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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Russell Simmons : Defending the Art of Communication Known as Rap

August 27, 1995|Steve Proffitt | Steve Proffitt, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a medical producer for Fox 11 News, and contributor to National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered." He spoke with Russell Simmons from his home in New York

As the summer began, angry voices in America rose up against what they see as a violent and anti-social force in the country--rap music. Former Education Secretary William J. Bennett focused on "'gangsta rap," concluding that it was perverting young people by glorifying immoral behavior. Conservative activist C. DeLores Tucker (National Political Caucus of Black Women), joined by Bennett and other politicians like Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, also targeted corporate America. They fired their biggest guns at Time Warner, which owns interests in a number of rap record labels. The shells landed at the nervous feet of Time Warner Chairman Gerald Levin, and Michael Fuchs, new head of Warner Music Group. As the summer comes to a close, Time Warner is said to be negotiating a way out of its $100-million share in Interscope Records, distributor of such rap stars as Snoop Doggy Dogg, Dr. Dre and Tupac Shakur.

One of the first responses to the anti-rap campaign came from the undisputed king of hip- hop entrepreneurs, 37-year-old Russell (Rush) Simmons, CEO of Def Jam Recordings. In an open statement to the press in June, he blasted back at rap's critics: "No truly in-touch person believes that the dire state of American society is the result of rap lyrics. Let's be clear, rap music is just that--music. It is an art form."

In a little more than 10 years, Simmons has built a hip-hop empire which is now the largest African-American owned company in the record business. His Rush Communications produces the HBO television series "Def Comedy Jam," and owns a Manhattan boutique and a profitable clothing business. His first film project which opened in theaters on Friday--"The Show"--is a rap music documentary. He's also planning to launch a 24-hour satellite radio network, and is reportedly negotiating with Revlon to create a hip-hop fragrance.

Simmons grew up in Queens and earned his nickname, "Rush," by virtue of his manic energy. He got his start promoting early '80s college rap parties; last year he sold a half interest in his record company to Polygram for $33 million. He's often compared to an earlier music pioneer, Motown founder Barry Gordy. But others, struck by his ability to mix business with pleasure, liken him to Hugh Hefner.

Simmons insists he's going to make sure black-owned firms reap a fair portion of the profits from the hip-hop culture they invented. In the language of the street, he defends rap music as not only a legitimate art form, but a crucial medium for communication.

Question: What do you think about the attack on rap music, and critics who say it's something that is dangerous and injurious to American youth?

Answer: In every culture, anytime anything comes along from the underbelly of the society, it's perceived as a threat. Think of blues, jazz, rock n' roll--it was all classified as "nigga music." These days, you can watch TV and see 10 videos, and maybe one is a rap video about some reality that people don't think is great for their kids to hear. But the kids in Bel Air have to hear it. Because that kind of desperation is just down the street. If nothing else, these videos tell kids to watch out when they go out on the street, because it can be dangerous out there.

What many of the rap artists are saying is just this: I'm frustrated, I have no hope, I have no opportunity. The perceived reality is, there is no chance. And that's changed since I was a kid. All my friends managed to get the help they needed, got into college, and made themselves successful. But the new generation doesn't look like they are going to be there. They don't see themselves becoming successful like my generation. That accounts for the things you hear in their raps.

With the Reaganomics crew, this new generation has nothing. They figure the only way to get money is to take it. All these kids can rap about is pain. Because that's all these kids see. We had remedial programs that the city paid for to make up for our substandard education, so we could get into college. That whole setup is gone. None of these kids go to college. They see the American dream on TV and realize it's unattainable. They either go to McDonald's, or they go to rob you.

But about the whole controversy, it's so ridiculously un-American to tell people you can't have any education or training, no after-school programs, nothing--and you can't even express your frustration.

Q: Am I wrong in thinking that most of rap has moved away from the hard, desperate type of lyric that many critics are so outraged by?

A: Yeah, there are a lot less rap records about desperate situations that sell. There's never too much truth, but there's too much truth to sell at one time. It's like, come on, another record about how mad I am, and you're from the suburbs so I hate you. Kids aren't stupid--they won't buy that forever. But if you can express your frustrations in a way that someone else can understand, then that's communication, and it's art. And kids will buy it.

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