The brand name
Hip-hop heavy Russell Simmons has one eye on the bottom line and the
other on higher callings
By Vanessa E. Jones - The Boston Globe
NEW YORK -- Russell Simmons has yoga on his mind. Perhaps it's because his 5
p.m. class at Jivamukti Yoga Center downtown looms. Or maybe it's the result
of his interviewer's casually telling him she prefers Pilates, which wrenches
the affronted reply: "There's a big difference between working on your
relationship with God and fixing your tummy."
Now he's pulling a coffee table book called "The Art of Yoga" from his
bookcase as he extols the virtues of the Jivamukti style. He extends an
invitation to attend his class. Through it all, he's got that drugged-by-life
look in his eye that's common to yoga converts. Not exactly what you'd expect
from a man who usually has the word "impresario" or "mogul" slapped in front
of his name.
If anyone deserves to be called the godfather of hip-hop, it's 46-year-old
Russell Simmons. Through Def Jam Records, which he's still chairman of after
selling the company in 1999, and Rush Communications, the holding company for
his multitude of business projects, Simmons seems to have his hand in every
aspect of pop culture.
Pop music fans probably own CDs by Def Jam artists Jay-Z, Ashanti, or Ludacris,
whose "Stand Up" is the No. 1 song in the country. Local 7-Elevens sell cans
of his new energy soda, Def Con 3. JC Penney and Sears offer items from his
Phat Fashions company, which includes the popular Phat Farm men's line.
Type "rushcard.com" into your web browser to learn about the prepaid debit
cards he created for people with bad credit. Call a local theater, or more
specifically Boston's Colonial Theatre to purchase tickets to the Tony
Award-winning "Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam," which from Tuesday through
next Sunday will feature seven performance poets roaring about current issues.
Simmons may wade in the materialism of hip-hop culture, but his continuing
spiritual education has shown him that making money is not enough. When he's
not catering to the bottom line, he's a political activist seeking solutions
to the litany of social problems detailed in rap lyrics. His Hip-Hop Summit
Action Network is run out of his Fashion Avenue office.
This is Simmons in his middle years. But when he speaks about how he built his
empire, his brash younger self sometimes peeks through.
"I don't see a market that's worth money and then go after it. That's not the
way I built my" -- Simmons catches himself, then finishes blandly -- "that's
not the models that I use for business."
Selling points You discover how Simmons attained his level of success soon
after wading through a sea of suits -- Pepsi executives leaving a meeting with
Simmons to discuss distributing Def Con 3 -- to get to his 43d floor office
with a prominent photo of his wife, Kimora Lee, and daughters Ming, 3, and
He says hello and begins to sell.
"Feel that," he says holding out the arm of his black sweater, a recent
addition to the limited edition Russell Simmons Collection started this year.
He offers a can of Def Con 3, a light-blue fizzy drink that Simmons accurately
says tastes like cotton candy.
Simmons credits his success to wise hiring decisions, not personal know-how.
Business is about giving, he says, and he launched Rush Communications "to
start something that was for us. `Us' being the hip-hop community in general,
but more specifically the African-American community that created the genre."
He does this in an office that is conservative in decor: maroon carpets,
oriental rugs, and cherry-wood doors. Then there is Simmons, dressed down in a
black baseball cap, white sneakers, and gray running pants. Listen closely and
you'll hear a slight lisp when he speaks. He may be spiritual, but he has no
problem uttering the occasional curse word.
This success story began in Simmons's hometown of Hollis, Queens, where as a
17-year-old he promoted parties featuring his younger brother Joey's rap
group, Run-DMC (Reverend Run, as he's known today, now heads Phat Farm
Footwear). Instead of completing his degree at City College of New York,
Simmons hooked up with Rick Rubin, another student promoter with big dreams.
In 1984, the two spent $700 to produce LL Cool J's instant classic "I Need A
And Def Jam Records was born.
The pair's release of now-legendary albums by Public Enemy and the Beastie
Boys made hip-hop fans cheer, while mainstream black music establishment
cringed at the in-your-face lyrics. The reactions didn't matter to Simmons. By
1989, he'd started the Simmons Lathan Media Group production company with
veteran producer Stan Lathan. Their first show, HBO's "Def Comedy Jam"
launched some of today's most popular comedians including Chris Rock, Tracy
Morgan, and Bernie Mac.
Simmons discovered another cache of talent when his older brother, Daniel,
introduced him to the burgeoning world of spoken word. In 2001, HBO was airing
"Def Poetry Jam." Soon after, Lathan and Simmons decided to put the strongest
poets together for a stage show. It landed on Broadway, and although the run
didn't turn a profit, it achieved Simmons's goal of catering to the hip-hop
"It spoke to a lot of people who've never been to Broadway," says Simmons,
"The show was the most diverse audience that Broadway has ever seen, and
that's something to be proud of right there."
Simmons will quickly tell you that winning the Tony in the special theatrical
event category this year meant nothing to him. At least not until "Soul Train"
host Don Cornelius criticized him for wearing jeans and sneakers rather than a
suit at an event after winning the award.
"That meant that a Tony was worth something," says Simmons. "Don Cornelius
never said nothing to me, just `Those damn rappers ain't worth (expletive).' "
Man in demand Simmons sees the true worth of rappers every morning when he
wakes up in his $14 million suburban New Jersey estate. On this day he faces
an agenda full of meetings. Jimmy Iovine, chairman and CEO of Interscope
Geffen A&M, and Paul Rosenberg, Eminem's manager, arrive at his office at 11
a.m. to discuss how the rapper should handle the controversy over an
unreleased rap song recently discovered by The Source magazine that adds black
women to his list of verbal targets. Listen to audio clips of the Def Jam
poets on www.boston.com/ae.
There are marketing meetings and media interviews. Meanwhile, Lyor Cohen,
president of Island Def Jam, waits in a nearby office. "He's pissed off that I
haven't spoken to him," Simmons says.
The sole constant in each busy day is a yoga class. "I do what they [my
associates] tell me except for that,"says Simmons, who started taking yoga in
1995. He prefers Jivamukti because it focuses on the spiritual as well as the
physical aspects of the practice.
"The yoga sutras were written as inspiration for all religions," says Simmons
as he points out balance-defying poses while paging through "The Art of Yoga."
"I never really liked religion very much but now have a great appreciation for
the religious leaders I work with." Simmons's circle includes Nation of Islam
leader Louis Farrakhan, who recently mediated an attempt to end the feud
Ja Rule and 50 Cent, and Rabbi Marc Schneier, founder of the Foundation for
Ethnic Understanding (Simmons is a board member). The kinder, gentler Simmons
shaped by yoga remains a killer in the conference room. He wants to sell Phat
Fashions to an established clothing company so his staff can focus on its
strengths: marketing and design. His goal is to transform his million-dollar
company ($263 million in revenues in 2002) into a billion-dollar company.
To those who can't reconcile his enthusiastic pursuit of commerce and God, he
says, "I do the best I can. . . . My just being conscious of the practice of
giving makes me a better businessman and a more conscious businessman. That's
what I try to be. That's all." As chairman of Def Jam, Simmons gives by
mentoring rappers. He helps artists get out of trouble and teaches them how to
manage wealth and fame. This is what brings Iovine and Rosenberg to his
"I think he's honest when he makes his apology," Simmons says of Eminem. "He's
made donations, some anonymously, to organizations that support
African-American women! No one's aware of that. Do you tell them that? Is that
a good excuse, a better indicator of who I am?"
Speaking out These days Simmons takes the high road rather than look for
fights. Only one negative comment slips from his lips during the interview,
and he asks that it remain off the record. His foray into activism reveals a
similar soft spot.
"You're looking for a place where you can contribute," he says. "Because of my
work in music, I have access to resources really helpful to the community. So
I figure I might as well use them."
Those resources were in play earlier this year when former US Department of
Housing and Urban Development head Andrew Cuomo asked Simmons to help New York
governor George Pataki and other politicians reform the state's harsh
mandatory sentences for drug offenders. The laws send a disproportionate
number of Latinos and blacks to jail. After a Hip-Hop Summit in June to draw
attention to the issue, the state lobbying commission accused Simmons of being
a lobbyist. He's spent more than $200,000 in legal fees fighting the charge.
"I could probably pay ten grand [to settle the case]," says Simmons, "and
they'd be thrilled to set a precedent that every person that expresses an
opinion is a lobbyist, but I won't allow that to happen. That's my freedom of
speech, I'm going to protect it."
When Simmons calls Hip-Hop Summit head Ben Chavis into his office to discuss
the issue, Simmons receives the hot-off-the-presses news that a federal judge
tossed his First Amendment case because the lobbying commission hadn't
finished its investigation.
As Simmons discovers the consequences of the federal decision, his comments
segue from a confused "I have to spend more money?" to a strident "neither the
Hip-Hop Summit nor my personal funds should be exhausted anymore." But yoga
beckons. Simmons walks out of his office surrounded by a circle of employees
clamoring for his attention. He goes into an office to watch a video of the
remix of Ashanti's hit song "Rain on Me." In the video, the singer and Irv
Gotti, head of Def Jam's Murder Inc. label, coo "Murder Inc.," even though it
was rumored that the label's name would be changed to The Inc.
"I was hoping they would change their name,' Simmons says in the cream leather
cocoon of his black Ford Explorer as his driver heads down Seventh Avenue. A
week later, the name change is officially announced during a New York press
Simmons plugs his cell into the car charger and proceeds to answer questions
and calls, including one from his wife, who chats about their plans later that
night for Jay-Z's concert, which doubles as a Hip-Hop Summit fund-raiser. "I'm
sorry," he says helplessly to his interviewer. Another business call and then
he's trying to track down supermodel Naomi Campbell.
The car stops at the yoga studio, and Simmons prepares to leave his material
life behind -- for a moment at least. He's got his inner peace to work on.