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Hip-Hop Fridays: Exclusive Q & A With Russell Simmons, Chairman Of The Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (Part I)

There may be no individual who is more at the nexus of where Black and American culture, economics and politics meet, than Russell Simmons, founder of Def Jam Records and the Phat Farm clothing line; and Chairman Of The Hip-Hop Summit Action Network. Bring up Russell Simmons' name to a randomly selected group of people - whether in the Black or Hip-Hop community - and you will probably get that many different opinions of the 40-something year old mogul, businessman and philanthropist. Even more than his internationally famous clothing and music-related product offerings, it is Russell Simmons' worldview as it relates to politics and social issues that now elicit the most intense reactions - pro or con. Publisher, Cedric Muhammad spoke with Russell Simmons in a lengthy wide-ranging telephone conversation on Wednesday. The stimulating, humorous, passionate and frank conversation covered "everything" ranging from Russell Simmons' political decision-making process; the surveillance of the Hip-Hop industry by local and federal law enforcement; the controversial One World Magazine cover featuring Lil' Kim; Russell Simmon's relationship with Minister Louis Farrakhan; file-sharing and slumping music sales; the Reverend Al Sharpton's political aspirations; New York electoral politics; reparations; yoga class and Black-Jewish relations. Below is the first portion of their conversation.

Russell Simmons: Cedric, How are you?

Cedric Muhammad: Russell, I am doing good Brother. It is great to finally have this long-awaited conversation and I really appreciate your time and your work.

Russell Simmons: Brother, listen, I just want to sincerely thank you for your thoughtfulness and such an endorsement of the work that I am doing. I really appreciate what you wrote in "Understanding Russell Simmons' Political Positioning" and I just wanted to say that to you. I know your integrity, your gut reaction and your insight and I appreciate it very much. And I have to say that for me the analysis was great and it was very flattering, I thought, of what you wrote. And I know for sure, that at any moment I could do something and you will write how bad it was as well as if it were good. And when I tell somebody in the press that I appreciate something that they wrote they don't know how to take it. I called a Brother the other day from The Nation about an interview that he did in my office and I read it and I called him up and he said he thought I was going to curse him out. So, I don't know what you guys expect sometimes...

Cedric Muhammad: Well, I understand how that happens but I am foremost a political economist, Russell. So unlike many journalists or critics, I read your book and I listen closely to what you say and I just thought that a more scientific view was warranted for what you are doing. And I think that there is no need to bring a bias to the table that would filter out really the value of the wide scope of what you are doing. I think really a book needs to be written on what you have done and so, I want to support where appropriate and educate people but I will continue to be as critical in thought as I have been in the past so I appreciate what you said.

Russell Simmons: Well I appreciate that are saying a book, Cedric? What kind of book?

Cedric Muhammad: Well (in concept). You already have your one book out, "Life And Def" we are selling it in the Black Electorate Book Store and it is doing well. But even you have said that is not the full autobiography that can be written. I think that your political worldview has to be laid out; what you have done has to be chronicled and analyzed from the perspective of political science...

Russell Simmons: Well we've got a lot of work to do before we can do that. But you know what, certainly if it was worthy of a book I would be happy to talk to you in particular about it. We've got to do some work before that though... Cedric, did you see the other day that I did this thing with Ted Kennedy and Tom Daschle?

Cedric Muhammad: No, I got word you were up in the Senate but I didn't know what was going on...

Russell Simmons: It was for a Martin Luther King celebration that some Democratic Senators put together, it was panels and stuff. And I was on a few panels with Donna Brazile and a few others and I said I wasn't going to come unless I brought Dr. Chavis with me. And I got there and there were like, "well no, we never agreed, uh, somebody from the DNCC said...and..." And I was like, "but wait we need Dr. Chavis on the panel, he is the head of the Summit Network, he's got a little history". Its like if there are 500 people in the room, he's been to jail more times than all of the people in the room put together. The guy has a long history of doing good things and has been at the forefront of our struggle so I want him to be on the panel also because the guy is one of the smartest guys in the world...

Cedric Muhammad: Well let me ask you this because I know him and have considered us to be friends, do you think the problem with Bro. Ben is the association with the Nation of Islam or is it the NAACP drama?

Russell Simmons: Uh, I think it is a little bit of both. It was a smack in the face when he joined the Nation. Obviously the "Bill Clinton issues" for a Reverend are hard to get over especially in front of our people, although they have allowed Jesse (a pass), already, it doesn't make a difference to them (what Rev. Jackson does). People have kind of (forgotten about it). So, it is the NAACP thing as number one and the Nation, is number two. The Nation has been a (controversial matter). For example, one day I went to campaign for Mark Shriver (a Kennedy cousin and congressional candidate) and the next day in the papers there is this big thing about Mark's association with me in light of my association with Ben. And it was kind of a negative thing and we had to send rabbis to do work and Ben has never said an anti-Semitic word in his life. But it was a big Jewish district in this part of Maryland, the 8th congressional district. And he was losing anyway...

Cedric Muhammad: Yeah, and they tried to do the same thing in Dallas with Ron Kirk's association with you because of your work with the D.O.C. It is a testament to your role as a servant among the people that any person can be linked to you if it serves the purpose of hurting somebody that they oppose...

Russell Simmons: (laughter) Oh Brother listen I am pretty open-minded about who I want to associate with for different reasons. And so I guess they could get me a hundred different ways. But I don't know. I was watching the O'Reilly program yesterday and one of the things I was able to say about it is how much heart that the Republicans have shown. And how serious they are about their agenda, and how that translates. Look at how Senator Wellstone's race went after he passed. They send Walter Mondale in there and he flips it and loses. Polls have punked most Democrats. What they did to Gore was crazy! He gave a great speech at the Democratic convention went to work and then just started to...I don't know what happened to him!?! And as the polls told him what he should be doing, he does it, and then still keeps sliding in the polls. So, the more he catered to what the polls said the less he had his heart. People want to vote for heart! That's why we have a Republican mayor here in New York. And a Republican governor here. And this is a heavy Democratic state and city. The reasons stand true. Because Bloomberg exhibited some kind of heart and Mark Green lost his thirty years of experience in his dialogue with the people. Somehow that all got lost in his fight with Sharpton, and Sharpton has not criticized Bloomberg one time. He didn't show up at the rally we had. I am not knocking him but it is this politics of being or trying to protect yourself or I don't know what the...

Cedric Muhammad: Well, Russell we can take this up. I am glad you brought up Rev. Sharpton because in the analysis we wrote of what you are doing we quote what he says about you in his book...

Russell Simmons:Well I don't remember all that he said.

Cedric Muhammad: Do you want to hear it?

Russell Simmons: Yeah, well just the gist of it.

Cedric Muhammad: I will summarize it. Essentially what he is saying is that he has been with you and gotten to know you since Krush Groove where he helped you to protest their keeping the movie out of certain theaters because of some violence

Russell Simmons: Right...

Cedric Muhammad: And then he moves up into how he respects what you have done of late but that your politics are too personality-driven and fall too much into the endorsement of people, rather than getting people to endorse what it is that you stand for. It is worded nicely but it is a criticism.

Russell Simmons: Well that's OK. I have criticisms of him too but I am not going to get into it. You know I just feel and that is why I am such a big, big fan of Farrakhan's. I am a big fan of Louis Farrakhan more than, far he is ten times more powerful; done more; saved more lives; I shouldn't say done more because some of what Jesse has done in terms of inspiring voters and moving the Democrats' agenda and whatever they hire him to do that stuff is OK. I don't know what Sharpton has done. He put racial profiling as an issue on the map and kind of made that expression popular. And we had a serious rally and I was part of it and I went to that meeting with Janet Reno and I saw that it was pushing something. But then it was still Farrakhan's power, and I know because I talked to Donna Brazile almost every single day when I helped to organize the Million Family March. It was the pressure. The follow-up pressure, when (Senator)Lieberman got up the day before the March and said that he would work to immediately work to end racial profiling and all of these issues. That came because they were worried what would the Minister say the next day. He was the one. He didn't have 40,000 people. On his bad day he has 500,000 people. I think the guy is a person, because of his relationship with God and his clear understanding of what some of those scriptures mean....and he's very open minded. I think everybody has some racial stereotypes and issues - not that they are racist because the word racist gives you only one kind of image. But all of us have some kind of an array of race-related issues. Farrakhan has the least. And his statement that he made when we were kids that inspired us so much when we were kids and so angry, were merited. The white man was the devil. I was happy to say it and I could say it all of the time, I could say it now. The guy who kept us from going to the bathroom or from drinking water? He was a devil. And that was the movement at that time and the statements that were being made at that time. But at the same time, you call those Black Jews that moved to Israel. Ask those guys about Farrakhan. They are very, very pro-Israel and pro-Jewish in every way. They would never think that he (the Minister) was racist in any way. They have a different view. They don't think it is based on him being racist. And you can't be racist toward a religion anyway. But the Minister believes those scriptures are beautiful. He is the guy who really, to me, as a person really aspires to be like Muhammad, or Jesus or Abraham or Buddha. He is the guy that reminds me that all of those guys are the same. No religious leader do you hear like that. When he made that speech at the Million Family March, dude, that was heartfelt. He walked out there with no notes. Those three hours were about reaching out to people and I know because I have been in the middle of his outreach and trying to have a better dialogue with the Jewish community. He is the most moderate world leader; the most moderate leader in the Muslim world who has a real influence on those religious sheikhs all over the world in places that we don't have relationships. And he's the one that got up during the time of 9/11 - along with Muhammad Ali and Wallace Mohammed and made the most beautiful speech that no one ever saw. And the courage that he has had in trying to reach out and be helpful in the conflict in the Middle East is commendable but never mind that. What he has done for American Blacks; people went home after the Million Man March and changed. No matter what they say, I know so many people who have. And I saw the half-a-million people at the Million Family March in the crowd and they were crying. And they don't do what he said; they do what he says. In other words when I had a meeting two days ago with the Murder Inc. and the Violator company and the Brothers (from the Nation Of Islam) were there as security - yo, there respect level for everybody was so impressive. And I have Ben with me down the hall and I gave Brother Gary down with me so I am close enough to know what I am talking about. The people who are taught by him (Minister Farrakhan) and who listen to him today are told to love, to operate from love, everyday. And everytime I take a Black Muslim to the yoga class that I go to, it is something. I took Andre Harrell one time and he just bust out laughing. But the place that I really enjoy going the most to for yoga, where they really study scripture and promote the other 7 steps that no one talks about in America - it is very spiritual. We emphasize these steps very heavily in the practice that I go to. But every time I take one of the Muslims they fall in love and go everyday. It doesn't matter to them. Because they really have this aspiration and they really are taught a very inclusive and open-minded view of spirituality. And that is why Minister Farrakhan can speak to so many Christians and so many non-Muslims in a way that is inspiring. He's not teaching tolerance as much as he is teaching love.

Cedric Muhammad: Russell, a person that I met this past year that I know is Rabbi Marc Schneier (President of The Foundation For Ethnic Understanding)...

Russell Simmons: That's my buddy.

Cedric Muhammad: I know. He is a very interesting leader sort of under-the-radar a little bit.

Russell Simmons: He's a little bit like the Jewish Rev. Sharpton...

Cedric Muhammad: I didn't want to say that but you went there...

Russell Simmons: He's not that under the radar but his work is important. You know I know Abraham Foxman (National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, ADL) and Howard Kohr (Executive Director of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC) and some of the other leaders in the Jewish community whose job it is to fight anti-Semitism but unfortunately sometimes their efforts don't help to bring people together. I mean when I grew up I was bussed to a Jewish school and I didn't know why the WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) would chase me into this one particular area of projects. At least that is what I thought they were - projects and I didn't know why this one group of White people were chasing me and this other group was protecting me. But it was because I was a Jewish co-op. (laughter). So I have a relationship with them. One of my partners in the bags and belts and leather and underwear business and all of that is Jewish. And the Syrian Jews - I deal with a lot of them as well as Orthodox and others. So I really have an understanding of them.

Cedric Muhammad: Is that the segment of the Jewish community that Lyor Cohen (President & CEO of The Island Def Jam Music Group) comes from?

Russell Simmons: No, Lyor is Israeli. See, I understand the differences and subtleties in the Jewish faith in terms of who is what, and where they come from, and what they believe a lot more than anybody else I know. They don't know the Syrian community like I know the Syrian community, like how and where they own every store in the ghetto and all the people are furious about these Jews owning all of the stores, you know?

Cedric Muhammad: Yeah.

Russell Simmons: But they bought what the WASPs didn't want. And these Syrians, by the way would never marry a Jew from an outside, they only marry among themselves - their own Jews. If they marry outside they have to leave. They can't get their money they have to leave their money behind, if they break that commitment. You'll see them - they have Black hair and drive Ferraris and all that stuff that makes them look like they are part of the world but they go back home and marry each other and have a tight knit family. And it is more cultural than religious. Although they are very orthodox and religious you wouldn't see it; but they observe Sabbath. Anyway, I really do understand a lot about the Jewish community and the different subtle stuff. And I think that they have been the greatest link between any kind of communications business or industry, period; and the Black community...If you say that the world has a considerable amount of racism and you say that the world denies equal access to the American dream to African-Americans and say your dollar, as a Black, is only worth 80 cents to some WASP somewhere. Your dollar is worth 99 cents to a Syrian or to a Jew. And they have been in Black businesses because the WASPs didn't want to be there. Dr. Jay's, Crazy Eddie, The Wiz etc... I know the owners of all of these businesses. Every store in the ghetto. At least in the New York area. These are the stores that are in the ghetto. They bought what the WASPs didn't want. They are not treating you any differently than they are treating other Jews. They are a family. And for us they have been a step towards empowerment. Jay, Master P., Puffy, myself and all of these entrepreneurs - they (Jewish businessmen) kind of break the mold. They open industries for us that we wouldn't normally be in. The clothing business? There were no Blacks at all. None. Zero. Now if you go to a clothing convention it is like a Hip-Hop convention. There are so many booths of independent businesses that have been started by African-Americans. And the gains that we made in these communications industries - clothing, advertising, publishing, even - all of these kinds of gains are gains in Black-Jewish partnerships. Master P., even living where he is living is about partnerships. In music and film it's Black-Jewish. So, I really promote that agenda.

Cedric Muhammad: Did you set up that meeting with Rabbi Schneier and the Minister?

Russell Simmons: Yeah I did that. And I thought it was a great meeting. Cornel West came and Martin King. I was hoping that Elan Steinberg (Executive Director of the World Jewish Congress) and some of the members of the World Jewish Congress were going to come. Rabbi Schneier is the secretary. But the senior guys backed out and left him holding the bag. We were going to have Elie Wiesel. At the beginning that is how we started the dialogue. You know, they got nervous but had to back him when it became public anyway. But they got nervous. But I think it is important that you have someone in Rabbi Schneier's position doing outreach. Howard Kohr. What is Howard Kohr able to do? Just back some more Black candidates. That's all. His job is to find Black candidates. And while I really do care about Black candidates I care more about those who are going to fight poverty and ignorance. And Cedric that is very important and we can probably shift to that subject. Our problem, although there are racial, civil rights, and affirmative action issues and reparations, which are very important; but the real goals now are ones of empowerment, for the whole country. Those less fortunate need better ladders and what Jesse talked about in terms of equal quality higher education. Everyone of these things - job training, job opportunities, access - we need to grant and give greater opportunity for access. And that really has to be the mindset of government. You can't put Carl McCall in there. I don't dislike him. I think he is very credible. I am sorry he wrote those letters but other than that I think he is probably very honest. And I just get this feeling about him as being very honest, very straight-forward. But he's about Black empowerment as an individual and joining the system. But I don't want to join the system. I am already wealthy but I don't want to join the system. It sucks. It needs to be made better and work. And I know that he helped to support that lawsuit against Pataki. That's what any Democrat would do. I know he helped to support some issues that do help poor people. But any Democrat would do those things under any circumstances. But he has never stepped outside of that. And let's talk about "Black" because Black does become an issue. That is why they yelled at me for not supporting him in the beginning. But what he did with the state pension fund? He took that $130 billion and didn't pick up the phone for anybody Black.

Cedric Muhammad: Well, let me pick this up Russell because these are two points where you get criticized severely.

Russell Simmons: Yeah...

Cedric Muhammad: People say Cuomo, Green - why are you supporting these...

Russell Simmons: Green, for 30 years helped poor people! How stupid are those people? In other words, for every Black businessman in New York that made a deal (in the election) with Bloomberg - I don't know what their deal was. Now, I don't have a problem with Black businessmen (doing political deals). But when Ron Perelman (The CEO Of Revlon) called me ten times asking me why am I not supporting Carl McCall, I could only think, 'Ronald's never voted for anything but his wallet.' I don't think anybody in the Jewish community wants to know what Ronald Perelman is doing. He might have a fund-raiser to support something or he may care about Israel but other than that, it's his wallet. He's my buddy. I love him. That's fine. Nobody Jewish follows Ronald Perelman's vote. Nobody follows Donald Trump's vote. That's Ok. I don't vote for my wallet and when I support a candidate publicly I try to make it clear that this person is going to help the people that I care about. That's it. And I care about people who are less fortunate or who don't have enough opportunity. These are just simple choices that I made. I don't even try to make choices. I try to stay away from shit.

Cedric Muhammad: You are saying there is never any deep political deliberation going on.

Russell Simmons: It is so simple. What's the difference between Freddy Ferrer and Mark Green? Simple. I love Freddy Ferrer but he doesn't do anything for poor people.

Cedric Muhammad: Many people agree with you Russell but let me ask you this - why is it that we find you so frequently with the Democrats?

Russell Simmons: You know why, because (laughs)

Cedric Muhammad: Why not Independent?

Russell Simmons: Listen now, I almost wanted to support Ralph Nader there at the end. I wish he had 5% of the vote. I was a big Nader fan but I had to think, "Al Gore" because unfortunately I am older and I am less idealistic. And I didn't want to go to war. I didn't want this big tax cut. So for me Al Gore was the only thing. I mean, I went and I begged the Minister to talk about him and promote him, but he did what he did and that was good enough.

Cedric Muhammad: But Hip-Hop, you know, isn't partisan. You are certainly a member of the community that we love but when you wear that label of "Hip-Hop" - the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network and then you lean so heavily toward one party...

Russell Simmons: I can't help it. There is just nothing else to support.

Cedric Muhammad: That's just Russell, that's just you...

Russell Simmons: No, no, no bullshit! Hip-Hop is about compassion. Those kids riding around Beverly Hills listening to rap records are listening to Eminem and Bubba Sparxx, they are sympathizing with it and understanding the plight of the poor and they are more likely to lean toward more compassion in politics. At the end of today, I believe, and most Hip-Hoppers believe and a lot of people believe that either you are uneducated, unsophisticated, or uninformed or you are just stupid if you vote for Republicans because the ideas they promote are not about empowering those less fortunate.

Cedric Muhammad: But what about on local levels? At certain...

Russell Simmons: Local levels, you know. Actually Bloomberg, you know, the more his poll levels are going down the more I am starting to like him. The tax he imposed. What he is trying to do in some cases. Maybe they are re-honing the school system. I don't like what they did with the budget. They should have went first to the kids. When the kids went there ( in a 100,000 strong rally at City Hall) they put the $300 million back in the budget but took it out with a cut somewhere else. But he did put a lot of the money back but he had no choice. Guess what? If those kids didn't come there how could he say anything? Part of his governing is governing by people's will. But the first thing he did was cut the homeless. 20%. There was no homeless complaining, so it was easy. The students were next because they didn't complain. The teachers were fighting so f------- hard he had to give them the money because the kids came to City Hall. The kids don't vote but their parents watch and it looks ridiculous so he had to give them some money.

End Of Part I

Friday, January 24, 2003

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