Russell Simmons Profile

Russell Simmons. Copyright Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Russell Simmons: The Basics :

  • Who: Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons
  • Born: October 4, 1957, in Queens, New York, USA
  • Significant Achievements: Founding the Def Jam empire, including the label, Def Comedy Jam and Def Poetry Jam as well as Phat Farm clothing line
  • Years Active in the Industry: 1980s - present

The Early Years - Block Parties and Kurtis Blow:

Simmons began his music career in a group called The Force, who made their name putting on block parties in Harlem and Queens.

The group was joined by Kool DJ Kurt who Simmons went onto manage - persuading him to change his name to Kurtis Blow. Simmons began hailing him as the “number one rapper in Queens,” showing his early flair for a good marketing angle. While Blow was in the studio recording his debut single, Christmas Rappin', another rap track, Rapper's Delight was storming the country. The Sugarhill Gang's success was viewed as a fluke by the industry, and Simmons couldn't get anyone to touch Blow's song.

Kurtis Blow Success and Rush Management:

Despite the early lack of interest in Kurtis Blow, Simmons persisted and eventually scored a deal for him with Mercury (the first major label deal for a rap artist). He then built on his early management success by working with other New York acts, including his younger brother outfit Run DMC. Simmons took control of the bands image and sound, and their first records were an immediate success in the clubs and parties of New York.

It was around this time that Simmons also hooked up with Lyor Cohen, with whom he eventually set up Rush Management.

Rick Rubin and The Start of Def Jam:

In 1984 Simmons was introduced to Rick Rubin, a wealthy punk rock producer who'd fallen in love with rap. Simmons and Rubin joined forces to create Def Jam Records.

The first singles released were by a then 16 year old LL Cool J and an ex-punk turn "hip hop band" The Beastie Boys. Success for Def Jam was almost immediate and it didn't take long for the major labels to come sniffing around. A distribution deal with CBS soon followed - which at that time was the world's biggest label.

Taking Hip Hop To The Mainstream:

The music industry was exceedingly slow to recognize the potential of hip hop, viewing it as niche music for a niche market. Simmons effectively changed all of that. Although not everyone was on board with The Beastie Boys, their radio friendly, crossover, rock influenced version of hip hop was instrumental in introducing a new audience to rap music. The collaboration between Run D.M.C. and Aerosmith on Walk This Way, while admittedly cringe-worthy to some was another road to reaching a wider audience. The major, mainstream success of hip hop owes much to these early moves by Simmons.

Selling Def Jam:

Simmons went on to sign some of hip hop's most influential acts to Def Jam, from Public Enemy to Slick Rick. In 1999 he sold his remaining stake to Universal for a reported $120M but continued his role as chairman and is still an influential figure, having signed current stars such as Jay-Z and Ludacris.

Non Music Projects:

Under his umbrella company Rush Communications, Simmons has had his hands in several non-music related projects over the years, including clothing line Phat Farm, which he sold in 2004 for a rumored $140 million, a TV and movie production company, an advertising agency and a new athletics line called Run Athletics.

Philanthropic Work:

Simmons now devotes a great deal of time to his philanthropic outlets, including Upliftment Jamaica, a fund supporting poor communities in the Caribbean and PETA's campaigns to improve animal welfare. He has also been involved with a campaign to remove the words he views as derogatory from hip hop radio edits, but so far has been unable to drum up much support.