Rappin’ With Russell Simmons

“He doesn’t battle other rappers or spinners for rec­ord sales. Instead he engages wily, older businessmen in treacherous battles for survival. Russell’s not going bald ’cause it’s been easy."


Eddie-Murphying the Flak Catchers

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 joking 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 con­gratulate him on his recent marriage and the birth of his son, known affectionately around Rush as “Joe Blow.” I also praise his production of the Fat Boys’ album, which will soon go gold. I tell him that I’m writing a piece on Russell, he tells me that’s all right but I really should be do­ing his life story. I say I’ll think about it and ask where Russell is. 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 down-­playing 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.

Russell is hyped for the meeting. He’s puffing on a Kool, bouncing around in shiny black penny loafers, and rubbing his bald spot in comic gestures for me. Russell’s about five-10 and 165 pounds, with the complexion of a ripe squash and a generally sunny disposition. He’s the kind you can tell your worst jokes to and get a laugh. I wish I could do justice to the rapid-fire monologue he delivered in the cab up to Cannon’s East Side offices but without a tape recorder it’s hopeless. The gist of it was that we were about to see Russell act like Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop. That’s why he asked us along. We’re gonna be the reasonable Negroes and he’s gonna be the bad nig­ger, sort of a mercenary ’80s version of mau-mauing the flak catchers. Russell wants to make a point: he’s not some dancer shuffling for a (pardon the ex­pression) break. He wants respect and Cannon has already showed a lack of it. Cannon sent a writer uptown to hang out and get a feel for the scene. The writer listened to Russell’s ruminations on rap and shook his head affirmatively when Russell emphasized that he wanted no part of another Beat Street — all fake dia­logue, gospel singers at the Roxy, and other disagreeable Hollywoodisms. The writer, a white Californian who told Rus­sell he sees blacks about once every three months in his neighborhood, said, “Yeah,” “Uh huh,” and “I understand your concern.” And still wrote a jive treatment as much about a white girl trying to break into the music business as the uptown scene. In addition, Cannon, in a full-page Variety ad, announced that their rap movie would be shot in, of all places, Pittsburgh! Thickening the plot, a black production company from Los An­geles had approached Russell, guarantee­ing him considerable creative input and serious profit participation. “All the VCR money. You hear me Nelson,” he shouted in the cab. Unfortunately, the brothers had a shaky reputation and short bread. We knew Cannon wasn’t the classiest studio in the world — the bulk of its films were substandard 42nd Street fodder (one upcoming project is called Godzilla Vs. Cleveland). Cannon had, however, committed several million to the project and would undoubtedly make a profit­able, chintzy flick.

But Cannon’s minions had already lost Russell’s good will and in the meeting he truly Eddie Murphyed them. He talked loud and fast and was contemptuous of the film’s portly producer, a man who bragged “I dined with Hepburn last night” and then called Kurtis Blow Cur­tis Brown. Russell responded by emphasizing how important his acts were in the music business, and, basically, with just slightly more subtlety, that he really didn’t need them. “I’ve been working for 10 years to make this music mean something,” Russell said at one point. “You can come in with one film and ruin everything I’m trying to build.” To say the least, ye olde film producer was surprised at Russell’s impertinence. So was I. From my pragmatic post as “reasonable Negro” Russell was alienating folks who’d defi­nitely make a rap film, if not the one he wanted made, in exchange for a maybe situation. Russell calmed down after a while — even listened to them a little bit. However, the spirit of Murphy had seized Russell’s soul and, with a gleeful smile, he chortled later with Andre Harrell a/k/a Dr. Jeckyll about serving them at the meeting, then complained that Rocky and I had been too good at our assign­ment. We almost stopped him from hav­ing fun.

The next day Russell signed a deal with the black production company and was rewarded with the wooing of Michael Schultz, the black director who handled Cooley High, one of Russell’s favorite films, to supervise the project. In turn he delivered Run-D.M.C., Blow, Whodini, and the Fat Boys, whom he doesn’t man­age. By denying all that top rap talent to Cannon he would certainly hurt their project and, as blaxploitation films used to advertise, “stick it to the man.”

Russell is a product of that generation of blacks who spent early ’70s Saturdays enthralled by the white-bashing activities of Shaft, Super Fly, Trouble Man, Cof­fey, etc. At times he seems to fantasize about being as cold-blooded promoting rap as they were kicking ass. And if you think about it, Eddie Murphy, another product of the blaxploitation generation (remember Murphy’s film critic Adbul Rahiem championing the virtues of Isaac Hayes’s Truck Turner?), is nothing but an intentionally funny version of those bad-ass heroes in 48 Hrs. and Beverly Hills Cop.

Unfortunately, for Russell being bad ass isn’t enough anymore. Since that meeting rap has exploded yet again. Run-­D.M.C., the Fat Boys, and Whodini have all sold over 500,000 albums and Blow’s Ego Trip is in the ballpark. Their videos are on MTV. Russell’s acts are being swamped with endorsement and film offers. And, perhaps most profitably, the record industry itself is finally giving up the only kind of respect it can under­stand — money offers.

But therein lies the rub. 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. Russell’s not going bald ’cause it’s been easy.

At least the business side hasn’t. Life for Russell has never been that rough. His background belies the stereotype that rap music is the pure product of ghetto life. Both he and his brother grew up in the middle-class Queens neighbor­hood of Hollis, an area of home-owning, upwardly mobile dreams that has flourished since the 1950s on the premise that life in two-story dwellings with furnished basements was superior to that in the tenements and projects of Brooklyn and Harlem. The parents of Hollis (and St. Albans and Ozone Park and Jamaica) were products of the post–World War II striving for integration and beneficiaries of the opening of civil service jobs to minorities. Russell’s father, Daniel, su­pervises a Queens school district and teaches black history at night. His moth­er, Evelyn, works for the Parks Depart­ment. Back in 1976, when Russell en­rolled at City College’s Harlem campus, where he’d earn 112 credits toward a so­ciology degree, he seemed headed in the same direction.

What’s always been surprising — at least to me when I attended St. John’s University in the late ’70s — is how fascinated with street culture the children of Hollis were. I came from Brownsville, an area that could easily have been Melle Mel’s model for “The Message”; I knew “the ghetto” was nothing to romanticize. Yet here were kids like Russell who grew up in their own houses, with access to cars, furnished basements, both parents, and more cash than my friends ever knew, acting (or trying to) as cool as any street kid. Russell’s embrace of street life and, ultimately, his movement into it as a businessman occurred in the CCNY lounge. There he fell in with a group of aspiring party promoters, including a brash Music & Arts senior named Curtis Walker who used to sneak over to CCNY when he should have been in school. Calling themselves “The Force,” throughout 1976–77 they gave parties in Harlem at Small’s Paradise and the now defunct Charles Gallery. Walker, assum­ing the streetwise persona of Kurtis Blow, began rapping over records, influ­enced by the work of an older man, Pete “DJ” Jones, whose style was similar to that of boasting radio jocks like Frankie Crocker, and by D.J. Hollywood, a young rapper who gigged regularly at a Bronx club called 371 and encouraged call-and­-response interaction with partygoers. It is Hollywood who originated the “hip hop de hippy hop the body rock” that led to the rap-breaking-graffiti scene being labeled hip hop.

In New York in the mid-’70s, rappers and their deejays were the nightclub equivalent of synthesizers in the record­ing studios. While synthesizers began re­placing musicians in the studio, effective­ly cutting production costs, black discos with teen and young adult audiences used rap acts to replace bands. “They were a lot cheaper and they drew the same kinds of crowds,” says Russell. “Lots of times we’d give shows with rap­pers and get bigger crowds than if we had a guy with just records. The more expo­sure you got it seemed like the bigger your name got. The more fliers and stick­ers and posters that you could get your name on, the more popular you’d become as a rapper.” “There was so much compe­tition by then [1977] in rapping and dee-jaying uptown, Russell and I went out to Queens, the boondocks, and started pro­moting there,” remembers Kurtis Blow. Moving to Queens broadened rap’s base in the city, reaching teens like Russell, who were removed from ghetto life but not immune to the flamboyance and invention of its style.

Still, rap and Russell didn’t hit their stride until he started promoting rap shows at the Hotel Diplomat on West 43rd Street in 1977. The Times Square location meant that the shows could attract black teens from the outer boroughs as well as Harlem. Coinciding with this move was the brief mating of Blow and Grandmaster Flash with Kurtis on the mike and Flash on the turntables. To promote this superstar hip hop duo 15,000 fliers were distributed and anoth­er couple of thousand stickers plastered in subways by Russell. “We had 2000 kids come see them that first night at the Diplomat,” Russell recalls. “You know, people were standing outside Xenon’s waiting to be picked to go in like Studio 54. And down the block you had B-boys coming down the street to go to the Dip­lomat two doors away.” The Diplomat’s shows truly helped widen rap’s audience, (people like Hollywood, Eddie Cheba, and the Furious Five all eventually ap­peared there). Yet there was danger sur­rounding these shows. “We went through a lot of security companies,” Russell says. “They worked one show and then the next security company would come. They’d work one show and that was it. It was like that rough. The Diplomat had bulletproof box offices. We stayed back there for most of the night. And Kurtis,” Russell starts to laugh, “would always come in the box office and stand around. When it was time to go on stage, he’d run up there and perform and come right back in.”

The insular, occasionally violent world of rap was changed forever in the sum­mer of 1979 when first the Fatback Band with “King Tim III” and, most profound­ly, the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s De­light” hit the streets. The success of “Rapper’s Delight,” by three kids with only a tenuous connection to the original rap scene, shocked the established rap­pers. “There was a show in October or November in the Armory in Queens,” Blow remembers. “We had like 4000 kids. All the original rappers were there and ‘Rapper’s Delight’ was a big hit. Starski said on the mike, ‘Yeah, y’all know we started this shit. Don’t you worry we’re still gonna be on the moon.’ We all re­sented it. Everybody hated it. Now I see that they opened the doors for us and I’m grateful now. But at that time I was so furious.”

I first met Russell and Kurtis in the offices of Billboard in the summer of 1979. Billboard staffers Rocky Ford and J.B. Moore had brought them up to the ­office to talk about making a rap record. Rocky had written the first piece in the established media about rap, a funny lit­tle story in Billboard prior to “Rapper’s Delight,” and, with help from me, then a St. John’s University student working part-time at the Amsterdam News and free-lancing for Billboard, had been re­searching the rap scene. He and Moore had decided to work with Kurtis because compared to Grandmaster Flash, Starski, and the other original rappers he was the most clean-cut and articulate. And he had Russell, someone who knew the rap scene and was itching to learn the record business. Looking back on it now I know that Russell’s presence was as important as Kurtis’s talent in getting them to in­vest their then meager resources in a record about Santa Claus in Harlem. “Christmas Rappin’ ” would eventually sell nearly a million copies.

Six years ago Russell was even more frantic than he is now, partly because he was doing a lot of drugs (he says solemnly that those days are over) and partly be­cause he was just one overactive, anxious young man. Every meeting with him was like being injected with a thousand cc’s of adrenaline. His energy fascinated me, though our friendship had its rough spots. One night he left me stranded in Long Island following a Kurtis Blow gig at some Hempstead dump. Another time he took me to the Disco Fever in the days before it became a musical tourist trap and left me in a room full of coked-up stickup kids and rappers.

What redeemed our friendship was that despite his occasional lapses, Russell was the only young guy on the rap scene who seemed to have any long-term goals. He was serious where his contemporaries just wanted to party. Everybody wanted to make records. But did everybody real­ize what promotion and marketing to the nonrap audience would entail? Did they realize that if rap was successful they’d be approached by record industry pros, people who didn’t give a fuck about any­thing except their ability to make a quick buck? Russell did. In fact, it used to drive him crazy. He’d call me or Rocky at any time of the day or night to complain about how someone was trying to serve him or his artists. In his early twenties Russell was trying to woo finicky reporters, get his money from small-time con­cert promoters, and make the major la­bels pay attention to him. His paperwork was sloppy. He slept in recording studios. He told his skeptical parents he’d made the right decision in leaving school. He was happiest when he talked about the music he wanted to make: Not the “pop-­rap” Ford & Moore were making for Kur­tis, but “beat” records that captured the feel of clubs like the Fever.

It wasn’t until Russell teamed with ex-­jazz bassist Larry Smith, creator of “The Breaks” ’s bass line and Ford’s childhood chum, that he had someone who could translate his beat fanaticism into music. Together they made two recordings that would change New York street music: Jimmy Spicer’s humorous, Jimmy Cas­tor-influenced rap “The Bubble Bunch” and Orange Krush’s “Action,” which fea­tured Allyson Williams’s sensual shout­ing. The key to both was the “bubba bubba tap” rhythm of drummer Trevor Gale, a chucky bass drum stomp that has become standard for rap music (e.g., “It’s Like That”).

Another child of “Action” and “Bubble Bunch” is LL Cool J’s “I Need a Beat,” the first record on Def Jam Records, an indie label started by the record’s pro­ducer, Rick Rubin, that Russell is now a partner in. The drum machine is slow and, as Russell says, “sleazy,” the cymbal is hot, and the other instruments serve to intensify the rhythm. It’s a record for dancers who know that the spaces be­tween the beats aren’t really spaces, but seconds of pleasure where your body­ — suspended in action, chilly in motion­ — awaits its guidance to slide over a few soul-satisfying inches. It is a statement of principle that says Russell and Rubin are going right for the core B-boy audience.

Def Jam is also very much a product of Russell’s economic frustrations. Execu­tives at the major companies have re­fused to believe in rap or the long-term creativity of its makers. When Blow signed with Mercury in 1979, I assumed every label would have at least one rap act within two years. Instead, rap acts have come and gone from the rosters of the corporate music machines because these organizations, very often advised by their black executives, have shown no interest in or outright contempt for the music.

Epic’s rap history is illustrative. Back in 1980 the company released a seven-­inch (seven-inch!) single on D.J. Holly­wood featuring a cooing girl chorus, then didn’t promote it. Hollywood is a legend in this city, yet rap’s pioneer was quickly forgotten at Black Rock. When Epic briefly distributed Aaron Fuchs’s Tuff City rap label in 1983, they had Davy DMX’s “One for the Treble,” a beat-box record by an ex-Kurtis Blow spinner and prolific hip hop songwriter-musician. It was an instant B-boy classic, as fresh as Run-D.M.C.’s “It’s Like That.” Yet “One for the Treble” sold about 80,000 copies for Tuff City while “It’s Like That” did approximately 250,000 for Profile. The difference? Epic didn’t see the potential in the music and couldn’t be bothered with what it saw as an experiment: Subsequently Run-D.M.C.’s debut album sold over 500,000, a genuine RIAA gold record, because Profile president Cory Robbins and Russell worked the 12-inches “It’s Like That”/“Sucker M.C.’s,” “Hard Times”/“Jam Master Jay,” “Rock Box,” and “30 Days” with the zeal of a major label; promoted Run-D.M.C.’s black hats and leather to give them an iconic image (cf. Jackson’s glove and Cyndi Lauper’s hair); and reached out to the substantial hip white audience that —  very much like reggae’s white aficiona­dos — identify with its raw, outlaw atti­tude. Arista did (eventually) get behind the English label Jive and its efforts to win a U.S. audience for the rap duo Whodini. As a result, Whodini’s Larry Smith-produced Escape went gold. Representative of Jive’s commitment is that Whodini has had four videos in support of two albums while Blow, with five al­bums at PolyGram and a steady seller of 100,000 to 300,000 units, just got his first for his current single “Basketball.”

Russell’s dream has been for all his acts to be signed to one label that he controlled. Under the aegis of Poly­Gram’s late black music vice-president, Bill Haywood, it almost happened. But after Haywood’s death in 1983, the re­maining executives, white and black, didn’t understand the music or the deal. Jimmy Spicer’s “Bubble Bunch” and Orange Krush’s “Action” were released on Mercury. The failure of both commercial­ly outside the New York area definitely hastened Russell’s hair loss. After those records, the arrangement died of corpo­rate malnutrition. As a result, Rush’s acts are now strung across the rosters of sev­eral, mostly independent, labels: Profile, Jive, Mercury, Disco Fever, Nia, and now Def Jam. As a result, most of the acts live from record to record. When Russell brags “None of our records have ever lost money,” he doesn’t mention just how essential that situation has been to his eco­nomic well-being.

Ex-indie Sugarhill Records, now dis­tributed by MCA, once dominated the rap market with an enviable in-house set­up: a two-story building in Englewood, New Jersey, contacts to record distribu­tors going over a decade (Sugarhill own­ers Joe and Sylvia Robinson once owned All-Platinum and control the Chess catalogue), and a brilliant house band that will one day be regarded as the Booker T. & the MG’s of the early ’80s. While Rus­sell was still building his roster of rappers Sugarhill Records, with the Sugar Hill Gang, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, Spoonie Gee, and Sequence, de­fined the music’s cutting edge. The grooves were varied and, except for a streak of unabashed sexism, the raps were always clever. But the across-the­-board acceptance of Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message” in 1983 ended up hurting the label. In its wake Grandmaster Flash exited to Elek­tra Records after a lawsuit over money and creative control. So did many key musicians, such as “Message” co-writer Duke Bootee, who signed with PolyGram, and Reggie Griffin, who signed with Qwest Records and arranged Chaka Khan’s “I Feel for You.” Only the bril­liant Melle Mel, with his caustic, Biblical attacks on racism and corruption, and commanding delivery, remains a vital sales and creative force for Sugarhill.

Sugarhill’s loss was Russell’s gain as young rappers who might have gravitated to the Jersey label instead turned to Rush Productions. For a time it looked as if Afrika Bambaataa’s space-rap sound, through his liaison with Tom Silverman’s aggressive Tommy Boy label, would suc­ceed Sugarhill’s. But after “Planet Rock” and “Looking for the Perfect Beat,” in­novative recordings co-produced by Ar­thur Baker and Jon Robie and heavily influenced by Kraftwerk, Bambaataa’s been a commercial bust. His collabora­tions with Material, Johnny Rotten, and other “new music” types have given him a high media profile, but his terrible misuse of James Brown on “Unity” illustrat­ed why Bambaataa hasn’t tapped the hip hop soul in almost two years. As a result, the most significant rap hits of the past two years have been in some way con­nected to Rush Productions. He and Smith coproduced both Run-D.M.C. al­bums; Smith produced Whodini, and Blow the Fat Boys. The hottest rap 12-inch of 1985, UTFO’s “Roxanne, Rox­anne,” was produced by the Brooklyn band Full Force, who’ve written for and played on the last two Kurtis Blow al­bums and whose manager, Steven Salem, once shared office space with Rush.

It’s an incestuous little world that Rus­sell works in, one he feels has values and attitudes that aren’t understood by out­siders. To him that’s the reason rap and New York street music in general hasn’t yet been embraced by the music industry mainstream. Significantly, Russell doesn’t call his music “rap” or “street” but “black teenage music.” He sees his records not as part of a genre but a state­ment from a new generation — a genera­tion, coincidentally, that puts great stock in machismo.

To Russell, for example, the reason there are so few female rappers “is that the most progressive forms of this music are too hard-edged for women. What do heavy metal and wrestling say about women? I ask that because rap has the same kind of audience and feeling to it. But you’ll never hear any of our artists rapping about getting over on a woman in a vulgar way. You can listen to all the records I’ve been involved in and not hear that stuff about busting out young girls in them. We already have this bad image with black program directors about the country, so I’m very careful about what I say. I’d do a record like ‘No Sell Out’ [a rap record on Tommy Boy using excerpts from Malcolm X speeches] if I could make it work. A good track could support any idea. But I’m not gonna lecture the audience. I’m not a teacher. I make music based on the ideas my artists give me. If Run wants to do ‘Hard Times’ or ‘It’s Like That’ I’m gonna help them make it work. The only thing I ask is that it have an edge. Teen­age music is rebellious.”

To his taste, most mainstream black pop is “too polished, too slick.” “I like real sounding music, real sounding in­struments — even our drum machines sound hard, and I like loud music. Music feels good loud” he says, explaining why on “Rock Box” and most of the King of Rock he employed black rock guitarist Eddie Martinez to such crunching effect. “I can’t help it if it’s called rock ’n’ roll. It’s still B-boy music. It still has breaks, it still has def beats. The difference be­tween white teenage music like Quiet Riot or AC/DC and black teenage music right now isn’t that big.”

Russell has been very open-minded about building bridges between the up­town scene and the more progressive white rock clubs. Before it was fashionable he was hanging out at Disco Fever and Danceteria, rapping with Melle Mel at 1 a.m. and Malcom McLaren at 4 a.m. So when he looks you in the eye and says excitedly “I want to produce Devo,” you don’t bust out laughing, but ask, quite respectfully, why? “I believe I could make Devo def. Hear me, I’d make Devo def. I love all those sounds they make. Don’t like the songs. But I could fix them and make them def.”

Looking ahead five years Russell hopes he’ll “be able to pay for this loft I want and have made four or five major stars. I’ll be involved in black teenage music if I still understand it. I might not be able to still make it. I at least hope I’ll under­stand what’s good about it enough to hire someone who does.” Russell stops, pauses a minute, then adds, “I want to make successful black heroes, like what I’ve tried to do with Run-D.M.C. and Kurtis. I didn’t say ‘positive’ because that’s a trap. It’s got to be real.”

“Russell Simmons is a bloodsucker,” a prominent record producer tells me in late February. “That’s the feedback I’m getting on him, man. They say he’s unor­ganized and that his artists would be bet­ter off somewhere else.” Then the pro­ducer laughs. “You know what that means, man. It’s character assassination. They are after him. He has a thing going. When it was on that street level, selling 12-inches on indie labels, they left him alone. But now rap is selling LPs; Run-­D.M.C. and Whodini have broken in the rock and black markets. The Fat Boys are a novelty act that works. So now the industry is coming after him just like they did to George Clinton, Gamble & Huff, and every black music entrepreneur. If his shit isn’t together they’ll take everything that isn’t nailed down.”

By March my friend has proved pro­phetic. Larry Smith, another Queens na­tive who has explored the darkest corners of the South Bronx with Russell, has signed his publishing to Jive’s Zomba Music, for a large advance. Unfortunate­ly, Russell has promised that publishing to another company as part of another deal, putting Russell in an embarrassing, potentially litigable position. Aggravating the tension is that Larry agreed to pro­duce the soundtrack for Cannon’s rap film. The two are still friends and outside the Beacon Theater where Run-D.M.C. recently headlined they could be seen embracing. For Larry they were good business moves, which didn’t prevent them from taking the smile off Russell’s face. They were a signal to him that his rap kingdom was hardly secure.

There were more lessons to come. While negotiating with a major record label for a production deal he made the tactical error of including a group in his proposal he has a business relationship with but no papers on. The company does some checking and the next thing Russell knows that group is cutting its own deal. In the world of rap ’n’ roll neither the record label nor the group were wrong. They were trying to do the best they could for themselves. Russell left a loophole, the kind he can’t afford anymore.

Given his demeanor, Russell is taking all this with surprising calm. He under­stands his mistakes and is trying to tight­en his operation. In the last six months he’s added a number of administrative staffers and he’s seeking larger offices. Andre Harrell has quit his day job as a time salesman at WINS to become vice-president of Rush with an eye toward nailing down some of the endorsements the company is being offered. Russell may be a bit shaken by the wheeling and dealing swirling around him, but that only brings out the Eddie Murphy in him. I mention one of the people in the industry who questions Russell’s business acumen.

“That guy can only suck my dick when he sees me,” he tells me with a conspiratorial chuckle. “I’m invaluable to the suc­cess of his company. He never says that to my face. I’d serve him.” We laugh, and I tell him to save that crap for the next Run-D.M.C. album.

As Billboard’s black music editor, I in­teract daily with sleaze, stars, star­fuckers, and a few honest businessmen and musicians. All of them are out to make money. So is Russell. But in Russell there is a love of music, at least his particular brand of it, that is real. Like another middle-class hustler with good ears, Berry Gordy, Russell Simmons is trying to build something that will last. I’m not totally convinced it will happen. So much rests on the durability and con­tinued evolution of a decidedly radical musical style. One of Russell’s favorite sayings comes from Dr. Jeckyll: “Inside of every suppressed black man is an an­gry nigger.” I suspect that as long as Rus­sell believes that and promotes music that sounds like it, homeboy will be all right. Even if he is from Queens. ■

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 21, 2020