In the late 1970s, Russell Simmons was studying sociology inside the classrooms of the Harlem branch of City College of New York. Outside on streets, rap music was exploding onto the cultural scene. What some saw as a passing musical fad, Simmons recognized as a genuine form of expression from the inner city. He would later go on to use that form of expression to create an entertainment empire that influenced the world and an entire generation, a generation that, as it turns out, would also become increasingly besieged by AIDS.
In 1984, Simmons joined another aspiring rap producer to create Def Jam Records. Today Simmons runs the largest Black-owned music business in the country, a position that has earned him the unofficial title of rap mogul. As the owner of Def Jam and Rush Productions, Simmons has made his indelible mark on pop culture. His music label has produced some of the biggest artists in hip-hop and R & B: LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, Run-DMC, Method Man, and Ja Rule, to name a few. He changed the face of fashion with Phat Farm and Baby Phat. His Def Comedy Jams launched dozens of comedians’ careers. He shocked everyone by producing Def Poetry Jams, a late night show focusing on Black poets. The show is yet another of Simmons’ successes, featuring a dazzling array of thought-provoking and skilled Black spoken-word artists.
During his career, Simmons has seen the devastating impact of AIDS on Black youth and Black urban communities. In the early years of the epidemic, much of America saw AIDS primarily as a white gay disease, but the virus rapidly spread among Blacks while few in the media paid attention. When rap artist Eric “Eazy-E” Wright died of complications from AIDS in March 1995, HIV took center stage in the hip-hop world. More than 3,000 fans, supporters, friends and family members turned out for his funeral service while thousands of onlookers watched from outside. Some were shocked that AIDS had taken the life of one of their heroes, while others already knew of the havoc the disease was wrecking on their communities.
Through it all, Russell has remained heavily invested in the African-American community. He is a staunch supporter of a number of charities, including Hale House, a Harlem-based refuge for underprivileged children and families, and LIFEbeat, music’s response to AIDS. A national non-profit organization, LIFEbeat is dedicated to reaching America’s youth with the message of HIV/AIDS prevention by mobilizing the talents and resources of the music industry to raise awareness and provide support to the AIDS community. Simmons has helped raise thousands for this and other organizations and has not been afraid to speak out about HIV/AIDS issues within the Black community and lend his name to several high-profile AIDS-related events. Def Jam recording artists continue to perform for LIFEbeat fundraisers, and Russell was the co-founder of the LIFEbeat UrbanAID concert series.
Simmons understands the critical link between young music fans and the celebrities they admire. While defending the freedom of his artists, he also understands that hip-hop can uniquely address the needs of young urban communities. In his 2001 book Life and Def, Simmons explained, “I always say youth culture is based on the desire for change.”
His knowledge of the community helped place Simmons’s finger on the cultural pulse of Black youth just as HIV/AIDS began to spread dramatically in Black neighborhoods. Seeing the disease develop, he worked with organizers of the national Hip-Hop Summit Action Network and others to help educate the community and raise critical issues for survival.
Now he wants to encourage others to be active as well. At an April 2002 AIDS benefit concert in New York’s Beacon Theater, Simmons said, “I just hope all of us will do the best we can every time we’re given an opportunity to make a difference. There’s a dangerous lack of dialogue about this epidemic.”
Simmons has had a big hand in shaping youth culture, from what kids wear to what they listen to. Because of his vision and his position, he wields enormous influence in the music industry and maintains serious credibility on the streets. He has accepted the challenge to make a difference in areas ranging from education to media awareness to fundraising to public policy and advocacy.
“The hip-hop community is one of the most powerful voices in America today,” said Simmons. “The devastation of AIDS in our community means one thing—we have to use our strong voice to mobilize. We need to take that voice into our neighborhoods and reach our families, our friends. We need to take that strong voice to Washington and impact on legislation and fundraising. If we don’t take responsibility for helping ourselves, no one will do it for us.”