Journalism is only partly about writing. For me, research and interviewing have been equally satisfying (and usually less stressful).
In the 17 years I worked as a staff writer for the Wall Street Journal, my mind was opened wide by the staggering range of people I met — and whose lives I had a ticket to explore. I interviewed farmers and movie stars, CEOs and Rockettes. I hung out with Rupert Murdoch, the inventor of kitty litter and Jeff Koons.
But perhaps the most fascinating person I got to know during those years was Russell Simmons. Before the mansions, philanthropy, yoga-mastery and swimsuit models, Russell Simmons was a driven young man with an idea that seemed wildly implausible at the time: to develop rap into the soundtrack of the nation, and to make a fortune for himself in the process.
Our paths first crossed in 1984. Russell was in his 20s, promoting a handful of unknown rap performers at clubs and working out of a tiny midtown office with graffiti -covered walls. A colleague trying to get publicity for Russell’s tiny DIY label, Def Jam, called me up and said this hip hop thing wasn’t a fad, and I should interview Russell because he was the “mogul of rap.” That seemed like a laughable oxymoron, but as a hook, it got me.
To start with, Russell said I needed to go with him to “the birthplace of rap,” a dingy club in the South Bronx called Disco Fever, and I needed to go at 2 am, because that’s when it gets interesting. He wanted to bring along his young protege, a guy too young to drink at the bar, but his first single had just come out: his name was LL Cool J. To report that first story, I traipsed around with Russell as he took rap records with a single song from one hot downtown club to the next, trying to persuade the DJs to play the music. I travelled to Baltimore for a touring show called the Fresh Festival, which included some of the hot acts of the day like Run-D.M.C. and the Fat Boys.
Over the years I covered rap (when my beat was the business of the arts, and later, the music business), I wrote about the changing scene. I interviewed up-and-coming stars like Queen Latifah, Salt-N-Peppa, and the guys who started the Source magazine in their Harvard dorm room, but I kept in touch with Russell. What always impressed me most about him was his work ethic. He was a total Type-A workaholic and obsessed with his projects, and always eloquent in his defense of the music. I recall one lunch at a diner in the East Village early on when a middle-aged black man sitting at the next table, overhearing us speak about the state of rap music, started attacking it as vile both musically and culturally. As always, Russell responded with a detailed, passionate defense.
I’ll be honest and admit that rap is probably still my least favorite genre of music. But there is absolutely no denying that Russell Simmons and all the other artists and producers of this music have lived out his dream, and I don’t just mean his net worth exceeding $300 million. Rap is the soundtrack of 21st century America in many respects, as likely as rock to be in the next ad you see.
I’ve not seen any of this 4-part documentary, The Tanning of America: One Nation Under Hip Hop, but I can say the producers were extremely professional, well-organized and thorough. I kept telling them no, I didn’t want to be interviewed for a rap documentary, but they kept asking until I said yes, explaining that Russell Simmons told them it took being quoted in my front page story for him to get the mainstream credibility he needed to finally sign a big record deal. I’ll be very interested to see which of my comments during the hour they filmed me made it into the documentary, but yes, Russell Simmons did call me “The Ivory Snow Queen.” He said I was the whitest person he ever met.
So that’s how I wound up becoming a talking head in the The Tanning of America (they tell me I appear in parts 1 and 2.). It will debut Monday, Feb. 24 on VH1, at 11 pm, running four consecutive nights, and afterward, will be available for streaming online, including at iTunes. You can watch the trailer here, and see if it isn’t worth checking out.