place, where a full PA system dominated his 9’x12′ space. Floor to ceiling. Or how Aerosmith’s Toys in the Attic was at first just a scratch record.

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There were brief interludes throughout, in which music and video samples were broadcast.  For team Boogie, these multimedia moments were the absolute true highlight of the entire program. Simply watching Rubin and Simmons re-experience the beats they put to wax decades ago was fascinating.  The head-nodding, smirking, eye-closing, and blank stares. All of it. Ah, to be young.

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