July 30, 2004



Since The Man didn’t want it, here it is, with added waffling and mumbling: My day at The Boston Hip-Hop Summit with Russell Simmons and Co.

I showed up at LaGuardia to catch the 6 AM Delta shuttle to Boston. Russell was there with his assistant, Gary Foster. “You the writer?” Simmons asked. I was, and am. I expected to see more people—handlers, passengers, fans. Nothing like that. Just the three of us, and a plane where you get to pick your own seat.

Russell was dressed entirely in Phat Farm: blue baseball cap, jeans, blue and white track suit jacket, white sneakers. There was no mention of the Kimora arrest, and I didn’t know about it, so I never brought it up.

Kimora’s mughsot is telegenically twerked and, as a strike of commerce against law, fairly effective. Nothing says “I am above the law” like a smile. In another newspiece about the arrest that I managed to lose (Google, what's really good?), Russell plugged his new Court TV show while maintaining his wife's innocence. The fusion of humanity and marketing, even in adversity. Sort of like scaling Mount Everest in 2004, or eating someone's leg if your plane crashes in the Andes. Or not.

It’s easy to make fun of a dude with his own chef and a police escort who talks in soundbites. It’s also easy for someone like me with heaps of normative privilege to think “money isn’t everything” when I obviously have the option of finding out if that’s true or not. If you have little chance of doing comparative analysis between having money and not having money, it’s a very different discussion. Simmons shifts such huge amounts of symbolic and actual capital that it is hard to tell which pile is pushing the seesaw in which direction. When we talk about “hip-hop” now, we are talking about version 5.0, and Russell has a lot to do with re-coding the idea as an essentially conservative, consumerist force. Russell is the 24-7 celebration of acquisition as the only elevator in town. Russell could also be one of the guys who gets the Rockefeller Drug Laws repealed.

After we sat for a few minutes, Reverend Run and Kevin Liles got on the plane. Russell refused the complimentary bagel and went for water. I had two cups of plane coffee, which is some harsh shit. That night, after I'd gone back home, Russell appeared on Hardball with Chris Matthews. (Click there if you want a representative summary of the day's soundbites.) Here are some other things Russell said:

“Hip-hop artists are not like the rest of the musicians. Everything out their mouth speaks to the political and social landscape in this country.”

He and Run said something to each other I couldn’t catch.

“Reverend said ‘Jesus put the sneakers on me.’ He became the president of the sneaker company and he sells more sneakers than Allen Iverson. He designed this sneaker,” Simmons said, pointing to the sneaker dangling off his foot. “We sell about 7 million pairs of this sneaker.”

“I’m not advocating one candidate over any other at this time,” said Simmons. “I personally have given money to all of the Democratic candidates, except, I think, Joe Lieberman, because I didn’t agree with some of things he said. I have a good relationship with quite a few Republicans. I especially like the Governor of Maryland. He changed those horrible drug laws.”

There was some talk about yoga, “religious propaganda,” and love.

“I’m a free-market capitalist, I’m getting plenty of paper, but I try to use love as a basis for my choices. I try to go into business things that are helpful and useful and not hurtful. Of course, I fuck up every day. I’m a vegan and I’ve got leather shoes on. I wear brand new sneakers almost every day. I’m still pulling the plastic off them,” he said, doing just that. “I only wear them a couple of times, but I give them away.”

We left Logan airport in two black SUVs driven by FOI guys, preceded by a single police car, flashing and whooping. Liles said they often get a police escort, “when there’s a lot to do.” We chatted and I mentioned that Sam Sever produced Nikki D’s “Lettin' Off Steam.” This made Kevin laugh. The Four Seasons was our breakfast stop.

“We’re doing Fox news, right?” Simmons asked Foster, after we had been seated at three separate tables. The policemen were getting to eat, too.

“Yes, sir.” Foster replied.

Reverend Run was writing an inspirational message on his Blackberry. “This goes to radio stations all over the country, every day,” he said.

“I got my teeth twelve years ago,” Russell said. “He knows what he’s doing. I like them, they’re not too perfect looking."

“I just got mine,” Reverend Run said. “He’s perfected the process now.”

After a breakfast of scrambled tofu and “green juice,” we all drove to the Boston Harbor Hotel to do an appearance on Fox News. Near the elevators, Simmons ran into Senator Edward Kennedy.

“We’re big fans,” said Kennedy. “This is my friend, Senator Hollings.”

Senator Hollings said, “Hey, when you’re in Rome, you see the Pope. Here, we see Teddy.”

Simmons smiled and headed into the elevator. I almost got separated from the entourage. Captain Dennis, a large man with a Panama hat and one of several people who helps move things along, held the elevator door and said “If you’re going to roll with us, you got to put some pep in your step.”

We waited in a hotel room for the taping to begin on the roof, right outside the window. Senator Joe Lieberman, scheduled to go on before Simmons, walked into the suite and greeted Simmons with a smile. “Our friend the rabbi keeps threatening to get us together,” Lieberman said.

After Lieberman went out on the roof to do his two minutes, Russell sat down and watched Fox News. Bush was shown deplaning with Barney: “If I was an image consultant, I’d tell him to lose the dog,” Russell said. “It’s too much like Paris Hilton. People are so polarized now, that if they don’t like Bush and they like animals, they’ll look at that picture and say ‘Hey, he’s abusing that dog!’”

I asked him who was Number One now, since Jay-Z’s stepped down. He did a double take, but then he answered quickly. “Jada!” We agreed!

In response to a question I couldn’t hear, Simmons said: “No, no politicians on stage. We don’t want to hear their crap.”

I asked him if he thought there’s really anyone left who hasn’t made up their mind. “The ones that don’t know that they’re gonna vote. We should work on them.”

Moments after Simmons and Run finish the interview, the entourage started motoring down the hallway. As we headed for the SUVs, a doorman saw Simmons walk past.

“Hey, Master P! OK!” he said. “I can’t believe it. Master P!"

The Summit was held in the Reggie Lewis Athletic Center of Roxbury Community College. The gymnasium has a capacity of 5,000 people. A stage was set up at one end, facing thousands of folding chairs. Before the panel started, artists met reporters in a hallway by the locker rooms. The whole place was spotless. Lloyd Banks wore two big diamond Jesus head necklaces and walked around with the two largest bodyguards in building. One of them was sweating profusely. A Fruit of Islam guard, without being asked, handed him a napkin. They smiled at each other.

The Fruit of Islam and Simmons’ two publicists—Jody Miller and Ellen Zoe Golden—were in charge of keeping every one on the clock. Between them, they directed clumps of performers and handlers from place to place with little apparent friction. The event seemed simultaneously relaxed and deeply planned. I couldn’t believe how smoothly everything went.

Wyclef Jean showed up in a white fedora, a large diamond-encrusted lion’s head necklace, and a red and white t-shirt saying “Wyclef for President.” He held a Dunkin Donuts coffee cup all day. His new group, 3 On 3, followed him around wearing the same t-shirts, in blue.

On stage, the MCs and singers introduced themselves and gave short inspirational speeches. We heard from Babs, Loon, Bonecrusher, Big Tigger, Free from 106 and Park, Lloyd Banks, Wyclef, Russell, Kevin, Run, and Ying Yang Twins. The two most popular messages were “believe in yourself” and “please vote, or get your mom to vote.” The loudest applause of the day, by a factor of five or six, was for Lloyd Banks. Kids went completely bananas for him. The crowd was 100% black, and 85% looked like they were less than 21 years of age.

Banks has a deep voice and a slow cadence. He seems much older than 22. Backstage, before everything started, I offered him my chair. “No, sit,” he said. “I got young legs. I’m only 22.” Onstage, he said: “When you become successful, it’s not gangsta to be gangsta. It’s like the AA—you got to change the people, places and things around you.” At Simmons urging, he did a verse from “On Fire.” The place went kablow. After shaking hands with crowd members, he departed. Half an hour later, he appeared with TV cameras at the opposite end of the gym. Kids went streaming to the back of the gym.

“What’s going on?” Dr. Benjamin Chavis said from the stage. “Folks, the panel is this way. If you wanna see the Ying Yang Twins, they’re gonna be up here. Don’t run back there. Stop running back there.”

Farnsworth Bentley came up and said, “Ladies, the gentleman is here.” Then he spun his umbrella and dropped it. After the summit, Art Alexakis and Bentley argued about gay marriage backstage. “This country was founded on Christian principles,” Bentley said. I would have started in on Deism, but there were too many cameras between us.

We also got to hear from the mayor of Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick, and Congresswoman Maxine Waters. The same process obtained with almost every appearance: The audience would scream and applaud and then, if the guest being applauded talked for more than 15 seconds, the audience's attention would wander and the guest's parting applause would be a fraction of their welcome hand. Even when the guest was Lloyd.

Russell’s big analogy, which he said several times during the day: “If you’ve got a hundred dollars, and your girl takes fifty dollars and goes out and spends it —or vice versa, if your man takes fifty dollars and goes out—when he comes home, do you ask him what he did with the money? When you pay your tax dollars and the government maybe goes out and bombs innocent people, or gives somebody like me a tax break—I didn’t need no tax break, but I got a tax break—or they send poor people to fight a war and maybe you don’t agree with that war, if you don’t ask him any questions or hold him accountable, you’re a punk. And we ain’t no punks. There’s only poor people dying in that war. Ain’t nobody named Bush on the front line. Nobody named Kerry on the front line, either. They don’t think you coming to the polls, but I know from traveling around this country that you are.”

Loon: “You kids know the real artists from the fake artists. You’ve got the best radar you could possibly have. What I urge y’all to do is take that same initiative, do the same homework that you do when you listen to these artists, take that same initiative and read about some of these candidates. Your vote is valuable, you can use it to your discretion.”

And then, at the end, right before the closing prayer, Andre 3000 came out. Big bug out applause. Red and white checked shirt, small straw hat, black pants. He was one of the few people who dared to bum anyone out: “I wanna check y’all. I’m happy to see this many people here and involved, but I would hate to say that the only reason y’all coming out is to see entertainers. If we weren’t here, would you still be involved? Honestly. I see you shaking your head. That’s sad. That is sad. It’s your world. If you claim you’re a hip-hop head, and you’re talking about what’s going on in your community, and you don’t vote? That don’t make sense. You should pretty much just shut up. Whatcha think? I hope to see you all at the polls. Stank you very much.”

Posted by Sasha at July 30, 2004 04:12 PM | TrackBack