Russell Simmons helped develop the careers of many stars, including rappers Jay Z and LL Cool J as well as comedian Chris Rock.
AMY VOIGT Enlarge
It's hard to label Russell Simmons.
Most dub the 45-year-old hip-hop impresario a media mogul, a rap entrepreneur, and a business-savvy visionary for turning a style of music birthed from African-American ghetto street corners into an empire.
Ask the baseball cap-wearing Simmons, co-founder with producer Rick Rubin of the legendary Def Jam Records (now owned by Universal), and his self-description is as raw and as real as the lyrics of a gangsta rap song.
“I'm an example that the least sophisticated, the least educated, and the least talented can have the success they dreamed about . . . the most resilient are usually the most successful,” he said during a recent appearance at the University of Toledo.
The native New Yorker, nicknamed Rush by friends for his energetic pace, pounced on hip-hop culture with fervor during its infancy in the late 1970s, and today, his fists are still firmly clinched.
His formula was simple:
Before many others conceived the idea, Simmons converted a noncommercial music and spoken word form into a lifestyle expression which developed into a cultural phenomenon. And what followed was the marketing and globalization of rap and hip-hop music.
Simmons also realized that this raw expression could transcend racial, ethnic, and class boundaries, in much the same way that other African-American-created art forms did, such as jazz, gospel, soul, funk, and rhythm & blues had done.
The product of a middle-class upbringing in the Hollis neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., son of an educator father and homemaker mother, Simmons' reputation was first built as a promoter of rap shows and then as a manager through his Rush Artist Management, with acts such as UTFO, Whodini, and his first major artist, the Harlem-bred Kurtis Blow.
He also managed and promoted rap group Run DMC whose lead rapper, Run, is Russell's younger brother, Joseph. Another brother, Danny, is involved in Simmons' charitable endeavors.
“When Run DMC got on MTV, there weren't any blacks on MTV except for Michael Jackson . . . and what we discovered and all the rappers discovered back then was that the music spoke for a generation,” he said.
“There was a connection to the kids in the trailer parks and all the kids, regardless of race - they discovered a common thread. Even the kids running around Beverly Hills were being sympathetic to the plight of the poor ,and that connection is the source of a very powerful new America. That source cannot be overlooked,” said Simmons, who adds that most rappers represent the disenfranchised poor.
Moreover, he said, while most of the music's performers are African-American and the themes of the songs' lyrics reflect a segment of the black community, some 80 percent of rap and hip-hop music sales come from people who are not black.
As one of the prominent shapers of rap music, Simmons has translated the culture of rap and hip-hop into a media conglomerate:
It was the philanthropic portion of Simmons' kingdom that led him to Toledo recently, following an invitation by David Young, head of UT's Upward Bound program, which hosted its 5th Annual Empowerment conference for young people.
While Simmons has a soft spot for assisting at-risk youth, he makes it clear that his main priority is business, what he calls the “hip-hopification” of America. To that end, he has launched an advertising agency, dRush, which works with companies that include Coca-Cola, Courvoisier, and HBO. Three years ago, he created Internet Web site, www.360hiphop.com, billed as a total lifestyle resource for the hip-hop community.
“When we're talking about the entertainment business, and if it's the commercial stuff I've been involved in - all of it is built from energy.
“If it's talent out there, people are going to talk about it, because everybody who got there built their career from the ground up. It's always organic, honest, there's always a groundswell,” said Simmons.
That attitude is evident in Simmons' image and language. Snubbing the conventional look of a suit and tie, Simmons opts for casual attire at all times, even formal occasions - sweats, jeans, sneakers, V-neck college boy sweaters - and he's never without a baseball cap.
This look, with the salty language that laces his talks to college youth, makes him appear all the more authentic, almost an urban folk hero who rose up and is “cold gettin' paid” as his 2001 book, Life and Def: Sex, Drugs, Money, and God (Crown Publishing) pronounces.
He owes it all to being the co-founder in 1984 of Def Jam Recordings. The label started with an artist roster that included Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, and Slick Rick. Today's performers include Jay-Z, DMX, and Method Man.
“It's the same thing that Kash Money and Master P and Irv Gotti and Damon Dash and all those entrepreneurs that built [rap and hip-hop] companies did. They worked the streets, and kept their head down and were committed, until somebody heard them. This music is too special to hold down,” said Simmons,
From the creation in 1985 of hip-hop's cult status film, Krush Groove, loosely based on Simmons and Def Jam's rise, to his book, Life and Def, with contributor Nelson George, Simmons views himself as simply seizing opportunities, and taking advantage of a market once limited to inner city alleyways, street corners, and basketball lots.
But even his consumers sometimes question how rap and hip-hop's game is played. During his visit here, one questioner at UT challenged the industry that Simmons helped to create: “We have young, impressionable minds listening to the music . . . the music is raising the children, and all of this negativity in the music is just starting a vicious cycle. How do we bring a positive message back to hip-hop?”
Simmons skirted the question, but ultimately maintained that if one can look past all of the culture's faults, the genre is not as bad as it appears.
“There's a lot of positivity in rap. The language is sometimes harsh, but that's the language of the streets, the language of the day, that's really how people talk,” he said.
Addressing sexism in the industry, he said, “They always talk about how sexist rappers are . . . but, the most sexist rappers that you find with the most vile and offensive stuff, probably had a daddy who might have been a deacon at some church who are way less likely to empower a woman as their manager, as their business partner, or just look at them as equals.
“The rapper is saying what he was taught.”
Ultimately, Simmons' financial success is dependent on justifying and often excusing rap and hip-hop's dark side. But, he maintains, “This is a good generation of people. They need direction, it's true, but the idea to be down on young people is an attitude that is as old as time.”