By Benjamin Leatherman
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For years, Russell Simmons has been the King Midas of the hip-hop world: Everything he touches turns to gold . . . or platinum. While this phenomenon is obviously most lucrative for Simmons himself, his extraordinary talents as a businessman (and, frankly, an architect of culture) have helped elevate an entire community to a position of importance in the world of modern media. And Simmons' new interactive Web site, appropriately called 360HipHop.com, completes the circle of his influence on the genre.
But with so many successful hip-hop Web sites out there, such as AKA.com or Chuck D's Rapstation.com, not to mention the Internet versions of media icons like BET and Vibe magazine, many would wonder why Simmons feels the need to delve so deeply into this arena himself. How will hissite be any different? The answer is pretty simple: Simmons has the experience and clout to create an online forum through which he can generate profits as well as expand his community's influence on the information superhighway, which has tried its best to leave black Americans behind. Most important, this latest venture will reflect just how much the face and scope of urban culture have changed since Simmons started Def Jam Records less than two decades ago.
Back in 1983, as MCs challenged one another to rhyming battles at nightclubs and playgrounds from New York to Los Angeles, Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin started Def Jam Records, a label designed to promote and distribute this budding musical form called hip-hop to anyone who would listen. In 1986, when the Beastie Boys released Licensed to Illon Def Jam, no one could believe just how many listeners there were. Still among the best-selling hip-hop albums of all time, Licensed to Ill attracted a totally new audience to the genre, and suddenly the profits were pouring in.
In Hip Hop America, Nelson George's brilliant account of this genre's history and evolution, the author dedicates an entire chapter to the many incarnations of Simmons and his empire. He might as well have written the entire book about Simmons. And rightfully so: Throughout the 1990s, Simmons truly earned his title as the quintessential "Hip Hoppreneur" (a term coined by Black Enterprise's Eric Smith). Thanks to his experience with Def Jam and his unique vantage point as someone who was behind the scenes at ground zero of the revolution, Simmons built an empire based on the knowledge that hip-hop culture could influence all of modern society. He started Rush Management, a company that handled hungry young artists looking for a break and always generated a buzz. Then came Def Comedy Jam, the hit HBO series that discovered urban comedic talents who often arrived at superstardom later, such as Martin Lawrence.
Later, inspired by the glamour of the fashion community and the trend-setting power of urban artists, Simmons launched his own clothing line, Phat Pharm, with upscale boutiques in major cities, including New York's posh SoHo district. And let's not forget Simmons' Oneworld Magazine, or dRush, his advertising company, which specializes in tantalizing this elusive yet extremely profitable market. (Although, truth be told, neither enterprise is as successful as Simmons had hoped.) At the end of the day, estimates place Russell Simmons' private empire in the range of $500 million, and he certainly seems to be basking in his successes. And at the ripe young age of 42, he shows no signs of slowing down.
Why should he, when hip-hop's international audience has blossomed into a group that spends $85 billionannually? If anyone had told Russell Simmons or Rick Rubin those figures in 1983, they would have keeled over laughing. I mean, really, in order to generate that kind of revenue, you have to get white teenagers to embrace a fundamentally black art form. Unlike Motown, the lyrics and style of hip-hop are completely unapologetic, and the genre is defined by speaking honestly about the social conditions that affect the lives of African Americans. What could be met with more apathy, more dismissal, than the angry declarations of black men who, in spite of their poeticism, are still decrying the injustices inflicted upon them by, you know, The Man?
Of course, not all hip-hop is political, and this huge market cannot be reduced to a simple formula of success. Just the music aspect itself is boundless enough to warrant several different genres, such as urban R&B (Destiny's Child, Dru Hill), gangsta (Dr. Dre, Tupac Shakur), East Coast (Biggie Smalls, DMX), and West Coast (R. Kelly, most gangsta rappers). Although urban culture is often equated with black culture, many new artists and influences on the genre come from different ethnic backgrounds.
Look at Eminem, the first white rhymer to be raised in the projects. Or what about the Latino graffiti artists and break-dancers from Los Angeles and Miami? And Asian Americans like the Invisibl Skratch Piklz already run the DJ scene. The ever-changing, ever-expanding face of urban culture has come to include art, literature and film, in addition to fashion, television, music and politics. So, what should be included in a Web site that hopes to encapsulate and represent all of "hip-hop America?"
First of all, the site is divided into several header categories, including music, culture and lifestyle, with smaller buttons titled broadcast and, of course, commerce. The first installment includes music headlines about Snoop Dogg and his new label, as well as film clips from the B-movies he's spent the past few years creating. This section also includes an article about the revolutionary cultural influence of Public Enemy's 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. (Simmons, like hip-hop itself, is nothing if not self-referential.) The culture heading gives way to subcategories about spinning, break-dancing and graffiti, to name a few. And the lifestyle section includes tidbits about basketball stars, celebrity fashion, cool cars and upcoming summer movies.
The site is jam-packed with articles, pictures, song samples and info, but that's still not the most striking thing about it. When you point your browser to 360HipHop.com, you pretty much expect to see some urban music star at the forefront of the site. But the first face that pops up does not belong to Dr. Dre, or to Jay Z, or even to Sisqo and Foxy Brown.
No, the first person on the page is the late Shaka Sankofa, also known as Gary Graham, the latest high-profile victim of Texas' legal lynching machine, also known as the death penalty. In the speech he gave just moments before his death, Sankofa, who maintained his innocence to the end, declared, "This is what happens to a black man in America." These words resonated very deeply, and they encapsulated the stance of anti-death-penalty organizations, such as the Chicago-based Campaign to End the Death Penalty, and black leaders, such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. These activists have called for the abolition of this institution, which they claim disproportionately kills poor black men, among other atrocities.
The Web site's coverage includes a video clip of Al Sharpton's reaction to Sankofa's death, explains the failure of the appeals process, documents the 11th-hour attempts to save Sankofa's life, and clearly illustrates the relevance of this cause to the hip-hop community. And it does so in that culture's own voice, with subject headings like Murder on the Plantation and, my personal favorite, George W. Bush: Killa!
These headlines and articles serve to reflect the scope and influence of the urban community and how Russell Simmons plans to exercise his power to help his own. Let's face it: The majority of PCs and modems don't reside in Compton or Harlem. Just like Public Enemy or gangsta rap, 360HipHop.com brings the issues that affect the poor urban community into the hands of those who embrace the culture, and that means young buyers, young voters and even young moneyed professionals.
On top of all that, 360HipHop.com has a fantastic layout: The designers skillfully incorporate graphics, film clips, sounds and animations to create a smooth and complete sensory experience. This site actually is the best hip-hop location on the Internet from both a Web design and a journalistic perspective, not to mention the breadth and scope of its subjects. Russell Simmons' newest incarnation (we'll call it "webmasta") is clearly more than just a profiteering venture.
Instead, this Web site highlights the culture of the newly wealthy hip-hop community without forgetting the plight of those still living in the projects on streets that don't get plowed. 360HipHop.com serves to broaden the genre's appeal, to raise the consciousness of every hip-hop junkie who's plugged in and online, and to reach out to the generation that will ultimately dictate the cultural and political climate of the future.