In my last post you learned a little about the beginnings of hip hop music as a business. While the song Rapper’s Delight might have sold two million copies world wide, the industry still saw hip hop as a fad that wouldn’t last. Rapper’s Delight could not be replicated. Many people felt differently. One of them became one of the most successful people in hip hop. That man was Russell Simmons.
Russell Simmons was brought up in Hollis, Queens. His father, Daniel, was supervisor of attendance in Queens School District 29. Russell Simmons studied sociology at the Harlem branch of City College. It was there that he teamed up with fellow student Curtis Walker to throw parties in Harlem and Queens at which the first generation of rappers competed. He went on to manage Walker, who as Kurtis Blow became the first big solo rap star in 1979. Simmons worked with Blow in the completion of “Christmas Rappin.’” He also managed other successful acts such as Run-D.M.C., Will Smith, as DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, as well as legendaries DJ Hollywood and DJ Kool Herc.
“Christmas Rappin’” was Simmons’ first time of his illustrious career, that he entered the studio. When the song was completed, Simmons began shopping it around to various labels for release. As Simmons said in Life and Def: Sex, Drugs, Money + God, “There was interest, but no one was biting. The industry’s attitude was that “Rapper’s Delight,” despite its US sales and international appeal, was an unrepeatable fluke. 1
While it was a fluke for the artists that recorded the song, the genre was by no means a fluke. “Christmas Rappin’” gained moderate success on radio. In places around the South, the single was still being played in late July. Simmons, who needed distribution for the record, approached PolyGram to distribute it. PolyGram wasn’t interested in investing in a hip hop record, but Simmons decided to show them the power of hip hop. He decided to go around to the various stores that expressed interest in the record and told them to order the record from PolyGram. When PolyGram started receiving orders from stores, they saw this as an immediate opportunity to cash in on hip hop. Kurtis Blow signed a record deal with Mercury Records, a label under the PolyGram umbrella. This marked the first time a hip hop act was signed to a major label. 2
Sugar Hill Records did find some more success on their roster. The legendary Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five signed to Sugar Hill Records and made its mark in hip hop in 1980. The group released the record “Freedom” which hit the top 20 on the R&B charts. 1981’s “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” was the first record to feature complex cuts and scratches, and introduced the name Grandmaster Flash as their originator. But it was 1982’s “The Message” which became the first hip-hop social commentary on ghetto life, and which became a critical crossover hit for Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. 3 Meanwhile, Simmons was out on tour with Blow promoting the “Christmas Rappin’” single. Though Blow had two Gold singles (sales of five-hundred thousand each), hip hop was still far from the minds of the major labels in the industry. They still didn’t see it as a marketable form of music. Simmons thought differently and would soon form a partnership that would change the fate of the entire music industry.
In 1984 two very different people with very different backgrounds met and would come to create one of the most successful musical ventures in the industry’s history. Not only was it that successful, but it was successful with a music the major labels didn’t see as becoming successful. The first guy was Rick Rubin, a former punk musician who loved the rebelliousness of this new form of music. The other was Russell Simmons, the concert promoter in New York who was booking the hottest MCs and DJs of the time at small venues, parties, and other small gatherings. These two met when Simmons saw a little logo on an album by T. La Rock & Jazzy J. This logo read “Def Jam.” The record was nothing like Simmons had ever heard. He immediately began searching for the producer of this record. He tracked Rubin down and found out he attended New York University. It was in a NYU dorm room that he met Rick Rubin and formed a partnership that would change music history.
Stay tuned for the next segment in my series on hip hop history, Building the Empire.