Having never been chauffeured in a Maybach, I am fascinated by the cooler concealed in the console. Russell Simmons withdraws two organic juices, and hands me one. He opens his, which looks like seaweed. “You want a Red Bull too?” he asks. He opens a can for himself.
It is the Friday before Thanksgiving, and I have just met Russell Simmons, founder of Def Jam, hip-hop entrepreneur, double-fister of beverages. We are doing what any two dudes would do with a free afternoon in New York: we’re cruising in his giant piano-black car, on our way to a yoga class.
An hour before, I was packed with other journalists at the back of a ballroom at the New York Stock Exchange, covering an entrepreneurship contest called the Race To Be. During a brief exchange, I win him over: he points to the piercing in my eyebrow, and asks me, “What the fuck is that?” I tell him that’s what my dad said.
He snickers and dives into his spiel: “The world has white space,” he tells me, “and we need to promote places where people can be more conscious of cultivating their creativity.” He talks about finding success with holistic abstractions: faith in oneself, the need for like-minded company, the power of single-minded focus. “Study your subject. This is the science of life, the science of operating inside yourself,” he tells me. This is the Russell Simmons Theory of Everything.
When the event ends, an event coordinator grabs me and takes me to Russell’s entourage. When we get out onto the street, Russell motions to the back of the Maybach. I look over my shoulder. There’s no one else there, so I get in. The back seat has comically huge amounts of legroom. On the floor is the award they gave Russell for opening the NYSE that morning. “You get a medallion every time you do it,” he tells me. “I want the 5th one. I gotta keep up with my friends.”
He’s talking about the kind of friends he met with recently to plan the commissioning of a Martin Luther King, Jr. monument in Washington, DC. “The fund was short 50 or 100 million dollars,” he says. “They said, Cough it up, Russell. And I’m looking around, and the guys on either sides of me are billionaires. I mean, I read how rich I am, I read it on paper. But these guys, these guys are rich.”
He doesn’t sound in awe; he sounds disappointed, weary. “I try to give gifts. And obviously, everyone’s gifts are different,” he says. This is a guy who is in the middle of a building a financial service for underprivileged families, a guy who runs three major philanthropies, and has worked against everything from diamond mining in Africa to poverty in the Caribbean.
Russell’s apparent determination to help everyone, everywhere superintends the whole concept of Global Grind, which Russell describes as an online hub for under-represented urban voices. He serves as Editor in Chief of the site, and says it’s the project with which he spends most of his time these days: daily board meetings, conceptual bull sessions, celebrity involvement. I ask him if Global Grind is a business with a philanthropic heart. “It’s not a philanthropy, but it’s social and political, yeah. This is the kind of thing I do now with my friends. Jay-Z, Beyoncé, LL Cool J — we don’t make music.” I ask if he even has time to listen to music any more. “Oh yeah, man. If you put on ‘Fuck Da Police’ on that stereo, man, I’ll jump out this car right now. Right out the window.” He pulses in his seat.
Global Grind was integral to Russell’s campaigning for Obama this fall. The site hosted “Countdown to Change” parties on both coasts, aggregated election news, and hosted politically themed interviews with hip-hop stars. The site also hosts Russell’s blog, where he writes op-ed-like posts, many politically themed.
“You hear what that Al Qaeda guy said about Obama?” he asks me. “He said, ‘nigga ain’t no Malcolm X!'” He laughs. “He’s got no George Bush in him, that’s for sure.” He says he spent time with Obama during the campaign. Not even a flash of anger at the mud-slinging? “Oh, no. Homes didn’t do one emotional thing,” he says. “Nothing at all. He’s such an even guy — I can’t get him out of his box.”
For someone who swung his all weight for Obama, he talks about the election with clinical distance. “I was at a party at Puffy’s,” he says of election night. “Everybody was celebrating, but I was just like, yeah, he won. Then I went home.” It’s the same weariness as before: so much done, but so much more to do.
At his yoga studio in the East Village, he lends me clothes and I rent a mat. The class begins with everyone chanting to a sonorous accordion-thing being played by the instructor. Once the yoga begins in earnest, Russell transitions expertly between poses, nailing a Half Moon that almost pitches me into the lady next to me. By the end, I am cascading sweat, failing at the modified headstand everyone else is doing. I see Russell on the mat behind me, upside down and solid as a pillar. He scissors his legs in space while keeping his body still. He looks like a human turbine. His legs move back, forth, out, like they’re charging him up.