Rush, Def Jam, and ”Krush Groove”

A Hollywood movie purportedly devoted to New York’s hip-hop scene, “Krush Groove” had more to do with Rush Productions than with Def Jam Recordings. But it deserves its place in this exhibition for several reasons: It boasts the screen debut of LL Cool J, 45 seconds of pure hip-hop electricity; both Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin play versions of themselves, and; the very fact that this movie was in production in the spring of 1985, when Def Jam was looking to hook up with a more established label, surely helped nail the deal with Columbia Records later in the year.

Ever the visionary, Russell was talking about making movies starring his rappers early on. The Wall Street Journal story describing Russell as “the mogul of rap,” which ran in December of 1984, ignited the immediate interest of Israeli movie producer Menahem Golan. The proprietor of Cannon Films, Golan wanted to grind out a rap quickie before the fad for the music faded. Russell, convinced that rap was no fad, declined to partner up with Golan. (In an obituary about Golan, who died in 2014, the New York Times's Anita Gates wrote: "Mr. Golan and his company churned out movies about ninjas, cyborgs, chain saws and the likes of 'Teenage Bonnie and Klepto Clyde.'")

Shortly thereafter, Russ was approached by George Jackson and Doug McHenry, seasoned black filmmakers based in Hollywood. They were younger than Golan and much more respectful of hip-hop culture. They also promised Russ that they could pull in Michael Schultz to direct the film. Schultz happened to have made a couple of Russell’s favorite flicks: “Car Wash” and ”Cooley High.” Russell signed on as co-producer, Warner Bros. gave it the green light, and the production got underway.

Ralph Farquhar, a black screenwriter best known for his work on TV comedies such as “Happy Days” and “Fame,” knocked out the first draft of a script that Russell didn’t like. Farquhar tried again and this time Russell said OK. The film was shot in New York over the course of three weeks in April of 1985. It debuted in New York on October 23, 1985.

Although it features starring roles—and musical performances—by Run-DMC, the Fat Boys, and Kurtis Blow, “Krush Groove” is neither a great work of cinema, nor a very accurate portrait of New York’s rap scene at the time. At heart it is a love story between Blair Underwood, playing an artist manager based on Russell Simmons named Russell Walker, and Shiela E., playing herself.

That either of them got within ten miles of the set is a measure of the timidity of the studio, Warner Bros. Blair Underwood was a good-looking and well-mannered young actor, who possessed none of heat, humor, or drive then defining hip-hop. Sheila E. had recently enjoyed the biggest hit of her career with “The Glamorous Life,” a song written and produced for her by Prince, who—not coincidentally—had made a ton of money for Warner Brothers just the year before as the star of “Purple Rain.”

Missteps and compromises aside, “Krush Groove” was a big screen showcase for some young rap hit makers at a time when that kind of exposure for a rapper was very rare. The very idea of it electrified everyone who cared about hip-hop—which is why Cynthia Horner put the movie’s stars on the cover of the October 1985 issue of Right On!, the monthly magazine of which she was the editor-in-chief. Begun in 1971 as a kind of black counterpart to teen music mags like Tiger Beat, Right On covered rap from its very beginnings.

Cynthia’s feature highlights the sociological importance of “Krush Groove” in the story’s second paragraph: “For the first time, we were on the set of a film which not only had black producers and a director, but a majority of the behind-the-scenes people were black as well.” In interviews conducted on the set, two of the movie’s stars, both of whom were quick to grasp the new opportunities opening up to them, conveyed their excitement. DMC says, “I’ve always wanted to be in a movie. I’d like to play a character like the Terminator or James Bond next time.” Kurtis Blow, less specific than D, says, “I’ve made videos before but this is something totally different. It’s like a whole new life for me.”

The dreaminess of the experience was still in effect months after the filming; the premiere’s after-party was held at Studio 54. Although the iconic nightclub was by then past its heyday, the very idea that a party for a rap film could be held on such glamorous and hallowed premises was fairly thrilling for one and all. Columbia Records marked the occasion by sending out a couple of press photos shot at the party, one of Rick Rubin and the Beastie Boys, the other of LL, Cut Creator, and E-Love. The attached text noted that Def Jam had just issued the first of its recordings to be released by Columbia.

Once in theaters, “Krush Groove” seemed to take off like a rocket, especially given that it was playing in limited release in a limited number of cities. Two weeks after its release “Krush Groove” was number one on Variety’s list of 50 Top-Grossing films.

And then, perhaps inevitably, things got a little crazy. Audiences at some of the movie’s screenings became unruly. The New York Post demonstrated its well-known genius for concision—if not accuracy—with a front-page headline reading: “MOVIE SPARKS NEW TEEN RIOT.” At The New York Times, where cooler heads presided, the headline read “200 Youths in Brawl Outside L.I. Theater Showing ‘Rap’ Film.” Time magazine, of all outlets, played the “riots” for laughs. In a short unsigned news story composed entirely in rhyme, dated November 18, it notes: “Now there’ve been fights at the Plexes, kids’ve got out of hand/But they must’ve spiked the sodas at the popcorn stand/Because this movie has the innocence of bygone years/Like the films of Fred (Rock Around the Clock) F. Sears.”

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