Founder of Rush Communications
"My goal has been to present urban culture in its most true form to the people who love it and the people who live it."-Russell Simmons
Russell Simmons didn't invent rap. But he did play a leading role in the music's astonishing success. Like Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, who brought black soul music into the mainstream (and to whom Simmons is often compared), Simmons is credited for moving rap-or hip-hop, as aficionados call it-from the streets of the inner city into the mainstream of American pop culture.
Yet there's one major difference between Gordy and Simmons. Unlike Gordy, who tried to expand his Motown empire beyond music but failed, Simmons has been able to parlay his success in the music industry into other equally successful businesses. In less than a decade, Simmons' Rush Communications has grown to include publishing, fashion, television, filmmaking, advertising and the Internet-becoming the second-largest black-owned entertainment company in the United States.
Although he made his fame promoting music that celebrates a street-tough lifestyle, Simmons grew up in a comfortable middle-class home in Queens, New York. He first heard rap while he was working on a sociology degree at City College in Harlem, New York. In 1977, he began promoting rap parties in Harlem and Queens with his friend Curtis Walker. Like rock 'n' roll, rap was initially dismissed as a fad. But Simmons knew different. At his parties, he saw a new and lasting subculture emerging. The following year, Walker became a rapper himself, changing his name to Kurtis Blow, and he and Simmons co-wrote a minor hit called "Christmas Rappin'."
After this small success with Blow, Simmons left his studies at City College. In 1979, he formed Rush Communications and began managing other local rap acts. One of the most successful of Simmons' acts was his younger brother, Joey, who went by the name of Run. Putting his brother together with MC Darryl McDaniels and DJ Jason Mizell, he christened the group Run DMC, dressed them in black leather suits and told them what to record. On a street level, the group's first two records were instant hits.
In 1984, Simmons met Rick Rubin, an NYU student who also wanted to promote rap music. The two scrounged up $8,000 and founded Def Jam. Rubin was a production genius who loved loud, rebellious music. Simmons was a relentlessly enthusiastic and canny businessman. (He has claimed that he learned the basics of business-cash flow, client relations, networking-by selling marijuana on the streets in his youth.)
The combination of Rubin's and Simmons' personalities and talents proved to be a powerful mix. Just two years into their bare-bones operation, Columbia Records approached Def Jam with an offer to promote, market and distribute Def Jam's new rap recordings for a share in their profits. But Def Jam and Run DMC were primarily making black music for black people. The label's next two moves, however, would change that.
First, Def Jam teamed Run DMC with Aerosmith to record a rap version of the rock band's hit "Walk This Way." The song was a smash and landed Run DMC on MTV, which until then had played rap only reluctantly. When the song reached a new white audience, Run DMC and Simmons found themselves with a No. 4 Billboard hit-the first rap song to break the top five. The single also helped the band's third album, "Raising Hell," sell 4 million copies.
Next Def Jam signed the first all-white rap act, the Beastie Boys. The group's bratty lyrics and rock 'n' roll -based riffs brought in an even wider white audience, and the band's first album, "License to Ill," sold 8 million copies. The success of these albums prompted Def Jam to sign additional acts, including Public Enemy, Oran "Juice" Jones, and rap duo D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince (Will Smith). Amazingly, every record the label released through 1990 went gold.
At the same time Simmons was developing Def Jam with Rubin, he was also becoming involved in other media. In 1985, in cooperation with Warner Brothers, his Def Pictures produced its first film, "Krush Groove," a rap musical based loosely on Simmons' life. The film, which cost only $2.2 million to produce, grossed almost $20 million at the box office. Simmons' second film, "Tougher Than Leather," an action-comedy starring Run-D.M.C., achieved similar success. Later Def Picture films would include "The Addiction" (1995) and "The Funeral" (1996)-both directed by Abel Ferrara and starring Christopher Walken¬-and Eddie Murphy's "The Nutty Professor" (1996).
Rubin left Def Jam in 1988 to form his own company, and Simmons continued to oversee the Def Jam label and Def Pictures as subsidiaries of Rush Communications. Next, Simmons ventured into television with "Def Comedy Jam." Co-produced by Simmons and his TV partners, Bernie Brillstein and Brad Grey, the show, which showcased black stand-up comedians, was an instant sensation.
Simmons further expanded his communications empire in 1992 to include the magazine Oneworld, which features articles on music, fashion and hip-hop personalities. In that same year, Simmons launched a line of clothing called Phat Farm, which by 1998 was grossing almost $22 million a year and is projected to top $100 million in the year 2000. A year later, Simmons started SLBG Entertainment, which serves as an agency for actors and other entertainers.
One of the most recent offshoots of Rush Communications is the Rush Media Company, a marketing and advertising agency that produced award-winning advertisements for Coca-Cola in 1996.
The key to Simmons success, more than anything, has been his keen sense of promotion. At a time when the record industry was looking for the next one-hit-disco-wonder, Simmons actively sought out artists who could have a career, then promoted them and his label at the same time. In retrospect, Simmons was branding when everyone else was still marketing. As the label took off, Simmons, like another master of promotion, Virgin Group's Richard Branson, looked for other places to use his name and his company's name to sell new products. And there's every indication that Simmons can and will go on to create an expansionistic, diversified conglomerate like Virgin.
Thanks to Simmons, hip-hop is no longer black culture or even urban culture-it's American culture. And no one is counting is out as a fad anymore. "With my first act in '79, people said hip-hop was dead," Simmons has said. "Now look, 20 years later, the culture is so strong we're doing underwear."
A Phat Endorsement
When Run DMC made wearing Adidas sneakers popular after recording the song "My Adidas," Russell Simmons asked the shoe manufacturer to sponsor a concert tour. Adidas executives were skeptical about the marketing potential of the rap band, so Simmons invited them to a Run DMC concert. As the group was performing the song, one of the members yelled out, "Everybody in the house, rock your Adidas," and three thousand pairs of sneakers shot into the air. The Adidas executives couldn't reach for their checkbooks fast enough.
Show Them The Money
Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin founded the Def Jam record label in 1983 with $8,000 of their own money. In 1999, Simmons sold the label to Seagram's Universal Music for an estimated $120 million.