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Russell Simmons Gets Def In It

The hip-hop impresario brings urban poets to Broadway. logo
Russell Simmons
By correctly judging what consumers would want from hip-hop ever since the days when it was called "rap," Russell Simmons has risen from hardscrabble beginnings to a life of wealth and power. A phenomenally successful string of predictions has made him the CEO of Rush Communications, an empire that encompasses film, TV, publishing, and fashion.

Now, he is adding Broadway to that list. On November 14, Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam on Broadway will open at the Longacre Theatre, featuring nine poet-performers from across America: Staceyann Chin, Mayde Del Valle, Suheir Hammad, Tamika Harper (also known as Georgia Me), Black Ice, Tendaji Lathan, Lemon, and Poetri. spoke with Simmons recently to seek his thoughts as his first Broadway production was getting on its legs, and found that he is ebullient and confident. He predicts that the show will be a hit, the performers will become huge stars, and that America's appetite for urban poetry is only destined to grow. Ironically, he also admits that, not so long ago, "I hated poetry."

It was one of his siblings who helped to change that opinion. "I was introduced to poetry slams through my brother Danny, an artist who has some degree of critical acclaim and is pretty well respected," Simmons says. "He did poetry slams for years, and what I saw over the last few years was that it had evolved from an alternative kind of art form to a mainstream kind of art form. It was time to give it greater exposure."

Simmons's idea that slam circuit poets could succeed on TV was based on his observation about the genre's increasing maturity -- how "the poetry went from being about heartfelt subject matter that wasn't really relevant to everyone" to become more universal -- as well as his own casual-yet-shrewd research into poetry's popularity. "I do a lot of speaking at colleges," he says, "and if I ask students, 'How many of you write poetry?' -- especially at a black college -- 50 or 60 percent will raise their hands. If I go to a black high school in the ghetto and ask that question, 70 or 80 percent raise their hands."

So Simmons pitched the idea for the TV show to HBO, which had already scored a hit with his Def Comedy Jam. It took a chance on Russell Simmons presents Def Poetry Jam and, as he predicted, the gamble paid off with "ratings through the roof." Says Simmons, "I put Def Poetry on TV not because I had a great vision but because it was already coming to pass. A lot of people think a cultural revolution is under way; I'm just helping to facilitate what's already happening. All I did was what I always do: give it some expression, give it a vehicle."

But Simmons wasn't content merely to move poets off of stages and onto the small screen. Last year he also moved them in the opposite direction by announcing that some of the more popular performers from the TV show would appear in a live Def Poetry show in San Francisco. When the response from critics and audiences proved to be extremely positive, he decided that the next logical step was a Broadway version. "Putting it on Broadway is natural, it's obvious," he says.

The poets of Def Jam
Simmons foresees Def Poetry Jam on Broadway attracting audiences as revolutionary as its format. "In San Francisco, a lot of people who saw the show were from the 'hood who'd never been near [a legit show]," he notes, "and I hope we can have the same effect here. I think that that could be a benefit to all of Broadway."

As for those notoriously difficult New York theater critics, Simmons finds it hard to believe that they could be blind to the show's charms. "I think these [poets] are so talented, and what they're doing is so necessary and relevant, that any critic who has a good ear -- who knows a good melody and knows a good piece of stand-up performance -- that kind of critic can only write good things," he says.

If he is right and Def Poetry Jam is successful, Simmons might stick around and produce other Broadway shows. Over the years, he has seen numerous scripts for hip-hop musicals cross his desk, and he has passed on all of them. Now, it may be time to take another look at those submissions. Perhaps another cultural revolution is ready to get under way.

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