He helped get rap on MTV, hip-hop fashions into Macy's and multiracial stand-up comedy into a series on HBO. Entrepreneur and philanthropist Russell Simmons has spent decades pushing the marginalized into the mainstream, and Saturday he'll be honored in a ceremony at USC by the Muslim Public Affairs Council for his support of Muslim artists (Mos Def, Dave Chappelle among them). The recent L.A. transplant spoke with Pop & Hiss about comedy, Kanye and yoga.
What's happening with your YouTube channel, All Def Digital?
We're developing projects for HBO and doing the weekly "ADD Comedy Live" [at the Chinese Theater] to give more exposure to black comedians. There was Cedric, Bernie Mac, Dave Chapelle; they all got started at a moment and there was excitement. We need to get back to that. I'm also developing films and a rap opera by a rapper I used to manage, Sticky Fingaz. Here in Hollywood I'm sure people are afraid of him, but a rap opera? It's got to happen.
You were involved with Def Jam Recordings, RUN DMC and the Beastie Boys' rise. What do you listen to now?
Everything. Well, hip hop and devotional music. I play devotional music because I practice yoga every day. I play hip hop for everything I do, except Kanye and Jay-Z. They are pretty boring. Krishna Das and Bhagavan Das aren't.
Do you worry about your support of Muslim acts backfiring given the current fears about Islam?
Whatever the level of scrutiny there, it doesn't matter. I'm here to support artists and their freedom of expression. Islamaphobia is one of the heavier burdens we have in this country. Celebrity is very valuable, and while I still have a voice I want to use it.
You've been speaking up for a while now.
That's the way I've always been — Aerosmith, Beastie Boys and "Def Comedy Jam" on HBO — putting integrated programming in the mainstream that looks like the next America, even if it's a little more progressive than America right now. People have aspirations to live in a post-racial America, even though in reality most places aren't there yet. Hollywood certainly isn't. But we have to lead in Hollywood and not be behind. Now's the opportunity to change the world and make a bunch of money.