Bill Adler has enjoyed a distinguished and varied career in the arts and entertainment. Forever known as Def Jam’s founding publicist, Bill is a music lover, journalist, author, publicist, archivist, gallery owner, curator and filmmaker hailing from Brooklyn, NY. He studied at the University of Michigan. Most notably, he carved out a successful niche for himself utilizing his writing skills during a critical time in Hip Hop’s emergence within popular, and global, culture. Bill has played a major role, through different projects, in broadening the understanding and championing the culture. He is married to popular chef, author, and television personality, Sara Moulton. They have two children and reside in New York City.
Clockwise from top left: Darryl ”D.M.C.” McDaniels, Joseph “Run” Simmons, Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons, director of publicity Bill Adler, Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry, Def Jam founder/producer Rick Rubin, Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell (RIP 1965-2002) and Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler
Left to right: DMC, Rick Rubin, Dick Clark, JMJ, Bill Adler, Run & Russell Simmons
How did you end up joining Def Jam Records?
I started to hear about Russell Simmons when I wrote a story about Kurtis Blow for the Daily News in 1980. At the time, Kurtis (pictured below) had a record called, “The Breaks” and it was one of the first national rap hits. Russell was Kurt’s manager. I met Russell again in 1983, when I wrote a story for People magazine about a nightclub in the Bronx called Disco Fever.
I got tighter with Russ in 1984. That was the year that President Ronald Reagan was running for re-election. I was no fan of Reagan. So my brilliant idea was to write an anti-Reagan rap. I wasn’t a rapper, but I was a writer, and I knew that Kurt didn’t write all his own rhymes. So I set up a meeting with Russell and the idea was I was going to sell him my rhymes, Kurt would record them, and we would rap Ronald Reagan out of office.
Well, I don’t think Russ cared very much for my rhymes and we never ended up making the record. But Russ and I hit it off and I started to work with him then as the house publicist for Rush Artist Management and for Def Jam Recordings, which was just getting started.
Describe a powerful Hip Hop moment that showed you this would be special.
Well, I was fairly amazed by the huge popular success of one of the very first rap records ever made, “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang. It was the fall of 1979 and I was in Boston at the time. Boston was a notably inhospitable place for people of color and culture of color. I always found it gruesomely symbolic that the city’s only R&B radio station, WILD, was licensed to broadcast only when the sun was shining. When the sun set, whatever time of year it was, they had to go off the air and another station would come on.
Anyway, “Rapper’s Delight.” There happened to be a three-minute edit of that song, but nobody ever played it. Nobody. Every young person in America, it seemed, or at least every young black kid, had memorized the entire, unedited 15-minute version. And that’s the version they forced radio to play — and they had to play it a lot. It was really remarkable. Here was a new band performing a new kind of music on a tiny label no one had ever heard of before and it turns out to be an immediate smash — and not just in Boston or even just in America. Eventually, the record charted in at least ten other countries. It was a global hit. And it was great, too. More rap records followed and I continued to pay attention.
You’ve amassed a large Hip Hop collection. Can you share how that idea started?
I’ve always been a music lover, and I started collecting records in high school. I began working in the record business when I was 17 years old, as a clerk, and later a manager, at a record store. I started to deejay on the University of Michigan’s student radio station when I was 19 or so, and I began writing about music for the hippie newspaper in Ann Arbor a couple of years later.
And that’s when I started to get serious about collecting. Suddenly it wasn’t enough to listen to and love the records. I had to know more about the music and about the musicians and about the culture that produced the musicians whose music I loved. As it happened, most of my favorites were artists of color, and there weren’t a ton of reference books about them. So let’s say Bobby “Blue” Bland was coming to town.
If I was going to write anything about him, I’d like it to at least appear to be well-informed. So when the local record promo guy came to our little record store in advance of Bland’s performance, and he’s hauling around not only Bland’s new album, but a copy of Bland’s bio and a current photo, I started to hold onto that stuff — instead of tossing it, as I had before.
That was the germ of my collection, right there. I wanted to create a research library for myself. By 1984, when I started working with Russell Simmons, I’d been assembling a research library for ten years. I had better files on Russell’s artists than Russ had himself. I already had a file on Kurtis Blow that was an inch thick.
Suddenly, I was in a position that required me to generate a lot of the materials I’d previously been collecting. Now it’s on me; I’m going to write the bios, I’m going to write the press releases, I’ll hire the photographers to take the photos of these artists. And once those materials are created and manufactured, I’m going to hold on to copies of all of them. I’m going to hold on to the records, too. And when one of the writers covering my artists writes something memorable, I’m going to add that article to my file on that artist.
As I said, I did all of this, to begin with, to help myself as a writer and as a critic. But once I took the job with Russell, it was my job, as I conceived of it, to help other writers and to help editors. If and when a writer needed to do something in-depth, I would go into my files. Let’s say it’s LL’s third album, Walking With A Panther (1989) and the writer needs detailed information on the first two albums and on other aspects of L’s early life and career. Not a problem. I have it at hand and I’m happy to share it. After a while, the word began to get around that I’d put together a useful resource.
As far as performing and enthusing the crowd, who do you think was the dopest emcee and deejay that you saw?
It was hard for anybody to beat Run-D.M.C. They were incredible. They honed their performance skills live, in the park, before they ever made a record, and it was there that they learned to connect with, and thrill, a live audience. Run and D were like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — a great team, very quick and high energy. And Jay was a super-talented deejay, a great hype man before Run and D ever hit the stage, and then someone who knew how to keep things moving. He wasn’t flashy, but he was incisive. Jay always reminded me of Charlie Watts, the drummer for the Rolling Stones. I think Charlie’s underrated — without Charlie, the Stones wouldn’t be half as great. Likewise, you’d be a fool to underrate the importance of JMJ in Run-DMC.
And let’s not leave DMC out of the mix. ‘D’ was a powerhouse — the Big Bad Wolf, ready to blow your house down. I used to watch him from the lip of the stage, and it always seemed to me that he grew two feet as soon as he grabbed the mic. He shouted his rhymes to the rafters. Believe me, the 30,000th fan in the most remote corner of the arena was going to have his hair blown back by the force of D’s rhymes.
Obviously, there have been thirty years of rappers since Run-D.M.C., but they were so confident, commanding, and competitive. They were really a great, great live act.
If you would, fill in the blank: for you, Hip Hop is …
Oh man, (long pause) … a world unto itself.
Thank you man. I appreciate your time.
You know it. Thank you.
Fabian Baez is a, New York City-based, Hip Hop Copywriter/Web Communications & Marketing Specialist/Creative focused on helping others succeed while advancing the Movement. Learn more about him and his work, by visiting: fabianbaez.com | @FabianBaez | [email protected]