It seems like everybody in Indianapolis knows Russell Johnson.
It"s not that much of an exaggeration. He goes into a restaurant and four people call out his name. He goes to Kinko"s and the clerks know him. He goes into Lowe"s and the guy behind the counter recognizes him.
Part of that, of course, comes from the fact that Johnson has been the frontman of two of the most popular local bands of the last 15 years, first the Birdmen of Alcatraz and now the Mudkids. Lately, he"s become known for his work as one of the most sought after club DJs and for his appearances on Hoosier 96 radio.
But it goes beyond that. People remember Johnson because they like him. It"s hard to find anyone to say a negative word about him, whether they"re a fan of his music or not.
His friendliness, artistic integrity and unrelenting candor have made him arguably the de facto leader of the music community. Newer acts seek out his approval and even established acts seek his respect, because his imprimatur can open doors with club owners, radio programmers and audiences.
He"s been successful at everything he"s done. The Birdmen of Alcatraz, a straight-ahead rock band, dominated the club scene during the 1990s and recently reunited to an enthusiastic reception. The three albums he"s recorded with the Mudkids have received favorable reviews from national publications. And the Mudkids remain the only hip-hop act that can regularly fill up local nightclubs. The mixtapes Johnson makes are collected by aficionados across the country. His radio show is a strong ratings performer for Hoosier 96.
The only controversy Johnson"s been involved in occurred earlier this year, when a show he was DJ"ing in Broad Ripple was shut down, and the entire area put on a virtual lockdown, after a fight broke out and a man was seriously injured. The resulting media furor put hip-hop in Broad Ripple on trial, a situation still ongoing at this time.
While he"s recently married and purchased a house on the near-Northside, Johnson hasn"t slowed in his ambition. If anything, his music has become stronger and more mature while never sounding stale - a rare feat.
In this, his first-ever longform interview, Russell Johnson talked with NUVO Associate Editor Steve Hammer about all aspects of the music business, as well as giving voice to the social consciousness previously available only on CD.
He began by talking about why he"s stayed in Indianapolis when many artists of his stature would long ago have moved away.
JOHNSON: I was born in Gary and came down here in "74, me and my mom. I"ve been here since then. And loved it. One reason I stay is my mom. And two, I"ve always felt like - I"ve seen people do it from small places. Atmosphere is doing it right now, from Minneapolis. Last I checked, they"d sold something like 32,000 records. You get out on the coasts and it"s like everybody is doing what you"re doing. So staying here has almost been like a safety net. This has always been my home. And now I"m older, and a little bit settled, too. I like the people. I like the cost of living. I like the summer. I think the people here are really genuine. If someone doesn"t like you, they"ll let you know they don"t like you. If someone likes you, they"ll let you know they love you. You can take people at face value in Indianapolis. In New York, people have exactly two seconds for you. On the West Coast, a lot of people are kind of phony. A lot of image consultants. What I"ve always liked about Indianapolis is the people. It"s a big city with a small city feel. There"s shit to do here. Movies come here, you know, bands come here. It"s not as constant as it is in, say, Chicago. But I"m kind of a laid-back city kid. The scenery is cool here. I might not mind living out west or something, but I have roots here, you know? The Birdmen was my second group. My first group was called Coalition, which was the first rap group I was in. And I joined the Birdmen out of that and the Mudkids sprang out of that.
NUVO: Whether you acknowledge it or not, there are a lot of people who look at you as a leader. Is that a role in which you feel comfortable, or not?
JOHNSON: I like to push something along. I don"t want to be viewed as a leader. The best thing I can do is lead my life. I feel like, though, we"ve definitely had something to do with what people say about music around here. If you start talking about music in this city, I feel like I"ve definitely put my checkmark on the box. And that just comes from years of doing it, you know? I see kids that we played for at the Emerson when they were 16. Now they"re like 24 and come to see me at the Patio or the Vogue. And the fact that they still remember that old stuff is cool. But I don"t know if I can be a leader.
NUVO: Leaders get shot.
JOHNSON: Yeah. Look. (Points at picture of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.)
NUVO: I wanted to address the whole situation of racism in the music industry, and I"m not sure how to get into the topic. Obviously what went down after the incident this spring, people blaming hip-hop for violence, certainly struck some people as racist. Tell me about what went down that night.
JOHNSON: Yeah. Well. The thing that went down at Peppers was Ö OK. Let me put it this way. Indiana Jones and myself used to host a Wednesday night show every week. It was pretty big, a big black crowd. I don"t want to necessarily get into a racism commentary based on that situation, because if somebody got their head busted at my club ... You have to look at all the angles before you throw a word like racism around. If I was the manager there - let"s just say I don"t blame them. But, realistically, there are some corny, corny folks up in the Village when it comes to dealing with minorities or people of color. Some corny people. I"m not going to call names, but people know who they are. Basically, someone got their head busted on a Wednesday night. And it was bad. But people get their heads busted in Broad Ripple a lot. They get into fights at the Vogue, at the Alley Cat, at the Old Pro"s Table, every bar. That"s going to happen with alcohol. But the response to this incident was so extreme, it automatically made us look like we were having a full-scale riot in there. And I don"t think that"s how it went down. The way they roped the place off, had the news come out, it was incredible. I"ve seen people dragged out of numerous bars, but the response to this one was hectic, from my viewpoint as one of the promoters and DJs of the event. It left a bad taste in a lot of people"s mouths because it was this ill crackdown out of nowhere. Then the stories came out saying hip-hop is a bad word. Is it a bad word because you"re associating it with this violence? You can go to another bar and listen to "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" and someone will get their head busted. That"s the old-school Indianapolis mentality. That"s what I mean when I say that people need to open their heads and think. And it seems like we go through this every two or three years. They"re having [black] events at the Vogue again. There"s phases where something happens and they shut things down for awhile. "We are the Village Association and we are in control. Everything"s cool now." But what happened at Peppers, if I was the owner, I wouldn"t want fights in my club. I mean, somebody got their head split open. It wasn"t pretty. If you"d been there, you"d have been shocked. I don"t know all that went down, but I wouldn"t want that going on in my club, either. You hear about something like that happening at other places but you don"t have the TV station out there. It gets on TV and it"s over. You can"t continue to promote after something like that is publicized. In this case, no news is definitely good news. Racism is such a fucked-up topic. I don"t want to sound like I"m Michael Jackson and crying about something. Being part of a multi-racial group, I don"t think we"ve ever had that problem. We have just as tough a time getting into black clubs to play. But that"s even opening up now. We"ll play anywhere. I don"t really feel like that"s been something that"s slowed me down, because the makeup of my group has never been just black guys or just white guys. When we started playing hip-hop, there really wasn"t anybody playing hip-hop shows locally. Not at clubs, not at all. DJ Dicky Fox used to say to me, "I remember when you guys were the underground." And that"s the way it was. But now there"s an open mic [rap] night at Birdy"s. On the rock club tip. That"s cool. I think some venues would be scared to book some artists just based on imagery or whatever, the gangster mentality. But if you book a gangster group and some shit goes down... You can"t blame the club owners. That"s a touchy situation, a tough call. This is Indiana, dude. I don"t think I"ve ever had anybody say, "We"re not going to book you guys because you"re black" or "You appeal to a black crowd." That"s never happened, thank God. That doesn"t mean racism is not there, that it"s not prevalent. Racism is here to stay. You just deal with it. With the Birdmen, I had to deal with some outlandish stuff. People would approach me and say, "I didn"t know you were black." Or "That music was the last thing I expected when I saw you up on stage." I mean, why? People say things because they were raised a certain way. That doesn"t make it right, but they just don"t have the understanding of anybody different than them. Those were the people they"ve been around. Those were the people their parents were around. That"s why I"ve always been about exploding myths. Being the pacifist that I am, I can let you know that you"re ignorant without necessarily telling you that. Racism has never stopped me from doing anything. I refuse to let it, because then I would be giving in.
NUVO: Do you get discouraged sometimes? Do you ever get down about the fact that you haven"t sold a million records and such? That you"re not on the cover of Rolling Stone or The Source?
JOHNSON: Yeah, I get discouraged about it, man. The next Mudkids album will be the sixth album I"ve put out, or been a part of. I used to think that by the age of 25 I"d be able to retire, or live in a mansion. It hasn"t dropped down in my lap like that. I just keep plugging away. Now, at this point, it"s part of what I do and part of what I am. So I damn near have to do it. But the reality is, it can get discouraging. I"ve thought about bagging it and doing the 9-to-5 thing, cutting my hair and all that. I"ve thought about it a couple times. You put your heart and soul into a record, and something happens at the label or any number of things. Now it"s me. It"s totally me. I don"t have a choice but to keep plugging away. Your goals don"t necessarily become diminished, but you recognize what is a baby step and what is a giant leap. That"s where I"m at right now instead of saying, forget it. I can"t remember the last time I actually thought that way, though. My motivation is the cats around me. They still believe in it. I still believe in it. They don"t quit. They"ll be, "Here"s a good song. Here"s a zinger." And I let people hear it and they go, "wow." Maybe I"m doing something right, you know? Tyler will give me this good beat and I"ll think, "I have to rap to that." Giving up isn"t even an option at this point. Maybe now I have more of a mindset about getting my stuff on the radio. I don"t cuss on the records; I"ve learned my craft a bit better now. I"m on the radio now and soaking in things and changing the way I approach the business. You just learn more stuff about how a record gets on the radio. Now it"s easier for me to understand why it would be harder for a little record by a rap group in Indiana to get on the radio in Chicago or New York. It allows me to accept certain things and understand how to go about getting the things I won"t accept as "no"s. "I"m not going to take no for an answer; this record is that good." I thought 32 Until was that good. I thought that record was awesome. But it doesn"t have a hook; it"s just a straight rhyme. But the Neptunes didn"t do it. Timbaland didn"t do it. Dre didn"t do it. So it"s going to be hard to get it on the radio anywhere. I accept that now.
NUVO: How do you think your music has changed, if any, since you got married and settled down a little? How has it changed your life and your art?
JOHNSON: I feel a little bit more free to say things now, because, automatically, she"s got my back, you know. She"s the first person to hear my songs when I"m done with them. She"s the first to hear them when I"m writing them. She"s a sounding board, and someone whose opinion I trust. I think that would change anyone"s life, artist or otherwise. I think I"m freer to say things and not worry about anything, because I know she has my back. At the very least, she"ll talk with me honestly if she doesn"t dig what I say.
NUVO: In the past few years, you"ve become not only a performer, but a club DJ and now a radio DJ. That"s got to be a different experience for you, doing the radio thing.
JOHNSON: Yeah. If you DJ for an audience, it"s for me as well as the audience. On the radio, you have to give the kids what they want. You get your weird stuff in, but kids will call in and say "Get him out of here" if they don"t like you. At clubs, there are certain songs you can play over and over and they"ll never get old. That"s not necessarily the same on the radio. Like "Break "Em Off Something" by Master P. "Ambitionz Az A Rydah" by Tupac. "Big Poppa." You can play those songs all night long. "Back That Ass Up." People love that song. Certain songs work themselves into the club set and never get old. I try and bring different records to different clubs. The set I play at the Patio is quite different than the set I play at Lotus. Different audiences, different rooms. I love the Patio. I love that room. It seems like all the good shows I"ve ever seen have been in a room like that. A little room with a nice stage and a nice sound system. A nice staff.
NUVO: Twelve years on the music scene is a long time. There aren"t very many people with your longevity. What do you see as the biggest changes in the music scene over that time?
JOHNSON: There"s really not as many venues - I don"t want to say that. There"s not as many opportunities with the DJ culture being more prominent now. People want to hear the stuff that they"re familiar with. It"s always been like that around here, in reality. Now it"s just more magnified. Now it"s more obvious to me, because I"m DJing and I see it from that angle also. If you have a good club night, you can count on 350, 400, 500 people. And if you"re in the band, it"s not necessarily like that in this city. You have got to go out there and plug and promote and scratch for your shows.
NUVO: Has it ever been different? I mean, people were complaining even back then about how the music scene was so much better back in the day.
JOHNSON: It seemed like, for awhile, things were hella, hella open. And it"s gotten better lately, in some ways, like what"s going on with Punk Rock Night. In [Broad Ripple] Village, where a lot of things were happening before, it"s not like that anymore. It"s more geared toward the remote control mindset. Where if you don"t like this, there"s something five minutes away that"s probably geared more towards what you like, like playing Eagles records, or Jimmy Buffett records. I guess it"s always been like that. I suppose it just took some time for it to infiltrate the Village, you know. Before, people used to rail on cover bands. People used to rail about, "This band plays covers." I remember when that was a big deal. "Why would you go see them? They just play cover songs." People said that was wrong. Then, for awhile, people ragged on DJs. And now I think people are resigned to the fact that mass audiences want to be entertained by what they know. I don"t know if it"s like that everywhere, but it sure is around here. That"s what I"ve noticed over the past 12 years. Now people rag on each other. People internet hate. They get on the computer and hate.
NUVO: Is there a tendency to scapegoat, do you think? It always seems to be somebody"s fault if things don"t go right.
JOHNSON: I do get the feeling that people would like to have someone to blame for whatever it is that goes wrong, especially in the local music community. Somebody"s got to be held accountable. They say it"s the clubs, it"s this or that. But that"s not necessarily ever what it is, you know? It"s us. It"s the crab in the barrel thing. In reality, I would like more bands to be open to play with the Mudkids. I don"t want it to be like, "You"re a hip-hop band and therefore we can"t play with you." That seems to be the mentality of a lot of folks around here. Very cliquish. I would rather not deal with that clique-type mentality. I"m down for playing with anybody. And I think people would be a lot better off if they adopted that mentality, as opposed to everything being categorized and labeled. I feel like there"s some, not necessarily hating, but people who are more inclined to just go with what they know and be safe all the time. And I wouldn"t have met some of the best friends I have if I thought that my kind of music wouldn"t have worked with their kind of music. Indianapolis is kind of a big city, but it"s a Midwestern big city, you know?
NUVO: Is there a remedy? Is there a way to change it?
JOHNSON: It seems to have been this way for as long as I can recall. The remedy, I suppose, is to step out on a limb. Not just necessarily in terms of music, but everything. You have to be willing to take risks and try new stuff. You can"t just be comfortable living in your self-made shell. You"ve got the five people around you that you know you can deal with all the time, and you don"t expand beyond that. I"d like to work with some different people. I"d definitely be down to mess with Jim Kuczkowski [of the Slurs]. I like the way he approaches shit. And I"ve known him for years. He used to listen to Journey, you know? And that"s all I"m going to say about that. He used to be a big Journey fan at one point in his life. I actually did something with him years ago, kind of an industrial type track. On the hip-hop angle, I would really like to do something with the Parker Brothers. I think they"re dope as hell. And Mab Lab. I definitely feel what they do. Those are the three I can think of off the top of my head.
NUVO: You were telling me that hip-hop needs more of a sense of humor, that people get into beefs too much. You"ve been able to avoid getting into beefs, it seems.
JOHNSON: No, that"s not true. I"ve had beefs. I"ve had beefs with people here. I"ve avoided beef because I let the optimism express itself through the music.
NUVO: Yeah, but I can"t imagine you making a dis record where you go off on someone and tell them, "Fuck you."
JOHNSON: What I would do is, I"d make a record, but I wouldn"t give you the satisfaction of me saying "fuck that person." There"s records you"ve heard that have been about very specific situations in my life. I"m like, OK dude, you can cut me up. You can slam the mic on the stage before I go on. You can say "Fuck Russell" and I won"t address it. Some people get into this puffy-chest thing and they fall into that. I just go and do what I do. I"m not going to worry about what the next man is doing. The next man isn"t going to work about my truck payment, or if my dog gets to eat tomorrow, or if my wife"s happy. He doesn"t give a fuck. That"s my problem. For me to get all worried about someone else, nahh. For me to be worried about it is insane. That"s the way I deal with life. Period. Dot. That"s it. I can"t let anybody stop what I"m going to do. We all fall victim to jealousy and petty shit but you have to gloss over it. Just because someone irks me tonight doesn"t mean I have to hate you next week. I"m going to go home and write a damn song. What are you gonna do? They can hate, but I"m going to worry about my next song, or how I"m going to get my next record out. I just can"t see myself being upset at someone for any length of time. I"m too busy. I"ve got too many things to do.
The Mudkids will perform at the Patio on Friday, Nov. 8, along with the group Mood Food. For more information on the Mudkids, visit www.mudkids.com.