Real Name: Russell Wendall Simmons
D.O.B.: October 4th, 1957 Jamaica Queens, New York
Label: Def Jam Recordings (Co-Founder)
“You can’t understand the journey of this culture until you take the measure of this man.” - Nelson George
Russell Simmons is the widely acclaimed “Boss of Hip-Hop”, the Godfather of hip-hop business. He is a highly successful entrepreneur. Simmons is the co-founder and former owner of the biggest label in hip-hop, Def Jam Recordings, of which generated the careers of the legendary talents of Run DMC, Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, DMX, Jay-Z and a line-up to rival Motown. Outside of records, Simmons’ multi-million dollar empire includes, Rush Communications which includes Rush Artistic Management company, Phat Farm clothing label, a movie production house, television shows, a magazine, an advertising agency and the fragrance label Atman. Simmons sold his stake in the record company for $100 million to Universal Music Group in 1999 and Phat Farm label to the Kellwood Company for $140 million dollars and is now run by his now ex-wife Kimora Lee. The up and coming component of Rush Communications is the sneaker company Run Athletics, a company that produces the Legacy and Arthur Ashe shoes. Russell Simmons is the third richest hip-hop entrepreneur, having a net-worth estimate of $340 million, behind Jay-Z ($547M) and Sean Combs ($358M). Two guys who grew up modelling their own careers off of Russell’s. The man has built hip-hop into one of the biggest entertainment industries in the world today. Russell saw the music as not solely the essence of the hip-hop culture but another by-product parallel to clothes, graffiti and dance. He felt that the dress and overall appearance of hip-hop was perhaps the fifth element. Unlike the Bronx movement whose holy trinity considered the music always a devotional element and heart of the culture. The dress code was the by-product. The business-minded Simmons reaped the profits of these by-products in the coming years of hip-hop and became the foundation of an empire.
Born in 1957, Russell grew up parallel to the emergent hip-hop culture. Until 1965 he grew up in Jamaica, Queens before the family moved to a more affluent area of Hollis, Queens situated between Jamaica and Queens Village. The area was regarded as a middle-class and aspirational. His mother and father were both highly-educated and fully-employed school teachers. Daniel Simmons Sr. was a poetry teacher and public school attendance supervisor who later became a professor of black history at Pace University in Manhattan. His mother, Evelyn was a pre-school teacher back in Jamaica, Queens. The parents met at Howard University where they both attended. Daniel earned a bachelor degree in history and Evelyn, sociology and psychology. Russell’s older brother Daniel Jr. lived in the family home’s attic where Russell shared a room with younger brother Joseph, who later became the founder of the legendary Run DMC trio. Family life was very wholesome, loving and religious. The father taught black history and civil rights to his sons, Daniel Jr. would become a member of the Black Panther movement, much to his father’s delight. Both parents maintained high expectations on education. Russell attended integrated public schools in the area in search of a better education than that of local community schools. He kept in close contact with friends from the basketball courts in Hollis. It was here where Russell forged relations with gang members from the Queens chapter of the Seven Immortals, linked to the bigger & bad Bronx gangs. He ran with them through his teens, The Queens crew were more of a symbolic gang, never held any real ground or fought with serious violence, but did command respect around the way. By tenth grade, Russell earned the status-title of “Warlord” despite never being considered a street-fighter, this was attained merely through general popularity. Russell would regularly travel up into Harlem, drawn in to the spirit of creative black culture and modern music. It was an historical borough of black culture, unlike the quiet multicultural suburban world of Queens, New York. His dress code was dictated by new fashion, looking fly. Hard to earn the money for the fly lifestyle, Russell wanted to wear the three striped Pro-Ked sneakers and the A.J. Lester clothing label. The quickest and easiest way for an aspiring teenager was to deal dope at the bottom street-level. Russell Simmons neighbourhood which was beginning to show signs of deterioration. “Our neighbourhood 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. His older brother Daniel was suffering through heroin addiction, Russell witnessed first-hand the horrors of drugs and steered clear from hard-classed drugs, preferring marijuana and angel-dust. He became embroiled in a robbery of his stash and attempted to shoot the assailant, but missed. he later moved his way out to sucker-selling fake cocaine to unsuspecting chumps. He made the product from crushed coca-leaf incense. He fronted his hustle by working at a local Juice store in Greenwich Village. Russell was arrested and locked up only for the one incident of smoking marijuana outside a public library on Jamaica Avenue. Here Russell realised there were 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.”
His father insisted that Russell enrolled at the City College of New York on a sociology course in the autumn of 1975. This responsibility served as another front to his co-curricular activities of partying, dope and chasing girls. A teenager’s life was all he wanted. However it was at college where he learned of promoting parties and events with another student. This came down to distributing flyers at Charles’ Gallery in Harlem. His running partner, Rudy Toppin gave him the nickname, ‘Rush’ reflecting his exuberance and relentless pursuant spirit in a task. Russell continued to promote shows their, of mainly jazz, blues and disco themed nights. However in time he would book more inventive hip-hop acts. Here the rising star emcee, Eddie Cheeba accompanied DJ Easy G to the Charles’ Gallery where his routines of crowd participation and lyrical delivery over Parliament Funk records. Russell witnessed the real potential of hip-hop from the energy of Eddie Cheeba’s shows. Russell soon followed Cheeba, finding his fix of more hip-hop acts to promote. He would visit the 371 club in the Bronx and invited them to play downtown clubs like the Hotel Diplomat. He started to research this burgeoning revolution of music, negotiating with acts, clubs and observing the crowds. Russell threw a party, his first business venture in 1977 at the Renaissance Hotel in Queens.
Kurtis Blow headlined first Rush party. Curtis (Blow) Walker was a jock/programme director at the City College radio station who went by the moniker of ‘Kool DJ Kurt’ until Russell suggested ‘Kurtis Blow’ (as in hard-hitting like a death blow). They met at Charles’ Gallery when Blow performed as the one man band DJ and MC show. he also had regular spots at Disco Fever and Small’s Paradise on Friday/Saturday nights. The venue rental was $500, with $300 spent on flyers. The advert ran with, “Rush Productions in Association with Rudy Topplin and Kurtis Blow”. The attendance was 800 thick, (200 over the limit). The follow-up college event was thrown a month later at the Diplomat Hotel in Times Square ran flyers reading, “Rush - The Force in College Parties, Present…” Here Eddie Cheeba and Kurtis Blow shared the stage. Russell and Rush earned a big rep for having the connections of Eddie Cheeba and having him appear. Simmons had seemingly carved his niche in the business of music. His college tenure suffered, he graduated several points short of a degree. A further and more personal blow came with a failed event in Harlem left him broke. A zero attendance left Simmons out of pocket and broke. A loan from his own mother of $2000 helped keep Russell afloat until Kurtis Blow’s début recording album dropped. “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.” This was a pivotal moment in Russell’s life, he headed down the path of the music business in Rush style. In his book,
“All the street entrepreneurship I’d learned selling herb, hawking fake cocaine and staying out of jail, I decided to put into promoting music. I didn’t have any talent, 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.” Rush started to have bookings for hip-hop’s finest of the time, Lovebug Starski, DJ Hollywood and Grandzwizzard Theodore. He is credited with helping the legendary DJ, Grandmaster Flash crack the mid-town Manhattan club circuit by cross-promoting his act with R&B pandering to the wider, high-paying audiences. he later put his major star, Kurtis Blow and Flash together as the DJ and MC act, also slotting Blow as an added member of the Furious Five. This developed into club circuit dates with some of the biggest clubs supporting hip-hop. Russell Simmons was becoming recognised as hip-hop’s premier party promoter. His next move was taking control of his artists and building a stable, Rush Artistic Management. Managing an artist allowed Russell a higher status in the industry with taking ownership of talent. He matured from throwing parties and paying his artists, to having them sign contracts to his Rush Artistic Management company and retaining fees from their appearances. Writer for Billboard, Robert ‘Rocky’ Ford Jr. was researching for a piece on the emerging culture of break-dancing and hip-hop when he came across a Rush flyer on the New York B.M.T. subway in 1979. Through younger brother Joey, the writer met with Russell Simmons to write an article on his involvement with the culture. Russell took the chance to pick Ford’s brains on the music business. In turn, Ford educated him on the practises and principles of artist management. Russell admits “Every time I go into a new venture, I find a rabbi who has the business acumen to help me understand the mechanics of that industry, the costs involved in developing a product, and what you need to do in order to make a profit.” Later Ford, his colleague J.B. Moore worked with Simmons on an idea for a rap record. A Christmas jingle record about Santa Claus coming to Harlem based on the poem, “The Night Before Christmas” The novelty of the record was aimed at the mainstream audience outside of the underground hip-hop network. Ford also convinced Blow to sign on with Rush, based on his belief in Russell as the man to take Blow and hip-hop to new heights of success. Blow originally wanted to sign with Ford, trusting his industry connections. Picked over Cheeba, Kurtis Blow was the emcee for the Christmas recording. Recorded in Greene Street Studios, Simmons marketed the album with the slyest of business tactics. He pressed copies of “Christmas Rappin’” and distributed them out to all radio and club DJs. Then, seeing Polygram as the leading imprint label to R&B acts, he made fake orders of the recording identifying it as a Polygram issue, making these supposed order a point of interest at the R&B department. This resulted in a white A&R executive giving the record a distribution deal. By 1979 “Christmas Rappin’” made its official opening on Mercury Records.This was a major intersection in the budding life of hip-hop culture. This also cemented Kurtis Blow as the first ever hip-hop act to be signed to a major recording contract. After a promotional radio run, the album sold well and the royalty check in the name of Rush helped Russell to move out of home into Brooklyn with his girlfriend, Paulette Mims.
Russell took his bright, shining artist, Blow all over town, promoting his shows in clubs and even had him open acts as big as The Commodores. Wanting Blow to concentrate his energy on emceeing, he organised big-named DJs to support him on-stage. Russell’s own younger brother, Joey ‘Run’ Simmons became the DJ for Blow, billed as ‘The Son of Kurtis Blow’ in respect to DJ Hollywood’s DJ ‘Disco Sun’ Small. Run would also trade raps with Blow, learning his technique from Blow. Blow’s career lead to six albums for mercury records, a great relationship and tenure with Russell Simmons and Rush Management. Russell had brokered a major recording contract with Elektra for his newest signees, Fearless Four. Unfortunately the deal fell through after Simmons brought back Kurtis Blow for the collaboration track “Problems of the World Today”. Elektra had not quite grasped the power of hip-hop and released the Fearless Four from their label. This was the second major record deal managed by Russell to receive small commercial success. Simmons however, being the entrepreneur had venture in several projects to keep himself above water. In 1982 he served as a producer for Larry Smith’s Orange Krush band featuring Rush client, Alyson Williams with vocals. This project lead to the creative ideas for releasing a rap record showcasing the emcee alone. The next level of hip-hop was soon to jump off. His brother Joey was eager to get behind the mic and have support from his brother. The Orange Krush was Joey’s first chance to spit rhymes with Davy D as deejay and Cool Lady Blue. They were to be called the Okay Crew. But Russell wouldn’t allow Joey to continue the project. He told him he needed to finish school first. Joey, who had learned the skills of the industry first-hand from his brother and rhymes from Kurtis Blow since he was eleven years young would not be dissuaded from his ambitions behind the mic.
Joey’s lifelong best friend from around the way, Darryl McDaniels (credited with being the first turntable teacher for Joey) had graduated from St. Pascal’s Catholic School with unchanged ambitions of becoming emcees. A five year long bid, paid off for younger Simmons. In 1981 Joey and Darryl (DMC) opened for Sweet G at Le Chateau in Queens. Russell had given Joey the nickname of ‘Run’ due to his incredibly fast deejaying flair and hand-eye co-ordination. Although Run himself and DMC say the name was given to him from friend, Rudy Sply for his ability to run-off at the mouth, on and off stage over any discussion. Despite the boys attending different schools across the city, they remained close in partnership, continually working on their routines. Russell attempted to record his younger brother after continual pleading from insiders about Run and DMC. At first he wanted Run as a solo emcee, and did not see the potential in DMC as a rapper. The single from Run was “Street Kid” but due to poor reception, Russell conceded defeat and put his attention to the double act. By 1983 Run and DMC were both at separate colleges when they created the explosive joint, “It’s Like That”. Fed immediately to Russell, he took the lyrics to the studio, and again had to fight for DMC’s inclusion in the recording. After recording “Sucker MC’s” in the studio, Russell had called in the name for the pair, Run DMC! Russell developed the ‘new school’ hip-hop aesthetic for the eighties. The demo tracks to both joints were shipped to the ears of Corey Robbins and Steve Plotnicki at Profile Records. Previously Russell had offered up a single by Lonnie Love of Dr Jeckyll & Mr Hyde. This was the firm handshake. The deal was done on a ten-point contract with an advance of $25,000 for the first album. The twelve-inch “It’s Like That” sold 20,000 units. Local b-ball friend, Jason ‘Jam Master Jay’ Mizell, (formerly of the park jam, Two-Fifths Down) became the resident DJ Run DMC. Simmons booked the group at the Bronx Disco Fever club in front of a true hip-hop crowd in ‘83. A truly forgettable appearance on all counts. Jam Master Jay couldn’t get a ride to the club, their bullshit outfits of chequered jackets embarrassed them and the Queens outfit was not accepted by the hardcore Bronx allegiance. This was a time before the big Cazal glasses, black valour fedoras, gold rope and Adidas with no laces. Before they became the model of the keep-it-real campaign hip-hop thrived on.
Rick & Russell: Def Jam
At this time, Simmons’ Rush artists made him the most central figure in hip-hop with his connections through all its main pipelines. When Russell first came across the recording of “It’s Yours” he took it like a blow, shocked to hear the record on the radio without him hearing of it or going through him beforehand. Jazzy Jay invited Russell to meet the producer behind the revolutionary track, Rick Rubin, a punk-rock stereotyped Jewish cat revolving his life at New York University around the midnight music life. Russell was again shocked to discover that the producer of a cutting-edge hip-hop track was white, with long hair and loved his rock n roll. $4,000 each later, Rick Rubin had Russell Simmons partner him on a recording label. Here introduces the Def Jam story. In 1993 Russell was faced with financial trouble and was forced to sell 60% of his Def Jam ownership for $33 million to Polygram. By 1999 Russell’s 40% stake in Def Jam was in negotiations with Seagram’s Universal Music Group. The original offer on the table was $70 million, Russell managed to up it to $100 million. Universal re-branded their existent Island-Mercury subsidiary to Island/Def Jam group. The deal came at a time where Foxy Brown’s album was lacking in profits, they were embroiled in conflict with Public Enemy but top talents, DMX and Jay-Z were expected to bring in annual record sales of $200 million. With Jay-Z, Island-Def Jam also had distribution of his Roc-A-Fella Records vanity label. Russell set new standards for the hip-hop culture and community. Simmons kept his hands on the driving wheel retaining his position as chairman while his former CEO, Lyor Cohen was the head of Universal Urban and eventually Island/Def Jam. Kevin Liles became Def Jam president. Ironically Simmons had found himself on a salary job receiving monthly pay cheques from Universal.
Russell started his clothing line in 1992 after clocking a business in cross-marketing a brand. Example, Def Jam hip-hop to hip-hop styled clothing, DMX, Method Man and other Rush clients sporting the label as part of their contracts. Phat Farm is an urban line of fashion, designed for the fans of his Def Jam music. Phat Farm is a high-end array of urban-athletic wear with the classic Ivy League style. The name “Phat” comes from an acronym of hip-hop slang, meaning “Pretty Hot And Tempting”. Some Phat Farm articles are political; the broken flag logo visible on every clothing article except footwear is touted as a symbol of the state of separation the world is in right now. The Phat Farm store is located at 129 Prince Street New York, NY Phat Farm expanded to include Baby Phat, a brand that encompasses womenswear, as well as a line of eyeglasses, fragrances phone accessories, jewellery, shoes and childrens’ clothing designed by Kimora Lee Simmons. Besides clothing, the brand incorporates phone accessories, jewellery, shoes and clothes. It is the corporate “sibling” of the clothing brand Phat Farm created by Russell Simmons. Baby Phat uses a sleek cat as the brand logo which has been inspired by the Egyptian goddess Bast. The clothing line has come under fire many times for its use of fur and fur trim. While Baby Phat uses animal products such as wool, leather, and rabbit fur in their items, PETA seems to overlook this decision. The reason might be as PETA’s press release says; “Simmons has donated more than $20,000 to PETA.” Creative Director Kimora Lee Simmons has refused to cease using fur in the line. There is also a division of Baby Phat called Baby Phat Scrubs . The line sells medical uniforms such as scrubs and lab coats in various prints and designs featuring the infamous Baby Phat cat logo. Post-Def Jam ownership, Russell divided his time between his Rush Media company, with Coca-Cola, HBO and BET as clients, his clothing company, Phat Farm went from $35 million to $100 million. He had a film company, magazine and TV show also to oversee. Simmons dabbled in the business of rubbing shoulders as a political lobbyist for the then-first lady, Hilary Clinton running for New York senate. He held a $1,000 fund-raising dinner at his SoHo apartment with his long-time model girlfriend, Kimora Lee. This was seen as yet another finger embedded in a fresh pie.
Simmons met model Kimora Lee Simmons in November 1992 during New York City’s Fashion Week, when she was 17 years old and he was 35. He married Lee on December 20, 1998 on Caribbean island of St. Barts with his Pentecostal minister brother Rev. Joseph Simmons officiating. The couple separated on March 2006 and officially filed for divorce on March 2008. The Simmons’ have two daughters: Ming Lee Simmons (born January 21, 2000) and Aoki Lee Simmons (born August 16, 2002). Both Ming Lee and Aoki Lee have modelled for the Baby Phat Kids Collection. The former couple’s 49,000 square-foot Saddle River, New Jersey mansion is for sale at $23,888,000. Located 25 miles northwest of Manhattan, the 1996 built palace is one of the largest homes on the East Coast. Simmons is currently dating model/yoga buddie Porschla Coleman.
Simmons has been an active philanthropist. Among his community activism and charitable organizations are the Hip Hop Summit Action Network, the Rush Philanthropic organization and the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. Simmons became involved in New York politics when then-governor George Pataki asked for Simmons’ input in revising the Rockefeller drug laws, a mandatory-sentencing policies for drug offenders. However the proposed overhaul never came to fruition, and had the effect of allegedly “alienating some of the hip-hop entrepreneur’s political allies”. Simmons was later investigated for being an unregistered lobbyist. In response, Simmons sued the state of New York for infringing on his right to free speech. Simmons has been actively supporting PETA animal rights campaigns, particularly campaigns against KFC’s cruelty to chickens. Simmons wrote a letter to KFC CEO David Novak asking the company to improve its animal welfare standards. In July 2006, Simmons was named a Goodwill Ambassador of CISRI-ISP. According to the press release, Simmons’ appointment will help “launch an awareness campaign utilizing hip-hop as a vehicle to address war, poverty and HIV/AIDS, in support of the UN Millennium Development Goals as well as the CISRI-ISP fight against severe poverty and malnutrition. On August 24,2006, Simmons hosted a reception in support of Republican United States Senate candidate from Maryland, Michael Steele . Russell Simmons also is a U.S. board of directors for Upliftment Jamaica, an organization started by Gary Foster, Vice President of Rush Communication which seeks to empower impoverished communities throughout Jamaica and the Caribbean.
The Book Project
In April 2007, Gotham Books published Simmons’ book Do You! 12 Laws To Access The Power In You To Achieve Happiness And Success. The book is a self-help book which combines Simmons’ business knowledge with spiritual advice he has gained from his yoga practice. Simmons explained, “It’s about getting back from the universe what you put into it. It’s about the karmic laws that are unbreakable.” The book was co-written with Chris Morrow and featured an introduction by Donald Trump. In an interview with the New York Times, Simmons credits Oprah Winfrey with giving him the title of the book. In July 2007, Simmons, frustrated that The Howard Stern Show would not book him as a guest to promote his recent book, vented on the Jay Thomas radio show by bad mouthing Stern show producer Gary Dell’Abate. When Stern heard this, he called Simmons and immediately booked Simmons for the show on July 24, 2007 to talk about this. The two are now friends.