Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons has had one goal throughout his enormously successful career: “to present urban culture in its most true form to the people who love it and the people who live it.” Certainly a lofty goal, and not an easy task, but Simmons made himself a multi-millionaire by leading hip-hop’s entry into, and dominance of, American pop culture. He’s a lot like Berry Gordy, another TSB Self Made Man, in that respect, in that he took a marginalized form of music and turned it into one of America’s deepest cultural footprints.
Simmons grew up in Queens, and was tempted by gang life for a while, but ended up pouring his limitless ambition into music, instead. Hip-hop was still a very territorial, neighborhood-based form of music back in the mid-1970s, existing mainly at house and street parties in crappy neighborhoods, but Simmons fell in love with it and, like any entrepreneur worth his salt, got involved.
Simmons hung out his shingle as a promoter, organizing concerts and managing inner-city rap artists as hip-hop built momentum. When the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” became a huge hit in 1979, Simmons tried to turn that spotlight on the rappers he was promoting, but the mainstream music industry dismissed “Rapper’s Delight” as a one-time novelty, and hip-hop as a fad.
Simmons upped the ante in 1983 with his involvement in Run-DMC, a group that included his brother, Joey, and by starting Def Jam Records with Rick Rubin, then an NYU student with an interest in rap music. Simmons and Rubin shared an enthusiastic and keen instinct for business, and after only two years running Def Jam, they were approached by Columbia Records, who offered to promote, market and distribute Def Jam’s output in exchange for a cut of the profits.
Simmons’ knack for setting up good distribution deals has a lot to do with his label’s success, but he also knew how to make black musicians look cool to mainstream (i.e. white) audiences. Simmons brought dynamic, talented performers like Public Enemy, Kurtis Blow, LL Cool J, and many others into record stores all over the country, which reinvigorated the trend of white, suburban youth’s fascination with black urban culture. Simmons also introduced America to the Beastie Boys, and even signed Slayer for a couple of albums.
Notice that Simmons never tried to hotshot record sales with a flurry of one-hit wonders; he handpicked guys who could actually have a career, then promoted them and his label simultaneously. He’s one of the masters of the long game, in that respect.
Def Jam led to other business ventures, all with the goal of branding Def Jam as the epicenter of hip-hop culture. Simmons founded Phat Farm in response to high-level fashion designers co-opting inner city style, and brought a TV/film production company (Krush Groove is legit one of my favorite movies), a magazine, and an in-house advertising agency under the umbrella of Rush Communications, the corporation he started to manage everything he was doing.
These days, Simmons oversees Globalgrind.com and gives advice to younger entrepreneurs; his 2011 essay in the Huffington Post is required reading, in TSB’s humble opinion, for anyone with ambitions toward anything.
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