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Impresario Simmons has wide reach
NEW YORK -- Russell Simmons is a man in constant motion. And right now he's moving fast. He's late again.
In his white, six-seat SUV, the godfather of hip-hop culture is racing up Amsterdam Avenue in Harlem, whizzing past crowds on corners, buzzing around double-parked cars.
His driver, Kenny Lee, is making up for lost time; Simmons had ordered a detour to his favorite vegetarian burger spot. The sweet essence of fried onions and french fries hangs in the air even as Lee finally brings the car to rest.
Simmons is late for a book party he's hosting for Ilyasah Shabazz, who has written a memoir of her father, Malcolm X.
Simmons is a man who became a millionaire in his 20s with the founding of his Def Jam record label. In his 30s, his "Def Comedy Jam" HBO show made him a television phenom, and he launched his successful Phat Farm clothing line.
Now, in his 40s, deals constantly in the works and involvement growing with the movers and shakers of politics, he's on top of the world.
Maybe, but Simmons won't dwell on that. The SUV is rolling again.
Man behind the scene
Russell Simmons has never recorded a top 10 song. Neither has he told jokes on a stage in a packed arena or acted in a hit movie. But he has made all those things happen -- again and again for some of today's biggest stars.
His success is a byproduct of hard work and good fortune. But there's something else, those who know him say.
The way Barry Bonds can hit a baseball 450 feet; the way Mikhail Baryshnikov can float on air: That, they say, is the way Russell Simmons makes business deals.
He is a natural.
"Very few people can have 12 irons in the fire and still be totally focused," says Phyllis Pollack, a Los Angeles-based music publicist. While others get "flakier" as tasks multiply, "Russell takes each one of those jobs and works them to the peak."
From the days in the late '70s when he handed out fliers in the streets for the first generation of rap artists, Simmons' ability to identify and market street music, language, clothing and attitude has made him a chief architect of America's swelling hip-hop economy, recently valued at $5 billion worldwide by Black Enterprise magazine.
He has known failures -- a couple of movies that have bombed and a hip-hop TV magazine show failed to take off.
But the flops have been few -- not bad for a kid from a working-class neighborhood in the Hollis section of Queens, in New York City, the son of a schoolteacher father and city recreation department director mother.
Simmons dabbled with street gangs before enrolling in City College of New York in 1975.
Around the same time, he saw the potential in the city's burgeoning rap music scene and began renting dance halls and representing performers.
"He was my promoter, and even when he was selling records from the trunk of his car, I knew he would do something," says the rapper Grandmaster Flash, aka Joseph Saddler.
Simmons' greatest tool? His mouth, according to the Grandmaster.
"Russell has always been a great talker. He can talk to anybody ... ," he says. "You have to be real careful dealing with artists because they are very emotional, but he can talk to them and talk to people living on the street."
Early successful shows led to the start of the record company (he remains chairman, though he sold Def Jam Records to Seagram's Universal Music Group), and the rest became hip-hop history. In 1985, he produced the cult film "Krush Groove," and in 1991 produced "Def Comedy Jam" on HBO.
His latest television project is to capture the raw energy of poetry slams with "Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry" on HBO.
A funky brushed steel door leads to Simmons' 14th floor office on 7th Avenue, where the prized spot on a wall goes to a huge charcoal drawing of Simmons and his wife, Kimora Lee Simmons.
The office is a magnet for wannabe rappers, poets and clothes designers. Even toddler models.
One day, a young mother with her tiny child wrapped in an oversized Phat Farm jacket begs a secretary for a visit with Simmons. She has to settle for an assistant; they disappear to a back office for Polaroids of the little angel. Afterward, the boy looks like he wants a nap but Mom is thrilled.
"It's like this all the time," the secretary says. "Everybody wants to be a star."
In his office, Simmons wants to eat his lunch. Stewed cabbage and greens.
But there's another visitor -- a woman bearing gifts. Simmons protests, but ...
In walks Gina Barbosa, from Atlanta. In one hand is a shopping bag with baby clothes for Simmons' 2-year-old daughter, Mein Lee. Simmons tries to give the gifts back. Barbosa insists.
In the other hand is a bound script Barbosa has just completed, a certain hit if only the right eyes read it.
Simmons' won't be those eyes today. He calls in his special projects editor, Nicole Duncan-Smith, and tells her to read the first 20 pages to see if it is any good.
Barbosa would like to stretch out the impromptu five-minute meeting, but Simmons firmly but politely says no.
Incoming calls revealing
During a long day with lots of time on the phone, Simmons dials just one outgoing call -- to the Jivamukti Yoga Center to check who's teaching his 4:30 p.m. class.
Incoming calls as he crosses the city are revealing.
From a theatrical talent agent. From an HBO vice president. From Andrew Cuomo, who's seeking New York's Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
The head of a major international charity, beginning its search for a new executive director, calls to see if any talent has caught Simmons' eye of late. Simmons passes the assignment on to his assistant, Gary Muhammad.
"Find someone real good," he instructs.
Then Simmons adds: "Just a favor for a friend."
His SUV pulls up in front of Jivamukti, a yoga center that attracts Manhattan's healthy and wealthy seeking inner peace.
"What I get here could empower poor people," says Simmons, entering with no fanfare, an everyday presence.
In the sweltering studio, he joins 20 other practitioners of the ancient art. In minutes, sweat is rolling off his bald dome.
His movements are exaggerated. While others step into a position, Simmons hops. His chest hits the exercise mat with a loud THA-WACK!
His eyes shut more tightly than others' and his chanting is louder. It seems Simmons is showing off. But that isn't the case, he says.
He's merely enjoying a state of ecstasy he believes has converted him from aggressive and selfish to composed and generous.
"It is relaxing but it's more than that. I feel connected. It makes you look deeper into yourself."
He mentions the idea of giving back.
The Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation gave away $300,000 last year to give disadvantaged youth exposure to the arts. One example: He hosted 700 youths at tapings of the HBO poetry show.
"He layers his philanthropy on top of every project he works on," says Ellen Haddigan, executive director of the foundation.