The co-founder of the legendary Def Jam label, producer Rick Rubin was among the key figures behind the commercial and artistic rise of hip-hop, lending his signature rap/metal style to many of the biggest records of the pre-gangsta era. Born Frederick Jay Rubin on Long Island, NY, in 1963, he was attending New York University when he and Russell Simmons founded Def Jam in 1984. Operating the company out of Rubin's dorm room, they bowed with the T La Rock and Jazzy Jay single "It's Yours," issued in association with Partytime/Streetwise. By 1985 Def Jam entered into a distribution deal with Columbia, and the label also produced its own rap movie, Krush Groove; however, even from the outset, Rubin's interests extended well beyond hip-hop, and he raised more than a few eyebrows producing Hell Awaits for the thrash band Slayer later that same year.
Rap broke worldwide in 1986 as a result of two landmark LPs, the Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill and Run-D.M.C.'s Raising Hell, both of which Rubin produced. A year later, he also helmed Yo! Bum Rush the Show, the debut record from arguably the most pivotal act in hip-hop history, the renowned Public Enemy. That same year, he also scored a major hit with Electric, by British rockers the Cult. Rubin and Simmons' partnership soon ended in acrimony, however, with the former exiting Def Jam to found his own label, dubbed Def American. The company's early signings indulged Rubin's tastes, ranging from longtime favorites Slayer to shock comic Andrew Dice Clay to the controversial gangsta rappers the Geto Boys; he never drifted far from his roots, however, and after serving as executive producer on Public Enemy's seminal It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, he helmed LL Cool J's Walking With a Panther, and even directed the Run-D.M.C. movie Tougher Than Leather.
In 1991, Def American scored one of its biggest hits yet with Sir Mix-a-Lot's Mack Daddy, which launched the monster "Baby Got Back." That same year, Rubin also produced the Red Hot Chili Peppers' breakthrough effort, Blood Sugar Sex Magik. He returned in 1993 with Mick Jagger's Wandering Spirit, and on August 27 of that year officially dropped the "Def" prefix from the label's name, holding a traditional New Orleans funeral to retire the now-outdated term. In 1994, Rubin produced Johnny Cash's comeback effort, like the label itself titled simply American Recordings; he also helmed Tom Petty's Wildflowers, leading to increased concern that he had lost touch with the youth market. These worries were furthered by Rubin's next major project, Donovan's Sutras. Indeed, as the decade drew to a close, American's future appeared dim — not only did longtime flagship artist Danzig exit the label's ranks, but more recent signings like the Jayhawks and Crown Heights failed to meet commercial expectations.