Beyond Definition

It's a Wednesday in June, a typical weekday for Russell Simmons--he's hellishly overscheduled with A-list invitations. Executives from the luxury pen maker Mont Blanc were honoring him for his philanthropy. HBO, which carries the "Def Poetry Jam" series that Simmons created, invited him to the premiere party for "Sex and the City." The rapper Jay-Z was hosting a bash to christen his new lounge--the perfect setting for Simmons and his wife, ex-model Kimora, to build buzz for Simmons's own luxury watch brand, Grimaldi, by giving away some of the $6,000 timepieces.

But those plans are shelved by a phone call Simmons takes in the back of his customized SUV as it's threading through Manhattan. "You know that's bull----,'' Simmons says into his cell. The caller? New York Gov. George Pataki. Simmons, the hip-hop impresario who cofounded Def Jam Recordings, has been at the forefront of an effort to reform New York's 30-year-old Rockefeller drug laws, which critics say have sent thousands to prison for long stretches on minor first-time drug offenses. But a stalemate threatens the effort, and Pataki wants Simmons to join him and top lawmakers that night for a meeting. "I'm happy to blow off everything," Simmons says, then asks if Pataki can arrange to fly him to Albany. "Every time you have me come up, it costs me $10,000,'' Simmons says. Pataki says no; Simmons books a helicopter. He's got a feeling the meeting will go nowhere. "I'm going to get blamed for it," he says, then adds: "But I'm not running for anything, so I don't give a f---. All I care about is getting these guys out of jail."

But Simmons is running--maybe not for public office, but he seems to be sprinting hard in every direction. He's become a blunt force in politics--agitating about drug laws, the New York City school budget and slavery reparations, as well as meeting with Democratic presidential hopefuls seeking his support. He's moved into financial services, recently launching the Rush Visa card. And there's his new energy drink, Def Con 3, as well as a Hollywood media company, his Phat Farm fashion label and a touring version of his first Broadway show, "Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam on Broadway," which won a Tony award in June.

There is a unifying goal: he wants to push the hip-hop outsider's viewpoint into all facets of mainstream society. Hip-hop, in effect, has grown up through the 45-year-old Simmons. In the mid-'80s, he saw the promise in a music style, originally defined by race, that would leap across all boundaries. And in the view of many, he is now emerging as potentially the most credible and effective leader of the post-civil-rights generation. "There's been a vacuum," says Bill Stephney, a politically active veteran of the music business. "Russell could be someone who represents the imperative and ideology of this generation."

Simmons has the wealth and fame required of the role, but he's a compelling figure for other reasons. He's got a devoted following in hip-hop, after helping launch the careers of stars like Will Smith and Jay-Z, as well as comedians Martin Lawrence and --Bernie Mac, who caught their big break through Simmons's "Def Comedy Jam'' series. He recruited musicians like 50 Cent and Mariah Carey to help lead a rally of 60,000 in June against the drug laws. "He's like the godfather of hip-hop," says P. Diddy, who spoke at the rally. "Russell is raising the bar for us with our power to be responsible, not just for ourselves but for our people." Simmons views himself in far less lofty terms: "All of what I do is to burn bad karma and help make people's lives better. I just go to work every day and enjoy it.''

Simmons is hardly the first successful businessman to turn to politics and social issues. He often cites the influence of the philosophy of hatha yoga, which he practices daily. He says he also was inspired by his younger brother, Joseph (better known as Rev. Run of Run-DMC), who suggested several years ago that Simmons's mission was "to give." His father, a teacher, was politically active, too. Now married with two daughters, 1 and 3, Simmons has also outgrown the hedonistic life of fashion models, drugs and nightclubs.

Simmons describes his politics as "progressive." He's helped raise money for New York Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton (Bill Clinton sometimes sports Phat Farm sweaters). Already Simmons has sponsored a fund-raiser for Al Sharpton, and says he plans to donate to the other Democratic presidential hopefuls. Over dinner recently, Simmons and Shimon Peres, the former Israeli prime minister, discussed the idea of a peace conference for youth in the Middle East. "That guy is a good man; let's work with him," Peres later said, according to Richard Pleplar, an HBO exec who hosted the meeting.

Last year Simmons fiercely opposed a proposal by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg for $1 billion in education cuts. Actress Cynthia Nixon of "Sex and the City," a public-education advocate, phoned him out of the blue. A few days later he brought some rappers to a rally that Nixon had helped plan. "We need to pump this thing up," she recalls Simmons saying. Nixon says a second rally, on June 4, was his production. He spent $250,000 on ads. Stars like Jay-Z and Alicia Keys appeared at the protest, with --100,000 others. "Russell was able to make the issue sexy,'' Nixon says. Bloomberg scaled back the cuts.

Simmons's biggest challenge has been the campaign to soften the penalties of the Rockefeller drug laws. Rather than pushing specifics, he's pressured Albany to quit the political wrangling and act. The issue resonates for him--many friends from his Queens neighborhood had been locked up under the 1973 statutes. His big brother Daniel was busted for drugs as a 19-year-old at New York University. After serving 18 months, he entered drug rehab, and recently published his first novel. In early June, Simmons met with Pataki for the first time. They seemed to connect, and the governor phoned him regularly, once interrupting Simmons as he was about to deliver the keynote address at a luncheon celebrating Crain's magazine's "100 Most Influential African-Americans." They grew so comfortable that Pataki, like Simmons, started peppering his talk with curses (including "mother------," according to witnesses) as they discussed issues. "When you are truly getting things done," says Pataki, "you can't hold back."

That hastily arranged meeting on June 18 in Albany didn't go well. It dragged for seven hours on the last day of the legislative session, with arguments over such details as how much power judges should have. After midnight, when nerves were frayed, state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno said, "I'm out of here." Simmons went after him, and they yelled at each other. "It was kind of a blowup," Bruno says, adding it's behind them now. Soon the meeting ended, and Simmons left for his flight.

Despite the tension, Simmons thought they had a deal. "He took people at their word,'' says Andrew Cuomo, whom Simmons had backed in his bid to unseat Pataki. "You don't do that in Albany." That became evident the next day when the lawmakers began waffling, and there was no draft of a reform bill. TV crews trailed Simmons. On camera, he challenged the officials to deny that a deal had been reached. The press portrayed Simmons as a bully and politically naive. He was unfazed, he says--"yoga has made life a lot easier."

The fallout continued. The state is investigating whether Simmons violated the law by trying to unduly influence officials without registering as a lobbyist. Simmons said he will go to court to protect his First Amendment rights. Last week Pataki presented a reform proposal to legislators that he says reflected the outcome of the meeting. Simmons endorsed it. Pataki and Bruno, both Republicans, praised Simmons. "He didn't bring a political agenda, he just wanted reform,'' said Pataki. But Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, criticized him for not pushing for true reform. "If this proposal becomes law, we'll be sitting here in 10 years trying to repeal the 'Simmons drug law','' he said. Says Simmons: "I'm sorry that he has a bad view of me, but I had to do what I thought was right."

Simmons's activism is showing up in some of his business ventures, too. Last year, for example, he launched a line of sneakers with his brother Rev. Run, and plans to give some proceeds to the campaign to gain reparations for descendants of slaves. Meanwhile some of the sales from the Def Con 3 energy drink will fund the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, which spearheads his political activities and is run by Benjamin Chavis, the civil-rights activist and minister.

Simmons has battled with the fashion industry. His Phat Farm brand, launched in 1992, is perhaps the flagship of his empire since he and partners sold their remaining interest in Def Jam (it's now part of Vivendi Universal) in 1999 for $130 million. Phat Farm has sales of $340 million and is growing some 30 percent a year. Just as Def Jam helped define a new musical genre, Phat Farm has spawned one of the fashion industry's hottest categories. Urban-wear brands now include Sean Jean, by P. Diddy, and RocaWear, by Jay-Z and partner Damon Dash. "This is the young men's business today,'' says fashion-marketing consultant Allan Ellinger, who estimates urban-wear sales in the billions. But Simmons says the industry has viewed brands like his as a niche, and uses "urban" as a code for black. He says Phat Farm's designs are classic and have mass appeal. He's fought moves by retailers to sell Phat Farm away from other men's collections. For now, he is extending the brand to other categories. He's got a licensing deal with Motorola for Phat Farm cell phones. And he's about to help launch a new clothing line, Def Jam University.

One of Simmons's best bets for growing the fashion business appears to be Kimora, 27. In 2000, Simmons launched Baby Phat, a women's line, with Kimora as creative director and CEO. She's also chief builder of buzz. At the Tony awards, she awed Broadway with a crimson gossamer dress by Emanuel Ungaro. "I had a lot to put in the little thing," she says, joking about her figure. Baby Phat will post sales of $80 million this year, and it has been at least doubling in size annually. Kimora is now recording songs, too, to give away with Baby Phat purchases. She's expanding into jewelry, accessories and a pink, $549 Baby Phat cell phone from Motorola.

But many wonder whether Kimora's future also includes a role smiling at campaign stops to support her husband. "That's not even on my mind," he answers when asked if he will someday seek public office. "Many politicians only want to politic, to keep issues alive, so they can have issues." Other items on his agenda: voter registration, AIDS awareness and righting wrongs where he sees them. For example, Simmons may become a familiar face in Detroit soon. Kwame Kirkpatrick, the 32-year-old who's known as the "hip-hop mayor" (yes, he is the mayor of Detroit) faced allegations of misconduct recently. He was never charged, yet negative stories continue to dog him. "We have to support him," says Simmons. "He's a great example of the kind of open-minded, young, progressive leadership we need." The same could be said of Simmons--except, maybe, for the young part.