Up From Hustling: Power, Plantations and the Hip-Hop Mogul

Mark Anthony

These groups [the black poor of the Mississippi Delta] learned a painful lesson that many scholars have yet to learn; slavery and the plantation are not an anathema to capitalism but are pillars of it…Slavery, sharecropping, mechanization, and prison, wage, and migratory labor are just a few permutations possible within a plantation complex. None of these forms changes the basic features of resource monopoly and extreme ethnic and class polarization.
-- Clyde Woods1

Of course, they had fun. Hearing yourself on the radio, selling records. Getting new fans and being on TV is great, but now the band doesn’t have enough money to pay the rent and nobody has any credit.  Worst of all, after all this, the band owns none of its work.  They can pay the mortgage forever, but they’ll never own the house.  Like I said: Sharecropping.
-- Courtney Love

During the opening session of my course on Black Popular Culture, I often attempt to challenge my students’ assumptions about power and money and the relationship of those assumptions to black life and culture.  For the past few years I’ve done so by presenting a lecture titled the “The National Basketball Association as Post-Modern Plantation” and without fail it achieves its desired goals; namely to agitate enough students, who, in their irritation, generally fail to see how professional athletes who have been paid in the past as much as $30 million a year to essentially “play” basketball could possibly be compared to enslaved blacks. Their responses, likely a product of the realization that they will spend most of their adults lives “slaving” for $50,000 a year, is also a product of their inability¾and that of most of the nation for that matter¾to make distinctions between the practice of chattel slavery, as it existed prior to the 20th century, and the social, political and economic functions of plantations.

In the popular American mind, plantations are synonymous with chattel slavery.  As the above epigram from Clyde Woods suggests, chattel slavery may have “died” but the function of the plantation has survived, be it refashioned as the sharecropping tradition in the deep south of the early 20th century, the prison industrial complex—itself a corporate refashioning of prison plantations like the infamous Parchment prison farm—or in the technology and biomedical programs at prestigious research universities.  I use the metaphor of the NBA to my students precisely because it so powerfully obscures the nature of the relationship between labor and capital, where laborers are not simply commodities, but where the labor itself—not necessarily the product of that labor—is a commodity.  It is this uniqueness for professional ballplayers that necessitates the high salaries they can demand.  In the NBA the finished product, which can be equated simply with wins and losses, is not nearly as important as the labor that the players perform as “entertainers.”  For instance Jeff Horneacek, who could hit a jump-shot from anywhere on the basketball court and was a member of a consistently accomplished Utah Jazz, could never hope to be a drawing card.  In contrast, folks pay to see Vince Carter stylishly contort his body in mid-air regardless of the Toronto Raptors’ winning percentage. Regardless of the salaries that professional ballplayers can attract, the reality is that it is a profession that is largely based on the exploitation of black masculine expression—even by white players such as Brent Berry or Jayson “white chocolate” Williams—for the benefit of single-family and individual owners or multinational conglomerates such as Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation which controls a 40% interest in the New York Knickerbockers, via the corporation’s ownership of Fox Entertainment.

Perhaps an equally powerful exploitation of black expression occurs in the recording industry, which Courtney Love pointedly refers to as a form of “sharecropping.”    In contrast to the NBA players, whose power is generally perceived solely within the province of their accumulation of personal wealth and material goods, the figure of the “Hip-Hop Mogul” has emerged in recent years and has been pronounced a major player within the culture and entertainment industries.  According to an article in Black Enterprise magazine, these moguls want “control.  They want to build empires.  They want to keep their share of the profits.  And more than all of these things, they want to be the power brokers in an industry in which much of the talent is black, but most of the decision makers are not.”2 It was nearly a decade ago that hip-hop artist KRS-One, industry icon Russell Simmons, and iconoclast critic and noted curmudgeon Stanley Crouch appeared together on the Charlie Rose show, where Crouch repeatedly and derisively referred to Simmons as a “mogul.” Crouch used the term to suggest Simmons’ complicity in the “gangsterization” of black youth, which Crouch has consistently argued is rooted in the proliferation hip-hop culture, but also to defuse KRS-One’s assertion that the form represented a legitimate type of resistance against many insidious conditions including police brutality.3 Several years later I sat at an academic conference in which a presenter held up a Vibe magazine cover photo of Simmons with No Limit founder and CEO Percy “Master P” Miller and Bad Boy Entertainment impresario Sean “Puffy” Combs as evidence of the reanimation of Black Nationalism in America.  While the presenter’s assertion problematically reduced Black nationalist thought and practice to the actions of black corporate capitalists such as the aforementioned trio, I was struck by the presenter’s attempt to recover and reconstruct the proverbial “Hip-Hop Mogul” as legitimate “race man.”

Whereas the Bill Clinton era largely began with his infamous Rainbow Coalition speech where he admonished rap activist Sister Souljah (Lisa Williamson) for her “anti-white views,” when the Clinton presidency came to a close black popular culture was dominated by standard “Big Willie-isms.”  The term “Big Willie-ism” is a reference to the excesses, or “big Willie” styles, that have come to dominate contemporary black popular culture—mirroring the personal and political excesses of the Clinton administration perhaps—as witnessed by the frequent references to “bling bling” and “booty.” At the time of Clinton’s attack on Sista Soulja, black popular culture was partially defined, if only symbolically, by distinctly political voices such as Public Enemy, KRS-One, Spike Lee, a culturally exhumed Malcolm X, and also by various expressions of lay Afrocentrism and faux-black nationalism. That moment was partially marked by the struggles of artists to articulate trenchant political narratives—Ice T and Paris immediately come to mind—in the face of corporate circumspection and public censure.  These struggles were in part predicated on a dearth of well-positioned black industry insiders who could better mediate such challenges on behalf of artists.  Even Russell Simmons, who is generally regarded as the template for hip-hop moguls, was unable to defuse the charges of “anti-Semitism” directed at the group Public Enemy, who recorded for his Def Jam during the height of their popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In contrast to that moment, such insiders are now in fact hyper-visible, so much so that some of them serve multiple roles as “ghetto-fab” entrepreneurs, star producers and artists in their own right.  As entertainment lawyer L. Londell McMillan admitted in an interview, “It’s become part of the hip-hop culture to become a business mogul...rappers are talking about everything from recoupment status to publishing rights and ownership of their music.”4 While such a reality obviously reflects a retreat from the blatant political themes of hip-hop artists a half generation ago, I am struck by the ways that crass materialism, forms of hyper-consumption and what Tariq Muhammad calls an “aesthetic of entrepreneurship” have been posited as political acts themselves, that ultimately fail to productively undermine or subvert, in any meaningful ways, the relationship of labor to capital but re-inscribe political and social hierarchies within black popular culture and its institutions, under the guise of achieving what the Lox so powerfully articulated, “money, power and respect.”  Within this context the performance of power on digitized recordings and in musical videos has become a facsimile of real political and economic power within the larger society.  The disconnect between the “performance of power” and the engines of global corporate capitalism is particularly striking because of the relationship between the “empires” of so-called “Hip-Hop Moguls” and the conglomerates that back their boutique labels.  As Norman Kelley observes...

The relationship between black music and the “Big Six” [the major corporate music labels] is a postmodern form of colonialism. In classic colonialism (or neocolonialism), products were produced in a ‘raw periphery’ and sent back to the imperial ‘motherland’ to be finished into commodities and sold in the metropolitan centers or sent back to the colonies, resulting in the stunting of the colony’s economic growth due to being denied the ability to engage in manufacturing products for its own needs and for export.5

Kelley’s comments highlight several problematic aspects of the relationship between “Hip-Hop Moguls” and the major recording industry corporations, which since the publication of his essay in 1999, have ostensibly been reduced to a “Big Three.”  The process in which “raw” cultural products are stripped from black ghetto publics and processed, packaged and sold back to these very ghetto publics has been incredibly instrumental in the stunting of the aesthetic vision of hip-hop. Often that which is privileged in the mainstream marketplace, particularly when it is labeled as “hardcore” or “underground” (see the commercial success of Jay Z for a model), is prized as more “authentic” than that which is still organically produced within those ghetto publics. The continual exploitation of black artists and “black” culture is the most obvious residual effect of this relationship, particularly given the rather horrendous history of black artists who were not paid fairly or were just outright cheated out of royalties for their work in the past.  In a particularly trenchant comment about the Gordon Parks film Leadbelly, Clyde Taylor observes that “the unsettling equation between free (forced) labor and expropriated Black Culture forms a pivot [in the film] where the alternative to a prison labor camp is the exploitation of the hero’s musical genius.”6 Within this context it is easy to understand why so many black artists submitted to forms of artistic exploitation. The conditions that existed for Rhythm & Blues, Jazz, Gospel, and Blues performers of the past, who made little if any money off their actual recordings, forced them into a perpetual state of touring.  While the incessant need to tour had the powerful residual effect of furthering so many art forms—think of Duke Ellington and James Brown as just two examples of this effect—and allowed various regional styles of performance to be shared nationally, it also had damaging effects on the emotional and physical health of many performers.  The tragic premature deaths of Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Fats Navarro are three unfortunate examples of the darker side of this effect.

Ironically, much of the exploitation of contemporary black artists is in fact celebrated in the mainstream because of the hyper-visibility of the “Hip-Hop Mogul” which gives the impression of “black” control of black cultural products.  The reality is that many of these moguls, be it Russell Simmons during his reign as CEO of Def Jam or Sean “Puffy/P-diddy” Combs at Bad Boy Entertainment, are for the most part “gatekeepers” or overseers of black (ghetto) cultural products, protecting the economic interests of the global conglomerates who back their labels.  Many of these conglomerates accept Antonio L.A. Reid’s claim that black industry executives “understand black artists…understand them better than anybody.”7 Reid, who was recently removed as President of the Arista/BMG family of labels, asserts that white executives don’t know how to market black artists, “so how can they effectively market records to our people.”8

While the “power” that Simmons and Combs possess doesn’t translate easily in the economic mainstream, it does grant them the means to accumulate significant personal wealth and positions as powerful arbiters of black cultural style and “bootstrap” entrepreneurship.  In this regard they serve as post-modern examples of the classic chattel slavery-era “overseers” who derived power and influence as the autonomous gatekeepers of plantation publics. Since the Emancipation Proclamation, Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Machine is of course the definitive example of this model of “leadership” in the black community, though there are many examples of black political, economic and cultural gatekeepers that function in very significant ways in contemporary black life, be it in leadership positions within the Democratic Party or as the heads of the National Baptist Convention or the Urban League. While the reach of Combs and Simmons is ostensibly limited to the entertainment and fashion industries, increasingly, particularly in the case of Simmons, this influence is extending into the spheres of mainstream black political activism and economic development. According to business journalist Tariq K. Muhammad, “Like medieval lords, these princes of the ghetto are establishing fiefdoms they hope will endure beyond their reign at the top of the charts.”9 In the worst case this scenario helps sanction black-on-black exploitation in the name of black economic and political development.

This essay will scrutinize several aspects of the Hip-Hop Mogul phenomenon by focusing closely on the industry’s most visible icon. The first section will examine the emergence of Russell Simmons as the definitive “Hip-Hop mogul,” paying particular attention to his recently published autobiography Life and Def: Sex, Drugs, Money, and God and its close affinity to Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery.  The final section will explicitly critique the Hip-Hop Summit held in New York City in June 2001.  The conference brought together mainstream black political leadership, celebrated black public intellectuals, and major hip-hop industry insiders and gatekeepers.  The Summit seemed a blatant attempt on the part of the black political mainstream to have access to the formidable corporate coffers of hip-hop, while industry figures, most notably Simmons, attempted to secure mainstream validation as a legitimate “race man.”

A Hustler’s Confession: Life and Times of the Hip-Hop Mogul

Autobiographical disclosure has a long and esteemed history within African-American arts and letters.  Some of these narratives have been invaluable to pundits and politicos hoping to wish away America’s complicated racial history—how prevalent can racism really be when bookstore shelves are filled with so many autobiographical success stories written by blacks?  There has been another strand of black autobiography in which the authors use such forms of disclosure to frame their larger political and social ambitions. Colin Powell’s My American Journey looms large in this regard. Booker T. Washington’s classic Up From Slavery is one that fits both aspects of the genre. Published in 1901, Washington’s book at once allowed his story to be exploited by Southern segregationists desiring to maintain the political status quo, while also positioning the Tuskegee founder to be the “point man” within the black community for those asking, as Adolph Reed said so eloquently a few years ago, “Booker, what are the drums saying?”10 According to Reed, “Washington became the singular, trusted informant to communicate to whites what the Negro thought, felt, wanted, needed.”11 Implicit in Reed’s commentary, which linked the role that Washington filled at the beginning of the 20th century to those  of “Black Public Intellectuals” in the 1990s, is that figures emerge as gatekeepers to the extent that they articulate (to whites) an authentic view of life within the publics they presumably speak for.

Such themes are not beyond the scope of Russell Simmons’ recently published autobiography, Life and Def: Sex, Drugs, Money and God. Throughout the book (co-written with Nelson George) Simmons blithely celebrates the life of the “hip hop” mogul in an opportunistic global marketplace, while positioning himself as part of the next generation of black political brokers.  I contend that many of the themes within Simmons’ autobiography can be traced to Washington’s Up From Slavery, but that there are key differences that are largely associated with the value of black labor versus the labor of black popular culture. In other words, where Washington traded in the value of a largely landlocked black southern working class to an agrarian based economy in the south, Simmons explicitly trades in the value of the styles, language and music of a largely landlocked urban working and underclass to transnational corporations. In either case, both men take for granted a social model of control and surveillance where there is only subtle difference between a literal plantation in the case of Washington and a metaphoric plantation in the case of Simmons and the Rush Communications empire. Def Jam, the recording label that Simmons co-founded with Rick Rubin in 1984, is the flagship product among a host of “urban” culture entities that bear Simmons’ mark, including the Def Jam comedy and poetry series and Phat Farm clothing.

Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute represented a model of social relations that allowed for the maintenance, control, and surveillance of black bodies in the south.  Houston Baker, Jr. observes, “On, and out of what I want to call a field of abjection—an immobilizing suspension of black-South body rights of the ‘southern districts’—Mr. Washington constructed and maintained his Tuskegee plantation” (Turning South, 95).  Referencing Michel Foucault’s work on the “Panopticon,” Baker writes, “individuals incarcerated in the panopticon are inserted in a fixed place where their slightest movements are supervised and all events recorded…Shackled in the panopticon, individuals are constantly located, examined, distributed among living beings, the sick and the dead” (97).  In Baker’s opinion, “Tuskegee implicitly promises such motionlessness and access to the state” (97).   Examining Washington’s relocation of Tuskegee Institute from its initial site in a black church and onto the plantation in which it currently resides, Baker opines that “the move out of town and back to the plantation reveals…Tuskegee Institute as the perfect disciplinary project of its southern time and place” (83).  Thus Washington’s Tuskegee model not only helped maintain the racial and class hierarchy of the South at the beginning of the 20th century, but also buttressed Washington’s position as the primary overseer of the masses consigned to Tuskegee and same-styled southern plantations.

Russell Simmons has been instrumental in the creation of a mechanism that achieves many of these same objectives, by trading on the perception that black popular culture represents an authenticated black experience. The “authentic” black experience, parlayed through the rap music and videos and films that Def Jam and other “urban” entertainment companies specialize in, has been subsequently used to inform public policy, particularly on issues that primarily affect hip-hop’s primary constituency, black urban youth.  While I’m well aware that white youth represent the largest group of consumers of hip-hop music, I am making a distinction here between consumers of hip-hop and those audiences (and consumers) that the music and culture has organic roots with and ostensibly aims to represent.  In other words, even though hip-hop’s audience base is well beyond the “ghetto-hoods” that it sprang from nearly 30 years ago, it is clear that hip-hop’s primary concern is in representing the “reality” of black urban life.  It is in this context that the roles of black urban entrepreneurs like Simmons, Sean Combs, Shawn Carter (Jay Z) and Percy Miller, to name just a few, are more clearly tied to a figure like Booker T. Washington. The very livelihoods of Simmons et al are intricately tied to their perceived proximity to black urban enclaves (plantations) and their ability to deliver authentic (popular) cultural artifacts to a marketplace and buyers that have an interest in distributing (selling) and consuming (appropriating) these products.

Simmons is keenly aware of his positioning within the culture industry and black urban publics throughout Life and Def. Less an autobiography and more a linear collection of disjointed commentaries, Life and Def opens with an innocuous moral tale about Simmons almost shooting a rival drug dealer.  The dealer, named Red, robbed Simmons while he was selling “herb” (marijuana) on a street corner in Hollis, Queens in 1973. While Simmons admits that getting robbed was an “occupational hazard” for drug dealers, he uses the event to frame his own authenticity within black urban culture of the early 1970s.  In this instance his “ghetto rep” depended on how he responded to the robbery; as Simmons writes, “there was a lingering question among my drug-dealing peers: If Russell sees Red, what’s he gonna do?” (Life and Def, xi)   Simmons’ response, two weeks after the robbery, was to “let that nigga have it” as he tracks Red down and fires a .45 caliber pistol at Red’s back.  The bullet misses and Simmons reflects that it was the “best thing I ever did” (xii).  According to Simmons the incident led him to rethink the trajectory of his life.  Whatever life lessons were learned, apparently the most important was the ethos of street hustling which Simmons shortly translated into his career as a club promoter and later as a corporate hustler. According to Simmons, “All the street entrepreneurship I’d learned selling herb, hawking fake cocaine and staying out of jail, I decided to put into promoting” (35).

Simmons’ recollection of his experience with Red serves several purposes.  In the broad context of Life and Def, the narrative establishes Simmons’ moral trajectory: the boy from the ‘hood realizes his wrongful deeds and transforms himself into a hip-hop mogul.  But the Red narrative also serves to better position Simmons within the “culture” that his business interests are inextricably tied to.  According to Simmons, his tale “sounds like a lyric from a rap by Slick Rick or Chuck D…it’s the kind of real-life story that has inspired hip-hop’s storytellers for over twenty years” (xii).   Simmons’ interest in connecting his Red narrative to the general themes within hip-hop—what he defines as “stories of decisions and danger with deep moral and emotional consequence”—is motivated by a desire to read hip-hop as a collection of tales of “moral uplift,” but perhaps most importantly to establish his own organic connection to those tales (xii).  Raised in the lower middle-class/middle-class environ of Hollis, Queens (New York City), Simmons could very easily be perceived as an interloper, so his fictive connection to “life on the streets” serves as a prefigured “ghetto pass.”12 His authenticity validated, Simmons can now make the claim, as he does in the book’s introduction, that his life “has largely been about promoting the anger, style, aggression and attitude of urban America to a worldwide audience” (xii).   Simmons adds that he has “helped to sell the culture of hip-hop by identifying, nurturing, and promoting artists…who can take life-defining moments like my confrontation with Red and turn them into commercial products that, at their highest level, become objects of art” (xiii).

Given Simmons’ rather tenuous connection to “authentic” ghetto-culture (unless of course chasing a drug dealer with a gun conveys such authenticity), his further claim that he has been instrumental in the promotion of that culture is also rather tenuous.  While it is clear that Simmons has been the most visible and effective promoter of hip-hop culture, as a commercial entity hip-hop in and of itself may not necessarily be a pure distillation of black urban life.  Simmons inadvertently undermines this claim himself very early in the book when he says that he’d “never steal or rob people,” but that he had “no problem selling fake cocaine to whomever came along.” Simmons’ comment offers crucial insight into an individual who has, better than anyone, exploited mainstream desires to consume vicariously an authentic “ghetto” experience via Def Jam and Phat Farm products (27).  Like the fake cocaine that buyers knowingly consumed, Simmons has essentially sold a fake bill of goods, in the sense that what is bought and sold in the open market of commodified blackness is anything but authentic, but rather stylized perceptions of black life, packaged for mass consumption. Whether in the context of selling fake cocaine or my suggestion that Simmons trades in “fake” blackness, Simmons tries to justify his actions by making a distinction between “dishonesty” and outright theft.  His comments are parallel to Washington’s description of an act of theft on the part of his mother.  Washington and his siblings were awakened late one night by their mother who wanted to feed them a chicken she had just prepared.  Washington recollects that the chicken was “procured from our owner’s farm.  Some people may call this theft…taking place at the time it did, no one could ever make me believe that my mother was guilty of thieving. She was simply a victim of the system of slavery” (Up From Slavery, 3).

Washington’s defense of his mother’s actions suggests that in the face of terror, violence and other forms of assault, including various forms of economic exploitation such as chattel slavery and sharecropping, certain responses, no matter how “immoral,” can be justified. Embracing such logic, Simmons, for instance, later justifies his own  “dishonesty” in negotiations with the management of PolyGram. Attempting to free himself and the Def Jam label from an inequitable distribution deal with the Sony corporation, Simmons approached PolyGram to see if they would be willing to become engaged in a more favorable distribution deal.  Simmons recalls that the “trick of the deal for us was not to let PolyGram know how badly we needed the money.  We told them (and they believed) they were bidding against SONY and others for Def Jam.  I don’t think PolyGram’s management ever realized that there was no one else to buy Def Jam” (Life and Def, 113).  Though this case presents a radically different context than the one that Washington’s mother responds to, I would like to suggest similar justifications have been used (particularly if one accepts that being denied access to the mainstream marketplace is tantamount to racial oppression and exploitation) by figures such as Washington and Simmons to vindicate some of their more questionable actions including the active exploitation, on their part, of other blacks.

Washington articulates his concerns for those other blacks—the landlocked masses of the black south at the turn of the 20th century—in his oft-cited “Atlanta Exposition Address.”  In the address Washington, who for all intents argues for the continued exploitation of blacks in the Post-Reconstruction south, contends that “in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labour [my emphasis] and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life” (Up From Slavery, 153).   In this passage, read to an audience largely comprised of white elites and politicians and reprinted in Up From Slavery, Washington ratifies the position of blacks on the lowest economic and social tier of the south. In Washington’s view “struggle” or economic and political exploitation was a prerequisite to social “privilege” (155).

While Washington has been rightfully castigated for his public capitulation to the realities of southern segregation, including the maintenance of a sharecropping class and penal farms such as Parchment, I am more interested in the ways that Washington’s support of these systems of oppression was connected to the buttressing of his own role as “gatekeeper.”  Throughout Up From Slavery, Washington places significant value on his own ability, to use a tattered phrase, “to lift himself up by his bootstraps.” Washington’s view of himself as an “elite” is predicated on his acceptance of the “common occupations” of life.  But in order to fully articulate a distinction between himself and the landlocked black masses, Washington openly embraces some of the stock “stereotypes” of blacks in that era.  Arguing that Washington’s desire to tame the “black” beast was directly influenced by the musings of his mentor General Samuel Armstrong, Baker writes, “Washington came to associate the black body’s uninstructed appetites (whether for sex or consumers goods such as sewing machines and home musical organs) with dirt.  Such black appetites were indeed, mental, material, and corporeal matters out of place” (Turning South, 57).   Thus as one that has been “cleansed,” Washington found duty in “overseeing” the landlocked masses of the South at Tuskegee and beyond.

Russell Simmons, at least at the time that he begins his career in the late 1970s, has no designs on overseeing the black urban masses.  Simmons instead is concerned with monopolizing the presentation and distribution of the “new” culture emitting from black urban life.  Whereas Washington metaphorically and in some cases physically “colonized” the landlocked masses of the black South, Simmons was instead angling to “colonize” black (popular) urban culture.  Ensconced in the language of black economic development, Simmons admits as much in Life and Def, arguing that “there’s an opportunity, with black culture being so strong and racism somewhat relieved, that we can own some things and build our businesses beyond serving niche markets. The energy and creativity of Black art and creativity has been the engine driving American art for decades; it’s time that black businesses use that same energy and creativity to compete in the widest possible playing field” (177).  Given the complex plantation-like networks that the fashion and entertainment industries represent, Simmons seems to argue that if black culture must be exploited in the name of global consumption, it had better be done in a context where the coffers of the community’s gatekeepers can be filled, in theory, to the benefit of the black masses whom they ostensibly represent.  In this regard, Simmons’ desire to reach beyond “black” consumers (niche markets) also parallels Washington’s work.  Like Simmons, Washington desired to find consumers of Tuskegee’s brick industry beyond the black South, though he found a more practical political reason for reaching out to those markets.

Tuskegee’s struggles at creating bricks to use to build the “new” institute on Washington’s just purchased plantation are well known (embracing the benign mantra “if you don’t succeed at first, try, try again).13 But Washington’s eventual success provided him with the means to produce bricks for “mass” consumption.  Washington writes of that success, “The making of these bricks taught me an important lesson in regard to the relations of the two races in the South.  Many white people who had no contact with the school, and perhaps no sympathy with it, came to us to buy bricks because they found that ours were good bricks. They discovered that we were supplying a real want in the community” (Up From Slavery, 106).  Washington adds, in a dig at black activists like Du Bois or Monroe Trotter, “The actual sight of a first-class house that a Negro built is ten times more potent than pages of discussion about a house he ought to build” (107).  In comparison, Simmons emerges at a historical moment in which white desires to consume black art and culture had been openly acknowledged. As the literal entrepreneurial progeny of figures like Motown founder Berry Gordy or Philadelphia International impresarios Leon Huff and Kenneth Gamble, Simmons clearly understood, not just the desire by whites to consume black popular culture in a general sense, but more importantly the desires of some whites, particularly white youth to consume vicariously that which is packaged and promoted as authentic “blackness,” a sentiment that has been powerfully articulated in work as varied as Mezz Mezzrow’s autobiography, Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro,” and most recently Danny Hoch’s film Whiteboyz.

Simmons is intent on tapping into this “tradition,” acknowledging that “The coolest stuff about American culture—be it language, dress, and attitude—comes from the underclass” (Life and Def, 24).  Flossing a bit about his own prescient vision in this regard, Simmons asserts “I meet with consultants and they give me research findings that say exactly what I’ve known since at least 1983—urban street culture is the most trend setting in America. The streets reaffirmed Polo.  They gave Versace a new audience.  They made Tommy Hilfiger from scratch.  They made beepers part of everyday American life. They made jeeps cool.  They’ve effected a cultural change” (82-83).  Here Simmons is focused on the impact that “street” culture (and presumably street people) have had on some of the emblems of mainstream style and haute couture fashion.  Underlying his comments is a tacit affirmation of the illicit drug economy of the inner city that allowed drug dealers to purchase SUVs and other emblems of affordable high-style like clothes from Polo and Hilfiger.  One of the most widely traveled clichés of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when black urban culture began to embrace “wireless” technology, was that of the “drug dealer” and his beeper.  While Simmons’ celebratory gesture toward the influences of the illicit drug economy neglects the real-time impact that the crack-cocaine epidemic has on the very black underclass that he claims possesses the “coolest” culture in America, it also neglects to acknowledge the rather tenuous relationship between the hyper-commodification of black urban culture and the material conditions of black urban populations.  Whatever economic impact the hip-hop/urban industry has had on individual artists, producers, video directors, promoters, A&R personnel and label presidents, it is fairly clear that that impact has not dramatically altered economic conditions within black urban enclaves.

Nevertheless, Simmons welcomes the claim that he has had a significant impact on the economic conditions of Black America. Examining his business partnership with Black Entertainment Television (BET) founder and current CEO Robert Johnson, Simmons writes that he and Johnson are “two black entrepreneurs who’ve managed to build businesses from scratch, give hundreds of black people jobs in growth industries and maintained strong business ties with Wall street and corporate America.  Those are a unique set of qualifications, which I see us exploiting in tandem, throughout the 21st century” (173).  (In other words BET will continue to have prime access to the “bling bling and booty” videos produced by Def Jam artists.)  Johnson “exploited” his position a few years ago when Viacom acquired BET from Johnson for $3 billion in cash and stock.14 Johnson has long been criticized for his exploitative business practices, including his failure to pay comics who appear on the network’s highly rated Comic View fair and equitable residual wages for appearances that are often rerun years after they were first taped.15 Though Simmons has not been explicitly tied to the kinds of exploitative business practices that Johnson has been criticized for, his acceptance that he and Johnson form an ideal “tandem” for black economic growth within the entertainment and cyber industries is nevertheless troubling.

Simmons’ true innovation has been his ability to elevate “ghetto” culture into an upper class fetish, getting the “Hamptonites to make a statement adopting a particular aesthetic, [which then] grows organically from the cool fashion community to the rest of the crowd” (165).  Simmons asserts that the “jet-setting crowd carries messages all over the world, and the message that began leaking out from the Hamptons was that hip-hop was fun, accessible music” (165).  Simmons’ depiction of Hamptonite sensibilities about hip-hop powerfully encapsulates the ways that the mass commodification of black urban culture obscures the utility of popular (folk) culture to the ghetto masses.  Whereas hip-hop and a host of other “ghetto-fab” strategies of survival in ghetto enclaves¾such as the overindulgence in inexpensive food products and the reliance, in some cases, on the illicit underground economies of the “City”¾can be connected to the mantra of “making a way out of no way,” in the view of those who vicariously consume these subcultures, the ghetto denizens are simply having “fun.”  Simmons’ clear investment in selling the “ghetto-real” to the highest bidders speaks volumes about how he wants himself and his products to be perceived, as he says “I don’t want people to form the wrong opinion.  Who do I think I am? Classic American Style” (153).  Simmons’ desire to reach the Hamptonites highlights his proclivity for privileging the upscale consumers who validate his “cool” at the expense of the “ghetto” constituencies that were the foundations of Def Jam’s early successes.

In one case Simmons asserts that he didn’t widen his distribution to “obvious ghetto stores like Dr. Jay’s, because they wouldn’t present my merchandise in a way that supported the brand’s more adult image. But over time Dr. Jay’s remodeled their stores and stopped just throwing the clothes around” (157).  Simmons’ critique of “obvious ghetto stores” like Jimmy Jazz, Up Against the Wall and the aforementioned Dr. Jay’s has a rather comical parallel in Washington’s Up From Slavery. Throughout his autobiography Washington often refers to the impact that Mrs. Viola Ruffner had on his work-ethic: “the lessons that I learned in the home of Mrs. Ruffner were as valuable to me as any education I have gotten anywhere since.  Even to this day I never see bits of paper scattered around a house or in the street that I do not want to pick them up at once…or a button off one’s clothes, or a grease spot on them or on a floor that I do not want to call attention to it” (Up From Slavery, 30).  Houston Baker, Jr., describes Washington’s fascination with cleanliness as the product of his “risky coming into proximity—even the symbolic and ‘magically’ protected handling and negotiation—of the tabooed, the outlaw” adding that Washington found “his own ritual purification from blackness” while engaging in acts of cleanliness first introduced to him during his stay with Mrs. Ruffner (Turning South Again, 47).  According to Baker, “dysfunctional, laboring-class blackness yields in [Washington’s] everyday life to knowledge of and desire for ordered, domestic rounds of clean linens, properly set dinner tables, odorless rooms, the brotherhood of soap and water, and light-skinned women as the most companionable and intimate helpmeets” (47).

Following the spirit of Baker’s rather facetious, though useful, read of Washington’s fetish for cleanliness, I would like to suggest that while Russell Simmons’ career has been predicated on the presentation of “blackness” for mass consumption, he has also been driven by the desire to “cleanse” black popular culture in the process.  His attempts at “ethnic cleansing” (I’m being facetious now), are not so much rooted in “cleansing” black popular culture or “blackness” per se, but aim to render those aspects of “blackness”—real and imagined—within his province streamlined and sanitized for maximum white consumption.  In this regard, within Simmons’ “gatekeeper aesthetic,” stores like Dr. Jay’s and Jimmy Jazz, which exist largely within black and Latino/a urban enclaves, are, to use Baker’s phrase, “too blackly ‘public’” (52).

Throughout Life and Def Simmons angles for a kind of transcendence from that which is explicitly “black” to something that is more distinctly American. While his comment about being “classic American style” does bespeak the ways in which so much of black artistic expression is intrinsically related to the concept of “American” culture—for instance, what is more American than Jazz or Motown?—it also bespeaks Simmons’ blurring of the distinction between being simply a mogul in the traditional sense and being a “hip-hop” mogul which more explicitly ties him to black life and culture (blackness).  It is in this context that Simmons, using his ad agency Rush as an example, admits that he “hates the idea of ‘black business’ because I’m part of a newer generation.  The guys who built black businesses in the past did what they had to. They were talented, smart people who figured out a way to get paid by servicing their community” (175f). Simmons’ comments neglect the fact that “newer generation” figures like himself and BET founder Robert Johnson have consistently exploited the fact that they were “black” companies to further their business and political interests, often implying that they were the natural brokers for the black community’s commercial and cultural needs. In other words, where Simmons rejects a description of his companies as “black” companies, he is still very willing to embrace the tag as “Race Man.”

Simmons openly acknowledges his gatekeeper aspirations, ironically during a passage in Life and Def, where he argues for the value of back-room negotiation in contrast to the seemingly more direct “action” of mainstream Civil Rights leaders and black politicians.  In March of 1996, Rev. Jesse Jackson and other Civil Rights leaders led a well publicized “boycott” of the Academy Awards show.  Jackson et al were critical of the lack of representation, positive or otherwise, of blacks in Hollywood and held a protest outside of the awards show venue.  Ironically, the 1996 awards show was produced by Quincy Jones and featured Whoopi Goldberg as the host.  As Simmons describes it, “it was a weird moment: black people protesting outside and two of the most important black people in Hollywood inside playing the most prominent roles in the broadcast” (145).  In the context of explaining why he was not part of the protest, Simmons opines that “When the protesters  have left their signs in the street and gone back home, someone has to be there to make the deals, to take advantage of the opportunities that black people have in society.  I wanna be that person” (145).  In June of 2001, Simmons engineered his strongest attempt to be that person, by organizing the hip-hop community for a Hip-Hop Summit.

A Hustler’s Convention: the Hip-Hop Summit

Throughout the 1990s, there have been many attempts to organize hip-hop artists around common interests.  In 1989, KRS-One brought together a collective of East Coast hip-hop artists such as Heavy D and the Boyz, Public Enemy, MC Lyte, D-Nice and Doug E. Fresh in an effort to curb violence within the black community.16 The video for their song also attempted to address petty rivalries between DJs on rival New York City radio stations, by featuring WRKS’s Marley Marl and WBLS’s Red Alert together for a few frames.  A year later, a cadre of West Coast artists came together to record “Same Gang” to address gang violence.  The song is generally regarded as an early stage of a gang truce between older members of the Crips and Bloods that finally came to fruition during the 1992 disturbances in Los Angeles.

Nation of Islam (NOI) leader Louis Farrakhan has also been involved in mediating disputes between rival artists on numerous occasions, earning himself a privileged position among the hip-hop community.  As a hip-hop-generation lieutenant of Farrakhan, Conrad Muhammad, who headed the NOI’s Harlem mosque, increasingly became the NOI’s emissary to the Hip-Hop community, earning a reputation as the “Hip-Hop minister.”  Muhammad, widely thought to be the heir apparent to Farrakhan within the NOI, broke from the organization in the mid-1990s and founded CHHANGE (Conscious Hip Hop Activism Necessary for Global Empowerment). Using his organization and “pulpit” as the host of Sunday Night Live on WBLS New York City, Muhammad held the Hip-Hop generation under intense scrutiny.  According to Russell Simmons, Muhammad’s “whole popularity is based on attacking hip-hop…that’s how C. Delores Tucker got famous.  These attacks will not endear him to the rap community.”  Tucker is of course the most well known black critic of hip-hop, but unlike Tucker, Muhammad cannot be easily dismissed, because he is a product of the hip-hop generation and its culture.  In many ways, his criticisms were no different than the kinds of scrutiny that artists hold each other to in their music.17 It is in the context of being an “authentic” critic of hip-hop that Muhammad began to plan a series of public forums dealing with issues within the hip-hop community, including self-censorship.

Muhammad began to have public disputes with the traditional Civil Rights leadership in New York City after Rev. Al Sharpton collaborated with The Source publisher David Mays for a series of Hip-Hop summits which effectively appropriated Muhammad’s idea for a summit.  According to Muhammad, Sharpton was “someone trying to use young people to gain further stature in the civil rights establishment.  He would say ‘Look, I can deliver these young people.’”18 More to the point, Muhammad adds, “If the Urban League, the NAACP, and groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had done their job, we wouldn’t even be talking about gangsta rap.  If they failed so miserably to address the issues of urban America, how you gonna bring them to address young people?”19

While Muhammad’s comments reflect traditional ideological differences between mainstream civil rights organizations and black nationalist groups like the NOI, he does raise important questions about the sudden interest in the Hip-Hop generation among black leaders who have rarely affirmed hip-hop music or culture.  On an obvious level, as Muhammad suggests, the hip-hop generation represents a largely untapped electorate—one that if it had been mobilized prior to the 2000 presidential election, might have had a significant impact on its outcome.  More important for my concerns is the fact that many of these organizations have historically struggled for financial support and that all are facing waning memberships as black youth have largely rejected the activist styles of the civil rights generation.  In this context not only does the hip-hop generation represent a pool of potential members for these organizations, but the hip-hop industry itself possesses economic coffers that the traditional civil rights movement would have obvious interests in.  Muhammad intimated such a reality in the weeks preceding the much covered Sean “Puffy” Combs and Jamal Barrow shooting trial in early 2001.  Questioning the sudden visibility of folks like Sharpton and black intellectual Cornel West (who later headed Sharpton’s exploratory presidential committee), Muhammad suggests that Combs and Barrow were using the “moral cover of the civil rights movement” and asserts that the civil rights establishment “have become hired guns…for rent, for sale to the highest bidder.”20

Russell Simmons was the key link that brought together the civil rights mainstream with the hip-hop community.  Simmons began to make a distinct move towards activism in the summer of 2000 when he joined Civil Rights leaders at a celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic speech at the 1963 March on Washington. A week later he joined Sharpton and Martin Luther King III in a meeting with Attorney General Janet Reno about the issue of racial profiling by law enforcement officers.  The issue of racial profiling was of interest to Simmons’ hip-hop constituency because of the practice of “rapper profiling” where hip-hop artists are regularly profiled.  Industry concern with “rapper profiling”—artist Jay Z, whose label is distributed by Island/Def Jam, and his entourage were arrested in April 2001 in one of the most visible cases—was a primary impetus for the creation of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HHSAN)  that hoped to influence federal legislators on the issue of racial profiling.  By the fall of 2000, Simmons had held a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser for Senatorial candidate Hillary Clinton and co-sponsored a panel on young voters at the Democratic National Convention.21 The fundraiser was part of Simmons’ “Rap the Vote 2000” effort, which was a joint venture with the  “Rock the Vote” organization that was so crucial to making “Generation X” aware of the electoral process, often via programming on MTV.  The “Rap the Vote 2000” campaign coincided with the launch of Simmons’ website 360Hip-hop.com (a joint venture with BET.com), leading Bakari Kitwana to suggest that the campaign “reeked of a marketing ploy.”22 Kitwana adds it was “clear that the group was intent on bringing Black and Latino votes to the Democratic Party.”23

While it is clear that Simmons provided Sharpton et al validity within the hip-hop community, perhaps less clear is the fact that Simmons was also trying to validate, or rather mainstream, his own political ambitions—more influential gatekeeper than elected official—by building relations with the traditional civil rights establishment, the Democratic Party, including Senator Joseph Lieberman who had been an outspoken critic of vulgarity in popular music, and prominent members of the Jewish community.  It was largely due to Simmons’ influence that Farrakhan reached out to Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate Lieberman, who agreed to meet with Farrakhan before capitulating to pressure from Jewish organizations who regard him as an anti-Semite.  A year later, in June 2001, and away from the glare of television cameras, Simmons would arrange a private meeting at his home between Farrakhan and Rabbi Marc Schneier who heads the North American Board of Rabbis, which was also attended by Cornel West and Martin Luther King III.  The meeting was significant not only because it was directly brokered by Simmons, but also because it occurred the night before the “Hip-Hop Summit,” a grand event largely planned by Simmons, where Farrakhan was the major keynote speaker.  The timing of the meeting between Farrakhan and Schneier and the very public event that Simmons presided over in the days following suggest that is was a tactical attempt by Simmons to close ranks with the black nationalist leadership (at least as personified by the Nation of Islam), while warding off charges that he was in collusion with an “anti-Semite” and remaining in the good graces of the mainstream civil rights groups.

But it was the “Hip-Hop” summit that essentially represented Simmons’ political coming-out party.  Bringing together artists, industry insiders, elected officials, civil rights leaders, and well known black intellectuals such as Cornel West, Manning Marable, Tricia Rose and Michael Eric Dyson, the summit was an effort by Simmons to show that the industry and culture was capable of policing itself. According to Simmons, “One of our goals was to uplift the image of rap” and in that sprit the summit set clear objectives in the areas of political empowerment (the aforementioned HHSAN), development of mentoring programs for artists (presumably to teach artists how to be exploited as painlessly as possible), and the creation of a Hip-Hop Think Tank to be housed at Columbia University.24 While Simmons resisted the idea that the summit was an effort to “clean up” the industry, Farrakhan was clear in his speech that “Freedom of speech is one thing, but freedom is not a license to say anything you want to…you must understand that with leadership comes responsibility.”25

Portions of the summit were carried on C-Span over a two-day period and the event was covered by global media.  A writer for The Guardian (UK), described the event as featuring an “array of talent, power and wealth, spread across lifestyles as varied as hairstyles,” adding that “they are here not to discuss entrenched poverty in urban areas, the alarming rise in HIV/AIDS among young black men or a coordinated response to the next four years of a Bush presidency.”26 In the same account of the summit, reporter Peter Noel (who documented the disputes between Conrad Muhammad and Simmons in the Village Voice) highlights the contradictions of having the “industry” police itself, stating that “[the summit] needs an independent ombudsman who understands the music, but who is not part of the corporate structure that makes money from it.”27 In another account, Richard Harrington of the Washington Post reported that the “summit felt like a Russell Simmons vanity production.  The impresario wore selections from his own Phat Farm clothing line.” Bakari Kitwana notes that the event failed to “incorporate the grassroots segment of hip-hop’s cultural movement, especially hip-hop generation activists. When hip-hop’s true influence as a cultural movement is finally understood, events like these will recognize that the very same synergy at the heart of hip-hop’s commercial success has also informed our generation’s activists and political theorists.”28All of the above accounts speak to the performative nature of the event—staged not necessarily to address issues within hip-hop but rather as grand coronation of the next generation black gatekeeper.

Simmons has often been mocked throughout his career for his lack of rhetorical skill.  His signature mumble “good-night, God bless” at the end of every Def Comedy Jam program is perhaps more memorable than many of the show’s stand-up performances.  Historically, many of the most visible leaders and gatekeepers in the black community were great orators, as most were products of the black preaching tradition. Among contemporary black leaders, Louis Farrakhan is generally accepted as one of the most accomplished (and long-winded), thus it’s not surprisingly that his speech over-shadowed Simmons’ address at the summit.  But in Simmons’ case a memorable address was not needed as he is the prototype for the next generation of black gatekeeper.  Unlike black “leaders” before him, Simmons possesses an intimate understanding of media culture and access to the finances needed to wage real ideological and political struggles within that culture.

The Hip-Hop summit was just one example of Simmons’ ability to craft a media event as an ideological statement. But the best examples can be gleaned from magazine ads that began to run in the Spring of 2002.  The May 2002 edition of Black Enterprise (“your ultimate guide to financial empowerment”) included the first of a four-part series on the “Hip-Hop Economy.”  According to the magazine’s editors “hip-hop is not just music.  Anyone who thinks about it in those terms minimizes its far-reaching influence.  Hip-hop is the thread that holds together the fabric of today’s urban-youth culture and it touches a multitude of industries—from entertainment to apparel to marketing and technology.  To put it bluntly, hip-hop is big business.”29 Though the May issue featured Jay Z and Damon Dash of Roc-A-Fella Enterprises, the June issued featured a cover story on Simmons, who was first featured in the magazine on the cover of their December 1992 issue.  The June issue of Black Enterprise is traditionally when the magazine publishes its list of top-100 businesses (the B.E. 100); thus it is notable that Simmons was the cover feature for what is usually the magazine’s most popular edition.

The cover story itself was standard fare about Simmons’ economic ascent, but of interest to me are two Phat Farm ads that appear in the opening pages of the magazine.  It is my contention that the two ads offer much more insight into Simmons’ ideological leanings and political ambition than the feature article that appears later in the magazine, and Simmons’ use of the ads bespeaks his singular ability as a black “political leader” to frame his agenda via the use of media in a way unprecedented in modern black life.  While figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan, and Jesse Jackson have brilliantly used the media to articulate their agendas, they often did so in the form of being a news story.  Thus news events such as the1963 March on Washington, the special The Hate that Hate Produced, the Million Man March, and the 1984 Democratic Convention allowed the aforementioned leaders increased media visibility that they might not have been able to garner otherwise. Simmons differs from these particular figures because he has the capacity, via Rush Communications, to purchase a presence in various forms of media including film and magazine advertising.30 Among contemporary black gatekeepers, only BET founder Bob Johnson can claim such an influence, though unlike Simmons, he seems to lack a distinct political agenda, save protecting the family wealth of “new” black millionaires.31

The first Phat Farm ad that appears in the June 2002 Black Enterprise magazine (the ad has also run in Simmons’ One World magazine) appears on pages 12-13. The ad features a solitary photo of Simmons wearing powder blue Phat Farm hat and sweater and blue jeans behind red and white strips, clearly evoking the American flag.  The ad is in fact a larger visual of the Phat Farm insignia which appropriates the image of the “Stars and Stripes.”  Appearing in white letters on top of the Phat Farm insignia is a quote from Simmons: “Ten years ago we founded Phat Farm, a brand born out of the Hip-Hop lifestyle—a lifestyle others did not acknowledge.  But one that became bigger than their efforts to suppress.”  In the statement Simmons implicitly connects himself to a culture of resistance (if hip-hop is to be believed as bred in the energies of cultural resistance). Simmons follows that statement with “Today We Stand in Front” (in boldface print) followed with “We are humbled and give thanks to those who support us in the pursuit of a new American dream.”  In short, the ad argues that political resistance is connected to capital accumulation (and the exploitation of “black” culture) and that together both are intrinsically connected to the pursuit of the American dream.   In the Simmons world, instead of the revolution simply being televised (or digitized), apparently the revolution will be “styled.”  The ad of course carries powerful political currency in the aftermath of the “Terror Attacks” of September 2001.  With a ghettoized American flag as backdrop and a devotion to big business, Simmons taps into a tradition of maverick American businessman.

Two pages later (and directly across from the magazine’s table of contents) an ad appears for “Phat Classic,” Phat Farm’s line of classic sneakers.  The ad features a photo of Simmons’ brother Run of the “classic” Hip-Hop group Run-DMC.  The group is largely recognized as the group that helped to mainstream hip-hop via their collaboration with Aerosmith on “Walk This Way” (1986), which became the first hip-hop song to be on regular rotation on MTV. In many regards the group was the flagship product of “commercial” hip-hop.  Unbelievably the ad is for Reparations.  According to the ad’s text, “The Hip-Hop Community has the power to make a difference in society, culture and fashion. Now we have the opportunity to impact the footwear industry.  We can now BUY OUR OWN SHOES and STAND TOGETHER for a cause that is long overdue.” The ad is part of a campaign by Simmons to “inform, inspire and ensure support for the serious issue of reparations,” as proceeds from the sale of “Phat Classic” will be used to increase “public awareness” about Reparations.

In a Village Voice piece on the failure of the Reparations Movement to have an impact on the Hip-Hop generation, Adamma Ince writes, “of the 325 people I spoke to, between the ages of 17 and 37—the self-identified hip-hop generation to which I belong—only 91 had actually heard of reparations.”32 As the older guard of black intellectuals and leaders form the vanguard of the Reparations Movement, Simmons’ own claim of being able to deliver the Hip-Hop generation is undermined by the fact that few within that generation, particularly those who are not educated, have any real connection to the issue.  In reference to the Movement’s intellectual point-person, Harvard University Law Professor Charles Ogletree, Simmons notes that the Hip-Hop generation listens to “Ludacris, not him.”33 To counter the Civil Rights establishment’s efforts, Simmons proposes a print and radio campaign based on the theme “40 Acres and a Bentley,” explaining that the car “has become the highest American aspiration for this generation, unfortunately, so we have to use that to engage them.”34


Whether or not Simmons’ efforts will be successful, it is clear that he is redefining the stature and function of the traditional black gatekeeper.  While so many have derisively referred to him and those of his ilk as simply “Hip-Hop Moguls,” Simmons has emerged as the prototypical post-modern black gatekeeper—one equipped with the “vision” and the wealth to articulate his ideology in a wide array of media.  While Simmons has regularly traded in stereotypical images of what black youth are supposed to be like and his own business activities do not suggest that he is less given to exploiting black labor and culture, it is clear that when Hip-Hop first emerged in the streets of the South Bronx thirty years ago, no one seriously thought that it would be the impetus for the next generation of black political and cultural leadership.


1. Clyde Woods, Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta (London: Verso, 1998).

2. Rhonda Reynolds and Ann Brown, “A New Rhythm Takes Hold,” Black Enterprise, December 1994, 84.

3. Several years later at a panel discussion at the Harlem Book Fair, Crouch publicly suggested that if it was 1619, Simmons would have likely sold slaves.

4. Quoted in Tariq K. Muhammad, “Hip-Hop Moguls: Beyond the Hype,” Black Enterprise, December 1999.

5. Norman Kelley, “Rhythm Nation: The Political Economy of Black Music,” Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire (Vol. 2., No. 2. 1999), 10.

6. Clyde Taylor, “The Game,” in Thelma Golden, ed., Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art (New York: Whitney Museum, 1994), 169.

7. Reynolds and Brown, “A New Rhythm Takes Hold,” 83. 8. Ibid. 9. Muhammad, “Hip-Hop Moguls.” 10. Adolph Reed, Jr., “What Are the Drums Saying, Booker?: The Curious Role of the Black Public Intellectual,” in Class Notes: Posing As Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene (New York: New Press, 2000), 77-90.

11. Ibid., 79.

12. A “Ghetto Pass” conveys authenticity to those who live and circulate throughout black urban communities.  Those who are no longer living in the ghetto communities they were born in or who construct identities not in sync with popular notions of ghetto authenticity are often said to have lost their “Ghetto Pass.”

13. “A Harder Task than making Bricks Without Straw,” Up From Slavery, 103-113.

14. “Disbelief in the Air at BET,” Washington Post, November 2, 2000.

15. “Bad Vibes at Cable’s BET,” Newsweek, October 25, 1999, 78; “For BET Some Static in the Picture,” Washington Post, November 22, 1999.

16. KRS-One’s “Stop the Violence” efforts raised some eyebrows as the artist actively embraced “gun culture” on the covers of his first two releases Criminal Minded (1987) and By Any Means Necessary (1988).  The cover-art of the latter project featured KRS-One in a stance reminiscent of the classic photo of Malcolm X peering out of the window of his home with shotgun in hand.

17. Jay Z’s critique of Nas on “The Takeover” (The Blueprint, 2001) is a recent example of this phenomenon; see Mark Anthony Neal, What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture, pp 161-168, for a more detailed discussion of Hip-Hop’s self scrutiny.

18. Quoted in Peter Noel, “Taking the Rap,” The Village Voice, January 16, 2001.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. Johnny L. Roberts, “Mr. Rap Goes to Washington,” Newsweek, Sept 4, 2000, 22.

22. Bakari Kitwana, The Hip-Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture, 189.

23. Ibid., 188f.

24. Alona Wartofsky, “How to Be a Better Playa” The Washington Post, June 15, 2001, C01.

25. Ibid., C01.

26. Gary Younge, “Rhyme and Reason,” The Guardian, June 14, 2001, 2.

27. Ibid.

28 Kitwana, The Hip-Hop Generation, 205.

29. Black Enterprise, May 2002, 17.

30. Universal Studios in collaboration with producers Bobby Shriver and Kevin Misher has reportedly agreed to turn Simmons’ Life and Def into a biopic.

31. Johnson has been the most prominent among a group of African American millionaires who have supported the repeal of the Estate Tax on the basis that such taxes are more detrimental to black millionaires that have more recently come into wealth as opposed to their white counterparts.

32. “No Masses, No Movement,” Village Voice, May 28, 2002.

33. Ibid.

34. Ibid.