Founder, president, and chief executive officer, Rush Communications of NYC; founder, chairman, and chief executive officer, Phat Fashions; chairman, Def Jam/Def Soul division, Universal Music Group; vice chairman, BET Interactive; director, Brilliant Digital Entertainment
Born: October 4, 1957, in New York, New York.
Education: Attended City University of New York, 1975–1979.
Family: Son of Daniel Simmons (public-school attendance supervisor), and Evelyn (maiden name unknown; recreation director); married Kimora Lee (fashion model); children: two.
Career: Rush Productions/Rush Artist Management, 1977–1991, president; Def Jam Recordings, 1984–1999, president; Rush Communications of NYC, 1991–, president and chief executive officer; Phat Fashions, 1992–2004, chief executive officer; 2004–, chairman and chief executive officer; Def Jam/Def Soul division, Universal Music Group, 1999–, chairman; BET Interactive, 2001–, vice chairman; Brilliant Digital Entertainment, 2001–, director.
Publications: With Nelson George, Life and Def, 2001.
Address: Rush Communications of NYC, 512 Seventh Avenue, No. 43–45, New York, New York 10018.
■ Russell Simmons, founder of Def Jam Recordings and Rush Communications, two highly influential African American–owned entertainment businesses, was instrumental in bringing rap music into the American mainstream in the 1980s. Simmons's efforts encompassed record labels, artist management, film and television production, advertising, publishing, clothing labels, and other projects. Notable successes include the hit series Def Comedy Jam for HBO, films such as The Nutty Professor , the Phat Farm clothing line, and the discovery and promotion of rap artists such as LL Cool J, Run-DMC, Public Enemy, and Ludacris.
Simmons based his success on introducing trends started among African American youth to a broader audience, and prided himself on retaining this ability even as a middle-aged business leader. He tended to delegate day-to-day management and executive tasks to a handful of trusted advisors, focusing instead on creative and entrepreneurial aspects of his operations. Among the hip-hop community he was regarded as a pioneer—an architect of the entire movement—and he spawned many imitators.
Russell Simmons was born in the Jamaica section of Queens, New York, in 1957 and grew up in the middle-class Hollis neighborhood. Simmons spent part of his youth dabbling in a street gang and dealing marijuana and imitation cocaine—his first business. In the late 1970s, intrigued by the new phenomenon of rap music, Simmons formed Rush Productions ("Rush" being a childhood nickname) to promote concerts featuring rap artists in and around New York City.
In 1975 Simmons enrolled at the City College of New York, but he dropped out just shy of graduation as concert promotion grew more lucrative for him. By this time he had formed Rush Artist Management to manage the careers of some of the artists he worked with. The company's roster eventually included many important artists in rap's first wave, including Kurtis Blow, LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, and Run-DMC (featuring Simmons's brother Joey). In 1986 Simmons scored a major coup when Run-DMC released "My Adidas," a single extolling the virtues of the group's favored footwear. Simmons negotiated a multimillion-dollar endorsement deal for Run-DMC with Adidas, the first of many synergies between hip-hop culture and mass-market branding he would engineer.
In 1984 Simmons joined with New York University student Rick Rubin to found Def Jam Recordings, a record label initially run out of Rubin's dorm room. Simmons and Rubin combined their tastes for raw, hard rap music with a strong sense of "street" style, and the duo made Def Jam the first label to successfully introduce hardcore rap into the American mainstream. In 1985 CBS signed a distribution deal with the label, giving Def Jam a national retail profile. This arrangement allowed the label to flourish in 1986 when the Beastie Boys' first album, Licensed To Ill , became the first rap album to top the national pop charts. Between 1985 and 1990, Def Jam grew into the biggest and most influential rap label in the music business.
In 1987 Rubin departed Def Jam, and Simmons promoted longtime employee Lyor Cohen to replace him. Simmons and Cohen quickly parlayed Def Jam's continued success into a lucrative joint-venture deal with Sony that would become the template for many future hip-hop label entrepreneurs. A series of fallow years followed, but Def Jam returned to prominence in the late 1990s with hits by artists such as DMX and Ludacris. In 1999 Simmons sold his remaining stake in Def Jam to Universal Music Group for $100 million, staying on as chairman of Def Jam/Def Soul, now a part of the Island/Def Jam label group. Thanks to a string of successful projects and profitable distribution deals, such as with influential rap labels Roc-A-Fella and The Inc., Island/Def Jam ended 2002 as the second-largest record label in the United States.
Between 1985 and 1987 Simmons oversaw the production of two films, Krush Groove , adapted from his own life story, and Tougher Than Leather , both featuring the music of Def Jam and Rush Artist Management artists. Though neither film was a hit, the experience laid the groundwork for future ventures.
Two rare setbacks occurred in 1989–1990. The first came when Simmons lost out on a bid to produce the 1991 John Singleton film Boyz 'N the Hood because Columbia Pictures president Frank Price balked at doing business with a man in a track suit and sneakers, Simmons's preferred business uniform. In the same period, Will "The Fresh Prince" Smith, then a popular rap star and a Rush Artist Management client, left the company's roster, claiming Simmons was too busy with other projects. Under new management, Smith soon signed on to the successful sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel Air , eventually becoming one of the biggest stars of the 1990s.
In 1991 Simmons formed Rush Communications to coordinate his various non–Def Jam projects. Success was not long in coming. In 1992 Simmons teamed with veteran producer Simon Lathan and the Brillstein/Gray Company to launch the hit HBO series Def Comedy Jam , featuring the comedy of African American comedians such as Chris Rock, Bernie Mac, and Martin Lawrence. Much as he had done with Def Jam Recordings, Simmons invested in Def Comedy Jam to bring talented but controversial black comedians into the mainstream of American culture. The success of the show boosted Rush's revenues from $31 million in 1993 to $65 million in 1994.
Renewed success came in 1996 when Rush produced the hit film The Nutty Professor , starring Eddie Murphy. Also in 1996 Simmons entered the publishing world with One World , a music and culture magazine that aimed to compete with hiphop publications such as Vibe and the Source . An accompanying syndicated television show was short-lived.
In 1992 Simmons founded the clothing company Phat Fashions LLC and its flagship brand, Phat Farm, with the hopes of creating the Def Jam of fashion—a bridge between "street" style and popular culture. As Def Jam's day-to-day operations demanded less of his time, Simmons focused on Phat Farm as an outlet for his energies, overseeing design and marketing and introducing Baby Phat, a women's line featuring designs by his wife, Kimora. Although Phat Fashions failed to make a profit for the first six years of its existence, the company eventually won over consumers and ended 2002 with revenues of $263 million. In 2004 Simmons sold the company to clothing giant Kellwood Group for a reported $140 million. As with Def Jam, Simmons's success blazed a trail for other hiphop entrepreneurs to follow, notably Sean "P-Diddy" Combs's Sean John clothing line and Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter's Roca-Wear.
In 1996 Rush Communications added advertising to its list of services, producing television commercials for Coca-Cola and ESPN, and partnering in 2000 with advertising giant Deutsch to form dRush. In 2001 Rush Communications entered the dot-com arena, launching 360HipHop.com. Intended to be a one-stop source of music, culture, and information for hip-hop fans, the site never gained an audience and was soon sold to Black Entertainment Television's online operation BET.com, of which Simmons was named vice chairman. In the same year Simmons joined the board of Brilliant Digital Entertainment, partnering with the company to produce online video content featuring Def Jam recording artists.
In 2001 Simmons returned to the spirit of Def Comedy Jam with Def Poetry Jam , a showcase for young urban poets. The show ultimately ran on Broadway to good reviews but poor receipts, and won a Tony award in 2002.
Rush Communications finished 2002 with earnings of $500 million, and in 2003 and 2004 Simmons used this success to fund various projects based on extending established brands. He teamed with Motorola to market the i90 and i95 cellular phones featuring the Phat Farm and Baby Phat logos, respectively, and entered a collaboration with jewelry merchants M. Fabrikant & Sons to create jewelry featuring the Phat Farm, Baby Phat, Def Jam, and Russell Simmons brand names. At the same time, Simmons was taking Rush into the financial-services industry, introducing the Rush Visa, a pre-paid debit card intended for people without bank accounts, and founding UniRush in association with Jackson Hewitt to provide low-cost tax-preparation services to the same consumers. Simmons also began a foray into the specialty beverage market, selling DefCon3 soda exclusively through 7-Eleven stores.
Simmons was politically active and started several charitable organizations. The Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation donated money to arts programs in predominantly black public schools, and the Simmons Brothers Arts Scholarship gave scholarships to young black men who had served time for drug offenses in New York State. In 2001 Simmons founded the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HHSAN) to sponsor voting initiatives among young African Americans. In its first three years, HHSAN registered one-half million new voters. A portion of the profits from DefCon3 soda and Phat Farm sneakers funded slavery-reparations efforts and the HHSAN, and Simmons spent part of 2003 campaigning against New York State's "three-strikes" drug laws. In 2004 Simmons was investigated by the state of New York for possible violation of lobbying laws after failing to secure a permit for a HHSAN fundraiser.
Throughout his career, Simmons capitalized on his ability to anticipate and guide emerging trends, believing that street culture was the source of his inspiration and success. In a Miami Herald interview he asserted that "in the cultural business … you must build a movement before you get capital" (November 24, 2003). Always alert to the connection between hip-hop and fashion, he worked to ensure that the brands he managed stayed relevant to the tastes of hip-hop consumers. Believing that he was his own strongest brand, Simmons never surrendered his designer track suits and white sneakers for traditional business wear.
Simmons took a hands-on approach to the creative and interpersonal sides of his businesses, delegating day-to-day tasks to a handful of longtime partners. As he put it in the Miami Herald interview, "I wouldn't be here if I didn't count on everybody around me being smarter than me." For instance, longtime associate Lyor Cohen handled Def Jam's operations from 1987 on, freeing Simmons to work closely with the label's artists and to develop the brand. Veteran producer Stan Lathan worked with Simmons in a partnership called Simmons-Lathan Media Group, which handled Simmons's film and television ventures, and when Simmons started Phat Farm he asked fashion-industry veteran Ruby Azrak to manage the operation.
Simmons encouraged entrepreneurship among his employees and willingly promoted talented newcomers to positions of responsibility, believing that the closer his companies remained to the street and to youth culture, the better their prospects. One lead designer for Phat Farm, Kevin Leong, was only 25 when given the job. Simmons's impact can be seen in the many imitators he and Def Jam spawned, many of whom worked for him at some point, including Damon Dash and Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter of Roc-A-Fella Records and Sean "P-Diddy" Combs of Bad Boy Entertainment.
See also entries on Phat Fashions and Rush Communications in International Directory of Company Histories .
Berfield, Susan, "The CEO of Hip-Hop," BusinessWeek , October 27, 2003, p. 90.
Leger, D. E., "Entrepreneur of Cool Shares His Start-up Secret," Miami Herald , November 24, 2003.
Ogg, Alex, The Men Behind Def Jam: The Radical Rise of Russell Simmons And Rick Rubin , London: Omnibus Press, 2002.
Siegal, Nina, "Rapping at Capitalism's Door," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette , September 26, 2003.
Simmons, Russell, and Nelson George, Life and Def , New York: Crown, 2001.
Vaughn, Christopher, "Simmons' Rush for Profits," Black Enterprise , December 1992, p. 67.