Coming of Age

1976–1985: Punk to Pomo, Basquiat to Breakdancing

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Simmons with Run-D.M.C. (April 1985)
photo: James Hamilton

Rappin' With Russell

Eddie-Murphying the Flak Catchers

By Nelson George

April 30, 1985

The offices of Rush Productions are two cramped little rooms on Broadway in the 20s, which on any given afternoon are filled by the loud voices of black men and women. They are mostly young, real street and real anxious. On this day in January a graffiti artist sits in one corner of the outer room with hopes of painting an album cover. Over on a beat-up couch is a girl in striped pants and Run-D.M.C. T-shirt waiting for her old man, one of the 22 street-oriented acts managed by Russell Simmons's Rush Productions, to find out when his next gig is. Three young dudes dressed in the B-boy style—untied Adidas sneakers, jeans, sheepskin coats, and Gazelles—are leaning against a wall looking and eyeing the girl waiting on the rapper. The token white is Bill Adler, a former Daily News reporter who is the company's full-time PR man. Behind him, shifting through papers and cradling a phone on her shoulder, is Heidi Smith, once Russell's lone overworked office staffer and now one of several overworked office staffers.

I stick my head in the other room, seeking Russell. Instead, sitting behind Russell's desk and in front of the bright orange-and-red mural that says "RUSH" the size of a subway car graffiti, I find the king of rap himself, Kurtis Blow. . . . I'm supposed to be accompanying Russell and Kurtis Blow's producer, Robert "Rocky" Ford, to a meeting with Cannon Films about a rap movie. After urging me again to consider writing his life story, Kurtis tells me they are over at this putrid Chinese restaurant that Russell loves because they make screwdrivers strong, the way he likes them. I run into them in the street. "Yo home piss," says Russell. "You ready to serve these Israelis or what?" Rocky and I laugh and just look at him. This is the man The Wall Street Journal calls "the mogul of rap"?

At 27, an age when most of his black business contemporaries have designer suit tags branded into their breastbones, Russell promotes street music and makes no apologies. The staccato, crashing drums, the gritty, uncompromised words about life in Kochtown, and the downplaying of melody that mark the music of Blow, Whodini, Run-D.M.C., LL Kool J, and the other acts he manages are his lifeblood. He loves all this loud, obnoxious aural graffiti. As far as I can tell—and I've known Russell about six years worth of headaches, triumphs, and late-night phone calls—he never intends to do anything else but make street records, chain smoke, talk fast, and uninhibit the inhibited. . . .

You could call Russell a "mogul." It is to some degree an apt description, since he certainly has a deep economic stake in rap's present and future. But "mogul" also suggests someone who dominates an industry, and Russell, for all his influence, is at the mercy of many elements he does not control. Unlike the big tickets of pop culture—your George Lucas, Michael Jackson, Grant Tinker level mogul—Russell doesn't have the financial clout or emotional distance to manipulate. You see, Russell really is his audience. He lives the B-boy life, and the values are found in his records. Unlike Afrika Bambaataa or Russell's brother Joey, a/k/a Run of Run-D.M.C., who are part of a vanguard of rap innovators, Russell is one of the few products of the rap generation to become an important businessman. He doesn't battle other rappers or spinners for record sales. Instead he engages wily, older businessmen in treacherous battles for survival.


Farrakhan Brings It All Back Home

Nationalism of Fools

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By Stanley Crouch

October 29, 1985

There again were the black suits and red ties, the bodyguards in blue uniforms, the women in white, the aloof cast of the eyes and the earthly manner: the Nation of Islam. Twenty-five years ago it was Malcolm X's show, though he could never have filled Madison Square Garden. On October 7, 25,000 people turned out to hear Louis Farrakhan.

They queued up outside—the poor and the young, the unemployed and the gang members, the middle-class Negroes. They were anxious to get in and hear someone attack the people they felt were responsible for their positions in the burgeoning illiterate mass; or they were there out of curiosity, intent on hearing for themselves what Farrakhan was about. Many came because they were happy to support a black man the "white-controlled" media unanimously hated. Or because Mayor Koch had called Farrakhan "the devil," usurping the Muslims' term for the white enemy—if Koch hated him, he might be lovable, an understandable reaction given the long-standing antipathy between the mayor and New York's black community. I also think many were there, especially the young, because they had never been to a mass black rally to hear a speaker who didn't appear to care what white people thought of him, a man who seemed to think their ears were more important than those of Caucasians.

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