Family & Companions
Russell Simmons rose to prominence as co-founder of the legendary Def Jam Records, which helped to introduce hip-hop music to mainstream culture through such landmark rap acts as Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J and Public Enemy. But Simmons' vision extended far beyond the music business, and he soon parlayed the financial returns from his label into film and television production, including the popular "Def Comedy Jam" (HBO, 1992-97, 2006-08) series and Eddie Murphy's "Nutty Professor" (1996) remake, as well as his own fashion line, Phat Farm. These and other ventures helped to make Simmons one of the wealthiest figures in the music business, with a net worth of $340 million by 2011. Simmons would later parlay his gains into numerous charitable organizations while continuing to maintain a hand in entertainment through film and television production. Throughout his career, Simmons emphasized the importance of hip-hop as a unifying force that transcended race, class and circumstance, which in turn fueled both his personal and business philosophies. In November 2017, Simmons stepped down from day-to-day operations of his company, following a series of sexual assault allegations that were made against him.
Born Russell Wendell Simmons in the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens, NY on Oct. 4, 1957, he was the second of three sons by public school administrator Daniel Simmons, Sr., and his wife, Evelyn Simmons, a New York City park administrator. His older brother, Daniel Simmons, Jr., was a noted painter and later co-producer of "Def Poetry Jam" (HBO, 2002- ), while younger brother, Joseph Simmons, gained worldwide fame as the hip-hop artist Run of Run-DMC. After moving to Hollis, Queens, the Simmons brothers endured a rough childhood; Daniel Simmons became a heroin addict and later served jail time, while Russell sold marijuana while still in middle school. By the time he reached his teenaged years, he had been twice arrested and sentenced to probation. In 1975, the 18-year-old began taking classes at Manhattan City College while frequenting the dance clubs in New York's outer boroughs. There, he caught wind of the hip-hop movement through DJs rapping over established tracks. The positive reaction from crowds spurred Simmons to launch his own management company, Rush Management, in order to work with up-and-coming rap artists. Among his earliest clients were such pioneering figures in hip-hop as Kurtis Blow, Whodini and his brother's group, Run-DMC, all of whom were among the first rap artists to have their songs played on commercial radio.
In 1983, Simmons teamed with New York University student Rick Rubin, who had launched his own record label, Def Jam, in his college dorm room. The partners began releasing hip-hop singles, including LL Cool J's "I Need a Beat" (1984) and "Rock Hard" (1984) by an early rock-rap hybrid by a trio of white MCs called the Beastie Boys. The success of both singles led to a distribution deal with CBS Records, which brought Def Jam's artists to national prominence. In 1985, the feature film "Krush Groove," a music business drama helmed by "Cooley High" director Michael Schultz and produced by Simmons was unleashed on the public. Loosely based on Simmons' early career, it served as a showcase for several Def Jam acts, including Run-DMC, LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys and comic hip-hop act the Fat Boys. Though it was largely ignored by the mainstream media upon release, it became a cult favorite for generations of urban music fans.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Simmons displayed a nearly flawless skill for discovering new talent, which helped to make Def Jam the most important hip-hop label of the period. Among the many groundbreaking rap acts to debut on the label were the politically charged Public Enemy, as well as the more streetwise Onyx, 3rd Bass and Slick Rick, all of which scored hits on the black music charts. Simmons also scored with punk and metal audiences by signing Rubin's discovery, the sonically assaulting Slayer, to the label. During this period, the label's flagship acts like the Beastie Boys and Run-DMC were breaking into the mainstream charts with releases like Licensed to Ill (1986) and Licensed to Ill and Raising Hell (1986), respectively; the latter release also gave veteran rockers Aerosmith a second lease on life after pairing with Run-DMC on a remake of "Walk this Way." The success of these and other Def Jam records helped to introduce hip-hop culture to a wider, largely white audience, many of which had regarded the music as a passing fad.
Simmons began transforming Def Jam into a full-fledged entertainment company shortly after Rubin's departure from the imprint in 1988. He produced a second feature film, "Tougher than Leather" (1988), starring Run-DMC and Rubin, who also directed, then moved into television with "Def Comedy Jam," which served as a launching pad for such future comedy superstars as Jamie Foxx, Martin Lawrence, Cedric the Entertainer and Steve Harvey. In 1992, he also marked the launch of Phat Farm, his own fashion line that melded urban wear with American contemporary designs that became a multi-million-dollar enterprise. A children's line, Baby Phat, overseen by Simmons' wife, former model Kimora Lee Simmons, followed in 1998. In 1996, he teamed with Brian Grazer to produce "The Nutty Professor," a remake of the 1963 Jerry Lewis comedy with Eddie Murphy that reaped major box office returns, as well as an Oscar for Best Makeup. During this period, Def Jam continued to produce well-received hit records by the likes of Method Man, DMX and Ja Rule, though the West Coast label Death Row, which featured Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg on its roster, had undermined the label's dominance in the rap field.
In 1999, Simmons sold his share in Def Jam to Universal Music Group for a reported $100 million. He then continued to oversee a wide variety of projects through his Rush Communications company, from film production, advertising, an athletics line, the website 360 Hip Hop and the HBO series "Def Poetry Jam," which earned a Peabody Award in 2002 - the same year he penned his autobiography, Life and Def: Sex, Drugs, Money and God. Simmons also devoted considerable energy to numerous philanthropic concerns, from the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). In 2009, he was appointed Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations' Slavery Memorial. Though he often wielded his considerable influence for political figures like Hilary Clinton and New York Governor George Pataki, Simmons himself eschewed any thoughts of running for office in favor of chair positions on such efforts as the Muslim Jewish Conference in 2011 and the Occupy Wall Street movement that same year. That same year, he published his second book, Super Rich: A Guide to Having it All, which emphasized charitable contributions as a key component to a wealthy lifestyle.
By Paul Gaita
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Co-founded the legendary Def Jam Records, which helped to introduce hip-hop music to mainstream culture through such landmark rap acts as Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J and Public Enemy
Started the Phat Farm fashion line
"Def Comedy Jam" for HBO; after the series ended in 1997, it was brought back from 2006-2008
Teamed with Brian Grazer to produce "The Nutty Professor" remake, starring Eddie Murphy
Launched a children's fashion line, Baby Phat, with wife Kimora Lee Simmons
Produced the Run-DMC-starring feature "Tougher Than Leather"
Sold his share in Def Jam to Universal Music Group for a reported $100 million
Co-produced "Def Poetry Jam" with brother Daniel Simmons, Jr.
Penned his autobiography <i>Life and Def: Sex, Drugs, Money and God</i>
Published his second book, <i>Super Rich: A Guide to Having it All</i>
In November, Simmons stepped down from his companies in the wake of a sexual assault allegation