Mr. Rap Goes To Washington

The impresario of the hip-hop revolution never seemed interested in politics. He liked casual urban fashions, sleek women and the millions that could be made from tirelessly promoting the edgy new street music called rap. He became an icon of pop culture and inspired a new generation of music-business entrepreneurs from the inner city, where the political issues are fierce. Yet he didn't even bother to vote in recent elections. So what was Russell Simmons--cultivator of star rappers, cofounder of Def Jam Records, owner of homes in New York City and the Hamptons--doing last week with leading political activists in a meeting with that squarest of officials, Attorney General Janet Reno? And wasn't that Simmons up there onstage in Washington last Saturday--the 37th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic march on the capital--to exhort a massive gathering of mostly young, mostly black demonstrators against police brutality?

The hip-hop generation--a broad, multiracial segment of young America--is coming of political age, and Russell Simmons hopes to lead the transformation. He's been in on the culture almost from the start--many would say Simmons was more instrumental than anyone else in popularizing it--and he has also profited handsomely. Now he wants to use some of the same marketing savvy and street cred he used to bolster the careers of countless rap artists--like Public Enemy, Beastie Boys and DMX--to get young people involved in politics. Critics, noting Simmons's blossoming ties to the Democratic Party, fear he's selling out; Simmons, who has always had contacts among mainstream business people and politicians, prefers to think he's growing up. "I haven't always been responsible... [or] as active as I could be," he told NEWSWEEK in a recent interview. "I'm going to do whatever I can to get young people involved."

The change seems a natural, if belated, progression for the 42-year-old. Born in Queens, N.Y., to parents who were educators and activists, Simmons was just a small child when he accompanied his father on a picket line to integrate construction crews at a housing project. His brother Danny later joined the Black Panthers and the Weathermen, but Russell was resolutely apolitical. He became an entrepreneur in the music business, and founded Def Jam with partner Rick Rubin 16 years ago. Later Simmons brought rap culture to Hollywood by producing movies with hip-hop themes, and also launched Phat Farm, now a major urban-fashion brand.

Little besides hip-hop commanded his attention, except for the glitzy showbiz nightlife. Simmons famously indulged his taste for glamorous women at New York's hottest clubs, and gossip columnists often linked him with various supermodels. But Simmons now is a husband and new father, a devotee of yoga and a vegan who recently sold the last of his stake in Def Jam. Suddenly, the man who helped promote a flashy new lifestyle is trying to help persuade Janet Reno to punish police departments that have a history of racial profiling, and cosponsoring Rap the Vote--an effort to get young people to the polls. "Russell is identifying a need for political activism, and is giving a voice to that need," says author Nelson George, who is collaborating with Simmons on a new book about the hip-hop business. "But we have yet to see if the hip-hop generation will move as a group on issues like police brutality and affirmative action and establish itself as a voting bloc."

Fund-raisers and strategists of the Democratic Party are tapping Simmons for support and advice. Two weeks ago he was at the party convention, where his 360HipHop.com Web site cosponsored a panel on the youth vote with the Democratic National Committee (it was also the "official Web site" of last weekend's march against police brutality, and Simmons served as cochairman of the march, along with the Rev. Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III). One high point of Simmons's political initiation so far was the $1,000-a-person fund-raiser he and wife Kimora Lee threw for Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate run. The affair, held last fall at Simmons's downtown Manhattan apartment, featured vegetarian fare and netted more than $50,000. The eclectic guest list included rap stars Jay-Z and Puffy, black Wall Street capitalists and several rabbis.

The Clinton campaign apparently appreciates Simmons's savvy as much as his ability to raise money. Unlike most of Hillary's supporters among business executives, who simply write a check and then disengage, Simmons serves in an "almost advisory" role, says campaign manager Bill deBlasio. At least once, Simmons arranged for Clinton's appearance on a prominent hip-hop radio show.

Simmons's great strength is his ability to traverse vastly different worlds. He counts among his friends everyone from billionaires David Geffen and Ron Perelman to ex-cons who were his boyhood buddies. He has quickly established strong ties to Sharpton, and also to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. And he's friendly with the Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan, yet also enjoys extensive relations with the Jewish community. (Simmons would like to see Farrakhan, whom many regard as an anti-Semite, endorse Gore-Lieberman, largely because he thinks it would benefit black-Jewish relations.) His embrace of the Democrats and their national stars is drawing some heat from radical quarters. "What we don't need is someone delivering young hip-hop bodies to the Democratic Party," says Conrad Mohammed, former head of the Nation of Islam's Harlem mosque. But even Mohammed sees some good in Simmons's push into politics, believing he can energize apathetic kids.

Simmons's backing of Gore's campaign is steeped in irony. Gore's wife, Tipper, and his running mate, Joe Lieberman, both have led campaigns against what they consider offensive music lyrics, including some that appeared under the Def Jam label. Simmons says he defended his artists but argues that one issue should not dissuade him from supporting a ticket that he believes is far better than the alternative. (Simmons doesn't agree with Gore's support of the death penalty, either, but believes that Bush would be worse.) Sounds pragmatic enough. But "pragmatic" wasn't the selling point Simmons used to promote street poets. Making mainstream politics hip may be one of the hardest sells of Simmons's colorful career.