Last week, iconic hip-hop label Def Jam Records celebrated its 30th anniversary with a gigantic concert at New York’s Barclay Center. While the New York-based label's storied history has been told repeatedly in film, television and books, there’s one part of their three decades of dominance that often gets left out.
Did you know that there was a Def Jam West?
Yes, the label that has always been synonymous with the biggest names in NYC hip-hop had, for a time in the early '90s, a California-centric imprint. Def Jam West — or “DJ West,” as its logo read — was the label's attempt not just to expand, but to stay at the frontline of what was happening in hip-hop.
For their first decade, Def Jam always seemed right in step with what was happening in hip-hop. But the emergence of gangsta rap as a nationwide force was unlike anything on the label at the time. After the release of New York gun-throwers Onyx’s Bacdafucup affirmed that some gangsta flavor would fly on the roster, label head Russell Simmons set his sights on the West Coast to grab every def gangsta he could find. In 1993, the Los Angeles-based Def Jam West was launched.
A sign things were going to be weird from the jump was when the L.A.-rooted imprint announced that their first signee was Detroit-born female MC Bo$$. Originally part of a duo called Bo$$ (an acronym for “Bitches On Some Shit”), the MC had serious star potential according to Simmons, who dubbed her “hip-hop’s first gangstress.” Bo$$, whom gangsta rap fans may have known through her work with AMG and Spice-1, actually scored a number one hit with the Barry White-sampling “Deeper.”
After Bo$$, DJ West signed South Central Cartel, a four-member outfit consisting of two DJs and two MCs named Havoc and Prodeje, whose names are forever confused with the coincidentally named Havoc and Prodigy of New York group Mobb Deep. South Central Cartel more than made their own place in rap history, including working with southern rap artists like Big Mike years before it was regularly accepted. Their Def Jam debut 'N Gatz We Truss included “Gang Stories,” a track best remembered for Prodeje’s cold couplet “I'm burnin muthafuckas like a arsonist / I have you walkin like a crippled and retarded bitch.” BCC blurred the lines of music and reality like few others at the time, particularly in their “Gang Stories” video, which allegedly used actual violent police footage.
Things at Def Jam West appeared to start losing steam around the time Compton rapper Mel-Low hit the promotional trail. Despite releasing several singles, including the Redman-produced “Blaze It Up,” Def Jam ultimately shelved his debut Return of the Player and moved him from Def Jam West to Russell Simmons’ other imprint, Rush Associated Labels for his sophomore album, It’s A B.G. Thang (Life of a Youngster), which was released in 1995.
The shift of Def Jam West artists to RAL seemed to occur fairly frequently. While the soulful Domino of “Getto Jam” fame is widely credited as Def Jam West’s most successful signee, none of his releases actually bear the Def Jam West logo.
Also arriving on Rush Associated Labels was Warren G’s Regulate...G Funk Era. At a time when Def Jam was absolutely struggling with releases that hadn’t quite caught on like their previous monster successes, the 213 godfather of G-funk gave the label the boost it needed with “Regulate.” An iconic song that helped the album move four million copies, it’s credited with single-handedly saving Def Jam as a whole. The same can’t be said for Def Jam West, which officially closed its doors in 1996.
There's two schools of thought in DJ West's wake. Either: 1.) Why did Def Jam West fail? or 2.) Was Def Jam West really a failure?
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From a charts standpoint, DJ West appeared to have held its own. 'N Gatz We Truss hit No. 4 on the R&B/Hip-Hop charts, and Bo$$' "Deeper" was No. 1 for three weeks. But while these outings may have appeared more than respectable if they had come from any other label at the time, by Def Jam's standards, they weren't financial triumphs. And in the years since it folded, DJ West has become pigeonholed with all of the label's other failed experiments in the early '90s, including their foray into horrorcore with Flatlinerz.
Ultimately, Def Jam West wasn't quite a success or a failure. It was just kind of there, and for a label that spent a decade setting the trends in hip-hop instead of chasing them, that distinction is perhaps far, far worse.
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