On March 28, to a crowd of people gathered in the audtorium of the Global Center for Academic and Spiritual Life, DIY rapper and producer Russ spoke about his path to success. The conversation spanned from the uncut singles he would upload to his SoundCloud as his career began in Atlanta, Georgia, to his recent stream of hit singles such as “What They Want” and “Losin’ Control.” The crowd included Steinhardt Music Business students and faculty, along with Russ fanatics who listened intently to the Q&A between Russell Vitale, who goes by Russ, and Larry Miller, the Music Business program director.
All Steinhardt Music Business students attendance at the Q&A was mandatory. Originally the event was only open to members of the Steinhardt Music Business program and those in the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, but Russ gave out 30 tickets on his Twitter to anyone outside the NYU community.
Speaking at NYU March 28
Opening up 30 spots for non-NYU people
Read the flyer for info pic.twitter.com/ojbAa4PVy8
— Russ (@russdiemon) March 26, 2018
MAC Presents President and Music Business professor Marcie Allen arranged Russ’ talk because her agency represents the rapper for brand partnerships along with Cara Lewis of Cara Lewis Group. WSN reached out to Allen for information about how the event came to be, and she noted Russ’ rare public speaking appearances.
“The purpose of the event was to let Russ tell his story in his own words for what was really the first time,” Allen said in an email to WSN. “As Russ mentioned in his talk, he doesn’t typically like doing interviews because his words can get taken out of context.”
Allen spoke about the purpose of the Q&A and why they chose to partner Russ with Miller.
“By pairing him with Larry Miller and putting him in front of a room full of students and fans who hung on his every word for more than an hour, Russ was able to share his insights and hard-won lessons with the exact type of people who helped get him to his current career status,” Allen said.
Before the event began, a subtle but noticeable divide between Music Business students and outside fans began to form. Music Business sophomore Cristeen Park expressed confusion in this phenomenon.
“I was outside GCASL waiting to go inside, and I hear a bunch of Music Business kids going ‘Who the f-ck is Russ?’” Park told WSN. “I go inside and see a bunch of my friends who were pre-med, and they were like, ‘Oh my god, I love Russ.’ We were all like, ‘Wait, we’re the music students. What’s going on here?’”
Once the talk began, Russ immediately captivated the crowd with his commanding presence, do-it-yourself attitude and comic demeanor. The college auditorium was slightly different than his usual venues, but as Miller explained, the rapper is just as competent of a speaker as he is a musician.
“Russ is super talented and plays nightly in front of thousands of fans who know the words to every song in his set,” Miller said. “But it took him a minute to get used to the interview format and the Steinhardt audience. After that, I just needed to give him a subject and get out of the way.”
His presence at Steinhardt was made somewhat ironic however, given a tweet he wrote the week following the talk. From his language — dropping the word ‘retarded’ — and students’ responses, it seemed that Russ hadn’t considered the demographic of the talk.
“Russ literally did not seem to know he was on a college campus,” Park said. “So he’d walk around and be like, ‘hey y’all. F-ck. F-ck yeah.’ And then he dropped the r-word. And there was a gasp in the audience.”
College graduates stay in student loan debt till they’re damn near 60 cuz they paid mad money to get handed a piece of paper so they can be an employee to get paid less money than required to pay off the loan smfh
— Russ (@russdiemon) April 3, 2018
Despite his clear from-the-ground-up attitude and path to stardom, Russ spoke in platitudes as if it was his last meal throughout the one-hour talk. Students didn’t feel as fulfilled by the artist’s abstract and philosophical responses to Miller’s questions. Many students, such as a first-year student who chose to remain anonymous, felt that the talk lacked substance, especially for those who want a future in the music industry.
“I just feel like he didn’t have anything intelligent to say about the industry,” the first-year said. “It felt more like a talk show for our entertainment rather than an opportunity for us to gain real insight. There’s a lot of people I would love to learn from at collegium, and Russ was simply not one of them.”
Russ’s well-documented attitude during past interviews seemed to carry into his Steinhardt appearance, which proved to be an issue for some.
Most romantic thing I’ve done lmao pic.twitter.com/cWrDPDwp46
— Russ (@russdiemon) October 4, 2017
“He was very cocky and arrogant,” Park said. “There were times that everybody would laugh when he said something, but people in the back of their heads were like ‘uhhh.’”
Julian Robinson, a Music Business sophomore, left the talk with mixed feelings, citing Russ’ personality as a main source of confusion.
“After watching him talk, I can say that his musical passion and motivation is inspiring, as well as a trademark, not-a-care-in-the-world attitude that makes him even more individualistic,” Robinson said. “However, his abrasive personality got in the way of any form of encouragement he tried to give us students.”
However, as Robinson, Miller and Allen all pointed out, Russ clearly has a passion for music. His relentless work ethic arguably allows him to carry the kind of confidence that he does.
“Russ has written, produced, mixed, engineered and performed hundreds of tracks all by himself,” Allen said. “Russ is a true ‘DIY pioneer’ who is an inspiration to many of the students currently enrolled here who are exploring how their career paths can follow the same independent trail he’s helped blaze.”
Miller echoed Allen’s sentiments, noting the importance of his motivational message to budding musicians trying to get a foot into the industry.
“I don’t think Russ has ever experienced a moment of self-doubt,” Miller said. “But it’s always helpful when a successful artist tells young people to believe in themselves and keep at it. I mean, how do you hate on a successful young artist who says, ‘Celebrate the small wins and look at the long game.’”
It is important to note that not all of the audience feedback was negative. As Allen points out, many were inspired by his sentiments, and a line of people waiting to speak with him quickly formed once the talk ended. The artist stayed for over an hour to answer questions from audience members.
“He was wonderfully generous with his time and learned just as much from talking to the students as they did from him,” Allen said.
Although many students criticized Russ for being baseless and showy in his responses, Allen spoke to many peoples’ disconnections from the artist since she’s worked beside him for so long.
“Russ is an elite league of musicians, hip-hop or otherwise, that can sell both music and hard tickets, so he’s earned his bragging rights,” Allen said. “There are artists with more popular songs out there right now who couldn’t sell one-eighth of the tickets he can, and that comes from relentless hard work and self-belief.”
Additional reporting by Pamela Jew.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 9 print edition. Email Connor Gatesman at [email protected]