One On One with Russell Simmons

This magnate runs enterprises on a karmic surplus

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Hip-hop pioneer Russell Simmons is probably best known for cofounding the record label Def Jam Recordings (home of LL Cool J, Method Man, and Nas) and for creating the Phat Farm urban clothing line. Since selling his stake in those companies, Simmons, 51, has turned his seemingly boundless energy toward shepherding several educational and humanitarian organizations: the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, the Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation, and the Diamond Empowerment Fund. Simmons, who embraced a vegan diet in 2000, is also the author of the 2007 best-selling motivational guide Do You! 12 Laws to Access the Power in You to Achieve Happiness and Success.

Q How do you stay focused with all you’ve got going on?
A Meditation. As part of my morning routine I light a candle and sit still for 30 minutes. And every day, no matter what, I practice yoga, the moving meditation.

Q You’ve said you base your spiritual practice on [the yoga texts] the Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad-Gita, and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Did your spiritual practice lead to your vegan diet?
A Yes, it did. My motivation for eliminating animal products from my diet was [the Hindu and Buddhist practice] ahimsa, or nonviolence. If you really want to live a happy life, cut the animal products from your diet.

Q How has your spiritual practice influenced your business practice?
A I never chase money. I used to think that money was part of the reward, but they can’t pay you enough to make you feel good about something you don’t really enjoy. I’ve found that the more I enjoy giving something that’s lasting and promotes happiness, the more lasting happiness I have. It’s always evolving and there’s always going to be some amount of suffering, but I’ve found my businesses through giving what I think is good.

Q You grew up hustling drugs on the streets of Queens, N.Y. When did spirituality become a cornerstone in your life?
A I was always spiritual; I just didn’t know it. My awareness of it happened gradually after my first yoga practice with Steve Ross in Los Angeles almost 15 years ago. After that first class, which was just about connecting to the breath, I felt a shift. I’d thought that the energy and driving force of my success in business was based on the anxiety that accompanied it—that I had to stay worried to stay focused. But the anxiety was really what distracted me. I found out that you actually get more when you let go.

Q You’re considered the Godfather of Hip-Hop. Did you ever think the music would become as culturally influential as it has today?
A No, of course not. I just was lucky to be along for the ride.

Q You’re driven by the belief that hip-hop can be an agent for social change. How so?
A Hip-hop artists and the community have helped me do so many good things. We’ve registered thousands of voters through the National Hip-Hop Team Vote Campaign, and we want to register more. The Hip-Hop Summit Action Network [which Simmons formerly chaired] held a rally in 2002 that got $300 million added back into the New York City education budget. And we helped spearhead the first changes to New York State’s Rockefeller Drug Laws since 1973 [via the Drug Law Reform Act of 2004]. When Governor George Pataki signed the legislation, he gave me the pen. That meant he gave hip-hop the pen.

Q What direction would you like to see hip-hop take in the future?
A I’d like to see hip-hop artists continue to tell the truth. That hasn’t changed. Sometimes people don’t like what they have to say, but what rappers say isn’t an issue for me. It’s what they don’t say that bothers me.