Russell Simmons

The founder of Def Jam Records brought hip-hop culture into the American mainstream, and his empire is growing.

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Russell Simmons didn’t invent rap, but he is, perhaps more than any other
individual, responsible for the music’s astonishing success. As a young
man, he heard a thriving, vibrant music in battered ghettos and solid
middle-class black neighborhoods like his own and turned it up loud enough
to blast suburban multiplexes and small-town burger joints. If Simmons
hadn’t mainstreamed rap, someone else certainly would have — the music was
too potent, too necessary, too relevant to smoke without ever catching
fire. The point is that Simmons lit the match.

Like rock ‘n’ roll itself, rap was supposed to be a fad. And just like
rock, it turned out to be much more. At this point, almost 20 years after
the first commercial rap song hit the Top 40 — the Sugarhill Gang’s
“Rapper’s Delight” — the genre represents the single most significant
development in pop culture in the past two decades. Its cultural
pervasiveness extends from McDonald’s commercials to href="/news/feature/1999/06/22/hill/index.html">Lauryn Hill’s picture
on the cover of Time, from designer Tommy Hilfiger (Simmons’ friend) to href="/ent/movies/review/1999/06/30/wild_west/index.html">“Wild Wild
West,” starring Fresh Prince Will Smith (one of Simmons’ old acts).
Last year, according to Soundscan, 81 million rap albums were sold, 9
million more units than country, making the genre the largest and fastest
growing in the business.

In 1985, before Russell Simmons, now 41, had even a single gold record on
his wall, he and his partner, Rick Rubin, who together owned the fabled Def
Jam record label, signed a production deal with CBS Records for $600,000.
That kind of money is pocket lint to Simmons now. This year, he’ll most
likely sell the label that he built — the flagship of a modest media
empire — for $100 million. The deal will make Simmons even richer, as it
threatens to separate him from hip-hop, a culture and a music that he
understands as well as anyone, and understands how to extract money from
better than anyone.



The same year that Simmons, who is nicknamed Rush, signed the deal with
CBS, the budding rap impresario produced a goofy Hollywood movie called
“Krush Groove,” modeled loosely on the Def Jam creation myth. Simmons hated
the final picture, which starred rap group Run-D.M.C., Rick Rubin and the
handsome Blair Underwood in Simmons’ place. But a close look at the
movie today reveals a few signal characteristics within the nearly plotless
hour and a half of rock videos by the Beastie Boys, L.L. Cool J and the Fat
Boys. First, Simmons stayed behind the scenes and had an actor play him in
the lead, even though all the other characters in the film played
themselves. (Simmons took a small cameo role.) Second, even before Def Jam
became a huge success, Simmons was diversifying his business, making forays
into new media and cross-promoting his artists. Third, the $3 million movie
returned $20 million, even though it received universally terrible reviews
from critics. And fourth, in a small piece of dialogue, the character based
on Simmons’ father ridicules him for betting on street artists. “Here comes
Berry Gordy,” sneers the old man when Simmons stops by to scare up some
money.

That last thought — just a tossed-off line in a silly movie — might be
the most telling of all the moments, or at least the most important
signifier of just how far Simmons exceeded what was expected of him.
Indeed, sarcastically at first but with growing confidence, others have
declared Simmons an inheritor of the famous Motown Records mogul’s empire.
The amazing thing is that Simmons — at the helm of Rush Communications, a
conglomerate that includes a record label (Def Jam), a management company
(Rush Artist Management), a clothier (Phat Farm), a movie production house
(Def Pictures), television shows (“Def Comedy Jam” and “Russell Simmons’
Oneworld Music Beat”), a magazine (Oneworld) and an advertising agency
(Rush Media Co.) — is even more successful than Gordy.

Last year, Def Jam alone took in almost $200 million in receipts. Motown
had an astonishing hold on the pop charts (75 No. 1 hits in 27 years), but
Gordy couldn’t hold on after he busted on a couple of Hollywood movies. He
sold out to MCA before going under for $61 million in 1988. Even
considering inflation, Simmons’ Def Jam, valued at approximately $250
million (he owns 40 percent), is impressive. Moreover, Def Jam is
approaching even hallowed Motown in terms of cultural significance.
Granted, Motown artists leaped taller racial hurdles, but they succeeded on
the charts in a time when the pop audience was far less balkanized. Also,
most of the hip-hop audience, which is mainly white, isn’t yet old enough
to give the music serious nostalgia cachet. If Run-D.M.C., De La Soul,
Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys and Method Man — all either Def Jam acts or
groups managed by Simmons — don’t seem like national treasures or the
appropriate soundtrack for some “Big Chill” rip-off, just wait 20 years.

Hip-hop and rap are among the most openly referential and historically
deferential of all pop music genres. Simmons was there at the beginning, which
gave him an advantage over head-in-the-sand corporate record execs. The identity of
the first rapper, much like that of the first rock ‘n’ roller, is still a
contested piece of history; most give props to rapper Kool Herc, a Jamaican
who started throwing block parties in 1973, although some like to link back
to Black Power rhymers like the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron. By the late
’70s, underground rap music was thriving. In 1978, Simmons, while working
on a sociology degree at City College in Harlem, began promoting parties in
Harlem and in Queens with his friend Curtis Walker. Rappers came together with DJs, graffiti artists and break dancers,
fomenting the elements of hip-hop as culture. The following year, Walker
became rapper Kurtis Blow, and he and Simmons co-wrote a minor hit called
“Christmas Rappin’.”

After a small success with Blow — 50,000 records — Simmons started
managing a few other groups and, most notably, his younger brother, Joey,
who went by the name of Run. He put his brother together with MC Darryl
McDaniels and DJ Jason Mizell and christened the group Run-D.M.C, dressing
them in black leather suits and telling them what to record. On a street
level, the group’s first two records were almost immediately successful. It
would take a smart, canny business move to make them really blow up.

In 1983, Simmons met Rick Rubin, a wealthy, white punk-rock veteran at NYU
who was in love with rap. With a few thousand dollars each, they created
the tiny Def Jam records, in order to release music that no major labels
would look at. Their first single was “I Need a Beat,” by L.L. Cool J, who
was 16 at the time. Rubin was a production genius who loved loud,
rebellious music. Simmons was relentlessly enthusiastic, a smart
businessman; he’d grown up selling pot on the streets, which had taught him
business basics: cash flow, client relations, networking. The combination
of personalities and talents earned immediate success — almost half a
million records, enough to attract the healthy investment from CBS — but
Def Jam and Run-D.M.C. were primarily making black music for black people.

The label’s next two major moves were strokes of brilliance. First, after
experimenting with electric guitar samples on “Rock Box” and “King of
Rock,” Def Jam paired Run-D.M.C. with Aerosmith for a cover of the rock
band’s “Walk This Way.” The song was a smash and landed Run-D.M.C. on the
lily-white MTV, which was still sidelining rap. With a new white audience,
attracted to the electric guitars and the spare, forceful Run-D.M.C.
delivery, Run-D.M.C. and Simmons found themselves with a No. 4 Billboard
hit — the first rap song to break the Top 5. The single helped the band’s
third album, “Raising Hell,” sell 2.5 million copies. Second, Def Jam
signed the first all-white rap act, the Beastie Boys. The bratty lyrics and
the Led Zeppelin riffs appealed to all kinds of white kids, without
compromising the essence of rap. The album sold 4.8 million copies, and
still pops up on occasion on the Billboard Top 200 chart. Rubin left Def Jam in 1998 to start his own label, but with crossover
successes and key releases like the first three Public Enemy albums –
perhaps Def Jam’s finest musical hour — every record the label released
through 1990 went gold.

As he’d done with “Krush Groove” when Def Jam was getting started, Simmons
took every opportunity to market hip-hop to a wider audience.
Significantly, experience with Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy taught him that
he didn’t need to dilute the core experience to be successful. (Def Jam had
a strong run with hard-core gangsta acts — from Slick Rick to Onyx to
Redman — that continues today.) That doesn’t mean Simmons won’t leap at an
opportunity to make money, even if it doesn’t do much for hip-hop. His
greatest movie success to date is “The Nutty Professor,” with Eddie Murphy reprising the Jerry Lewis role.

At the center of his life now is Phat Farm, the clothing label that Simmons
believes can mint banks of money. It was Simmons who told Tommy Hilfiger
that hip-hop fashion could sell and introduced him to the rap stars and
models who helped him create a billion-dollar empire. Now he’s trying to do
the same for himself, partnering with fashion distributors and backers who
can help his clothing line explode. Last year, Phat Farm sold $17 million
worth of T-shirts and preppy urban wear. With even more distribution deals
and partnerships, Simmons projects a $50 million 1999.

Phat Farm illustrates another aspect of what makes Simmons successful.
Unlike Berry Gordy, who tried to contain his empire, Simmons is constantly
on the lookout for mentors and partners who can help him grow. He
understands that others are more qualified to run a certain part of his
business than he is. “I know garbage men that got more ego than Russell,”
his brother Joey has said of him.

And although Simmons is clearly an ace talent scout and an efficient
manager, his greatest genius is his keen sense of promotion. Back when the
record industry was still looking for one-hit disco wonders, Simmons looked
for artists who could have a career. Then he promoted them and his label at
the same time. Artists reinforced his label’s identity, and the label gave
established cred to newer artists. Simmons was branding back when everyone
else was still marketing. As the label took off, he looked for other places
to use his name and his company’s name to sell a new product.

It might be disconcerting to equate cultural significance with gold records
or bank accounts, but it’s worth noting that rap itself doesn’t have a
problem with the equation. Revisiting the comparison with the early days of
rock, it was only in retrospect, sometime after the hippies appropriated
the folk ethos, that Elvis looked like a sellout for driving Cadillacs and
making bad movies. At the time, it just made him look more like a star.
Financial success was a way for blacks and poor hillbillies — the soul of
early rock — to prove their worth to a culture that had long shunned both.

Hip-hop is as brazen about its money as a junk bonds trader in the ’80s. In
“The Show,” a 1995 rap documentary produced by Simmons, the late Notorious
B.I.G. speaks baldly about cash and Simmons’ ability to mint it. “He be
droppin’ a lot of knowledge to his artists,” says B.I.G. “Russell knows how
to make money. That’s what I want to do, is to sit down and ask questions:
How can I make money? Let me know everything I can do to make a million,
Russ, because I know you know what to do.”

For Simmons, who grew up comfortable to lower-middle class in Queens, N.Y., money probably doesn’t represent the escape hatch that it might to guys
like B.I.G. — who, ironically, made his lode off posthumous royalties –
but Simmons clearly sees a connection. “I’m not broke, so I don’t got to
throw no guns in nobody’s faces. I got a Rolls Royce,” he says in “The
Show,” resting his head against the car’s soft leather back seat. “I don’t
want nobody near me with no type of drama. The only drama I want is Naomi
Campbell.”

Simmons ended a decade-plus of philandering with models by marrying
6-foot-tall runway walker Kimora Lee on St. Barthelemy six months ago. His
brother, now a born-again Reverend Run, officiated at the ceremony.
Celebrity rag In Style put Simmons at the altar in Phat Farm casual wear
and a pair of Adidas. Several days’ worth of gossip-column regulars — from
Martha Stewart to Arista Records mogul Clive Davis — attended the
multiple-yacht receptions. The New York tabloids are now hinting that the
two are pregnant and expecting a baby in October.

Simmons is about to close the biggest deal of his life, one that will
probably end Def Jam as we, and Simmons, know it. Bluntly, the man is
selling out, getting paid. Universal, the massive music conglomerate that
currently owns 60 percent of Def Jam, is buying the remaining 40 percent
for a reported $100 million. Simmons has said that he’ll stay on as
chairman, but he’ll have no ownership, which would probably limit his
hours. The presumption is that Simmons will take the check and funnel it
into his other holdings, principally film projects and Phat Farm, the wing
that he’s convinced will make him rich — not just rich, but really rich.
“I don’t want the money,” he told New York magazine. “I want the
money.”

Among other black-owned entertainment companies, Simmons is king; Rush is
second only to BET Holdings. But Simmons will need the kind of money that
Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger knock down to take his business to the next
level, far beyond the kind of expanded niche world that Berry Gordy owned
at Motown and that Simmons owns at Def Jam. “In comparison to my white
counterparts, competitors, peers, my company isn’t even significant,”
Simmons told Interview in 1995. “I’m not saying that to make myself
smaller. I know my role in influencing pop culture is bigger than most of
the people I compete with.”

The thing is, there’s every indication that Simmons can still create an
expansionistic, diversified conglomerate like the famed Geffen, or Virgin.
Hip-hop is no longer black culture or urban culture: It’s American culture.
And that’s partly because of Simmons. Hip-hop is strong enough to withstand
it’s faddish origins, strong enough to withstand the deaths of two of its
most vital performers, strong enough to withstand McDonald’s, or, for that
matter, Vanilla Ice. Simmons knows this, and this will make him rich.
Richer. “With my first act in ’79, people said hip-hop was dead,” Simmons
has said. “Now look, 20 years later, the culture is so strong we’re doing
underwear.”

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

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