Russell Simmons Reveals His Secret For Balancing Commercial Success With Maintaining Crediblity (Video)
Throughout Russell Simmons’ founding tenure at Def Jam Records, the Hollis Queens, New York native developed a number of hugely successful artists and albums. The Beastie Boys’ Licensed To Ill, DMX’s It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot and Flesh Of My Flesh, Blood Of My Blood, Method Man’s Tical 2000: Judgement Day, and Jay Z’s Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life would all reach #1 on the Top 200 while Rush was controlling owner of the New York City-based label. In 1999, Simmons would sell his remaining shares of Def Jam to Seagram for a self-reported $115 million.
Speaking with Vlad TV’s DJ Vlad, the iconic record executive-turned-fashion and film mogul spoke about growing artists to mainstream popular appeal, without compromising their authenticity.
At 5:20 in the interview, Simmons explains, “I used to say all the time, if you make a record that’s kind of Pop like [Run-D.M.C.’s ‘Walk This Way’], put a ‘Sucker M.C.’s’ record on the B-side.” Initially using Run-D.M.C. (whom he managed and co-produced, despite being signed to Profile Records) as an example, Simmons elaborates figuratively, “If [LL Cool J is] gonna make ‘Going Back To Cali’, let’s put [a record like] ‘I Shot Ya’ on the B-side.” Let’s make sure we speak to the core all the time. I always did that as a brand-builder, because there is a bigger audience. It’s not fake to you, but it’s not core to the community. I always wanted to do both as a brand-builder.”
While LL Cool J would not achieve his first #1 album (2000’s G.O.A.T.) until after Simmons’ Def Jam sale, he uses one of the label’s earliest success stories to illustrate the formula. “LL thanked me for that from the stage the other day; I was amazed he even recognized it,” Russell explains, referring to a recent event. “I always would say, we gotta put ‘I Shot Ya [Remix]’ on the B-side of [‘Hey Lover’],” he says of the #3 1995 Mr. Smith platinum single. Notably, “Hey Lover” and “Loungin’,” featuring Total, both peaked at #3—the highest single charting position LL achieved in his 30-plus-year career.
Looking at 1990’s Top 10 Cool J hit from Mama Said Knock You Out, Rush believes he, LL, and Def Jam appeased both demographics. “I also felt that…and some others didn’t feel…but I felt that ‘Around The Way Girl’ was core. That was core.” The Marley Marl-produced gold-certified hit featured “Murdergram” on its B-side. “I was always kind of in-between. But I realized that there’s a B-boy audience, and there’s this pop audience. There’s this lack of credibility when you approach the pop audience without really respecting your core. Some of the things were more blatant. Some were less blatant, in terms of their [disregard of] not speaking to the core.”
Simmons, who today focuses energies on All Def Digital, Global Grind, and Def Pictures, among other interests, says the proof is in the results. “That’s how brands last 25 years, like LL Cool J. That’s why these brands, 25 years later and 30 years later, are still alive in peoples’ hearts because they did things that didn’t take away from their integrity. Or, they protected their integrity as much as they could at the time [that] they were still rising to the mainstream audience.”
LL Cool J recently previewed some 2015 work with Dr. Dre following hosting honors at the Grammy Awards. The longtime flagship Def Jam act is said to be working on G.O.A.T. 2, which would be his 14th studio album.