Various Artists

Def Jam Recordings 25th Anniversary

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When Def Jam, the premier hip-hop label founded by Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, celebrated its tenth anniversary in 1995, it did so with a box set. It was a bold declaration from a label dedicated to a form of music once frequently dismissed as a fad. (Putting it in further perspective, the same year saw sets of similar weight documenting the Velvet Underground, John Coltrane, and Marvin Gaye.) Now 15 years later, Def Jam looks back on a catalog that is 25 years deep. The label's significance since the mid-'90s has only intensified, not just through its lasting classics, but also through its ceaseless ability to thrive commercially and (if less often) creatively. Ironically, Def Jam Recordings 25th Anniversary contains the same number of tracks as Def Jam Music Group Inc.: 10th Year Anniversary. It contains five discs instead of four, with only 12 songs on each disc, and each disc covers five years -- so, 1989-1993, an era of the label described in the liner notes as "ice cold" and "rudderless" by director of publicity Bill Adler, gets the same amount of attention as 1984-1988. The first box had 20 songs that are on this one as well -- big guns like "Paul Revere," "Bring the Noise," "Children's Story," "Going Back to Cali," and "This Is How We Do It," as well as moderate Yo! MTV Raps-era hits still deserving of attention (Nikki D's "Daddy's Little Girl," Boss' "Deeper," Nice & Smooth's "Hip Hop Junkies"). While it is debatable that the 1996-2009 material stacks up to earlier Def Jam, the cultural impact is undeniable, and there is no denying that the tracks from Jay-Z, the Roots, Scarface, Ghostface Killah, and Nas make perfect sense when considering the label's original aesthetic. For those who shake their heads at the soft latter-day pop-R&B (Ne-Yo's "So Sick," Rihanna's "Umbrella," the-Dream's "Shawty Is da Sh*!"), it is necessary to point out that Def Jam has had a foot in R&B since the '80s, when it was releasing singles by the likes of Oran "Juice" Jones (heard on disc one), Alyson Williams, and Tashan (whose 1986 2-step gem "Read My Mind" is missed here). Music obsessives can dream about what could have been, and how Def Jam blew a terrific opportunity to balance out the hits with the deeper but high-quality material. Regardless, this box is either a wake-up call or a reminder of just how immense the label has been for three decades. (A few mistakes: disc one, track one is LL Cool J's "Rock the Bells," not "I Need a Beat"; Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" and the remix of 3rd Bass' "The Gas Face," both released in 1989, are on the 1984-1988 disc.)

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