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The Mix Master

Hip-hop has entered Manhattan's mainstream -- even Martha Stewart now talks the talk -- and Def Jam's Russell Simmons has done more than anyone else to get it there. Inside the world of hip-hop's godfather.


Keith Barish, the toothy, sandy-haired co-founder of Planet Hollywood, comes trotting across the VIP dining room of Moomba. Russell Simmons and his wife, the model Kimora Lee, and his good friend Andre Harrell are there, talking and laughing together. Barish smiles hopefully. "Hi, guys!" he says.

If Moomba, the inaccessible downtown lounge, is currently the high-school cafeteria for famous people, then Simmons and Harrell are sitting at the cool table. Hip-hop has become the new rock and roll, and Simmons (founder and chairman of Def Jam Records) and Harrell (founder of Uptown Records, now president of Bad Boy) are two of the people who own it.

Simmons is dressed, as always, as a billboard for his clothing line, Phat Farm. He wears a cap with flaps that snap up on the sides of his smooth, round head. At 41, he's slimmer, fitter, and has taken on the often-photo-flashed glow of celebrity -- though he still retains the impishness of the teenagers he sold about $200 million worth of records to last year.

Simmons smiles. "Keith Barish," he says.

Simmons always greets people in this amused way, with an announcement of their full names. His ever-present cell phone, which in its latest incarnation has an ever-present plug in one of his ears, never rings aloud now; you'll just hear him call out, "Ronald Perelman!" . . . "Donald Trump!" as if he had a kind of celebrity Tourette's syndrome.

"Russell Simmons!" says Barish, picking up on the game. "How you doing?"

It's mentioned that Simmons is about to go to L.A. to pitch some movies (he's produced ten now, including The Nutty Professor).

"Take my plane!" Barish says breezily.

Simmons is warm, but he's already going on "Tommy's" -- that is, Hilfiger's -- plane.

"Okay. Great," says Barish, a little too quickly. The partner of Sly and Bruce and Demi goes trundling back to his table.

Simmons goes back to his plate of grilled vegetables and tofu. "Puffy could call Keith up right now and say, 'Gimme that plane,' and Keith'd say, 'You got it, I'll take American Airlines,' " he says matter-of-factly.

Harrell, the yin to Simmons's yang, wears a chocolate-brown Armani suit and a Patek Philippe watch and is daintily sawing at a steak. "Puffy's the rock star," he says. "He's Michael Jackson."

"When I met Michael," Simmons says, "he made me shake Bubbles's hand."

Harrell laughs.

"This is not about a moment," says Harrell. "This is way past a moment. This is Americana; this is a cultural change." We're at Patsy's, the Italian restaurant on 56th Street, one night, talking about how hip-hop has changed New York City. "When Puff Daddy's having white-linen parties in the Hamptons, and Ron Perelman's dressed in white linen walking through the door, I say, All right. This is real.

"But we need to get the moment all the way right," Harrell adds, stabbing carefully at a plate of creamy tortellini. "And for that to happen, we're gonna have to have a better world."

Two stories about young black men and New York have made international headlines in the past six months: one, a horrifying news event, the police shooting of an innocent African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, and the other, a surprisingly uplifting celebrity event, the 29th-birthday party of hip-hop mogul Sean "Puffy" Combs, which was notable for its eclectic guest list, from the Duchess of York to rapper Heavy D. The contrast between the reality on the streets and the reality of the moneyed class has become more and more difficult to grasp. And at the same time Hip-hop, music born on the streets of New York, and high society have merged, creating a place and a moment unlike any other.

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