Russell Simmons has been a ubiquitous force behind Hip Hop’s biggest artists since rap music’s emergence on wax 40 years ago. The former honcho of Def Jam Records has cemented several of the label’s past flagship artists such as LL Cool J, Slick Rick, Jay-Z and Rock & Hall of Fame inductees Public Enemy and Beastie Boys in music history.
His career in the record business began shortly after the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” released on Sugar Hill Records in September 1979. As a 22-year-old party promoter and manager of Kurtis Blow, the original King of Rap, Simmons and Blow used Christmas as one of the genre’s initial selling points for the Harlem MC’s gold-selling debut single “Christmas Rappin'” on Mercury Records.
Kurtis Blow became the first rapper ever to land a record contract with a major record company, and the album’s second single “The Breaks” skyrocketed Kurtis’ profile with his self-titled debut album in 1980.
During his hectic schedule traveling between his bases in Bali and Los Angeles, we spoke with Simmons about the backstory behind “Christmas Rappin'” and why he believes LL Cool J has been excluded from a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction after five nominations.
DX: Tell me about the making of “Christmas Rappin'” by Kurtis Blow.
Russell Simmons: The thing that’s interesting is Kurtis Blow and I wanted to use Bob James’ “(Take Me To The) Mardi Gras” to make that record. It wasn’t even “Christmas Rappin.'” When they said we can make a rap record, the first thing we wanted to use was Bob James “Mardi Gras,” and that was in ’78, ’79. That was the record that made (co-producer) Robert Ford want to record with anyway because that’s the record that he opened with Grandmaster Flash. Kurtis Blow was not supposed to be recording “Christmas Rappin'” It was (pioneering MC) Eddie Cheba. And when Eddie Cheba went to see it, I waited and watched because Eddie Cheba opened and I convinced him to wait and watch Grandmaster Flash open because Kurtis Blow was the opener and did the vocals. Flash had the Furious Five, but Kurtis would MC for him when he played for me and honestly, it was much cheaper for Flash. Sometimes Flash would use Kurtis when he played with me at my parties to make more money and because my audience knew and liked Kurtis, who was Billed as “Queens’ No. 1” even though he was from Harlem. And Kurt did that whole intro “people in the place with bass” thing, they all did for Flash. He was such as great performer that Robert agreed to record him. So, when we got to talking about what we’re making, said we wanted to rap over that. And of course, Robert Ford and Jamie Moore wrote that bassline because at the moment, “Good Times” and that shit was hot. They made a funky version of that Chic stuff they were inspired by and he rapped over it. The second part of the record was, of course, Kurt’s and Run’s lyrics.
HipHopDX: Run’s ghostwritten lyrics were on that record because he was originally a DJ for Kurtis before he started Run DMC?
Simmons: That’s right.
DX: How did the record contract for “Christmas Rappin'” and his debut album on Mercury come into fruition?
Simmons: Mercury didn’t give a fuck about us. What happened was we got the record hot in the streets in America and we made a fake order number, and thereafter the orders came in. And a British A&R director saw the requests to ship the record from England and heard about the sales and signed Kurtis Blow to Polygram. The black department (from Mercury) didn’t want to sign Kurtis Blow, but then the black music department was given the record. And they did absolutely nothing. But the record got hot in Amsterdam, England and places like that. It never really got promoted in America. Although, it became a gold record and a huge thing as a big success. One of the biggest 12-inches in the history of the music business. It might have been the second biggest to Donna Summer and Barbara Streisand’s “No More Tears,” or ever in the major record business up to that date. “Rapper’s Delight” don’t count. It was that big of a record but it never got played on the radio until the following year. (Legendary New York City radio jock) Frankie Crocker played it one time on Christmas Eve 1979.
DX: Frankie Crocker’s co-sign made the record take off that quick with one spin on WBLS in New York?
Simmons: Right. But it wasn’t about the radio because it was already so hot in the street, and it kept playing in the street all year long, and then second half of the year it kept playing until “The Breaks” came out.
DX: “Christmas Rappin'” came out in what month in 1979?
Simmons: We were probably promoting it in November and October, and were in the streets with it earlier than that, and we were all over the clubs. Early in the year (1980), we got a flight to Amsterdam. That was our first trip anywhere. Niggas ain’t never been nowhere and we were on a plane going to Amsterdam.
DX: Do you remember traveling with Kurtis for him to perform on that British TV show Top Of The Pops in January 1980?
Simmons: Yeah, I remember traveling all through Europe with him where we had real legitimate radio play and real legitimate support from the record company. The black music department didn’t like anybody from the Harlem or the hood. This is like a scrappy, one-hit throwaway, we-didn’t-sign-in-the-first-place record. They never signed it or supported it. Once it became a hit, there was a guy named Bill Haywood who ran the black music department who did embrace us. He let us put a picture of Kurtis on the cover of “The Breaks” 12-inch cover. It was one of the biggest hits he had had all year. So, “The Breaks” came out and that was the beginning of a branding exercise for Kurtis as The King of Rap. That’s what we called him.
DX: Kurtis Blow appeared on Soul Train after that, right?
DX: I recall an interview in which you said Soul Train host Don Cornelius wasn’t a fan of rap music. He made a left-handed thank you and somewhat insulted Kurtis?
Simmons: Yeah, yeah, yeah, he said “I don’t like it.” I think it was the next year that we were on there and we had “Christmas Rappin'” and “The Breaks.” So, the whole year “Christmas Rapping” played and the following year ‘The Breaks” came out, and that’s when Don Cornelius had us on. That’s when we got on black radio with “The Breaks” and that’s when it became kind of a pop record. And Don Cornelius was always the same way until he died. He was like “I don’t like none of you niggas and I don’t like that shit you make, but you’re No. 1 so you’re on Soul Train.” He was kind of talked down to us. He wasn’t like “I hate what you’re doing,” but rather “I’m a little older than that and y’all niggas do what you do and I’ll support you, whatever.” As a young person, though, it was way different hearing Dick Clark (of American Bandstand) talking how much he loved the Beastie Boys, Run DMC and how this is an exciting new thing versus Don Cornelius saying “I don’t know what the fuck you niggas are doing, but I don’t like it.”
DX: DMC spoke about Dick Clark as few years ago when he died and thought of him as a b-boy at heart.
Simmons: The thing is Dick Clark made the business to be young and reinvent itself. And Don Cornelius didn’t make an effort to do that.
DX: But Don Cornelius had several of the Def Jam artists including LL Cool J, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and Nice & Smooth many years after Kurtis Blow.
Simmons: He put everybody on there. We had them around the calendar. He booked everybody we wanted. Don Cornelius gave me an open door. Once rap got big, he trusted me if I told him something was new, he put it on. The same thing with [The Arsenio Hall Show], 3rd Bass wasn’t supposed to be on Arsenio. The record (“Gas Face”) wasn’t even hot yet but the record became hot because Arsenio let us put them on, and Don Cornelius did that, too.
DX: Why do you think “Christmas Rappin'” is not pointed to the most important rap record next to “Rapper’s Delight” as rap’s starting point in the record business?
Simmons: It was after “Rapper’s Delight,” next in importance to that. Kurtis Blow certainly has had a long career. He’s somewhere in New York touring right now, still the King of Rap. The A-side and B-side of that “Christmas Rappin'” record still plays. It’s got a lot of play and I wish it could get more, of course. “Christmas In Hollis” and “Christmas Rappin'” are the only Christmas records that seem to come up every year. You might hear “Christmas Rappin'” but you gotta realize it’s 39 years old, which is crazy.
DX: And it’s been sampled like crazy, too.
Simmons: Not only has it been sampled, but “Another One Bites The Dust” (by Queen) bit our bassline and didn’t pay us.
Simmons: (mimics the bassline) Boomp-boomp-boomp, boomboom-boomboom-boomBOOMP. Same bassline, exactly. That song came out in ’80. “Christmas Rappin'” had been out and they stole the beat. But that was OK because back then we stole a lot of shit. Kurtis Blow and rappers used to steal each other’s rhymes all the time and put them on records.
DX: You compared LL Cool J to Jon Bon Jovi in one of your recent Instagram posts after LL was denied induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame following his fifth nomination. You also bemoaned the lack of diversity among the inductees. Why do you believe he’s getting stiffed by the Rock Hall?
Simmons: I think he sold way too many records for them that he’s a pop star in the way that Jon Bon Jovi is. But he’s not a pop star, he’s a trailblazer. He’s not just a normal melodic pop star. He made original, new shit. He broke boundaries. So, when I think about Jon — and Jon is my friend, and he just got in finally this year — he sold 100 million records. The reason [the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame voting committee] were cruel to him is that they said, “Oh, he’s a pop star.” I don’t know all Jon’s music, but I know him. And I don’t know how boring and commercial they try to make it feel by making him wait that long, but there’s nothing boring or commercial about LL Cool J. He crossed a lot of different boundaries, he opened doors, he broke barriers. They put N.W.A in and that’s great, but LL Cool J easily sold 20 times more units, though. The amount of records that Cool J sold, the long staying power that he had, no one could claim the string of hits that he had. He deserves to be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and he did change the culture.
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How many times is the Rock and Roll hall of game gonna look over or snub LL cool j ? This year 7 inductees one of color Bet we know who the first honoree /inductee in hip hop Musuem will be ? Music industry leadership and decision makers are still segregated But People if u want your stars in this Musuem and i do …you gotta join the board and vote ? The good news is no one can escape the music …..LL you are the GOAT KEEP INSPIRING WE LOVE YOU ❤️ @llcoolj I noticed John Bon Jovi waited They trying to make ll cool j pop The truth is he turned pop to hip hop Not hip hop to pop ….That’s his honest hip hop expression that bridged it all together They penalizing him for selling too many records But he will always be instilled in the history books with or without their endorsement
The other problem is that we’re (people of color) not on the board, or we don’t vote. People voted for who they loved. I don’t think it was racial. I think that it’s racial because we as a people are not integrated into power’s infrastructure. It’s up to us to join the board. I remember when I was on The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame board, (Sire Records founder/legendary record executive) Seymour Stein used to come and ask me could he borrow my ballot. I’m like “Keep it, I don’t give a fuck.” They made me join because I’m black, and they wanted me involved, and I didn’t even give a fuck. To this day, I don’t even give a fuck. I don’t even know where those statues are. But the point I’m making is that some people care and if you care you gotta join the board. I only care for LL because every artist wants their accolades and he’s deserving of them, and that’s why I fought for him and what I wrote about him. I believe it. But I also believe blacks gotta join the board in order to complain.