"...Well, I'm brewing up rhymes like I was using a still
I've got an old school flow like Mike McGill
'Cause Yauch's on the upright, the shit just ain't funny
Got fat bass lines like Russell Simmons steals money..."
-The Beastie Boys, B Boys Makin With the Freak Freak
Russell "Rush" Simmons is a powerful man. How powerful is he? Well, let's name some rich people. Custom Louis Vuitton upholstry in your Cadillac Escalade rich. Special one-hour MTV Cribs rich. Ludacris. The Beastie Boys. DMX. Ja Rule. Jay-Z. Kanye West. LL Cool J.
He owns them. He chats with George Pitaki. He's good pals with Tommy Hilfiger. He has Hilary Clinton speak at his benefits.
"He's my nigga."
-Simmons, referring to Donald Trump
So how did that happen? One man suddenly runs hip-hop? But we thought that hip-hop was an underground force, one that could not be tamed. A punk rock for the urban minority. And it may have been. But not once Russell Simmons got his hands on it.
In 1978, Simmons was working on a sociology degree at City College in Harlem. He had grown up selling pot on the streets, but a year earlier he had seen a guy called Eddie Cheeba drive a crowd to hysterics just by rapping. Now he was in school and promoting parties in Harlem and Queens with his friend Curtis Walker. Rap was still underground, but it had gained more momentum in the past year. As hip-hop was forming with the convergence of these rappers, taggers, breakers, and DJs, Simmons and Walker co-wrote a song that was recorded by Walker, who was then known as Kurtis Blow.
The song, "Christmas Rappin'", was released in 1979 and was a moderate success, selling 50,000 records. There was an opportunity in this, and Simmons took it. He started managing a number of other groups, including his younger brother, Joey, also known as Run. He hooked up Run with a couple guys who went by DMC and Jam Master Jay, and they started recording as Run-D.M.C.. Their first two records were winners, but they needed something extra to make it big.
In 1983, Simmons met Rick Rubin, a student at NYU who was a hardcore and punk guy who had recently become obsessed with rap. They each chipped in some money, and started Def Jam records. Their first single was called "I Need a Beat" by some 16-year-old kid named James Todd Smith who called himself L.L. Cool J. Rubin was a producing mastermind, gave the recordings its aural punch, and Simmons was the pusherman, working to sell all the time. It worked. The record sold 500,000 copies, and got the attention of CBS in the form of monetary support. But they were just selling black music to a black audience. Simmons knew they could sell to even more people, and Rubin knew how.
The next two releases were the product of Simmons's marketing and Rubin's ingenuity.
One. Rubin had sampled guitar licks for the song "Rock Box" and "King of Rock". This was a huge change from the disco tracks that were previously used to churn out one-hit wonders. Expanding on this idea, Def Jam was able to convince Aerosmith to work with Run-DMC in a cover of "Walk This Way", a song that Aerosmith had already made a hit. This bridge of well-known rock and previously underground rap was a smash hit, reaching #4 on the Billboard Chart. This was the first rap record to break the top five. More importantly, it got rap onto MTV, which was at this time inundated with New Wave and mostly white acts. The album it was on, "Raising Hell", sold 2.5 million copies. This early rap-rock fusion was later emulated in the mid-late 90's by groups like Limp Bizkit, 311, and Rage Against The Machine.
Two. Rubin found his dream group: The Beastie Boys. Formerly a hardcore group, the Beasties were what Def Jam needed to reach suburban white America. Bratty, fratty lyrics with Zepplin and Joan Jett samples went like hotcakes, and Licensed to Ill, their debut album, sold 4.8 million copies. It still pops up occassionally on the Top 200 chart.
In 1985, Simmons produced a movie inspired by Def Jams' creation called Krush Groove. It starred Rick Rubin, L.L. Cool J, The Boys Beastie and Fat, and Blair Underwood as Simmons. Critics hated it, but it made $20 million.
For the rest of the 80's, Key releases helped Def Jam stay ahead, and stay ahead they did. Public Enemy's first three albums, undoubtedly the group's best work, were all released under Def Jam. More stars were made, and artists like Redman, Onyx, and Method Man helped push it forward. Every record the label released through the 1990's went gold.
"Phat, cool. Phat means like cool, like def is cool. You know, like that. Farm is a place where you make cool things. They grow."
-Simmons, explaining to Charlie Rose of 60 minutes II what Phat Farm means.
Since then, Simmons has started a management company (Rush Artist Management), a clothier (Phat Farm), a movie production house (Def Pictures), television shows ("Def Comedy Jam", "Def Poetry"), a magazine (Oneworld), and an advertising agency (Rush Media Co.)
Def Jam teamed up with Sony, sold 60% to Polygram and in 1999 Simmons sold his remaining 40% to Sony for $120 million.
In January of 1999, Simmons capped off 10-plus years of cavorting with models when he super-model married Kimora Lee, who now heads the Baby Phat (Women's) division of Phat Farm.
Simmons, like any mogul, is still on the move constantly. While he no longer owns Def Jam, he still has a very influential role in the company, and acts as a father figure to artists like Ludacris. He also acts as a father to his two daughters: Ming Lee, 4, and Aoki Lee, 12.
"It's hard to help the poor if you're one of them."
Today, Simmons has taken on a more responsible role. His current business venture is Rush Enterprises, an umbrella company that covers all of his business interests. These interests include the RushCard, a pre-paid debit card for people without access to checking accounts, and DefCon3 soda, which is distributed exclusively by 7-Eleven. And, of course, Phat Farm, which netted $250 million last year and continues to grow at a rate of 30%.
During this past year, in preparation for the 2004 election, Simmons chaired the Hip-Hop Action Network, which toured the country urging people to register to vote. This worked along the same line as the "Vote or Die" program of friend and protege, Sean Combs.
“They trust me to make a safe judgment, so they see that, at least when Russell
would have something that’s, you know, won’t embarrass us in some way, or won’t be too edgy.”
Russell Simmons may not have invented rap or hip-hop, but he was there at the start. Many say that he has exploited black culture for his personal gain. Others see him as father, who helped hip-hop flourish, making it accessible to everyone, regardless of race. You can't deny that without him, hip-hop would not be near the state it is today. Whether that's good or bad is up to you.