Beyond Definition: Through His Def Jam Record Label, Russell Simmons Made Hip-Hop into an Unstoppable Cultural Force. Now He's Turning Up the Volume in Politics and Business
Roberts, Johnnie L., Newsweek
Byline: Johnnie L. Roberts
It's a Wednesday in June, a typical weekday for Russell Simmons--he's hellishly overscheduled with A-list invitations. Executives from the luxury pen maker Mont Blanc were honoring him for his philanthropy. HBO, which carries the "Def Poetry Jam" series that Simmons created, invited him to the premiere party for "Sex and the City." The rapper Jay-Z was hosting a bash to christen his new lounge--the perfect setting for Simmons and his wife, ex-model Kimora, to build buzz for Simmons's own luxury watch brand, Grimaldi, by giving away some of the $6,000 timepieces.
But those plans are shelved by a phone call Simmons takes in the back of his customized SUV as it's threading through Manhattan. "You know that's bull----,'' Simmons says into his cell. The caller? New York Gov. George Pataki. Simmons, the hip-hop impresario who cofounded Def Jam Recordings, has been at the forefront of an effort to reform New York's 30-year-old Rockefeller drug laws, which critics say have sent thousands to prison for long stretches on minor first-time drug offenses. But a stalemate threatens the effort, and Pataki wants Simmons to join him and top lawmakers that night for a meeting. "I'm happy to blow off everything," Simmons says, then asks if Pataki can arrange to fly him to Albany. "Every time you have me come up, it costs me $10,000,'' Simmons says. Pataki says no; Simmons books a helicopter. He's got a feeling the meeting will go nowhere. "I'm going to get blamed for it," he says, then adds: "But I'm not running for anything, so I don't give a f---. All I care about is getting these guys out of jail."
But Simmons is running--maybe not for public office, but he seems to be sprinting hard in every direction. He's become a blunt force in politics--agitating about drug laws, the New York City school budget and slavery reparations, as well as meeting with Democratic presidential hopefuls seeking his support. He's moved into financial services, recently launching the Rush Visa card. And there's his new energy drink, Def Con 3, as well as a Hollywood media company, his Phat Farm fashion label and a touring version of his first Broadway show, "Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam on Broadway," which won a Tony award in June.
There is a unifying goal: he wants to push the hip-hop outsider's viewpoint into all facets of mainstream society. Hip-hop, in effect, has grown up through the 45-year-old Simmons. In the mid-'80s, he saw the promise in a music style, originally defined by race, that would leap across all boundaries. And in the view of many, he is now emerging as potentially the most credible and effective leader of the post-civil-rights generation. "There's been a vacuum," says Bill Stephney, a politically active veteran of the music business. "Russell could be someone who represents the imperative and ideology of this generation."
Simmons has the wealth and fame required of the role, but he's a compelling figure for other reasons. He's got a devoted following in hip-hop, after helping launch the careers of stars like Will Smith and Jay-Z, as well as comedians Martin Lawrence and --Bernie Mac, who caught their big break through Simmons's "Def Comedy Jam'' series. He recruited musicians like 50 Cent and Mariah Carey to help lead a rally of 60,000 in June against the drug laws. "He's like the godfather of hip-hop," says P. Diddy, who spoke at the rally. "Russell is raising the bar for us with our power to be responsible, not just for ourselves but for our people." Simmons views himself in far less lofty terms: "All of what I do is to burn bad karma and help make people's lives better. I just go to work every day and enjoy it.''
Simmons is hardly the first successful businessman to turn to politics and social issues. He often cites the influence of the philosophy of hatha yoga, which he practices daily. He says he also was inspired by his younger brother, Joseph (better known as Rev. …