30th Anniversary Issue / Russell Simmons: Hip-Hop Honcho

I grew up in the lower-middle-class culture of Hollis, New York. I guess I grew up “ghetto,” by which I mean a certain attitude and style and type of music. I went to City College for four years like an idiot. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I loved music, but I thought I’d study sociology and become a professor somewhere.

The first time I heard a rapper was in 1977. It was Kurtis Blow at the Charles Gallery on 125th Street. That changed my life. He was the original rapper, along with Eddie Cheever and D.J. Hollywood. I began to promote parties with artists like them and Grandmaster Flash. Kurtis and I made our first record, “Christmas Rapping,” in 1979. I couldn’t believe it when it became the success it did. Back then, everyone was telling me that hip-hop was a joke, a trend, that was it. They were playing disco records and telling me my rap records were just trendy, all right? Meanwhile, that record still plays today.

I quit school and became Kurtis’s manager. I was running around all the time, making deals almost never – but I tried hard. I was promoting this and that, running my ass off.

The whole eighties are a blur. We were all high. Most nights, I’d start out at Danceteria, then head to Bentley’s – which was a conservative kind of club that was mostly R&B – and then head up to Disco Fever in the South Bronx till eight in the morning. Each place had its own charm, but you’d never see anybody from Danceteria in the Fever and you’d never see anyone from the Fever in Bentley’s. I felt like I belonged in all of them.

I loved clubs like the World, Peppermint Lounge, and the Mudd Club. And 371, Disco Fever, and Tea Connection, and all the clubs in the Bronx and Harlem – all completely hip-hop – like Small’s Paradise and Charles Gallery. And Justine’s and Leviticus – they were all bourgie black, very influential in terms of radio. And the Paradise Garage and the Loft and all those gay clubs. All these people never had nothing to do with each other.

If there’s anything I’ve done for urban culture, it was to expand on its base. I put Kurtis Blow and Run D.M.C. in the Mudd Club and the Peppermint Lounge because they belonged there. I knew you could put Eddie Cheever in the Paradise Garage, and it didn’t matter what the D.J. thought. Those years were like a roller coaster. Rap blew up. When Run D.M.C. got on MTV, they didn’t even have a hit, but it was obvious something was going to happen. I had a management company – Rush Management – that was the rap company, the only one.

I met Rick Rubin in ’84, and we started Def Jam Records. A year later, Rick and I released our first record, L.L. Cool J’s “I Need a Beat.” Our first movie, Krush Groove, about the beginning of Def Jam, came out in ’85. It became the No. 1 movie in the country. That was our anchor – Run D.M.C, the Fat Boys, and the Beasties were in that movie, plus Sheila E.

I was making records that were based in urban culture and had been influenced more often than not by African-Americans, but I never believed that their audience had to be black. When I was working with the Beasties, I helped to take what they do and make it better, the same way that I worked with every other artist. They happened to have taken a field that was mostly black, but they did it in their own way, with a very honest energy.

I put Run D.M.C. together with Aerosmith because it was obvious – it made good sense. Black culture or urban culture is for all people who buy into it and not just for black people. Whether it’s film or TV or records or advertising or clothing, I don’t accept the box that they put me in.

When I started Phat Farm in ’92, they wanted to put me in the ethnic part of the department store. But Phat Farm’s best-selling item is a pink golf sweater – it’s not a grass skirt or a dashiki. I saw the urban community make Polo cool again and invent Tommy Hilfiger. I want to sit next to Ralph Lauren and Polo with my clothing company.

When I was making The Nutty Professor, somebody told me no black producer makes mainstream movies. I looked around and there really weren’t any. But you have to break the mold and change the mind of even black executives, because that’s critical for the success of the culture and of mankind; that’s what it’s all about.

The magazine I started in 1994, One World, has the same philosophy. I think that black guys love Arnold Schwarzenegger, and white guys like Snoop Dog. And I believe black girls want to read about and sleep with Leonardo DiCaprio and that white girls are interested in L.L. Cool J the same way.

Interviewed by Vanessa Grigoriadis

30th Anniversary Issue / Russell Simmons: Hip-Hop […]