There’s a famous publicity still documenting Run-DMC’s collaboration with Aerosmith during the “Walk This Way” recording session of 1986. Present are all those central to this historic cross-genre meeting of the beats and rhymes – i.e. Run, DMC and Jam Master Jay, Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin. Everyone’s dutifully looking at the camera. Everyone save for one harried bearded gentleman in the middle of it all trying to coordinate the photo op and get Simmons’ attention about something or another because it can’t wait (even if it can); a typically remarkably atypical “day at the office” moment in the mid-’80s life of Bill Adler.
Bill’s may not be the first name that gets mentioned when talk turns to the glory days of Def Jam Records and Rush Management. But for anyone who’s ever encountered any piece of press or media coverage on the likes of Run and them, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Slick Rick, Eric B. & Rakim, De La Soul, Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince and any number of other seminal rap acts from the 1980s, there’s a pretty high probability that Bill was instrumental in making that happen.
As resident Director of Publicity at Def Jam and RUSH, he helped facilitate and disseminate a message key to the ethos of the House that Russell Simmons/Rick Rubin/Lyor Cohen Built: that hip hop wasn’t just five boroughs or urban culture, but a youth movement with global ramifications – as relevant to the South Bronx and South Jamaica, Queens as South Africa. With the perspective provided him from his years as a music journalist and radio jock (not to mention his Midwestern counter culture roots rolling with John Sinclair’s Detroit-area hippy enclave of the late ‘60s), he recognized hip hop’s cultural value and strength early on. And via any number of career guises since – be it author (Run-DMC’s 1988 biography Tougher Than Leather; 2011’s Def Jam: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label), record label head (his mid-’90s spoken word imprint Mouth Almighty), or art gallery boss (his pre-Tumblr/Instagram hip hop photography haven/showroom, Eyejammie Arts) – he’s all but devoted his life to championing its champion sounds and impact very literally for the history books.
Bill’s latest venture sees his mammoth Adler Archives of tens of thousands of long out of print newspaper and magazine articles – the culmination of a lifetime’s work of clipping and saving anything relevant to hip hop and its musical antecedents – finding a permanent home as part of Cornell University’s Hip Hop Collection. He plans to make the entirety of this collected information readily available online. In the meantime, Adler shares some thoughts on Run-DMC’s lost year, Public Enemy’s internal dynamics, why hip hop won where punk rock failed, and why Def Jam’s story is still relevant 30 years after dropping those first maroon-sleeved 12s.
How did your put together your archive collection?
I’m much older than hip hop. [laughs] My interest in music predates hip hop. And I started building my collection when I started working as a journalist, which goes back to the early ‘70s. By 1973 or so I’d begun working as a critic and a journalist, all of it music oriented. My particular interest was in black music – jazz and R&B and soul music. And there wasn’t enough reference material available for me to research a lot of the stuff I was interested in.
I’d been collecting records. So I started to collect books and newspaper and magazine articles as well. And in addition to that I started to collect record company bios and photos though my job as a clerk and then manager at a little hippy record store in Ann Arbor, Michigan called The University Cellar. We’d meet with various record sales people every week. For example, the guy from ABC Records comes into the store in 1974 and he’s got a promotional copy of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s album Dreamer – the one with “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City.” Bland is coming to town and I wanna go see him. And I’ve got some idea about the records he made ahead of time – but I don’t know enough, really. So the guy comes in with a bio and a photo. Very, very useful. Up until that moment I might have tossed it. Now all of a sudden I’m holding onto it. And that’s how I started my collection.
You grew up in Detroit at a particularly musically fertile time, then lived in Ann Arbor when it was home to a scene of groundbreaking bands and heavy activism. How did those two environments shape your sensibilities?
For a kid turning on the radio in Detroit during those years it was so magnificent. I’m in the 8th grade, it’s 1965 and on top 10 radio then you could hear not only everything that was coming in on the British Invasion, not only all the great Motown songs – including songs that didn’t bust out nationally but were huge hits in Detroit – but Slim Harpo, who had a top 10 hit in the city with “Baby Scratch My Back.” I’m 13 years old and listening to that. I don’t know what the hell I really made of it. But goddamn!
Ann Arbor was a great town for hippy politics and culture. And so I absorbed all of that.
So, boom – I go to high school in Southfield, Michigan and it was… okay. But in the fall of 1969 I go to the University of Michigan and really the main thing for me was just, please let me get the hell out of Southfield. I’d had enough of the suburbs. And it turns out that Ann Arbor was just a wonderland. I didn’t care so very much about school and I wasn’t a very good student and I ended up dropping out three semesters in and I never went back. But Ann Arbor as a place to live at that time? Perfect. I ended up spending nearly seven years there. And I managed to kind of figure out a way to make a life out of my love of music. While I was in Ann Arbor I started to DJ at the student radio station and also I began to write about music. And really my interest in music and my ability to write have defined my entire so-called career for the rest of my life. It was a great town for hippy politics and culture. And so I absorbed all of that.
Any particularly memorable gigs that you recall attending?
I was 18-years-old and I was at Oakland University for no very good reason – there must have been a festival there. And I saw Iggy Pop with the Stooges. It was an afternoon show. He was playing in an open amphitheatre. There were a thousand seats in front of the stage. There might have been 50 of us watching the show. And nobody got too goddamn close to the stage because of what Iggy was doing on the stage. The band was grinding away and it was great. But everybody’s attention was riveted on Iggy. And how could it not be? He’s up there bare-chested and he takes some raw hamburger and smears it over his chest for no very good reason. And then at another point he jumped off the stage into the first few rows of folding chairs. And he got up bleeding, went back on stage again and then jumped in again. So that’s kind of formative to see something like that.
Do you draw any parallels between the music that you experienced earlier in life and hip hop?
Oh sure. That was always the thing. It was one of the advantages of not being a teenager when hip hop came around is that I could hear the roots of it in everything I grew up loving. I think some of the appeal of it to younger people was that it sounded so novel. But the appeal to me was that it sounded so rooted. I’d been listening to the Last Poets for a dozen years by the time the first rap records came out – and Gil Scott-Heron as well. I’d been listening to Chic and Queen and James Brown. If those are the things that you’d been listening to prior to the emergence of the first rap records well then rap didn’t sound so alien at all. It was charming. It was certainly an infusion of new energy. But it didn’t sound alien.
What was also always compelling to me about the pioneering generation of rappers was that it was DIY.
What was also always compelling to me about the pioneering generation of rappers was that it was DIY. The punk rockers had identified themselves as DIY just a couple of years before rap records emerged. That attitude was also very obviously built into the DNA of these rappers. Because they all came out on indie labels, some of them hadn’t previously recorded at all. Nobody was cultivating them, they cultivated themselves; everything that they did spoke of their confidence of their own ability. And so that was always very inspirational. And there was an awful lot of that with the folks I’d been hanging out with in Ann Arbor – most of whom were attached to John Sinclair in one way or another. It was always about, we’re gonna make it ourselves. We don’t need anybody else. Sinclair had done something with his early initiatives called the Detroit Artists Workshop. The idea was we’ll put on our own concerts, we’ll make art and put on our own art shows, we’ll publish our own books, we’ll release our own records. So all of that stuff to me was second nature and I saw it in the early rap.
After moving to New York City what was your first serious encounter with Russell Simmons like?
I did a story about Kurtis Blow for the Daily News in the fall of 1980 when he had a national hit with a song called “The Breaks.” And I started to hear about Russ then because he managed Kurt. But I don’t think I met Russell face to face until 1983 when I sold People magazine on the idea of a story about rap music. I was just gonna do a survey piece and something told me give Russ a call to help me shape the story.
And what happened was I spent one of the great nights of my life just hanging out with Russell Simmons. He was hustling then just as he hustles now. One of his little side jobs at the time in addition to management was he would do club promotion. And that night Russell was doing club promo on Sweet G’s record “Games People Play.” So we went to Bond’s International nightclub in Times Square. We went to Bentley’s, which is a black bourgeois club somewhere in midtown. We went to the Paradise Garage. We went to The Roxy and had a lot of fun. And then finally at 3 or 4 in the morning we the ended up at Disco Fever in the Bronx and we stayed there till about 8 o’clock in the morning. The whole night, every stop was completely remarkable but nothing compared to Disco Fever.
Russell was welcome – and at ease – everywhere we went that night.
And by the time the night was over I thought to myself, well, that’s what I’m gonna write about. I wrote a story about Disco Fever for People magazine. But Russell made a hell of an impression on me that night. There was an expression at the time about being “down by law.” If you had entrée everywhere, you were down by law. Lots of folks claimed to have it, but very few actually had it. Russell had it. He was welcome – and at ease – everywhere we went that night. Midtown, downtown, and uptown. Straight club and gay club. White club and black club. Even more impressive, Russell claimed for the emerging hip hop culture exactly the freedom he claimed for himself: Entrée everywhere.
A year later I went to him because I had this idea. It’s 1984 and Ronald Reagan is running for re-election – and I had this brilliant idea we were gonna rap Ronald Reagan out of office. So I wanted to write an anti-Reagan rap and give it to Kurt, because I knew Kurt didn’t write all his own rhymes, and Kurt would record it and we’d be in business. So I set up a meeting with Russell to talk to him about this rhyme of mine and the two of us got into a conversation and you know one thing led to another and he finally said why don’t you come work for me? So I did.
What was your initial impression of Rick Rubin?
Well, you know, Rick’s demeanor has changed an awful lot. He was pretty bombastic then. His style was modeled on some of the pro wresters of the day, like Captain Lou Albano. He was basically the kind of guy who would kind of literally beat his chest and talk at the top of his lungs. Typically very emphatic, very much in your face. Then X number of years later when he and Russell split, Rick moved to L.A. and his whole demeanor changed and he became much more of a kind of L.A. guy. Which is, he’s very soft-spoken, he’s very reasonable. He’s not at all in your face. He’s not any less emphatic, in fact, in terms of his feelings. But his demeanor has changed radically.
At Def Jam and RUSH Management you guys were so effective at making it known that hip hop wasn’t just an urban cultural movement but a youth movement. As the director of publicity for both entities you were at the center of this. How much was that message crafted, how much was organic, and why do you think it was so effective?
Well, I’d say the reason that hip hop became very, very popular was because it was wonderful, kind of intrinsically. You couldn’t beat the music. Before I got involved, before there was a Def Jam, let’s not forget that one of the first rap records made, “Rapper’s Delight,” was an international hit. That’s a record that charted in a dozen countries. And it was odd formally. Not only were people not singing they were rapping, but the thing was 15-minutes long. And even so it was a giant international hit. I think that rap kind of burst onto the international scene when, whatever its intrinsic strengths, there also wasn’t much to compete with it. Rock n’ roll per se had really run out of gas. If it’s the early ‘80s and if you’re watching MTV or listening to so-called rock radio, you’re fucked up! Really, it’s a terrible time. You know, Eurythmics, and Boy George and whatever else – Peter Gabriel. The stuff is just really lame! And that’s just kind of by comparison to all the great rock n’ roll in the 20-years preceding, let’s just say.
Rap was in effect the real punk rock.
The whole emergence of punk rock was also a pretty explicit critique of ‘70s rock n’ roll – Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Electric Light Orchestra and those kinds of bands. The whole idea was we’re gonna strip it down and we’re gonna make it hard and fast and loud again. That was the idea for punk rock. But that was the revolution that failed. It was a huge hit with critics. But it meant nothing popularly. The Ramones? Great, great band. Really. They never sold six records. Never! I don’t think that they ever had a gold record aside from a later compilation.
But punk established the idea from musicians that there has to be a revolution. That was already in the air. So now a few years later here comes rap. Rap was in effect the real punk rock. That was the stuff that really revolutionized the business. The world was ready for it. And it was just a tremendous alternative. It was a fresh infusion of energy and wit and humor and sex and aggression. And volume. Everything that so called rock n’ roll had been lacking. So that’s what was built into the music. But now it’s called rap music.
Russell was a sociology major. So he saw rap as an expression of this culture called hip hop.
Now by the time I get involved, I was able to help. I’m a student of Russell Simmons. I brought my own abilities, my biases into the thing. I was able to listen to a record and talk to an artist. But Russell, let’s not forget, was a sociology major. So he saw rap as an expression of this culture called hip hop. And he loved the people who made it and he loved that community and he saw himself as a member of that community. And understanding that was revelatory to me.
I had the advantage of working day-to-day with these young artists. And if they wouldn’t just volunteer and tell me about themselves, well then I would ask ‘em. So then it was just my job to turn around and tell the press. I was well situated. By the time I go to work for Russ I’d been a working music journalist for ten years. So I certainly knew how to talk to other writers. And I’d been talked to by ten years worth of publicists. So it didn’t feel like a huge leap for me to all of a sudden put on a different hat.
Okay, I’m not a critic anymore. I’m not a journalist anymore. I’m a publicist. Big deal. Really, it was all the same kind of work. I’m a music lover and I’m someone who wants to share my enthusiasm with other music lovers. For a long time I did it as a record store clerk, I did it as a disk jockey, I did it as a journalist, and then when I went to work for Russ I started to do it as a publicist. It’s all the same thing.
Even though this was the revolution that succeeded there were obviously a lot of outlets that were slow to embrace it. Who was most biased against rap music that you recall?
The thing that always occurs to me is this: my job – promoting rap to the press was very, very easy compared to [fellow Def Jam staffer] Bill Stephney’s job. Bill had to promote to radio. That was a tough job. Radio – not just rock radio but black radio – both of those formats were very resistant and hostile to rap music. So getting our records on even black radio at the time – was very difficult.
Even if the local critic was dubious... he had to cover it. We’re in your town this weekend and we’ve sold 15,000 seats in the local arena – you can’t ignore it.
My job was just to get us in newspapers and magazines. And those media were much more open to rap. So we had a lot of support and success from the beginning. The surprising thing with my work wasn’t how hard it was but how easy it was. That’s the way I feel about it even looking back now. The New York Times wrote about it almost from the very beginning. Rolling Stone covered it almost from the very beginning. The Village Voice was fantastic right away. With local newspapers – even if the local critic in a given city was dubious, not to say hostile, to this new rap music – he had to cover it. We’re in your town this weekend and we’ve sold 15,000 seats in the local arena – you can’t ignore it. It’s a news event. At the very least you have to write about it. Go there and hate it if you’re gonna hate it, but you can’t ignore it.
I will say this: if you’re looking for a bastion of real resistance, one of the things that Russ always points out, and it happens to be true, is that a lot of the black mainstream media were less inclined to cover us than rock media or white media. Rolling Stone covered us before Ebony did. People covered us before Jet did. Along the same lines, we were booked onto American Bandstand before we were booked onto Soul Train. And it was very disappointing to Russell. Russell’s a guy with a ton of race pride. He would have expected or at least he would have loved to have had black media embrace this new community of black artists right from the beginning. But like I said, they seemed kind of reluctant. So that was disappointing to us. But it was just something that we dealt with. I made friends at Ebony anyway. I made friends at Jet anyway.
What wisdom did you accrue as far as getting in front of a story – crisis management?
Well, I’d have to think about specific stuff. It kinda all depends on the particular story, the particular artist.
So, for instance, Run-DMC and the problems with crowd violence encountered on the “Raising Hell” tour.
There was never a time that I hid our guys. I think maybe one of the hallmarks is that we were just open. You could get us on the phone or we would issue a press release. We would make the artist available. We certainly didn’t hide very much. We didn’t do that. When there was trouble with “Raising Hell” in Pittsburgh we were condemned by the mayor of Pittsburgh. And I wrote something over Russell’s signature that was in effect kind of an op-ed piece saying, listen you can’t blame rap music for this problem. This is bigger than a rock show that got out of control. There are other things at play here.
The fact that these guys had any kind of management put them leagues ahead of the rappers that preceded them.
We wrote something at length and it was well reasoned, I think, and we gave it to the local black weekly and they published it at length and it was picked up by the other newspapers. And all of a sudden there’s just another way to look at it. That’s really the main thing that we did when it came to kind of larger questions about the culture. When it came to an individual who fucked up, that always depended on what the particular problem was. But I don’t know if we were so very canny about it.
In general apart from crisis management the fact that these guys had any kind of management and a publicist put them leagues ahead of the rappers that preceded them who didn’t have management and didn’t have publicists. Or didn’t have publicists that knew anything about the culture. So that’s one of the reasons RUSH was so crucial in the history of hip hop and real particularly the history of Def Jam. People don’t talk about RUSH enough. There were no Def Jam artists who weren’t managed by RUSH. And the management part of their careers was crucial to their careers. That’s all. That’s what occurs to me when speaking to you about this stuff. Our guys had management – including crisis management when there was a crisis. But the bigger thing is, because there was management in place in the first place, there weren’t so many crises!
Lyor Cohen, who became Russell’s longtime partner at Def Jam and one of the legendary modern music industry execs, started out on the management side at RUSH. Do you have a particularly memorable Lyor story?
Well, sure. Lyor was a very strong advocate for the artists. I walk into Lyor’s office and this would have been late ‘88 or early ‘89. And we were managing De La Soul. And Lyor had someone from De La’s label Tommy Boy Records on the phone. Tommy Boy happened to be a great rap label and Tom Silverman, who started Tommy Boy, is a super important figure in the history of the culture. But there’s always going to be friction between management and the label.
I can’t tell you what the particular beef was, but it doesn’t make any difference. The way Lyor used to work, God forbid he should pick up a phone. All of his conversations were conducted with him screaming into a speakerphone on a table several feet away. And he’s shouting into the phone, and I don’t know who the other person at the end of the line is, but Lyor’s going: “Tell Tom – fuck you! FUCK YOU!” Very emphatic, very loud.
Lyor is much calmer than he used to be. But that’s probably because he’s already killed all his enemies.
And while he’s going through this, Posdnuos of De La Soul is sitting in a chair, he’s just sitting there and he’s kind of looking into his lap and he might as well be in church. As if he’s in church he’s nodding his head, he’s looking down and he’s going, “Thank you, thank you.” He wasn’t even talking to Lyor. In effect he was thanking God that Lyor was gonna do battle on his behalf with the record label. Lyor is much calmer than he used to be. But that’s probably because he’s already killed all his enemies.
As Run-DMC’s biographer you got to witness the group’s career trajectory pretty closely. They were the biggest thing in music when a contract dispute kept them inactive at a time when rap music was rapidly changing and they were never really the same after that. As much success as they enjoyed, do you think there was also some opportunity lost as well because of that hiatus?
I’m not big on “if.” And truthfully I’m not so very sure that if they were able to put out an album in 1987 that it would have turned out differently. They put out albums in ‘84, ‘85 and ‘86. And each one was a magnificent success. And then as you pointed out they had to take off ‘87 because of a contract dispute with their label, Profile. And they don’t come out again till ‘88. I think the guys themselves, and Run in particular thinks, “Damn, if we’d been able to keep up our pace and we put out an album in ‘87 it would have had more impact than in ‘88.”
You know, maybe. Maybe not. You could kind of say Run-DMC were victims of their own success. They were so successful, they were so brilliant, they were so charismatic that they inspired legions of other folks to come into the game. And some of these folks it turned out were gonna change the game. And in effect they were gonna retire Run-DMC! There’s no saying what would have happened a year earlier. The ground was already shifting beneath them.
Public Enemy was probably the one group that fully embodied your interests in black music and activism during the Def Jam – RUSH years. How would you describe the dynamic within P.E. and the original Bomb Squad then?
Public Enemy was so magnificent with what they managed to accomplish. The original line-up of the Bomb Squad was something super-productive but it couldn’t last and didn’t last. The significant thing isn’t that they couldn’t keep it going and they broke up, but that they came together at all and managed to work together effectively in the first place.
I mean I think there was always – I don’t want to say creative dissonance, it’s too easy. The Bomb Squad was a bunch of very talented, very opinionated individual personalities who came together in the form of this team. And I think probably even when they were making It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back there was a lot of harmony but there was a lot of disagreement as well. These guys in effect thrived on disagreement. And then one way or another they would manage to at least paper over their disagreement and come to some kind of a consensus and go ahead and make what they wanted to make.
It’s not remarkable that they broke up, it’s remarkable that they figured out a way to work together in the first place.
But the crux of the group to me creatively and intellectually was Chuck D and Hank Shocklee and Bill Stephney. These are all very intelligent individuals devoted to the ideal of Public Enemy. And as I said they managed to come together and agree about the final shape of Nation of Millions, which is not only their masterwork but one of the great albums recorded in the history of hip hop. But then things started to fall apart.
And I’ll say the immediate cause of their disillusion was probably the controversy sparked by Professor Griff and his anti-Semitic remarks in the infamous Washington Times interview, but I don’t know if they would have stayed together in any case. None of them has teamed up with anybody else since. Not really. Chuck runs Public Enemy. He’s the boss. Hank is independent. Bill is independent. These are very strong individuals who set their own courses and carry on. So again it’s not remarkable that they broke up, it’s remarkable that they figured out a way to work together in the first place.
You mentioned the Professor Griff controversy of 1989. How conflicted were you personally during all that?
It was tough for me – I’m Jewish! And I don’t believe by the way that you have to be Jewish to abhor anti-Semitism. You don’t have to be black to hate anti-black racism. But having said that I probably did find it particularly painful when Griff started saying this ridiculous anti-Semitic stuff. The story broke in America in May/June of 1989 but Griff had started to give these terribly anti-Semitic interviews to the English music press in 1988. And I don’t think I focused on it somehow. Not least because it wasn’t bouncing back to me in America.
But by the spring of ‘89 when this stuff starts to blow up I sat down with Griff. I’m not somebody who believes everything in the newspaper. And I had a decent relationship with Griff so, I thought, let me sit down with this guy and see what he’s talking about. This is just the two of us. And it turned out to be a pretty disappointing conversation for me because Griff kind of repeated a lot of the things he’d said to the press. It was almost funny. Because the thing about Griff is his style is basically Nation of Islam, Fruit of Islam – which is sober, dignified, soft-spoken. Not to say that he doesn’t have gravitas. But he’s not a frother. He’s not screaming. And even so a lot of things he had to say they were just… in effect, they were wild-eyed.
I understood that there was gonna be no reasoning with Griff.
One of the books that he was relying on for his take on the history of blacks and Jews was a book by Henry Ford called The International Jew. Henry Ford had a newspaper called The Dearborn Independent outside of Detroit. And during the ‘20s he wrote a series of articles lambasting the Jews. I mean he was just a terrible, terrible anti-Semite. And then by the mid-’30s when Hitler comes to power in Germany it turns out Hitler was a big fan of Henry Ford and all of his anti-Semitism. You can find a photo online of Henry Ford receiving a medal from the Nazis. So basically he was a huge influence on Hitler while Hitler was writing Mein Kampf – which is like the handbook of Nazism!
So anyway Griff says to me, “Bill, it’s not just what I say, look what Henry Ford wrote in The International Jew.” And I said, “Griff, really? I grew up in Detroit. Let me tell you about Detroit. There is the city of Detroit and there are two suburbs contiguous to the city. One is called Dearborn. It was zoned for white people who are ‘dearly born.’ The other is Inkster – which was zoned for black folks who are black as ink!” I said, “Don’t you know about Henry Ford? He would have as readily upholstered the seats of his cars with your black hide as with my Jewish hide.” That was my speech to him, right? And he just shrugged. And you could tell he felt very slightly sheepish. He said, “Bill, I can’t help it. It’s in the book.”
And so at that point I understood that there was gonna be no reasoning with Griff. And so I backed away. That was the end of that little conversation. I think basically he’s a serious guy with a sincere desire to understand the history of his people. To the extent that people of African descent have suffered disproportionately, he wants to know why. Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam provided Griff with an answer: it’s the Jew’s fault. I don’t believe that that answer bears up under scrutiny, but it seemed to provide some comfort and direction to Griff, at least back in the ‘80s.
If there was any kind of a Jewish conspiracy, it wasn’t anti-Public Enemy, it was pro-Public Enemy!
When I sat down and I talked to Chuck, Chuck was much more ambivalent. I don’t think Chuck bought into any of the specifics of anti-Semitism. And how could he, by the way! He was signed to a record contract by a Jewish guy named Rick Rubin. All the photos that the group cherished and that promoted the group – the album covers and the press releases – were shot by a Jew named Glen Friedman. His publicist was a guy named Bill Adler, who happened to be Jewish. His manager day-to-day was a Jew named Lyor Cohen. So if there was any kind of a Jewish conspiracy, it wasn’t anti-Public Enemy, it was pro-Public Enemy! They were not the victims, they were the beneficiaries of a philo-Semitic conspiracy.
I think what it came down to for Chuck is that he felt put on the spot. He didn’t endorse what Griff had to say. He didn’t share the politics. But he did not like anybody telling him how to run his group. That’s really what it came down to for Chuck. And so you see what happened is in effect he chose Griff. Griff is still in the band and he and Chuck remain close friends all these years later. And Chuck and Hank went their separate ways before the summer of ‘89 was over. So that’s what happened. And for me after I spoke to Chuck I thought, well, this is basically a mess and I’m not gonna help them manage this crisis. And so I withdrew. I told Lyor: you handle it. Let someone else handle it, but it ain’t me.
What were your thoughts when the Beasties became such a phenomenon, and looking back what do you think their initial success said about race and hip hop?
You could say superficially it was Elvis all over again. Elvis was a white guy who made blues and R&B and when he got over it seemed it was pretty clear he got over because he was white! So he’s a white man playing in a black idiom. So certainly white skin privilege worked in his favor.
They weren’t literally pale imitations of some better black artist and happened to get over. They were themselves.
And you could make the argument that the same was true of the Beastie Boys. Except it’s complicated by a number of different things. Not the least of the fact that they had a black manager. And they were protégés of Run-DMC, who did not have any problems with the Beastie Boys being white. I’ll say this – I think that when it comes to white “interlopers” in the world of black music, black folks tend to be very liberal – if the music itself is banging, the question of the musician’s race recedes in importance. In the early and mid-’70s the Average White Band, which featured a white lead singer, was accepted by black music lovers. Likewise, in the early rap era, the Beasties’s lack of melanin meant less to most black lovers of rap than the quality of their records.
So, for the most part, give the Beastie Boys credit. It’s not like they pretended to be black. They dressed like punk rock guys and they rapped about stuff that rappers for the most part weren’t rapping about. They weren’t literally pale imitations of some better black artist and happened to get over. They were themselves. They made great records. And they won amongst black folks on the merits of their music. I quote Scarface on this very subject in my book about Def Jam. He says that people in Houston loved the Beasties. When I asked him if their race put anyone off, he was very emphatic: “Nobody. Gave. A. Fuck.”
It’s obviously a subject that still strikes a chord with folks given the recent response to Macklemore winning all those Grammys.
You know what? This is an ongoing conversation, it’s never gonna change. It’s a healthy conversation. But look, let’s just say the dust has settled with regard to at least a couple of these white groups. The Beastie Boys have earned a place in history including, I think, African-American history. It’s not for me to say, but I’ll say it. Whereas somebody like Vanilla Ice has been rejected by history. You can’t deny that he had his moment, but nobody gives him respect 20-odd years later.
Given rap music’s permeation in mainstream popular culture, like you said, the revolution is over. Hip hop won. But having been entrenched in it during “the struggle” do you ever feel a little nostalgic for those days when it was sort of hip hop vs. the world? It’s all just popular music now.
In effect I think there are many hip hops. Some of it is so local it doesn’t bust out. There’s a so-called underground in hip hop that’s probably as vital as ever. I don’t deplore anything. I suppose I just wish some of the most prominent rappers displayed more of what I’d call consciousness. But that probably says more about me as a ‘60s guy than it does about the culture itself.
I wish there was a Public Enemy for 2014. But that’s just my little bias.
If you think of someone like Chuck, Chuck was kind of the founder and then the leader of a movement within hip hop that – to my way of thinking – kind of petered out. There was a period where conscious rap at the cutting edge of the culture and then it wasn’t. And very broadly hip hop culture has gone another way. It’s just kind of deeply materialistic. That seems to be chiefly what it’s about.
That’s no more to be deplored than to deplore any other aspect of the culture at large. That’s where the whole of popular culture is these days. And so I’m sad about that. And I wish there was an alternative. I wish there was a Public Enemy for 2014. But that’s just my little bias. I’m also somebody who wants to see an actual socialist revolution in America. I don’t see that comin’ around the corner anytime soon, but maybe it will!
You worked for several years to make the Def Jam book a reality. What do you think the big take away is from the label and its legacy?
What’s great about the Def Jam story to me is the label was founded by people who really staked their claim to the culture with no apologies at a time when lots of folks weren’t paying attention to it. In effect Rick and Russ are products of the culture. And they staked their time and energy and intelligence and money such as it was. They placed a bet on this culture and the ideal was we’re not gonna cross it over, we’re gonna give it to you full strength. And if we go down in flames at least we’ll go down with all our flags flying.
So that was the attitude. And it was a beautiful attitude. And I think that attitude basically was built into the DNA of the label. So that 30 years on people still feel that way about the culture. Although it’s not as tough to be stalwart in defense of hip hop or stalwart as a proponent of hip hop in 2014 as it was in 1984. Just because the revolution has succeeded; it transformed the world. LL Cool J just hosted the Grammy Awards for the third year in a row. I remember back in 1989 when we had to boycott the Grammys because they wouldn’t show Will Smith getting his award on television! So times have changed, and history has moved in our direction.
Why is it so important to you to have your archives available as an online public resource?
The thing about the Internet is that it’s becoming much better at scooping up the stuff that predates the Internet. But really, for the Internet in a lot of ways, history doesn’t start until 1992. Well, I’m sorry but by that time there’s been 15 years of history in hip hop, some would say 20 years of history. And there were intelligent people writing well about it. And if you try to put your hands on those articles in those books, good luck!
For the Internet in a lot of ways, history doesn’t start until 1992.
This material is being preserved by Cornell University, which is a beautiful world-class university. And I know that if they dropped a bomb on the campus and leveled the campus that these materials would still survive in the vault that is the rare books library at Cornell University. Even so, that’s not as important to me in the end as seeing this stuff made available online for a couple reasons. Real particularly, hip hop happens to be global popular culture. And it’s very exciting to me that people anywhere in the world with an interest in hip hop can go to their computer and access hip hop history in the form of these newspaper and magazine articles. Instead of having somehow to make their way to the campus of Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. And more broadly, it’s the 21st goddamn century and this stuff should be available. All human knowledge should be available that way.