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The word on the street

Russell Simmons brings his Tony-winning 'Def Poetry Jam' to L.A. Although rooted in hip-hop, it differs from rap, he says.

October 22, 2003|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

When Russell Simmons was a young New Yorker in the '70s, he used to sneak into performances of "The Wiz," the black "Wizard of Oz" musical, all the time, he says. "The Wiz" merged black-inspired pop and the American theatrical mainstream. There were a lot of other Broadway shows, but he and his friends "never tried anywhere else."

Last year, Simmons returned to Broadway -- not as a freeloading audience member but as the producer of "Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam," which ran nearly six months and won a special Tony Award. This week, he brings "Def Poetry Jam" to L.A. for a brief run at the Wadsworth Theatre in Brentwood.

In retrospect, the young Simmons' choice of "The Wiz" was hardly surprising. He was already beginning to think about how to market rap and hip-hop, elements of urban culture that were still underground. He went on to become the man who is usually given the most credit for integrating hip-hop into the larger American culture.

His first vehicle was Def Jam Records, which recorded such groups as Run-DMC (featuring Simmons' brother Joey), LL Cool J, Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys. Next up was Simmons' "Def Comedy Jam" series on HBO, which popularized a slew of comedians who went on to become movie and TV stars. More recently, Simmons has capitalized on hip-hop fashion through his Phat Farm label.

Simmons, 46, has become much more involved in political and philanthropic causes in the last decade. But he also has brought the genre of poetry performance out of the clubs and campuses -- first with another HBO series, "Def Poetry Jam," and now with the Broadway show and its subsequent tour.

Def poetry looks different from def comedy. The comics were, by Simmons' estimate, 95% black and mostly male. The "Def Poetry Jam" cast is black, white and Asian, with as many women as men.

"It's multiracial," Simmons says, "but it's singularly cultural" -- the participants are rooted in hip-hop style. "Hip-hop is universal," he says. As the years go by, more nonblacks are involved as artists as well as consumers.

As far as the greater women's presence in poetry, "in poetry, you have to dig deep," Simmons says. "You can't rely on a macho facade or loud music. Women are taught to be more sensitized to the truth inside them."

Still, it was Simmons' older brother Danny who sensitized him to the world of poetry. Working for the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation that Russell Simmons had started, Danny organized a poetry slam and invited his wealthy brother to be one of the judges.

It was at this event that poet Black Ice, who now appears in "Def Poetry Jam," caught Russell Simmons' attention. Black Ice was wearing clothes associated with hip-hop and "spittin' poetry that sounded like the rappers. He spoke to everybody. That's when I started to see the cultural relevance of poetry."

But his interest was piqued not only because of poetry's connection to rap, he soon realized; he also was interested in the ways that poetry differs from rap. "When you write to music, you have distractions," Simmons says. With spoken word -- and the silences in between the words -- "you're forced to say what's profound."

Poetry also goes places that comedy can't go, because of comedy's insistence on laughs. "Serious moments can have a tremendous effect in poetry. There's not that much humor in [America's] relationship to the rest of the world right now."

Simmons brought the show into the theater because "it's a thousand times more exciting seeing it live." And he felt that the show would be seen by "blue-haired women" and others who might not watch a late-night HBO series, as well as by younger hip-hop enthusiasts who don't normally go to Broadway.

"Broadway had never seen an audience like we brought to them," he says. It wasn't a big enough audience to become a breakout hit, however. Simmons says his investment in the show was "a wash" on Broadway -- and it lost money in its pre-Broadway run in San Francisco.

Still, some poets may find their incomes rising with their exposure in "Def Poetry Jam."

Poetri is a 28-year-old Michigan-born Angeleno in the show. He's also one of the four poets who operate Da Poetry Lounge on Tuesdays at the Greenway Arts Theatre on Fairfax. Now he's working on three potential TV pilots that involve poetry.

He has mixed feelings about this development. "None of us set out to be on TV," says Poetri. "That shouldn't be your goal." Bassey Ikpi, a Nigerian-born but Oklahoma- and Maryland-raised poet who has joined "Def Poetry" for the national tour, says she has supported herself through poetry readings for two years, primarily on the college circuit. Her income from "Def Poetry Jam" isn't significantly higher than her revenue from the college readings. But the number of invitations to do readings has increased in the last two years, partially because of the show's influence, she says.

"I never intended to make money and build a franchise," Simmons says of "Def Poetry Jam." "I was only interested in exposing the talent. Poetry is more important to the world than my other ventures. You only get back from the world what you give. Poetry is a way for me to give."


`Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam'

Where: Wadsworth Theatre, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Brentwood

When: Thursday-Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 9 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m.

Ends: Sunday

Price: $20-$65

Contact: (213) 480-3232; (714) 740-2000

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