The Arty Semite

The Jews of Def Jam

By Jon Kalish

  • Print
  • Share Share

Image Courtesy of the Adler Archive

This week “Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label” arrives in book stores. The 300 page hardcover tome is 12” X 12,” the same size as an old school LP and has a cover price of $60. It may be chock full of characters from the ‘hood but it is published by the tony art house Rizzoli. The book is being hyped as an insiders’ telling of the storied label’s history accompanied by a treasure trove of behind-the-scenes photos, flyers, ads and album cover art. What the press doesn’t mention is the pivotal role Jews played in the legendary hip-hop label’s creation and growth.

There are pictures of label founder Rick Rubin, who made Def Jam’s first hit record while living in the dorm at NYU. In one shot, Rubin is seen at a Vanity Fair Oscar party sporting a graying beard that would be the envy of many a Hasid. He’s with Def Jam mogul Russell Simmons and Lyor Cohen, the son of Israeli immigrants and grandson of an Israeli Army general. Cohen initially ran the artist management side of Def Jam, before becoming president of the label. He’s now an executive with the Warner Music Group.

The Def Jam history was co-written by Bill Adler, the label’s founding publicist, who is also Jewish. Adler notes that Glen Friedman, the photographer who took a number of iconic photos of Def Jam artists, is also a member of the tribe. As is Julie Greenwald, who worked in Def Jam’s promotions department back in the day and is now president of Atlantic Records.

“Anybody who assumes that because most of the ground-breaking artists in hip-hop are black, that most of the people working behind the scenes are also black, doesn’t know the history of the music,” Adler told The Arty Semite. “There have been people of all backgrounds working behind the scenes right along, including a fairly remarkable number of Jews.”

Adler, whose Xmas Jollies mixtape was featured on The Arty Semite last year, came up with the idea for Run-DMC to do “Christmas in Hollis” back in 1987.

“Russell is a philo-Semite. He is somebody who likes Jewish folks and has Jewish partners and he’s always been that way,” Adler says of Def Jam honcho Russell Simmons. “I came in [to Def Jam] under Russell’s wing. If I was ok with Russell, I was ok with everybody. Nobody cared that I wasn’t black.”

Not everyone on Def Jam’s roster can be described as a philo-Semite, however. In the late 1980s the band Public Enemy made waves when its “Minister of Information,” Professor Grif, made anti-Semitic statements in interviews here and in England. Public Enemy was red hot at the time but Adler, who was publicizing 30 Def Jam acts in 1989, decided he wouldn’t work with the band any more. It was not Adler’s last brush with anti-Semitism in the hip-hop community.

By 1991, Adler had left the label and was working as an independent publicist. In the fall of that year rapper Ice Cube endorsed “The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews,” the Nation of Islam’s anti-Semitic work written by anonymous scholars. Adler was so upset that he instigated a scholarly rebuttal titled “Jew On the Brain,” which was released in the summer of 1992 in time to be distributed at New Music Seminar, a multi-venue music showcase organized by Tom Silverman of Tommy Boy Records fame.

Despite the run-ins with Public Enemy years ago, Adler is still close to the Def Jam crowd, many of whom attended openings at his now defunct hip-hop photo gallery in Chelsea. The former publicist has remained friends with Cohen and Simmons and when Def Jam Enterprises approached him to write the book, it was a no-brainer.

“It remains family,” he said before hopping on a plane recently to accompany his TV chef wife, Sara Moulton, on a cooking trip to France.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Russell Simmons, Rick Rubin, Public Enemy, Professor Grif, Music, Lyor Cohen, Julie Greenwald, Jon Kalish, Hip-Hop, Def Jam, Bill Adler

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.