by LaToya Thompson
The Battle Creek Enquirer
(Originally published by the Battle Creek Enquirer on March 2, 2005, and used with permission.)
Displaying his no-nonsense, take-charge style, Russell Simmons walked onto the W.K. Kellogg Auditorium stage in the middle of his own introduction.
Neither the crowd nor master of ceremonies, Erick Stewart of the Urban League of Battle Creek, seemed to mind as the entire audience rose to its feet Tuesday night to greet the man whose name is synonymous with hip-hop music.
Simmons, hip hop guru and entrepreneur, is the first of 12 “Expert in Residence” speakers brought to Battle Creek this year to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
He spoke twice Tuesday, March 1, 2005, at W.K. Kellogg Auditorium. His first presentation was at 10 a.m. with high school students from Battle Creek Central, Pennfield, Lakeview, Harper Creek, St. Philip and Operation G.R.A.D. high schools.
He sat on a stool on the stage as a panel with representatives from each school asked questions. Then the audience had an opportunity to pick his brain.
The excited and restless group of students knew about Simmons’ accomplishments: co-founder of Def Jam Records, founder of the Phat Farm clothing line and founder of UniRush Financial Services. They knew he has earned millions of dollars, traveled the world and rubbed elbows with some of the most influential people of the 21st century.
However, he told the young audience that none of it means success.
So what is success to a man who can virtually buy anything?
“To be able to serve God without question,” he said. “Everything else is a waste of time. Be peaceful and in touch with God.”
Simmons, who believes spirituality is at the root of everything, spoke to the group about how his beliefs influence his businesses and personal life.
Panel members asked Simmons how he become such a success.
He said he was at a city college and wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life.
“God gives everyone different talents,” Simmons said. “I found music and decided to give myself to that.”
He grew to have a passion for the genre and started promoting hip hop shows and parties.
“I wanted to help people because I wanted people to hear the music,” Simmons said. “I wanted them to hear hip hop so I had to figure out how to promote it and how to be in business with it.”
James Picciuto, 18, asked how undiscovered hip-hop artists get signed into the industry and told Simmons that he “flows.”
Simmons challenged him to say a verse but warned him, “don’t be whack.”
Picciuto, whose rap name is Luciano, did not hesitate and launched into an impressive 60-second rhyme that got many shouts of approval from the audience. Simmons also nodded his head in approval.
Picciuto said music is his life and his dream is to be a signed rap artist. He said Simmons has been an idol to him.
“I always used to look to him for how he set examples in business,” Picciuto said. “I can’t wait until it’s that day for me.”
Simmons used the young rapper as an example for how teens should take a hands-on approach to their goals.
He also answered questions about struggle, failure, regret and fear.
He told the students at the morning session that things would not always go their way and they would have to resolve not to give up.
“Most people punk out and quit. You don’t have to quit,” Simmons said.
Some students were disappointed that he did not tell more about his personal struggles.
Keona Brown, 18, of Battle Creek Central, said he gave good advice but felt it wasn’t enough.
“I wanted to hear about something that he went through that maybe we as young people could relate to,” she said.
Simmons shared that while he does not fear losing money or material wealth, he fears losing his family.
“I fear letting go of my family,” he said. “My family I cherish.”
Simmons said God has to come first and that “everything you want is on the inside of you.”
After hearing Simmons, Michael Holley, 27, of Battle Creek, said he was inspired to persevere and continue his dream to be a music artist and producer.
“You have to believe in a higher power other than yourself to make it,” Holley said.
So what’s next for Simmons?
He is hoping to equip young people with financial skills through the Hip Hop Summit Action Network, which will be doing a tour this year titled, “Get Your House In Order.”
The focus is to promote financial literacy, economic development and home ownership.
“All these kids don’t have enough inspiration to take advantage of the obvious opportunities, so they miss it,” Simmons said.