Brand Visionary: Russell Simmons
One of Russell Simmons’ first stints at marketing involved him passing out fliers for college parties back in the ’70s. Things have changed a bit since then, of course. “Everything is different—the world moves faster,” he says. “When I started branding, there were no cellphones. You know, I’m old. I’ve been around for a minute, baby.”
At 55, Simmons isn’t exactly old, but he has come a long way from those fliers.
Some 30 years after starting out as a fast-talking club promoter from Queens, Simmons, this year’s Adweek Brand Visionary, has become a living legend in the spheres of media and marketing, a cynosure who’s created some of the world’s coolest brands—from Def Jam records to the Phat Farm clothing line. More recently, he launched the Web-video property All Def Digital. If urban culture has a godfather, then Russell Simmons is it.
“Russell’s great gift was to show that hip-hop was a true American art form,” according to Dan Charnas, author of The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop. “Russell’s refusal to do anything but present this stuff the way it needed to be presented—that ignited the fire that this entire culture became.”
In other words, it’s one kind of challenge to market a single product—and quite another to market an entire lifestyle. In the early ’80s, when the zeitgeist required black artists to soften their sound, lyrics and appearance to get airplay on pop radio and MTV, Simmons instead insisted on packaging acts like Run-DMC using their real street clothes and sensibility—not as black music, but as teen music with broad appeal. It worked, and quickly. By 1984, The Wall Street Journal had dubbed Simmons “the mogul of rap.”
In the decades since, Simmons has proven to be a serial entrepreneur, building his own empire and paving the way for other moguls.
In 1999, Simmons and business partner Lyor Cohen sold their remaining 40 percent stake in Def Jam Recordings to Universal Music Group for a cool $135 million. In 2004, Simmons unloaded Phat Farm for $140 million. Today, he’s at the center of a whole constellation of companies—men’s fashion label ArgyleCulture, yoga apparel line Tantris, the prepaid Visa product RushCard, news site GlobalGrind and All Def Digital, a YouTube network focused on urban music, comedy and the spoken word.
“ADD has been a constant exciting fun road,” says Simmons. “I can’t believe how much cool shit is coming through my office. It’s allowing me freedom to be like a super indie—shoot what I want, put out what I want and promote what I want.”
With partners like UMG and DreamWorks-owned AwesomenessTV, the new venture is an opportunity for Simmons to add to the list of talent that can thank him for helping launch their careers. That’s not limited to musicians: Def Comedy Jam, the popular HBO show Simmons produced in the ’90s, served as an early platform for actors like Chris Tucker and Martin Lawrence.
“I get into businesses where I have something to contribute, and that’s been my history,” says Simmons. “That’s what keeps me alive: giving.”
Simmons has given plenty—and that includes philanthropy. He’s an outspoken social activist whose causes range from ethnic understanding to animal rights. “I don’t want to be limited by the brand that the world makes me,” he says.
There seems to be little chance of that. —Gabriel Beltrone