Interview with Kam Williams
Russell Wendell Simmons was born in Queens, New York on October 4, 1957, the middle of three sons to bless the marriage of Daniel and Evelyn Simmons, a public school administrator and NYC parks administrator, respectively. Russell and Rick Rubin co-founded Def Jam Records, the legendary hip-hop label, in 1984.
Russell parlayed his success in music into several fashion lines, most notably, Phat Farm and Baby Phat. Meanwhile, as Chairman and CEO of his umbrella organization, Rush Communications, he also ran an ad agency, produced movies and TV shows, and published a magazine.
Forbes Magazine recently named Simmons one of “Hollywood’s Most Influential Celebrities.” And USA Today dubbed him one of the “Top 25 Most Influential People of the Past 25 Years,” calling him a “hip-hop pioneer” for his groundbreaking vision that has influenced music, fashion, jewelry, finance, television and film, as well as the face of modern philanthropy.
From creating his seminal Def Jam Recordings to writing his New York Times best-seller “Do You! 12 Laws to Access the Power in You to Achieve Happiness and Success,” Russell is recognized globally for his influence and entrepreneurial approach to both business and philanthropy. Since giving back is of primary importance to him in all aspects of life, he has consistently leveraged his influence in the recording industry, fashion, television, financial services, and jewelry sectors to advance the interests of a host of charitable causes.
A devoted yogi, Russell also leads the non-profit division of his empire, Rush Community Affairs, and its ongoing commitment to empowering at-risk youth through education, the arts, and social engagement. Furthermore, he serves as UN Goodwill Ambassador for The Permanent Memorial to Honor the Victims of Slavery and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
Here, he talks about his new book, “Super Rich: A Guide to Having It All,” a how-to tome which champions meditation over materialism as the path to true wealth.
Kam Williams: Hey Russell, thanks for the time. I don’t know if you remember me, but we met at that party you threw for Soledad O’Brien. I came over and told you I’d been trying to interview you for years. Thanks for finally hooking me up.
Russell Simmons: My man! Of course I remember you. I felt bad. How was that possible?
KW: A lot of publicists have never heard of me.
RS: Well, it’s great to talk to you. What’s going on, baby?
KW: I didn’t get to tell you that I grew up in the same neck of the woods, in St. Albans, which is right next to Hollis.
RS: Yeah, same thing.
KW: What gave you the idea to write the book?
RS: Well, the last time I wrote a book (Do You!), I got a chance to pull together all these teachings and frame them in such a way that I could share them with other people. But honestly, I can look back on it, and admit that my motivation was a little bit selfish, because I needed to do this for my own evolution. It was a sort of a cleansing process. I expected that I could get the stuff out of me, and frame it, so I could understand it. But I didn’t appreciate the book’s potential to touch the lives of others until Oprah praised it. She was my first interview after it came out, and made it go to the top of the best-seller list. After that, people would come up to me and say that the book changed their lives. What could be more gratifying? So, that inspired me to write this book, with a little more selfless intention. This book is about remembering to remember, and the mantra to be a good giver. Good givers are great getters, and I just wanted to share that with people in a way that they could really digest it.
KW: I told my readers I was going to be speaking with you and they sent in plenty of questions. The first is from Attorney Bernadette Beekman, who gives you a big shout out as a girl from Hollis! She says: many people are so busy working they do not have time to breathe deeply or be present on a daily basis. In fact, I was speaking to a friend who is a yoga teacher-in-training yesterday and she said quite often, when she is at her full-time job at a nonprofit, she realizes that a whole day has gone by without her having breathed deeply. Russell, how, from a practical perspective, can people with worries and everyday jobs still seek a higher path?
RS: The whole book is about being conscious, and is filled with practices to bring you to presence. The book is dedicated to that mantra, that state of consciousness. We wish we could live in a state of nirvana, or a state of Christ consciousness, or a state of yoga, or Samadhi. All of them are one and the same: to be awake, to be present. That idea of Heaven on Earth is what I mean by Super Rich, and the ease that comes with needing nothing. Yoga can be defined as a state of needing nothing, and that’s what we’re looking for. So, this book is about moving towards that enlightenment.
KW: I learned a long time ago that happiness doesn’t come from the accumulation of material things.
RS: You can only sit your ass in one seat at a time.
KW: What experience prompted the transformation of your personal ideas about wealth and got you on a spiritual path?
RS: We all want to operate in order. Sometimes we have to go through struggle to realize that. Your birth in the physical form is to teach you to operate in order. I think that’s the experience. Struggle is your great teacher. I’m an older person. I was a drug dealer. I was a gang member and a lot of other things. My evolution has been gradual. When I first started practicing yoga, I remember feeling really free of anxiety momentarily. So, my journey began when I found the easing of anxiety through the physical practice of yoga. Then, the yogi scripture taught me things that I knew in my heart were true, because the study of the scripture is really the study of the self. Then I saw that what’s in the yogi scripture is also in the Bible, the Koran and the Torah, and that these practices do bring us to a more easy place. Yoga is defined as a state of needing nothing. And union with God happens, when the noise is gone.
KW: When you were growing up what did you want to do?
RS: I didn’t know what I wanted to be. Remember The Message by Grandmaster Flash? [Sings] “You see the drug dealers counting twenties and tens, and you want to grow up to be just like them.” I saw people hanging on the corner. I didn’t know any better. I was lucky enough to go to college and start to feel differently. There, I developed the courage to do something original that I was passionate about, which was music and hip-hop. I started throwing parties, and became an entrepreneur of sorts. It just kinda evolved. I didn’t have a drive to be anything in particular until I found a passion, which is what this book is about. Finding a dharma, a way to really give. But I wasn’t fortunate enough to have something I wanted to be all my life, until I started to achieve it.
KW: Jerry Lewis used to sing a song that said, “Money isn’t everything … unless you’re very poor.” How ‘easy’ is it to give this kind of spiritual advice when you’re rolling in dough?
RS: Well, there’s a story in the book about a guy who lives in a shanty house. He knows he’s got to find some bread and water each day, yet his mind’s at ease. God always provides, and he lived to be 100. Then, by contrast, there’s the anxiety-prone billionaire who’s always worried about the stock market and ends up dying in his fifties. So, you have to ask yourself, “What do we want money for? What does it do for us?” If you say money makes us happy, then examine that. Is it the toys? Is it the simplicity, the ease that money can provide? That’s not the ease that we’re seeking. It has to be to calm the mind. I say this because, when you need nothing, you can operate from abundance. Jesus taught two sermons. One for the masses, which said, if you act in accordance with these laws, then God will take care of you. The second one said, “Operate from abundance if you can.” So, the anxiety-filled followers were able to pay their taxes by listening to Jesus. But His disciples only needed to put their all into service. I have so many illustrative stories I could relate, like Puffy’s, who on the way up wanted to make sure he was doing everybody’s job. He enjoyed the work, but not because he was going to get this or that. That’s the real rap.
KW: Do you have any advice for an aspiring film maker living on ramen?
RS: Larry, stay on your hustle. You ain’t gonna starve no matter what happens. Living on ramen! My guess is he’s most likely overweight. We suffer from neediness, when in fact we already have everything. If he’s focused on being a filmmaker, and not anxiety-filled and worried about living on ramen, he will make headway. And in no case will he starve. What is he looking for?
KW: What is the most effective way to raise money for indie movie projects in 2011. What does someone like him look for before investing?
RS: Big buzz. Shoot a good little pilot to get it off the ground. Everything requires that you do the work. And if you do good enough work that people start to be inspired by it, then they join on. No one signs on just because you have an idea.
You have to keep building any business, to make it attractive. If you throw a record out the window and it don’t stick, you gotta keep pushing it. Then, one day, it’s on the radio, listeners start requesting it, and people come looking for you. You can’t chase people down with your idea; you have to turn it into equity first.
KW: Kristopher Seals asks: What are some ways a person can start up a business with little available capital? What are some of the biggest obstacles facing minorities looking to enter the business arena?
RS: I can tell you that there’s something about black culture that’s infectious, that crosses all boundaries, that gives you an edge. If he’s open to integrate, then give him a job. No company that markets any product can operate without input from black people. There’s a void, a white space. Fill that. Don’t carry the burden. A lot of time black people only speak to each other instead of to the whole room. We gotta get out of that habit.
KW: Dante Lee, author of “Black Business Secrets,” asks: What was your most fatal business decision? And what is the biggest business lesson you’ve learned?
RS: I learn from every bad decision, so none of them are my worst. When I lost the Beastie Boys, I learned that you have to have patience when you’re developing artists.
KW: “How does your spirituality and belief in Buddhism conflict with the opulent lifestyle of self-indulgence and materialism associated with rap music.
RS: I think rappers are truth-tellers. I don’t think mainstream American culture is any closer to the simplicity that I’m advocating. I’m not a Buddhist, by the way. Long before there was a Buddhist faith, there were the Yoga Sutras. Those teachings are more prescriptions for happiness, than religious dogma. As you know, I’m not a religious man, although I do work promoting dialogue among all religions as Chairman of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.
KW: In the past, we saw more rap songs about socially-conscious themes, such as MC Lyte’s “Eyes Are the Soul,” Tupac’s “Brenda’s Got a Baby” and Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First.” What needs to be done to bring back this type of hip-hop?
RS: Well, I think the climate changes in society. Themes come and go, and rappers are only reflections of that. Right now, we’re very fearful, because the economy is very bad… People are struggling… and that’s fertile ground for some of the negativity that you’re hearing on some of the records.
KW: Isn’t there a contradiction between the messages in your book and the messages in rap music?
RS: Why does she think I’m an ambassador for rap? Jesus hung out with the wine bibbers, but his message wasn’t advocating getting drunk. I have one foot in pop culture and one foot in the real world, which is spiritual. I know what’s real, and I know that pop culture can be frivolous. But I think American culture, in general, is frivolous. And I certainly don’t think that rap culture is any more frivolous than mainstream American culture. I don’t think hip-hop is as unconscious either. Rappers may say things that shock you, but I think they are poets who hold a higher moral ground than the rest of American society. That’s my opinion. Just because Kanye West said “George Bush doesn’t like black people,” doesn’t mean it’s true, but it does mean that a lot of people shared that thought.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
RS: No, I just go to work everyday, and I try to give and be a servant, although I might forget at times. But I know my mission. Through meditation and prayer, I find myself present, awake and giving for some part of the day. The most I can hope for is to become a better servant.
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
RS: That’s a good question. I’m not quite sure. Different things at different times.
KW: Are you ever afraid?
RS: Yes, I guess I’m afraid sometimes. But I generally rid myself of it. I don’t carry a lot of fear around with me.
KW: Are you happy?
RS: Yeah, I can say I’m mostly happy. Compared to what? Am I eternally blissful? No. But do I find moments when I’m ecstatic about being alive? Yes! And I have those moments more and more often the more I meditate, practice yoga, and live by these principles.
KW: When was the last time you had a good laugh?
RS: A few minutes ago being interviewed by Sean Hannity. He says such things. You have to learn to laugh all the time. It’s a practice of life. It’s a practice of happiness. In yoga, you smile and breathe in every pose.
KW: What is your guiltiest pleasure?
RS: I’m on a liquid diet, but I’m going to have some popcorn at the movies.
KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?
RS: I like to put spinach on top of olive oil, and just let it wilt for a second. And then put vegan chicken nuggets on top of it. I’m not a big chef.
KW: Who is your favorite clothes designer?
RS: It still is Tommy Hilfiger, even though he’s not hot right now. He still inspires me the most.
KW: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
RS: World peace in spirit.
KW: How do you get through the tough times?
RS: I don’t miss my prayers and I don’t miss my yoga. Those things are important to me.
KW: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
RS: Keep your head down and put one foot in front of the other. That’s how I got where I got.
KW: What price are you willing to pay for a cause that’s bigger than your own self interests?
RS: I ‘m not sure. I should say my life, but I don’t know. I can’t say my life right now.
KW: How do you want to be remembered?
RS: As a philanthropist, as a giver.
KW: Well thanks for the interview, Russell. I really appreciate it.
RS: It’s been a real pleasure speaking with you. You have my number now, Kam, don’t hesitate to call if you need anything.