Few music moguls can honestly lay claim to helping engineer a cultural movement, but Russell Simmons enjoys that status with hip-hop. At 44, he has spent more than half his life guiding its artistic and economic progress via the Def-Jam record label and related ventures. The steady evolution of hip-hop and Simmons himself from New York block parties to the saccharine sanctity of pop charts and living rooms gives “Life and Def” a certain thrust. But the book also occupies an unfortunate middle ground: It fails to deliver much fresh meat for avid hip-hop “heads,” while remaining too narrowly focused to charm non-fans. Anticipating that split, Simmons’ introduction asks cynics to “be open to hearing my story,” while inviting adherents to “kick back and chill with me.” The result is the literary equivalent of an unresolved minor chord.
Simmons doesn’t sugar-coat his rough-and-tumble adolsecence, which included stints selling drugs and gangbanging along with stabs at music promotion, production and management. In fact, just like his stable of rappers, he boasts pointedly of his wayward experiences. Street cred crossed with a quasi-suburban upbringing in Hollis, Queens (integrated schools and all) prefigured his successful business formula. By the time Simmons hooked up with Rick Rubin, who launched Def-Jam Records from his NYU dorm room, an instinct had developed about how to use punk-rock defiance to sell a confrontational new genre.
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“Some of the artists back then looked at rap as such a ghetto phenomenon that they felt the need to tone it down and make it slicker for the masses,” he writes. “What Rick and I preached was ‘Fuck being acceptable! Take that ghetto attitude and shove it down their throat.'”
Throughout the 1980s ascendance of his management and record companies, Simmons wielded a deft middle finger. He signed a diverse roster of acts, from the Beastie Boys to Public Enemy to L.L. Cool J. Working every downtown angle (and bedding an array of lithe models), Simmons cannily brought his artists to the attention of New York cognoscenti in the art and fashion spheres.
The early Def-Jam bedrock, as the book explains in its liveliest chapters, was Run-DMC, the no-nonsense trio whose DJ Run was none other than Russell’s little brother, Joey. Stirring up audiences with forceful, shouted raps and snippets of electric guitar, the group intentionally refused to follow a crossover path. Paradoxically, that stubborn streak is what enabled them to reach mainstream audiences with hits like the “Walk This Way,” a collaboration with Aerosmith.
Simmons’ intertwining endeavors engagingly consume the first half of the book. Thanks to veteran scribe Nelson George’s able hand, the writing is lucid, if often prosaic.
The second half is a tougher slog, as Simmons the corporate mind struggles to venerate newer Def-Jam stars like Jay-Z (“Jay can describe everyday things in cool, original ways”) and DMX (“he talks about finding meaning in suffering”). Like agenda items on a clipboard, Simmons checks off accomplishments: the birth of Def Comedy Jam; the rise of his Phat Farm clothing line; charity work; meeting wife Kimora and having a child; and even (hold on to your Kangols) embracing yoga.
A few amusing asides surface down the home stretch, the best being Simmons’ claim that film producer Brian Grazer stole credit for initiating the “Nutty Professor” remake and disrespected Simmons in Hollywood.
But it is more than a little distressing when Simmons starts extolling the viability of the Hamptons as a hip-hop launch pad. “That jet-setting crowd carries messages all over the world, and the message that began leaking out from the Hamptons was that hip-hop was fun, accessible music,” reads one pollyanna line. The logical question, then: Was Libbie Grubman just acting “street” last summer when she threw it in reverse and ran over that well-heeled crowd?
These shameless testaments to the blunting (pun intended) of hip-hop’s intial force are blended with an obsessive accounting of Def-Jam’s negotiations with PolyGram and MCA. By the end, flipping through pictures of Simmons with Donald Trump, Ron Perelman, Sean Combs and Hillary Clinton (what, no shot with the Pope?), it is difficult to shake the image of Simmons as a simple striver. He seems far more concerned about prime beachfront in St. Barts than what his wares have to offer the broader culture.
In fact, it is useful to remind oneself after reading the myopic “Life and Def” that most of the truly vital and provocative hip-hop in recent years (artists like the Roots, Missy Elliott or most Dr. Dre-steered projects) has come from conglom-controlled labels other than Def-Jam. Simmons blithely chalks that up to age.
“Now we are no longer the coolest, hottest new kid on the block,” Simmons writes. “We are an institution, and in a business as trend-conscious as youth culture, that can be a dangerous place.”
Ditto for books.