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September 25, 2003
Hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons, who launched the careers of rap artists L.L. Cool J, the Beastie Boys and Will Smith, hovered a foot above the floor, his legs twisted to his left, his arms holding him aloft.
"Just keep breathing and smiling," he advised the yoga neophyte beside him as he hopped back and folded into a "downward dog," his torso at a 90-degree angle to his legs.
Simmons, the chairman of Rush Communications, a music, film and fashion company based in Manhattan, easily contorts into various shapes in the yoga studio. He has practiced similar shifts in life, transforming himself from a party promoter to a recording entrepreneur to a millionaire businessman who dated models and collected Rolls-Royces. Then he found yoga and became a vegan who meditates daily.
He's now seeking to recast himself as a political leader, fighting urban poverty and racial inequality. He wants to do that by turning his target audience -- the 45.3 million people worldwide who, according to his Simmons Lathan Media Group, spend $12.6 billion annually on hip-hop music, fashion, films, television and publications -- into a grassroots political-action network.
"I want to fight poverty and ignorance and give opportunity to those people who are locked out," said Simmons, who has a lithe build and a shaved head. Most corporate executives, he said, only "want to see the bottom line. Do the numbers get better that way? I don't think so."
Still, marketing politics along with sneakers, jeans and soda is also good for business, said James Peterson, a hip-hop scholar and media coordinator of Harvard University's Hip-Hop Archive.
"He knows that the hip-hop audience is a consumer audience," Peterson said. "Rappers are always talking about products. They have always mentioned brand names in their records, to reach people with shared knowledge and also to show off -- 'I have a million-dollar watch.'"
Simmons, 45, has based his corporate strategy on marketing urban trends to mainstream America. He built a multimedia conglomerate valued at $300 million, he said, on the notion that street culture from New York's poorest neighborhoods could be packaged for mass consumption.
One of his first big rap hits to promote a product was My Adidas, a 1986 single by the rap group Run-DMC, headed by Simmons's brother Joseph, Darryl McDaniels and Jason Mizell.
The single, which topped the R&B charts that year, praised Adidas sneakers, made by Germany's Adidas-Salomon AG, and boosted sales among hip-hop listeners.
"Now, he's taking it in reverse," Peterson said of Simmons. "He said his money is cool, but being in political power is even better. Simmons is starting to taste that power, he can sense that it's significant."
Simmons's political ventures have had uneven results.
Hundreds of thousands of hip-hop fans have attended 13 rallies across the U.S. sponsored by his nonprofit group, the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, since it was created in 2001.
When New York Governor George Pataki invited Simmons to help overhaul the Rockefeller drug laws, one of the toughest mandatory-sentencing policies in the United States for drug offenders, the negotiations failed, alienating some of the hip-hop entrepreneur's political allies.
It also prompted the Temporary State Commission on Lobbying to investigate whether Simmons had failed to register as a lobbyist. Simmons, in response, sued the state, arguing that he was unfairly singled out for exercising his free-speech rights.
He has had more consistent success in business.
In 1984, Simmons and Rick Rubin founded the Def Jam music label with a $4,000 initial investment and unknown rappers. Those performers became top-selling artists -- Kurtis Blow, the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. Simmons and Rubin sold Def Jam in 1999 to Universal Music Group for an estimated $130 million, according to The New York Times. (Def means great in slang, and a def jam is a great song.)
Using those profits, Simmons created Phat Fashions LLC 11 years ago. The company now produces Phat Farm men's wear, Baby Phat women's wear, sneakers, backpacks, leather goods and a limited edition pearl-pink cell phone made by Motorola Inc., the second-biggest maker of mobile phones. Simmons said he lost money on the venture for the first six years and now annual revenue is about $300 million. (Phat means rich like butter.)
Simmons has also launched film and television ventures, including Def Comedy Jam, a television show featuring black stand-up comedians such as Chris Rock, Chris Tucker and Martin Lawrence, for the HBO Network. His film division produced the Nutty Professor movies, starring Eddie Murphy.
And he has invested "a couple million" dollars, he said, in a Broadway show, Def Poetry Jam, featuring spoken-word performances. It lost money throughout its seven-month New York run, playing consistently to houses that were less than half full. The show won critical acclaim, however, and a 2003 Tony Award, Broadway's top honor, for Best Special Theatrical Event.
There is often a visible link between Simmons's products and his politics.
Advertisements in low-income neighborhoods for Phat Farm Classic sneakers, a division of Phat Fashions run by Joseph "Run" Simmons, call for reparations for slavery to black Americans. Joseph is now a minister; the sneakers sell for $65 on the company's Web site.
Copyright © 2003, South Florida Sun-Sentinel