Compa$$ionate Capitali$m

Russell $immons wants to fatten the hip-hop vote—and maybe his wallet, too

Listen in as Simmons and his brother Run, one third of Run-DMC, are chowing down on takeout from Subway and talking up the social benefits of Simmons's new energy drink, Def-Con 3. "We were going to give away 20 or 30 percent of the proceeds," Simmons says, sitting in his New York headquarters. "I decided to give away 100 percent, at least for a period of time, to develop the hip-hop summit. We want to register a lot of voters, and that shit is expensive."

Simmons talks with his mouth full. Meticulously groomed, he somehow still wears the cloak of the disheveled. His cadence is rough and abrupt; words issue from him with the grace and elegance of an avalanche. But it's his candor, even his fondness for profanity, that allows him to spin you, even if he isn't trying to.

A natural broker, he knows how to give ground without really giving it. Last fall, Simmons came into conflict with Farrakhan would-be Malik Zulu Shabazz over Simmons's nonsupport of the 2003 Million Youth March. According to Simmons, Shabazz had threatened to "expose" him.

Russell Simmons, president-for-life of hip-hop America
photo: Nicholas Burnham
Russell Simmons, president-for-life of hip-hop America

"You can't expose me, nigga!" says a suddenly animated Simmons.

Then: "I love a lot of what you have to say."

But: "A lot of what you have to say, I don't necessarily think is my struggle."

Finally: "Everybody has their own struggle."

Ask about Phat Farm, and he'll lean forward incredulously and, in a semi-nasal tone, declare, "I still got the hottest clothing company in the business, and it's a lotta niggas with clothing companies."

Is he hotter than Sean John? "Well, I don't wanna compete."

But: "My numbers are bigger. My growth is bigger."

Yet: "I think, I don't know. There are stores we're not hot in."

Finally: "But overall, we're doing better business. I think our overall numbers are the best."

His Clintonesque combo of straight talk and compromise—he's comfortable enough to speak his mind, but malleable enough to seemingly concede a point—has won Simmons allies and friends that run the gamut from Louis Farrakhan to Bobby Shriver. "He's a very dynamic individual," says Roc-A-Fella Records CEO Damon Dash. "He's got friends in fashion, in music, friends in the political world, and then overall he's just a nice guy. Russell is the type of guy who if he asks you to do something, you just do it—even if you know nothing about the issue."

Throughout our conversation, Simmons quotes from his yoga teachings. When he talks about his transformation to being an activist, he credits his wife, his kids, his age ("I'm old"). But as much as anything he credits yoga, which is all about the sort of odd marriages—like, say, your mouth to your knees—that Simmons has specialized in executing.

"You wanna go to yoga with me?" he asks, breaking from an evaluation of yoga teachers with the Reverend Run.

"Yeah, sure," I reply.

"I'm gonna take him to yoga with me," he says to one of his PR people. Then he picks up the phone to grab one of his personal assistants.

"What's your name again?" he asks.


"I got a big nigga named Ta-Nehisi that I'm gonna take to my six o'clock yoga class," he tells his assistant.

Simmons began his forays into social enlightenment by launching the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, in concert with Benjamin Chavis, in July 2001. By then, Simmons had left his footprints all over the entertainment world. Briefly recapped: He got his start by founding Rush Management and handling the careers of Kurtis Blow and Run-DMC. In 1984, he partnered with Rick Rubin to form Def Jam.

Between Rush and Def Jam, Simmons would leave his imprint on everyone from Eric B. and Rakim to EPMD to Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. He started Phat Farm, Def Comedy Jam, and Def Poetry Jam. By understanding that niche products don't have to be, Simmons made millions—and had a blast along the way. "I didn't make 'Rock Box' thinking, 'Oh, how much money is this gonna get me,' " says Simmons. "I made 'Rock Box' thinking this is a lot of fun and niggas is gonna bug out when they hear this. And, so they did. I enjoyed it. They sent me money. The money didn't matter."

As chair of HSAN, Simmons has directed the group to take on everything from blocking cuts in New York's education budget to curbing file-sharing and preserving freedom of speech. He's been criticized for adopting a veneer of activism even as he protects his own interests, but his real goal is to influence electoral politics. To what end is hard to say. Through the lens of HSAN, hip-hop activism is as amorphous as the music and culture it springs from. Its leadership planned it that way.

"We universally represent all of hip-hop. We didn't say we're only going to work with artists who do good videos and good lyrics," says Chavis. "We represent all of the artists, from gangsta hip-hop to gospel hip-hop. It gives us the ability to help encourage all of the artists to seek a path that is constructive and not self-destructive."

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