Born c. 1957; raised in Queens, NY; father's name, Daniel Simmons (a public-school attendance supervisor); married Kimora Lee, 1998; children: Ming Lee, Aoki Lee.Education: Attended City College of New York. Addresses: Home-- New York, NY. Office-- Def Jam Records, 652 Broadway, New York, NY 10012.
The explosive entry of rap music onto the national music scene in the late 1980s was greatly due to the efforts and vision of rap record producer and artist manager Russell Simmons. Co-owner and founder of the rap label Def Jam Records and head of Rush Artist Management--producer of top-selling rap acts Run-DMC, Public Enemy, and L. L. Cool J, among others--Simmons took "rap music, an often misunderstood expression of inner-city youth, and ... established it as one of the most influential forms of Black music," explained Nelson George in Essence. Often deemed by the media as the "impresario" and "mogul" of rap, Simmons began as a fledgling promoter of a new breed of street music, and today, as chairman of New York City's RUSH Communications, is at the helm of a multimillion-dollar entertainment company--complete with its own film and television division--that is the largest black-owned music business in the United States.
Some have described Simmons as the "Berry Gordy of his time," referring to the man who brought the polished, crossover, black Motown sound to mainstream America in the 1960s, yet Simmons's approach is fundamentally different. According to Maura Sheehy in Manhattan, Inc., "Like Gordy, Simmons is building a large, diverse organization into a black entertainment company, only Simmons's motivating impulse is to make his characters as 'black' as possible," where Gordy sought to attract white listeners with his relatively colorless "Motown Sound." Also commenting on comparisons between Simmons and Gordy, Black Enterprise contended that Simmons is far more aggressive than Gordy. In all, Simmons runs a total of eight record labels, is developing a slew of feature films, and is creating several television programs for cable service Home Box Office and syndicated release.
Simmons is insistent on presenting rap images that are true to the tough urban streets from which rap arose; as a result, his groups don such recognizable street garb as black leather clothes, expensive high-top sneakers, and gold chains. He explained his objectives to Stephen Holden in the New York Times: "In black America, your neighbor is much more likely to be someone like L. L. Cool J or Oran 'Juice' Jones than Bill Cosby.... A lot of the black stars being developed by record companies have images that are so untouchable that kids just don't relate to them. Our acts are people with strong, colorful images that urban kids already know, because they live next door to them."
Simmons was born in Hollis and grew up in a middle-class neighborhood, both in the New York City borough of Queens, and as a youth was himself involved with a street gang. It was in the mid-1970s, while enrolled at the Harlem branch of the City College of New York--studying sociology--that Simmons became aware of rap music and its appeal to young inner-city blacks; he saw rappers as they would converge in parks and on street corners, and then take turns singing rap songs to gathering crowds. Manhattan, Inc.' Sheehy depicted the exchange between rappers and their audience in those beginning days of rap: "Rappers, called MCs (emcees) then, told stories and boasted--about street life, tenements, violence, and drugs; about their male prowess, their talents; about 'sucker MCs'; and about women. Their raps romanticized the dangerous, exciting characters of the street, sanctified its lessons into wisdom, made poverty and powerlessness into strength by making rappers superhuman, indomitable. The audience followed, finding their power in dancing and dressing styles of the moment; in mimicking the swaggering, tougher-than-leather attitude; and by worshiping their street 'poets.'"
Simmons saw in rap enthusiasts a vast audience untapped by the recording industry. He left his college studies and began tirelessly promoting local rap artists, producing recordings on shoestring budgets, and conducting "rap nights" at dance clubs in Queens and Harlem. In 1984 he joined fellow aspiring rap producer Rick Rubin to form Def Jam Records; Def Jam caught the attention of CBS Records, which agreed to distribute the label. Within three years Def Jam albums like the Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill, L. L. Cool J.'s Bigger and Deffer, and Run-DMC's Raising Hell dominated the black music charts.
Throughout, Simmons has been the manager of all Def Jam acts and has emphasized authenticity with each group. "Our artists are people you can relate to," he told Fayette Hickox in Interview. "Michael Jackson is great for what he is--but you don't know anybody like that. The closest Run-DMC comes to a costume is a black leather outfit.... It's important to look like your audience. If it's real, don't change it." Some critics, however, find the "authenticity" of rappers disturbing. "It is the look of many rap artists--hard, belligerent, unassimilated, one they share with their core audience--that puts many folks on edge," noted George in Essence. The group Public Enemy, which represents itself with a logo of a black teen in the scope of a police gun, is representative, as Simmons told George, of how many black teenagers feel--like "targets that are looked down upon." Simmons added: "Rush Management identifies with them. That's why we don't have one group that doesn't look like its audience."
The lyrics and antics of some male rap artists have also infuriated women's groups, who find woman-hating messages in many of their songs and stage acts; public officials have even brought charges of lewdness against rappers in concert. Simmons distances himself from censoring the content of his rap groups' songs, telling George that "rap is an expression of the attitudes of the performers and their audience." He does, however, ultimately uphold rappers as positive role models for many black youths.
As an example of the affirmative position rappers can take, Simmons commented to Holden that the members of Run-DMC, which include Simmons's younger brother, Joseph, "are more than musicians.... They're from a particular community, and have succeeded on their own terms without any compromise.... If you take a look at the pop cultural landscape or the black political landscape now, there aren't a lot of heroes. If you're a 15-year-old black male in high school and look around, you wonder what you can do with your life. How do you better yourself? Run-DMC has opened up a whole new avenue of ambition. You can grow up to be like Run-DMC. It's possible."
In 2005, Simmons reorganized Def Jam Records into a joint venture with Island Def Jam. The new company is called Russell Simmons Music Group and planned to debut with albums from Reverend Run and Buddafly. In the same year, he and his wife Kinora Lee founded a fine-jewelry company, called the Simmons Jewelry Co.
by Michael E. Mueller
Russell Simmons's Career
Co-founder and owner of Def Jam Records and Rush Productions, 1985-; owner of Rush Artist Management; founded Rush Communications, 1990; launched Phat Fashions, 1992; started producing Def Comedy Jam for HBO, 1991; founded Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation, 1995; founded Def Pictures with producer Stan Lathan, 1995; director of music videos; published autobiography, Life and Def: Sex, Drugs, Money and God, Crown, 2001; organized Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, 2002; launched Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam on HBO and on Broadway, 2002; launched jewelry line, 2005; founded Russell Simmons Music Group, 2005.
- George, Nelson, The Death of Rhythm and Blues, Pantheon, 1988.
- Gueraseva, Stacy, Def Jam, Inc: Russell Simmons, Rick Rubin, and the Extraordinary Story of the World's Most Influential Hip-Hop Label, One World, 2005.
- Black Enterprise, December 1991.
- Essence, March 1988; November 2005, p. 72.
- Interview, September 1987; September 1991.
- Jet, May 28, 1990.
- Manhattan, Inc., February 1990.
- New York Times, August, 1987; February 20, 1991.
- Variety, April 18, 2005, p. 2.