‘On the Record’ Shows the Ripple Effect of Music’s Sexual Misconduct Problem

Fibo Quantum

Drew Dixon was a silent architect of New York’s budding rap scene in the 90s. She’s the genius behind classic hip-hop and soul duets like Method Man and Mary J. Blige’s “You’re All I Need,” and Wyclef Jean and Whitney Houston’s “Your Love Is My Love.” The former Def Jam A&R’s legacy, however, is more complicated than her impressive résumé. In a 2017 interview with The New York Times, Dixon came forward with sexual misconduct allegations against Russell Simmons and LA Reid. On The Record, a new documentary on HBO Max, does more than address the claims of assault against Simmons by Dixon and other women. Dixon’s story shows the struggle of women’s voices coexisting in workplaces that prioritize powerful men, ones that disproportionately dictate who is allowed to be a gatekeeper.

“America picks and chooses who they’re going to listen to,” writer Shanita Hubbard says in the documentary. “Who we decide to listen to is totally predicated on who we see as valuable in America.”

On The Record details Dixon’s journey to Def Jam and gives the viewer a front-row seat to her decision to share her claims of sexual assault against Simmons during the heart of the #MeToo movement. In the early 90s, after years of answering phones at labels like Jive and Warner Bros. Records, Dixon says she accepted an offer from Simmons to lead Def Jam’s A&R department. Sil Lai Abrams, former Def Jam employee and another woman who has accused Simmons of sexual assault, says the office ran like a club. Working in the entertainment industry often means impromptu meetings can happen at bars and concerts, skewing the line between work and play. Dixon alleges the first time Simmons was inappropriate with her happened near a restroom at Café Tabac.

“He grabbed me and pulled me into a closet and tried to kiss me and I got away,” she says. Soon, she says the advances started happening in her office. “The first couple times he would just try to kiss me and I got out of it. But then, Russell escalated from pushing me up against the wall to literally coming in, not touching me, but exposing himself.” Dixon says she wasn’t sure how to process his behavior because although it was inappropriate, it wasn’t violent and was often met with apologies. But according to Dixon, that changed on a night in 1995.

After a night out, Dixon says she began hailing a cab when Simmons offered to order her a car home. According to Dixon, he suggested she wait for her ride in his apartment because there was a demo he wanted her to hear. She says she began to feel uncomfortable and suggested she could take the demo with her and wait for the car downstairs. She claims he obliged, but told her the CD was in the stereo in his bedroom.

“The next thing I know he’s naked wearing a condom and he just grabbed me,” she says. “He threw me on the bed, wrestles me to the bed, pins me down, and I’m fighting. I’m saying no.” According to Dixon, she blacked out after he told her to stop fighting. She remembers waking up naked in the bathtub with him, and walking 22 blocks from his apartment to her own. After the encounter, she says Simmons’ advances weren’t private anymore; now he’d request for her to sit on his lap at the office. Shortly after, she submitted a letter of resignation, but she says it was met with the promise of more money and a Vice President position. Dixon says she declined both, and began working for Clive Davis at Arista Records in 1996.

A 2018 Marketplace research poll revealed that nearly half of women who experience sexual assault at work either change jobs or careers. Abrams, a former Executive Assistant at Def Jam, spent much of her time in the industry learning how to navigate sexual harassment at work. “Part of the ability to ascend [in the company] is contingent upon your ability to either comply with someone’s sexual advances or letting them think that they might have a shot in hell without encouraging them,” she says. “It’s something that you have to go along with because the alternative is that you’ll be unemployed.”

In 2000, LA Reid became Dixon’s boss when he replaced Clive Davis as the president and CEO of the label. According to Dixon, their work relationship grew inappropriate too. “Suddenly it became, ‘Meet me at the Four Seasons when you leave the studio,'” she says. She says she debated playing along, but knew the goal was to get her alone. Each time she declined, she says she felt the ramifications at work. She auditioned bright-eyed talent like Kanye West and John Legend, and Reid passed on them—a move she thought was made to spite her.

“Unless I sleep with LA as a quid pro quo, not because I like him, I am doomed. I can’t get Kanye West or John Legend signed? I’m dead in the water now,” she says.

After a decade of climbing through the ranks of music’s boy’s club, she quit and never spoke publicly about her experience with Simmons or Reid. The myth that Black people have a high tolerance for pain and are “animalistic in their sexual desires,” skew the public’s perception of Black women as victims of sexual assault. In the film, she recalls how she internalized the 1991 Anita Hill hearing against Clarence Thomas. If Thomas could secure a seat in the Supreme Court despite his accusations, she thought, what chance did she stand against hip-hop royalty?

Although the #MeToo movement was started over a decade ago by Tarana Burke, a Black woman, it’s the accounts of successful white actresses that have given the campaign global reach. Despite the long list of women who accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct, Lupita Nyong’o was the only actress Weinstein singled out, citing “a different recollection of the events.” After decades of allegations of sexual assault, R. Kelly is sitting in a Chicago jail facing 18 federal charges, including child pornography and kidnapping, following the harrowing details from a handful of Black women in dream hampton’s Surviving R. Kelly. The inability for Black women to be perceived as victims also hung over the fate of the HBO Max documentary.

On The Record was initially backed by Oprah Winfrey and slated to be released on Apple’s streaming service. Earlier this year, Winfrey severed ties with the project for “creative differences,” and the doc was left without a distributor. In an interview with The New York Times, Winfrey revealed that Simmons was pressuring her to split with the doc, but says ultimately she was concerned with the project’s narrative. She thought On The Record left holes in Dixon’s retelling of her story, and that the doc glossed over the greater context of misogyny in hip-hop. According to the interview, Winfrey sought a second opinion from director Ava Duvernay and with Duvernay’s support Winfrey gave the filmmakers an ultimatum: the film would be revised or she would no longer be involved. The film, however, did receive an overhaul adding experts and a montage of other women who recounted similar stories with Simmons. Two days after the filmmakers submitted the new version, Winfrey sent a letter detailing her decision to no longer be associated with the film. The controversy surrounding the doc, and the fact that Simmons could pressure someone of Winfrey’s stature, raises questions about what we lose culturally when powerful people have their way.

“When Drew disappeared, it didn’t strike me because a lot of women had started to disappear,” says former The Source editor Kierna Mayo, who didn’t know about Dixon’s claims until she read the NYT.

Dixon’s disappearance from the industry is emblematic of how silencing women and their stories effectively shuts them out of positions of power. By omitting the narratives of Black women, we stifle the ways they can show up as themselves in music.

“You have to ask yourself, where would her career have gone in music?” Mayo asks in the film. “What music did we lose? What are we poorer for, for Drew not being a music executive? If this is what her 20s was, the magic, what would the next 20 years have been? We’ll never know. We’ve been robbed of that.”

Kristin Corry is a staff writer for VICE.