Throughout his storied career, New York-born media mogul Russell Simmons has helped bolster the image and scope of hip-hop culture. Now in his 50s, the multifaceted maven shows no signs of slowing down. With his new ventures, such as the Rush Card and his Global Grind Web site, Simmons has evolved into a business industry chameleon, constantly reinventing himself.

“One thing I, and people like Diddy and Jay-Z have is the entrepreneurial spirit,” Simmons said. “We’re always searching for new avenues. I don’t think a person should ever stay stagnant.”

Despite many artists’ short-lived careers, Simmons has sustained throughout the transformation of hip-hop music from an inner city gem to a billion-dollar, international operation.

But Simmons said he initially became involved in the hip-hop movement because of his love of music, not money.

“I got started in hip-hop because I wanted to make music,” he said. “I wanted to be in the studio and at the end of the night say, ‘Yo, that’s a dope record,’ and then share it with the world.”

It’s a mindset the Phat Farm clothing line creator said he wishes more Black hip-hop executives would take, adding that people’s measures of success should be re-evaluated.
“What’s success?” he asked. “If it’s being rich, buying the big house, the cars and the jewelry, that’s fine. For me, success is achieving the ultimate happiness, which is loving what you’re doing and loving God.”

In that process, Simmons became the first major hip-hop mogul, bringing the sounds of urban life to Middle America and beyond. It was a risky move at the time, as critics deemed hip-hop a passing teenage fad. But those closest to Simmons say risk-taking is a part of the 52-year-old’s nature.

“If it’s two words that I think describe Russell it’s courage and continuity,” said the Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., head of the Hip Hop Caucus. “He has the courage to persevere, but he also has continuity because he never stops.”

Simmons has also made his presence known outside of business and music. In 2001, he entered the political arena as creator of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN), which was created to “serve as a catalyst for education advocacy and other societal concerns fundamental to the empowerment of youth,” according to the organization’s Web site. One of the group’s major achievements was raising voter awareness during the 2004 presidential election.

Yearwood, who was the grassroots director of HSAN, said Simmons saw an opportunity where hip hop could be used for more than just entertainment.

“It was new for all of us, but we knew Russell wanted to go political,” Yearwood said. He wanted to use hip-hop as a voice and try to figure out how we could use our cultural expression to form our political experience.”

Yearwood sees many parallels in Simmons’ transcendent business career and his burgeoning political presence.

“I really believe that Russell, who helped start Def Jam and really got that going from the industry, was instrumental in creating hip-hop politics, which birthed the Hip Hop Caucus and that’s now a major institution,” said Yearwood. “He has really been the catalyst in hip-hop for both the record industry and now in politics.”

Whether tackling the music industry, the world of fashion or utilizing his public persona to forge political change, Simmons said he finds each facet of his work gratifying.

“Being rich is a state of happiness,” he said. I found something I loved and it’s the focus on the work itself that makes you happy.”

George Barnette

Special to the AFRO