Described as "the Berry Gordy of rap," New York-based Russell Simmons is an entrepreneur who's expanded his original record company, Def Jam, into a management company, a clothing line and a TV/movies development branch. Significantly, he's even become a brand name. Comic actor Martin Lawrence may be the host of HBO's smash Friday night comedy series, but the show is called "Russell Simmons' Def Comedy Jam."
And just as Simmons, 35, brought inner-city rap to untold millions of suburban white kids, "Def Comedy Jam" is having a similar impact, for better or worse. Non-African-Americans may get lost during the innumerable hip-hop-specific gags, but the constant stream of profanity that most of the show's stand-ups use cuts across all racial boundaries, and the series is reportedly top-rated in its midnight time slot among HBO-equipped homes. Simmons talked about the show and its contribution to hip-hop cultural imperialism with writer Chris Willman.
Does the comedy of "Def Comedy Jam" really represent a separate phenomenon from the usual comedy club circuit?
Absolutely. It's black comedy. Culturally, these guys are from somewhere else. It was an underground phenomenon and now it's a recognized one. You go to a (black) club and everybody's lined up on a Wednesday night for stand-up comedy night; the other nights, the disco is just half full.
It's blue, and so is a lot of white comedy. It's honest, and so is a lot of white comedy. But a lot of these comedians don't get a shot everywhere, and they compete in a mostly black arena and their jokes are directed at a black audience.
A lot of times you miss the joke if you're not from where they're from. So you get it a little easier when you see it in front of an audience that understands it. ... So I think it makes it a little easier to present these comedians in front of their own audience, and even in Boise, Ida., they sort of understand, because they see how the audience responds.
Have there been any demographic studies? To get the huge numbers the show has, it must have a huge white audience.
Oh yeah. Our biggest audience share was in Boise. I haven't looked into the research lately, but I remember after the first couple of weeks we checked and Idaho was where we had the greatest share. Isn't that amazing? Especially since they've got all the separatists there, right?
Was Martin Lawrence anywhere near as famous as he is now when the show started out?
Absolutely not. He was on the verge of being popular, but certainly not as popular as he is now. He sold Radio City Music Hall out six times--grossed over a million dollars with a glass of water and a stool. Bill Bellamy now is so much bigger. He sold 5,000 seats by himself in Baltimore. The series is a great vehicle for the development of this talent, and so is the tour--because they've been around the country a few times.
The first comic to do a monologue in this first round of new shows is Sheryl Underwood, who uses the most profane language possible to brag about sexual addiction and how much she likes to sleep with married men. Do you think that's squarely in the tradition of rude, scatalogical humor, or do you see it as breaking taboos to reach some kind of new ground?
No. I think the fact that it's on television is a different step, that there's a vehicle for it there. But I don't think it's a big deal, the language. The cursing, which may be offensive to some, is just real language to most. A lot of people are offended by it because it's on television, but a lot of people speak just like that. ...
The language is not key. Sometimes that honest language shocks you on the screen and makes the jokes have a little bit more punch, but you can say the same thing without cursing.
Having started with a rap label, has it been hard for you to diversify into TV and other ventures and maintain a "street" feel?
It's not like I have to be a multicultural genius to run this communications company. I just have to be where I'm from and be cool, you know what I'm saying? I'm trying to make the focus of my company as narrow as possible.
We don't want to be as diverse as other communications companies. We certainly don't want to say we represent "black culture." Because, obviously, Andre Harrell does something so different from me. He owns Uptown Entertainment. They did the movie "Strictly Business" and the label has Jodeci and Mary J. Blige, love songs, really hip young ballads, sold millions of records. That's black culture as well and it's more accessible and more traditional, more Essence and Ebony. That's cool. There's also Bill Cosby out here, you know.
But we're after things that are not mainstream, that go against the grain--for the fun of it in most cases, or sometimes because it's real and honest to go against the grain. It's not a reflection of all of the culture that comes from the community. ... It's an underground, fun, new rock 'n' roll kind of attitude. A lot of it's for the sake of it--just for the hell of being young.
New installments of "Def Comedy Jam" begin airing Friday at midnight on HBO. The Def Comedy Jam Tour will be at the Universal Amphitheatre on July 31.