A hip-hop lifestyle has allowed Russell Simmons to live his American dream.
This story first appeared in the April 10, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
LOS ANGELES — Russell Simmons is much more than the godfather of hip-hop.
Simmons successfully accomplished his goal in the Seventies of bringing hip-hop culture to the masses. Along the way, he jump-started the careers of artists such as LL Cool J, Will Smith and Run DMC.
But today, Simmons has stepped aside from the music business, leaving the record label he founded, Def Jam, in the hands of a new generation. He’s still the chairman of the label, but as he puts it: “I’m the chairman, which means I don’t work too much.”
Now, he has his sights set on new business ventures, while concentrating on the enormous growth potential of his Phat Farm clothing line that he began in 1998. Simmons runs Phat Fashions, which includes the Baby Phat women’s line under the creative direction of his wife, Kimora Lee Simmons. He also heads Rush Communications, which includes an advertising agency and One World magazine, and the Russell Simmons Beverage Co., which he hopes will eventually compete with the heavy hitters in the soft drink business. In addition, he is part owner of the luxury watch firm Grimaldi, has a partnership with Visa to begin his own financial institution to help those who cannot open bank accounts of their own, has created Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam on Broadway and on HBO, and the Rush Philanthropic group, which donates time and money to support underprivileged children in the arts.
Simmons is living the American dream, when many doubted him along the way. A native of the Hollis section of New York’s Queens, Simmons first realized the talents of hip-hop artists when his brother, Joey, rapped with two others in their local group, Run DMC. Today, Joey is best known as Rev. Run of the group, which has kept its popularity since its start more than 25 years ago. While Run DMC retired this year because of the tragic death of Jam Master Jay, it was the longevity of these artists that sparked Simmons to begin his business to target the lovers of hip-hop culture. With the music came the clothes, the shoes and the luxury products.
“Kimora came home with the Bentley, which she said was the cool car of the moment,” he said. “And she was wearing this diamond and platinum Grimaldi watch: the cool watch. What I saw was this community making good choices when it came to luxury products. Maybe it was because they were used to being poor for so long that as soon as they could afford it, they bought only the best.”
Simmons said these hip-hop aficionados who aspired to own a Bentley and wear as many diamonds as they could, also wore clothes from the Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren collections. What he realized was that they wanted what every American wanted. So in 1998, Simmons launched Phat Farm: the hip-hop influenced men’s collection mixed with traditional American style. That’s why, he said, the upside-down American flag is the Phat Farm logo.
“The logo represents the fact that there is more than just one way to live the American dream,” he explained.
While he continues to live the lifestyle and is always looking to enter new business ventures, Simmons admitted that as he gets older, the key is to keep young people around him.
“My interns have become executives in my companies. Lyor Cohen was an intern and now he’s the ceo at Def Jam,” he said. “One thing to remember is that these young people are the leaders, they are not the followers, and it’s so important to keep listening to them. They are worth the investment. A big part of my success is because I am surrounded by people who are smarter than me.”
While Simmons has been targeting this customer for decades, one of his major points raised at the conference was that urban is not about race.
“Hip-hop had a big effect on how products could be sold, but these young people are what America represents,” he said adding that more than 80 percent of the people buying Def Jam albums are not black.
Simmons said when serving this customer, integrity is so important.
“This lifestyle has such integrity and is so honest,” he said. “The way that hip-hop grew was based on honesty and integrity. The words are their life and the way they live and feel. Sometimes it’s criticized for being too honest, but that’s what it’s all about. I always keep that kind of honesty in mind when creating the clothing. I have a strong opinion on political issues and the press has said that it may be better for my business to keep those political views to myself, but I think that voice is so important for the growth of my brand and my brand’s integrity.”
Simmons said he hopes those who follow in his footsteps will offer the same amount of honesty and integrity in their clothing lines. He said while that has been accomplished in men’s wear, women’s wear has a way to go.
“Instead of looking at them as competition, I need these companies to be good,” he said. “We need JLo to be hot so it can sit next to my wife’s line in the store. We need this to work together to draw the customer in. But they have to have the time and the good taste to bring to the line.
“J.Lo can’t sell clothes like my wife can, but then again, J.Lo can’t dedicate the time to it like Kimora can. Nelly sold as many albums as Eminem, but he can’t sell clothes to save his life. My office is on Seventh Avenue, so I can be there to inspire my designers and so that they can keep up with what I’m doing: my lifestyle.”
Simmons noted that proper product placement is an important marketing tool to reach the audience in an honest voice. Sometimes, he said, product placement can be better than advertising.
“Couvassier is a client of ours in the ad agency,” he said. “We could never have paid Busta and Puffy to write a song called ‘Pass the Couvassier.’ That song was such a hit and you better believe we sold a hell of a lot of liquor because of it.”
But that, Simmons said, was pure luck. Phat Farm and Baby Phat can always be seen in music videos, on the MTV and BET VJs, as well as on performers in concerts: something that’s key to marketing to this consumer.
“It’s so important to keep integrity,” he said. “You lose the integrity, you lose the customer.”