By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
If hip-hop has becomes its own worst enemy, reduced to self-parody by money-hungry hacks toting plastic pistols, here's a reminder of a time when the music compromised nothing. It was tough but not tough-guy, hard but not hardened, dense but not closed-off, defiant but not cynical, funny but not degrading. Where Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" and "Bring the Noise" were punk-rock mission statements set to funky beats and screaming samples, preaching pride and self-determination through education and reverse racism, Tha Dogg Pound or even Cypress Hill exist solely for themselves. To the new generation of shtick-up artists posing as rappers, power is wielded from a fat pocketbook; Chuck D wants your heart and mind, but Dat Nigga Daz demands your wallet.
Def Jam's mid- to late '80s heyday was an unprecedented period in hip-hop (or, pop music) history, likely never to be repeated--blacks and whites, Farrakhan followers and upper-class Jewboys, all rebels without a pause coming together to form a label that not only brought rap to the mainstream but brought the mainstream to rap. For a brief moment, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Beastie Boys, and 3rd Bass defined hip-hop with a sense of humor, invention, brilliance, and determined militancy. They were students of the old-school who graduated with honors.
But as Chuck D told the Observer last year, Def Jam boss Russell Simmons is "pressed up against the gun so [he's] trying to sell records by any means necessary, even if they're talking about motherfuckers digging up bodies and stupid shit." Before Simmons brought in Dr. Dre's little brother Warren G ("Regulate") and South Central Cartel ("Gang Stories") to go head-to-ass with Death Row Record, Def Jam was the Motown of hip-hop, churning out hit after hit and milestone after milestone: Licensed to Ill, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Radio, The Cactus Album, Fear of a Black Planet, Walking with a Panther, Less than Zero.
They're all heavily represented here, picked apart to showcase the highlights among the lesser-knowns who filled in the gaps (EPMD, Nikki D, Redman, Oran "Juice" Jones). But the message sent here is mixed: Though "Welcome to the Terrordome," "Brass Monkey," "Night of the Living Baseheads," and "Rock the Bells" date back to another decade, they sound more vital and vibrant than anything from current hit-makers Warren G, Onyx ("Slam"), or Montell Jordan ("This is How We Do It"). This isn't just a box set, it's the question mark at the end of an era.