Long before the world starting calling me a “music mogul” or “the godfather of hip-hop,” growing up in Hollis, Queens, my friends and family used to call me “Rush.” As nicknames go it was a good one, because back then it seemed like nothing could hold my attention for more than a few minutes at a time.
Definitely not school. Or church on Sunday. Or a job. A pretty girl might hold it for a minute, but soon I’d be rushing after the next girl who passed me in the school hallways or on the streets.
Everything I did — the way I walked, talked, ate, and even slept — was rushed. If I was growing up in Hollis today, there’s no doubt I’d be diagnosed with a severe case of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and put on a double dose of Ritalin or Adderall. Thankfully, back then I was viewed as only being a bit “rambunctious.”
I did come close to getting in some serious trouble coming up on the streets of Queens in the 70s. Put it this way: Melle Mel could have been talking about me and my friends in the early hip-hop hit “The Message” when he rapped about the “number book takers / Thugs, pimps and pushers and the big money makers” and how we wanted to “grow up to be just like them.”
But despite doing some heavy flirting with that lifestyle, I could never go all the way with it. Even if I did have moments of admiration for those thugs and pushers, I also had an innate sense that there was something better for me out there, too. And as I became a teenager and saw so many of my friends beginning to fall into the traps of petty crime, gangs, and addiction, I began to think, “I need to take a different path.”
For me, that path led to hip-hop. At the time it might have looked like a dead end to most people, but it gave me the perfect outlet to express all the energy I was feeling on the streets of New York, but in a way that was positive and empowering instead of hurtful and destructive.
I’m not going to sit here and run down my list of accomplishments from those days — I’ll assume that if you’re reading this, then you already know a little something about Kurtis Blow, Run-DMC, LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, and Def Jam Recordings. (And if you don’t, just type those names into YouTube and prepare to get lost in some incredible music!)
But suffice it to say, I did experience a good deal of worldly success working with those MCs and a lot of other incredibly talented artists as well. In the ensuing years, I was able to find success in fashion, film, financial services, and now mostly philanthropic and social initiatives.
I’ve loved being able to build a bridge between the incredible culture of hip-hop and mainstream America. It has been inspiring work and I felt, and continue to feel, blessed to be doing it.
The irony is, however, that for many years I was way off base about what was driving my accomplishments. Certainly as a young man, I figured that the “secret to my success” was doing a lot of drugs, going to a lot of parties, sleeping with a lot of women, and chasing money wherever it might take me. After all, that’s the lifestyle I was living and people kept telling me how great I was doing, so there had to be a connection, right?
I couldn’t see it at the time, but in retrospect nothing could have been farther from the truth. The inspiration that helped me become a champion for hip-hop didn’t come from driving around in a limousine, it came from a quiet moment in the studio working on the final mix for Run-DMC’s “Rock Box” and thinking, “I want to share this incredible feeling with the world.”
Just as the inspiration that helped me create my clothing line Phat Farm didn’t come from sniffing coke in a club surrounded by models, but rather from the sense of peace and tranquility I got when I looked at the sketches for a new jacket and felt myself getting lost in the beauty of the design. Those rare moments of stillness, not the chaotic life I had created, were the foundations of my happiness and success.
Today, there is zero doubt in my mind that if I had kept on believing that the noise was what was fueling me, my life would have fallen apart. When my records had stopped being “hot” or my clothes had stopped being “cool” (which is inevitable in those sorts of industries), I would have figured, “Hmmm. I really need another big record. Better find some more parties and go get high.”
But chasing more drugs or parties wouldn’t have made me even a centimeter more successful. Or happy. Or creative. And obviously it could have made my life a lot worse if it got in the way of my work or took away my focus, or turned me into an addict or empty party boy.
What I thought was inspiration was really nothing but noise. And if I had kept stuffing that noise into my head, the less and less I would have been able to hear those quiet moments that I actually needed so badly. I would have kept pushing myself to what I thought was the top of the mountain, but in reality I would have just been setting myself up for a terrible fall.
Thankfully, I never had to experience that sort of fall. Despite the reckless lifestyle I was living, I never actually crashed and burned like so many of the other people I was racing around town with in those days. I didn’t have to lose my job and my house, or go into rehab, to realize that I had been chasing the wrong things.
Instead, I was able to slow down and see that my success had always been in those moments of stillness that I’d experienced. And that the more I could access that stillness, then the more happiness and success I could experience.
I can honestly say that without that stillness, there’s no way I’d be where I am today. Not only professionally, but personally and spiritually too. After over thirty years in the entertainment industry, I still wake up as excited to go to work every day as I did the first day Rick Rubin and I opened Def Jam Recordings.
I can honestly say that whatever I’m going to do tomorrow has me as excited and energized as I felt when Run-DMC was about to go onstage at Live Aid, when Public Enemy was about to release “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back,” or when I put Jay Z on the Nutty Professor soundtrack and watched the world fall in love with him. It’s an incredible blessing to be able to feel as energized and focused in my 50s as I did in my 20s and 30s.
But even more important, I also wake up every day knowing that I’m in a great place with the people closest to me—my beautiful daughters, Ming Lee and Aoki; their mother, Kimora Lee; and my brothers, Danny and Joey.
It’s a tremendous comfort to know that no matter what little disagreements, frustrations, or setbacks I might have during the course of a day, at the end of it nothing is going to change the love I share with my family. It certainly provides me with more comfort than any gold plaque on my wall or fancy car in my garage ever did. Every day, I’m so thankful that I know what it means to operate out of stillness.
I won’t lie, it did take me a long time to get here. Years and years in fact. As I’m quick to tell people, I had to do a lot of damage before I finally accepted that I liked early-morning meditation better than late-night drinking. But once I did come to that realization, there was no turning back.
By: Russell Simmons