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As a producer, promoter, writer, activist, label head, and mogul, Russell Simmons has done more than any other person to turn hip-hop into a thriving global industry. His Def Jam label, which he co-founded with college roommate Rick Rubin, has released albums from a who's-who of rap music's elite, including Jay-Z, DMX, Ja Rule, Redman, Method Man, and many others. The brother of Run-DMC's Run, Simmons co-founded Def Jam in 1984 (an experience fictionalized in the 1985 movie Krush Groove) and released seminal recordings from LL Cool J, Beastie Boys, Slick Rick, and Public Enemy. The label fell into a minor slump in the early '90s, as Dr. Dre's G-funk sound dominated the airwaves and moved hip-hop's epicenter to the West Coast. Simmons responded by branching out into different media, founding the Phat Farm clothing company and producing HBO's influential stand-up show Russell Simmons' Def Comedy Jam, the Eddie Murphy comeback vehicle The Nutty Professor, and two films by quirky auteur Abel Ferrara. By the late '90s, the multi-platinum success of Jay-Z, DMX, and Ja Rule helped Def Jam rebound, and while Simmons has assumed a less hands-on role in the company, he's stayed in the public eye. In 2001, he published an autobiography, Life And Def: Sex, Drugs, Money, + God, and he's stepped up his work as an activist and philanthropist by campaigning for various causes and helping organize a well-received hip-hop summit. He's also produced a Def Comedy Jam sequel of sorts: Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Slam, a poetry-themed HBO show hosted by Mos Def. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with Simmons about politics, race, Bill O'Reilly, and clothing as ideology.
The Onion: A lot of people think hip-hop is inherently leftist or rebellious...
Russell Simmons: Well, leftist and rebellious are different, but I would say to you that young people are compassionate, in general. Of course, there's real aggressive Christian music that's hardcore, and there has always been training for young people that's rigid. But young people, when they're left alone, always want to have compassion, and they always want to give. They always want to help people who are less fortunate. Not everyone can make it on their own. It's not fair, that "I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps" shit, and they don't believe it. They turn around and help their own brother. That's my opinion on young culture in general.
O: Well, I was getting at another argument I've encountered, one that says hip-hop's prevailing ideology isn't leftist so much as capitalist.
RS: That doesn't mean anything. There's some hip-hop that's very much into the American Dream, and I don't fault them for that. Being materialistic is part of the hip-hop community's nature, because jazz and blues and rock 'n' roll, when they started out in the urban communities, were about the American Dream, and the lack of opportunity in that structure. So they talked about everythinguplifting and getting what is perceived as success in America. Then, of course, with jazz and blues or pop or rock, all those people, when they became more affluent, they started talking about tearing down the system for the sake of it. Hip-hop is about tearing down the system to better it, tearing down the system to better themselves. No matter how flimsy it might seem, they always wanted the finer things in life. Chuck Berry had an orange Cadillac, the list went on and on. They didn't have holes in their jeansthat was never rock 'n' roll. Alligator shoes were rock 'n' roll. They made jeans with holes in them when the more affluent groups got involved. Culture in America and everywhere else comes from the suffering, from those who don't want the old ways. They want to bring in the new, whether it's the ballet, when it started, or Shakespeare. What was he? He was outside the norm. It's always the suffering that changes the culture, because they're not buying the status quo. They want something new, and that new thing becomes the status quo, and then something new happens again. The fact that hip-hop has retained its integrity is why it's still not the status quo now. And that has been attractive, because there are so many people outside of what is considered the status quo. There are poor white people who hear rap music and feel it is about them, because it is. That's why you have an Eminem and a Bubba Sparxxx and rappers like that. Bubba Sparxxx wrestled with a pig in his video, and then he's doing a duet with Jadakiss in his next video, and [the videos] look just alike. Because they are the same. Hip-hop is a voice for voiceless poor people. Even kids riding in cars in Beverly Hills listening to hip-hop know a lot more about these poor people who now have a voice. That's what hip-hop is.
O: In your autobiography, you talk about punk rock and hip-hop being the primary influences on Def Jam. How do you think the two are connected?
RS: Well, all of them are about destroying the status quo. Hip-hop took some lessons from rock 'n' roll, and rock 'n' roll took some lessons from hip-hop. Young people in America are more connected than ever before because of hip-hop. There is an obvious "I'm not going to accept what I'm given" attitude that you see demonstrated in some hip-hop. It's the "at any cost" pursuit of the American Dream. Punk rock is an "at any cost" pursuit of a greater America, as well. It has social and political implications that are very meaningful and considerate of the masses. Of course, there are individuals who are not, but hip-hop is such a wide statement of culture that everyone is not the same, and it's impossible to put it into one box. It's an important consideration that it's wide in its point of view, even though it's different. Look at the clothing companies, because these are very lifestyle-oriented images that are being sold. "America by any means necessary": Rocawear clothing. Diamonds and jeans. Hat backwards and diamonds, that's Roc-A-Fella. Sean John: "The best that America has to offer." What does that mean? European designers influenced by Armani and Versace and those people. That's where Sean John is from. Phat Farm: I was a student of Tommy Hilfiger and a fan of Ralph Lauren. That's the American Dream, as well, through the most traditional vehiclessuccess through a lot of different obvious vehicles. Education, and I can talk about this, what we think we're selling: the new American Dream, living up to the American Declaration Of Independence. Turn the flag upside down, let's make the country greater. The upside-down flag means "Let's make a greater America."
O: You talk a lot about the political implications of rap, and the power it has, but Def Jam doesn't record a lot of overtly political artists. Why not sign a Common or a Mos Def?
RS: I don't sign the acts or make them say anything. I only hope to inspire some that are saying what they're saying to do something great. [Def Jam president] Kevin Liles signed those acts, and he signs who he thinks will sell. He may not be sensitive to some of the great acts that could be greater. I would tell you that the social implications of [Def Jam artist] DMX are pretty severe. He talks about his union with God if he's happy, and he talks about his relationship with the devil when he's sad. It's very clear what he represents. He's a spiritual person who is very misguided, but represents to you a very positive thing. People say he's a gangsta rapper, and I say he's very positive. If you were a kid and you listened to DMX and you didn't have anything else to inspire you, you'd become a God-fearing person. You'd have no choice, because that's what he tells you to be. That's what DMX is to me. I know that we have a lot of rugged stuff on Def Jam. But I'm not offended by truth, either. I only want truth. As long as it's truth, it's okay with me. I know that if I was signing a music act today, I would probably be inspired by one that not only talked about the frustrations of the ghetto, but also talked about how you get out of it. My Poetry Jam is about that. I'm hoping the poets will inspire the rappers to bring the thing full circle. In some cases, the rappers talk about how angry they are, but they talk about getting out of the condition. And that's what we want them to do, is to get them to talk about getting out of the condition: How do they survive, and what does survival mean? Because all of these rappers have survived because of a harder instinct than they're describing. Not that they're not telling the truth, but obviously, they wake up on other sides of the bed than just the bad side, or they wouldn't be here. I tell them that, and I work with the A&R directors, and I try to remind them that Lauryn Hill is bigger than whatever act they're working on. I always remind them of that. But the other thing is that I'm not here to accept or worry about their judgment. How do I justify it? And I don't mean rationalize, but justify within myself, because it's truth. "Fuck Tha Police" is the truth. It's a protest song to some, and an aggressive gangsta-rap song to others. It's what you hear. In yoga, we hear, or rather work on hearing, God's soundtrack. None of us do, but we try to hear God's soundtrack in all sounds. It doesn't mean that we do it all the time, but we're practicing. I hear a lot of positivity in a lot of what comes out of Def Jam artists' mouths. But again, I recognize that there are artists who only want to inspire, and write their words accordingly. I would love to have more of them, but I have what I have. And I think young people are ready for more conscious rappers. There's a void, so the A&R director who has the energy and talent that I had when I was younger, if he comes along and decides he wants to inspire people to tell what happens on the other side of the bed when they roll over... Because sometimes you roll out of bed on that side where things feel good and there's great possibility for you. On the other side, you say, "You know, I live in the fucking ghetto, I'm mad. I'm going to kill somebody." Tupac told both sides, and DMX tells both sides. He made a whole album with a well-rounded arc where you can say, "This man wants so badly to move in sync with God, but he just can't help it." You hear that in a lot of these records. I like to hear all sides more often, but a lot of artists pick a side.
O: You obviously have a lot of money and power. Do you consider yourself part of the establishment at this point?
RS: Well, it depends on what the establishment's motives are. If the establishment's motive is to uplift people and contribute something worthwhile to other people's lives and be part of that process on an ongoing basis in this working society, then yes. But if it's to oppress people, take advantage and exploit, with capitalism at any cost over people, then I hope I'm not.
O: One of the big recent issues in rap was Pepsi dropping Ludacris as a spokesman after Bill O'Reilly waged a campaign to have him removed. Why do you think he singled out Ludacris?
RS: Because he's stupid and doesn't know any better. And he doesn't realize that Ludacris represents a healthy college kid's attitude, and he's nobody's gangsta rapper. In yoga, we have the yamas, or the eight steps, and the first of the yamas is ahimsa, and if you live by that, then it's all good. You know what that is?
O: I'm afraid I don't.
RS: It's non-violence. Not only physical but mental non-violence toward the planet and all the species on the planet, and all of God's creations. If you can live by that, then you're okay. I think that even if you think there's too much profanity in his language, well, the profanity in rap is usually the condition these people are suffering under, the lack of education that some have, and opportunity that many more have. So the profanity is in the conditions of these people, and not in the language that they use. Nowhere in the Bible, Koran, or Torah does it say, "If you curse, then you're going to hell." But everywhere it says that if you kill, you're going to wherever they send you, depending on the religion. I'm telling you that Ludacris' heart, and what he's saying that comes across, is no more violent than their Mike Myers Pepsi person or other things. I'm sure that they would probably take Tony Soprano and cut a Pepsi commercial, if he would do it. I'm sure that [O'Reilly] might find language offensive, but that shows what a cultural elitist he is, because the language is not the problem. [Ludacris is] nobody's gangsta rapper, and our attitude at Def Jam has been, "If you don't want us, Pepsi, fuck you. We don't want you, either." That's okay. I hope they don't let people like O'Reilly make all their choices for them. It's okay for Fox to put on, for instance, Bernie Mac. He's got a foul mouth: He mostly tells jokes and stories that are funny, but they're foul. But he's okay to make a show out of. All their guys have a history of using language outside of their productions that is not acceptable to Fox. Just as Ludacris has used language that is not acceptable to a Pepsi commercial, but not in his commercial. Again, he has to be judged on his intentions, just as you have to judge the other people on their intentions. You have to use the same standard by which you judged, say Mike Myers' character, Austin Powers. Ludacris isn't saying anything that Mike Myers didn't say, too. It's nothing but "We're going to have a healthy bit of sex, and a lot of fun, and we're going to drink a little bit, and we're not going to hurt nobody."
O: It seems like rappers have a way of getting under people's skin...
RS: That's always been part of young culture's job. If we can continue to do that, we'll continue to be young, even though it's been 25 years of rap music already.
O: Why do you think hip-hop specifically invites such anger and hostility?
RS: You know, when Run-DMC got on MTV, there was nobody black on there other than Michael Jackson, and Michael Jackson had his nose straightened and his hair straightened. And Run-DMC, on their first record, "Rock Box," said, "No curls, no braids, peasy-head and still get paid." And that began a dialogue between the projects and people in the housing projects in the white communities, or the trailer parks. That began a dialogue about people understanding the commonality of their experiences, which I think is extremely important. You watch these shows, Maury Povich or whatever, and race is not the issue. It's ignorance. And it's poverty that's a problem for some of these people. But they now recognize the commonality of their plight. I think that's going to be an important social and political platform for someone to unite these people. For all of us who are concerned with uplifting those of us who have less, this is a platform that has to be addressed. They speak the same language, the young people of America today, and they never did before. Fear was what guided them apart. They're too close now, and there are too many vehicles of distribution for these ideas for them to be afraid of each other.