"My life has largely been about promoting the anger,
style, aggression, and attitude of urban America to a worldwide audience," Russell
Simmons says in his book, Life and Def: Sex, Drugs,
Money + God (Crown
Publishing, 2002). "I've created a business that didn't exist
a generation ago."
Russell Simmons was raised, along with his older brother, Danny, and
younger brother, Joey, in Hollis, Queens, a middle class neighborhood
which was beginning to show signs of deterioration. "Our neighborhood
was ruined by drugs. My corner in Hollis, on 205th Street, was the
drug trading capital of Queens." Ironically, Russell's first attempt
at entrepreneurship would be selling marijuana on that same corner
and later fake cocaine (which he made from crushing up coca leaf incense).
But it didn't take long for Russell to look for other, less dangerous
ways to earn a living. "I was very lucky not to have had the same
fate as most of my friends. My friends ended up in jail or dead. There
came a time in my life where I saw, maybe, a bit of a different route.
I think luck played a big part in my survival."
In 1977, after attending a party at a small club where an MC was shouting
out call-and -response rhymes over a break beat, Russell decided to
promote parties featuring hip-hop artists. "All the street entrepreneurship
I'd learned selling herb, hawking fake cocaine and staying out of jail,
I decided to put into promoting music," Russell explains in his
book. He started renting out venues, negotiating with acts, and promoting. "I
didn't have any talent," Russell says candidly, "so the only
way to really be involved was to produce and promote…I loved
the music. I was more passionate about the culture and the phenomenon
that was developing in the community then I was in the actual business." One
of Russell's earliest successful groups was that of his younger brother,
Joey Simmons (a/k/a "Run" of the pioneering hip-hop
In the early days, Russell would occasionally lose money on his events.
After promoting a party in Harlem which no one attended, Russell found
himself completely broke. "I remember sitting outside and my mother
coming out. She gave me money…and it was enough to start me over
again and give me another opportunity. It was a tremendous push, because
it wasn't the money, it was the investment in me. It was the belief
in my future."
When asked about how his mother, Evelyn Simmons, had an impact on his
business success, Russell responds, "My mother was the independent
one, and had the spirit that allowed me to be an entrepreneur…when
no one else believed, she believed."
Today, Russell Simmons is known as the "Godfather of Hip Hop" and
has brought hip-hop music, along with the urban culture it represents,
to the American mainstream. Russell, along with partner Rick Rubin,
built their record label, Def Jam, into a leading force in the record
industry before Russell sold his share of the company to Universal
Music for $120 million in 1999. Russell also created and produced Def
Comedy Jam, a stand-up comedy series which aired on HBO and, along
with his older brother, Danny Simmons, created Def Poetry Jam, a poetry
reading series now airing on HBO. Russell is currently in charge of
Rush Communications, a conglomerate which houses his various business
ventures, including Phat Fashions, which had $263 million in sales
in 2002. Phat Fashions includes Phat Farm clothing and footwear,
as well as Baby Phat, a line created by Russell's wife, Kimora Lee
Simmons. Russell has also launched his own soft drink, DefCon3, which
is sold by 7Eleven, as well as a pre-paid debit card called, appropriately,
the Rush Card, which gives individuals without bank accounts, an alternative
to the pricey check-cashing agencies.
Although Russell is focused on success in the business world, he is
also concerned with giving back in order to help the less fortunate
and to improve urban communities. He started the Rush Philanthropic
Arts Foundation in 1995, which provides disadvantaged youth with access
to the arts. He also founded the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network in 2001,
an organization that mixes political rallies with music concerts in
order to register young voters.
For more information on Russell Simmons, visit www.rushphilanthropic.org.
|"The only entrepreneurs we
knew were the numbers guys and the drug dealers. And that’s a
fact. It was the only way in."