NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his series, "One On 1," with a profile of one of the busiest and most successful entrepreneurs in New York and the entire country, Russell Simmons.
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We see him out in public. We see his fashion company, Phat Fashion, his wife Kimora's company Baby Phat. We see his television show Def Poetry Jam.
We now even see his Rush Card, a pre-paid debit card which gives individuals without bank accounts an alternative to check-cashing agencies. And of course, the music that he helped grow into an international phenomenon.
For Russell Simmons, all of this started with an idea. And the idea remains the same.
“Hip hop is exactly what it is when we started in terms of its cultural significance - the voice of poor people. Except that now those voices are being heard by more than just poor people,” he says. “People are understanding the plight of the people who are locked out through rap, and they’re also understanding the consciousness of the most feeling people — those who are locked out, the poets - all over the world."
The music, the lifestyle, is worldwide thanks in large part to Russell Simmons, who co-founded Def Jam Records in the 1980’s, and then expanded into television, advertising, fashion, financial services and philanthropy.
Where others saw obstacles, he saw opportunities, pairing rock and rap with Aerosmith and Run DMC, and bringing Def Poetry Jam to HBO and Broadway.
“People didn't have rap music, and I wanted them to hear it, so Aerosmith was another way to keep exposing it,” says Simmons. “Poetry was something that people were thirsting for on a bigger stage, whether it was television or Broadway. So I put it on the bigger stage because people are going to like it."
Now Simmons revels in uniting seemingly disparate entities on social and political issues.
“Putting these people together to find out that they have the same agenda is a thing that I'm blessed with,” he says. “That's why I run the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, to bring the World Jewish Congress together with Minister Farrakhan. No matter what the white media or mainstream media says, [he’s] the biggest black leader we've had in the last 40 years. There's no question. So when you can bring these people together to find they have common agendas is very, very important to me.”
That's the biggest change in Simmons since NY1 last profiled him in 1999: A growing involvement in social and political issues, reflected in the creation of the Hip hop Summit Action Network, getting young people involved in the process, and his fight to change New York State's Rockefeller drug laws.
“It was never a conscious decision to move into politics. It has to do with growing up and finding your power and using your voice,” he says.
One of the country's most successful entrepreneurs started on the streets of Hollis, Queens, a middle class neighborhood that Russell Simmons says was ruined by drugs. He got his start in business selling pot and fake cocaine.
“People want to get high, you want to sell them drugs,” he says. “You get paid, you get happy, they get happy — that’s OK. But the lasting happiness, you find out if you're giving poison out you get back poison. The drug dealer dies before the drug addict. Give the world something that you can stand behind that's good, that will make them happy in the long run.”
Simmons says he was lucky to avoid the fate that befell most of his friends - dead or in prison.
He eventually fell in love with hip hop and started promoting parties. He hooked up with the rapper Kurtis Blow. Their first taste of success came not here, but in Holland.
“Finding out that my record was a hit, that my investment in music was important to somebody,” he says. “Because it wasn't hot in America, it was in Amsterdam that I find out Kurtis Blow's ÎChristmas Rapping’ was playing, 1979, and getting on a plane — which I had never been on a plane — and going to Amsterdam was a big deal to me. Getting off the plane they said, ÎWhat do you want Mr. Simmons?’ I’m like, ÎMr. Simmons? Who's that?’”
Now, Simmons can touch down on a private plane at any airport in the world. He's shepherded the growth of rap and hip hop around the world.
During our conversation, he was most passionate, and eloquent, when addressing the typical criticisms leveled at some of the music's lyrics: homophobic, misogynistic, violent.
“You talk about rap violence, well, there is violence in our communities,” he says. “The expression of truth is very uncomfortable to a lot of people, this kind of truth about our poor in America. People are uncomfortable with it. They don't want to hear that 50 Cent got in a shootout. There are shootouts all day in his neighborhood."
“They say that rappers aren't conscious, but who are the conscious people?” he continues. “Are they the sophisticates who put people in ovens? The educated ones who enslave people? Are they the ones who drop bombs on innocent people and turn their back? The conscious people a lot of the time are the poor who you think are uneducated, and they are maybe about some things in the world or unsophisticated, but they have heart. The poets have heart. They can tell you that they are not gangster rappers, but you may be part of a gangster government. They can tell you a lot of stuff that you'd be shocked to know about yourself when you think that you're sophisticated and they're not. After all, who did Jesus Christ hang out with but the rappers?“
“We have to listen to the voices of the poets and the people that we always lock out of the dialogue about our problems and our truths. We have to have them speak. We don't need a bunch of rich people telling us what's going on in our poor communities. We want people coming out of that struggle to actually have a voice. So now we have rap, and rap is scaring us to death because they are telling us our truth that we don't want to face.”
Simmons' success in business has brought him fortune and fame, a downtown penthouse that was destroyed on 9/11, and now an estate in the suburbs of New Jersey. He's married with two small children.
Mixed in with the business of the day is meditation, yoga, a vegan lifestyle, and in his conversation a spiritual approach to the person he was, and is now.
“You wake up figuring out what can we give, but sometimes in the back of our minds we’re thinking what can we get,” he says. “The need for more junk is the thing that makes you unhappy; ÎI don't have it. What can I get?’ That's happiness. When I was young I had that instinctively, I knew, but I think through scripture and yoga and different practices I could at least express what I'm chasing.”
- Budd Mishkin