Russell Simmons, known for decades as Rush to his friends, is of average height and build for a man his age (45), with a cleanshaven face, bald dome and light complexion. In conversation, he is likely to switch gears from hip-hop culture and Eastern spirituality to politics and rap-industry commerce several times in the span of just ten minutes. He was born in Jamaica, Queens, the son of Howard University graduates, and moved to residential Hollis at 8; dealt marijuana and was very briefly warlord of the 17th Division of the Seven Immortals gang during the 1970s; and eventually attended, then dropped out of, City College a few credits short of a sociology degree.
In the halcyon days of hip-hop, Simmons managed the seminal rap acts Kurtis Blow, Whodini and Run-D.M.C. (his younger brother is Joseph “Run” Simmons, now a reverend) through Rush Management. Shortly thereafter, he founded Def Jam Records out of partner Rick Rubin’s New York University dorm room, introducing the likes of L.L. Cool J, the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy to Middle America. His wildly successful clothing line Phat Farm has been in operation since 1992. He is universally regarded as having established the blueprint of the hip-hop multimedia mogul. Russell Simmons is hip-hop.
Or is he? “Russell, as quiet as it’s been kept, you are not hip-hop!” begins an open letter circulating on the Internet by rap activist Rosa Clemente–founder of Know Thy Self Productions, a speakers’ bureau dedicated to social change and organization of the hip-hop generation. “Where were you when the hip-hop community united over the issue of AIDS, apartheid, police brutality, gun violence, and the bombing of Vieques, Puerto Rico?” she asks. “You were having those fundraisers for Senator Hillary Clinton, former President Bill Clinton, and having your summer Hamptons parties hobnobbing with the likes of Donald Trump and Martha Stewart.”
Ask Russell Simmons about Rosa Clemente, and he’ll ponder meditatively and then respond sincerely with, “Why do I know her?”
Not long ago I spent some time with Simmons in mid-Manhattan at the offices of Phat Farm, from where he now operates. (Currently chairman and CEO of Island Def Jam, Lyor Cohen runs the label’s day-to-day management.) We sit in his spacious forty-third-floor office, which is distinguished by a wall-to-wall Oriental rug, lots of mahogany wood grain and gold: gold scales, gold lamps, gold clocks. Magazines adorn various surfaces: Black Enterprise, XXL featuring popular Def Jam artist Jay-Z on the cover, Simmons’s own Oneworld. The bookshelf features titles like former mayoral candidate Mark Green’s Selling Out and Simmons’s memoir, Life and Def. So widely known for conducting business on the move that Motorola recently partnered with him to produce the i90c limited-edition mobile phone, it’s slightly strange to see him sitting behind a desk, a candle serenely flickering its flame on the surface next to flowers sprouting from a Phat Farm shoebox.
Speaking with Russell Simmons is, I imagine, akin to taking an audience with the President. We are interrupted several times by various assistants and speakerphone intrusions as we discuss his political leanings of late. Partially responsible for bringing Public Enemy (the revolutionary rap trio that produced the masterpiece of the genre, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back) to the world, Simmons has felt the pang of social responsibility since becoming a yoga adherent, marrying Kimora Lee, and fathering two children. He spearheaded the creation of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network in July 2001–a “coalition of hip-hop artists, record company executives, Civil Rights leaders, [and] community activists,” according to its executive director, former NAACP head minister Dr. Benjamin Chavis–and has recently been voicing political opinions like a seasoned pundit. Ask him what sparked his greater awareness, and his answer is characteristically two parts reflection, one part filibuster.