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Minister on MTV? Yep, he's a Rev Run

POP BEAT

Joseph Simmons, Run of Run-DMC, is a man of the cloth with a new album and reality show.

July 16, 2005|Steve Hochman | Special to The Times

You'll never mistake Joseph Simmons for Ozzy Osbourne.

The collar alone pretty much assures that. Sitting in a small side room at Cine-Space in Hollywood, he sports the white band of a man or woman of the cloth -- Simmons is an ordained Pentecostal minister.

But Simmons, his wife and five children (ages 8 to 21) are going to be featured in an MTV reality series starting in September, taking the slot in recent years occupied by Ozzy's foul-mouthed clan on "The Osbournes."

And like Osbourne, Simmons is a key figure in the history of late-20th century pop culture, known to the masses as Run of the pioneer rap group Run-DMC. Now going by the name Rev Run, he thinks the show will go down just fine with the MTV audience, collar and all.

"It's rock 'n' roll," he says of the rapper-turned-reverend concept of the MTV series, "Run's House." "I am Rev Run. I'm proud of it. It's rap grown up."

Or as his brother, veteran music executive Russell Simmons, quips, "MTV has never shown a functional family before."

Whatever the show is, it certainly won't be sedate. As Simmons, 40, discusses it following a small gathering of music business figures who have come to hear about his new projects at the Hollywood nightclub, he's animatedly passionate, mixing a preacher's fire and the playfully voluminous delivery that was a trademark of such '80s Run-DMC hits as "King of Rock," "It's Like That" and "Walk This Way," their collaboration with Aerosmith.

"People will go, 'This is the guy who made "Tricky" and "Walk This Way"? Wait! He's a reverend?' " Joseph Simmons says.

Old fans won't have any trouble recognizing him in another forum, though. He's completed a new album, "Distortion," that picks up where Run-DMC left off in the late '80s. It sounds fresh without making any concessions to current hip-hop fashions -- no Jay-Z ultra-cool, no crunk shouts.

Played for the gathering, the album (due Sept. 13 on his brother's new Russell Simmons Music Group label) features 10 sonically powerful and lyrically personal tracks that mix rock energy and rap attitude -- some of the characteristics that led to the Hollis, Queens, group being the first rap act to be played on MTV and placed on the cover of Rolling Stone.

A guitar lick modeled on Joan Jett's "I Love Rock N' Roll" spices the single "Mind on the Road." Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" makes the unlikely foundation of "Home Sweet Home," an affectionate tribute to Jam Master Jay (Jason Mizell), the Run-DMC DJ who was fatally shot in 2002 at a New York recording studio. Other tracks use less recognizable elements, creatively put together by Rev Run and collaborator and producer Whiteboy, such as the chaotic psychedelic percussion of the title song.

But he's also clearly distanced himself from the old days. The song "I Used to Think I Was Run" was inspired by a youth who modeled himself on Simmons. On "High and Mighty Joe," he uses exaggerated vocals (almost like the "Wizard of Oz" soldiers chorus) to mock his own stardom.

Following Mizell's still unsolved slaying, Simmons retired from music and concentrated on his other job, running the athletics shoes division of his brother's Phat Farm apparel empire. Run-DMC, which also featured co-founding partner Darryl McDaniels, had made an album in 2000 and toured, opening stadium shows on a bill with Aerosmith and Kid Rock in 2002. That book was closed with the Mizell slaying.

But Simmons got the itch to make music again. After exploring some potential collaborations with high-profile producers, he decided that he just wanted to do this on his own, under the radar.

With Whiteboy, he went into the studio and worked quickly, not even writing lyrics down as he created them. Music and words flowed readily and the whole album of 10 songs was recorded in just 10 days. It was an experience he found liberating.

"I could just be free, no expectations," he says following the listening party. "When I was a kid I thought I had to chase being No. 1. Now at the end of the day it was all about the process, so the prize was already got just by making the album. I had no thoughts about what it could do. Maybe I'd see if Russell liked it. Maybe."

Russell liked it. In fact, it brought him out of music retirement as well. He'd been one of the behind-the-scenes forces that took rap to center stage in the '80s, his Def Jam management firm and label fostering Public Enemy, LL Cool J and other seminal acts. His enterprise grew into fashion, film and television, becoming the first real hip-hop empire.

Simmons sold Def Jam to Universal Music in 1999, staying on as chairman of that side of the merged Island Def Jam Records. But he left in early 2004, outspokenly critical of the appointment of Antonio (L.A.) Reid to head Island Def Jam.

But with his brother's record in hand, he buried the hatchet and has formed the new Russell Simmons Music Group, a co-venture with Island Def Jam.

"I never thought I'd be back in the record business," Russell Simmons says. "But this is a very honest record, and everybody can play it. A modern-rock station in Washington is playing the single."

And how does it fit in the contemporary hip-hop world?

"Hip-hop artists talk about the struggle," Russell Simmons says. "Whether it's the angry approach or the spiritual that Rev Run and Kanye West are talking about."

West, whose "Jesus Walks" brought a new level of church orientation to the hip-hop mainstream last year, is probably the closest in the current market to Rev Run.

And Joseph Simmons has a lot of respect for current rappers, regardless of his place -- if any -- in the scene today. He's thrilled to be seen as an influence, noting that he frequently gets told by young rappers that Run-DMC inspired them.

They'll get used to the collar.

"I wear it every day," he says.

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