Is Russell Simmons the black Perez Hilton?

Uncle Rush ain’t the man he used to be

By: James Di Fiore

Imagine we are back in 1985. Russell Simmons and Def Jam founder Rick Rubin are quietly lighting the match that would set hip hop ablaze. Imagine during that time someone came up to you and said “In 25 years, Simmons will be the majority shareholder of a sleazy tabloid magazine.”

Anyone in their right mind would have dismissed that thought immediately. Hell, you may have even got a smack in the face for saying such a thing. This was the guy who started the careers of Run D.M.C., LL Cool J, Beastie Boys and other legendary acts. Back then, hip hop was not just an emerging musical genre, it was a rallying cry against corporate America. Sure, Run D.M.C. inked a deal with Adidas, but overall hip hop was the closest thing to protest music since the 1960s. The lyrics were not just the often cited biographies of kids living the ghetto experience; there was also the political statements surrounding the idea that black youth were being used by corporate America. The universal idea of predatory marketing and influence over the purchasing choices among the youth by lifestyle brands was not up for debate. Everyone knew it was happening. You either became apathetic towards it, railed against it or fought to become an entrepreneur.

Simmons had always been a good businessman. He first signed a deal with CBS worth $600, 000 when he and Rubin started Def Jam. In 1998, after nurturing the careers of his stable of artists, he sold his stake to MCA for an estimated $100 million, his first windfall made from the scene he helped pioneer.

You can probably pinpoint Simmons’ departure from being a grass roots pioneer and role model at the time he sold his Def Jam stake. While it might be presumptuous to claim he was ever an activist for underprivileged youth, Simmons was at the very least a figurehead in their collective struggle. But slowly his corporatist persona began to shine through. In several interviews he has defended the embedding of products inside song lyrics by artists, a practice that befuddles the hip hop purist. Simmons explains this by saying you should only sell products you believe in, ignoring the basic idea that art and commercialism are two separate monsters. Indeed, an artist certainly has the right to do what they want with their music, but there are many who feel this practice has cheapened hip hop. Not to mention Simmons has often acted as a facilitator between corporations and rappers who are looking to get paid by plugging a fast food chain or fashion line in songs that are easily forgettable and designed solely for the plug.

Simmons is an expert at justifying this kind of predatory marketing. His attitude is shielded by a public image drenched in yoga and activism, a paradoxical partnership where selling products inside music is justified through his apparent admiration for Deepak Chopra and the 99%. Perhaps he is merely the first of his kind; a hip hop mogul with one eye on his bank account and the other on social justice. Reconciling those two seemingly opposite mind sets is one thing, but his latest venture leaves little room for spirituality or the realness of the ghetto.

Enter Global Grind.

Global Grind, for all intents and purposes, is an online tabloid magazine. Taking a page out of US Weekly or Perez Hilton’s site, GG features gossipy stories and provocative headlines, usually centering around Kim Kardashian’s ass or what Beyonce might be wearing. The watered down editorials are designed to reach the largest yet least informed audience possible, making his often repeated claims of being in touch with spirituality either a lie or something he no longer mixes with business. It really is the black National Enquirer.

Supporters will say he is simply continuing his success as an entrepreneur, but eventually one has to ask: how does a man who relentlessly preaches about naturalism, spirituality, yoga and ‘The Secret’-type philosophy reconcile being the propagator of a silly tabloid? How does a man who used to be a beacon in the black community balance that reputation with his several appearances alongside a birther like Donald Trump? Does he define his principles differently than most? Can Simmons throw roses to all sides and expect his fans to continue crediting him as being the guy he was a quarter century ago?

There is a backlash happening since GG first launched. His Facebook page contains daily criticisms from presumably former fans who have had enough of his transformation from pioneer to smut peddler. And while it is likely a staffer who posts his social networking content, his profile has taken a beating among those who once respected him the most.

A gifted orator, Simmons is great at explaining away his evolution, but editorials, headlines and critics are also becoming effective at pointing out his now schizophrenic public image. You can almost picture him doing a downward dog onto a pile of MacDonald’s french fries as cameras record him explaining it all away. That’s all fine and good, but some of us remember the words of Public Enemy, the group he helped put on the map: nowadays, when it comes to Uncle Rush, don’t believe the hype.

He ain’t the man he used to be.