The Ultimate Hustler: Russell Simmons is Born

The man whose name today has become synonymous with hip-hop and the tough urban streets was born on October 4, 1957 into a comfortable middle class family in Queens, New York. The middle son of three boys, Simmons’ father worked as a teacher for the local board of education while his mother worked in the city recreation department.

Simmons knew early on that the type of life his parents had lived was not for him. He was not a good student at school, which bored him, and he was interested in little more than making money to buy clothes. A far cry from the success he has achieved today, as a teenager Simmons joined an infamous local gang called Seven Immortals and became heavily involved with drugs. “The only people in the neighborhood who were entrepreneurs were Black Muslims and drug dealers,” recalls Simmons. His older brother Danny was arrested and jailed for drug use, but that didn’t stop Simmons from continuing down that path. Spending his days working at the Orange Julius store in Greenwich Village, Simmons spent his nights dealing fake cocaine. Legal and faring better profit margins than real cocaine, Simmons reasoned that the only people he would have to worry about were the ripped-off clients.

It was during Simmons’ time in the street gang where he learned the ropes of business – cash flow, client relations and networking. In 1975, he enrolled in the Harlem branch of the City College of New York and began pursuing a degree in sociology. But, he would not last long in school. Hip-hop was just beginning to emerge from the streets of New York and Simmons would not be able to resist its call.

Simmons’ life changed one day in 1977 when he saw a man named Eddie Cheeba rapping in a small, local club and getting the crowd excited. “Just like that, I saw how I could turn my life in another, better way,” says Simmons. With his younger brother, Joey, as an emerging rapper, Simmons could be front and centre in the hip-hop growth that was occurring.

“All the street entrepreneurship I’d learned selling herb, hawking fake cocaine, and staying out of jail, I decided to put into promoting music,” he says. Resolving to turn his life around, Simmons quit selling drugs and in 1977, became a party and concert promoter and, later, manager for hip-hop shows in the New York area. “I was very lucky not to have had the same fate as most of my friends,” he says. “My friends ended up in jail or dead.” Simmons’ first brush with success came in 1978, when he co-wrote a song for his rapper friend Kurtis Blow called “Christmas Rappin’”. The song achieved minor success and convinced Simmons that he could have a future in the industry.

Dismissed by many critics as merely a fad, Simmons recognized that hip-hop was here to stay. He quit his studies at City College and began to promote both the music and the urban culture. “The thing about hip-hop is that it’s from the underground, ideas from the underbelly, from people who have mostly been locked out, who have not been recognized,” says Simmons. Little did he or anyone else anticipate the future success that he would have in finding a mainstream audience for this underground culture.

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