Published: June 04, 2007
If 50 Cent, Nas and Kanye West are the modern face of big-money hip-hop, Russell Simmons is the man who made hip-hop a big-money game. Simmons founded the record label Def Jam with producer Rick Rubin in 1984, and since then his reach has extended beyond music to include clothing companies, arts nonprofit organizations, and the diamond industry.
Simmons brings all his skills to bear in his new self-help book, Do You! Laws To Access The Power In You To Achieve Happiness And Success. In it, he explains how readers can use yoga and Buddhism to find what he calls the "sweet spot": one's life's work and mission. Despite Simmons' new spiritual frame of mind, though, his tour to promote the new book has been bumpy, with conversation inevitably turning from his spiritual philosophy to the societal effect of the music he produces.
As Simmons explains in our interview, the focus on those issues has been frustrating: "I had a book tour about peace and love, and everyone wants to talk about bitches and hos."
One radio DJ hung up on Simmons after the topic of the role of misogyny came up, while a reporter at WGN-TV in Chicago wrote in a post-interview blog entry that "all of the book's quotes from Ghandi about peace and love are fine, but it's all hard to take seriously when the author is cussing on two phones at the same time."
I recently took a deep breath and sat down with Simmons face-to-face at our NPR West studios. I started by asking him to share a memory, something that stood out to him as a magical moment in hip-hop.
"I have so many memories," Simmons said, "but this particular one stands out: Run-DMC at [New York City's Madison Square] Garden. I remember bringing the head of Adidas, and Run says 'Hold your sneakers in the air!' and everyone held up their shell-toed Adidas. That was the beginning of the endorsement process, and everyone got involved in trying to use hip-hop to sell their product. But when everyone held their Adidas in the air, it was crazy. It was a great image."
That the moment is as much about marketing as music gives you a sense of Simmons' worldview and drive. He turned Def Jam Records into a powerhouse and then sold it to Universal. He runs the Phat Farm and Baby Phat clothing labels, has a nonprofit called the Hip-hop Summit Action Network, and does financial lectures with Donald Trump.
But when he's asked if he feels that the kind of music his company produces can have harmful effects, the conversation can turn volatile, as it did during our sit-down. At one point, Simmons characterized our discussion in less-than-family-friendly terms. You'll have to listen to the interview to get Simmons in full feather, but let me take you into the studio at that moment: Russell is sitting a few feet from me, wearing spotless white athletic shoes, a shirt with a yoga theme, and a crisp baseball cap tilted to the side. While he is going off, he is leaning off — away from the mic, that is. He's talking to his assistant in studio, complaining about the interview, and I'm thinking, "Is he about to run the heck out of here?"
Luckily, he didn't. In the end, after a long back-and-forth, Simmons explained that his role is to promote all of hip-hop, good and bad, not to be a judge or a gate-keeper.
"Did they tell you why I came here?" Simmons asks once things cool down. "My job is as a servant of hip-hop. That's my job, and people who criticize are not able to serve properly. I'm on the inside, so when I walk into a new business, I open doors. When there's not one black person in the clothing business, I walk in and now it's a hip-hop convention. Or I walk into the diamond business and the Diamond Empowerment Fund starts, and I try to switch the whole industry to try to understand about Africa. I can do that because of the resources I have."
Those are words to the wise, from rap mogul Russell Simmons — even if it took a bit of agita to get there. And, believe it or not, after all that, we walked out of the studio and shook hands, and his signature joined those of politicans, religious leaders and actors on our NPR West Wall of Fame. [Copyright 2013 NPR]
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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.
If guys like 50 Cent, Nas and Kanye West are the modern face of big money hip-hop, Russell Simmons is the man who made hip-hop a big money game. Today he runs or advises clothing companies, arts nonprofits and the diamond industry. He's an avid yoga practitioner who preaches spiritual and physical discipline. Simmons brings all of his talents to bear in his new book, "Do You!"
In it, he explains how each of us can find our sweet spot, our life's work and mission. Despite Russell Simmons' new Zen frame of mind, though, he's been having a pretty bumpy book tour. One radio DJ hung up on Simmons, and a reporter at WGN TV in Chicago blogged about their interview saying, quote, "all of the books quotes from Gandhi about peace and love are fine, but it's so hard to take seriously when the author is cussing on two phones at same time."
You should brace yourself in our interview for some sensitive language. I recently took a deep breath and sat down with Russell Simmons, face to face at our NPR West studios. I started out by asking him to give me a memory, anything that stood out to him as a magical moment in hip-hop.
Mr. RUSSELL SIMMONS (Music and Fashion Mogul; Co-Founder, Hip-Hop Label Def Jam): I have so many memories, but this particular one - Run-DMC at the Garden, I remember bringing the head Adidas and Run says, hold your sneakers in the air. And everybody held up their shell-toed Adidas and that was the beginning of the endorsement process, you know, everybody got involved, like, in trying to use hip-hop to sell their product, but the really example, of course, was that those sneakers were selling as a result of Run-DMC's endorsement. But when everyone held their sneakers up in the air, it was crazy. It was a great image.
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CHIDEYA: Of course, that memory is actually about marketing as much as it is about hip-hop. Back in 1983, Russell Simmons signed the fledgling hip-hop group, Run-DMC, to his management company. It didn't hurt that rapper Joseph Simmons or Run is Russell's brother. Run-DMC went on to become the first rap group with their video on MTV and the first hip-hop album to go gold.
Since then, it seems like most things Russell Simmons touches have turned to gold. He turned Def Jam Records into a powerhouse and sold it to Universal. He runs the Phat Farm and Baby Phat clothing labels. Has a nonprofit called the Hip-hop Summit Action Network and does financial lectures with Donald Trump. Still Simmons writes in his new book that business always has to take a bow to principle.
In your book, you say, it didn't sit too well with Pepsi that I was talking about how KFC abuses over 850 million chickens a year by painfully de-beaking them, crippling them, and eventually scalding them alive. Because of my outspokenness about KFC, they were forced to take their deal off the table. And I didn't have a problem with their decision.
Mr. SIMMONS: No, no. I think the problem is much bigger than any one company. Sometimes companies get put under fire and when they change, then the marketplace changes. And that's good, but, you know, it's not one company. And again, the KFC is not - they're not alone in the abuse of the chickens. In fact, you know, that day, the same practice as everyone else.
If they make a decision now to make some changes, then all people who supply them with chickens have to change based on their decision to go there that big. That's why you go up to their leader, KFC makes a change, then all of our chicken would change dramatically. That's why they have - still focused on that dialogue and hopefully they'll come to a good resolution.
CHIDEYA: I bring that up as an example, though, of the way that you make leadership decisions. So you have money, and you have ethics.
Mr. SIMMONS: Money, it means, money is small. I mean, the book "Do You!" is about your inner voice. And when you connect to that voice then you - then the freedom comes. And we're only here to be happy. So happy makes money. Money doesn't make happy. In other words, when you connect it - the second the presence and you're able to operate in order, operating in order allows you the freedom to attach - those laws of attraction they talk about, that's where they come from, the core.
You may even refer to it as price consciousness or the Buddhist call it nirvana, yogis call it Samadhi. I forgot what's in the Kabbalah, but, you know, always - in the four chapter of the yoga sutra, they talk about the miracles that you can promote. Jesus Christ said, all these things I do, you can do and greater. The mystics said that - always have told us how to attract things and the book really talks about the most practical ways to promote happiness and to be successful.
CHIDEYA: Let me put things in the context of Buddhism, one of the religions that you mentioned. There's a concept of right livelihood, which is that you - your work must be ethical, as must the rest of your life.
Mr. SIMMONS: Yes.
CHIDEYA: Do you ever feel that the kind of music that you produced and promote with issues of misogyny, with issues of violence goes against that tenet of right livelihood?
Mr. SIMMONS: I think that the expressions that come out of the mouths - and I haven't made a record in a long time - but the expressions that come out of the mouth of these rappers are truthful - many of them. And I've always felt comfortable with what I put out. And it think that sometime - you may not like to hear truth from all communities. Sometimes poor people are locked out, have no voice, and we don't have to deal with their problems or their reflections of our problems even.
You know, a lot of times, the poets are - they can see all contradiction. When you say there's some violence in a rap record, why never mention the amount of violence in our communities? When you hear that a rapper says, don't talk to the police, why not talk about the disconnect between police and community. The reflections on the problems are not the problems. The problem is that we ignore struggle in our community and then when we hear it on the record, we want to point the finger at the artist. The artist job is to paint the picture of society.
People who look inside for answers and write poetry, they write all kinds of things that make you uncomfortable. We don't want to talk about the misogyny in our society. I would say the rappers are less sexist than their previous generation. The preachers, the police, the firemen, those are more sexist individuals for the most part than the rappers. The rappers - so to give you an example, in the pulpit, you know, well, never mind, you know the preachers, of course. But we overlook them.
CHIDEYA: Well, let me just take you to where I come from. I grew up listening to hip-hop. I'm 37 and hip-hop was one of those influences that helped raise me. And I have a great respect for the genre, but at the same time, when I was listening to Planet Rock or I was listening to Roxanne Shante or to Run-DMC, I wasn't as a child and as a young adult messaged to and told that I was a bitch or a hoe.
Mr. SIMMONS: Well I was - wait, wait. You know what, I can talk about this for the next hour. We only have 20 minutes. I want to get back to my book, but I will say this to you. The expressions that when we're referring to and the language that we're talking about is yet the language of young people. There's a magazine called Bitch. It's a feminist magazine and said it insult her so many times, as an insulted it becomes a property of the insulted. Now, the language and the intention are usually different things. And when just because you don't like some words, the words are at least - I recommend you take bitch, hoe and nigger off the radio. I've already done that.
But not because when I hear - this is for the niggers and the bitches, which is one of my favorite Def Jam records, I don't feel inspired. Just because people like you don't understand it. So when you hear a racist comment by someone else using the word nigger, believe me, it's not the same as when you get 50 Cents saying nigger. So I want to say that…
CHIDEYA: I'm going to go back to your book.
Mr. SIMMONS: I think you should understand that, but as we get older, sometimes we get a little bit rigid. The words are not the problem, it's the content and if the content should offend you, maybe, but that's the offense of a society.
CHIDEYA: Russell, I actually agree with you.
Mr. SIMMONS: Okay.
CHIDEYA: I agree with you on the difference between the words and the content. I agree with free speech. But I do want to say - and you can certainly respond - I do want to get back your book that while the word nigger, when used in the context of hip-hop, KRS-One came in here and he sat down with Paul Mooney. Paul Mooney was like I'm a recovering n-word addict and KRS-One said this is our word.
Mr. SIMMONS: But this is the whole…
CHIDEYA: This is - this is…
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Mr. SIMMONS: This whole enemy.
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Mr. SIMMONS: That's who you've became in these games.
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CHIDEYA: Okay. Let me take you into the studio. Russell is here at NPR West just a few feet from me in spotless white athletic shoes and shirt with a yoga theme and a crisp baseball cap tilted to the side. While he's going off, he is leaning off away from the mike, that is. He's talking to his assistant in the studio complaining about the interview while I think, is he about to run the heck out of here? Luckily, he doesn't.
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Mr. SIMMONS: Did they tell you why I came here?
CHIDEYA: Of course, you came here to promote your book.
Mr. SIMMONS: Now we only got 15 now - we got, like, five minutes.
CHIDEYA: All right.
Mr. SIMMONS: If I knew I was, you know, talking this long trip to come and discuss only - but you - you questioning my - I can promise you that my job in hip-hop - this is the - this the way I can end it for you. I run the Hip-hop Summit. I run the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. I'm in the Diamond Empowerment Fund. I run the Rush Film Tropic Art Foundation. I helped setup the Ludacris Foundation. I helped (unintelligible) change. I helped (unintelligible) poor kids and I help all of the many charities that hip-hops set up.
CHIDEYA: And that's what I'm going to…
Mr. SIMMONS: Well, let me just…
CHIDEYA: That's what I'm going to ask you about.
Mr. SIMMONS: Wait, wait. Let me just, let me just finish. I want to finish…
CHIDEYA: That's what I want to ask you about Kanisha.
Mr. SIMMONS: My job is as a servant of hip-hop. That's my job. And from the outside, people who criticize are not able to serve properly. I'm on the inside. So when I walk into new business and I open doors. Where there's not one black person in the clothing business, now it's a hip-hop convention. Or I walk in a diamond business and Diamond Empowerment Funds starts, and I try to switch the whole industry to kind of understand a point of view about Africa. It's because of the resources that I have.
CHIDEYA: Mr. Simmons, I want, I want to give…
Mr. SIMMONS: Listen. Listen. I want to, I want to finish.
CHIDEYA I want to give, I want to give you a…
Mr. SIMMONS: The reason I'm giving you all this background is so that you'll understand me.
CHIDEYA: I feel…
Mr. SIMMONS: And I think it's all clear if you read the whole book.
CHIDEYA: I'm trying to actually give you - I'm trying to actually give you some props here, believe it or not.
Mr. SIMMONS: All right. Because I got to - I want to get back to my book.
Mr. SIMMONS: Because I'm a servant of hip-hop.
CHIDEYA: Kanisha Jackson right here on…
Mr. SIMMONS: And I love hip-hop. I'm a servant of it.
CHIDEYA: Page 220. Kanisha Jackson.
Mr. SIMMONS: And the language that I used, I use too, sometimes.
CHIDEYA:: All right. All right. Kanisha Jackson (ph). You have along anecdote about how she came and she stood outside.
Mr. SIMMONS: She is wonderful.
CHIDEYA: Tell me about her.
Mr. SIMMONS: Well, I believe - Kanisha was a very, very resilient hard working dedicated person. She wanted to serve. And I talked quite a bit about leadership and that service is key. You know, that you're a servant if you're a leader. She came and she was willing to do anything. And she was very dedicated, not for results but just to add value. So she stood out in front of speeches I made. And then, came to speeches I made and stood in front of my office. And eventually, I bought her in. I put her in the, one of the most difficult work environments, working for BVLGARI. It's kind of tough. He's here with us now. He's tough. And she worked with him and she became a very important executive in my company.
And, and what the book is about is teaching people how to be greater contributors more than teaching people how to receive because receiving is giving inside out. It's not a problem you're getting. If you have some money and make money, you don't get some paper. It's true. That's just the science of the universe. And that's the, you know, the comic laws are unbreakable. The book is about those laws, how to operate under them. So that's what the book, "Do You" is about, your inner voice. But the…
CHIDEYA: I want to ask you about the (unintelligible).
Mr. SIMMONS: …the reason, the reason of rap thing made me little uncomfortable because I've been - you know, I had a book tour. And my whole book tour is about love and consciousness. And everybody wants to talk about bitches and hoes, which, you know, I'm happy to talk about it. But if it - by the time I leave, I haven't discussed consciousness and love, then I haven't done my job. So I wanted to get the subject right. See, I hate when a poor person tells you how full of crap you are because they say it in such a mean way. It sinks in you.
CHIDEYA: What is your favorite, you talked about 12 Laws in this book.
Mr. SIMMONS: Yes.
CHIDEYA: What is your favorite or most compelling law of those?
Mr. SIMMONS: Well, there's 12 Laws only, because only it 12 chapters of…
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Mr. SIMMONS: And each one of is like not meant to bind you up but to free you. And I think the most important chapter, and I was, you know, that's why Oprah named this book. It's very funny story that was it named the "12 Laws of Success." You know, I was out of breath and out of ideas. And so, "12 Laws." She says, "It's a corny title." The good title for the book is, "Do You." And then she said the reason the title "Do You" is good, "Do You" refers to the inner voice.
CHIDEYA: Well, you brought up Oprah. You went on her show and said that hip-hop had done more for civil rights. No, hip-hop had done more…
Mr. SIMMONS: Race issues.
CHIDEYA: …for race issues than the civil rights movements.
Mr. SIMMONS: I have no question about that. No question about that.
CHIDEYA: Tell me why. Just briefly explain.
Mr. SIMMONS: When Run-DMC got MTV there was no black people. Period. Except Michael Jackson. Period. Michael Jackson. He had broken nose and straighten hair. Now, MTV is a totally integrated space. This next generation, Eminem and 50 Cent think that it's the same people. And they are. You know, because the voice disconnect was the trailer parks and the projects. When the trailer parks and the projects look alike in the minds of the people living in these places, and so does the next generation is much better on that subject. Kids in Compton are now talking directly to the kids in Beverly Hills. Kids in Beverly Hills understand the plight of the poor there and that's very important. Rap has done that.
CHIDEYA: Okay. Russell, I have a strange question for you.
Mr. SIMMONS: Yeah.
CHIDEYA: I don't think it'll make you upset, angry. It's…
Mr. SIMMONS: I said I'm not upset. No, I'm sitting here laughing. I just want to get my - to mention about my book.
CHIDEYA: So here's the thing. I've got a goddaughter whose four years old. She is one of the best little people in the world.
Mr. SIMMONS: You should not be here bitch and hoe on the radio, right?
CHIDEYA: Right. I got a business proposition for you from her mother. She's like I really wish somebody would put out clean mix tapes for kids. Because I want to play rap to my daughter because she needs to listen to it. If I came up to you and I was like Russell, you should really start this business…
Mr. SIMMONS: Oh, no. I'm not a business guy.
Mr. SIMMONS: I'm a creative guy. And I only do businesses as a result of like I've - I'm try to find what my gifts are and give them immediately. As soon as I get them and I understand, I give them back. I'm born into the cycle of giving that we're all born into and I recognize it. So just because something is a good business, I'm not a business guy. I'm a creative guy. So I've missed out on that. And if I want to do a poetry show on HBO, means I have to start the ball evolving because no one likes that idea, then I have to fight for that. I want to do the comedy that no one wanted to do that. When I started the diamond business, no black person, period, was in it to do what we're trying to do to change the industry. So I like to do things that I see clearly that are in my, you know, scope. And then, I had to figure how I get talented or smart business people around me to execute. That's what I have to do. So, I see great vision, but it's not mine.
CHIDEYA: You know…
Mr. SIMMONS: But I wish - but I want to hear more clean mix records. But, you know, I don't know if I want to hear them, but I know people, I know people need it.
CHIDEYA: Maybe your daughters want to hear them
Mr. SIMMONS: My daughters - yeah, but they got records that my daughters listen to all the time.
CHIDEYA: If you could, just do one last thing before you go, what…
Mr. SIMMONS: I don't know.
CHIDEYA: No, no.
Mr. SIMMONS: I don't mind the fragrance. We give away 100 percent of the proceeds.
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CHIDEYA: I was thinking about…
Mr. SIMMONS: Atman available now. What else?
CHIDEYA: I was thinking of something about…
Mr. SIMMONS: Diamond Empowerment Fund, I have a bracelet. I want to raise $35 million for Africa. And so, I don't know if just one bracelet will do but it could if I sell a million of them. And the bracelet - this bracelet which you'll have one of - is the main - 50 percent on the proceeds from this and 25 percent of the green initiative and the borders of separate. Diamond Empowerment Fund is a separate thing. But that's where the money goes.
CHIDEYA: How much do they retail for?
Mr. SIMMONS: This bracelet is $130.
CHIDEYA: Unfortunately, I cannot accept it due to the ethics rules of NPR.
Mr. SIMMONS: What, what most you get?
Mr. SIMMONS: Man, I already gave every radio disc jockey in the country one of these bracelets.
CHIDEYA: Oh, it's my - part of my right livelihood.
Mr. SIMMONS: Really? 50 bucks?
Mr. SIMMONS: Well, I'm not paying you off.
CHIDEYA: No, no, no. It's not that - it's just the rules. So just finally, give me a sentence, one sentence of something that you might say to your daughters. Just, you know, you are giving advice here for adults. But maybe just one sentence or a couple of sentences…
Mr. SIMMONS: No, I'll tell them all. I tell Ming Lee everyday, practice love. That's all of our job, to practice grace and love, to smile and breathe. In yoga, in every pose, you smile and breathe no matter how difficult the pose. I tell Ming Lee you practice love.
CHIDEYA: Russell Simmons, thank you.
Mr. SIMMONS: Thank you.
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CHIDEYA: Words to the wise from rap mogul Russell Simmons, even if it took a bit of agita to get there. Believe it or not, after all these, he walked out of the studio, shook hands, and he signed our NPR West Wall of Fame. He even have a picture to prove it. And you can find it on our Web site, npr.org/newsandnotes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.