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Whites have accepted Russell Simmons as the guru of urban black youth culture. He has sold them a bill of goodsthat we are penny-chasing, champagne-drinking, gold-teeth-wearing, modern-day Sambos, pimps, and playas.
Russell Simmons and Conrad Muhammad, two titans of the hip hop culture, have clashed over upcoming summits both have planned to chart the future of rap, modern music's most volatile art form.
Muhammad, founder of A Movement for CHHANGE (Conscious Hip Hop Activism Necessary for Global Empowerment), accused Simmons of condoning violence by refusing to condemn the frequent use of words like "bitch" and "nigga" in rap lyrics, and of trying to derail his April 30 Campaign for Dignity Meeting. Simmons, one of the pioneers of rap music and the founder of Def Jam Records (now a division of RUSH Communications, which includes the Phat Farm clothing empire), described Muhammad as obsessed with efforts to censor rappers and bent on undermining the largest gathering ever of hip hop artists and executives, scheduled for June.
The feud over the direction of rap erupted on April 16 after Muhammad blasted hip hop executives for failing to mentor young, aspiring rappers, which he said leaves them prey to the pitfalls of the gangsta lifestyle. At the time, Muhammad was speaking in favor of a lesser sentence for Jamaal "Shyne" Barrow, the 21-year-old gangsta rapper who was convicted of assault last month in the highly publicized 1999 Club New York shooting. Hip hop idol Sean "Puffy" Combs was acquitted of gun possession and bribery charges in the same case. Barrow faces up to 25 years in prison when he is sentenced on June 1. Although Muhammad did not name names, Simmons felt that the former Nation of Islam cleric, known as "the hip hop minister," was pointing the finger at people like him and Combs.
The day after Muhammad's statement, Simmons sent an e-mail to hip hop executives and other music industry figures, touting his summit to "address various issues affecting the very survival of the . . . spirit of hip hop." He said Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, Muhammad's estranged spiritual father, "has agreed" to host the summit. As if pitting Farrakhan against Muhammad weren't enough, Simmons concluded his brief message by ripping into the activist. "Whether or not you attend this summit," wrote Simmons, "I urge that you do not support open and aggressive critics of the hip hop community (i.e., C. DeLores Tucker, Bob Dole, or Conrad Muhammad)."
One of the spammed executives forwarded Simmons's warning to Muhammad, who wasted no time firing back in an interview with the Voice. "This is an entertainment figure who really has contributed mightily to the degradation of the African American community by corrupting the morals of young people," Muhammad said. "Instead of him being in a spirit of repentance and offering to use his power to right some of his wrongs, he engages in a divisive campaign to stop a minister whom he has called on many times in the past for help when he was in trouble."
Muhammad portrayed Simmons as someone who has exploited hip hop for the benefit of white fans, who he claims represent 70 percent of the rap consumer market. "Whites have accepted Russell Simmons as the guru of urban black youth culture," Muhammad sneered. "He has sold them a bill of goodsthat we are penny-chasing, champagne-drinking, gold-teeth-wearing, modern-day Sambos, pimps, and playas. This Russell Simmons, who would rather wrap me up in a Bob Dole jacket or a C. DeLores Tucker dress, is selling Mammy and Sambo culture to white America."
Muhammad asserted that dragging a big gun like Farrakhan into the hip hop war was an act of desperation. "Russell really thinks he's clever," scoffed the activist who was minister of Harlem's historic Mosque No. 7 and once served as Farrakhan's emissary to the hip hop nation. "In his attempt to stop me, he goes to Minister Farrakhan so that when I hear Minister Farrakhan's name, I'll back up and stop doing what I'm doing," Muhammad continued. But he contended that the cancer-stricken Farrakhan would never let some "little music man" use him that way. "I am confident that will not happen," he said. "I'm confident that he will not join in an unholy alliance with Russell Simmons to block a rap summit that I am organizing."
For his part, Simmons belittled the black Muslim evangelist, questioning his raptivist credentials and proclaiming that Muhammad can't be a "hip hop minister" when he doesn't have a hip hop constituency.
But Muhammad said that his hip hop ministry is well established. After nearly 20 years of shuttle diplomacy between warring factions of the hip hop nation, many feel that Muhammad has earned the title of "hip hop minister." The baby-face activist, once considered an heir to Farrakhan, said he has brokered more truces among rappers and done more to promote the culture of the ghetto griot than critics like Simmons care to acknowledge.
While at Mosque No. 7, Muhammad summoned groups such as A Tribe Called Quest, Wrecks-n-Effect, and Afrika Bambaata's Zulu Nation to his 127th Street temple to settle differences. Four years ago, shortly before Zulu Nation chief B.O. was gunned down in the Bronx, Muhammad said that B.O., a reputed street thug, accepted a challenge from him to turn his life around. "One of the toughest days of my hip hop ministry was preaching at B.O.'s funeral," Muhammad said.
Before rapper Tupac Shakur was assassinated in 1996, Muhammad recalled that after Shakur was robbed and shot outside of a recording studio in Manhattan, Shakur asked him to throw a ring of security from the Nation of Islam's elite guards around him. Muhammad said he repeatedly admonished this "thug for life" to shed his gangsta image and work with young hip hop fans who were joining the rival Bloods and Crips gangs as the so-called "East Coast, West Coast" battle between Sean Combs's Bad Boy Records and Suge Knight's Los Angeles-based Death Row Records crews flared.
Muhammad claimed that on Knight's first visit to Harlem several years ago, he introduced the feared gangsta rap producer to Afrika Bambaata and Cool Al Herc, the godfathers of hip hop. He later approached Knight during a break at a Grammy award ceremony in New York and "urged him to stop terrorizing" Combs and Andre Harrell, another music executive. And for the past two months, Muhammad has been a spiritual adviser to Jamaal Barrow, while continuing to lambast hip hop executives who spurned his pleas to clean up the culture.
But Russell Simmons views Muhammad as a hindrance. "Conrad Muhammad's whole popularity is based on attacking hip hop," Simmons claimed. "That's how C. DeLores Tucker got famous. These attacks will not endear him to the rap community. It will not support people like him."
Simmons argued that Muhammad owes an "apology" to rappers and hip hop executives he has skewered. "They have closed ranks against him," the rap millionaire maintained. "Because of his comments in the media, they have shut him out." Simmons derided Muhammad's nearly 20-year crusade against offensive lyrics, saying it has "amounted to zero," and countering that rap music has flourished under his artistic vision. "Do you know how many records we put out this year?" he asked. "There is a big difference in the influence we have. We have a much bigger army than he could ever put together. He can't hurt us."
Simmons insisted that his summit is not intended to upstage Muhammad's event. He explained that it will be the third in a nationwide series of summits organized by the Reverend Al Sharpton and David Mays, publisher of the hip hop magazine The Source. The last summit was held at Harvard Law School's Criminal Justice Institute and was moderated by famed law professor Charles Ogletree. The summits are aimed at drawing up a code of conduct for rap's increasingly influentialbut often criticizedhardcore artists. Rappers Master P., Fat Joe, RZA of the Wu Tang Clan, Queen Latifah, Ray Benzino of the Boston-based group Made Men, Barrow, and Treach were present. Master P. and Barrow defended violence in some of their music as a reflection of crime in neighborhoods where they grew up, but said fans should not try to live out their songs, according to the Boston Herald, which covered the event. "It's entertainment but it's social commentary, too," said Benzino.
Simmons agreed, pointing out that much of what the artists rap about is not sexually explicit or violent. "They will get back to writing from their hearts," he predicted. "This summit will celebrate, defend, and fix rap music, but I want rappers to continue to stick with the truth. I can't force my religion or anything else on them." He said that interference by "outside forces"such as Muhammadonly make rappers "more rebellious."
Summit No. 3, Simmons said, also will focus on why successful rappers still must deal with racism in their daily lives. After rapper Jay-Z and his crewbodyguard Hamza Hewitt, driver Romero Chambers, and Tyran Smithwere pulled over on April 13 outside a Manhattan nightclub, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani defended the notion that the New York Police Department is engaged in "rapper profiling." Undercover cops claimed they spotted Hewitt shoving a gun into his waistband. "The NYPD targets people who illegally possess guns," said Giuliani, whose "Afriphobia" has been long cited throughout the black community as a major factor in the encouragement of racial profiling by police. Added Giuliani, "Here's a way not to get into trouble with NYPD: Don't shoot anybody, don't rob anybody, don't rape anybody, and don't carry guns illegally."
Simmons said that at his summit participants will demand that rapper profiling be stopped. But last week, Muhammad raised eyebrows when he brushed aside the call for an investigation into an alleged "pattern and practice" of singling out rappers, claiming that it was a diversion by artists who want to carry on their gangsta behavior. Muhammad described as "suspicious" Simmons's "sudden outspokenness" on rapper profiling in the wake of Jay-Z's arrest. Jay-Z is signed to Def Jam Records. "Jay-Z, one of Russell's main artists who advocates gangsta, pimp, and thug images, is in trouble with the law again," Muhammad noted.
For now, Muhammad is sticking to his "anti-defamation campaign," which will evolve into his Campaign for Dignity Meeting with hip hop executives and rappers at the National Urban League in Manhattan. "There is a crisis in the African American community that requires immediate attention," he declared in a statement he is distributing to music industry playas. "The degradation of the African American community through the media and music industry, particularly rap, is rampant. The bombardment of . . . negative images has contributed to . . . destructive behavior. . . . It is our responsibility to make a difference and implement change. Action must be taken now as tomorrow will be too late."
Muhammad said that despite what Simmons and other critics believe, his objective is not to embarrass hip hop producers. "I could have disrespected them by going to their white parent companies and talking about them," he said. "But I am coming to them as their brother. I believe that when I sit in a room and expose the role that they are playing in helping to lead young people down the road that Shyne has gone, I can touch something inside these brothers and sisters who come from the black community. I don't want them to continue to allow money to make them deaf and immune to the suffering of their people. Why would anyone attack that? Maybe somebody does not want that suffering to stop because it is too profitable. White people love seeing blacks with gold teeth in their mouths, big bootys, and hear them talk crazy. I want to stop that because it hurts too many of us."