Exactly eighteen years ago on this date, the word DEF was officially laid to rest. It was that day when Rick Rubin - who initially was a part of Def Jam but later broke away and set up his own Def American Records label, which in turn morphed into American Records -- supposedly officially layed the dated hip-hop slang word to rest. This he did via an extravagant funeral service and even went so far as to get a legal death certificate, buy a real life size casket, secure a plot at the Hollywood Cemetery (which is still there to this day), and hold a faux solemn, funeral ceremony with Rev Al Sharpton acting as officiator.
Rap music industry vet and author Dan Charnas worked for Rick Rubin at Def American's headquarters in LA at the time and in his recently published book, The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop, he dedicates some space to the topic of the death of "def." This week I caught up with Charnas via phone from his New York home office to ask him about this date back in 1993 when the word "def" was laid to rest. Charnas, who had already been working a couple of years for the brilliant (but oft quirky) Rubin, recalled how, back as early as 1991, his boss had told him, "Eventually I am going to change the name of Def American to just American. And eventually I am going to bury it. I am going to have a funeral." Charnas said that then Rubin asked with a laugh, "And then what's Russell gonna do?" Charnas recalled of Rubin, "It struck his Bud Abbott-esque need to prank Russell [Simmons of Def Jam]," and that the death of def was combined with other factors. "It was the fact that he wanted a divorce from his past. The fact that there was some consumer confusion. The fact that he could prank Russell a little. The fact that the word was very much out of style," said Charnas. "So he wanted to do a grand piece of performance art."
An all out large-scale performance art piece it was indeed was! "He had a big ceremony planned. He bought a plot at Hollywood Cemetery with a tombstone and planned a funeral and actually had gravediggers out there who were not happy. They thought it was sacrilegious," recalled Charnas. "Al Sharpton did the officiating. Bill Stephney and artists like Tom Petty were all there...and the entire staff of American were there and he had some mock black Muslim bodyguards, some Black Panther looking dudes. And after the funeral they had a New Orleans second line march and they went to a bowling alley in Korea Town and then they celebrated the birth of American."
Charnas also recalled the reaction of the suits footing the cost of this extravagant performance art/publicity stunt. "The people at Warner [parent company responsible for paying bills] were looking and going 'You lost money last year. How much money are you spending on this fuckin' thing?' And they [American] went on to lose more money in that fiscal year at the beginning of the biggest [financial] losing streak ever for Rick. And that was why we all joked about the bad luck of the [American company logo] upside down flag because American was really always in distress when it was American," said Charnas.
So why did Rubin chose the name Def American in the first place if he knew he was going to change it? Because Def American originally started as the name of Rubin's publishing company during his Def Jam days. It was also the name of his film company, the same company that produced (and he directed), the 1988 Run DMC feature Tougher Than Leather. Additionally the name Def American Songs had been the publishing name on a number of 80's Def Jam releases.
Beyond the dated word "def" itself, which as everyday slang had ceased it popular usage by the mid '80s, there was also a brand confusion on behalf of both the media and the public, recalled Charnas. "We'd often get test pressings back that said Def Jam...And also it wasn't working spiritually. He wanted something that was completely new and divorced from the past and with Def."
The big death of def funeral, at which folks places pieces of consumer product bearing the word "def" in the casket, did get a fair amount of publicity at the time, recalled Charnas, but ultimately "It was a lot of to do about nothing. Def Jam continued to be an important brand and because of that Def continued to be an important word - even though people didn't use it in their everyday speech anymore and it just made Rick look kind of irrelevant."