On the Record, the documentary premiering May 27 on HBO Max, shares the stories of women who say music mogul Russell Simmons preyed on them during his reign overseeing Def Jam Recordings. Three of those women opened up to PEOPLE in the June 1 issue
Young and Ambitious
As a young executive at Def Jam, Russell Simmons’ era-defining urban-music label, Drew Dixon spent two years working with the mogul to create some of the biggest hip-hop songs of the ’90s. She hoped to blaze a trail for the fledgling genre as well as for women executives in music. But she says she endured relentless harassment from Simmons, which she claims ultimately led to a violent sexual assault in his apartment in 1995. “This was my dream job,” says Dixon. “I was reporting to literally the king of hip-hop. I didn’t want to blow it.” But, she adds, “I didn’t want to be a rape victim.”
Breaking Their Silence
In 2017 Dixon and several other women—including former Def Jam executive assistant Sil Lai Abrams and early hip-hop artist Sheri Sher—spoke out to say Simmons sexually assaulted them. Now they’re detailing their painful claims in the new documentary On the Record on HBO Max on May 27. In all, at least 18 women have accused Simmons, who has vehemently denied the allegations, of assault and harassment. There have been no criminal charges against the executive, 62, who stepped down from Def Jam and his other companies in November 2017, though he is fighting a civil lawsuit from an anonymous accuser in California. He did not respond to People’s request for comment for this story.
Dixon left Def Jam the year of her alleged assault, but for decades, hearing the hits she helped develop there, like Method Man and Mary J. Blige’s 1995 duet “You’re All I Need,” filled her with fear. Inspired by Harvey Weinstein’s accusers and the #MeToo movement, she decided to finally come forward. Now she, Abrams and Hines hope to empower other black women who have survived sexual assault by telling their stories.
Drew Dixon, 49, Former Director of A&R at Def Jam Records, 1994-1995
“In college I made a vision board. I had pictures cut out from The Source of some of the artists I loved and a picture of Russell Simmons as the embodiment of the kind of career I envisioned for myself. I met him when I was an intern at Warner Bros. Records. He would see me around and ask me my opinion about music. I was so grateful to him giving me the opportunity when a job opened up. When I worked at Def Jam there wasn’t even a Grammy category for rap music. I loved him for creating that space for us.
He wasn’t just a womanizer, he called himself a “modelizer.” I wasn’t a model. It was very clear from the day I met him that my ambition was to be a rap record executive. Which is why it was so confusing to me when he started to cross that line. It started out just verbal. Then it escalated. He pulled me into a closet and tried to kiss me. There was no human resources department so I tried to manage it. I was trying to buy time to do my job. I just didn’t understand the degree of danger.”
The night it happened Russell knew exactly what to say: ‘I want you to hear this demo. You’re going to love it.’ He had an office in the same building where he lives. When we got into the apartment, he went a different direction and he’s telling me where to get the demo. I found myself in his bedroom. I was looking for the CD but there was nothing in the CD player. Then he grabbed me. He showed up from nowhere. He was naked and he was fighting me. I resisted in every way that a person can resist. I was like ‘Please, I’m begging you.’ He didn’t care. It’s almost like the room went black. I called my OB-GYN the next day. I told a few friends. We talked about calling the police but that I would just become known as the woman who was raped by Russell Simmons. I had come so far. I didn’t want this to be my legacy. I have done a lot of work in therapy. Now that I’m free of having to accommodate this secret, my vitality is back.
Sheri Sher, 59, Former Member of Early ’80s Hip-Hop Group Mercedes Ladies
“My friend Simone worked for the radio station KTU 92. One night she called and said she was going to do an interview with rapper Kurtis Blow. When we got there it was Kurtis and Russell there. I hadn’t seen Russell in almost a year. He played an integral part at one point in my life. He used to be up at the club Disco Fever and I’d told him I had a group, Mercedes Ladies, and he was like ‘Yeah, I heard of you.’ I was like, ‘Would you manage us?’ I looked up to Russell. We recorded a song, but he decided to pull us off of it. We were so hurt. “
“That night when I saw him again he said to me, ‘I know I owe you girls an apology about the record deal.’ Then he was like, ‘While she interviews him, come.’ He took me around the corner to his new office. He was showing me around and we were talking. He said, ‘You should have a seat there on the couch.’ Next thing I know he was on me. I was in total shock. Afterwards I ran straight back to my friend. She was begging me to call my mom and the police. In the Bronx, Russell was known as God to the hood. And I never heard of nobody else he did this to. No one would believe me. I just tried to block it out of my head. I made the choice not to come out with it until 2017. I feel that coming forward was healing. Russell victimized me, but I’m a victor.”
Sil Lai Abrams, 49, Former Model and Def Jam Executive Assistant, 1992
“When we first connected and went on a date it was probably 1990. It was a late lunch at a sushi restaurant, the first time I had sushi, which is why I remember it. He was very charming, very funny. definitely self-assured. We spent time together, but it was nothing serious. More than anything it was based on friendship.
When the assault occurred, our physical relationship had ended. We met up again in 1994 and he made a pass at me and I told him I had a boyfriend. I think my exact words were, “It’s not that kind of party.” He held my hand, looked me direct in the eye and said, ‘I would never take anything from you. I will respect you and we will be friends forever.’ So I believed him.”
Sil Lai Abrams
“That same day we were hanging out, I was drinking, he was not. Later that night I asked if he’d take me to my girlfriend’s home that I was staying at. He took me back to his place. When it happened, I tried to fight him off. It didn’t work. I was too drunk. I weighed 112 lbs. The next morning, I called and confronted him and he downplayed it, said nothing happened, and that ‘it’s just the post-alcohol blues.’ I told him, ‘When I’m dead, I hope you know you killed me.’ [Abrams, then a young mom, says she attempted suicide that morning by swallowing pills and later went to the hospital.] I had $30 to my name, he had $30 million. I didn’t have a chance in hell to go up against him. I got sober, left the industry and spent a lot of time in recovery.”
HBO Max Documentary On the Record Premieres May 27
“It was a labor of love and I want the world to fall in love with these women,” says On The Record executive producer Amy Ziering. “It’s just staggering, their intellectual firepower, their compassion and their grace under duress.” Adds executive producer Kirby Dick. “We were filming for more than two years. The hope is for audiences to hear these stories, hear these insights and walk away with a different understanding around this issue.”