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Queens hip-hop king: Simmons’ new book describes life on the streets of Hollis

literature over the last hundred years. Russell Simmons’s new book, “Life and Def,” not only redefines the American dream to suit his life and story, but he takes us on a journey, an...

By Matthew D’Olimpio

The America dream has been defined and redefined countless times in

literature over the last hundred years. Russell Simmons’s new book, “Life and Def,” not only redefines the American dream to suit his life and story, but he takes us on a journey, an adventure.

Simmons walks us through his life from his birth in Jamaica on Oct. 4, 1957. The narrative moves to the streets of Hollis when he was 8, to his days as a drug-dealing youth, as a student at PS 134 in St. Albans and JHS 109 in Queens Village, as a hustling teen and as a concert promoter and to the early incarnation of DefJam and Rush Management.

He was the man behind the scene of such acts as the Queens-based Run-DMC and LL Cool J and evolved into the financial entrepreneur and megastar millionaire of today.

In the beginning of the book written with Nelson George (Crown Publishers $24), we are told how everything that happened to Simmons affected him later. He freely admits to selling and smoking marijuana, selling coca leaf incense as cocaine on the streets of Manhattan and even describes how he almost killed a man.

“His street name was Red, which he earned for his reddish yellow complexion and his nasty devilish temper,” Simmons tells the reader about the man in the introduction.

Simmons rationalizes his time as a drug dealer as the lifestyle he not only wanted but had to have to survive. In order to be the man he was, he needed his expensive clothes, his expensive sneakers and cash in his pocket. Even when his father forced him to work at the Orange Julius in Greenwich Village, he was still figuring out ways to hustle on the outside.

When he began to leave the drug and hustling game, he did it only because he found a much more appropriate alternative, hip-hop. Since he was so connected to the urban and specifically black youth of New York, Simmons was able to be everywhere hip-hop was and know everybody he needed to know to start promoting shows and establishing himself as something more than a drug dealer.

The variety of skills the street taught him, he claims repeatedly, were exactly why he was able to be the successful businessman who calls all the shots today. Whether it was DJ Hollywood, Robert Ford or, most importantly, Rick Rubin, the founder of DefJam, he was able to charm and hold ground with everyone he met.

While on occasion his arguments about his street skills and his business skills are a bit faulty, it is clear that he attributes his life as an urban youth on the street to his present-day success

The rest of the book is really a series of anecdotes about Simmons’ life. He talks about his problems, and there were many, with the Sony Corporation. He mentions his distaste for racism toward white people or black people. He explains that it is not about race but about the “core.”

“You simply can’t say ‘black’ or ‘crossover’ because it’s more complex than that,” Simmons says. “The key is that all kinds of different groups make up the core.”

He advises his readers continuously not to hold grudges. Simmons talks about his wife briefly and manages to mention a number of the different models and actresses he dated as he climbed the ladder. He also talks about his respect for different hip-hop acts, such as Chuck D of Public Enemy, and how the West Coast’s response with Gangsta Rap in 1990 to the East Coast’s stranglehold on the rap world affected the hip-hop scene.

Whatever story Simmons tells, he manages to make it enjoyable, interesting and conversational. Throughout the entire book he flows with the beauty of an old sage graciously telling youth the story of his very interesting life and all the things they can learn from him.

“My whole career has been about cultivating, understanding and expanding this core audience for hip-hop culture and then watching the effects ripple out into the mainstream,” he says.

His biggest problem is how forced his modesty tends to be. He thinks much more highly of himself than he wants to let on. He only subtly refers to his greatness, which while admirable is downplayed too insincerely to be truly commendable.

“I don’t expect everyone to agree with my views,” he says in the book. “In fact, I’m sure some readers will be hostile to the idea that hip-hop is a culture at all.”

Each and every yarn Simmons tells has a familiarity that makes it seem he no longer lives for hip-hop. He now is concentrating on how to pass along his story to the next generation.

The book is only a start for Simmons, who demonstrates in his freshman attempt that he can communicate effectively, especially to urban youth. Simmons, who today is one of the stars among American businessman, has used DefJam and Phat Pharm as well as his other companies to be the parents of the newest and fastest growing cultural movement in America.

While it would be a loss to the hip-hop world to see him take a complete backseat, his role as a teacher, guide and writer perfectly suit the next stage in his long and complex development.

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