[Note: this short story about early hip-hop history and the strategy Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin used to launch Def Jam Records — and, ultimately, the genre itself — was originally included in my essay on how to develop a strategy. However, due to recent allegations of sexual misconduct against Mr. Simmons, I’ve moved it here for archival purposes with this disclaimer.]
In 1984, 27-year-old Russell Simmons saw the future of music.
Hip-hop was starting to catch on in Manhattan night clubs and the boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. It was controversial, indie, counterculture — and Simmons was one of the first to recognize it’s full cultural impact and potential.
But despite hip-hop’s momentum at art parties and out in the streets — and even early commercial success from rap pioneers like Run DMC — music labels weren’t buying Simmons’ vision.
When Simmons met with executives at Warner Music to pitch a debut record by a then-unknown teenager named LL Cool J, the executives told him the genre and the song wouldn’t work. It was too raw, minimalist and different. It wouldn’t appeal to mainstream tastes, they said. Other labels also passed.
Unable to pursue traditional distribution channels for LL Cool J and his other new artists, the Beastie Boys, Simmons came up with a new strategy to get his work out to listeners. Rather than convincing record executives there was demand for rap music, Simmons embarked on a plan to tap into the demand directly. But he needed new distribution channels to do it.
Determined, Simmons scraped together enough money to fund an indie film called “Krush Groove,” a fictionalized version of his own experiences starting his label, Def Jam Records. Ironically, Simmons’ fictional story played a critical role in jumpstarting the real success story for him and his new business partner, Rick Rubin.
And, like any other movie, “Krush Groove” needed a soundtrack, and extras who authentically captured the film’s look and spirit.
The strategy worked.
“Krush Groove” became an unexpected cult hit, and its soundtrack helped LL Cool J’s music get the mainstream exposure it needed. The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune gave the film positive reviews, helping push the soundtrack to #79 on the Pop chart and #14 on the R&B chart. “I Need a Beat,” LL Cool J’s debut single the major labels passed on, went on to sell 100,000 copies. “Radio,” Cool J’s first full-length album, released to critical acclaim one month after “Krush Groove” hit theaters.
Simmons and Rubin also identified other ways to go direct to fans. Instead of dressing in track suits and polo shirts like other popular rappers at the time (including LL Cool J and Run DMC), Simmons and Rubin asked the Beastie Boys to dress how they normally dressed in their personal lives: like punk rockers. The trio had actually gotten their start as members of a punk band called the Young Aborigines.
The rebrand worked, and Madonna invited the Beastie Boys to open for her on tour — the first collaboration between a pop artist and a hip-hop group. “I remember the Radio City shows and how horrified the parents [of the fans] were,” recalls Rubin, who volunteered to DJ the tour.
But the cross-over strategy played out exactly as Simmons and Rubin planned. Madonna’s shows introduced the Beastie Boys and rap music to mainstream audiences, and demand for hip-hop exploded. Def Jam Records went on to become the most successful and influential hip-hop label of all time.
From the very beginning, Simmons set his sights on introducing hip-hop music to the world. He surveyed the cultural and competitive landscape, understood what the market wanted, then partnered with Rubin to deliver it, dis-intermediating the major label gatekeepers by uncovering alternate channels: film, live events, and culture.
“Authenticity sold Def Jam, and honesty,” says Simmons.
I agree, and would add just one more element: the right strategy.
To read more about strategy and strategy development, go here to visit my main strategy article.