Hip-hop mogul and entrepreneur Russell Simmons addressed a packed Strong Auditorium Wed., Sept. 13 in an interview forum hosted by Vice President Paul Burgett. Among the attendees were UR students, Rochester-area residents and a group from the Thomas Jefferson High School for Entrepreneurship.
The 48-year-old Simmons surprised the audience by unexpectedly running up on stage and cutting his introduction short just as John Barker, associate director of the McNair Program and Master of Ceremonies, began listing Simmons’s personal and professional achievements. Greeted with a standing ovation, Simmons appeared wearing a red hat and hooded sweatshirt with the words “Phat Farm” sewn across the front, after the clothing line that he founded.
“Poverty and drugs were a big part of my community. I grew up around bad influences,” Simmons said, as he recounted his childhood spent in Queens, N.Y. “I survived, but a lot of my friends didn’t. I was able to find something I was passionate about, pursue it, and live to tell about it.”
Simmons is best known for his role as co-founder of Def Jam records, a hip-hop record label that began in his New York University dorm room in 1984. The small record label, which was started with just $2,500, grew to become an empire after a progression of successful sales by LL Cool J, Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys and Run DMC, a group founded by his brother Joseph “Run” Simmons.
“I started my own company because I was rejected so often. I was happy to take a job if they would let me in the door,” Simmons said. “The people who ran the music business at the time did not like hip-hop very much.”
Simmons did not limit his entrepreneurial drive to the music industry. As president and chief executive officer of the Rush Communications Corporation, Simmons expanded the hip-hop culture into movies, television, clothing and magazines. In the early 1990s, he created the Phat Farm clothing line, which today has an estimated value of $260 million. In 1999, Simmons sold his piece of Def Jam Records to the Universal Music Group for $100 million.
“I was impressed by the simplicity of his attire and the manner in which he expressed himself,” senior Ernancelis Santana said. “Everything indicates that he is a humble man with a sincere concern for helping others.”
Fueled by Burgett’s questions regarding the role that hip-hop has in the American culture, Simmons used the forum as an opportunity to defend the often controversial culture that he helped to cultivate.
“As a group, the rappers are one of the most conscious people in the country. When they talk about the Black community, they talk about the poverty and the struggle -things that most people don’t talk about,” Simmons said. “You can’t name one major rapper who does not have their own charity.”
Simmons, a vegan, is the founder of four philanthropic foundations that encourage young people to become involved in animal rights, politics and the arts.
“He seems like a genuine guy out to share his opinions with the younger generation in an honest attempt to inspire students to follow what they love in life,” sophomore Emily Discenza said.
The event was hosted by the College Diversity Roundtable, the Black Students’ Union, the Minority Student Advisory Board and the McNair Program.
“Russell Simmons is a visionary who harnessed the artistic and creative expressions of the hip-hop community and transformed them into a series of value-generating enterprises,” Director of the Kearns Center for Leadership and Diversity Beth Olivares said. “At Rochester, that epitomizes our definition of an entrepreneur.”Fernandez can be reached at email@example.com.