Russell Simmons has long been viewed as an elder statesman of hip-hop, a transformational figure who in the 1980s helped push the music into the mainstream and turn it into a lucrative business.
He cashed in on it too, eventually selling his stake in the influential record label he co-founded, Def Jam Recordings, for $100 million, and expanding his ventures to include film and television production, a digital media company and a yoga brand. Along the way, he cultivated an image as a wise mentor known to many as “Uncle Rush.”
Now, however, new allegations of sexual assault have led him to step away from his various projects and imperiled his legacy. Simmons, 60, announced Thursday that he would remove himself from his businesses after screenwriter Jenny Lumet published an essay in the Hollywood Reporter accusing him of forcing her to have sex with him in 1991.
Her allegations follow a story published by The Times this month in which former fashion model Keri Claussen Khalighi accused Simmons of sexually assaulting her, also in 1991. Simmons described the incident with Khalighi, who was 17 at the time, as consensual and said he recalls the night with Lumet differently from her account.
In stepping away from a trio of Los Angeles-based businesses — media company All Def Digital, production house Def Pictures and yoga brand Tantris — Simmons said he wants to avoid being “a distraction.”
“The companies will now be run by a new and diverse generation of extraordinary executives who are moving the culture and consciousness forward,” he said.
HBO on Thursday also took swift action. The cable network said that although it will still air its latest collaboration with Simmons, “All Def Comedy,” his name will be removed from the program, which premieres Friday. He was to have appeared at the end of each episode, but those brief segments are being cut. J.C. Penney also said it would discontinue selling merchandise from Simmons’ clothing brand, Argyleculture.
Stacy Gueraseva, author of the book “Def Jam, Inc.,” called the developments “earth shattering.”
“He’s the godfather of hip-hop,” said Gueraseva. “When we look back at the history of hip-hop, Def Jam and Russell’s name, even with this unfortunate situation, will still be there at the top.”
Simmons’ story is one of a major reversal — and a series of business triumphs.
Born to middle-class parents in Queens, New York, Simmons flirted with the drugs and gang activity that swept through his neighborhood in the 1970s, dealing weed and running with a gang called the Seven Immortals. While attending City College of New York, he started promoting DJs and rappers including Kurtis Blow, a fellow student who became the first hip-hop artist to be signed to a major label.
“My life has largely been about promoting the anger, style, aggression and attitude of urban America to a worldwide audience. I have helped sell the culture of hip-hop,” Simmons wrote in his 2001 autobiography, “Life and Def: Sex, Drugs, Money + God.” “I’ve taken the entrepreneurial energy I was putting into drugs and created a business that didn’t even exist a generation ago.”
Indeed, Simmons sloughed off a wayward youth to co-found Def Jam with producer Rick Rubin in 1984. The label rose to prominence releasing records by Public Enemy, LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys, among other artists. Simmons and Rubin parted ways in 1988, and Simmons offloaded his share of the company to Universal Music Group in 1999.
From his early days as a music manager, Simmons had a keen marketing mind and business savvy that helped him identify new groups to target with his ventures, be it fashion or film, according to Gueraseva, who also was previously editor in chief of OneWorld, a now-defunct magazine the mogul co-founded.
He was also always ambitious and driven, Gueraseva said, and seemed to be able to function on little sleep. “He always had bigger goals beyond hip-hop,” she said. “His career was a series of building blocks and he kept ascending, and always surrounded himself with extremely talented, hardworking people.”
Alan Patricof of venture capital firm Greycroft Partners, an investor in All Def Digital, whose projects have included an awards show produced for the Fusion television network, described Simmons as an entrepreneur with a history of building successful brands with an expertise in “urban culture.”
“He’s a highly dedicated, talented individual with a huge following operating in an area he knows best,” said Patricof, managing director of Greycroft.
In recent years, Simmons has publicly spoken of his personal reformation through yoga and meditation. Formerly a man “constantly on a mission to make more money, have sex with more women, and snort more coke than the next man,” he has found peace, Simmons wrote in his 2014 book, “Success Through Stillness.”
Patricof, who has known Simmons socially for more than a decade, said he was saddened and surprised by the allegations. “I’ve read the papers and it’s not the Russell I know,” he said.
But women are now recounting dark entanglements with Simmons in vivid detail.
Lumet — daughter of filmmaker Sidney Lumet and granddaughter of jazz legend Lena Horne — wrote that she first met Simmons in 1987 and would see him “out and about” in New York. She said that he pursued a relationship with her, advances she rebuffed. Lumet, whose screenwriting credits include “Rachel Getting Married” and “The Mummy,” alleged that her run-in with Simmons occurred after he offered to give her a ride home during a night out in New York. She wrote that he instead took her to his residence, ignoring her protests. Once there, she said, he forced her to have sex with him.
Although Simmons disputed her version of events, he apologized, adding, “I have been thoughtless and insensitive in some of my relationships over many decades.”
In an interview with The Times, Lumet said she was “very, very afraid” about speaking out about the allegations. “I don’t feel afraid now,” she said. “I feel different. I feel like I have welcomed myself into the world.”
Lumet said she knows many people will have difficulty reconciling the allegations with Simmons’ persona as a spiritual man.
“There are people who look to him as a visionary, and I knew at some point those people were going to get their hearts broken,” she said.
The status of some of Simmons’ other projects and Hollywood relationships remains unclear.
The 20th Century Fox film studio is in the early stages of developing a Simmons biopic based on his memoirs, “Life And Def: Sex, Drugs, Money + God.” A person close to the studio who was not authorized to comment publicly said that the company is reevaluating the project. Fox declined to comment.
And talent agency William Morris Endeavor, which represents Simmons, said it is reviewing its relationship with him.
Simmons, meanwhile, recently wrapped production on “The After Party,” a film he produced via Def Pictures for Netflix. The streaming company did not respond to requests for comment about the status of the project.
In addition to leaving his businesses, Simmons also is stepping away from his charitable endeavors, which include the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation.
Khalighi, the former model who also alleged that Simmons assaulted her, read Lumet’s essay and took note of the mogul’s apology.
In an interview with The Times, she praised her “sister-in-arms” Lumet for speaking out, adding that she believes more women will continue to come forward to discuss sexual assault.
“I have hope today for real change, yet fear that many of the public ‘apologies’ we’re hearing from these men may be superficial Band-Aids written to appease the masses in the short term and do damage control to protect their professional interests in the long term,” Khalighi said. “Lasting change will not happen until these men take ownership of their past, and for that I am willing to dig in for the long haul.”
Times staff writer Libby Hill contributed to this report.