About an hour after our scheduled meet- ing Russell Simmons walks through the door of his Downtown LA office, phone in hand, video recording his staff that has accu- mulated at the front desk. “Sing something!” he shouts out as everyone breaks into random song. “Aw, that’s no good!” he responds in a teasing manner. Everyone laughs as he turns towards his office to see Camilo and I sitting in the waiting chairs by the door. “I’m sorry, are you the two I’ve kept waiting? I apologize, it’s been quite the morning.” Russel has just come from his newly opened Yoga Studio, Tantris, in West Hollywood and had to handle some business and probably navigate through some traffic considering the distance.
Dressed in his iconic Yankee Hat and Adidas Classics, he breezes by and waves for us to follow him. In the office are three of his right hands, sit- ting on large comfy couches, some with laptops, some on their phones, ready to get to work. Right off the bat, it’s obvious they are not going to be leaving us for this interview. His office, though large in size, is nothing particularly fancy. It has a basic L shaped desk to one corner, that oversees the large couches his staff lounge on and his view is the LA metro line. By his desk is a Yoga Mat, which by now I think is something most people know about Russell, he’s a complete Yogi, and by the door a treadmill, a very oversized orange sort of bean bag, and another mat with some weights. His office by the way, is completely exposed to the rest of his staff through glass windows and the idea that he works out so candidly in front of everyone is an image that makes me giggle in the best of ways. This speaks to his attitude through and through, he is unapologetic and completely transparent with the people he works with, while maintaining a sense of humor.
As we set up to have a conversation, Russell inquires about the food delivery. “When is Veggie Grill coming? I’m starving!” Another pretty well known fact about Russell is that he is a vegan, and has been for over 20 years. He’s even published a book about it titled Happy Vegan. When I asked him about this choice he nods at Simone, his ex- ecutive assistant, and makes a joke about her be- ing on his ass about it. A side note about Simone is that she’s worked for Russell for over 30 years, having started fresh out of high school as a recep- tionist at Def Jam (The famed record label he co-founded with Rick Rubin and sold his share of to Universal Music Group in 1996 for $140 mil- lion) Simone is an avid animal rights activists and there is a joke that she is also Russell’s lon- gest female relationship. That being said she is great example of Russell’s ability to maintain strong working relationships.
Throughout Russell’s carreer the overall theme I can take away is sustainability.
It’s one thing to be able to spot talent and oppor- tunity, which is an obvious strength of his, but it’s a much more difficult task to nurture and sustain working relationships and in his case adding to the task that those relationships have often times been within the intricacy of the family unit.
Not only was he able to spot the future of hip hop music in the era of disco, but he’s also been able to bring his family with him, an example of this is signing RUN DMC, the rap group of which his brother was a front man. In every move he makes he seems to align his goals. Even by producing the 1986 film, Krush Groove, a film loosely based on his life up until that point, he took it as an op- portunity to showcase the talent and vibrancy of the New York music scene by featuring the likes of RUN DMC, The Beasty Boys, Kurtis Blow and a young Bobbi Brown when he was still a part of New Edition. What I’m really trying to say, is that he is able to put his faith in people. He is able to see the value in an individual, not only their skill but even more fully as a human being with a per- sonality. He was also an early proponent of Will Smith when he was still known as the Fresh Prince. Even after being divorced from his wife, Kimora, he has been able to maintain a strong working relationship with her. She founded Baby Phat, the widely successful women’s counter part of his widely successful, Phat Farm, as well as go onto produce her hit reality televi- sion show.
As we get to talking more I notice his eyes meet the door, “Oh Shit! The foods here!” he says and someone brings a bag to his desk. His smile wid- ens and his eyes go bright as he quite delicately reaches through the bag to pull out his lunch. Mashed potatoes, sautéed collard greens, and spicy fried “chickin” is on the menu. The “chikin” is a bean based protein that he bites into with ex- treme amusement. “This was in my refridgera- tor last week, I took a bite into and threw it out, I thought it was real chicken!” The office laughs. As he begins to work on his food he hands me his phone and asks me if I’ll finish typing an In- stagram post for him. “What’s Drake’s handle?” inquiring to the room. “Champaign Papi!” we all retort. “Okay, can you write, Congratulations Drake, thanks for a fun party @ChampaignPA- PIIIIII.” I hand him back his phone, “thank you MAMIII!” I can’t stop laughing and he can tell I’m amused as he laughs back. When I finish typ- ing I show it to him for his review, he approves and then pushes a piece of “chikin” towards me. “Try it! Just pick a piece up a try some.” I did and side note, it really did taste like chicken and left me considering that a life without meat didn’t seem so bad. He gets back on the topic of Vegan- ism. “Are you vegan?” he asks, to which I explain it would seem to be a difficult transition from Cuban to Vegan, as if the two could not coexist.
“You better get on your shit” he tells me as he con- tinues to explain that once he started truly taking Yoga seriously, it was impossible to really live the practice while continue to hurt animals and his own body with meat. He looks at me with a smile and says, “That cannot coexist, you can still be Cuban.”
As I ask him about his daily routine he explains how he wakes up every morning to meditate. Mr. Simmons is full of energy, throughout the inter- view his staff continues to ask him questions, and every now and then he looks down to his phone. For such an active proponent of stillness, it’s difficult to keep his attention. While I ask him what it is he’s looking at on his phone, passively asking for his attention, he shows me a picture of him with his two daughters at an event he’s mak- ing his home screen image and then makes direct eye contact with me to continue our conversa- tion. Right then was the moment that I could tell that the benefits of his practice had set in. Per- haps he does have a lot going on, but he’s able to identify when it is he’s not paying attention, and focus back in.
I finish the rest of his “chikin” as he encouraged me to do and then he announces to the room that he wants everyone to come to Yoga at the studio tonight. “You’re coming tonight, right? If you come tonight, I’ll give you a month free.” He doesn’t seem to pay much attention to Camilo whose standing behind somewhere when he makes this offer.
I haven’t mentioned it yet, but Russell is clearly a lady’s man, and it’s pretty obvious to understand why when you meet him. He’s engaging, inclu- sive and uplifting, while still not affording someone with his complete attention. As soon as he offers me a month free he looks to his assis- tant to ask him how the edits are going on the
Snoop Dogg Roast, and looks to another to tell him the ratings on his Def Comedy Jam Special were very good.
When I ask him about any comedians he’s particu- larly excited about that are featured on the HBO special, he mentions Kevin Tate, while continuing to say he really likes them all. If you don’t remem- ber, Def Comedy Jam was a comedy television se- ries Russell produced that debuted in 1992 and ran for five years. In that time they produced about 100 episodes and gave space for the famed comedian, Dave Chappelle amongst other great comedic acts like Bernice Mac and Martin Law- rence.
Mr. Simmons has continued his work to expand beyond entertainment. True to his belief in the power of people, he has set up many inter faith conversations between world renowned preach- ers, rabbis and Imam’s. Through these conversa- tions he hopes to open the conversation of the similarities amongst all religions in a world where people on the fringes of these faiths so of- ten only see the differences. “What about mak- ing secular cathedrals?” I ask him. “Not a bad idea!” He responds, “maybe we can make some space at Tantris.” A world where you can have an open discussion on religion and then get your hair blown out? The idea speaks to my most spir- itual and superficial senses. The conversation on changing the landscape continues when he men- tions his Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation. Through this foundation he aims to communi- cate his vision of opening people’s minds by ex- posing art to the youth in the public school sys- tem. When I ask why he’s chosen the route of fine arts rather than music, he quite simply responds, “it’s much easier. It’s more accessible.”
As I’m saying good bye to him and his staff, a question comes to mind when I remember that I heard he was only employing Vegans at his Yoga Studio. “Do you ever fear that by employing peo- ple only within your vision, you are cutting your- self off from new ideas?” “No,” he responds. “I deal with so many different types of people on a day to day through business, that I couldn’t do that even if I tried. But I’ve reached a point where I can em- ploy and have the people around me who want to communicate the same message as me, and that is very important. With Tantris in particular, there are a thousand yoga studios that people can go to. I have a very specific view in that my teachers are trained in teaching Yogic Science, it’s not a gym class, I’m aiming to teach Yoga in it’s entirety.”
In Los Angeles, it’s easy to call things like being Vegan and practicing Yoga a fad, but when you meet and look at Russell’s career it makes perfect sense that he’s found a new high. He was able to spot a lifestyle that was of interest to him before it reached the level of fad it is in today, he was able to benefit from it on a spiritual and physical level, and he’s been able to monetize from it too. His next book is on Transic Sacred Sex. (haha)
When I met him and his team up at Tantris later, I took my first class free (you can too). During the class I couldn’t help but check in every now and then on Russell’s ability, and I’ll tell you, he knows that he’s doing without being too flossy about the mat- ter. He subtly and quite graciously gave one of his employees some guidance and continued on into his own flow. I too got lost in my own. As promised, my month free was honored, and so was the rest of thestaff’s.
“What are you up to tomorrow Russell?” I ask him as I’m saying goodbye. “Meditate, Yoga, Cryother- apy and then office. Looking forward to Thanks- giving on Thursday.” It was a good day with Mr. Simmons, as I was left wondering what a vegan Turkey would look like.