Russel Simmons reflects on 16 years of putting out def jams
PHOTOGRAPHED BY MARY ELLEN MARK
BLAZEWHAT: WHAT HAS MADE DEF JAM HOT NOW? THERE WAS A TIME WHEN Y'ALL WERE GOING KINDA SLOW.
SIMMONS: We're back in our roots‑but we don't have a sound. Jay‑Z and DMX, they're worlds apart. [Def Jam] used to sound like me. I wrote "Sucker MC." "Sucker MC" was a unique sound. I made "Jam‑Master Jay," although that's not a record that's a classic today. When they played it in [Disco] Fever, everybody cleared the floor and stood in the corner, like "What the fuck? ?" The scratching would come and everybody was dropping their blow‑because everybody was sniffing back then. That was the most nervous record. That was our sound. That went away when Rick [Rubin] and I stopped making the records for the company.
WHAT DO YOU DO NOW?
When there's an appointment of a new president, those kinds of decisions I have to navigate. I got a very strong idea of what we should be doing in terms of direction and attitude and the executives and what they should be good at and everything. The trick is to manage people. When there's a problem with L.L., with anybody, I mediate. Or try to give a big picture perspective to the executives. And I will try to mentor the executives to have a certain attitude. I'm the glue.
WHEN'S THE LAST TIME YOU SIGNED AN ARTIST
The last artist I signed was Case. I found him in a box of tapes.
WHAT'S THE BENEFIT OF SEAGRAM'S COMING IN AND BUYING A STAKE IN DEF JAM?
I never was really great with Polygram. It might not matter to kids as much as it does to the music industry, the perception that we're not happy. We were 12 years with Sony. We were happy. And we got cold. We were $20 million in the hole. We had a joint venture [with Sony]. With the way they pile charges on you, Sony made a fortune on us, from the time we came until the time we left. When we left, we gave them that $20 million, $17 million plus an overridebut we sold their half for twice as much. We were $17 million down and sold their half for $35 million (to Polygram) and still owned half the company. It was the smartest thing I ever did. And that's what I'm going to do when the time comes to sell this company again. [Ed. note: At press time, Russell had announced plans to sell Def Jam to Universal.]
YOU SAID DEF JAM GOT COLD. HOW?
You pick the wrong records sometimes. It happens to everybody. We were so cold, we were hot. Like ice cold, that . That's how cold we were.
LET'S TALK ABOUT YOUR EXPANSION INTO DIFFERENT MARKETS. WHAT'S THE POINT?
It's all hip hop. It's about the globalization of hip hop. That means the presentation. Getting into Bloomingdale's with clothing is a big deal. Because they have a nigga division, which I would never sell into. The nigga division is big enough. I want to sit next to Tommy or Polo.
IS THERE A DOWNSIDE TO THE CORPORATIZATION OF HIP HOP?
The integrity of all of the brands stands alone. When DMX makes a record that is more commercial because it might sell, then you know you're a whore. D won't do it; we don't promote it. That's why we don't have a Hammer in our whole history‑one record that paid all our bills because it was pop.
YOU HAVE THE PURISTS WHO SAY ONCE YOU START TO CATER TO THE MAINSTREAM, HIP HOP GETS WATERED DOWN AND BASTARDIZED.
They're idiots. They're not honest, either. The purists are ridiculous. It's about honesty. It's about Lauryn Hill. She's honest
It's about DMX. It's about Will Smith. He's honest. The reason I signed Will for management was because he said he got punched in the eye. They said, "What did you do?" And he said, "I held my eye." That was honesty. He said what he really meant. He said, "Homes was big and he hit me in my eye and I stood there holding my eye saying, 'Why'd you do that?'" That madehim so real to me. But for some reason his vocals didn't fascinate the hip hop community. If they want to be pure about music, then go
with hardcore hip hop. But "hip hop" is a cultural thing that encompasses a lot of different things: it's urban, nice, young.
YOU'RE GETTING MARRIED?
I been with Kimora for a long time and I'm 41 and wanna have kids. I think it's OK to get married now. I mean, I love her. I been with her a long time, she'll be good with the kids.
THERE'S A BIG AGE DIFFERENCE, THOUGH. SHE'S 23.
Yeah, well, there was a bigger age difference when I met her when she was on the runway; she was 17. But she's more mature than I am. That wouldn't be hard. You could be 11 and be more mature than me. But she has a certain maturity, and at the same time, a young [spirit]‑and that's really helpful to me.
ANOTHER THING THAT PEOPLE WONDER ABOUT IS...WELL, YOU HEAR THE RUMORS. YOU'RE 41, DON'T HAVE ANY KIDS. YOU KNOW THE RUMOR.
What? I'm a homo?
YEAH, A LOT OF PEOPLE ARE LIKE, HE MUST BE GAY.
That's absurd. I mean, c'mon. I thought I was a lesbian for a long time (laughs). Gay? C'mon.
WHERE DOES THAT RUMOR COME FROM? WHAT STARTED IT?
That I'm a lesbian?
NO, THAT RUMOR. HE MUST BE GAY
I've always had girlfriends. I've dated a lot of black models, a lot of black women. They never said I was gay. Rae Dawn Chong
or Robin Givens or Troy Beyer they never said I was gay. I don't hear that I'm gay. Do you think I'm gay?
NO, I'M JUST SAYING ... (LAUGHS).
I mean, I got gay friends. Mostly girl gay friends. But no, I'm not gay. I got guy gay friends, too, I guess. Nobody said I was a homo. That's ridiculous. I totally think that everybody, even girls, should like ,
ANOTHER THING PEOPLE WONDER ABOUT: IN THE '805, EVERYBODY WAS INTO DRUGS. WERE YOU?
Russell was a complete drug addict. I sniffed half of Peru, and I smoked the other half. That's what everybody did. You think we went to [Disco] Fever just to hear music? Any rapper, anybody, we all sniffed, everything. All of us sniffed everything in the '80s. That's all we did. When I was a little young kid, when they used to say, "Do you get high?" we used to say, "No." That only meant that you didn't shoot heroin. Niggas be sitting around passing the cocaine bill around talking about, "Nah, I don't get high, man." So I did drugs. I barely remember the '80s.
HOW DID YOU KEEP THAT FROM TAKING OVER?
It went out of style and I got old. I only smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol between Oct. 4 and New Year's. My birthday and New Year's. Because the first two years, when I was 30, 31, I fell off the wagon on my birthday. So I made it a ritual. It's been like that for 10 years. But no drugs.
WHAT'S IT GOING TO TAKE TO CONTINUE TO BE SUCCESSFUL, SEEING THAT YOU HAVE PUFF AND MASTER P AND OTHERS TAKING A BIG CHUNK OF HIP HOP DOLLARS?
I'm not into competition. Puffy is like one of my biggest inspirations today, just like Damon [Dash] is one of my biggest inspirations. The fact is these people and I work together to widen the marketplace. I'm not fighting them. I'm fighting Alanis Morrissette to get DMX the alternative money. I'm fighting the pop stars to get Jay‑Z and "Hard Knock Life" their money. I believe Puffy is helping me get money. He and Master P are driving the rap stakes up. I admire Master P for his independence and because he's an honest and fair person. Used to be everybody who started an R&B company robbed their people and lost their clients. But now all the young rap people are paying their clients and protecting them and building their careers.
WHAT OTHER GOALS DO YOU HAVE?
I'm not trying to make any more companies. I just want to do a good job with the ones I have. I would like to see our clothing company be competitive [with] Tommy, Nautica, all of them. I would like to see the TV company with two or three shows on the air at a time. I'd like to see the record company do $300 million [consistently]. We're already projected to do $185 million this year.
HOW DO YOU WANT TO BE REMEMBERED?
I really don't know the answer to that question. With the globalization of hip hop, I want to be remembered as the person who was smart enough to recognize where we could go. I don't want to be like an integrationist. That's a pussy thing to be. I want to be a greedy entrepreneur who happened to be in a space to move the culture forward.