On the Record

The downfall of the one-time ‘king of hip hop’

Names like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby have taken the headlines over the past few years as the list of men in powerful positions exposed for rape and sexual assault continues to grow. In the UK, outside of hip hop fans and music industry bods the name Russell Simmons might not ring as clearly. But his position as co-founder of Def Jam records and the man responsible for bringing rap into the mainstream (Beastie Boys, Run DMC, LL Cool J and countless others) saw him take the position as the king of hip-hop from the late-80s through the 90s. He was a titan who helped grow the culture into the dominant force it is today, the force behind a music that has provided the soundtrack to the world for the past 30 years.

But as chronicled in On the Record, it appears that’s only part of what Simmons has been responsible for. Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s powerful and deeply moving new documentary sees a number of women say he assaulted and raped them, with the number now as high as 20. The film first appeared on HBO Max at the end of May and arrives at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement has finally been heard around the world (how much remains to be seen in the months to come) and beyond what seems to be a very narrow dynamic of the Me Too movement (mostly white, successful and rich) it gives Black women a voice too many continue to ignore.

“Who we choose to listen to is predicated on who see as valuable in America,” says writer Shanita Hubbard, echoing the voices of countless Black women who feel the image of always being labelled ‘strong’ and ‘outspoken’ mirrors the lazy characteristics perpetuated against Black men, thus dampening their voices when speaking out against injustice. It must be stated that Dick and Ziering are both white women, so while not fully representative of the Black female experience in America, their film attempts to dig into the roots of how this misrepresentation has been cultivated over the past 400 years to connect it with the story of multiple women who came forward to accuse Simmons.

Drew Dixon is given the main focus as she released her story through the New York Times, which Dick and Ziering capture as she is in the process of speaking about her experiences to the outlet. While not mentioned in the film, it is not the first time accusations against Simmons have been made public, with writer Sil Lai Abrams revealing her rape in a book published some years ago (she also features in the film). We are told at the end that countless others have now come forward to speak about their experiences, all of which Simmons categorically denies. Yet before any legal investigation could begin he sold his assets and fled to live permanently in Bali, Indonesia, which currently has no extradition treaty with the US.

On the Record recalls Dixon’s success in the music industry, rising to Director of A&R at Def Jam in the ‘90s and overseeing hits like Method Man and Mary J.Blige’s “All I Need” and the classic hip hop documentary The Show, which brought together the likes of Dr. Dre, Snoop, Wu-Tang Clan, The Notorious B.I.G. and many others. She soon quit Def Jam after the attack and went to work under the legendary Clive Davis at Arista, overseeing the multi-platinum success of Santana, Whitney Houston and Lauryn Hill to name a few. It seemed she could leave the trauma of Def Jam behind her, until Davis left and was replaced by L.A. Reid, whose predatory behaviour felt uncomfortably similar to that of Simmons before the assault, forcing her to quit once again and leave the industry for good (multiple woman have also accused Reid which he also denies).

Not only is it important to be aware of Dixon’s career in order to wipe away any baseless accusations this could all be a power move, but also of the culture she was deeply immersed in at the time. Rap music and hip hop culture was on the rise in the ’90s and it was an exciting time for anyone involved. But it also meant the rampant misogyny of the male-dominated scene (both inside and outside of the recording booth) forced women to repeatedly turn a blind eye. As we hear, those involved behind the scenes didn’t want to be seen as “traitors” to the culture, or responsible for harming it in any way. Dick and Ziering also wisely refer to countless other genres of music (the likes of The Beatles, Tom Jones and racist lyrics by The Rolling Stones about Black women) that perpetuate stereotypes and violence towards women to show this is not just a rap issue. Rather, it’s one created by men. As long as young men are raised without being taught to show respect for the women in their lives it will continue to fester in the systems that control access to art.

Dixon speaks with confidence and clarity about her personal life and career and makes for engaging company. Quite what Oprah Winfrey meant when she decided to drop her involvement citing “inconsistencies” in her story is a mystery (yet she also confusingly says she believes the women and was repeatedly pressured by Simmons) as Dixon’s account cuts to the core. The same is true for the other women brave enough to speak up, with Sheri Sher of Mercedes Ladies, Alexia Norton Jones, Tina Baker, Kelly Cutrone and others all featuring. Sil Lai Abrams is the most prominent second voice heard, although the runtime doesn’t allow much room for an as deep investigation into her story.

Leading scholar Kimberle Crenshaw, activist Tarana Burke and journalist Bim Adewunmi all feature in support to offer critical insight about sexual assault suffered by Black women, who as the lowest earning demographic in the US fight a double-edged battle against racism and sexism. Journalist Kierna Mayo pointedly asks what the industry and music fans have missed out on as a result of Simmons and Reid’s actions over the past two decades given Dixon’s track record in her 20s. How many other women have a similar story to tell (the answer is likely too many for many men to comprehend or even deal with)? On the Record offers an extremely powerful look into the sexism and misogyny that has existed in the music industry since its formation, and it will hopefully inspire others to speak their truth and bring down the many men who continue to profit from the women they abuse.

On The Record is available to watch on VOD from June 26.

Steven Sheehan

Updated: Jun 25, 2020

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