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Hollis’ Russell Simmons left impression on more than music

TimesLedger Newspapers

Born Oct. 4, 1957, in Hollis, Russell Simmons is known as the “godfather of hip-hop.” He has made his mark on American culture as a music promoter, an entrepreneur and a social activist.

Escaping from a youth spent on the streets selling drugs, he struggled in his early career but went on to co-found Def-Jam Recordings in 1984 and later the Simmons Lathan Media Group, a film and television production company.

Simmons was married to fashion model Kimora Lee until 2009 and has two daughters. His wedding was officiated by his brother, the Rev. Joseph Simmons, also known as “Run” from the hip-hop group Run-DMC.

Simmons was the second of three boys raised by Evelyn Simmons in the eastern Queens neighborhood. When he was a young boy, the formerly middle-class community was overrun by illicit drugs and street crime.

“Our neighborhood was ruined by drugs,” he recalls. “My corner in Hollis, on 205th Street, was the drug trading capital of Queens.”

The future entrepreneur was almost consumed by those streets, spending much of his youth on the corner selling marijuana and fake cocaine.

Losing many childhood friends to violence and jail led the young man to choose a different course in life. His dream began to take shape one day in 1977. After hearing an MC spin the vinyl at a party in a small club, he decided to promote parties featuring the new style of music known as hip-hop.

The early years were tough, and he often lost money on his events and found himself penniless. He remembers his mother Evelyn as a strong guiding force in the early days, giving him money, encouraging him to continue and believing in his future.

One of Simmons’ earliest successes was the backing he provided to brother Joseph’s group, the now famous Run-DMC, which helped bring urban hip-hop to mainstream America. The Queens native went on to co-found the Def-Jam Recordings label with Rick Rubin in 1984. From managing stars such as Will Smith and the Beastie Boys, Simmons also signed well-known performers Jay Z, LL Cool J and Ludacris to record their music.

The 54-year-old Hollis native has also produced blockbuster, big screen hits and television series. In addition to creating “Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry” and “Def Comedy Jam” on HBO, his Simmons Lathan Media Group, which he founded with business partner Stan Lathan, also turned out the 1996 box office smash “The Nutty Professor” starring Eddie Murphy.

His ventures have since extended far beyond the entertainment world. After leaving Def-Jam in 1999, Simmons brought his business acumen to the world of fashion, creating the urban brand Phat Farm, which paved the way for a whole new generation of bold fashion labels by other designers, such as Sean John and Roc-A-Wear.

In recent years, the entrepreneur has co-founded Unirush Financial Services, offering reloadable debit cards to those rejected or underserved by the consumer banking industry. In 2006, Russell Simmons became the first black American to launch a major jewelry brand. Simmons Jewelry Co. now provides men’s accessories to leading retailers, including Zales.

In spite of his unimagined success, this son of Queens has not forgotten his roots. Having built his business empire, he gives considerable money and time offering a hand to those less fortunate. In 1995, He founded the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation, which provides disadvantaged youngsters an outlet for expression in the arts. Simmons also launched the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network in 2001 with civil rights activist Dr. Benjamin Chavis. The group uses music as a vehicle to advocate education and political awareness among at-risk youth. Simmons has come a long way from humble beginnings.

Notable quote: “Any kind of lasting success is rooted in honesty.”

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