Born on October 4, c. 1957; raised in Hollis, Queens, NY; son of Daniel Simmons (a public school attendance supervisor); married Kimora Lee, 1998; children: Ming Lee, Aoki Lee. Education: Attended the City College of New York. Addresses: Record company--Island Def Jam, Worldwide Plaza, 825 8th Ave., New York, NY 10019. Publicist--Rubenstein Communications, Inc., 1345 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10105.
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 producer and artist manager Russell Simmons. As co-owner and founder of the rap label Def Jam Records and as head of Rush Artist Management, Simmons, according to Nelson George in Essence, took "rap music, an often misunderstood expression of inner-city youth, and established it as one of the most influential forms of Black music." Dubbed by the media as the "impresario" and "mogul" of rap, Simmons began his career as a fledgling promoter of a new breed of street music, and worked his way up to the helm of a multimillion-dollar entertainment company--complete with its own film and television division, as well as several clothing and accessory lines.
Simmons grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens. As a youth he became involved with a street gang. In the mid-1970s Simmons enrolled at the Harlem branch of City College of New York, where he studied sociology. It was during this time that he became aware of rap music. He saw rappers as they converged in parks and on street corners, taking turns performing rap songs for gathering crowds. These crowds, as Maura Sheehy noted in Manhattan, Inc., found "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 that the recording industry had not yet tapped. He thereafter left college and began tirelessly promoting local rap artists, producing recordings on shoestring budgets and organizing "rap nights" at dance clubs in Queens and Harlem. In 1984 he teamed with another aspiring rap producer, Rick Rubin, to form Def Jam Records. The company produced music by new rap groups including Simmons's brother, Joseph's group, rap pioneers Run-D.M.C. CBS Records agreed to distribute Def Jam's records and within three years, Def Jam staples such as the Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill, LL Cool J's Bigger and Deffer, and Run-D.M.C.'s Raising Hell dominated the black music charts.
Simmons has been described as the "Berry Gordy of his time," comparing him to the man who brought the crossover black Motown sound to pop America in the 1960s. Yet Simmons took a fundamentally different approach. According to 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." Simmons was insistent on presenting rap images that are true to the tough urban streets from which rap arose. As a result, his groups donned such recognizable street garb as black leather clothes, high-top sneakers, hats, and gold chains. "In black America, your neighbor is much more likely to be someone like LL Cool J or Oran 'Juice' Jones than Bill Cosby," Simmons explained in the New York Times. "...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."
As the manager for all Def Jam acts Simmons has made the authenticity of Def Jam artists a top priority. "Our artists are people you can relate to," he told Interview. "Michael Jackson is great for what he is--but you don't know anybody like that. The closest Run-D.M.C. 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 found the image 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. While some objected to Public Enemy's logo of a black teen in the scope of a police gun, Simmons explained to George that the logo was representative of how many black teenagers feel--like "targets that are looked down upon." Simmons added, "Rush Management identifies with them [black teenagers]. 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 found misogynistic messages in many songs and stage acts. Also, public officials have occasionally brought charges of lewdness against some rappers in concert. Despite the controversial nature of many rap lyrics, Simmons refused to censor the content of his rap groups' songs. He told George, "rap is an expression of the attitudes of the performers and their audience."
When critics charged that rap artists were not positive role models for many black youths, Simmons countered these attacks, explaining that many of their listeners are growing up in the same environments the artists spoke about. "If you take a look at the pop cultural landscape or the black political landscape now, there aren't a lot of heroes," he told the New York Times. "If you're a 15-year-old black male in high school and look around, you wonder what you can do with your life. (Rappers) opened up a whole new avenue of ambition. You can grow up to be like (them). It's possible."
With the success of his record label and ever-extending reach into the youth and urban culture markets, in 1990 Simmons launched Rush Communications with the intention of putting his wide range of business ventures under one umbrella. In 1991, he produced the Def Comedy series for HBO, which for seven years introduced a mainstream audience to such 'Def' comics as Martin Lawrence and Jamie Fox. In 1992 he created his own very successful men's clothing line, Phat Farm, which later expanded to include a women's line (known as Baby Phat), a children's line, sneakers, and accessories.
Despite his great success in translating urban culture to the masses, Simmons has remained committed to contributing, both socially and economically, to the community in which he was raised. In 1995, Simmons and his brothers, Daniel and Joseph, founded The Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation, a non profit geared at helping inner city youth. The Foundation funds several initiatives, most notable of which is Rush Arts, a program designed to expose inner city children to the fine and performing arts.
In 1996 Simmons launched One World magazine which he later transformed into a syndicated television series, Oneworld's Music Beat with Russell Simmons in 1998. The magazine-style program served as a showcase and information bed for hip-hop culture as a whole. "Black culture is universal," he told Billboard. "This show won't be targeted just to blacks. I want this show to be inclusive; it will be for everyone who embraces young black culture." With these new endeavors, Simmons brought hip-hop culture to a wider audience. The same year Simmons wed Kimora Lee, longtime girlfriend and host of Oneworld's Music Beat. The couple went on to have two daughters, Ming Lee and Aoki Lee.
In 2000 Universal Music Group purchased Simmons's share of Def Jam. He continued to work at Def Jam (now called Island Def Jam), but in a different capacity. Simmons continued to act as a voice of the community. In June of 2001 he organized the historic Hip-Hop Summit. The summit attracted various controversial political and religious leaders including Maxine Waters and Minister Louis Farrakhan. It also flashed major star power with high profile appearances by Sean "Puffy" Combs, Jay-Z, and Mariah Carey. Those in attendance discussed such issues as conflict resolution for artists and greater efforts at accountability for hip-hop's social, political, and economic impact.
Following the Summit, Simmons founded the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN). The aim of the HSAN is to take the relevance and impact of hip-hop and use it as a catalyst for education reform and other societal concerns affecting high-risk youth. Over the following years, Simmons remained committed to HSAN, working with New York politicians in an attempt to reform the controversial Rockafeller drug laws, raising money for the state's education budget, and instilling in young people the need to exercise their right to vote.
Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam followed in the footsteps of Simmon's former comedy show on the HBO cable network, this time giving a forum to a lauded collective of slam-style poets. The show was granted a prestigious Peabody award in 2002. In November of the same year Def Poetry Jam opened on Broadway to critical acclaim, eventually winning a Tony Award for Best Theatrical Special Event.
In 2004 Simmons continued to stretch his unique ability to deliver hip-hop culture, causes, and business ventures to a mass audience, most notably by taking the Hip-Hop Summit on the road to cities around the United States, including Detroit, Philadelphia, and New Orleans, reaching a much larger audience than he was able to in New York. As he explained to Billboard magazine, "Hip-hop represents the greatest union of young people with the most diversity--all races and religions--that people have felt in America."
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. Simmons was featured in a biography written for young adults, Def Jam, Inc: Russell Simmons, Rick Rubin, and the Extraordinary Storey of the World
by Michael E. Mueller and Nicole Elyse
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.
Russell Simmons's Awards
Peabody Award for Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam 2002; Tony Award, Best Theatrical Event for Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam, 2003.
- Selected discography
- As producer
- (Run-D.M.C.) Run-D.M.C. Profile, 1984.
- (Run-D.M.C.) King of Rock Profile, 1985.
- (Run-D.M.C.) Raising Hell Profile, 1986.
- (LL Cool J) Bigger and Deffer Def Jam, 1987.
- (Run-D.M.C.) Tougher than Leather Profile, 1988.
- (Alyson Williams) Raw Def Jam, 1989.
- (Slick Rick) The Rulers Back Def Jam, 1991.
- (Boss) Born Gangstaz Def Jam, 1992.
- (Afrika Bambaataa) Presents Eastside Obsessive, 2003.
March 31, 2006: Publicists for Simmons confirmed his pending divorce from Kimora Lee Simmons. Source: People, http://people.aol.com/people/articles/0,19736,1178541,00.html, April 1, 2006.
- George, Nelson, The Death of Rhythm and Blues, Pantheon, 1988.
- Gueraseva, Stacy, Def Jam, Inc: Russell Simmons, Rick Rubin, and the Extraordinary Storey of the World