Hip-hop pioneer and business mogul Russell Simmons is a man of vision. He's into music, fashion and social action. The Def Jam co-founder is a pervasive cultural influence and a strong advocate for justice. He's also a practicing yogi who values daily meditation, which is the subject of his latest book, “Success Through Stillness.” Soledad O’Brien caught up with her friend Simmons at a recording studio in New York.
Soledad O’Brien: How would you describe what you do? Like, you're a hyphen guy, right?
Russell Simmons: How would I describe what I …
I have no idea. I don't know.
You defy the kind of title.
I don't want to have a title.
Let's say there was one person who didn't know you, and you said, "Hi, I'm Russell —"
I'm an aspiring yogi. I want to be enlightened. I mean, what — how would I describe what I do? I run a lot of philanthropic and social and political initiatives.
An animal activist.
Yeah. Designer, yeah.
Yeah, I have a record company now, a music company, again, and I work in the Internet. I have three Internet companies. And I have a digital-solutions company. I do a lot of stuff, you know?
A lot of stuff.
I'm a father.
I'm a father — that's first, right? The first thing I — every morning, the first thing — meditation and take them to school.
Have you always done, like, 20 things at once?
No, actually, just what happens is people — I'd start something, right? I'm passionate. I go to work every day in that thing, right? And then, smarter people than me come along, and they take over, you know?
Is there one thing that, after being a father, is there sort of the next job that's your most important passion?
Well, I like supporting social and political initiatives that promote well-being. Like this book coming out is good. I want all kids to meditate. My kids meditate. And I think meditation — it's one of the keys. To have self-reflection is good, yes, and all the spiritual things they say are good. But the research on what it physically does to the brain and what it does to the immune system and the nervous system and what it does to change people's life, connecting the left and the right side of the brain, and it goes on and on about all the gifts that come from people sitting still for 20 minutes a day a couple times a day.
When did you start meditating?
I started meditating almost 20 years ago, but I started TM more recently.
Transcendental meditation, which I know you do, as well. I started that more recently — I guess eight, nine years ago. But for me, like, my book is a very simple kind of a meditation. It's based in mantra, light TM. It borrows almost every idea you can borrow from TM. It demystifies it — the whole practice of it, and it makes it accessible, I hope, to a lot of people.
When did you become a vegan?
Oh, I've been a vegan for 15 years, at least.
Why did you become a vegan?
It was an extension of your animal-rights work.
Forty billion animals born into suffering every single year, made to be born into a short life, painful, suffering. It's the worst karmic disaster in the history of the world. People will say, "Oh, why will you not take the Holocaust or slavery or..." I could get in trouble for saying it. It's the worst karmic disaster in the world.
Why is it the worst?
Every single year, we commit this. Horrific disaster — the abuse of those animals. And I don't have to eat any. Do I look sick? I'm 90? I mean, I don't feel sick. I'm in good shape — put both my feet behind my head. Haven't eaten animals in 15 years. Don't need them or their products. We don't need them. Dominion over the animals does not mean abuse of 40 billion animals every year.
What does "karmic disaster" mean?
I mean, what we do — the collective — is involved in mass abuse and torture and murder. The collective, all of us, are taking part. I just left Fashion Week. And everybody in the audience had on fur, sitting in the skins of animals. Many of those skins were taken off live animals, while those animals are still alive — makes the fur shine. Think that's not cruel? Think that's what God meant by "dominion over the animals," if you have a God? Do you believe he meant that "dominion over the animals" means to rip the skin off them while they're still alive and then put them on your back and — when you can put anything on your back? Nowadays, all kinds of fabrics keep you warm.
You were on Twitter, talking about Philip Seymour Hoffman's death and your perspective sort of about drug laws, and his death is a ...
All I said — if he were alive today, would he go to jail or rehab? And I said, "End the war on drugs." The war on drugs has done more to destroy the fabric of the black community than anything we can think of —not the effects of Jim Crow and the effects of slavery. It's the war on drugs. They've taken innocent, diseased people, locked them up, educated them in criminal behavior, and dumped them back in the hood with no hope. That became jail culture for the hood, not for the school, not for the prison. I mean, the prison has it. You learn. You're educated in how to do things that you never would have done just by — and whites and blacks, don't they use and sell drugs at the same rate? You can't have a — like, the Rockefeller Drug Laws. When we were ending those laws, 94.5 percent of the people are black or brown incarcerated under the Rockefeller Drug Laws in a state which was not 94 percent black and brown — right? We incarcerate more people than anybody in the world. You know that. America is responsible for locking its own up and creating criminals, and a cycle of criminality comes in our communities because of this process.
Michael Sam, No. 52, just came out of the closet right before the draft, and it's sort of started a little firestorm, I think it's fair to say. You've been very vocal in gay rights. Tell me why, and then tell me a little bit about what you think about this young guy.
People are suffering. People need to wake up, consciousness, and all — it's always the same thing, right? You have a voice. Say, "Gays should get the rights that we all have — the rights that we want for ourselves are the rights that we should give to others. The respect that we demand for ourselves we should give to others." That's a simple mantra I try to live by. So I want to be able to get married again. Not now.
I'm like, "Well, let's hear what news you're making for me." Go ahead.
I want to get married again. People should have the right to get married. People should have the right to live freely in our society, you know? So things like that are obvious. If you see an injustice and you don't say anything, then maybe you have other issues.
This kid, if he ends up playing in the NFL, and he seems that he's —
He's going to play in the NFL.
You know, he's got to get through the draft. But he'd be the first openly gay NFL player.
Good for him. Bad for America that he's the first openly gay. There's a lot of gay football players that will be proud of him and rooting for him — gay football players, right now, in every locker in almost every team, who are rooting for him, and straight guys like me, rooting for him. So, that's good.
I think it's unusual to have someone who is running companies, but who also has this very strong stance in terms of activism.
When you have a voice, you use it, if you can. So, I have a voice — I use it. So, as a person who runs a company, I've been to the Congress to promote a law, you know? I influence — I promote for the president, to get him in office, right? I traveled around this whole country. And for other politicians, I've supported them. So I have an undue amount of power. I shouldn't have that. I get to talk about laws. My celebrity allows me the freedom to influence things it shouldn't — my celebrity and money. I should not have influence. Citizens should have influence, as individuals, and corporations should not — I just know that. Corporations should not have this kind of — the Citizens United — it's horrible. Anybody can wake up and run for president if they have the money. Everybody else can't.
How do you think you've inspired younger musicians and producers and people in the industry?
Well, now, young ...
Well, you know, I was thinking of Ludacris, you know? He's a big fan of yours, and I think he thinks of you as someone who's kind of led by example of things that he could do. I don't think he's out as much as you are, but he's definitely philanthropic.
Yeah, a lot of hip-hop artists stick their neck out and have big mouths when it comes to issues that matter. And a lot of hip-hop artists have philanthropic social and political initiatives. Philanthropic — if you name an artist, there's a charity. Lil Wayne builds things in parks — skateboard ramps in parks. Of course, the Ludacris Foundation is one that you think of, but everybody's got a name for a foundation. Everybody's got something they're giving back, you know? Eminem does good work. Everybody gives. Not like congressmen. Can't name their charities, but you can name the charities for all the rappers. So they get a lot of s--- for telling the truth, say, "Oh, they say such horrible sexual things," right? The artist should say what's on people's minds. That's an artist's job — to tell you what people are thinking, not what they'll say or what they're taught to do — what they're thinking. Artists are from inside out. And I think that that's a good thing.
What's been the biggest change you've seen in the record industry? There's a lot of changes.
Well, you called it the record industry — that's one.
The music industry. What are the biggest changes in the music industry?
I have a digital music company with Def Jam, All Def Music. And All Def Music is discovering musicians through the Internet, promoting through — musicians through the Internet. It is the greatest vehicle. YouTube is, by far, the place where music is consumed, the greatest place. There should be a collaboration between YouTube and music industry executives, and there is in my company and in a few — one or two others. It's a hole. I mean, why would we not partner with, create music programming through and innovate music through or promote innovative music through, not just let it all happen right in front of us and ignore it? So the business is changed. The music business is dramatically shifted, and all of the other forms of revenue are the great ones to look forward to, and how to promote them and manage them and develop them should be on the minds of executives, not how to sell a CD. They're very slow. I remember the Napster guys came to me and said, "We want to meet the head of —" and I called the head of the company, the chairman. He's like, "Don't talk to them." "Don't talk to them? Well, they're talking to you whether you like it or not." So you sued them, but there's still a new Napster and another creative — and another innovative — when innovation comes, you have to embrace it and use it. And I think that's what the music industry hasn't done well, and they're getting into it now.
What musicians do you like?
I sat with Kanye yesterday.
Yeah? He's a genius, I think.
He is a genius.
Troubled genius sometimes.
Well, he says the truth. A lot of times, people don't like it. He doesn't say it — He's not the best messenger for the truth all the time, but he says a lot of truth, stuff that we feel but don't say. That's what an artist is supposed to do. I like Rick Rubin as a producer. He's so talented. I've watched him — his whole career is brilliant. I like that kid J. Cole. I like Krishna Das — sings all those devotional songs. It's beautiful. So, I like a lot of different kinds of musicians.
Pharrell's had his moments.
Pharrell (Williams) — that's my man. I love him. He's a great producer. Yeah, there's a lot of very talented people — a lot of cool stuff out.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
This episode premiered Sunday February 16, at 7p ET/4p PT.