Bill Adler is the co-author of a wonderful, sprawling new book, Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label (Rizzoli) – an equal parts pictorial and oral history of one of the most influential record labels of its generation. That Adler – along with co-author Dan Charnas and art director/designer Cey Adams – should captain such a literary vessel makes complete sense: Bill was Def Jam’s original Director of Publicity during its glorious early heyday, and worked closely with the all label’s iconic stars (LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Slick Rick etc.) as well as Russell Simmons’ Rush Artist Management roster (Run-DMC – for whom he served as official group biographer, Whodini, Eric B. & Rakim, Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince etc.). Full disclosure: Bill (a/k/a “Ill Badler”) is also a friend and one-time office neighbor to ego trip – an older god we’ve long respected for his knowledge, experience, and integrity. Every so often Adler would stroll down the hall to et HQ and we’d chat him up about some shit that happened at Def Jam/Rush back in the day. The following loose Q&A (more extended A than Q, honestly) is more or less like that, as Bill recalls episodes of Public Enemy vs. Angry Jews, Run vs. LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys vs. the City of Cincinnati, and Flavor Flav vs. punctuality . We can think of no more apropos way to commemorate the publication of Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years . Buy it HERE .
READ THE “ILL BADLER” INTERVIEW… AFTER THE JUMP…
You were basically Russell Simmons’ first hire. What do you remember most about the environment of that first Def Jam/Rush office – with all the artist and personalities?
Bill Adler: To me I think it was fairly wild, but compared to what? I hadn’t worked for a record label before. The whole thing was it was a start up of really a kind of brand new label. And it grew kind of organically. The energy was very high from the very beginning because Russell was managing a dozen groups before Def Jam even started. I’m a guy who’d worked for a daily newspaper in Boston years earlier where we had a newsroom that was as big as a football field and there were hundreds of desks in it. And people sat there clattering away at their typewriters trying to beat a deadline. Before that I’m somebody who grew up in a family of mouthy Jews. So it’s not like I was used to a tranquil home environment or a tranquil work environment.
Part of the reason I felt so comfortable working with Russell and Run was because it was just family. The way the two of them related. The constant bickering, but also the way that Joey [Run] looked up to Russ and the way that Russ looked out for Joey. That stuff seemed very, very familiar to me. That and the way that they snapped on each other all the time. It wasn’t like there was huge cultural divide for me to bridge working there. But having said that [the office] was fairly non-stop. The artists were in and out. The road managers were in and out. Guys were rapping. People were getting high. I’d come in in the morning when we were at the office at 1133 Broadway and motherfuckers would be asleep on the floor. They’d be partying in the office all night long, and we had to boot those motherfuckers out: “Go home now, we’re working!” And the next morning would be the same thing. We’d shut down for the day and the party people would come in at night and do their thing.
How did Run and LL Cool J get along?
Bill Adler: You ever see the movie Downhill Racer ? It’s with Robert Redford, and he’s a downhill racer at a very high level. And at the end of the movie he wins this tough race. And he’s crossed the finish line and he’s breathing heavily and he’s smiling and he’s accepting congratulations. And it looks like he’s won. But the very next guy coming down the hill is moving at a record pace. So Redford is interrupted in the middle of his so-called victory lap. He’s thinking: this motherfucker might beat me. And he turns around and the next guy down the slopes is just about to beat him, but he trips and falls. And so Redford kind of breathes a sigh of relief, and goes on and takes his congratulations. That scene is a lot like what Run felt with LL. Run was Redford. LL was the next guy on the slopes. They were very competitive. And I think they had mixed feelings for each other. I think that LL admired Run a lot and looked up to him a lot. But also he was endlessly ambitious and was gonna do what he could to be king of the hill.
They used to battle in the office when we were at 1133 Broadway. This is in the middle of the day. These were both very kind of jumpy, high-energy guys. They called Run “Run” for a reason. He had that kind of energy. LL at 16 was jumping out of his skin. So the two of them in the same place at the same time – our little two-room office wasn’t big enough to hold the two of ’em. One day they started snapping on each other. And they went from room to room finishing each other’s snaps. It couldn’t be a two-line rap. If one of them came up with one line the next guy would come back with a rhyming insult to the first line. That’s how fast it was. And it was a game but it was pretty serious too. I don’t remember exactly how it ended. LL I think left the room and Run came over to me and said, “I don’t like that man.” But you could tell there was something in that. There was some recognition of young LL Cool J’s skills even in that statement. In the Def Jam book there’s a picture of a Rush/Def Jam basketball team at Madison Square Garden. They played a little game between halves, a charity basketball game. And you see LL standing next to Run. When we set up the picture they were separate. And then Run walked over to to LL and he said, “Let me stand next to my son”!
Please encapsulate the hysteria that followed the Beastie Boys during the Licensed to Ill era.
Bill Adler: The Beastie Boys at the height of their popularity in 1987 spent the entire year on tour. And they had a year like the Beatles. They were definitely top of the pops for the entire year. And they generated adulation and fear I think in equal measure. So I remember we were on our way to do a show in Cincinnnati that summer. It was Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys together. The Beastie Boys had gone out at the beginning of the year on the “Licensed to Ill” tour. And then they spent the summer with Run-DMC doing the “Together Forever” tour. The two groups were gonna play in Cincy. The tour accomplished on the ground what we meant it to accomplish, which was it was gonna bring the races together. It was gonna be a black rap group and a white rap group and people of different races would come together at the show and everyone would have fun and there would be nothing remarkable about it in retrospect.
But the prospect of it [was not so simple]. In a very short amount of time [the Beasties] had really become hell raisers. They were livin’ it. They start out in the summer of ’85 as these obscene little punk rockers opening the show for Madonna. They finally get to go out on their own tour at the beginning of ’87. They tour with an inflatable penis, and they’re swilling beer, and they’ve got half-naked go-go dancers in cages on the stage with them. So it’s kind of a depraved spectacle. It’s kind of typical in terms of rock iconography. But whatever. It’s 1987: Ronald Reagan is in the White House, and these guys were the avatars of complete licentious liberation. They had a “license to ill,” and that’s who they were gonna be and what they were gonna do. And it was just so wild that the powers that be, the very people we wanted to offend, took offense ! So I guess the first time they burnt through on the “Licensed to Ill” tour people weren’t really ready for ‘em. By the time they come back around with Run-DMC that summer the word has gone out. These terrible Beastie Boys are coming to town.
The Cincinnati Enquirer ran a front page story about the Beastie Boys and I guess secondarily about Run-DMC. And the front page story says: the Beastie Boys are coming, it’s the “Neo Nasty Era.” So in their own kind of twisted way they were calling the Beastie Boys, Nazis! They wanted you to think of Nazis. It’s the “Neo Nasty Era,” right? The night of the show comes and the arena is ringed by cops on horseback. They were expecting a full out riot. They expected the city to burn. We did a little press conference ahead of time. And I made a prediction to the assembled press corps. I said, here’s what’s gonna happen: we’re gonna do the show tonight, the local kids are gonna have an awful lot of fun, and when it’s over everyone’s gonna go home and the building’s gonna be left standing. And everybody’s gonna be fine. And that’s just what happened! I wasn’t a genius to predict it. But there was such an air of hysteria about those guys.
The fallout from Professor Griff of Public Enemy’s infamous anti-Semitic remarks in the Washington Times has been documented pretty extensively over the years since it nearly broke up the group. But what’s a media related story from those days that you recall that maybe hasn’t been as well documented?
Bill Adler: This is something I’ve said before but I’ll say it again. The thing about the imputation of anti-Semitism to Public Enemy is that it really made no sense at all in terms of their actual experience. If there was a Jewish conspiracy at work with regard to Public Enemy it wasn’t against them, it was for them. They’re signed by Rick Rubin, they’re managed by Lyor Cohen, their photos are taken by Glen Friedman, they’re publicized by Bill Adler, their main lawyer is Ron Skoler. They got nothin’ but smart Jews working on their behalf. And meanwhile Griff is gonna go and talk about how the Jews are gonna keep Black folks in a hole. [ laughs ]
Anyway, that summer in ’89 the story of Public Enemy’s anti-Semitism broke very, very big. While that story is breaking big the Jewish media are covering it as well. And by the Jewish media I don’t mean the fuckin’ New York Times . I mean Jewish specialty publications. And they’re very upset, of course. So there’s a guy who made a lot of noise at the time. His name is Mordechai Levy. He ran something called the Jewish Defense Organization. I’m here to tell you that really the JDO was not much more than Mordechai Levy and a bag full of quarters at a phone booth. He’s the type of guy who had some talent for generating PR, but there wasn’t much of an organization per se. This is just a hotheaded Jewish guy who figured that every time he turned around someone was insulting him for being a Jew. That’s who he was.
So he reads about all of this [Public Enemy] stuff. And one day he comes to [our office on] Elizabeth St. and he’s purportedly warning us about something: there is a group of angry Jews very upset about this Public Enemy stuff and we’d better be careful. So [Russell’s assistant] Simone has him come in and talk to me. And I sat down and talk to this guy. And he’s just this kind of bald, sweaty, nervous looking guy. And he comes in with this story about how there was a bunch of Jews in a truck and they were trying to find Elizabeth St. and they were gonna do bodily harm to one and all because of Public Enemy’s outrageous statements. So I listen to him for a second and I’m like, I don’t know… So I said, come on up let’s talk to Lyor. So we went up to Lyor, who’s working then on the second floor. And I think Lyor gave Levy pretty short shrift too. Anyway, he comes downstairs and he wants to show me something. He wants to prove that these revenge-seeking Jews had been on the hunt for us. Jews are supposed to be pretty smart. But somehow Levy’s Jews couldn’t find our place at 298 Elizabeth St. What they’d found according to Mordechai Levy was 6 Bleeker St.
Strangely enough, that address happened to be a place where this guy A.J. Weberman was based. Weberman’s the guy who invented Dylanology. He’s a guy who used to sift through Bob Dylan’s garbage when Dylan still lived in Manhattan in the Village looking for clues to the meaning of Dylan’s songs. When I first moved to the city in 1980 A.J. was kind of a high tech pot dealer. You couldn’t visit his premises to buy your pot. What you did though is get on the phone. You’d ask for the menu of the day. And he’d have a whole variety of deluxe connoisseur level pot for sale, and he’d sell it to you by the ounce or the pound or whatever you wanted. And you’d tell him what you wanted and then he’d send a messenger out on a bike and this guy would deliver it to you. It was really a very sophisticated operation.
So this spot at number 6 Bleeker St. was literally right around the corner from us at 298 Elizabeth. We were between Bleeker and Houston. So anyway, Mordechai Levy takes me to number 6 Bleeker St. and he shows me the door. And the door is painted a kind of a gun metal gray. And it’s otherwise undistinguished. And if you look kind of hard there are a couple of bumps or there’s a little bit of paint scratched off of the door. And so Levy spins out this story about how these wild-ass, revenge seeking, anti-Public Enemy Jews thought that this was the place where they’d find Public Enemy and they tried to batter down the door. So I say, “Hmm, okay. Thank you, Mr. Levy.” The whole thing was a story he made up! There was no flatbed truck of armed Jews on the hunt for Public Enemy. That was a pure product of the fevered imagination of Mordechai Levy. Of course Mordechai is gonna know about A.J. Weberman – who was another guy with a very strong Jewish identity; he wouldn’t sell you pot, he wouldn’t trust you, unless you were a blood brother – and so he picked that address.
So that was the end of it… EXCEPT one day not long after that I go out to lunch at lunch time on Elizabeth St. and I wanted to walk uptown towards Bleeker to get my little sandwich. But I can’t because there was a tank – an army tank – on the street! I don’t know what’s going on. All I know is that I go out to lunch and I can’t walk up to Bleeker St. because there’s a tank there and a police cordon. And they’re saying: not a good idea to go this way, fellas, we’re trying to get this sniper off the roof. And so I walked to Houston St. and got my sandwich that day.
The next day I find out what was actually going on. What had happened was there was some kind of beef between Mordechai Levy of the JDO and some visiting mental case, another Jewish defense guy, who had a group I think called the Jewish Defense League. So God forbid these two tough Jews should get along. No, they’re at each other’s throat. There’s real beef. So Levy had apparently had gone to the building and made some kind of threatening noises in the intercom. And this other mental case got on the roof of the building and started shooting at Levy on the street! Ridiculous.
Care to share a Flavor Flav story?
Bill Adler: This is typical. It’s a little bit later. It’s ’91. Public Enemy still recorded for Def Jam, but I’d gone to Island Records. And Anthrax had done their version of Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise.” I was kind of instrumental in getting Public Enemy to cooperate with Anthrax in the making of that video. So Chuck says he’ll do it. Flavor says he’ll do it. At the time Flavor was so out of control that the group had assigned a kind of a full time adult babysitter to him. And in this case they’d put this guy on Flavor a full week ahead of time to make sure he would get on a plane to Chicago to be at this video shoot. And I think this guy had managed to keep up with Flav the whole time. But on the day of [the flight] sure enough Flavor lost him. So everyfuckingbody else [made it]. Chuck and I flew together to Chicago, and of course all the Anthrax kids were there, and the crew, and everybody else. And we sat there for six hours in Chicago waiting for Flav to show up.
When Flavor finally showed up, though, he did all right. Actually, one of the things that happened at that shoot was kind of wonderful. They were playing that [James Brown] “Funky Drummer” beat. What happens is Anthrax does their heavy metal version of it and at the end they strip away everything except that “Funky Drummer” beat and they loop it and the song fades out on that beat. Then they need film to cover the very end of the record. And Charlie Benante of Anthrax sits down. And he is a funky drummer himself. So he’s learned this little “Funky Drummer” lick and he plays it in conjunction with the sample. So Flavor’s watching and he says fuck it, I’m gonna do that too. The thing about Flavor is he’ll tell you in a second that he can play 14 instruments. And sure enough he gets up on the stage and we start filming, and it took him not very long at all to learn that lick. And not only did he learn it but he played it with tremendous style. Flavor sat up very straight and played with his elbows jutting out. And there was something about it that was just very comical and very cool. If you go take a look at that video they alternate between Charlie and Flavor playing the same lick and that’s how the thing ends. And that was all that it took for these two guys to literally make beautiful music together. One so-called heavy metal guy, and one so-called rapper.