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Other segments from the episode on November 27, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 27, 2001: Interview with Bernie Mac; Interview with Russell Simmons.

Transcript

DATE November 27, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Bernie Mac discusses his career as a comedian
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Bernie Mac, is the star of the new sitcom "The Bernie Mac Show," in
which he plays a fictional version of himself. Both Bernie Macs are stand-up
comics. The real Bernie Mac became well known through the Russell Simmons
"Def Comedy Jam" on HBO and Spike Lee's performance film "The Original Kings
of Comedy." Now he has a new book called "I Ain't Scared of You." The new
sitcom is loosely based on Bernie Mac's experiences raising his daughter, his
niece and his niece's child. On the show, Bernie Mac and his wife have just
taken in his sister's three young children because his sister has a drug
problem and is in rehab. In the first episode, Bernie Mac talks directly to
the audience about his new situation.

(Soundbite of "The Bernie Mac Show")

Mr. BERNIE MAC ("Bernie Mac"): America, let's talk. Yeah, my sister's on
drugs. That's OK. Some of your family members messed up, too. What am I
supposed to do? Allow these three kids to go to the state or some foster home
or some white couple. Hold on, this ain't about race. It's not about race.
I just don't want to hear them talking all proper like that, you know what I'm
saying? That's all I'm trying to say. Or they got to sit there and share
food with 40 other kids. No, that ain't right. I'm trying to do the right
thing.

GROSS: Uncle Bernie loves the kids that he's now responsible for, but they're
also driving him crazy.

(Soundbite of "The Bernie Mac Show")

Mr. MAC: I'm going to kill one of them kids. Oh, don't get me wrong, I love
'em. They my blood. I'd give them the shirt off my back. You ever see a
chicken with his neck wrung, laying to the side all lazy and weak? That's
what I'm going to do to those kids. Talk back to me one more time, snap. I'm
gonna snap they neck off. They too sassy. They too grown today. They talk
back too much. Yeah, I know what you're saying, America. I don't care what
you're talking about. `Bernie Mac cruel. Bernie Mac beat his kids.' I don't
care. That's your opinion. Because you don't know the story. You don't know
what went down. And they're not my kids.

GROSS: Now in the TV show, the Bernie Mac character is not used to being a
father.

Mr. MAC: Right.

GROSS: You know, he just inherited these three kids, and he's making a lot of
mistakes. Now the most quoted line from the show so far is something he says
to one of the kids. You know what the line is.

Mr. MAC: Yeah.

GROSS: Why don't you say it.

Mr. MAC: I'll bust your head 'til the white meat show.

GROSS: That's it.

Mr. MAC: Was that it?

GROSS: Yeah. His impulse is always like if the kids are misbehaving, hit
'em.

Mr. MAC: Well...

GROSS: And he doesn't really do it, but that's the impulse.

Mr. MAC: Well, he's from the old school. I mean, he believe ruling with an
iron hand. And, I mean, you have to understand something. He comes from a
generation, or a time period in the '70s and '60s where spankings were
permitted, and discipline was of the high regard. Bernie Mac has no idea
about parenting. And his way of parenting, he's still a disciplinarian. And
he believes in his heart strongly that a kid should be a kid. And that's
where the problem lies. He's not PC. He's not worried about image. He's
living his life, and he's trying to save lives. And that's what makes the
show so interesting, and that's what makes the humor. The humor's not
punch-line jokes. That's something I didn't want.

GROSS: You grew up on the South Side of Chicago.

Mr. MAC: Yes, ma'am.

GROSS: Describe where you grew up.

Mr. MAC: I grew up--I was born on 66th and Blackstone, and that building was
tore down because it was rat infested. We couldn't play outside because the
rats used to be in the walls, on the bannisters. We stayed on the third
floor, and my mom used to literally pick me up--I was three to four years old,
and she would walk me three flights of stairs and kicking rats from her feet.
The city tore the rat--I mean the building down and moved us to 69th and
Morgan. Well, that was a little bit better supposedly, the Englewood area of
Chicago. And at four years old, that's when I--four to five--decided I wanted
to be a comedian. Because I walked in from playing, and I saw my mother
sitting in her favorite chair crying. And as a little kid I saw her crying, I
began to cry, like most kids often do. And I asked her why was she crying,
and she told me, `Nothing.'

At that particular time, Ed Sullivan was introducing Bill Cosby. Bill Cosby
came out and he did a routine about rats and snakes in the bathroom. My
mother began to laugh and cry at the same time. When I saw that, I started
laughing with her. And I told my mom--I said, `That's what I'm going to be,
Mom. I'm going to be a comedian so I never have to see you cry again.'
Because at that particular time, I thought comedians relieved my mother of her
pain. And that's something that I always wanted to do.

GROSS: So what were some of the jokes that went over real big when you were a
boy?

Mr. MAC: I think none. I think that I was a struggling comic, but in my
mind I was successful. People said I was stupid, I was silly. They said I
was buffoonish. I used to dress up, put on my mother wig, put on my
grandmother slip coat. I'd dress up as a woman and portray as Bernice. That
was one of the characters that I created as a young boy, was Bernice. And it
wasn't about being a homosexual or anything like that. I was portraying a
woman. And I used to talk like a woman, put on my grandmother glasses, and I
used to mimic (talking in female voice) `Y'all better quit playing up in here.
Everybody better go to bed. I'm sick and tired of all this mess. Lord,
Lord'--and that's how my grandmother used to talk.

GROSS: Right. Who were the comics you loved to listen to when you were
growing up?

Mr. MAC: Sweetheart, I was a student of the ga--I had so many. I mean, from
Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley, Pigmeat Markum, Jack Benny, Red
Skelton, Johnny Carson, Steve Allen. Oh, I don't want to leave anybody out.
Jackie Gleason was one of my favorites. Norm Crosby, Don Rickles.

GROSS: What did you do to try to figure out what it is that they did that was
so funny? You said earlier that you tried to do impressions of comics that
you loved when you were young.

Mr. MAC: I watched what made them different. I watched what made them all
successful in their own way. And what made them all successful was style.
They had a unique style about themselves, not like today. You see one comic,
and he gets hot, that's what they want everyone to be like. They want
everyone to be like that individual. Don Rickles--I was so impressed with Don
Rickles, the way he can just come in and just destroy an entire room. I was
so impressed. And I was not offended as a young boy watching this guy and
some of the things--Jews, blacks, Chinese. I mean, he tore you up, but you
knew it was a joke. I got it right away. I was not offended. I was not
saying, `Did you hear what he said?' He was funny.

Jackie Gleason was so impressive to me, whereas he never rehearsed. He
ad-libbed so well, and he took--the energy that he had was something that I
wanted. That's a page of his notebook that I've tested.

GROSS: How did you figure out who you were going to be on stage as a comic?

Mr. MAC: I didn't figure it out until 1987. It's just something that came
to me. I combined them all. Richard Pryor showed me how to laugh at
yourself. That was something that was unheard of, to laugh at your pain.
Redd Foxx was nothing but Richard Pryor, but he was denied. Richard Pryor
modified and moderated Redd Foxx. Redd Foxx made 43-plus albums. That's a
hell of a lot of jokes. But America wasn't ready for Redd Foxx. They said he
was too blue. But Redd Foxx taught me how to be myself. Performing in High
Cienica Hotel(ph) in Las Vegas, he told me, he said--`You're a funny guy, but
you don't want to be funny. You want to be liked.'

I didn't understand what he meant at that particular time, but being dedicated
and finding out, it takes time. Because everyone kept telling me--especially
being a minority, everyone kept telling me you had to be like Bill Cosby.
Bill Cosby. Then when Richard Pryor got hot, `Oh, you ain't no Richard
Pryor.' Then Eddie Murphy came along, and you had a 10-year drought period
when there was no minorities, black comics, after Richard Pryor. Then Eddie
Murphy came along. Everybody started telling me I had to be Eddie Murphy.

Well, in 1987, I did a show in Chicago, and I was performing and I wasn't at
my best at that particular time, and a heckler kept heckling me. He was
heckling everybody the whole entire night. And it was my turn, everybody was
really scared to go up, because this guy was a big guy, big red neck. I mean,
he had a table full of cats, and they was just intimidating everybody. Well,
I went up and I was not intimidated and he said a few words--I kept trying to
do my normal act. I got off my normal act, and I got on him, and the place
went crazy. And it was more or less being elated that I stood up to him, and
my style changed that particular time.

Well, I got a standing ovation. The next night I came back to work being my
old self. And when I walked through the door, before I performed that next
night, there was a group of people--they said, `There he is. That's the guy I
was telling you about, girl. He is funny. Wait till you see him tonight.'
Well, I went back to my old style, and everybody was looking at me like they
was having prayer.

GROSS: Now when you were getting started, did you play different kinds of
audiences, some black audiences, some white audiences, some integrated
audiences?

Mr. MAC: I performed wherever there was people. I started on the El's of
Chicago. In the '70s I used to ride the El's and perform from 95th Street all
the way downtown. I used to do the subways.

GROSS: Wait, wait, wait. Now in New York--New York subways have been almost
like performance art, where every five minutes someone else is coming in, and
either doing some performance or asking for money or telling you that they're
going to--you know, threatening you unless you give them money. But there's
always something. So how would you do it? You'd just walk into a car and
start doing your act?

Mr. MAC: No, I never walked to a car. No, I never did that. What I used to
do was, during the rush hour, people go to work. I would get on the end of
the El and I would go--and I would watch the news and I would read the paper,
see what was going on in the city. And I would get on, and people would first
look at me like I was a bum, until they got acquainted with me and they got
familiar with me, and they said, `Oh, this guy, this the El comedian.' And I
actually made people laugh. And I had a box, and people used to put money in
the box. Then when I got to Lake Street, I used to go way down in the subway,
and as people be going back and forth, I would stand there, and I had this
little microphone, little B box thing, and it was like my speaker--and I would
tell jokes and I would talk about current events, things that had happened in
the neighborhood. And plus I would do little characters and stuff that I had
back then. And people would throw money in the box. I made 3 to $400 day.

GROSS: Wow, that's great.

Mr. MAC: But I was not happy.

GROSS: That's probably more than some of the comedy clubs paid.

Mr. MAC: Yeah, but I wasn't happy.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. MAC: I wasn't happy at all because I felt like I was begging. I felt
like a bum.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. MAC: I wanted to be legitimized. In 1977, I went to the clubs.

GROSS: Did you find that white audiences and black audiences reacted
differently to your material, or reacted differently in general?

Mr. MAC: Well, they act different in general, because white audience come to
be entertained; black audience want to entertain you. And white audiences are
more cordial, more respectful of the artist. And even if you're bad, I
mean--you know, the audience has changed. I'm talking about the audience back
then. The audience has changed all the way around the table now. But white
audience was more cordial to you. Black audience are--they just tell you like
it is. If you suck, you suck, and they don't want to hear--you ain't getting
nothing but two or three minutes. You come out the gate with that old sorry
stuff, you in a world of trouble.

GROSS: Well, how would you get driven off the stage if you weren't working?

Mr. MAC: I refused to get driven off the stage.

GROSS: OK.

Mr. MAC: When I suffered, and when I died the death of a pilot, I stayed up
there. And that was something I think has helped me to this day. I see a lot
of cats run. I seen that three minutes become an hour. I seen that hour,
man, when you're on a roll, be like 30 minutes. People are like, `Where does
the time go?' And that's a different transformation. Those are growing pains.
You know, you have to work at your craft. You know, you don't come out
hitting the ball right away. You might get a tip here and there. You know,
I've done great for two weeks and then, sure, a whole month went in a slump,
make me make nobody laugh. I've been through all of that.

GROSS: My guest is comic Bernie Mac, star of the new Fox sitcom "The Bernie
Mac Show." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is comic Bernie Mac, star of the new Fox sitcom "The Bernie
Mac Show." Now you opened for acts like Gladys Knight, The Temptations, The
O'Jays. What's it like to open for big-name music acts? What were the pros
and cons of that?

Mr. MAC: Well, the pros were that you made it, that you were on your way and
you were pretty good to be there. The cons were, if you believe that stuff,
you was in a world of rouble. You know, that's one reason why I don't hear
the voices. You know, you can be up today and down tomorrow. Comedy is
something that, you know, you have to really, really have in your heart;
something that you just don't wake up and say you want to do or be. Comedy is
something that has to be in your bones, because it's you against the world.
In boxing, you have single activity, but a judge can determine your fate, or a
referee can stop the fight early. Tennis, hey, a bad call here and there can
determine your fate. But comedy, you have no excuses. It's you and the mike,
and a bunch of people who don't give a doggone about you. And then once you
get out there, you're on your own. And that's one thing that I love about
comedy. I love that kind of pressure.

GROSS: I guess the things that really made you famous were the "Def Comedy
Jam" and the Kings of Comedy tour that Spike Lee made the movie of. So what
was it like when things started to change after the original "Kings of Comedy"
was released.

Mr. MAC: Well, let me tell you exactly how it was. I made a name for myself
in Chicago because I refused to go to Los Angeles because that's where
everyone told me I had to go. They told me in order for me to go and be a
comedian, that I had to go to Los Angeles. And the time that I went to Los
Angeles, they treated me like dirt. It was a clique, it was almost like a
fraternity. You had to be with this organization or you had to be with that
organization. I just hit every comedy club in Los Angeles and I wasn't
connected. So I made an oath to myself that LA was going to come to me. And
I did that. I formulated a comedy circuit here. I went through the white
club system, and I didn't make it. They told me that I wasn't funny. They
told me I had to do this, the politics clicked in, and I was never a part of
the clique.

Well, I made a name for myself. I started doing a little radio, subbing in
for Tom Joyner, Doug Banks on GCI, V103, and I made a little laugh for
myself. I was at the Cotton Club on Monday. I was at the Dating Game on
Tuesday, the Ship Cocas(ph) on Wednesday. I was at the Robert 500(ph) on
Thursdays, AKA(ph) on Friday. I did six or seven shows around the city on
Saturday, and I was at the club, on Spices, on the North Side on Sunday. So I
was working seven days a week, plus doing my regular working job.

Then from there all the comedy clubs started calling back for me. The black
comedy clubs started to be open. I started working both clubs. I got very
popular in all the club circuits. Well, "Def Jam" came on and they
called--they came in Atlantic City, and I was headlining six shows. Talent
coordinator named Bob Sumner came to one of the shows--I had three shows that
night--and he told me--he said, they've being calling me and told me they was
doing a new television show and they wanted me to come on. Well, he came to
Atlanta and he saw me and he said, `Man, you are on. We want you on.' I said,
`Great,' because I looked at it as an opportunity to showcase myself to the
world on HBO.

Then in 1997, they came to me with the Kings of Comedy. What the Kings of
Comedy did was it put me in an arena where a lot of people who didn't know me
got to know me. We was doing 24,000, 18,000 seaters for three years. And
that broadened my audience. And the rest is history.

GROSS: You're in the remake of "Ocean's 11," the new versions of it. Who do
you play in it?

Mr. MAC: I play a character of the name of Frank Catton, who's a con man.
I'm the cat that enabled everyone to get into the casinos, because I know the
casinos like the back of my hand. I play as a card dealer. I'm a con man.
But I get the maps and I lay everything out and I get us in and out of all
these casinos. And that's my job.

GROSS: Were you a fan of the Rat Pack, and specifically of Sammy Davis Jr.
when you were young?

Mr. MAC: Oh, no question.

GROSS: Yeah?

Mr. MAC: No question. Troy Bishop, Peter Lawford. I mean, Sammy, I thought
those cats were--Dean Martin. Dean Martin had a certain suave about him that
was undescribable. And honestly speaking, he sang better than Frank Sinatra.
Frank Sinatra, I could think of a million other cats...

GROSS: No. No way.

Mr. MAC: Oh, please.

GROSS: No.

Mr. MAC: Frank Sinatra's overrated to me.

GROSS: No.

Mr. MAC: But I like his persona. I like what he stood for, and I like the
respect that he had. Offstage, his presence was more powerful than all.
Frank Sinatra was mediocre to me. Andy Williams, Mel Torme, Dean Martin, will
(unintelligible) his tail up any day. Those are my favorites. And Dean
Martin was funny. Dean Martin had a certain pizazz about himself that was
just unbelievable. Frank Sinatra just had that persona. He had that halo on
him that people were afraid to touch. And there's nothing wrong with that. I
think he's very talented. I love the Rat Pack, but that's just my personal
opinion of my favorite. I can name some more--Perry Como, much better singer.

GROSS: Now you're my guest, so I'm not going to argue with you about Andy
Williams being a better singer than Frank Sinatra.

Mr. MAC: OK.

GROSS: But if we meet on the street sometime...

Mr. MAC: You know what?

GROSS: ...we'll talk more about it.

Mr. MAC: That's a beautiful day. (Singing) `I got my candy.' Oh, he was all
right. He was all right. And I'll tell you what, whenever you meet me, we've
got to debate.

GROSS: You bet. I have strong feelings about Sinatra.

Mr. MAC: I got facts. I'm bringing facts with me.

GROSS: OK. I've got strong feelings about Andy Williams, too. I never
really liked him.

Mr. MAC: OK. That's all right. But he beat Frank.

GROSS: All right.

Mr. MAC: All right, baby.

GROSS: Bernie Mac. He stars in the new Fox sitcom "The Bernie Mac Show." He
also has a new book called "I Ain't Scared of You."

Jazz impresario and record producer Norman Granz died Thursday at the age of
83. He founded the Verve and Pablo record labels, and created the touring
concert series "Jazz at the Philharmonic." He recorded many of jazz's greatest
stars, including Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughn
and Ella Fitzgerald. We'll close this half hour with one of Norman Granz's
classic sessions, "Charlie Parker With Strings."

(Soundbite of "Charlie Parker With Strings")

(Credits)

GROSS: Coming up, Russell Simmons, the entrepreneur of hip-hop. He
co-founded Def Jam Records, has produced movies and TV shows, and even has his
own line of clothing.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Russell Simmons talks about his career as a record and
movie producer, his clothing line and his views on the positives
of rap music
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Russell Simmons, is perhaps the most famous and successful hip-hop
entrepreneur. He started off producing rap shows in 1976. He managed Kurtis
Blow, who had one of the first rap hits, "Christmas Rappin'." In 1985,
Simmons co-founded Def Jam Records, which signed such artists at L.L. Cool J,
The Beastie Boys, The Fresh Prince and Public Enemy. Simmons produced the
movies "The Nutty Professor" and "How to be a Player," and the HBO TV series
"Def Comedy Jam", and he has his own clothing and accessories line called Phat
Farm.

Russell Simmons tells his story in his new memoir, "Life and Def," which was
written with Nelson George. I asked Simmons what his reaction was in 1979
when he heard this, the first commercial rap record, "Rapper's Delight", by
Sugarhill Gang.

(Soundbite of "Rapper's Delight")

Unidentified Man #1: (Rapping) Hibby-dibby, hip, hip, hop. You don't stop.
Rug it out to the boogie band, babe. Now boogie to the boogedy beat. Now
what you hear is not a test. I'm rappin' to the beat. And me, you...

Mr. RUSSELL SIMMONS (Def Jam Records): 1979 that record came out, and I was
very distraught, because I didn't know any better. And I had a record on the
shelf by the name of "Christmas Rappin'", which was the first release that I
was involved with by Kurtis Blow. And so, you know, I didn't have the vision
to know that this was an eye-opener for America or open the door for me. I
just thought that these guys had stolen my--you know, not my idea, but I had a
record on the shelf and I wanted to be the first rap record.

So when I heard it I kind of--not only was I upset, but so was the whole
hip-hop community, because there was a group of artists--DJ Hollywood,
Eddie Cheba, the great Grandmaster Flash, Kurtis Blow, Lovebug Starski. These
guys were the stars of that genre, and they were performing artists. Now
here's a recording artist, a record, by people who were not popular, who
borrowed ideas and rhymes from this community and put it on record. So we're
all, like, bummed out because we thought these guys had stolen our music, our
ideas and, you know, our culture. And they were selling it, and we weren't.
So I didn't realize that "Rapper's Delight" was the greatest thing that could
have happened to me.

GROSS: How was it the greatest thing?

Mr. SIMMONS: Well, because it allowed people to understand that there was
profit in rap music. And then it gave Kurtis Blow an opportunity to put out
his record. I had a Kurtis Blow record on the shelf. Again, that record was
named "Christmas Rappin'." It plays every Christmas right now.

GROSS: Why don't we play it now. Introduce it for us. Tell us something
about what you think made this record special.

Mr. SIMMONS: Well, it was probably the second rap record to come out, and it
was, you know, a very, very commercial version of hip-hop, but it
certainly--it was honest. It was a hip-hopper who was from Harlem, who was
the real thing and had built a legitimate following on his own as a performing
artist. And it was actually very timely. And every Christmas, it's still
timely. You know, pretty interesting rhymes, and whenever I hear it, I get
goose bumps because that was my first experience of being in the record
business, which was something, of course, I aspired to and, you know, only
dreamed about.

GROSS: OK. So this is "Christmas Rappin'." It's Russell Simmons' first
record production, and Kurtis Blow's first recording.

(Soundbite from "Christmas Rappin'")

Unidentified Man #2: 'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the
house...

Mr. KURTIS BLOW: Hold it now. Wait, hold it. That's played out. Hit it.

(Soundbite of music)

(Rapping) Don't you give me all that jive about things you wrote before I was
alive. 'Cause this ain't 1823, ain't even 1970. Now I'm the guy named Kurtis
Blow, and Christmas is one thing I know. So every year, just about this time,
I celebrate it with a rhyme.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BLOW: (Rapping) Gonna shake it, gonna bake it, gonna make it good.
Gonna rock, shock, knock it through your neighborhood. Gonna ring it, gonna
sing it till it's understood, my rappin' 'bout to happen like a knee you been
slappin' or a toe you been tappin' on a hunk of wood.

'Bout a red-suited dude with a frilly attitude and sleigh full of goodies for
the people on the block. Got a long, white beard; maybe looks kind of weird.
And if you ever see him, he can give you quite a shock.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: That's Kurtis Blow's "Christmas Rappin'," produced by my guest,
Russell Simmons, who has a new memoir, which is called "Life and Def."

Now when you started getting successful and when some of the performers you
were producing, like Kurtis Blow, started getting successful--Run-DMC--it
meant money. Making money quickly at a young age can be a very good thing.
It can also be a very destructive thing, because sometimes people aren't
prepared to deal with that kind of money. And it gets them into more trouble
than it has benefits. Looking back, what are some of the things you think you
did right and wrong when you started coming into money?

Mr. SIMMONS: Well, I think that I already was like a big, old druggy. Like
whatever drug came my way, I took. I was already running the street. The
success, or the money, the results of the success--I don't think it damaged me
too much, you know. I mean, it gave me opportunity and access. Some of the
access was a little bit of a problem, but I don't think--I think that, mostly,
I had a good time. And I think that the money, for me, was, you know--just
gave me more incentive, in a way. It was kind of a measure of success.

But I did see many artists who got addicted to drugs and whose careers
suffered because of their--this quick access and this amount of money that
was, you know, for them, an unreasonable amount of money for the work that
they did. People did their work for the love of it. And when they started to
get a lot of money for it, it made it--they lost focus, many of us. And at
some point, you know, I just straightened up and it was kind of an evolution.
But it was--I don't think that the money, for me, was a problem. I mean, it
gave me the opportunity to get an apartment.

I remember when "Christmas Rappin'" was a hit, for instance, the greatest
success that I can remember to date is that I got a record out. I got a
chance to get on a plane and go to Amsterdam, which, for me, was an amazing
experience. I had never been on a plane at all. I went to Amsterdam in 1979
with Kurtis Blow, and we were treated like--well, we thought we were kings.
We got to go to Amsterdam and perform. And we saw people, you know, from
other countries. Not only Amsterdam, but we went to France--Paris, France,
specifically, and these people watched us perform. And here we were in this
big world with our own music.

And when I moved--when I came back to New York, I was moving into my own
apartment. That apartment is probably no bigger than the studios I'm here
recording from, but I was in the record business, which was what I wanted to
be, and that was a tremendous success, just the ability to go to work everyday
in an industry that I loved.

GROSS: As a teen-ager, you were dealing drugs and making money that way. Did
you learn anything in the business of dealing drugs that you were able to
apply when you became a real businessman?

Mr. SIMMONS: Well, I can tell you that it inspired me to buy for one and
sell for two. And that's something that, in the black community, we didn't
have very many role models at--who were entrepreneurs. It's just now that
hip-hop is inspiring so many young people, many of whom are not so educated or
sophisticated, but driven by incentive and--I mean, by love of music and art
and who own their own. And there are big margins in some of these businesses,
and they just go to work every day without, you know, a business school
background, without a degree from Harvard or wherever. They just go to work
from heart.

It's something that was not instilled in kids in the black community. Their
job was to be a doctor, maybe, but be a teacher probably. Just to go to
school was the goal. You know, rappers rap now about being CEOs. They'll
even rap sometimes about how good a rapper they are. They rap a lot more
about how much they can stack money and how they do it, you know, how they run
their businesses.

GROSS: And do you think of yourself as having done business any differently
with Def Jam than you saw business being done in the major record labels that
you had tried to deal with?

Mr. SIMMONS: Absolutely. We had this vision that these artists were long
term, that they had images of--that had to be protected, that they were not
gonna be exploitative in terms of the kind of music they put out. We weren't
going to change their music so it would sell more. We weren't going to sell
them out or allow them to sell themselves out. We wanted to remind them to
keep their integrity and promote that. We wanted to make sure that their
images--their visual images were out in the street, not just their music.

There was a lot of work that we did that was different from what major labels
would have done, and it gave us an edge over them because even now, L.L. Cool
J--who was our first act when we recorded his record in '84--is recording a
new record. And his last record was a platinum-selling record. Even now
there's a new Run-DMC record being recorded, and it's--their first record was
recorded in 1982. Beastie Boys are still recording. There's a new Public
Enemy record. Slick Rick is still coming out. There's a new EPMD record.
These are the bands we started with. You can always fool people one time or a
few times, but to really have a long-standing career, you have to connect with
them in some real place.

GROSS: My guest is hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. He has a new memoir
called "Life and Def." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

RUN-DMC: (Rapping) Boy's set against perpetratin' a fraud. Your brother's
told ...(unintelligible)...

GROSS: My guest is hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. He co-founded Def Jam
Records, has produced movies and TV shows and created the clothing and
accessories company Phat Farm.

Have you ever been concerned about the promotion of a gangster lifestyle
through rap, making it cool to think of women at bitches, making it cool to
think of, you know, shooting people in drive-bys and the gang life?

Mr. SIMMONS: You know, I'm often asked this question.

GROSS: I figured.

Mr. SIMMONS: And--no, but I mean--and people are always surprised to know
that I'm really proud of all of what rap stands for today. And I believe that
what people say in their closed doors, it's--they're shocked to hear it on the
radio. They're shocked to hear a reflection of this reality, you know,
broadcast. I heard a senator say at the hearings on the Marketing
Accountability Act--and Senator Thompson, a Republican senator, said he
thought that every 15-year-old boy should see "Saving Private Ryan" because he
thought that if that--they all saw that, they'd know a lot about the war and
about, you know, that lifestyle that you have to--or that attitude that you,
you know, have to have in order to live through war, and it was important.

I said, `Well, in that case, every 15-year-old kid must hear a Snoop Dogg
record, because that's a war going on down the block.' And that's not 50
years ago. That's right now. And that's something that--it's very important,
when they say, `F the police,' or when they said it in Compton in 1985, that
was such an important record.

I remember signing a band in LA, and they were just nice kids, basically, but
lived in a horrible part of LA. And they came to visit me at the Beverly
Hills Hotel and they asked me how to get home. I said, `You--what do you
mean, "How do you get home?" How'd you'--they were afraid of the police. I
said, `Well, why are you afraid of the police? What are you carrying? Do you
have guns? Do you have drugs?' `No, we don't have anything. We're just
afraid of the police.' These are 20-year-old men scared to drive, you know,
in Beverly Hills.

Almost all the records that people perceive as gangster records are about
people frustrated, who don't perceive themselves as having any other
opportunity. And it's a description of their lifestyle more than it is an
endorsement of it. And so that's something that, you know, people who listen
closely to the music can tell. And people from the outside, all they can hear
is the language. Well, real language is OK by me, and descriptions of real
situations and a real reflection of our society--a part of our society is
important by me.

GROSS: Yeah, I know what you're saying. I think at the same time, though,
all that became a kind of style. And it was a style that was equated with
being authentic. So if you wanted to make a record and sound authentic, you
had to do it in that style, too, even if it wasn't really your style.

Mr. SIMMONS: My brothers, the Reverend Run--his record--his last hit--he
hadn't made a hit in five, seven years. It was called "Down with the King."
It's about down with God. L.L. Cool J has never made a gangster record. DMX
talks about heart and soul. Jay-Z talks about the street, but he also talks
about how could he ever survive getting out of it and how could he--he talks
about how happy he is, and thrilled--anybody should be, and he's just--and
Will Smith, I think, is the biggest rapper in the world. Lauryn Hill may be
the second biggest rapper in the world. They're not gangsters.

I think that people make more--it's more newsworthy, but not sales worthy,
always. So you may talk about gangster rap because it offends you, but I
think there's a lot of good in even those records, but there is a good balance
in rap. Although I aspire, you know, as a person who can promote cultural
initiatives on my own, to push more social and political rap records, I get
what's real, whatever is honest. So...

GROSS: I know what you're saying, and I don't want to argue that all rap is
gangster rap, because I...

Mr. SIMMONS: No, but people say...

GROSS: ...know that that's not true. But on the other hand, I just wonder
how you feel sometimes if you see, like, you know, an eight-year-old kid
who's, you know, like listening to rap and mouthing things that they don't
even understand what it means about, like, gangsters and bitches and hos and
guns and drugs and all this.

Mr. SIMMONS: Well, eight-year-old kids watch the news, ma'am, in all
fairness, you know.

GROSS: Yeah, true, but...

Mr. SIMMONS: Eight-year-olds can deal--sometimes you say a sex record, you
know, is bad. Somebody says something about sex, but you turn it on at 6:00
and it's implied and it's shown all the time. It's not the phys--I mean,
certainly, a record...

GROSS: But I'm still asking you how you feel about it when you see it with
rap; you know, that like the kids just start to aspire to...

Mr. SIMMONS: But I think you're putting on--you're putting something on me
that you don't put on the news, that you don't put on mid--daytime television.

GROSS: You wouldn't know 'cause...

Mr. SIMMONS: You're putting a great pressure on--no, you're putting a greater
pressure on these artists...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SIMMONS: ...than you are on daytime, mainstream television. And these
records do have parental advisory stickers on them. You watch violent
movies--really violent movies in prime time. So I just think that, you know,
this is kind of a racial thing, to some degree. You know, it's like you--we
don't like--maybe language bothers you. I'm not--personally, I'm not offended
by language. I'm not too worried about my child hearing language. The ideas
I'm concerned with I will talk to my child about, but my child will see and
hear these ideas everywhere.

GROSS: The same questions have been asked about violent movies and a lot of
television, and so on, and I'm not, myself, trying to pass judgment here. I'm
just asking you if you have ever been in the position of thinking, `Gee,
somebody's taking the wrong message away from this. They're taking it too
literally. They're taking it at face value. They're aspiring to a kind of
street warfare that they're not forced into doing'? I mean, they're not
even...

Mr. SIMMONS: Well, I certainly know that people take a lot of culture and a
lot of reality and twist it the way it suits them, whether it's a James Cagney
movie or an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, whether it's a rap record. But a lot
of these kids--you know, you have to--they need counseling and parents to work
with them and support in a different way. But there are so many influences on
kids, so many positive and so many that could be made positive or made
negative, depending on where the kid's mind-set is at that time. And I'm
hopeful that more good will come from rap's description of the condition of
the suffering people in the communities than bad. But I certainly don't, you
know, believe that the artists are responsible for the actions of the people
who buy their music.

GROSS: One of the things that you have now is a fashion company, clothes and
colognes. It's called Phat Farm. How long have you been in that end of
things?

Mr. SIMMONS: Well, that company is now celebrating--or will be in the
spring--and we're working on a collection now for fall of 2002--will be a
10-year anniversary.

GROSS: Is it that long?

Mr. SIMMONS: That's right. And so Phat Farm is celebrating it's 10-year
anniversary. It's a pretty interesting story because when we started Phat
Farm, there were no partners and no one really understood our vision. And we
said in our first campaign, `classic, American flavor.' And it was kind of a
joke to a lot of the retailers, certainly the buyers from Bloomingdale's and
Macy's, and looked--`"Classic, American flavor." What do you mean?' I mean,
if you have to think about the fact that Ralph Lifshitz had to change his name
to be that, I mean, `cause, obviously, no Jew could be an American dream.

And for me, `classic, American flavor'--and there was not one black
person--owner in the entire MAGIC, which was a convention where you sell
clothes, but `classic, American flavor' and the kind of clothes that I aspired
to sell didn't fit into what they referred to as an ethnic clothing division
they were starting to develop. And that meant low expectations and limited
budgets and a small--and the idea of an American company--I mean, so we
couldn't sit next to the Ralphs or Polos or Tommys or--and that really is
the--was the case.

And now, 10 years later, the company went least year from $140 million to $220
million dollars this year, and especially--you know, this economy has slowed,
and most companies have gone backwards or, you know, still. But our company
still grew a tremendous amount this year. When I--like I said earlier, there
weren't any black companies and there was no appreciation or--they really
thought that we had an ethnic clothing company. I was, like, `What is that?
I have pink, argyle sweaters. What is ethnic about our company?' And it was
just a lack--I mean, it's the same as--I have an advertising agency which
represents Coca-Cola and Courvoisier and many other companies, and they still
say sometimes we're an ethnic advertising company. I said, `What does that
mean? I'm an American. I've been born here my whole life,' but there were
many ethnic companies. There are many urban advertising companies, and that
was all that was available at one time.

In my film business, you know, there's not one film--black film producer. I
was, when I made "Nutty Professor"--and they pointed it out to me--I was the
only black person who was a film producer not making urban films. Just like
BET playing our videos. When MTV played our videos, it was like a phenom--you
know, something brand-new.

So now rap--we've replaced ourselves. Right now we have the number one record
in America. But before this number one record in America--which is the DMX
DMX record--we replaced our own number one record, which was the Jay-Z record.
And before that, we replaced our other number one record, which was the Ja
Rules. And that's not the black chart. That's the American pop chart.
Eighty percent of my records are sold to non-African-Americans. I don't look
on the black chart anymore, although it still exists.

GROSS: My guest is hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. He has a new memoir called
"Life and Def." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FLAVOR FLAV: (Rapping) You know, anyway.

(Soundbite of music; background noises)

Mr. FLAV: (Rapping) Check this out.

(Soundbite of music; background noises)

GROSS: My guest is hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. He co-founded Def Jam
Records, has produced movies and TV shows and created the clothing and
accessories company Phat Farm.

In June of this year, there was a hip-hop summit that you helped organize.
And I think one of the things that happened there was that you started a
political action committee. What do you want to accomplish with it? What are
the issues that you want to...

Mr. SIMMONS: Well...

GROSS: ...put across in Washington?

Mr. SIMMONS: Well, one of the things that we do--and with funding by the
RIAA and the record industry and individual companies, independent
companies--is protect us in Washington. As you remember, there was a real
aggressive attack, which was newsworthy before September 11th, on hip-hop,
whether it's Senator Lieberman's Marketing Accountability Act or the FCC suing
radio stations--one for a poet and the other one for an Eminem record. They
were suing radio stations over music. And the Marketing Accountability Act
was something that threatened the very foundation of our freedom of speech and
our music business. So, of course, we want to protect that industry.

But also, we want to inspire a higher level of consciousness amongst many
rappers. And so at that summit, we talked, you know, Puffy and Wyclef and
Mary J. Blige and Queen Latifah and Will Smith and many rappers came. And we
had meetings about A&R, which is the artist repertoire business of getting the
truth out of artists in case there was some artists who were not only telling
the truth, but were, as you suggested earlier, talking more about the street
than they were living. You know, talk about what your honest interpretation
of life is. Give us the truth. It will sell more. So we had a seminar about
that.

We had another seminar about what we were going to do to address the Marketing
Accountability Act, and that we all agreed, at that time, that we were going
to make sure that we not only labeled the records, but that we make sure in
radio and television ads, that we would make it clear these records--some
records were parental advisory.

And the third thing we did was we had a speech by Minister Louis Farrakhan,
who was a big draw in the hip-hop community, as you know and don't know. And
his speech was, I think, very inspirational to a lot of them. Kweisi Mfume
from the NAACP had came. Hugh Price from the Urban League came. Martin
Luther King from the SCLC came. Cornel West and all the other intellectuals
from--you know, Michael Dyson and many other people came and participated.

And the idea was to get the adults, because it was their job to reach out to
the young people instead of turning their back. You have great organizations
like the Urban League that have millions of dollars and great infrastructures
that are not connected to the people in the community, or not to the young
people in the community. And even Kweisi Mfume, who is a real advocate of
working with young people, has had to fight his board of directors in order to
use young people in the way that--and to reach other young people. I remember
when Ben Chavis, who now works for and is the president of the Hip-Hop Action
Network, was the president of the NAACP. And we did a Rap The Vote campaign
with Run-DMC. The people at the NAACP were furious and said, `Why would you
use these kids to reach these people?'

GROSS: Does it ever surprise you that you're not young, yourself, anymore,
that--like, you've been in this business a lot of time, and you're in
you're--What?--mid-40s now?

Mr. SIMMONS: That's right. I'm 44.

GROSS: And it's such a kind of youth-oriented business, the whole hip-hop
business.

Mr. SIMMONS: Well...

GROSS: Yeah?

Mr. SIMMONS: ...I think--I feel young. I don't go to every party. I
don't--I mean, I don't take drugs and go crazy. In fact, I'm a vegan. I
don't even eat animals...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SIMMONS: ...you know, or any animal product. I won't even eat a piece
of fish, but I'm happy--and I don't judge what I've done or what young people
do, you know. I think God shined on all of what you consider evil and even
good. And I think what you're inspired to do--you know, I have a very funny
philosophy about judgment, a very strong opinion about judgment.
Although--and I just think let it be and, you know, see what's good in it.
And I think that--I love young people. I love their spirit because they're
able to see what's God in everyone much quicker than somebody older, mostly
more rigid people. Young people--it's their job to lead us somewhere more
positive. That's why I work so hard on Rap The Vote. That's why I work so
hard to inspire young people to speak up, to pick up a newspaper, not only to
destroy what their parents gave them, but to give them a new direction.

So I love young people. I feel young, mostly. I'm in better shape than I was
25 years ago. So I think I'm OK, and I don't feel too bad about it. In fact,
I think that I love the place I am in my life right now.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. SIMMONS: Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Russell Simmons has a new memoir called "Life and Def." His "Def
Poetry Jam" series begins on HBO December 14th.

(Credits)

I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "The Breaks")

Mr. BLOW: (Rapping) Clap your hands, everybody, if you've got what it takes,
'cause I'm Kurtis Blow, and I want you to know that these are the breaks.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BLOW: (Rapping) Brakes on the bus, brakes on the car, breaks to make you
a superstar, breaks to win and breaks to lose and these here breaks will rock
your shoes. And these are the breaks. Break it up, break it up, break it up!

(Soundbite of music; party noise in the background)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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