Although it may be hard for some to believe, cultural icon Russell Simmons didn’t arrive at this staggering level of success and affluence on his own. He didn’t just wake up one morning as one of the most innovative and influential figures in modern American business and culture. With the roll of the dice, he didn’t just turn into an international human rights advocate, champion of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, and stalwart animal rights activist. Quite the contrary, he absorbed the good and the bad from his surroundings. He strategized, planned, and meditated. Simmons created a vision and a path to enlightenment that fueled his staggering success. His undeniable sense of self came from watching, listening to and learning from his father, Daniel Simmons Sr. Russell Simmons’s tireless advocacy in strengthening race relations and promoting tolerance and understanding is an enduring testament to his father. 

My father was pretty laid back... he was a man of culture, an artist and a poet. He gave me a roadmap by example and he was cool. That’s why I wanted to be like him.

Simmons has been the authority in bringing the powerful influence of hip-hop culture to every facet of business, media, and fashion. The master entrepreneur, with an estimated net worth of $340 million, has been in the business of creating an entirely new, post-racial, progressive new America. Simmons’s business success has always been rooted in giving a powerful voice to emergent new creative and social movements, and integrating them into the American psyche. His father’s wisdom is at the core of all that he has achieved.

His father grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. From the time he was old enough to engage in real dialogue with his father about life and manhood, he and his dad talked at great length about the elder Simmons’s upbringing and how tough it was growing up on the crime-laden streets of Baltimore. Daniel Sr. told his son stories of how he wouldn’t back down, refused to do what the “cool” people did and was never, ever a follower. “He wasn’t a punk and he was always tougher than everybody because he did what he wanted to do,” Russell says. 

Simmons draws parallels between his father’s life and the life of a rapper. He recalls that like rap artists, his father wrote and recited poetry that may have been offensive to a lot of the upper-class, black bourgeoisie. Above all else, Simmons’s father inspired each of his sons by being connected to the streets and the suffering of black people in America. Simmons speaks poignantly about his father, juxtaposing his connection to the streets with a sense of culture that allowed him to exist between two worlds. Simmons thinks about the poetry and the art that his father cared about and notes that his father prided himself in embracing the hood without being consumed by it. He went on to explain that his dad did not respect black men who go along with what’s not threatening. He deplored the idea of living to simply exist. He remembers his father, who passed away in 2006, as a revolutionary. As such, Simmons spent years cultivating his own sense of self, taking social and cultural cues from his father and paying homage to the legacy Daniel Sr. left behind.

Simmons credits his father as the person who shaped his views in terms of seeing the world through the lens of true individualism and making choices in his life that were not conventional. “Do you. Don’t be a follower. Don't be a sheep,” Russell says, remembering what he learned from his father. Simmons argues that most young people do a lot of things just to be cool. In fact, in his first attempt to become a successful entrepreneur, he sold marijuana and later, fake cocaine, which he made from crushing up coca leaf incense. In his book, Super Rich, he wrote, “I responded to the low notes that were playing around me with some of the things that I did earlier in my life.” Admittedly, he fell prey to the trappings of society, trying to wear certain clothes and do things others did. But while Simmons had his share of missteps, he kept his eye on the “cool dudes” on his block—the educated ones. He saw educated black men as inspirational. Like his father, they motivated him to succeed and let him know that if he worked hard and created a roadmap for himself, he could one day have a life that far exceeded his own expectations. 

Neither his father nor his mother was much in the way of being strict disciplinarians. However, when Simmons or his brothers did something their father didn’t like, “he whipped that ass,” Russell admits. Approval from his dad was a pat on the shoulder. Simmons remembers his dad being pretty laid back throughout much of his childhood. He provided all three of his sons a roadmap by example and, Simmons will never forget that his father was a trendsetter. “My father was cool, and that’s why I wanted to be like him. He’d have a funky hat. I would rock his hat. My father was more connected to me in a friendly way more than a disciplinarian, angry way. He would lead me rather than dictate,” Russell reflects.

Leslie Gordon