Russell Simmons is climbing off the yoga mat.
The hip-hop impresario-turned-lifestyle guru, author of The New York Times best-seller Success Through Stillness, moved from the East Coast to Los Angeles early in 2014. Now, he is launching a flurry of new entertainment projects — and has begun blasting the way Hollywood works.
Simmons, 56, has already shot a number of TV pilots under the first-look deal he has with HBO, he says in a phone interview from his new home in the Hollywood Hills. The most high-profile project he has in development: 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen’s first foray into TV drama, about a young African-American man’s journey into high society in New York. Simmons says that his “true passion project” is a rap opera called Cain and Abel, written by actor Omar Epps and former Onyx rapper Sticky Fingaz.
Simmons also has plans to bring hip-hop to Broadway, working with his business partner Jake Stein. “What Rock of Ages did with rock, we’re planning on doing with hip-hop,” says Stein, president of Def Pictures. The goal: a musical that tours the country, premiering at various “iconic hip-hop venues” in major U.S. cities. Stein imagines the musical following the path of Run-D.M.C.’s Raising Hell tour of 1986.
Simmons wants to give hip-hop artists a higher profile. But his goal is grander than that. He’s focused on “reintegrating” the entertainment business, which, in his view, has drifted back into a segregated state.
And Hollywood is a prime offender. He believes black and white actors share top billing in hit movies far less often than they once did — think Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte in 48 Hours or Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon.
“Right now if you see a poster for a black movie, it looks like a Hallmark card strictly for black people,” says Simmons with a wry laugh. “If you’re white, you just will not go in a theater and see About Last Night.”
And the co-founder of Def Jam Records says he’s just the man to fix the problem. “I’m the Walk This Way guy, I’m the Beastie Boys guy, I’m the Def Comedy Jam guy — I put black comedians in your face on HBO, at the time a lily-white channel,” says Simmons.