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Hip-hop heavy Russell Simmons has one eye on the bottom line and the other on higher callings

NEW YORK -- Russell Simmons has yoga on his mind. Perhaps it's because his 5 p.m. class at Jivamukti Yoga Center downtown looms. Or maybe it's the result of his interviewer's casually telling him she prefers Pilates, which wrenches the affronted reply: "There's a big difference between working on your relationship with God and fixing your tummy."

Now he's pulling a coffee table book called "The Art of Yoga" from his bookcase as he extols the virtues of the Jivamukti style. He extends an invitation to attend his class. Through it all, he's got that drugged-by-life look in his eye that's common to yoga converts. Not exactly what you'd expect from a man who usually has the word "impresario" or "mogul" slapped in front of his name.

If anyone deserves to be called the godfather of hip-hop, it's 46-year-old Russell Simmons. Through Def Jam Records, which he's still chairman of after selling the company in 1999, and Rush Communications, the holding company for his multitude of business projects, Simmons seems to have his hand in every aspect of pop culture.

Pop music fans probably own CDs by Def Jam artists Jay-Z, Ashanti, or Ludacris, whose "Stand Up" is the No. 1 song in the country. Local 7-Elevens sell cans of his new energy soda, Def Con 3. JC Penney and Sears offer items from his Phat Fashions company, which includes the popular Phat Farm men's line.

Type "rushcard.com" into your web browser to learn about the prepaid debit cards he created for people with bad credit. Call a local theater, or more specifically Boston's Colonial Theatre to purchase tickets to the Tony Award-winning "Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam," which from Tuesday through next Sunday will feature seven performance poets roaring about current issues.

Simmons may wade in the materialism of hip-hop culture, but his continuing spiritual education has shown him that making money is not enough. When he's not catering to the bottom line, he's a political activist seeking solutions to the litany of social problems detailed in rap lyrics. His Hip-Hop Summit Action Network is run out of his Fashion Avenue office.

This is Simmons in his middle years. But when he speaks about how he built his empire, his brash younger self sometimes peeks through.

"I don't see a market that's worth money and then go after it. That's not the way I built my" -- Simmons catches himself, then finishes blandly -- "that's not the models that I use for business."

Selling points You discover how Simmons attained his level of success soon after wading through a sea of suits -- Pepsi executives leaving a meeting with Simmons to discuss distributing Def Con 3 -- to get to his 43d floor office with a prominent photo of his wife, Kimora Lee, and daughters Ming, 3, and Aoki, 1.

He says hello and begins to sell.

"Feel that," he says holding out the arm of his black sweater, a recent addition to the limited edition Russell Simmons Collection started this year. He offers a can of Def Con 3, a light-blue fizzy drink that Simmons accurately says tastes like cotton candy.

Simmons credits his success to wise hiring decisions, not personal know-how. Business is about giving, he says, and he launched Rush Communications "to start something that was for us. `Us' being the hip-hop community in general, but more specifically the African-American community that created the genre."

He does this in an office that is conservative in decor: maroon carpets, oriental rugs, and cherry-wood doors. Then there is Simmons, dressed down in a black baseball cap, white sneakers, and gray running pants. Listen closely and you'll hear a slight lisp when he speaks. He may be spiritual, but he has no problem uttering the occasional curse word.

This success story began in Simmons's hometown of Hollis, Queens, where as a 17-year-old he promoted parties featuring his younger brother Joey's rap group, Run-DMC (Reverend Run, as he's known today, now heads Phat Farm Footwear). Instead of completing his degree at City College of New York, Simmons hooked up with Rick Rubin, another student promoter with big dreams. In 1984, the two spent $700 to produce LL Cool J's instant classic "I Need A Beat."

And Def Jam Records was born.

The pair's release of now-legendary albums by Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys made hip-hop fans cheer, while mainstream black music establishment cringed at the in-your-face lyrics. The reactions didn't matter to Simmons. By 1989, he'd started the Simmons Lathan Media Group production company with veteran producer Stan Lathan. Their first show, HBO's "Def Comedy Jam" launched some of today's most popular comedians including Chris Rock, Tracy Morgan, and Bernie Mac.

Simmons discovered another cache of talent when his older brother, Daniel, introduced him to the burgeoning world of spoken word. In 2001, HBO was airing "Def Poetry Jam." Soon after, Lathan and Simmons decided to put the strongest poets together for a stage show. It landed on Broadway, and although the run didn't turn a profit, it achieved Simmons's goal of catering to the hip-hop audience.

"It spoke to a lot of people who've never been to Broadway," says Simmons, "The show was the most diverse audience that Broadway has ever seen, and that's something to be proud of right there."

Simmons will quickly tell you that winning the Tony in the special theatrical event category this year meant nothing to him. At least not until "Soul Train" host Don Cornelius criticized him for wearing jeans and sneakers rather than a suit at an event after winning the award.

"That meant that a Tony was worth something," says Simmons. "Don Cornelius never said nothing to me, just `Those damn rappers ain't worth (expletive).' "

Man in demand Simmons sees the true worth of rappers every morning when he wakes up in his $14 million suburban New Jersey estate. On this day he faces an agenda full of meetings. Jimmy Iovine, chairman and CEO of Interscope Geffen A&M, and Paul Rosenberg, Eminem's manager, arrive at his office at 11 a.m. to discuss how the rapper should handle the controversy over an unreleased rap song recently discovered by The Source magazine that adds black women to his list of verbal targets. Listen to audio clips of the Def Jam poets on www.boston.com/ae.

There are marketing meetings and media interviews. Meanwhile, Lyor Cohen, president of Island Def Jam, waits in a nearby office. "He's pissed off that I haven't spoken to him," Simmons says.

The sole constant in each busy day is a yoga class. "I do what they [my associates] tell me except for that,"says Simmons, who started taking yoga in 1995. He prefers Jivamukti because it focuses on the spiritual as well as the physical aspects of the practice.

"The yoga sutras were written as inspiration for all religions," says Simmons as he points out balance-defying poses while paging through "The Art of Yoga." "I never really liked religion very much but now have a great appreciation for the religious leaders I work with." Simmons's circle includes Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who recently mediated an attempt to end the feud between

Ja Rule and 50 Cent, and Rabbi Marc Schneier, founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (Simmons is a board member). The kinder, gentler Simmons shaped by yoga remains a killer in the conference room. He wants to sell Phat Fashions to an established clothing company so his staff can focus on its strengths: marketing and design. His goal is to transform his million-dollar company ($263 million in revenues in 2002) into a billion-dollar company.

To those who can't reconcile his enthusiastic pursuit of commerce and God, he says, "I do the best I can. . . . My just being conscious of the practice of giving makes me a better businessman and a more conscious businessman. That's what I try to be. That's all." As chairman of Def Jam, Simmons gives by mentoring rappers. He helps artists get out of trouble and teaches them how to manage wealth and fame. This is what brings Iovine and Rosenberg to his office.

"I think he's honest when he makes his apology," Simmons says of Eminem. "He's made donations, some anonymously, to organizations that support African-American women! No one's aware of that. Do you tell them that? Is that a good excuse, a better indicator of who I am?"

Speaking out These days Simmons takes the high road rather than look for fights. Only one negative comment slips from his lips during the interview, and he asks that it remain off the record. His foray into activism reveals a similar soft spot.

"You're looking for a place where you can contribute," he says. "Because of my work in music, I have access to resources really helpful to the community. So I figure I might as well use them."

Those resources were in play earlier this year when former US Department of Housing and Urban Development head Andrew Cuomo asked Simmons to help New York governor George Pataki and other politicians reform the state's harsh mandatory sentences for drug offenders. The laws send a disproportionate number of Latinos and blacks to jail. After a Hip-Hop Summit in June to draw attention to the issue, the state lobbying commission accused Simmons of being a lobbyist. He's spent more than $200,000 in legal fees fighting the charge.

"I could probably pay ten grand [to settle the case]," says Simmons, "and they'd be thrilled to set a precedent that every person that expresses an opinion is a lobbyist, but I won't allow that to happen. That's my freedom of speech, I'm going to protect it."

When Simmons calls Hip-Hop Summit head Ben Chavis into his office to discuss the issue, Simmons receives the hot-off-the-presses news that a federal judge tossed his First Amendment case because the lobbying commission hadn't finished its investigation.

As Simmons discovers the consequences of the federal decision, his comments segue from a confused "I have to spend more money?" to a strident "neither the Hip-Hop Summit nor my personal funds should be exhausted anymore." But yoga beckons. Simmons walks out of his office surrounded by a circle of employees clamoring for his attention. He goes into an office to watch a video of the remix of Ashanti's hit song "Rain on Me." In the video, the singer and Irv Gotti, head of Def Jam's Murder Inc. label, coo "Murder Inc.," even though it was rumored that the label's name would be changed to The Inc.

"I was hoping they would change their name,' Simmons says in the cream leather cocoon of his black Ford Explorer as his driver heads down Seventh Avenue. A week later, the name change is officially announced during a New York press conference.

Simmons plugs his cell into the car charger and proceeds to answer questions and calls, including one from his wife, who chats about their plans later that night for Jay-Z's concert, which doubles as a Hip-Hop Summit fund-raiser. "I'm sorry," he says helplessly to his interviewer. Another business call and then he's trying to track down supermodel Naomi Campbell.

The car stops at the yoga studio, and Simmons prepares to leave his material life behind -- for a moment at least. He's got his inner peace to work on.

Vanessa E. Jones can be reached at v--jones@globe.com

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