The Story Behind 'Krush Groove'
By Kyle Eustice
Sheila Escovedo (better known as celebrated percussionist Sheila E) had just wrapped up the Purple Rain Tour with Prince in 1985 when she was offered an audition for a hip-hop movie called Krush Groove. With zero acting experience and running on fumes, she boarded a plane bound for New York City not knowing what to expect.
“They wanted to see if I had chemistry with this guy named Blair [Underwood],” Shiela recalls. “So we went to New York and I did a couple of scenes. I’d never taken any lessons, but I thought I could do anything, so I was like, ‘Sure no problem. Not a big deal.’ We did the little screen test and everything worked out well, so we did the movie.”
Starring Blair Underwood as Def Jam Recordings co-founder Russell Simmons, Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin as himself and Simmons as hot headed Crocket, Krush Groove took a deep dive into the inner workings of a record label and the artists on its roster. With the direction of Michael Schultz, who’d directed 1975’s Cooley High, Sheila embraced her role as both Underwood’s love interest and an explosive performer, which included an iconic live rendition of “A Love Bizarre.” But the cast— which also boasted the Beastie Boys, Run-DMC, Kurtis Blow, LL COOL J, The Fat Boys and New Edition — could’ve never predicted Krush Groove would become the cult classic it is today.
“I knew some of the hip-hop artists, they were amazing; some were not even discovered and some were just coming up,” she continues.”When we look at it now, it’s the only film like that ever. We had no idea what we were doing. We were young and just wanted to play music. We had no idea the impact on the culture it would have. There are so many people in that movie — not just hip-hop artists but actors and actress — who have become big stars.”
Darryl “DMC” McDaniels remembers making the film felt like “one long, boring music video,” although a memorable one.
“We were just MCs and DJs,” he says. “Imagine if you’re Blair Underwood’s manager and they came and say, ‘We want you to play Russell Simmons.’ I guess it was exciting for him because he was a fan of Run-DMC. For Blair Underwood, it was a movie, but at the same time, he got to hang out with the hottest thing on the face of the earth. It was a catalyst of an explosive experience that would go on to be looked back upon as something groundbreaking for everybody who was involved.”
Simmons credits the success of the film to writer Ralph Farquhar and Schultz, who he says really had a thorough understanding of Hip-Hop culture.
“Michael actually worked to reaffirm some of the more real elements, even to the point of duplicating the exact look of Disco Fever on the set and then shooting the outside of Disco Fever and including the people who were really part of building the culture,” he explains. “He really tried to stick to reality. He and Ralph wrote that script based on real research. They really hit the streets. We sat in the backroom, everyone but Michael, sniffing coke until daylight. We sat there with Grandmaster Flash, Kurtis Blow, Busy Bee, Luvbug Starski, all of the legends. We spent a lot of time with those people and in the community.
“Through that, Ralph was inspired and he wrote this story, which seemed legit enough. It was an experience that could’ve really happened. It didn’t take all our money to make Def Jam, but we were scrambling. We just dramatized our reality. Michael understood intuitively a lot about Black street culture, specifically the New York underground dialogue. Think about it, the man who made Cooley High is an icon. To depict the ghetto, you had to be there to do it and Michael was there. He didn’t sniff coke, but he sat up in that back room at Disco Fever. We’d live at Disco Fever until the morning and go to the set from the Fever.”
In one particular scene, a relatively unknown LL COOL J, just a gangly 17-year-old at the time, bursts into an office where Jam Master Jay, Run, DMC, Rubin and a handful of executives are holding auditions and demands a shot. His on-screen persona wasn’t too different from his actual personality.
“LL COOL J was very arrogant,” Simmons remembers with a laugh. “But we all were.”
The Fat Boys’ Kool Rock Ski wasn’t bothered though. Instead, he and his fellow Fat Boys Prince Markie Dee and Buff Love would antagonize LL on the set nearly every day.
“We had fun on that set, especially with LL walkin’ around thinking he was the Prince of Hip-Hop,” Kool Rock Ski remembers. “LL was so freaking arrogant at that time [laughs]. We’d say, ‘You don’t even have a hit record. Where’s your hit record?’ He’d be like, ‘We could battle right now!’ He wanted to battle us, wanted to fight … we were all pretty much the same age, so we were taking digs at one another all the time. He was telling us Brooklyn stinks, all kinds of stuff.”
The Fat Boys were always stirring up trouble behind the scenes but one day, Schultz pulled the cast aside and informed them Prince would be on the set. The legendary musician was a frequent visitor due to his close relationship with Sheila and Schultz was overtly concerned The Fat Boys’ shenanigans would be disruptive.
“Before we’d start shooting in the morning, we’d have a meeting,” Rock Ski explains. “It was us, Run-DMC, Shiela E, Kurtis Blow and everyone in the movie. We’d go around in a circle and say good morning like it was some kind of 12-step meeting. So Michael says, ‘Prince is going to be here today. Don’t stare at him. Don’t make any sudden moves. Don’t look him in the eye.’
“So he comes on the set and me and Mark were horsing around as always. He just pushes the heck out of me and who do I bump into? Prince. He’s right behind me [laughs]. He’s so cool, I bumped right into him and I looked behind me and said, ‘Oh shit, that’s Prince!’ You could see the smirk on his face as he’s holding me up. And I’m a big guy at the time and he’s holding me up and he’s like, ‘You alright?’ I said, ‘Yes, sorry about that.’ What I didn’t see was the big, 10-feet tall bodyguard behind him. Ah man, he was like a tree and he looked at me like he was going to rip me in half like a grizzly bear.”
The day the film wrapped, LL COOL J, Beastie Boys and Run-DMC picked up Whodini and went on the Raising Hell Tour, so all of that energy left on the screen was poured into every city across the country. The film came out while Run-DMC was on tour and they had to fly to Los Angeles for the premiere, a day DMC says he’ll never forget. That was the day they truly became celebrities.
Sadly, Jam Master-Jay and Buff Love are no longer around, but Simmons still smiles every time Krush Groove is on.
“I’m better with death than some others,” he says. “Last time I saw it, I felt excited and remembered all the good times we had. Literally Jay was like a son to me. All the time we traveled, I felt a closeness to him — if not a brother, a son. He was definitely family, so losing him broke my heart, but seeing him makes me happy.”
For DMC, he can pinpoint exactly what he believes made Krush Groove so unique — aside from the fact nearly every person who appeared in the film is a legend, even the uncredited Chris Rock who played an extra.
“It was music from the streets ‘cause before Krush Groove, you had Wild Style and you had Beat Street,” he says. “As opposed to being about big stars, Krush Groove was about the culture itself. I think what was also special about Krush Groove is it showed we had crossover power the same way ‘Sucker MCs,’ ‘Rock Box’ and ‘Walk This Way’ did. We had no idea what we was doing, but Krush Groove exposed us and our culture to a bigger platform.”