A Challenge To Russell Simmons
by EL Be
The fallout of 9/11 was unparalleled in its ability to affect everything and everyone, if only for a brief time. It seemed as though, right after it happened, everybody was re-assessing life, re-prioritizing and re-evaluating everything from friendships to freedom. But 6 months after the fact, life for most of us is pretty much back to normal. In a way, it has to be that way- American society is not accustomed to living under a siege mentality. Hip-hop was no exception to this upheaval and numerous commentaries have been made on how, if at all, hip-hop will be affected by all this.
Underground observer URB magazine conducted its own introspective survey of hip-hop's landscape post 9/11. In the article, Russell Simmons founder of Def Jam records was quoted as saying: "I think a lot of people in the hip-hop community are going to start picking up newspapers…. How big your car is is a boring subject right now. I think there's a new consciousness in the hip-hop community right now…I think a lot of people will be more responsive and more aware of their power."
Simmons' point is one that reflects the contemplative mood of that moment, and to some extent a crisis point in hip-hop. Hip-hop has long come under fire, justified or no, for its oftentimes juvenile and materialistic approach to life. The culture is usually polarized into the conscious lyricists vs. the hedonists, good guys vs. the bad guys - an over-simplification of the situation, but one that reflects two prominent trends. One would think that if anything could make a dent in hip-hop's partying, 9/11 would be it. Thus far little has changed, and, going back to Simmons' comment, I wonder how much it really will. One thing is certain-if anyone in hip-hop has power, juice, clout or whatever you want to call it, Simmons certainly does. So while his comment inspires hope for change, I challenge him to start in his own backyard.
After all, Simmons is the man whose Def Jam label has brought us artists such as Ludacris, Jay-Z, Ja Rule, Foxy Brown and many others who have built their careers and fleshed out Simmons' pockets with those very "how big your car is" type rhymes. The airwaves resound with Ludacris boasting about his oil-spilling Cadillac and how many lady-friends he has around the country. He was even kind enough to break it down as specifically as their area codes. Thanks ‘Cris.
Don't get me wrong - not all hip-hop has to be conscious. Hip-hop, as with any art form has the potential to be a dialogue - a free exchange of ideas that is as varied as the individuals that make up the community. But it's an unfortunate fact that for so long hip-hop has been one-sided, with more attention given to materialism, rather than material ideas. Artists who deal with political or social topics, folks such as Dead Prez, Common, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Masterminds, Zion I and others don't get half as much shine. Which brings me back, once again, to Simmons. All very well that he suggests hip-hoppers start reading newspapers and stop talking about their cars, but I challenge him to put his money where his mouth is and sign a Dead Prez or a Mos Def to Def Jam. Spoken word artist Black Ice has just been signed to the label, but it remains to be seen if this is a token gesture or the beginning of a trend. Will Black Ice or others like him also have the millions of dollars that is required to get them on MTV, on daytime radio throughout the country and into the top slot on the Billboard charts pumped into his marketing?
With one of the themes of his Hip Hop Summit Action Network dubbed as "taking back responsibility" I think it's time Simmons and his label are held accountable. It's great that Simmons is making some positive moves with these organizations, such as backing Sarah Jones' case against the FCC regarding her banned track, "Your Revolution" but I can't help but point out the discrepancy I see between his rhetoric and his money-making machine.
It's going to require someone of Simmons' unquestionable stature to take the financial gamble and put dollars and sense behind an act that has more to talk about than "girls, girls,girls." Let's hope he's up for the challenge.El.Be
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