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Authors: Henry Louis Gates

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America Behind the Color Line (9 page)

BOOK: America Behind the Color Line
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Having excluded such a big piece of the workforce, such a big piece of society, from being productive has hurt the country. We’ve taken all these kids who could be out creating something and we made them all dependent and put them in jail. Well, it’s not just the cost of the jail, it’s also the loss of what their productivity would have been in the economy. We’ve got to get that message through, but getting that message through the color divide is very hard. This us-versus-them—if they get something, I’m losing something— that thinking has hurt not just black folks; it’s hurt the country. My message is, when those who have been left behind catch up, we’ll all be better off, so let’s get to it.

RUSSELL SIMMONS
Corporate Man

CEO, corporate executive, and producer Russell Simmons understands both individual and business success. It is a fact, he told me, “that you invest your money in corporations because they have longer lives than people. That’s the reason you do it. That being the case, the karma and business responsibility of whatever it is that you did during your life lasts as long as the company is alive.”

I got where I am through nothing but a lot of luck and blessings from God. I’ve been very, very lucky. I say blessings from God, but I don’t know quite which God. The one inside me is the first one I try to aspire to, a relationship with God or with my higher self. Even if the relationship is not a great one, I’m always working at making it better. I think that’s what has gotten me a fortunate kind of a circumstance in a worldly way. Then lately, I’ve been very happy, so I guess that’s really the best fortune. I’ve been very lucky and very happy, and all of it comes, I think, from some of the sacrifice that turned into the greatest blessing.

I grew up in the drug capital, Queens. They call it lower middle class where I lived. I was very lucky. I was bused to school to a neighborhood where they had the same lower middle class living on the verge of poverty. But in my neighborhood, they had heroin openly sold on all the corners. Whenever you saw a white kid in my neighborhood, you might as well arrest him, ’cause he’d come to buy drugs. They had to come to my neighborhood to buy drugs. At that time, you had an unequal police protection program when it came to drugs. Drugs devastated our community. Until then no one gave a damn. Heroin destroyed the kids in that whole lower-middle-class black environment, and it didn’t destroy the kids up by the school I was bused to.

The houses in my neighborhood and the houses where I was bused to school looked like Archie Bunker’s. They looked the same. Drugs were the defining difference. Everyone in our neighborhood knows we had the Muslims and heroin addicts on our corner, period. You were selling drugs, you were taking drugs, or you were a Muslim selling bean pies or selling religion—you know, join the mosque and become a better person, which a lot of heroin addicts did.

When I was sixteen, I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but selling weed was one of the few options open to me. Today, however, young people are inspired to have higher aspirations because of hip-hop. Young people now have all these people visible who make the choice to be entrepreneurs and inspire them to do the same. It’s now a cultural thing in our community. Being a teacher maybe, or a doctor, these used to be the hopes and aspirations of our community. But now hip-hop is all they talk about. Lower-middle-class blacks in New York City were the absolute dumbest young kids you could find anywhere, same as you would in the projects down the block. Well, it’s the same dumb people who broke the mold, because they were so hip-hop and so angry and so fuck this, I’m going to make it on my own. It’s like, own a company.

I used to give hip-hop parties when I was at City College. People would pay to get in—all the hip-hop artists, DJ Cheeba and all these guys. I had this music thing I loved, and I was lucky enough to get a job in the music industry. I made it big in 1979 when I produced “Christmas Rappin’,” by Kurtis Blow, on Mercury. I got to go to Europe at that time. They met me at the airport in Amsterdam. It was unbelievable. I’m being treated like a king. I was twenty-one. “Christmas Rappin’” was the hot record. I’d never been on a plane before and never been anywhere outside New York. I got home to New York and I rented my own little apartment, big as a midsize car. I was in business. I had my own apartment and I had a hit record. I was a success. Rick Rubin and I started working on Def Jam together in 1983. We had the success of Run-D.M.C., really the first hip-hop crossover group, all set by then. Rick produced “I Need a Beat,” which was our first record together. We put out the Beastie Boys and all those other records independently, and then we made a deal with Sony. That was the beginning of Def Jam Records. Def Jam was Rick Rubin’s logo, his idea, his whole thing.

I’m doing something I love. That’s about the most success you can have. That’s a pretty big deal. When I started out, the most worldly belongings I had was a little job and a little apartment. Then I kept getting greater responsibility and greater worldly success. The number of talented people around me keeps growing. I’m blessed to have them. And I discovered how to let go so I can incentivize all these talented people properly and diversify and not be so hands-on. There’s Kevin Liles, who runs Def Jam Records. I go in his office and sometimes he wants to know why I’m there. Lyor Cohen, the CEO, is the same way; it’s like, what do you want? They’re doing so well. One record after another is number one. Ashanti was number one last week. All the success they’ve had at Def Jam, I think, has come from having worked with them in the beginning and maybe giving them some idea of the vision. But their energy makes Def Jam what it is today.

The entrepreneurial spirit came from within me. I was never offered a salary; they didn’t like what we did. There was never an interest in giving me a job, or even making a record deal, so we started our own company. There was never an interest in us doing any of the things that we were able to eventually do. I wanted to be in the fashion business. Do you think anybody wanted to hire me or give me a job? I wanted to be in the advertising business. These things had to be forged with a little bit of resilience and vision.

In other words, I had ideas. Everybody has great ideas, but I learned something. I learned not to quit. People always quit. Everybody quits. They go to work; they have this great idea. My brother, the Reverend Run, is a great motivational speaker. He tells a story about the 7-Up Company. It’s not one of his great metaphors; it’s like his joke, his funny thing. A guy went to work and made 1-Up. I’m not supposed to tell the punch line, but I already did. Then he made 2-Up and 3-Up and quit at 6-Up. The next guy goes to work one day and makes 7-Up. Stupidest thing you ever heard, but it’s got to do with not quitting. A sage and a great spiritual teacher tells a story about digging a hole and running into a rock. He goes, oh, man, let me start over. No, you dig through the rock, ’cause there’s another rock and another rock, and the rock teaches you what you really need to know to get where you want to go.

Quincy Jones is an entrepreneurial role model for me. He is a creative person that does his work from his heart and then just manages around it. The management of the work facilitates his ideas. He wasn’t a business major; he was a creative person. That’s what makes his work similar to what I try to do.

People say I’m smart because of Def Poetry Jam. They say, you are so creative, how did you think of that? Oh my God, it was hot in the ghetto for years. I had the access and I did something that was obvious. There was nothing creative or genius about putting poets on television. And it was perfect timing when Def Comedy began, which I’ve gotten a lot of credit for. There was already a Chris Tucker, there was already a Martin Lawrence, there was already Steve Harvey, there was already Jamie Foxx. It wasn’t them that put it together, but they wasn’t discovered. They were already there. I’m an expert on the tastes of people in the inner city compared to the people who think that I’m an expert.

It’s been difficult for blacks to sell the American dream. Let me explain some of the roadblocks. Ralph Lifshitz had to change his name to Ralph Lauren to be the American dream. So a nigger being the American dream is not an easy thing either. But we somehow got past that roadblock. Even in the selling of my sneakers now, you’ve got a roadblock. People only want to wear Nike and Reebok and Adidas, so there was a roadblock that we’re breaking through. I may be the American dream. I can maybe sell a pair of jeans and a pair of sneakers. To sell a $10,000-and-up watch is a bit of a stretch. But I just bought a piece of a watch company, and we’re in discussion about me buying the company. The watches are already starting to explode. It’s an Italian company. I haven’t announced it officially, but I’ve purchased a piece, and I think my image buying into it is good.

Economically, some families in our community had more financial stability during segregation. We had the black dentist, the black lawyer, the black teacher. We had jobs. We had things we had to do for our community and services to provide. Integration tore that down. It damaged our economic stability in our little communities. But that went away for the better. No one really can see the full meaning of an event. All you can see are the temporary effects. It’s a good idea, integration, it’ll be great for us; we’ll be able to move around. Boom! Bad idea. They took all of our business. Oh, good idea! Now we can take over our own business again and we can do anything we choose. Now we can emigrate into the mainstream business, so business is 85 percent bigger than it was. You have to hear God’s sound track in the background of whatever happens to you and around you. If you do that, you will see the silver lining.

But as much as integration has hurt in the past, we now have to make it help. Relationships are critical, and part of our job is to take advantage of integration the way integration has taken advantage of us. That’s an important one. You have to be able to take advantage now of a new climate, where racism is not so obvious. People don’t recognize their own racism now, and they are willing to be partners and change the world if you give them the opportunity to participate.

I’m not saying that racism is completely gone and people should forget about it and not fight to make whatever civil rights issues that are still there go away. I’m saying that you have to recognize what opportunity you do have. In the clothing business, it was very difficult to convince some people of this opportunity. We’re a multimillion-dollar company. Puffy’s company and Jay-Z’s company, a lot of companies, are doing a couple of billion dollars at least, I would say, in clothing. A couple of billion dollars is a big company. And there’s no major distributor involved. There’s no multibillion-dollar company breaking their neck to distribute urban clothes. They don’t understand it. Just the way Time Warner didn’t understand about the rap record business, and because of that, independent people flourished.

So our opportunity has to be to go independent, ’cause the major distributors have turned us down again. They turned us down in music, and they don’t understand why my advertising agency is flourishing, or any of what we do. The thirst in young America is greater than the older guardians of culture understand. They don’t believe that it’s racism. When MTV was playing rap records, they used to feel afraid to put on a record because they didn’t think their audience would get it. MTV was cool. They got it. But they thought the audience wouldn’t get it. And when they put the record on, oh, man, the audience loves it. Surprise. So there is still rigid attitudes and backwards thinking by the gatekeepers of the culture, but you’ve got to get past it. You certainly can’t be bitter, and you have to see where your opportunity is. You are making more money independently.

Look at it this way. If Irv Gotti was white and he was selling white music, we’d pay him a salary and talk to him later. But because he’s doing something unique that’s still not properly embraced by the industry, he gets a lot of money and he runs his company. He becomes independent. The independence that was forced on us by managing some part of our culture, or ideas, is the same independence that’s creating a whole new lifestyle among young black people. All I had was drug dealers, some numbers runners, and an occasional pimp. They were the entrepreneurs. Now all these young people have images. It’s true that a lot of them are hardheaded and kind of twisted and unsophisticated. That’s why they did it in the first place. You think if they spoke the King’s English, if they went to school and were told, do what you’re supposed to do, that they’d be doing what they’re doing? There would be no cash money collected if they was Harvard-educated. They came from the street and they did what they had to do and they created what they’ve created.

The record business was black music and still is to some degree. But the black music business meant low expectations, small budgets, and limited resources. We’ve gotten past that to the extent that rappers have proved they sell catalog. Certain rappers have been competitive—more than competitive—in the mainstream. In the clothing business, there was ethnic clothing distribution. I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew about low expectations, limited resources, and small budgets. In the advertising business, you have a cake that’s 100 percent. They give 20 percent to the black advertiser and they say that 80 percent of the budget goes to mainstream, because half of the blacks are covered by mainstream. So if you’re in the black advertising business, you have limited resources and low budgets, and here we go again.

It’s the same in the movie business. When they did the 1996 remake of
The Nutty Professor,
with Eddie Murphy, there was not one black film producer. I still think you can’t name one. You cannot name one unless Chris Tucker or Eddie Murphy put their name on it and call themselves producers. But the guy riding around in the go-cart, doing nothing, that’s reserved for white men. For me, though, there’s been a change in America and I’m optimistic.

When I was living in Malibu, I lived close to Brian Grazer, David Geffen, John Davis, and Jerry Bruckheimer. There were many more. The whole beach was full of filmmakers. I was the only black person on the beach. No one knew any black film producers, and everybody wants to be my partner. Again, the integration thing that hurt us so badly has now given us inroads or possibilities, and you’ve got to take advantage of them. Puffy don’t think he’s black. Tell Puffy he can’t do something. If he wants to make movies, he’ll make movies. He’d be the only black film producer making a bunch of movies right now, but he’s busy with records and clothing and things. My point is, part of it is being told you can’t do something but believing you can do it still. And having that interest in doing it. It’s your job to talk to people who are doing what you’re doing. They’re going to be interested in what you’re interested in. They’re going to learn a lot from you.

BOOK: America Behind the Color Line
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