Status Profile: Russell Simmons

Source: BusinessWeek.com

Written by Christopher A.L. Swails

Edited by Tiffani Haynes

Introduction

Ever since I can remember I have been in love with Hip-Hop. In my eyes Hip-Hop is more than music; it is a diverse culture that continues to evolve day after day. I remember when Hip-Hop wasn’t even considered a real music genre in the mainstream. Today Hip-Hop is among one of the most popular genres in music, earning $10 billion a year (Kerth, 2004). Furthermore Hip-Hop has provided an avenue for talent and business minds such as Sean “Diddy” Combs and Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter to thrive. The success stories of Carter and Combs would not have been made possible if it wasn’t for the original Hip-Hip pioneer, Russell Simmons. Often referred to as the “Godfather of Hip-Hop,” Simmons is the man responsible for bringing a once unknown culture to the forefront of the music industry.

Background and Organizations

Simmons was born on October 4, 1957 in Queens, New York. In the September 2009 issue of Entrepreneur magazine Simmons states, “The first time I heard Hip-Hop I knew my life would never be the same” (Dean, p. 26). In 1978 while studying sociology at the City College of New York, Simmons began promoting and managing local talent. One year later he decided to quit school and invest in his passion, this lead to the launch of Rush Productions. In 1984 he met Rick Ruban, who at the time was an NYU student. Simmons and Ruban worked together to merge the sounds of Rock and Rap and that year they formed the label Def Jam Records. Def Jam is the home to musical acts such as RUN-DMC, LL Cool J and The Beastie Boys. Fourteen years later Simmons sold Def Jam to the Universal Music Group for a reported $120 million (PBS.org, 2004).

In 1991 Simmons debuted “Russell Simmons: Def Comedy Jam” on HBO. This uncut comedy show ran for seven seasons and was the big break for some of the greatest Black comedians of this generation. The list includes: Jamie Foxx, Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, Bernie Mac and many others. In 1992, Simmons launched Phat Fashions which included the brands Phat Farm and the women’s line, Baby Phat. During the first six years of this venture Simmons estimated a $10 million loss. Retail sales increased during the late 90’s but by 2004 Simmons sold the Phat Fashions brand for $140 million (Dean, 2009, p. 26). According to the St. Louis Business Journal, the Phat Fashions company annual revenue was estimated at $200 million at the time of the deal (Kerth, 2004).

Simmons is now in the works of launching a men’s casual clothing company called American Classics. His vision is to have the new brand available at Wal-Mart with an average price tag of $15. He and his brother Joseph “Rev Run” Simmons are partners in the athletic sneaker and apparel company, Run Athletics. Additionally, Simmons is CEO of Rush Communications and Rush Entertainment. He owns a TV and film company Simmons Lathan Productions; he also started a Hip-Hop website, GlobalGrind.com. Also, his credit card company UniRush Financial Services recently introduced a pre-paid Visa named the Rush Card. To top it off Simmons owns a jewelry company, Simmons Jewelry.

Multicultural Characteristics of Organizations

A. Hip-Hop Related

When Simmons and Rick Ruban started Def Jam in 1984 their mission was to make music for the youth. They wanted Hip-Hop to reach across color barriers and be the type of music that everyone could be a part of, regardless of ethnicity. In 1984, a once hardcore punk group called The Beastie Boys signed to Def Jam. They would go on to have commercial success in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The Beastie Boys were the first white rap group the world had ever seen and heard. Their success paved the way for later artists such as Eminem and Asher Roth. In 1986, Run-DMC and Aerosmith joined forces on the smash hit “Walk This Way.” Although Aerosmith originally released the single in 1975, the new version with Run-DMC was the first time mainstream music heard a Rap and Rock remix. The collaboration was influential to artists and fans alike and certified Def Jam as a multicultural brand.

B. Outside of Hip-Hop

In August, Simmons and a group of others hosted a Hip-Hop Summit in Greensboro, North Carolina called “Get Your Money Right.” The focus of the summit was to increase financial literacy in multicultural communities. This event was free to the public and offered advice from financial experts, celebrities and community leaders. Simmons released the Rush card and targeted it to what he calls “unrepresented communities.” He is speaking of low-income minority groups that grow further in debt every year as result of improper credit card use. Studies indicate minority families accumulate debts double that of their white counterparts (creditloan.com, 2009). Someone with a Rush Card can only use what he or she puts on the card therefore they can never go in debt. Simmons believes that the Rush Card gives everyone a fair shot at “The American Dream.”

Leadership characteristics

Hip-Hop is a constantly evolving project; every year changes occur whether it’s something as small as a trend or as large as record profits. When Simmons started to pursue his dreams, Hip-Hop was a local attraction and now Hip-Hop reaches millions of homes around the world. The primary leadership characteristic that Simmons has is his ability to adapt to change. Therefore it is my conclusion that the situational approach best describes Simmons’ leadership style.  Northhouse (2007, p.91) states, “The premise of the situational approach is that different situations demand different kinds of leadership. From this perspective, to be an effective leader requires that a person adapt his or her style to the demand of different situations.” Simmons has the ability to create programs and projects on an executive level while connecting with his audience on a common, personal level. He is not afraid to create something new, PBS.org writes, “Russell Simmons took the cultural expression of an impoverished minority and innovated it as a business” (PBS.org, 2004).

Why is Simmons considered a successful leader?

One of the core family values of Hip-Hop is representation. Members of the Hip-Hop culture know how important it is to represent themselves and what they believe in. Many artists frequently talk about their hometown and neighborhoods where they grew up. Simmons is a successful leader because he represents the Hip-Hop culture with dignity and integrity. This can be seen through the organizations and programs that he is involved with. In June CNN.com reported that Simmons and the Children’s United Nations sponsored a youth conference in Washington called “Keeping the Promise of Our Children.” Prominent figures such as Congress House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and actress Gabrielle Union spoke at the event. The focus of the conference was to discuss education, health care and foster care (CNN.com, 2009).

Great leaders have the courage to stand up for that they believe in, even in times of torment. In 2007, radio personality Don Imus made offensive comments toward the Rutgers University women’s basketball team. During the media frenzy, Imus made claims that rappers say similar comments frequently in their music and he is no different. This in turn put Hip-Hop under a media microscope and there were many questions to be addressed. In response along with multiple television appearances, Simmons published a press release entitled “Differentiating Between Don Imus and Hip-Hop.” Inside the text he stated, “Don Imus is not a Hip-Hop artist or a poet. Hip-hop artists rap about what they see, hear and feel around them, their experience of the world. Like the artists throughout history, their messages are a mirror of what is right and wrong with society” (HSAN.org, 2007).

The quality that I admire most about Russell Simmons is that he does not stand behind materials. As an entrepreneur, media mogul and pioneer Simmons is defined by his work, he is true to his craft. Additionally I admire his leadership approach because like many others I am following in his footsteps. I too have a passion for Hip-Hop just as he had and I too want to represent the culture in a positive way.

Simmons is effective in a multicultural setting because he is able to articulate his message to diverse groups. He is the chairman of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN). The HSAN homepage explains the mission of the HSAN as the use Hip-Hop music as a catalyst to address social concerns and youth empowerment. The HSAN hosts annual seminars that are designed to mentor youth about relevant social issues affecting them, such as education and financial literacy (HSAN.org).

Conclusion

Without the influence of Russell Simmons I don’t believe that Hip-Hop would have thrived to become the art form and business that it is today. Simmons brought structure and unity to Hip-Hop from behind the scenes. In 2007, USA Today named Simmons as one of the “Top 25 Most Influential People” of the past 25 years. His accolades reach far beyond the music industry and he is more than just a businessman, he is a template for success.

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