“Speaking Freely” show recorded Jan. 25, 2002, in New York.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely.” I’m Ken Paulson. Our guest today has been both a pioneer and a driving force behind hip-hop. He’s the founder of Def Jam Records, chairman of Rush Communications. He’s Russell Simmons. Thanks for joining us here today.
Russell Simmons: Thank you for having me.
Paulson: I read very recently — I think it was Salon that described you as “not the inventor of rap but the man most responsible for its success.” Guilty as charged?
Simmons: Well, I would say that I have been part of a process, that I don’t — I don’t believe it would have been a problem for it to spread without my input, but I was a part of the process, and it was — it’s been an amazing ride over the last 20-some-odd years, and I’ve watched it evolve.
Paulson: You’ve got a fascinating new book called Life and Death: Sex, Drugs, Money, and God, which covers pretty much everything there, and it tells the story —
Simmons: Not necessarily in that order.
Paulson: (Laughs) Well, it tells the story of your career, including the first moment you heard hip-hop and your reaction to it. Could you talk about that?
Simmons: I was in a club on 125th Street, Charles Gallery, and I walked in, and there was this guy, Eddie Cheeba, who’s one of the grandfathers of rap — before records — and I walked into the club, and he was doing his thing, and there was a deejay, Easy G, spinning the records behind him, and it was an amazing experience for me, ’cause it was — it was like, you know, a light opened up. Like, “Whoa,” you know? And it was — at that time, rap — the rappers were the stars of the nightclubs in the way that clubs used to have bands perform, and the only difference is, since dancing was so important in disco and rappers spoke to their desire to dance and also to be entertained, it was an obvious thing, and it just — it jumped up, right out at me. So that was my first experience, I think about 1977, and the artist was Eddie Cheeba, and it was Charles Gallery in Harlem.
Paulson: For those people who didn’t know the culture — don’t know the culture of that era — what was different about that music you heard than what they might have heard from R&B acts or from Motown or Tamla?
Simmons: Well, at that time, Motown and Tamla and those labels were not so successful. What was big then was disco, and especially in New York. So the big records on the radio were — like, Patrick Juvet had a song called “I Love America.” The Village People had “Y.M.C.A.”, and there was a record pool, which I remember was the most influential in terms of getting records on the radio and from the disco, communicating the needs of the public, and that disco pool — record pool — was made up of 25 jocks who played in gay clubs, and — you know, Larry Levan, Larry Patterson, and Tee Scott. I mean, it was all these popular disco deejays, and they were doing what — the leader of that pool, Judy Weinstein, said that disco was black music made easy for white people to dance to. And that became — the most important input on black radio was disco. And so, when you’re in the ghetto, and you’re listening to “Y.M.C.A.” or “I Love America” by Patrick Juvet on your black radio station, there’s a disconnect, and what always happens when culture, you know, rises above the masses or rises to a different aspiration than what the masses have, then the masses create new, and whether it was, you know, from the jazz to blues to rock and roll or to rap music, it was that they had to create their own, and rap music was a return to funky — even rock and roll, but funky beats — and a return to artists who looked like and spoke to the needs and the minds of the people, and that’s what rappers were at that time.
Paulson: Early on, you worked with Kurtis Blow.
Simmons: My first artist was Kurtis Blow. That’s correct, and he made “Christmas Rap” in 1979, and I remember that when the record came out, it was successful in Amsterdam, and he and I got on a plane — and I had never been on a plane — and went to Amsterdam, and the record execs took us out and bought us drugs, and it was like — it was the most amazing thing that ever happened to me. I was thrilled that I was in the record business, and I was, you know, important, getting flown around, and I think that’s when I was the most successful, ’cause that was an amazing transformation, just being able to travel and be part of a culture and actually be part of it growing within an industry.
Paulson: In some ways, your breakthrough came when you began to work with your brother and a friend, and Run DMC came about.
Simmons: Run DMC was — I mean, Run was waiting for an opportunity forever, and he and his buddy D.M.C. made these songs, and they were so honest. Rap was going on a little bit of a tangent. There was some success in the rock clubs. That’s where the only crossover existed. No mainstream. And so they were starting to assimilate to the rock stars, or they wanted to get out of the ghetto so bad that they were willing to trade some of their souls, you know, and their attitude and their honesty for it, and so the music didn’t suffer, but some of the outfits and the attitudes that they sold with the music was not as honest, and Run DMC put on their ghetto uniform and did their ghetto thing, and the more honest it was, the more alternative it was, and the more integrity it had, the more mainstream it was despite the fact that they didn’t assimilate. And that was Run DMC’s claim to fame, that they spoke the language of the people. And I think that that was part of — that was one of the things that set the fabric for rap culture or hip-hop culture to be uncompromising, because uncompromising artists were the most successful, and honesty was the key to success, and people recognized it. And the terms, like “keeping it real,” you know, were ones that really had everything to do with success as well as, you know, keeping yourself rooted or grounded.
Paulson: That approach, though, was very much a part of what you did over the next two decades — about maintaining the integrity of the artist — at least trying to maintain the flavor of the artist you first discovered. You make a point in the book that the key is to recognize what’s commercially viable about a performer or what can be promotable. Use that, but don’t sell him out.
Simmons: Yeah, yeah, I mean, of course, artists have — they wake up on different sides of the bed, but — and there are many artists who are honest and have integrity, but they only roll over on one side of the bed when it’s time to write a song, and it’s their truth, but there’s a lot of truth. The great artists are more than one-dimensional. Tupac woke up one day and wrote about his love for and appreciation for and support for and willingness to raise up women, and the next song he wrote, rolled over to the other side of the bed and say, “I don’t love them hoes, none of ‘em.” You know, I mean, “I’m a pimp.” You know, whatever he’d say. Some mornings, the guy feels angry and says whatever he says, or people have conflicting thoughts and ideas, and when artists are able to express their full range of thoughts, then they become that much more interesting, I think, ultimately. And so we tried to always bring the most truth out of artists as possible, and that’s been — truth and integrity and honesty has been the key to success in any brand building, really. You know, the artists, or the brand equity, are — those are the things they have to speak to or work with, and then you build better brands.
Paulson: You know, “Rapper’s Delight” was a big hit and probably the first exposure for most people to rap. In the period you’re talking about when you’re working initially with Run DMC and Kurtis Blow, there wasn’t a huge white audience for it. And then one day, you hear a song called “It’s Yours,” and you meet Rick Rubin, and all that changes. The two of you together develop a sound that kind of crosses borders. How did that come about? How did “The Walk This Way” project develop?
Simmons: Well, in all fairness, Run DMC had made “Rock Box,” which was the first hip-hop record on MTV, and in fact, the only black artist on MTV when Run DMC got on there was Michael Jackson. His nose was broken, and his hair was straightened, but he wasn’t really speaking about the same cultural, you know, ideals and ideas that Run DMC and some of hip-hop talks about. So they were the first time that the ghetto communicated in an honest way their frustrations or their aspirations or their — or their cultural ideas and ideals, like the clothing style. Run DMC brought that in “Rock Box,” and then they made “King of Rock,” which also played on MTV, and then, the big hit was “Walk This Way,” which was the co-production between Rick Rubin, myself, and the band. Run DMC wanted to make “Walk This Way,” but they didn’t even know the name of the band. They wanted to make a record called “Toys in the Attic.” “You want to make ‘Toys in the Attic?’ Oh, that funky beat. Yeah, I know that.” I didn’t know the record either. And Rick’s like, “You stupid? That’s Aerosmith. What are you? Crazy?” And Rick had the — the foresight to go out and get Aerosmith and bring them in, and they were like, “No, we don’t want to say their words. We just want to use their beat, man. And we don’t want much of their guitar to play.” The way we’d cut it, you know, the beat would play, and then it’d go “Wa, na.” And then they’d get to say it. Like, the guitar would never get a full lick in. So it would just go, “Ra.” That’s the most you’d hear, that beginning of the guitar, or maybe a little bit more, but never would we — were we going to play the whole record. Rick said, “No, I promise you, it’s OK.” And they made the record, begrudgingly, and it was Rick’s genius that made that record so much bigger than the others, and it takes, you know, I mean, that kind of foresight to take something to the next level. So today, you know, “Walk This Way” is rarely played live in a concert by Run DMC, but then, that was the thing that gave rap its credibility amongst the people who, you know, were disbelievers and amongst an audience that was actually not open-minded enough to hear what they were already doing.
Paulson: One of the points you made in your book is about how young people know that rock stars are in some way rebelling against their parents, but that hip-hop or rap performers are actually rebelling against the System. They really have something to complain about. So there’s an authenticity that appeals to teenagers of all ages. That authenticity, though, sometimes gets on people’s nerves, and after the explosion of “Walk This Way” and the tremendous growth and interest in rap, you had people like Tipper Gore expressing interest in your music, suddenly.
Simmons: Well, I’m always happy to have those kind of people visible and promoting our music, because they always, always amount to more record sales and greater popularity and visibility for our artists. So the Tipper Gores and the Senator Liebermans and even the Hillary Clintons are very good for us, you know, when they attack the music. I’ve never felt that threatened, although I am working very closely with the Hip-Hop Action Network, and I’m back and forth to Washington, protecting our First Amendment rights. I don’t think that they can really stop the music. There’s nothing they can do about it except be angry. These records are going to get played, and these kids’ ideals are going to be heard. And the more they attempt to shut ‘em down, the more popular the artists and the music get. And it kind of reaffirms that it’s young people’s music. So when the old people are coming after the young people, they just get more rebellious. But this is a different story. I mean, they were upset about the language of some of these artists. Most of their stories are really about survival and even condemn — whatever you may view as negative is probably condemned on the rap record — that you don’t like. But the real thing is, when these rappers say things that are — that are important, and they move audiences to make other statements and — you know, the poetry show, for instance — that’s what they should be afraid of. You want to shut somebody up, shut up them poets.
Paulson: You know, you mentioned — we talked about Tipper Gore, Hillary Clinton, Senator Lieberman, all certified liberals by any standard, and of course, two different periods.
Simmons: I don’t know what standard you put Senator Lieberman as a liberal. I don’t know what standards you —
Paulson: Good point. Good point. Right, and —
Simmons: Hillary, sometimes — although, I think she’s wonderful; I supported her; I helped her become a senator; I think she’s mostly good — I just think she doesn’t know any better in this case. I think that she’s made some mistakes, and everyone does.
Paulson: And Tipper Gore, in fairness, that was a late-’80s position that they backed off of later, but to this core question —
Simmons: I wouldn’t consider any of those people liberals, as a matter of fact. I mean, Hillary’s got some bones in her and some —
Paulson: OK, but you also wouldn’t put them in Jesse Helms’ territory.
Simmons: No, no, that’s right.
Paulson: My point is, these aren’t people with a history of repression.
Simmons: That’s right, not a history.
Paulson: So you sort of have to step back and say, you know, maybe something deep inside these folks really bothers them about the music, and what do you think it is?
Simmons: You know, it’s just, like, difficult. It’s cultural — what it is, and so it’s not racist. It’s cultural, but it, you know, has racial overtones since all the artists they are attacking are black. It’s cultural. Their kids are listening to this music. You know, Senator Thompson, at one of the Marketing Accountability Act Hearings — Senator Lieberman held this thing, and Senator Thompson, who’s a Republican, says, “I think that every young American, especially boys, 14, 15 years old, should hear — should see ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ because I believe that builds character, and they understand war, and they need to understand war.” I said, “Well, shit, then every young person should see Snoop Dogg, should hear Snoop Dogg, too, because there’s a war going on down the block.” And that’s another ugly reality of our lives, you know, that we live with and that we, you know, can’t hide from our young people. They have to address the issue of poverty. You know, we don’t spend any time, energy, or enough money on war — the war on poverty. You know, we need $32 billion more to fight, you know, for our military right now, I saw in the paper today, but what about the war on poverty? What’s the real number we’re going to invest to win that war? And so, you hear the voices of those people who are suffering. You can’t break the mirror. You have to look in it and address the condition that they’re suffering in, and so that’s my opinion, and, you know, if all we ever did in rap was make Snoop Dogg records, that’d be fine by me. I mean, I’m always aspiring to make records that have solutions as well as point to conditions that are problems, but I mean, you know, I’d love to hear, you know, many more people like Mos Def and Common and Dead Prezidents and Lauryn Hill, and I love that Will Smith is maybe the biggest rapper in the world. You know, he’s a clean cut guy, and he’s honest and has integrity, and he’s a certain thing, and LL Cool J is a certain thing, and the Reverend Run from Run DMC is certainly a pretty clean image. You know, he’s a reverend and a father of five, and, you know, “Father of the Year” award the other day, I mean, he’s — you know, he’s great, you know. He’s a reverend, but he’s hip-hop, and that’s great, and there’s a diversity in hip-hop, and people forget how much diversity really is in hip-hop, but if all they heard was some, you know, records about how bad it is in the ghetto, that’d be fine. If all they said was “ ‘F’ the police” every single day until racial profiling stopped, that’d be fine too. But I’m always hopeful that rappers will get more involved in some social and political initiatives that will matter to their community. They already do support many, many more programs and philanthropic causes — I mean, philanthropic ideals and ideas than jazz, blues, and rock and roll put together, I’d guess — certainly more than they ever did in their heyday, all those — all those art forms. But I’m always hopeful they’ll do more.
Paulson: Speaking of government and censorship issues, you had some comments about the FCC’s just bewildering actions, recently, involving Eminem. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, it was two years ago that — in 2000, actually — in 2000 that the FCC fined a radio station $7,000 for playing the uncensored version of Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady.” Then after the Bush administration took office, and Michael Powell became chair of the FCC, there came a new fine for a censored version, a cleaned-up version, a bleeped version of “The Real Slim Shady.” Then after people like you spoke out and said “This is insane,” they decided they weren’t going to fine the radio station after all. What’s going on there?
Simmons: Well, I don’t want to guess what they’re thinking. I can only say that they didn’t have any good legal right to stand on their ideals, and so they had to drop ‘em, from what I can tell. That, I can assume, and I think that they were a little bit aggressive, and they — and they decided against their choice, and I think that it was going to be obvious that it was cultural, and since it’s going to be cultural, and we’re going to attack black kids for their language and culture, then we have to be careful how we do it, and so that was not a good vehicle to attack our freedom of speech because it was going to play out badly for them in the media and other places. They will pick better shots, but they will continue to take shots at us and all those who can speak up. I’m hopeful that they have their radar on some of these poets who are so articulate and have such strong commitment to such good goals, many of them, and I hope that they take aim at them, because they’re really able to express themselves in ways that will move the masses to protect all of us.
Paulson: Well, you discovered and worked with a lot of groundbreaking artists, and I wonder if you can talk to me a little about some of those people. You’ve already mentioned Will Smith, who was The French — The Fresh Prince when you first began working with him. I guess he still is.
Simmons: He still is. He was a guy who came out of the ghetto. Wasn’t really a tough guy. He was a nice guy, and he was real, and — gave him his platform, the fact that he spoke the truth, and that’s what makes Will Smith such a real and respected artist — even be surprised that the hardcore rappers love Will. You know, so —
Paulson: LL Cool J.
Simmons: LL Cool J is a kid from Hollis, Queens, where I’m from. You know, he — he’s been with me for almost 20 years now, and he just keeps making great records, and he’s a really good person with a good heart. He gives away a lot of money to charity, and he’s got a great family, and he’s a good family man, a good father.
Paulson: And now for something completely different: The Beastie Boys.
Simmons: Well, you know, I met them, and they were little brats. And they were in a band called Useless — Useless Youth as well as The Beastie Boys, and they were really useless. I mean — but the thing that was good about them on stage then with their jeans and their whole vibe was that they were real, and when they got into their rap thing, they put on a rap outfit, and what we got them to do is just wear their own clothes and be themselves, which they already were on record — fantastic — and so we presented to the world those kids as they really were as opposed to those kids who were borrowing too much from the hip-hop culture as it was. They gave — they contributed to hip-hop as opposed to just bought into it.
Paulson: A very political rap group: Public Enemy.
Simmons: My favorite Def Jam group of all time. They spoke the truth about many things, and they were — a lot of times got me in hot water because they said controversial things, but they were always trying to be insightful, and they contributed a lot to a climate. There was a — they made the movie “Malcolm X.” And all of the change that happened in that period, culturally, they were the spark that made many other rappers talk about social and political initiatives and attitudes and ideas that were not on the radar for rap music. They made that whole timing — that whole time come alive. They took off gold chains and put on African medallions, and all kinds of solidarity ideas and about raising consciousness of their audience, and they were very special.
Paulson: You know, we had Chuck D on the show not long ago, and at one point, he was talking about being a father and was talking about the need to keep some of this ugly music off the radio, and at that point, I asked to see his driver’s license, ’cause I couldn’t believe I was talking to Chuck D.
Simmons: Well, I’m — you know, some of us get old. I mean — and they change in their ideas. You know, I — I’m much older than Chuck, but I don’t judge so easily people’s, you know, choices, and, you know, I am a person — I don’t eat any animals. I have just kind of — you know, people would say I was a Renunciate, you know, and I took all of these drugs and had all of this fun, and I’m having all of this fun now, and I haven’t changed at all, you know, except that I don’t eat animals, and I don’t do certain things that I used to because it’s not in my heart to do it today, but I certainly don’t want to restrict anybody. I love hearing Snoop Dogg’s — I keep using his name because he’s — you know, for people who don’t know any better, he’s the gangster rapper, you know, but I love all of what we do in rap, and I think it’s all important to learn about, and it’s all our reality, and it’s all God’s work, believe it or not.
Paulson: Since the late ’70s, you’ve listened very carefully to the evolution of rap and hip-hop. You’ve seen it go through some changes, and there’s no question that it’s been among the most honest music made. Is there a different message being heard, by and large, today than there was ten years ago?
Simmons: Ah, not really. You know, we are still suffering in our communities. There’s still a tremendous amount of poverty and ignorance, and you hear how ignorant some rappers are in some ways but how insightful they are in many more ways. That’s the same. You know, these great poets are saying things that you don’t want to say, and you don’t want to hear, but you have to hear if you have any kind of — if you have an interest in changing us for the better. Their input is important. I’m glad that they’re saying — they’re saying what they’re saying. Again, I’m hopeful that they can talk about solutions to their problems because they’re inheriting a world full of violence and anger and bad energy and — my opinion — and I think that they should be instrumental, because they’re so creative, in changing that world. So that’s what I’m — that’s why I like the poetry so much too, because any time you get a rapper to take the music from under his beat, his shit gets — then it gets — you know, he has to say something profound. That’s his — then he has a different aim. Like, there’s no music to drive you insane. So now I might as well say what’s really on my mind, and I want more of that, if possible.
Paulson: And I have one more question for you, one final question that may be the most unfair or challenging question I can ask you. You’ve been in the right place at the right time. You have seen things coming when others around you didn’t see it. You saw hip-hop early on. Clearly, you saw the potential of rock and roll and hip-hop married together. You saw a new kind of comedy, and now you’re on the cutting edge of poetry as well. What do you see in the next five to ten years? Who will be the cultural leaders? And … what’s coming for art, rock and roll, and music?
Simmons: Well, let me say this to you. If someone picks up a sitar tomorrow and plays the shit … I mean, really does his thing with that sitar, then everybody’s gonna run off and play a sitar, and they’re gonna say, “What a great phenomena that is. Sitar is the hottest new instrument.” But that someone — you know, I’m not in touch with all of the millions of creative people there are, and the trends begin not — you know, things that are right immediately in front of us and you see them happening — I might have heard a sitar, and now my bands are playing with sitars, but that thing, the foresight of — of what cultural phenomenas will come on us is one I leave for those people who are calculated and are not creative, ’cause creative people know that the heart creates, you know. You create that — you create in the present, not in the future or in the past, and presence is something that God gives you, and you can’t duplicate that, and you can’t make it up, and you cannot predict it. So I can’t give you that answer. I can only say that I will try to be open-minded enough to be part of the process, to hear about it when people — when it’s — ’cause, like I said, I stumbled on comedy. It was obvious. It was already hot in every club in America, underground — I mean, knocking on mainstream’s door, and poetry was hot long before I started to work with it, and it was ready for its acceptance from the mainstream. So I’m an old man. I get it when it’s hot. I can’t get it when it’s — [laughs] when it’s — so I just gotta be there, and hopefully, someone will bring it to me, and I’ll recognize it.
Paulson: You’ll be there. Russell Simmons, thank you for joining us on “Speaking Freely.”
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