Sunday, 1 July 2012

Can Hip Hop Change the World?

In this exclusive interview, we speak to Russell Simmons (Co-Founder of Def Jam, Chairman & CEO of Rush Communications – described by USA Today as one of the “Top 25 Most Influential People of the Past 25 Years). We discuss the story of hip-hop, its growth into a global phenomenon and how hip-hop reflects the extreme social realities of urban culture globally.


Vikas Shah, Thought Economics, July 2012

Hip-hop has been described as one of the most far-reaching cultural movements of the past three decades. A movement that began (as Jeff Chang describes in his 2007 essay for Foreign Policy) on the “…embattled streets of the Bronx” where “…race riots, urban renewal, arson and government neglect wiped out educational and social service programmes, eviscerated housing stock, accelerated white flight and job loss, and created and international symbol of urban despair.” “To the uninitiated…” he continued, “…hip-hop hardly looks or sounds like a brave, new art form. It’s more like a sonic jackhammer, a visual eyesore, and a conceptual nuisance. Critics often call hip-hop materialistic, misogynistic, homophobic, racist, vulgar and violent. It’s a hot mess, the roar of total chaos.

A good deal of hip hop speaks and has always spoken openly and in depth about aspects of black urban poverty, particularly the grip that street culture has on many young people…” writes Tricia Rose in her seminal book ‘The Hip Hop Wars’, “…Hip-hop gives a ground-level view (though not the only view, or a comprehensive view) of what it might mean to live under what are nearly warlike conditions in communities that face a myriad of daunting circumstances. Sometimes, rappers’ lyrics really do offer gripping tales of loss, sorrow, exploitation, rage, confinement, hopelessness, and despair about conditions that are denied in the larger society. It is important to admit that these powerful stories far too often uncritically reflect attitudes and beliefs that many would consider destructive to achieving a socially just environment. But it is also true that society at large only sporadically pays attention to the extraordinarily despair-producing conditions in which young black poor youth attempt to survive.

It’s important to remember that hip-hop is not just about music. It’s a unique era of culture where fashion, art, music and language became deeply pitted with metaphors that became consistent, ubiquitous and global. Hip-hop is unplanned- but a reflection of shared truths in communities ranging from the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the council estates of England, ghettos of New York, slums of Ghana and the towers of Shanghai. This is a mode of expression, a rebellion, communicated through the hijacking and transformation of elements of cultures- creating something new, owned by the generation from who it was manifest.

So what has accounted for hip-hop’s growth from the streets of the Bronx to becoming a multi-billion dollar global phenomenon?

In this exclusive interview, we speak to Russell Simmons (Co-Founder of Def Jam, Chairman & CEO of Rush Communications – described by USA Today as one of the “Top 25 Most Influential People of the Past 25 Years”). We discuss the story of hip-hop, its growth into a global phenomenon and how hip-hop reflects the extreme social realities of urban culture globally.

From producing and/or managing such early hip-hop artists as Kurtis Blow, Run DMC, Will Smith and the Beastie Boys to signing seminal luminaries like Jay Z, LL Cool J and Ludacris to his iconic record label, Def Jam Recordings, Simmons’ groundbreaking vision and the cultural revolution became the international phenomenon now known as hip-hop.

Following his departure from Def Jam, in 1999, Russell created a fashion empire in Phat Farm, which begat Baby Phat and Run Athletics, and put the definitive stake in the ground for urban streetwear and helped open the door for a generation of new designers including: Roc-A-Wear, Sean John, Derion, Enyce, Ecko and many others.

His film and television production company with partner Stan Lathan, Simmons Lathan Media Group, created the wildly successful HBO series, “Def Comedy Jam (8 million DVDS sold),” and “Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry,” the Hollywood box office success, “The Nutty Professor,” the Tony Award-winning stage production “Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry Jam on Broadway” the international hit on MTV, “Run’s House,” and most recently the successful first season of “Running Russell Simmons.

In 2003 Simmons co-founded Unirush Financial Services with consumer debt investor David Rosenberg. Initially built to provide access to the 60 million Americans rejected by or under-served by the consumer banking industry, it was one of the pioneers of the now rapidly growing “general purpose reloadable” (GPR) debit card business – a $300 billion industry.

In 2006, Simmons broke new ground in becoming the first African American to launch a major jewellery company, Simmons Jewelry Co. (SJC). SJC is now a leading supplier of branded men’s jewellery to leading retail chains Sterling and Zales, while funding educational programs in Africa, the major source of diamonds, through the industry-supported work of his ground-breaking charity, The Diamond Empowerment Foundation.

In 2008, Simmons founded, the leading online destination for celebrity entertainment, music, culture and politics for the new, post-racial America. Accel Partners (Facebook, Groupon, Comscore, Brightcove, Glam), through its managing partner, Jim Breyer, were initial investors and have supported the venture through its growth to a growing community reaching 2.6 million monthly unique visitors. In its first year of sales operations, Global Grind generated $1.2 million in sales and has surpassed all hip-hop sites to be in a category of its own. Also in 2008, Simmons launched Argyleculture, the first fashion brand that speaks directly to the “Urban Graduate” – the multi-racial, culturally sophisticated consumer who once shopped urban but is now faced with a cultural conformity not seen since the 1950’s.

In 1995 he, along with his brothers Danny and Joseph Simmons (Rev. Run of Run DMC), founded Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation. The organization is dedicated to providing disadvantaged urban youth with significant exposure and access to the arts, as well as offering exhibition opportunities to underrepresented artists and artists of colour.

Following the historic Hip-Hop Summit organized in June of 2001, Simmons co-founded the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN) with civil rights activist Dr. Benjamin Chavis, a former head of the NAACP. HSAN’s mission is to harness the cultural relevance of hip-hop music as a catalyst for education advocacy and other societal concerns fundamental to the well being of at-risk youth throughout the United States. Among HSAN’s major initiatives were helping to spearhead the first changes in 30 years to the repressive Rockefeller Drug Laws, which were repealed through Simmons’ activism in 2008, and a successful First Amendment challenge to the NY State lobbying regulations that sought to prevent raising public awareness about state legislative issues.

Russell Simmons has extended his social activism to include the plight of animals and the state of the environment. Simmons, a vegan, joined forces with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in their successful negotiations with Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) to require its poultry suppliers to improve their practices for raising and slaughtering chickens. In addition, Simmons, joined The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) to launch a national campaign to help raise awareness of animal abuse and neglect. Simmons appeared in the group’s anti-dog fighting PSA and national advertising campaign.
Simmons, a long time supporter of equal rights for all, spoke at Los Angeles’ 2010 Gay Pride Rally where he pledged to stay the course with his friends in the LGBT community until marriage equality was a right enjoyed by all, pledging to help the cause state by state. This year he received the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) Media Award.

Q: Why has hip-hop grown to become such a significant part of culture?

[Russell Simmons] Honesty! It has a greater share of integrity than most pop phenomenon- and consistently. They coined an expression early, that people had this attitude of "...keeping it real...". People always said they do art, but they don't do art for money... what was real was that they wanted to get ahead- so their poetry reflected what was in their hearts. When they went to work, it wasn't that they were selling out but rather the intention of human beings to chase things... material stuff... come out of the ghetto... achieve... they wanted their own reflection in pop culture... they didn't want any of this YMCA, Patrick Juvet's - I Love America or any of these disco records that were out.... they didn't want to listen to that on black radio, it was insulting.... so they made their own. That's what Jazz, Blues and Rock and Roll were- they created something and by the time it became boring, they had created something else- that's how American pop-phenomenon evolve.

The difference between rap, jazz, blues, rock & roll, pop, r&b and all that is that the hip-hop artists held on to it.... MTV didn't play any people of colour until hip-hop came along. They had Michael Jackson then they had Run D.M.C. Run D.M.C's 'Rock Box' and these records were honest and real reflections of what came from these people's communities- from a poetry and music standpoint. It was also what they were doing to rebel against the pop-culture stuff that was being pushed at them from radio- it was new expression.

Q: Is hip-hop a medium for social change?

[Russell Simmons] It's a reflection of reality so an artist may say, "f**k the police..." and the police will have to prick their ears up and everyone will start talking about brutality... Any subject that becomes a popular song becomes a discussion in the community. Those subjects come from the community and are recycled back into to the community- in other words, a commercial rap record is usually a reflection of what's going on in the community. People may say, "...oh it's homophobic..." but guess what, we live in a homophobic society... people may say, "...oh it's racist...." but guess what, it's a lot less racist than their parents.... people may say, "...oh it's sexist...", but while you may think the language sounds sexist- their parents and preachers are doing sh** they can't imagine.... treating women in ways they shouldn't be allowed to get away with. They talk about being sexist and macho, but they're not nearly as macho as the preacher that's a little bit older than them. The previous generation is much more sexist, homophobic and racist- and certainly our government and streets are more gangster than the poets who describe them. When you have a city like Chicago where 53 kids get shot in a weekend you wonder why a rapper would get in a fight, talk about fighting or violence. That's a reflection of what communities are doing, it's our sad reality that's in our face.

Rappers, as poets, have always been good reflection of the heart of community. They take ideas out of the community and spread them to the rest of the world. Sometimes it's stuff that's positive in the community that gets spread, and sometimes it's stuff that's in the community that's not so positive- but so what? they don't owe anybody anything! They say they poison the affluent happy people that buy into their music... f***k them!

I just looked at Jinx [Jinx da Juvy], he's been shot so many times he's like Swiss cheese!. I adopted this kid when he was 15, he's a Def Jam artist... and he got shot at 15 for selling drugs in the wrong community, they took him in a hallway and shot him in his leg. He told me just now his cousin was paralysed from a bullet this weekend. Jinx is 25 now, his cousin is 15. Jinx has been to jail a few times, but he graduated high school and went to college. I look at him now and his friend are all gone, and he's only 25. I've saved one kid so far. He came in here with a producer just now with a new record- he makes records all day, it's what he's focussed on. I try and get him to make records that are more positive- but he has to see the world as more positive for that to happen. Obviously if he was my son raised and lived in my house it would be different from someone who comes visit me now and then. With some kids they come visit, they may read "Super Rich", they may change their attitude. Jinx is doing the best he can, he is like so many kids from his community in Brooklyn- nobody in his peers even finished high-school, and he's just about to finish college- so for the few sessions and a little bit of money I spent over the years- I think it's good that he's still alive.

We talk about what poisons the community? well.. sending kids away for drugs who are poisoned by disease, teaching them to be criminals, sending them to jail, and then bringing jail culture into communities. All those kids went to jail for non-violent crimes and became criminals, became violent, became cycle offenders. Rap- when it's bad- is just a reflection of that truth, and is our fault as much as anyone's. 

I look at the poets and I'm inspired by their still being here- like Jinx who's still making records and trying to survive. Was it not for music, he wouldn't be.

Q: What are your views on how various groups such as women are portrayed in hip-hop?

[Russell Simmons] I don't think it's any worse than what the preachers do- they just talkin' I'm using preachers as they're just as sexist as the rest of the community members and our society in general. President Obama passed an act that stated that women should get paid what men get paid- but how many of those women are in a position to get paid what men get paid for those roles? It's not right. Rappers aren't any worse! they're managed by women! It's the next generation who are coming through that matter.... and you know what? they're less sexist.

Q: How does hip-hop relate to other art forms like dance, theatre, graffiti and so on?

[Russell Simmons] Everything is related. The difference between hip-hop and rock&roll, blues, jazz and so on is that although they communicated culture- they didn't have all the vehicles of expression that hip-hop has had to communicate greater insight into the culture surrounding the music. Not only do we have tonnes more visual, but we have tonnes more subject matter. Rappers have to rap, it's poetry- it's much deeper than another love song. It's a gut reaction. The talent is not always the voice, it's what's inside the heart- the poetry. Their experience becomes their art- it's not something they learned in church when they got dressed up... it's different. They really have an input on what car we drive, what outfit we wear, what movies we see, what's cool in an environment. They're spreading through poetry and encapsulating the time in which we live- spitting it back out again. Later on we can look back and say, "...look at what they were doing back then!".. .but right now we can decide, "...look what the cool people are doing, we want to do it too!".

Jay-Z said, "...catch me in the kitchen like a Simmons cookin' pastry..." That sounds like cooking crack- but the double-entendre was that Angela and Vanessa sold $40 million more sneakers. Think about that, they sold $40 million more sneakers just because Jay-Z said, "...catch me in the kitchen like a Simmons cookin' pastry..." - I hope that the crack dealer' didn't do better too! ... that's what he meant by 'cookin' pastry'.... that's the double-edged sword. Every song that bears a product, that bears an idea, that bears a cultural link- furthers that link, inspires that idea.... that's the way reality is... it's an honest depiction.

Q: How important is language in hip-hop?

[Russell Simmons] Hip-hop has its own soul, its own language. Every generation has its own language. It's given America phrases like you know "cool, slick" and all that. Just as expressions from jazz, blues and rock&roll became mainstream- the hip-hop expressions became very big.

Taking the power out of the "N-word" for example... what an interesting debate! My father was a Professor of Black History.... eventually... When I grew up I thought the "N-word" was my name! "N***** go to church!", "N***** go to school!"... that's how it was. Now, putting it out into the mainstream... it changes. It's not that word anymore but all the other words which are associated with it. If you don't have a direct blood line to slavery, you probably shouldn't use the word period- but all these ideas are now seeping out there, into the world.

Even as hip-hop has grown, this authenticity has stayed the same. A lot of it may sound commercial (musically) but the poetry is what really matters. It's from the same heart, the same locked-out community.

Q: To what extent has hip-hop raised awareness of the situation in urban communities?

[Russell Simmons] If you look at the plight of people in underserved communities, the awareness is so much greater now. All those post hip-hop urban graduates are progressive voters, are concerned with the plight of those people, are connected... it's got a strong base.

Q: How has the Internet impacted hip-hop?

[Russell Simmons] The Internet has changed the game for a lot of people. You don't have to buy music anymore, meaning it's spread more! It's been a catalyst for greater consumption in music- with a little bit less profitability. Chris Lighty pointed out that Diggy sold 100,000 records, but he's made millions of dollars on the road already... and he aint' even had a hit! There's also a lot more collaboration, meaning more people can make music and get involved.

Q: What are the social and economic realities facing the hip-hop generation?

[Russell Simmons] The situation out there has never been this bad. The amount of people getting killed and shot in communities..... 53 people shot in one weekend in Chicago... it's unbelievable. It's also not even being broadcast, it's under the radar.

It's not that the wider economy is excluding some people, but that the wider economy is becoming more like those people. The fact that higher education is such a difficult thing to pursue amongst our kids means that we will not be a competitive society soon.... that should be pretty obvious. Who knows what the outcome will be when only a small number of people have access not just to education but economic opportunity.

I was a participant in Occupy Wall St and heard many of the grievances- some more legitimate than others in content but all legitimate in terms of what they represent. The idea that corporations control our government is one key. I talk of the Prison Industrial Complex destroying the community but sh*t, who do you think pushed for the legislation that means that people go to jail for long periods of time for dealing small amounts of drugs? who do you think keeps them from examining the fact that 10 out of 11 kids that go to jail for drugs are people of colour? or that those people are 10 times more likely to go to jail for the same crime as their white counterparts? this kind of information is shocking.... and wouldn't be a factor in our legislation would it not be for the relatively small amounts of money, tens of millions of dollars, paid by the corporations to the legislators- which then flow back as billions of dollars in revenues to the prison industrial complex. Corporations are paying to strip ourselves of our own consumers! Even if we can legislate their way into selling them stuff that's hurtful, moving jobs overseas and paying less taxes... even if we do legislate our way into doing horrible, abusive things to our economy and general wellbeing- even the select few of the 1% will have nothing left to sell, because no-one will be buying...

There's no question that what we're seeing here is a contemporary form of racism... that's obvious. They don't really care about the colour of the people they exploit, but if they can get a group of people together and make them all subject to the same kind of exploitation- that's good too. It's racism in that it's systematic- but it's a horrible situation, and one where you see the potential for a transition to a more positive society becoming slimmer and slimmer.

I was talking today about voter disenfranchisement and how 40% of the Blacks who voted last time around won't be able to vote now. It's going to be disproportionate that people of colour- Latino and Black won't be able to vote because of these new laws. They don't realise that when they get to the polls on November 5th, they won't be able to vote... someone will say, ", you don't have proper ID... go home..."

Q: Can the arts change the world?

[Russell Simmons] We have no choice. The arts, artists and poets have to use their voices.


Generations are fictions…” writes Jeff Chang writes in his book ‘Can’t Stop Won’t Stop’, “The act of determining a group of people by placing a beginning and ending date around them is a way to impose a narrative. They are interesting and necessary fictions because they allow claims to be staked around idea. But generations are fictions nonetheless, often created simply to suit the needs of demographers, journalists, futurists and marketers. A generation is usually named and framed first by the one immediately preceding it. Up until recently, our generation has mainly been defined by the prefix “post-.” We have been post-civil rights, postmodern, post-structural, postfeminist, post-Black, post-soul. We’re the poster children of “post-“ the leftovers in the dirty kitchen of yesterdays feast.

This point is important. Our world has undergone a century of changes- economic, social, scientific, political and even cultural. These metamorphoses have brought many benefits but- for a significant proportion of our world’s population- have created a much darker narrative where people have been left without identities, voiceless, excluded from an economy they find it increasingly more difficult to join. Hip-hop is (amongst many things) a cultural manifestation of the challenges- the creation of a new identity, a new social structure- a new institution. Like any emergent art-form it jars at our senses and sensibilities, providing us a safe theatre in which to observe ourselves, and contemplate that which we face.

In his 2011 book ‘Monoculture’, F. S Michaels speaks of how, “…the history of how we think and act is, for the most part, a history of dominant ideas. Some subject rises to the top of our awareness, grabs hold of our imagination for a generation or two, and shapes our entire lives.” He elaborates, describing how, “The governing pattern that a culture obeys is a master story- one narrative in society that takes over the others, shrinking diversity and forming a monoculture.. Over time, the monoculture evolves into a nearly invisible foundation that structures and shapes our lives, giving us our sense of how the world works. It shapes our ideas about what’s normal and what we can expect from life. It channels our lives in a certain direction, setting out strict boundaries that we unconsciously learn to live inside…

Michaels notes how the nature of human experience means that it is wider and deeper than any single narrative. Over time, humans become hungry for something the monoculture isn’t speaking to and isn’t giving us- can’t give us.

Hip-hop is the poetry of a generation, the lament of those who will inherit a world- which they will invariably have to change. As Margaret Mead once said, “…never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

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