When Rick Rubin decided in 1993 to rebrand his label as “American Recordings” he did the most Rick Rubin thing that was ever Rubin’d.
He threw a funeral.
The “Death of Def” wake was one of those only-in-the-’90s publicity stunts. Today, you get Al Sharpton, the Black Panthers, a coffin, mourners, a New Orleans parade and a drunken bowling party, and that’s a Tuesday on Twitter.
On Aug. 27, 1993, however, it was how Rick Rubin dropped the “Def” from “Def American,” labeling the three-word superlative as completely uncool. (For context, the word “def” had been added to Webster’s dictionary, which was the most uncool thing that could happen to a word.)
When Rick Rubin needed a band to hold down the party, he called The Red Devils. (Ten days later, Rubin would call the band again — this time to record with Johnny Cash, and then immediately record their aborted sophomore album.)
So it was that the Devils, on Aug. 27, 1993, performed for the “Ciao Def” party at Shatto 39 Lanes bowling alley.
The L.A. Times picks it up from there:
Def’s excellent adventure dies
By Bill Higgins, Los Angeles Times, Aug. 30, 1993
The Scene: “The Death of Def,” Friday’s publicity stunt/funeral service for the first word in Def American Recordings’ name. The company will now be known as American Recordings.
The “ceremony of honored entombment” was held at Hollywood Memorial Park’s Chapel of the Psalms. The after-party was at Shatto 39 Lanes bowling alley. In a rock ‘n’ roll way, it made complete sense: First you go to a funeral, then you go bowling.
The Cause of Death: Def began its brief life as rap-culture street slang. The deceased adjective once meant “excellent.” But, in an all-too-common story, the word started hanging around with the wrong element-suburban kids and record company executives. This led to inclusion in Webster’s dictionary. Nothing kills a hip word like mainstream respectability.
New York’s Rev. Al Sharpton, who gave the eulogy, said def meant, “more than excellent. Like, defiantly excellent with a bang. Now the bang is out of def. It lost its exclusivity to the in, defiant crowd. It died of terminal acceptance.”
The Buzz: It’s not like Elvis. Def is dead. Surviving relatives include fresh, fly and dope.
The Last Rites: In an open casket were relics from friends of the deceased: hats, press releases, albums and harmonicas. Alongside were floral tributes. Beret-wearing Black Panthers stood guard with prop shotguns and AK-47s. After Sharpton’s eulogy, in a rare funeral appearance, the Amazing Kreskin did his mind-reading routine using Tom Petty and Rosanna Arquette. He also sent four mourners into spontaneous hypnotic trances.
Overheard: “Are you guys cremating or burying?” asked a male guest. That question was soon answered. Mourners followed a 19th Century-style horse-drawn hearse and a six-piece brass band playing “Amazing Grace” past the mausoleum that holds Rudolph Valentino’s remains to a freshly dug grave with a simple black granite slab inscribed DEF.
Who Was There: About 500 mourners at the cemetery, plus 2,000 more at the bowling alley. Guests at the chapel were older, the ones at Shatto Lanes more the Tattoo Generation. They included Petty, Arquette, Bushwick Bill, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, Sir Mix-A-Lot, Swell’s Monte Vallier, Warner Bros. Records chairman (and pallbearer) Mo Ostin, Mike Bone and Depeche Mode’s David Gahan.
The After-Party: Let’s just say the mourners bury better than they bowl.
Dress Mode: Was there ever a record-company party where black was more appropriate? For women, a typical outfit was an all-black combo of veil, miniskirt, lace stockings and cowboy boots. American Recordings’ bereaved founder, Rick Rubin, wore a floor-length black cassock, Ray-Ban sunglasses, a white Sikh turban, strands of red Hindu rudraksha beads and left a thick wake of incense aroma as he entered the chapel.
Most Persistent Afterthought: What kind of people are running this cemetery that they let rock ‘n’ rollers run loose in it?
NoFightin.com reader Andrew Rackauskas in 2009 shared with us the cool “Ciao Def” flier image in this story. He also told us about the party:
I was also really lucky to see them play as the house band at the “Ciao Def” party where Rick Rubin’s label got rid of the “Def” and made it “American Recordings.” They played in a bowling alley off Olympic in Koreatown in L.A. that is no longer there. It was quite the party! I remember waiters walking around w/ wheel-barrows of beer and booze!
When the dust (and the bowling pins) had settled, Rubin’s Def American became American Recordings, and the record first issued as Def American 9 26795-2 became American 65660 — The Red Devils’ “King King.”
There was a bit more written about “Ciao Def,” first from the Sept. 1, 1993, Long Beach Press-Telegram:
Besides (Heidi) Fleiss, the party, which was held in L.A.’s Shatto 39 Lanes bowling alley, featured appearances by American Recordings founder Rick Rubin, Tom Petty, Rosanna Arquette, Warner Bros. Records chairman Mo Ostin and R.E.M. and Nirvana producer Scott Litt, and about 2,000 other people, which, as it turns out, is a lot of people for a bowling alley. Entertainment was provided by the blues demons, the Red Devils and the ’70s-style rockers Raging Slab, who instantly entered the What’s Hot! Hall of Fame with a version of Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen.”
And then the Sept. 5, 1993, L.A. Times:
ROCK ‘N’ BOWL WILL NEVER DIE: The L.A. rock community is collectively nursing bowlers’ elbows after two major bowling parties last weekend. First, there was Rick Rubin’s combination wake for the term Def and birth of the new name for his company, American Recordings. With the mob scene at the Shatto 39 lanes — including Rosanna Arquette, the band Raging Slab and even Heidi Fleiss (at least those were the rampant rumors) — the actual sport quickly degenerated into inebriated stunt bowling, with people sending two or three balls down lanes at a time as the label’s Red Devils played rockin’ blues numbers.
Note: A version of this story, “The death of Def,” was first published on Nov. 9, 2011, on NoFightin.com.