Krush Groovin': The story of Hip-Hop and the 'label wars' of the mid-'80s

Before 1984, hip-hop was still being considered by many as a vanity genre with no real hit making ability. Although the genre did have some success in the early half of the ‘80s, there was no true breakout artist to come out of the sound and give it credibility among critics. But when Run-D.M.C. came onto the scene in early 1984, rap would have its first consistent hit maker, and just like that, the party era was over, and the “Krush Groove” era would begin.

The rappers during this time period, from 1984 until 1988, would carry on in the same vein as the group from Hollis, Queens, New York. Gone were the party vibe and upbeat melodies that had marked hip-hop’s early years, and in its place was a beat that was hard and minimal, and lyrics that were boastful and intimidating.

The label leading the way was Def Jam Recordings, which was founded in 1983 by Rick Rubin and Russel Simmons. At the time of Def Jam’s creation, Sugar Hill Records was the leading label in hip-hop, and was just coming off of a smash hit in Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s 1982 classic “The Message.”

Originally, Def Jam, which was first headquartered in Rubin’s dorm room at New York University, was first realized as a label for punk-rock and modern rock groups. But when Simmons came aboard that same year, he got Rubin into embracing hip-hop, and that same year the label released their first hip-hop single, “It’s Yours,” by T La Rock and Jazzy Jay.

“It’s Yours” was unlike anything ever heard in hip-hop, as Rubin -- the man behind Run-D.M.C.'s groundbreaking sound -- had stripped down the beat, with Jazzy Jay doing his thing in the background, and this would lay the template for the “b-boy” sound of what was to come.

But Def Jam was not the only label that was vying for hip-hop supremacy in the Krush Groove era. Profile Records was already an established label, formed in 1981 and hitting some early hits such as “Genius Rap” by Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde (which saved them from financial ruin). But their biggest weapon in the early days of the era was Run-D.M.C., who by 1985 was hip-hop’s most consistent hit maker.

Also by this time, Profile and Def Jam were both going after the title of “premier rap label,” and it got even fiercer with the closing of Sugar Hill Records in 1986. Profile’s resident stars still charting big hits, including landing a mammoth crossover hit in 1986's “Walk This Way,” the single that finally put hip-hop into the mainstream. But Def Jam was undeterred, as they retaliated with two of the biggest stars of the era in LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys.

LL began to blow up big, as his 1985 debut, Radio, became a hit, and he also struck gold for the label when he became the first rapper to appear on American Bandstand in 1986, giving rap and Def Jam major exposure, The Beastie Boys was also huge in ’86, as their debut LP, Licensed to Ill, became an out-of-the-box smash and would go on to be the biggest-selling rap album of the decade.

By 1988, Def Jam was pulling away from the pack. Run-D.M.C., Profile’s darling act, was beginning to show wear and tear, and Def Jam was just getting started with the successful run of LL Cool J. They also had Public Enemy, who signed with Def Jam in 1986 and would become the premier political rap group of the genre, and despite losing the Beastie Boys, by the end of the ‘80s, Def Jam had earned the title of number one hip-hop label in all the land.

But despite the success of its artists, Def Jam would run into some trouble in 1992. The label was in financial trouble and was on the verge of being forced to fold, but PolyGram came to the rescue, purchasing Sony’s 50 percent stake in the label and bringing it under its banner while retaining the "Def Jam" name.

While Def Jam may have won the label war, Profile didn’t die out. The label would add such talent as Young MC and Tone Loc in the latter half of the '80s, and in the '90s, the label would open up its roster to California and Houston rappers, who would go on to have major success in hip-hop’s second golden age..