It was Foxy Brown (of the "ill na na," her pet name for her private parts) who performed at the Whitney's Brite Nite fund-raiser this year, not the Peter Duchin Orchestra in their tuxedos. "John and Caroline" -- Kennedy, of course -- "asked Foxy, 'Are you gonna perform "Hot Spot"?' " says one hip-hop executive. "And Foxy asked Martha Stewart, 'Oh, aren't you the lady that does the gardening?' "
"It's a fabulous time," says Stewart, who snapped pictures at Russell Simmons's wedding on St. Barts last December -- where, reports Bobby Shriver (brother of Maria, and one of Simmons's groomsmen), "there were four supermodels, two billionaires, two princes, three movie directors, and a crackhead." Stewart adds, "I'm learning so much about what's going on!"
Unlike the Cotton Club days or even the Village jazz scene of the fifties and sixties, however, the "moment" is characterized by a burgeoning class of up-and-coming and increasingly powerful black entrepreneurs. "Money talks," says Monica Lynch, president of Tommy Boy Records. "And hip-hop is big business now." The "hip-hop-reneurial" movement, as it's called, has spawned the success of blacks in myriad offshoot industries such as fashion, advertising, publishing, publicity. Twenty years ago, it was Simmons who "laid the foundation" and "set an aspirational agenda," says Keith Clinkscales, publisher of Vibe. "He made the blueprint -- the philo, 'nome sayin'?" says the rapper Jay-Z.
It's Puff Daddy who's been getting the attention lately, so much so that in the minds of non-hip-hop fans, he's become almost synonymous with the genre: There was Puffy on the March 22 cover of Forbes -- there's been Puffy, Puffy, everywhere, including on the cover of the New York Post two weeks ago after the Bad Boy tycoon was arrested for allegedly beating Interscope Records executive Steve Stoute in a dispute over his appearance in a controversial video for the rapper Nas (there was Puffy in the video, nailed to a cross, which his mother, not his minister, as has been reported, apparently took issue with). Puffy may be in some real trouble now -- but that, too, only seems to be increasing his profile.
But if hip-hop moguls like Puffy and Master P (of No Limit Records) have been getting more column inches recently, it's Simmons, the so-called godfather of hip-hop, who blazed the trails and -- in an often volatile landscape -- continues to be considered hip-hop's most important player. In 1979, he made a hit out of the second rap record ever (Kurtis Blow's Christmas Rappin'), and then he made his name developing (along with then-partner Rick Rubin) acts like the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, L.L. Cool J, and Run-D.M.C. "Around '84" -- the year Simmons started Def Jam -- says Gary Harris, a former company executive, "we were in a bar and Russ was telling me, 'I'm sick of making other people rich. I want to own my own shit, my own record label, my own movie company.' What I really thought was he was drunk. There weren't a lot of blacks thinking that way back then. There weren't a lot of examples to follow."
Now Simmons has the movie company he always wanted (Def Pictures), along with an ad agency (Rush Media), a magazine (Oneworld), a TV show (Russell Simmons' Oneworld Music Beat), and his clothing line. Meanwhile, Def Jam has become arguably the most profitable label in America -- and along with it, as Simmons long predicted, hip-hop has become America's music, outselling pop and country last year. "Def Jam keeps setting the standards and opening up new horizons for the genre," says Doug Morris, CEO of the Universal Music Group, which, interestingly, is about to cut Simmons and his current partner, Lyor Cohen, a buyout check for $100 million for their 40 percent of the company.
It's with dismay and even sadness, however, that some people in the hip-hop community watch Simmons prepare to close his deal with Edgar Bronfman Jr., Universal's owner. It may be part of the hip-hop philosophy to sell, because hip-hop is about "getting paid"; but Def Jam has consistently put out music that has influenced the consciousness of a generation, from Public Enemy's "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" in 1988 to DMX's "Slippin'," an anthem of struggle in the ghetto, today. Even Simmons -- who professes to be generally apolitical -- says he believes "a lot of kids learned a lot about what's going on down the block from hip-hop. I absolutely believe there's a real coming-together because of this music."
Then how can he bring himself to let it go? (He will stay on as chairman of Def Jam although no longer an owner.) "I don't completely understand it," says Selwyn Seyfu Hinds, editor-in-chief of The Source, the hip-hop bible. "There are deep, deep questions in black culture in terms of ownership, in the sight of somebody who is the very paragon of success selling his share off to the Man. People wonder, 'Is this Berry Gordy Part Two?'