He was just a kid. They were all just kids. And when James Todd Smith's home-recorded demo tape arrived at Rick Rubin's NYU dorm room on University Place, Rubin didn't even listen to it at first. But the guy who was crashing with him did — Adam Horovitz, who would go on to become famous as Ad-Rock in the Beastie Boys.
The participants pick up the story from here, in the forthcoming Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label, which is excerpted this month by GQ.
LL, no surprise, is an engaging story teller. Here he describes the arrival of hip-hop in the daydreams of a school kid in the late 1970s:
I was about twelve when I started writing my own rhymes. One day in junior high, there was this lone kid, wearing a knapsack, walking about twenty or thirty feet in front of me. It was just the two of us in the hallway. He was kind of diddy boppin' and singing his version of the children's song "This Old Man"—"This DJ, he gets down, mixing records while they go round." I couldn't see his face, but I could hear the echo in the hallway. It was as if he was in another dimension, in slow motion, like a dream. But the way he did it, I was, like, "I wanna do that right now!" After that, I was writing, writing, writing. At fourteen, I started sending out demo tapes.
Smith fired off a tape to 5 University Place, the address on the label of Def Jam's initial hit, "It's Yours," by T La Rock. When the group of college kids finally met the phenom from Queens, each had a surprise for the other:
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.