Lessons In Leadership
"When ding business, Never be the one in the room with the most money!"
It's been said cultural icons should not be celebrated until they are gone. This gives the public the opportunity to evaluate the totality of their life to see if it was a life was worth celebrating. However, this should not be the case with the life of mogul Russell Simmons. If one person can truly be credited with steering hip-hop from the streets of New York City to the corporate offices of major music manufactures, on to Madison Avenue and then to national and international acclaim, it is without a doubt Russell Simmons. Russell’s vision made hip hop a respected art form and a movement that rendered immense social, political, and economic impact.
Together with Producer, Rick Ruben, Russell founded Def Jam Records. As a brand Def Jam has grown to incredible heights and has become synonymous with hip-hop itself with an artist roster reading like a virtual who’s who of hip- hop with names including Jay-Z, DMX, Warren G, Ja Rule, Foxy Brown, Redman, Method Man, Chingy, Ludacris, Fabulous, Young Jeezy, Rick Ross, Ace Hood, Big Sean, 2 Chanz, Kanye West and Big Sean to name a few. Furthermore, there are yet still a slew of R&B acts from Montel Jordan and Ashanti, to Musiq Soulchild, Bobby Valentino, Dru Hill, and now Rihanna, Ne-yo, Frank Ocean, Jeremih, Jhene Aiko, and Teyana Taylor.
Through Rush Artists Management Russell also once managed the careers of DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince, EPMD and more. Def Jam didn’t only sign acts they also partnered for joint venture deals, giving artists the opportunity to run their own businesses. Therefore, we also owe thanks to Def Jam for labels like Rocafella Records (Jay-Z, Kanye West, Camron, Juelz Santana, Rihanna), Murder Inc. (Ashanti, Ja Rule, Lloyd) and Ruff Ryders (DMX, Eve, Swizz Beatz) to name a few.
Growing up in Queens, NY, I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to watch and study Russell as he was becoming the mogul we know today. Taking my cues from him, while in graduate school at Howard University, I started a record label called University Records and “whad’ya know, eventually my group, Dru Hill landed on the Def Jam label.
Russell had become my mentor without even knowing it; from a far I watched him and learned these valuable lessons:
Russell was able to see a vision for hip-hop that was beyond the neighborhood and beyond New York City. The he made his vision a reality through his work.
It's hard to believe in the early years of hip-hop no record company, no radio station, no video outlet, no large venue and no major corporation wanted to have anything to do with hip-hop or its culture. Russell persistently fought to get these barriers removed.
The barriers to entry for hip-hop meant, Russell and Def Jam had to employ creativity in every aspect of the business. From the music, it’s visuals, and especially marketing and promotion.
... As fate would have it, believe it or not the next time I encountered Russell Simmons, he actually contacted me! Through mutual acquaintances, Russell heard I was active politically and wanted my help on some initiatives he was organizing. I met him on a Saturday afternoon for lunch. When I arrived I reintroduced myself once again, of course, he didn't remember me. As we talked I looked at the menu, but he advised me not to eat; he said, “we’re going to Yoga.” YOGA!
From that point on, approximately for the next three years we were together almost every day. Finally, after having a chance to engage with Russell up- close and personal, I learned even more. I learned so much about business, art, life, relationships, and politics. Russell was a great leader and gave me many business axioms that have stood the test of time including …
»1. When doing business, never be the one in the room with the most money - As an entrepreneur if you are the person in the room with the most money your purpose is defeated.
»2. Always hire people who are smarter than you - A smart person always surrounds themselves with people who are strong in areas where they are week. This way you are always learning, growing and moving forward.
»3. It's always good business to make your partners rich.- Making sure your partners are fairly compensated, insures they know they are valued. It also, increases the strength and longevity of the relationship.
What Russell did for me, he did for an entire generation of inner city youth. Through his works we learned that dreams do not have to be deferred. If you believe, have passion, are persistent, diligent and committed, we all have the power to make our dreams Manifest into reality through the works of our hands.
Russell Simmons’ vision and example has helped countless artists become multimillionaires and some even on their way to billionaire status. Even beyond music and entertainment, street kids turned entrepreneurs have had an opportunity to leverage their success to gain access to some of America’s most coveted industries including fashion, television and film, alcohol and liquor sales, sports ownership and management and even electronics. Just last year we saw Producer Dr. Dre top Forbes Riches Entertainers list for his ownership stake in Beats Audio.
In addition, Russell Simmons has demonstrated how success and social status can be leveraged to further efforts for social justice and the greater good. Even still, until this day, when it comes to issues that are important to youth like the up–rising all across America to protest police brutality in the Black Lives Matter movement, Russell Simmons can still be found, “leading from the front,” lending his voice and influence. For that we should celebrate Russell Simmons today and forever more.