LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Russell Simmons : Defending the Art of Communication Known as Rap

<i> Steve Proffitt, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a medical producer for Fox 11 News, and contributor to National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered." He spoke with Russell Simmons from his home in New York</i>

As the summer began, angry voices in America rose up against what they see as a violent and anti-social force in the country--rap music. Former Education Secretary William J. Bennett focused on “‘gangsta rap,” concluding that it was perverting young people by glorifying immoral behavior. Conservative activist C. DeLores Tucker (National Political Caucus of Black Women), joined by Bennett and other politicians like Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, also targeted corporate America. They fired their biggest guns at Time Warner, which owns interests in a number of rap record labels. The shells landed at the nervous feet of Time Warner Chairman Gerald Levin, and Michael Fuchs, new head of Warner Music Group. As the summer comes to a close, Time Warner is said to be negotiating a way out of its $100-million share in Interscope Records, distributor of such rap stars as Snoop Doggy Dogg, Dr. Dre and Tupac Shakur.

One of the first responses to the anti-rap campaign came from the undisputed king of hip- hop entrepreneurs, 37-year-old Russell (Rush) Simmons, CEO of Def Jam Recordings. In an open statement to the press in June, he blasted back at rap’s critics: “No truly in-touch person believes that the dire state of American society is the result of rap lyrics. Let’s be clear, rap music is just that--music. It is an art form.”

In a little more than 10 years, Simmons has built a hip-hop empire which is now the largest African-American owned company in the record business. His Rush Communications produces the HBO television series “Def Comedy Jam,” and owns a Manhattan boutique and a profitable clothing business. His first film project which opened in theaters on Friday--"The Show"--is a rap music documentary. He’s also planning to launch a 24-hour satellite radio network, and is reportedly negotiating with Revlon to create a hip-hop fragrance.

Simmons grew up in Queens and earned his nickname, “Rush,” by virtue of his manic energy. He got his start promoting early ‘80s college rap parties; last year he sold a half interest in his record company to Polygram for $33 million. He’s often compared to an earlier music pioneer, Motown founder Barry Gordy. But others, struck by his ability to mix business with pleasure, liken him to Hugh Hefner.


Simmons insists he’s going to make sure black-owned firms reap a fair portion of the profits from the hip-hop culture they invented. In the language of the street, he defends rap music as not only a legitimate art form, but a crucial medium for communication.

Question: What do you think about the attack on rap music, and critics who say it’s something that is dangerous and injurious to American youth?

Answer: In every culture, anytime anything comes along from the underbelly of the society, it’s perceived as a threat. Think of blues, jazz, rock n’ roll--it was all classified as “nigga music.” These days, you can watch TV and see 10 videos, and maybe one is a rap video about some reality that people don’t think is great for their kids to hear. But the kids in Bel Air have to hear it. Because that kind of desperation is just down the street. If nothing else, these videos tell kids to watch out when they go out on the street, because it can be dangerous out there.

What many of the rap artists are saying is just this: I’m frustrated, I have no hope, I have no opportunity. The perceived reality is, there is no chance. And that’s changed since I was a kid. All my friends managed to get the help they needed, got into college, and made themselves successful. But the new generation doesn’t look like they are going to be there. They don’t see themselves becoming successful like my generation. That accounts for the things you hear in their raps.


With the Reaganomics crew, this new generation has nothing. They figure the only way to get money is to take it. All these kids can rap about is pain. Because that’s all these kids see. We had remedial programs that the city paid for to make up for our substandard education, so we could get into college. That whole setup is gone. None of these kids go to college. They see the American dream on TV and realize it’s unattainable. They either go to McDonald’s, or they go to rob you.

But about the whole controversy, it’s so ridiculously un-American to tell people you can’t have any education or training, no after-school programs, nothing--and you can’t even express your frustration.

Q: Am I wrong in thinking that most of rap has moved away from the hard, desperate type of lyric that many critics are so outraged by?

A: Yeah, there are a lot less rap records about desperate situations that sell. There’s never too much truth, but there’s too much truth to sell at one time. It’s like, come on, another record about how mad I am, and you’re from the suburbs so I hate you. Kids aren’t stupid--they won’t buy that forever. But if you can express your frustrations in a way that someone else can understand, then that’s communication, and it’s art. And kids will buy it.

Why is this music so much more scary than every other type of music that came before it, that was so scary to everybody back then? And every time, when you look back, you find that music didn’t have anything to do with the real problems in society. It’s a reflection of reality.

I mean, here we have guys like Bob Dole complaining about gangsta rap, and they’re doing everything they can to lift the ban on assault weapons. What I’m saying is that rappers talking about what they see every day has nothing to do with what made them see it. A rapper named Sticky Fingers says, “I’m an old black slave and I’m dying inside, and if it takes the death of me, the whole world’ll remember my misery.” My father heard that and he said, “Before I’m a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave"--we sang that when you were a child, on the picket lines. So what, same thing.

Q: Do you believe the critics of rap are just scapegoating? How much of their criticism is the result of racism, or cultural misunderstanding?

A: When it was Elvis, everybody was running around saying, ‘Oh my God . . .’ But as scary as that might have been, it was a white guy doing the teaching. Now you’ve got black kids up there on the screen, so maybe that intensifies the threat. While racism is an issue, 99% of it is scapegoating, looking for someone to blame for the mess we’re in.


Q: Part of that mess includes corporate America, companies like Time Warner which have become entangled in the debate. How did the big conglomerate music companies get involved in rap and hip-hop - what’s the history there?

A: In the middle of the 1980s, the big record companies started realizing rap records were selling, and making money, and they said, “Let’s get some of this market before it gets too big and we look like idiots.” It always happens like that. The underculture produces some new aspect of culture, and it crosses over into the mainstream, and it ends up making people in the mainstream mad. It’s labeled the devil’s music, the devil’s art, whatever. I mean, little cave kids probably had some new stuff they did that made their parents nuts. One thing that’s a little different is, this time, black folks own a least a part of the entertainment companies that produce these black artists.

Then there’s this whole, distorted perception about rap, and rap artists. I remember a few years ago when we were doing a tour with {rap group} Run DMC. Those kids were singing about positive things. Go to school, go to church, whatever. But, in the press, Run DMC was the devil. Some kids got hurt at a show one night, not like Grateful Dead concert where someone’s going down at every gig, but one kid, one night. It became crazy national news. On the cover of the newspapers, “Run DMC In Town, Keep Your Kids In.” Now, you look back, like you look back on jazz or blues, and you realize it didn’t mean anything.

Q: But back to the big record companies--does the fact that Time Warner appears to be ready to cut ties with Interscope make you worry about your business?

A: Are the walls closing in on me? I don’t think so. First of all, most of the stuff these artists are talking about now is not as scary as it was a few years ago. And I don’t like songs about putting guns in women’s mouths and raping them. But many of these songs are like horror movies--you can’t take them literally or seriously. Still, there are things that I would not personally put out, but that’s just my personal decision. I do what I feel good about, because I am responsible for me. If somebody else wants to put out whatever they want to put out, that’s fine by me too. Doesn’t mean I have to buy it, and probably nobody will buy it if it isn’t interesting, or if it doesn’t have a point of view people care about.

Like gangsta rappers. I always tell them, when you talk about something like “In gats we trust,"--and you have all these guns pointing at the camera--then yes, it’s a pretty clear statement. But you’ve got to explain what you mean by that so people can understand. I tell them to explain to me what they think, not just what they do. And then, even though what they are saying might be really scary, it means something, and it communicates something.

If you’ve seen the movie “Menace II Society,” you know what I’m talking about. That’s a movie that makes your stomach turn. But it tells the truth about how hopeless kids can be, and how trapped they are, and why they do the things they do. It’s important that everybody in our society see, and hear these cries for help.

Q: Unlike many of today’s kids, you seemed to have surpassed many peoples wildest dreams. You’re in records, TV and movies, and now you’re taking on the fashion industry. What are you trying to accomplish?


A: I like the idea that maybe one day I could be next to Calvin Klein and Guess and Polo at the Bloomingdale’s men’s department in Paramus, New Jersey. Hip-hop has already changed the way all these other companies design and sell their clothes. We need to create our own clothing image that says ‘success’ like those companies have. We’ve certainly got the design and marketing to do it. And we’ve got a point of view.

And I like the fact that I’m making a film by {cult director} Abel Ferrara, called “The Addiction.” And that I’m making “The Nutty Professor,” with Eddie Murphy. Not too many black folks are making films like that. I like the idea that my company can do things no one expects. Maybe it will become some sort of a halfway powerful force in the entertainment industry before my life is over. That would be a big accomplishment.

Here’s another thing. It’s stupid to think that if some rapper becomes successful, and personally makes a lot of money, that that’s going to save the ghetto. But one of the biggest motivations for me is when I wake up one morning, and some kid I met just a few months ago is now successful, and he’s got some little black kids that are now going to be going to a school that he certainly didn’t go to.

Q: If nothing else, the criticism of rap has created publicity, and maybe even dialogue. What do you say to critics when they ask you “Name one good thing about rap”?

A: What’s good about rap in general is that it’s so diverse. There’s a lot of positive messages out there. Another good thing is that, as they get established, even a lot of the gangsta rappers become much more rational in their thinking. A little bit of success and travel can really alter the way these guys see the world. They start thinking about how to say something more important, or how to explain themselves better, because they realize they’re talking to more people than they could have ever imagined.

Rappers can also sound the alarm. When {rap group} NWA put out “F--- the Police,” everybody was screaming about it. But they were just expressing the outrage of their community. And then, a couple of years later, the cops who beat up Rodney King get off, and boom, the city explodes. It really shouldn’t have been a surprise to anybody who was really listening.

And the most important thing is this. It’s very, very important that there be communication between kids that would generally not talk to each other. Your kids may not be bad, but it’s pretty sure they know some who are. Your kids are surrounded by those kids. So maybe some kid in Beverly Hills listens to some rap, and gets a better idea of what some kids in Crenshaw are thinking. And as that kid in Beverly Hills grows up and goes to college, maybe he’ll keep a little bit of that in his consciousness, and maybe even grow up to do something about it.