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Rick Rubin: The King of Rap

In 1964, Tom Wolfe wrote “The First Tycoon of Teen” about the 23-year-old Phil Spector. The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ ” was on its way to number one and Spector’s label, Philles, was in its hit-making prime. Wolfe described Spector as a jittery, Jewish, misunderstood boy-genius — the first youth to cre­ate a multimillion-dollar music em­pire for the pop of it.

In 1964, Frederick Jay Rubin was one year old. Now 23 himself, rock’s hot­test producer, and an owner of his own record company, Def Jam, Rick Rubin is the closest pop music has come this de­cade to producing a conceptualist who can compare to Spector in studio wizardry, business acumen, and steam-rolling ego. Both are eccentric, Jewish, intimi­dating. If he hasn’t yet charted as many times as Spector — Rubin has been be­hind the sales of about three million rec­ords, including a top 10 single (Run­ D.M.C.’s summer hit, “Walk This Way”), a double-platinum album (Run-D.M.C.’s Raising Hell), one gold album (L.L. Cool J’s Radio), and more on the way (new releases by the Beastie Boys and Slay­er) — the comparison holds. Both have an overpowering studio style: Spector with his wall-of-sound and Rubin with his fas­tidious b-boy blast, a lean, ornery orches­tration of rap and heavy metal — his two favorite forms of rock ‘n’ roll.

And like Spector, Rubin started out as an adolescent prodigy and almost imme­diately went on to gain wealth and be­hind-the-scenes power. Using the tech­nology of their times, they both have made music for and often by teens. That sort of currency has inspired Mick Jagger to ask Rubin to produce songs for his next solo LP, an invitation Rubin says he’ll accept if he can find the time. He has other ambitions. Foremost is the writing, directing, and producing of Def Pictures’ first feature, Tougher Than Leather, a spaghetti-western/film noir/blaxpoitation movie starring Run-D.M.C. Casting himself and his dad as father-­and-son racist gangsters, Rubin relishes his status as a young white man traveling in black circles who can do no wrong.

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“Rick’s a dick,” says Adrock a white rapper in the Beastie Boys and son of playwright Israel Horovitz. “He knows how to get what he wants. It’s almost a spiritual thing.”

Russell Simmons, Rubin’s 28-year-old black partner in Def Jam and the rap impresario whose life the movie Krush Groove was based on, puts it this way: “I’m sure Rick would like me to tell you what a bastard he is.”

This is peculiar praise for a wealthy, straight-A suburbanite who borrowed money from his father to start his record company while still living in a NYU dorm. Two weeks after he graduated from college last year, he and Simmons signed a multi-album deal with CBS, which each party claims is the largest arrangement of its kind — “in the mil­lions,” according to Rubin who won’t be any more specific. Quite an achievement for someone who still sleeps past noon.

Rubin doesn’t look like a millionaire. He looks like Arthur Baker, another beefy white producer responsible for a number of influential dance records  (Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock,” the Cyndi Lauper remixes, among others) by manipulating black street sounds in a pop context. At the height of his success in 1984, Baker released Rubin’s first rap single, “It’s Yours” by rapper T LA Rock and scratcher Jazzy Jay. Unlike Baker, Rubin’s weight seems relative to his suc­cess. And he really is big now. With his long brown hair, trim beard, pale skin, and biker’s clothing — black jeans and rock ‘n’ roll T-shirt — Rubin is the arche­typal heavy metal kid from Long Island. Unlike the image, Rubin doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, and doesn’t do drugs. He eats.

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“I like Rick because he eats like I eat,” says Darryl McDaniels, the “D.M.C.” of Run-D.M.C. “We met Rick in 1984 back when he was the DJ for the Beastie Boys. DJ Double R they used to call him. His room was packed tighter than Afrika Bambaataa’s — records all over the place, posters everywhere, and it was kinda b-boy. For a white person, it was really hip. He had every rap record and beat jam that you could possibly have. We started asking his opinion on our stuff ’cause he has the feeling like we have the feeling. Our first producer, Larry Smith went on to bigger and better things with Cameo, so we needed some­one to help us with Raising Hell.

“Rick isn’t the kind of person to lay out a plan. He let us put our own two cents in. If we did something he didn’t like, he’d say [imitating Rick’s low voice], ‘I don’t think that is cool’ — that’s the way he talks. Or ‘That’s really soft. Get busy or get lost.’ Our record, ‘Proud to Be Black’ — Rick pushed that so hard. When we first started off, it was real, real corny. But he said, ‘Get ill and make it forceful.’ You don’t have to be no certain race, creed, color, or age to give the people what they want.”

L.L. Cool J, born James Todd Smith, liked “It’s Yours,” so he sent a demo to the NYU address Rubin had listed on the jacket. Rubin gave L.L. a call. “I thought Rick was black,” L.L. says, “cause when he talks on the phone, he sounds black. But black or white, it makes no difference to me. Rick gave me my break when I deserved one. Things haven’t changed since I met Rick except that back then I wouldn’t buy as many things. My grand­mother would buy them for me.”

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Rubin’s studio apartment, like his old dorm room, doubles as the Def Jam of­fice. Success hasn’t changed his taste in interior decoration; he’s still a slob. (Def Jam recently bought a five-story Noho building, now being gutted for offices, a recording studio, and home for Rubin.) What little furniture he has looks as if it were found in an alley. Throughout sev­eral conversations, phones ring, answer­ing machines click. Run-D.M.C promo­tions, a black light AC/DC poster, and a big picture of Led Zeppelin decorate the walls as well as a Beastie Boys graffiti mural. Rubin sleeps in a loft bed that faces a TV and VCR. The stove is a table.

“It was difficult at first, but now I’m a fixture,” Rubin says in describing what it was like being a white college student with a lot of b-boy friends. “I lived in a dorm, and I had all these black guys visit­ing me all the time. People thought it was weird. There was something exciting and dangerous about it, I suppose, but that’s what I like.”

No one around Def Jam, black or white, offers to probe racial relationships beyond banalities and generalizations. But by talking black and being white, Rubin has brought together the intem­perance of heavy metal and the bragga­docio of rap — a lucrative marriage. If he were black, it’s hard to imagine record executives admiring the aggression that first endeared him to rappers. Being able to go both ways is one reason why he is Simmons’s perfect business partner. It’s also how Rubin, along with his white friends the Beastie Boys, can get away with playing so fast and loose with black­-white taboos. Rubin’s nimble duplicity is a big reason why Def Jam’s organization generates a lot of cold cash.

Chung King House of Metal is the unassuming studio, with state-of­-the-art rhythm machines, where Rubin produced most of L.L. Cool J’s Radio and Run-D.M.C.’s Rais­ing Hell. Late on a summmer night the Beastie Boys, whom Rubin met when they were in a punk band called the Young and the Useless, are recording. CBS executive Steve Ralbovsky is on hand to inspect the progress of their year-in-the-making Licensed to Ill, which the trio wanted to call Don’t Be a Faggot (CBS talked the group out of it). Ralbovsky proposed the deal between CBS and Def Jam, an exclusive promo­tion, marketing, and distribution ar­rangement that calls for a minimum of five album artists and a dozen 12-inch singles a year. This has given Def Jam the resources to expand its roster to 20 acts, some of which have given CBS problems.

For example, another rapper claiming to be the real L.L. Cool J, has come forth claiming his songs and stage name were stolen by James Todd Smith and put on Radio. L.L. denies it (“ridiculous”), as does Rubin. CBS lawyers are considering a crossclaim against Def Jam in the event a suit is filed. To protect himself, Rubin refuses to record Radio‘s follow-up until the matter is settled.

The Beastie Boys also have been giving the parent company headaches. Their lewd, rowdy behavior (as well as the accu­sation of stealing a camera at a party) first got them banned from the CBS pre­mises. Then they were persuaded by CBS not to release “Scenario,” a proposed B­side that includes the lyric “Homeboy shot him in the mother-fuckin’ face.” Mi­chael Jackson, a CBS act himself and owner of the publishing rights to the Bea­tles catalogue, refused permission to let their rewritten version of Lennon/Mc­Cartney’s “I’m Down” appear on Li­censed to Ill. Not that Jackson has any­thing against rap; he and Run-D.M.C. are discussing a possible collaboration on an anticrack song for his next album.

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But the rest of the Beastie product is still welcome, unlike another Rubin proj­ect, Slayer’s Reign in Blood. CBS was initially behind the project by these L.A. Satanic speed metallists. The company, already facing lawsuits concerning the psychological effects of Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest, got cold feet after an advance review mentioned a song about Nazi Joseph Mengele. “They want the [ed. note: illegible]” Rubin says, “but they’re afraid to get cut.” He took the finished tape to Geffen Records, which had no such qualms. Geffen shipped 100,000 copies of Reign in Blood this week.

After Ralbovsky leaves the studio, the Beasties start doing Whippets, small metal cylinders of laughing gas. Placing these into a cannister used to pressurize whipped cream, they release the gas into a balloon, suck on it, and get silly. This is how they prepare to work. Rubin reacts to the pandemonium coolly and doesn’t partake. Nor does he disapprove.

In the mood, the Beastie Boys are now ready to rap over the backing tracks for what Rubin calls “the reality song of the album” — “You’ve Got to Fight for Your Right To Party.” It’s AC/DC all the way, a solid 4/4 with Rubin on guitar playing distorted power chords. Adrock (who now prefers to be called “The King Adrock”) steps to the mike and his voice cracks on the first line. Each Beastie moves as if MTV had its cameras rolling: arms flail, neck veins bulge, hands pull at crotches. Being a Beastie Boy is a nonstop perfor­mance piece.

In the outer room is Steve Ett, Chung King’s resident engineer, who has worked with Rubin on most Def Jam recordings. Over the last year, Rubin learned to engi­neer by watching Ett at the control board. He has been in studios for 10 years, apprenticing on Steely Dan and Ricky Lee Jones albums, but just as sig­nificant is his experience as a drummer, for Rick’s productions are mostly voices and drums. Because it’s the way those drums — whether created from digital samplers, scratched in from other rec­ords, or from real percussion — reverber­ate around the rappers that forms the nonmelodic, but aggressively rhythmic aural space on Rubin’s tracks. “What Ar­thur Baker does I consider disco,” Rubin explains, “because it’s based on pulse beats: boom-cha-boom-cha-boom-cha. What I do is b-boy, which I consider rock ‘n’ roll because it’s based on rock ‘n’ roll beats: boom-boom-cha boom-boom-­boom-cha.”

Often these beats are improvised at Chung King. Since Ett knows the techni­cal end, Rubin’s contribution, besides playing bass and guitar, comes by ear. “Rick knows right away when something doesn’t sound right,” Ett explains. “If I play him a tape, within the first 30 sec­onds, he’ll love it or hate it. Maybe he’ll help write the beat. Or if someone has a rap written and a particular lyric doesn’t work, Rick will come up with a different way of saying what they wanted to say. But mostly he lets the artist have his own way.”

Back in the control room, Rubin gives diction lessons and pushes buttons. All his rappers enunciate clearly, especially L.L. Cool J, and deliver their rhymes with enough emotion to make them felt. The rhymes grab attention, because Ru­bin arranges them into verse-chorus structures. His rappers don’t ramble. A phrase like “rock the bells” breaks the flow and pounds home the title, so buyers know what to request. On the Beastie Boys’ “Hold It, Now Hit It,” the title chorus itself is borrowed and mixed in from two sources — the “Hold it now” from Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rapping” and “Hit it” from Doug E. Fresh’s “La Di Da Di.”

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The Beastie song that Rubin’s working on now, “It’s the New Style,” is one of the few without a chanted chorus, but the song has peaks and breaks of tension cre­ated by the way Rubin and Ett work the mixing board. Each of the board’s 24 tracks contains a separately recorded percussion element, which repeats a phrase dozens of times. Rubin and Ett press buttons to make each cowbell, high hat, snare, and bass-drum track pop in and out at the precise moment. The mix­ing board itself acts as polymorphic drumset, which allows an enormous amount of freedom to alter a song. That, combined with Rubin’s instrumental con­tributions, adds up to control over the content of his records. Thus, he can encourage his performers to “get ill” be­cause he’s at the board doctoring them. In a fly-by-night business, what other producer takes a year to complete a rap album?

After they finish for the night, around three in the morning, Adrock, Beastie Mike D, and Rubin go to the Palladium. Nothing is going on in the Michael Todd Room, ditto for the Cat Club. The action is at the Cozy Soup and Burger. Oh no, they’re out of the best item on the menu, split-pea soup.

The only lull in the table’s conversa­tion occurs when I ask why didn’t Adrock share writer’s credits for “I Need a Beat” on the Radio LP when he was credited on the original 12-inch. “I can’t believe you asked that!” says Adrock. Rubin keeps mum. Song-writing and production cred­its are sore subjects around Def Jam, because Rubin likes to see his name in print.

In his Lido Beach home, Mickey Ru­bin, once a furniture store owner and now a children’s shoe wholesaler, brags about his son: “He never once opened up a book at NYU and still got great marks.”

“Don’t say that!” admonishes his wife, Linda Rubin, sitting across the kitchen table.

Mr. Rubin continues, “He has a photo­graphic memory. He didn’t have to study. He’d sit in class and absorb everything. He borrowed money from me so that he could start his record label. It wasn’t much, but he never paid me back. I don’t want it back. He was a fantastic organiz­er, like Al Capone, even as a child. When he was little, he would buy shells, paint them, and then resell them.”

“He slept right in between us until he was, how old, 12?” Mr. Rubin asks his wife, who says, “He thought a green boo­gie man hid in his closet.” She says they finally got him to sleep in his own room by buying him a bunk bed that looks like a stagecoach. Mr. Rubin confides, “When he comes home without a girl, he still sometimes sleeps with us.”

“I’ve given Ricky a lot of freedom,” Mr. Rubin says, “but I’ve insisted that he follow two rules: Don’t use drugs and never lie to me. I told him, ‘Ricky, you’ve got me and you need nobody else on this earth. But if you lie, you’ll fuck up the best deal a son ever had.’ He doesn’t need to lie to anybody because if somebody doesn’t like the truth, fuck ’em. He doesn’t take shit from anybody.”

He takes me to Rick’s bedroom. Piles of yellowed Village Voices are stacked in a corner. Posters of Devo, the Dead Ken­nedys, and others line the walls. Car re­pair manuals fill the shelves. “Ricky has such a mechanical mind. He can pick up a how-to book and do anything.” Rick has owned three automobiles, all new: a Bradley GT II, a Fiat, and an MG con­vertible, which now sits in the garage. “He put a $1000 radio in the car,” Mr. Rubin says. “Jazzy Jay helped him weld the speakers in.”

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Back in the kitchen Mrs. Rubin offers a chocolate bundt cake and says, “He was in kindergarten when I hired a magician for my birthday party, and he loved it. We bought him some magic tricks. Then we became friendly with someone in Long Beach named Irv Tannen, who owned what was probably the biggest magic store in the world, Tannen’s. And we started going there all the time. Ricky met people who were interested in magic, like Orson Welles, mingled with adults, and used to talk to them like one. Then he got called to do a Christmas show for a firehouse. They gave Ricky $50 for his half-hour show and he appeared in front of about 500 people, not at all nervous. His presence and the way he spoke gave him complete control over the audience even then.”

Mr. Rubin says, “He’ll be in the studio recording with Run-D.M.C., and she’ll call him anyway. Just to say hello.”

He shows me the rest of the house. In the master bedroom there’s a video pro­jector and a large screen at the foot of the bed. To the right of it hangs a framed poster of a woman in jodhpurs drinking from a brandy snifter, one leg leaning on the fender of her Rolls. It’s captioned, “Poverty Sucks.” Then on to the fur­nished basement to see the room Rubin stays in “when he brings home a girl.” There’s a large mattress in front of two TVs and two monstrous speakers. Mrs. Rubin puts a song on the stereo that she’s mentioned several times during my visit, Helen Reddy’s mom and son anthem, “You and Me Against the World.” Mrs. Rubin says, eyes full of tears, “It’s me and Ricky.”

Mr. Rubin escorts me outside. He points in the distance at a massive mod­ern building. “That’s Long Beach City High School where Ricky went.”

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“Lido Beach,” Rick says of where he grew up, “is wealthy, mostly Jewish, with some Italians. The east end of Long Beach is upper-middle-class Jewish and Italian. Center town is a black ghetto. The west end is a white ghetto, mostly Irish with some Italians. And there’s Atlantic Beach, which is rich and WASPy. It was incredible that in such a small strip of land, there were these hard cut territories. And all the kids went to the same high school — mine.

“Long Beach High School is about 70 per cent white and 30 per cent black, and it used to close because of race riots. The white scene in my high school was into Led Zeppelin, Yes, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones — all of those groups were com­pletely over. Whereas the black kids were waiting for the latest rap record. I re­member asking a black kid what his fa­vorite rap group was and he said the Crash Crew because their record came out last week. And the week before that it was the Funky Four, but now it’s the Crash Crew. It was so exciting that peo­ple could be so progressive musically that they’d want the newest thing, love it, and it would make them forget everything else.”

Radio set these racial parameters. Turn on stations that play primarily black music, you’ll hear today’s hits. Maybe one song an hour will be more than a few months old. Tune in three months later, it’s a different playlist. There isn’t much room for variety within this demographic-conscious format, but it occasionally makes concessions to rene­gade sensibilities that never have a chance on rock radio. When enough kids are listening to any underground record, no matter how weird, like Strafe’s “Set It Off,” they force it onto the air because they’ve dominated the request lines.

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This happens less frequently on AOR stations that have been programming for the baby boomers, who get older each year along with their playlists. Rubin says, “White radio stations will publish lists of the most requested songs of that year, and ‘Freebird’ will be in the top 10. STILL! And ‘Stairway to Heaven’! Rock stations play such bullshit, such nonpro­gressive music.”

The music industry treats white music as an ongoing history, and black music as just the latest thing. Many record compa­nies will keep in print the entire cata­logue of white acts that don’t sell big numbers and delete product by all but the biggest-selling black acts. Go into Tower Records, and you might find five Spandau Ballet titles, but only the latest by Jean Carne, who has had around five herself. In other words, black kids are “progressive” because they’ve got no choice.

Conditions like these encourage small businessmen to keep an eye on what’s hip in black music. Independent releases by new American rock bands may get on to college radio and, if the group is really lucky, get snatched up by a major label. Until then, commercial white radio is usually hands off, whereas black inde­pendent records that achieve heavy rota­tion on commercial black radio are com­monplace. Because of recent changes in radio promotion, the odds have improved for the black indie to crossover. There are now more black records, indie and major, on the pop charts since the late ’70 disco boom. This atmosphere has allowed for the pop success of Simmons’s pet Def Jam project, Oran “Juice” Jones and bis hit single “The Rain,” and more signifi­cantly, Run-D.M.C.’s “Walk This Way.”

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When Rubin first picked up the Lucite guitar his mother bought him when he was a high school freshman, it wasn’t to play like George Benson. He was into Johnny Ramone. The person who taught him how to play guitar was Steve Free­man, his high school audio-visual instruc­tor. Freeman, who describes himself as a hippie, recalls: “Even back in high school, Rick was always Mr. Self-Promotion who could get anything he wanted. He was listening mostly to AC/DC and punk rock when he found out that groups like the Clash had learned how to play their in­struments something like a month before they formed a group. So Rick thought, ‘Why not me?’ ”

Rubin practiced to early Ramones LPs and after three months, he could play just as fast. After another three, he could play faster, which meant better. Around his sophomore year, he formed the Pricks. In addition to speed, Rubin ad­mired punk’s ability to swindle record companies. The Plasmatics’ television demolition publicity stunts appealed to the magician in him, and for a while he hung out with their mohawked guitar player Ritchie Stotts. With the school’s four-track recorder, Rubin made Pricks cassettes. His goal was to play CBGB, upset people, start fights, and get thrown out. It worked.

Freeman may say harsh things about Rubin, but as with most others, it’s spo­ken not with resentment, but with awe. “His father once had an easy-credit fur­niture store. Like his father, Rick knows how to get poor people to buy things. When he was in high school, Rick didn’t hang out in browntown [Long Beach’s black neighborhood], But he’s imitative and knows how to change people, He’s made the Beastie Boys into his alter ego — they never cursed or got high before they met Rick. He had more friends than many kids, but he looked down on a lot of people, too. Some resented him because of his car, others because he could get A’s without studying. Even back then, he knew how to use the system.”

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Moving to an NYU Village dorm in 1981 gave him the autonomy he wanted. His parents no longer had to sit in their car while he was inside downtown clubs watching favorites like the Gang of Four and the Bad Brains. He enrolled as a philosophy major with the intention of going to law school but ended up study­ing film production. And living at NYU brought him closer to the rap scene, which by 1981 had spread downtown to clubs like Negril. He formed another band, Hose, who were (and still are, occa­sionally) a slow hardcore/metal/noise band in the Flipper mode. With the help of record store owner Ed Bahlman, whose 99 Records label released classic under­ground club records by Bush Tetras, ESG, and Liquid Liquid, Rubin released two Hose EPs. They included metal interpretations of top 40 r&b: Rick James’s “Super Freak,” the Ohio Players’ “Fire,” and Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thang.” One original reflected Rick’s vicarious in­terest in drugs, “Dope Fiend.” Rubin sold all his copies and took Hose to tour the West Coast. “It was really underground. We didn’t know enough people to make the tour work out right.”

By the time he entered the rap scene Rubin learned the necessity of proper contacts and quickly met all the right people. DJ Jazzy Jay, who spun at many of the downtown clubs that had rap nights like Negril, the Underground, and the Roxy, became an early friend. Rubin regularly sought his advice on which rec­ords to buy, and the pair soon decided to make their own record. They wanted Special K of the Treacherous Three but he wasn’t available, so they got his broth­er, T LA Rock, to rap “It’s Yours.”

Rubin intended to put out the cut him­self as he did the Hose records. Instead he played “It’s Yours” for Profile, which proposed to release it without cover art. He turned Profile down. Rubin then played the song for Arthur Baker, who offered him more money and a sleeve with Rubin’s artwork, but it was almost a year before it came out, in 1984, and sev­eral more months before it hit radio big. Rubin claims Baker never paid up.

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“That just isn’t true,” says Baker. “And besides, I never got paid for MCA and Burzootie’s ‘Drum Machine,’ which he put out on his label without my per­mission even though I wrote the first 16 lines of the rap. But all that is water under the bridge, as far as I’m concerned. Rick has a spoiled-brat mentality that he can get away with anything as long as his records do well. He and most of the peo­ple he works with have grown up in wealthy families and they want every­thing their way. Since I first met Rick, I could tell he had a good street sense. He’s able to capture the sound of live rap shows, which was something no one else was able to do. He picked up on what Run-D.M.C. were doing already and sold it back to them.”

By this time, college had become an annoyance to Rubin. Health authorities deemed his room, which was littered with newspapers and burger-to-go wrapp­ings,”unfit for living.” Dorm residents complained about the club-level volume of his stereo, and one neighbor took him before a student court. He won the case by arguing that the noise was necessary for his career. Academics were the least of his problems; he claims he didn’t at­tend classes for his last 20 months. For­mer roommate Adam Dubin says, “As long as I knew him, he was paying people to write papers for him.”

Soon after the release of “It’s Yours,” Rubin met Russell Simmons, whose rec­ords he admired, especially Run­-D.M.C.’s. The feeling was mutual. ” ‘It’s Yours,’ ” Simmons recalls, “was such a hardcore hiphop record, but it had a chorus, an arrangement, and all the things that no one had thought to put in those songs. I met Rick at Danceteria and I couldn’t believe it. He liked all the same records I did and they all weren’t sell­ing — crazy break records that wouldn’t get airplay. He understood the music the way most people making it didn’t. He told me he wanted to start an indepen­dent record company and wanted me to be his partner. Well, I wanted to make a deal with a major label. Then he brought me L.L. Cool J and said this guy should make our first release. He was really insistent.”

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Rubin says, “Russell had made maybe 20 records that I thought were tremen­dous, but he wasn’t wealthy. By then, I had dealt with a lot of people in rap music, none of whom understood it. Still to this day don’t, except Russell, Jam Master Jay, and a few others. So I said, ‘I want you to be my partner. I’ll run the company, I’ll do everything there is to do, and you’ll get half.’ ”

In late ’84 Def Jam’s first release, a 12- inch single of L.L. Cool J’s “I Need A Beat,” sold 120,000 copies. But its suc­cess didn’t come without some work on what was to be an essential Def Jam ele­ment: image. “When I heard L.L.’s tape,” Simmons recalls, “I thought this guy is great. And Rick said, ‘He’s kinda fucked up, Russell,’ and I said ‘What do you mean?’ and Rick said ‘You’ll see.’ So L.L. came into my office wearing fuckin’ Fearless Four [lace up] boots and straps around his legs like some breakdancer. And I said, ‘Where you from?’ He said ‘Hollis.’ I said ‘Where the fuck did you get those pants?’ L.L. came from the same neighborhood I and Run [Russell’s brother, ‘Run’ of Run-D.M.C.] grew up in and kids don’t dress like that except in breakdance movies. He said, ‘I want to make records like Run,’ and I said, ‘Do you like ’em?’ He said, ‘They’re selling, man.’ L.L. Cool J learned how to be L.L. Cool J because Rick taught him. When L.L. came into the studio to do his vocals, Rick and he would argue a lot. He wanted to sing.”

L.L. denies this: “I never wanted to sing. Like my song says, I just don’t do that.”

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Though only 23, Rubin has devel­oped a relaxed, philosophical de­meanor. “Cool” is his highest and most common compliment — the ideal he aspires to. Because of his ever-increasing bulk, he has an aura that one might call heavy-metal Buddha. But give him something to disagree with, something he feels challenged by, and he becomes an extroverted performer who loves shock tactics. Syllables explode, hands pound the air, and he becomes Ricky the Rockin’ Wrestlin’ Coach. The validity of his ideas gives way to their entertainment value, and it’s hard not to be swayed by him. His audacity is so excessive that it becomes a charming, dis­arming eccentricity, even when he’s bullshitting.

“Def Jam is a unique label in that we’re in the music business,” he says, “whereas all the other record companies are in the banking business. They loan money, you make a record, you pay it back with your sales, and they take a piece from then on. They look at it as selling something. It’s really disgusting. Then there are a lot of people in the music industry w}io are just users like Profile. I don’t think that the people at Profile are that much into rap music. I think that’s what they use to make money.

“Show business, record business, enter­tainment business — it’s all bullshit,” he says. “No one knows anything. I was a little scared about making this movie [Tougher Than Leather], but there isn’t anybody who knows more than I do. I’m sure about that. I was on the set of Krush Groove watching Michael Schultz direct a scene between Run and his brother Russell. And everything he was saying was wrong. It really made me mad. I read the script. I understood how to get those emotions. It’s the same thing when you’re making a record. So I stepped in front of him and I said, ‘NO! That’s NOT how it goes! THIS is how it goes!’ And I directed the scene. Then Schultz said, ‘Excuse me, Rick. Come with me for a minute.’

“Now this was taking place on the cor­ner of a theater stage. He put his arm around me, walked me all the way across the theater really far before he said any­thing. Like you take someone really far away because something bad’s gonna happen. So he said, ‘Rick, I appreciate your enthusiasm. But there can only be one director and I’m the director and don’t ever do that. And I said, ‘I’m really sorry but it was really making me mad. Because once you put it on film, that’s the way it’s gonna be, and it’s gonna be wrong.’

“So we walked back. And the guys who were doing the scene said, ‘What should we do?’ Schultz told them, ‘Do what Rick said.’ And they did, and it was good.” ■

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RICK RUBIN’S 10 BEST 

“It’s Yours” — T LA Rock and Jazzy Jay (Partytime, 1984)
Here’s the first def jam that made the others possible. Rock’s catchy rap en­courages consumers to make his record theirs, while Jay’s scratching blasts like Miles Davis on crack.

“Rock Hard”/”Party’s Gettin’ Rough”/”Beastie Groove” — Beastie Boys (Def Jam, 1985)
AC/DC’s “Back in Black” riff gets overhauled on the A-side, with a old­fashioned speed rap on the B. Dig how Rubin — or DJ Double R as he was known then — reveals his roots by scratching in Led Zep’s “Rock and Roll.” Inspirational rhyme: “I’m the man who needs no introduction/I’ve got a big tool of reproduction,”

Radio — L. L. Cool J (Def Jam/CBS, 1985)
Setting a Rubin precedent for sus­tained quality that improves with each production, Radio masters the basics, The beats are hard, the rhymes inven­tive, and L, Lis hyper voice is in your face from word one. There isn’t much else, but that’s the secret to this al­bum’s effectiveness. Like all great rap­pers, L, L.’s mouth puts over his myth.

“She’s On It” — The Beastie Boys video (Def Jam Visuals, 1985)
The Beasties practice their Monkees moves at Bimbo Beach for a possible MTV sitcom. Beata David Lee Roth at his own girl-watching game.

“Bad”/”The Bottom Line” — Big Audio Dynamite (Def Jam/CBS, 1986)
Dull tunes invigorated by Rick’s mix. Whereas most remixers make a record theirs by adding overdubbed layers, Ru­bin takes chunks away, leaving go-go and gunshots.

Raising Hell — Run-D.M.C. (Profile, 1986)
By involving the trio more directly, Rubin captures their caiaaraderie. The best tracks have warmth and spontane­ity, making for a great party record. Second to Thriller, the crossover album of the ’80s, with thanks to Aerosmith and the ’70s,

“The Word”/”Sardines” — The Junk­yard Band (Def Jam/CBS, 1986)
Rubin’s most political record and first commercial flop. These Washing­ton, D.C., go-go teens want to eat and see their sisters go to college, but Rea­gan’s making bombs with their food stamps.

Reign In Blood — Slayer (Def Jam/Gef­fen, 1986)
What gives this major label debut by L.A.’s foremost satan-tripping heavy metal speedsters an edge — even over Metallica’s Master of Puppets — is that sculpted noise this extreme has never before been recorded so immaculately. When I asked for a lyric sheet, Rubin replied, “You don’t want it. The lyrics are really dumb_>’ As well he knows, words are secondary, it’s the exclama­tion points that count.

Licensed to Ill — Beastie Boys (Def Jam/CBS, 1986)
Here in abundance is every one of the PMRC’s fears about rap and metal, which Rubin expertly gene-splices. White rich young adults fantasize on what it means to be black: they get dusted and shoot one another in the back, while women are there to get vio­lated (by Whiffle ball bats and what-not). Humorously offensive on every level, this is Rubin’s finest yet

Tougher Than Leather — a screenplay written by Rick Menello and Rick Ru­bin (Def Pictures)
“Rick said we’re gonna make the best movie ever,” D.M.C, says about the film that costars him, Run, and Jam Master Jay. “We’re gonna shoot people in the head and make it like Rambo or 48 Hours.” The script indulges more movie homages than a Brian De Palma film festival. As fast, fierce, and funny as Rubin’s records, this is certai11 cult fare, possible blockbuster, and maybe a riot­inducer. Shooting begins November 3. — B.W.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Rappin’ With Russell Simmons

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”?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”).

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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.”

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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.

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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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”378043″ /]

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. ■

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TRANSFORMING CINEMA

Because it’s rare to see minority women on television, some actresses have to 
resort to extreme measures. In Becoming 
Ricardo, an official selection in this year’s International Puerto Rican Heritage Film Festival, starving actress Jesenia Cruz transforms herself into Ricardo Montalbán, and naturally, becomes the leading man on a major TV hit show. Other fest highlights include El Clown, a tale about a circus clown’s rise to stardom as an advertising pitchman, and Russell Simmons’s Lemon, a documentary about Tony Award winner Lemon Andersen and his struggle to free his family from poverty and pain as he reveals his secrets of life on the Broadway stage.

Thu., Nov. 14, noon; Fri., Nov. 15, noon; Sat., Nov. 16, noon; Sun., Nov. 17, noon, 2013

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Five Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Give A Shit About What Hollywood Thinks About Paul Ryan…Or Anything

As you know, presidential hopeful Mitt Romney selected Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan to be his running mate in his quest for the White House. Per usual, Hollywood has chimed in about his selection — and for some reason people care.

Regardless of how you feel about Ryan, Romney, abortion, gay marriage, healthcare, Barack Obama, war, kittens, winter, or literally anything else, you should not give even half a shit about what celebrities have to say about it. Ever. Here’s why…

5) They’re actors:

Actors act for a living. So acting like they give a shit about a particular issue — or vice-presidential pick — comes naturally to them and often times without much research. We’d venture
to guess that Jared Leto had never heard of Paul Ryan until Romney tapped him as his running mate. But Leto’s got a Twitter account, so now he’s an expert. He also uses phrases like “peep it” when he wants to show you something.

4) Russell Simmons has, like, a ba-zillion dollars:

Russell Simmons posted on his website an essay he’d written basically explaining why Ryan is the anti-Christ. He notes that Romney and Ryan “will destroy our people and laugh all the way to the bank.” Simmons is worth an estimated $325 million. Shut up, Russell.

3) Who the fuck is Olivia Wilde?

USA Today reports that Olivia Wilde “tweeted” Saturday that “Two R’s won’t make it right. Romney/Ryan are Wrong for America,” which prompted us to ask the question: who the fuck is Olivia Wilde and why does USA Today care what she thinks about Paul Ryan? According to the Internet, she’s an actress, she had small roles in “Alpha Dog” and “Weird: The Weird Al Yankovic Story,” and she’s super hot. But that doesn’t mean you should give a shit about what she has to say
about Paul Ryan.

2) Don’t feed their egos!

You know why actors think they need to tell you how they feel about political issues? Because everyone treats them like they shit rainbows and that their opinions matter. But their opinions don’t matter — they’re actors. They don’t draft economic policies and make difficult decisions, they read scripts for a living and practice crying on command.

1) Celebrities are idiots:

Three names: Kim Kardashian, Ashton Kutcher, Lindsay Lohan. Enough said.

These are just a few of the many reasons why you shouldn’t give a shit about what celebrities think about anything. Don’t take your political cues from the likes of Michael Moore and Ted Nugent, do yourself a favor and do a little research — visit each presidential candidate’s website here and here.

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KINGS OF ROCK

“See I know how to rap, it’s simple but/All I did was read a Russell Simmons book,” rapper Swift of D12 admits on “My Band,” a back-and-forth with a spotlight-stealing Eminem. And if Swift is looking to move from rapping into writing, photography, printmaking, publishing, and/or business, the new Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years (to which label co-founder Simmons has contributed a brief preface) would be a good place to start. Tonight, Simmons joins Rick Rubin, the other half of the original Def Jam team, for a conversation about the label’s history, impact, and, perhaps, wise decision not to sign D12.

Fri., Oct. 14, 7 p.m., 2011

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REPORT CARD

One in three students don’t graduate high school, and many of those who do still lack basic skills in reading, math, and science. Saying enough is enough, a group of artists have banded together to create Re:Form School, an exhibit that aims to bring about change by shining a light on the myriad troubles plaguing our school system. Maya Hayuk, Michel Gondry, Deedee Cheriel, Shepard Fairey, Swoon, and FAILE are just a few who will be showing their work alongside the winners of the Re:Form School’s art contest, featuring work selected by judges such as Russell Simmons and Rosario Dawson. The event is presented by the education-reform organization Redu, whose motto is, “Every child deserves a great education.”

Oct. 9-11, 2010

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Who Sends More Press Releases–Russell Simmons or a Porn Star?

I generally get inundated with emails from all varieties of show biz types, all regularly hawking their wares, their firstborn, their mood swings, and their genital jewelry, in eternal hopes of a mention.

But two figures rise way above the pack in the sheer volune of promo materials they put out there: Russell Simmons and gay porn icon Michael Lucas, oddly enough. Simmons’ people send a steady stream of items about his politics, his good works, and why he sells clothes at WalMart. If I don’t get an item about Simmons in 10 whole minutes, I start to call the police–but then an email comes in and I settle down into complacence again.

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Similarly, Lucas will continually forward his views, his videos that got yanked off YouTube–or the ones that didn’t–and even the most obscure little press mentions. Most poignantly, he recently sent out a CNN ireport on which, if you clicked on photo number four, it showed a shutterd porn video store which had Lucas’s face in the window. Top that, Russell Simmons!

So who would YOU rather hear from–the hiphop mogul or the dick dude?

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‘Old-Schoolest of Collectors’

DJs, like curators, are collectors, so when Grandmaster Flash and other hip-hop luminaries met up with some officials from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History the other day, there was some serious collecting to discuss. To begin with, museum director Brent Glass described his institution’s grand undertaking: “It’s the only museum in the world that has the mission of telling the whole of American history,” he said. It’s a tall order, but the museum’s holdings—nearly three million objects, which include a Pac-Man gumball bank, a bag of brown rice, and over a hundred pieces of Tupperware—give the impression that the curators cast a wide net. Now alongside the S. Newman Darby Windsurfing Collection, the museum will maintain an archive entitled “Hip-Hop Won’t Stop: The Beat, the Rhymes, the Life.”

The new collection will consist of a custom-made Kangol hat from Grandmaster Flash, some Zulu Nation stickers from Afrika Bambaataa, a noise-maker/keychain from Ice T, and other ephemera. If the objects do not seem earth-shattering, some of the founding fathers of the genre (including influential DJs Kool Herc and Bambaataa, impresario Russell Simmons, and noise-maker maker/actor/MC Ice T were at the New York Hilton to describe the importance of the initiative and also to add to the oral history of hip-hop. “Hip-hop is not only the soundtrack of American culture over the last 30 years,” Simmons said, “it’s a documentation of a lot that has been left out of our history.” Ice T added: “I’m so happy that right now anybody comes and asks me about my music or hip-hop, I can say, ‘Take your fucking ass to the museum.’ ”

In the curatorial spirit, though, Grandmaster Flash seemed particularly attuned to the power of archives and collections. He described it in personal terms. “My father was a serious collector of vinyl records,” he said. “The number one rule was: Don’t go in dad’s records. My father used to work for the railroad. I’d watch him put on his backpack and as soon as I heard the door slam, I would go get a chair, drag it over to the closet, climb up on the chair and wow, look at all those records.” Flash wore diamond earrings and a baby-blue Kansas City Royals hat. He smiled mysteriously and looked like he was still under the spell of his dad’s records.

“Rule number three was”—He didn’t mention rule number two—”never, ever touch the stereo. So I would grab the record, and I’d drag the chair and the record over to the stereo. I would turn on the stereo, and I’d be dancing in the living room. Then I would try to put the record back in exactly the same spot. When my dad came home, he would want to listen to his music and he would notice that something was different. He would go to my mom and say, ‘Who’s been in my records?’ She would say, ‘No, Joe, don’t do it.’ And my father would kick my ass. He’d kick my fucking ass. I’d cry, and my mother would hold me. The next day my father would put on his backpack, and when the door slammed, I’d go into the kitchen and get that chair.”

Flash’s masochistic persistence and technical curiosity (“I had this incredible urge. I would go in back yards. I would unscrew speakers out of rusted old cars.”) paid off. By the time he was twenty, he was a renowned DJ, and a few years later, in 1981 his The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel helped usher in a new genre of recorded music.

After the Hilton event, Grandmaster Flash lingered in the hotel hallway talking about his dad’s records, still enchanted by them. His father must have forgiven him eventually. He died of cancer, but in the hospital he told his son, “Make sure you get the records.” Flash recalled: “When we went to the house after the funeral, I opened up that closet and just looked at all those records. I cried for a couple days.” He paused. “I found all these great records in there. Him and I had never powwowed and talked about what he had. Old Isley brothers and this and that.” I asked him where he kept the vinyl now, and he told me about the 20-foot-by-20-foot two-story shack he built for the collection. “There are no categories,” he said. “That’s the way my mind thinks. When I go in there to get something, I can be in there all day.”

Flash gave the Smithsonian a turntable and mixer, but only a couple records (two copies of Bustin Loose by Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers). As part of hip-hop’s old guard, he had respect for the museum’s age and stature, though. “The old-schoolest of collectors is the Smithsonian. Everyone else comes after. Whether they be the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or the Experience Music Project in Seattle. They all come after. To be part of the Smithsonian is just monumental.”

I asked him if he might donate his record collection some day, but he had other plans. “When I pass, all my objects can go to the most fitting organizations that will treasure them, but the vinyl—I want it melted in a shape of a casket, that’s how I want to go.”

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‘9/11/03: A Day in the Life of New York’

Ostensibly a grave reckoning with the way we live now, 9/11/03 is mostly excerpts of a dinner NYU president John Sexton hosted on the titular date, where assorted notables—Salman Rushdie, Robert Morgenthau, Russell Simmons, El Diario publisher Rossana Rosado, Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul McHale—discussed the impact of 9-11 on American life. Fareed Zakaria comes across as the most nuanced thinker in the room, although what he says is undermined by weird cutaways to food being served. This event is supplemented by private interviews with the attendees, plus footage shot by 18 camera crews at other times that day. Talking heads include Al Sharpton and Joe Torre (who tells us that he works out at 1 p.m. before night games and mentions that the press is pretty tough on him), a Harlem ballet director, a broker with Douglas Elliman, a manager at Merrill Lynch, and cops in a vice squad. As is the case with many of us, 9-11 serves as an ominous but uninsistent backdrop to their daily lives, and so most of these profiles play like an especially grotesque form of free advertising. It might be instructive to investigate ways that life has changed since 9-11—looking into new security procedures, for instance—but 9/11/03 merely exploits the September 11 tag for unearned gravitas.

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Theater

Few stage personalities come as proudly miscegenated as Staceyann Chin: half black, half Chinese; Jamaican born but a longtime Brooklyn resident; a femme lesbian who admits to harboring butch fantasies. In many ways, Chin’s new one-woman show is just as unclassifiable as its creator. A coming-of-age autobiography that morphs midway into a poetry slam performance, Border/Clash begins with Chin’s modest childhood in a Jamaican backwater. Abandoned by her parents, Chin grew up under her ultra-Christian grandmother’s tutelage, eventually moving to New York, where she found her groove as a slam poet on the Lower East Side and later as a performer in Russell Simmons’s Def Poetry Jam. Harrowing though Chin’s story is meant to be, the real attraction is her verbal dexterity. This gifted vocal artist excels equally at prose and verse, and her unforced charm invigorates the play’s patchwork structure. Immensely likable, Chin remains something of a bohemian cliché. The more she emphasizes her multifaceted individuality, the less individual she becomes. Of course, no one is more aware of this than Chin, who diffuses her self-seriousness with ample self-mockery. Her “angry woman poetry” is often “laced with humor to make it go down easier,” she explains teasingly. Beating her own critics to the punch, Chin gets the last laugh, and then spins it into rhythmic gold.