Russell Simmons

Hip-Hop mogul and activist Russell Simmons tells Larry King about his fight to reform the U.S. justice system and end America's War on Drugs. Plus, why he believes his inner-city arts programs are saving lives.

KING: Business magnate, author, activist, and one of the most influential and outspoken and media moguls of our time, Russell Simmons on this edition of PoliticKING.

Larry King
Welcome to PoliticKING, I’m Larry King. You know for more than 30 years you’ve known Russell Simmons as the highly successful and extremely influential force behind Def Jam recordings and those famous fashions as well. As well as a New York Times best selling author. He’s also an outspoken activist, who’s never shy about lending his considerable clout to promote or fight against issues he considers important. One of his most recent ventures has him partnering with the Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series program which supports emerging artists across the country. We’ll dive into that a little later on in the interview, but first we’ll talk about the economy, gun control, his relationship with the President, and some political talk including his views on some of the announced 2016 candidates. Russell thanks for coming, we’ll get into this incredible venture into the art world, but first, a couple of other things. Okay? Because you’re so interesting. Russell, that’s why we love you. The President is spending a large portion of this week, he’s talking about prison reform and changes to federal sentencing guidelines. You think it’s about time?

SIMMONS: Of course, I’ve been an advocate, an activist for prison reform, and we’ve changed the Rockefeller drug laws in New York state, and proud to say I had the pen when the governor signed the first amendment. And people went home, thousands of people were released. Then I had the pen when the next governor took away the mandatory minimums, when they signed those two bills. So those are my two proudest moments maybe as an activist and probably as a human being. Changing those laws – the prison industrial complex has been the greatest –there’s nothing that has hurt the black community, brown community as much as the prison industrial complex’s choke hold on our government.

KING: How did you get interested in this?

SIMMONS: Well back then, all my friends went to jail innocent drug users went to jail and became hardened criminals. In short periods of time. So they went to jail –

KING: Just for using..

SIMMONS: Being diseased and they came back criminal, with a lifetime of crime they had to follow through with. They had no other options in their mind. And they’d been educated in criminal behavior. I think it’s a cycle, a horrible cycle. There’s a book, good title, “The New Jim Crow” these people, their hope is taken from them. Through some stop and frisk program, they find drugs, or any first time, nonviolent offender should be able to avoid jail.

KING: What do you mean when you say prison industrial complex?

SIMMONS: Well, the prison lobby. They keep bills – they keep laws in place that are antiquated. I mean we have laws, drug laws for diseased innocent people, horrible, they fill the pipeline and change the dynamics in communities. Whole communities have prison culture as their core. You wonder what rap music is: you know backwards hat, comes out of prison. Sneakers with no laces years ago, prison. The baggy pants with no sag, there’s no belt, it’s prison. And so, the prison industrial complex has figured out ways to keep laws on the books that we know don’t work, and especially the drug laws. So that people are in their system. They get paid per bed as you know.

KING: Yeah.

SIMMONS: Costs more to send a person to prison than to college. And I think we have to change that.

KING: I know that President Clinton admitted that he had made some mistakes.

SIMMONS: Yes! I know he did..

KING: With regard to this. The three strike law is a mistake right?


KING: Is that still in?

SIMMONS: There is, in some cases, and states, the three strike law still exists. Your kid gets arrested for something small, on the third strike he’s gone forever.

KING: And also by the time it force people sometimes guilty of bad crimes to get it, not get reduced a lot, which they didn’t want to send them to jail for life.

SIMMONS: Yeah, in a lot of cases judges felt that way, but the idea of having those laws.. those are laws that are supported by lobbyists, that are not discussed publicly. You know a lot of times, especially now when there’s a climate where people realize they’re spending way too many tax dollars on prison and not enough on education. So as they start to see this dynamic between – it’s such a huge thing that there’s a little bit of a shift. But politicians still sneak their vote in. In support of various laws that are not working and are destroying our communities.

KING: I had a famous psychiatrist tell me once the biggest mistake in society is prison and punishment. It has not worked.

SIMMONS: Of course.

KING: The whole concept has not worked.

SIMMONS: There’s a story yogi told me about an African village, he told us at a dharma talk recently, and it’s a story about this person who would go to the villages and teach a certain kind of punishment. And the punishment was, when someone was arrested for something they did wrong, then everybody in town would come to see this person, give them a gift and tell them a story of some good that they had done. And then all those towns as this person left, it’s a long story, but this part of the story, every place he left, that practice resumed and it was the most crime, you know there was no crime in any of those communities. No one ever broke the law. I mean that sounds it sounds..

KING: It’s simple, but..

SIMMONS: Simple but, I think that that people taking approaches to criminal justice like that in major cities – major states.

KING: You’re tough on the NRA too, and how do they keep that clout?

SIMMONS: Well they’re the same, the lobbyists. I was an occupier. You knew that, Larry. I occupied, the idea that any of these industries can control our government is insane. We have a floor democracy. That’s a fact. You know we have a floor democracy and it’s based on money over people. The fact that our politicians are so beholden to the lobbyists and to the different issues that they undermine the people. So we have a lot of work to do. I don’t know how we can change a government that lives off the money of businesses and not the love of the people.

KING: And why don’t, back to the NRA, shootings. Why doesn’t that change laws, I mean that’s insane to me. Guy goes in, shoots up a church and we keep the same ability to get a gun.

SIMMONS: You know I think there are very powerful lobbyists. There’s also a percentage of the country that believes everybody should have a gun despite any research regarding guns and how unsafe they are. And how people shoot themselves. And not criminals. But this idea of protecting yourself is an old American idea, a lot of Americans still believe in it. So it sounds realistic to some, you know to us, maybe not so... there’s no good reason to have an automatic weapon.

KING: How many people in America last night, do you think shot invaders into their home? Probably none.

SIMMONS: None. Right.

KING: Hillary said though that she’s going to take on the gun lobby. Think she can succeed if elected?

SIMMONS: Well I like that she’s saying this, you know the prison, President Obama said he would take on the prison industrial complex. He is now making some statements and when Justin Bieber tweeted out the letter that we wrote him that all the celebrities and drug policy a lie I think you signed, everybody you could think of signed this letter about prison reform about prison. It seems that we have the president now starting to want to fulfill his promise from 2007. You know he did write that, executive order but he changed the way first time nonviolent offenders -that letter when Justin Bieber tweeted out, the attorney general called us right away. But it was not until it became very pop, this idea, this discussion.

KING: What took him so long, the president? What do you think?

SIMMONS: I think he got in office and his first instinct was to get along and try to move the country forward in a unified fashion. But he had congress and senate, he had all the opportunities then to do a lot of the stuff that he promised us. And he’s delivering on a lot of the promises. He’s going to go down, I bet history will judge him very kindly.

KING: But late.

SIMMONS: Late. But that’s ok, they judge them all late. Look at his ratings now. They’re pretty good for a guy--

KING: What do you think of Bernie Sanders campaign?

SIMMONS: Well you know, I like him. You know, of course, we all like him. Progressives you know like him. Some of what he can say can get into Hillary, seems like it’s gonna happen if we’re lucky..

KING: Russell why do you think we still have, and this boggles my mind, an issue with race in America? Why? It’s so stupid.

SIMMONS: Well the truth is the darker people in this country and around the world are poor. The perception of that, that reality becomes class. First instinct, first stereo-type. First idea. Oh I can treat him a certain way, he’s likely not to have any resources. Police to African-American, maybe. So it has to do with money, class, perception, and stereotypes. I think that the race issue is not as bad, I shouldn’t say not as bad, it’s very bad, but people are now under the light where before, they were not. The police brutality issue is not new. I’m from Queens, I know the police didn’t care about any of us, and didn’t have to respect any of us, or our rights. But now with cameras we see what’s been happening all of these years.

KING: Somebody’s out there taking pictures.

SIMMONS: And now all of these people who had funny feelings about race but were not vocal.. We have a black president. He forwarded, he didn’t do a good job on the black agenda, but he certainly worked on underserved communities, you know in general. In that way helping some in the African-American community. But his agenda, the fact that he was a progressive, and he was black, you put some people on edge and they have a bigger voice than they’ve had. I think that the racists are dying out. A lot of them. You know the ideas that they had that we hear so much about now, they are all so fringe. They’re all fringe. The whole society condemns them all. The only thing we still have, we don’t say certain things in public. I think the only probably acceptable Americanism that you can get in a room and someone will say something and no one will question him – I think there’s Islamophobia is the biggest.

KING: Yeah, that’s taken over.

SIMMONS: Yeah Islamophobia has taken over. There’s a tremendous streak of racism that’s just being exposed that’s always been there, but Islamophobia, that’s the thing that is acceptable. You know I’m the chairman of the foundation for ethnic understanding, and Imams speak in synagogues, and rabbis speak mosques in 50 countries, including in Israel. We have twenty programs. So the Imams speak in the synagogue, the Rabbis speak in the mosques. And I’m going out and doing work and this has been a passion of mine for fifteen years because I realized no one else would do the work. Do you ever get the job because no one else would do it?

KING: Illegal immigrants do that.

SIMMONS: Well that’s true too. But from a spiritual perspective I was given this job. I call them all businesses, philanthropic or social. They have to be managed right? So that business of having Imams and Rabbis work together to promote peace and even in Israel is one that seemed pretty obvious. It seemed pretty easy too. To be in the position I was in. It’s become my job the last fifteen or seventeen years.

KING: Have you softened on Obama? I know you’ve been critical.

SIMMONS: I’m always critical of Obama. I put the wind at his back. I’ve got your back. He’s been an amazing president again. We’re going to read about him. He’s going to get the best book of everyone. Because he’s done a lot of really really good things. A lot of these progressive things that have come to pass. Things that are developing under his reign. But also his administration would kind of breathe these things in as they came. But also it’s like the mishap when the Vice President spoke. And you realize that he was with the polling so let’s go now. Timing is good for him. And some of these issues whether it’s gay...

KING: And the Supreme Court helped him.

SIMMONS: The Supreme Court helped him. He had a couple of big decisions that’s right.

KING: Back to back.

SIMMONS: He’s going to be looked at very favorably. I wish we could do more. Him pardoning a few should be… a few thousand should be of people that he pardons. Non violent first time offenders.

KING: He’s doing a lot more now though right?

SIMMONS: It’s only 48 since I last saw.

KING: Yeah he had the least of any president ever right?

SIMMONS: Yeah but he should have all the non violent first time offenders. Get them out of jail before they get educated in criminal behavior and become lifetime criminals.

KING: Russell Simmons is our guest. Up next I’ll ask this American business magnate his opinion of our National Economy and what he’d do to fix it. Plus a conversation about his latest philanthropic venture into the art world. The man is everywhere. Don’t go away we’ll be right back.

Welcome back to PolitcKING I’m talking with Russell Simmons. Author, activist, businessman, and one of the most influential and outspoken media moguls of our time. Tell me about this Artisan Series. What have you got going here?

SIMMONS: Well we’ve had it. It’s the sixth annual artisan series that we’ve run from the Rush Foundation. My Rush Foundation underwrites art education for inner city school kids. We do it every year, it’s the twentieth straight last week in July that we’ve had this event.

KING: In New York?

SIMMONS: That’s right. And so we have Bell Bev Devoe and some of the other rappers come out. We’ve had many stars perform. All kinds of stars. But we found old school hip hop does well. But we have that coming and it’s going to be a huge event. A thousand people. It was at my house for 18 years until I sold the house. So the last two years it’s been on the beach it’s been even nicer—believe it or not. A giant tent we build on the beach a big dance floor and giant event. A thousand people, we try to squeeze about two thousand dollars out of each one of them. End up at two million dollars I believe is the number. We project. And it’s something we’ve been doing forever and we keep doing it. We underwrite art education for inner city school kids.

KING: What got you into art?

SIMMONS: Well my mother was an artist. She was a painter. Poet. My father was a poet. My older brother, Danny is a poet. And a painter. And my younger brother is Run from Run-DMC he’s a rapper so he’s a poet. So I’m an exploitive artist. I produced a lot of music and stuff early on.

KING: What is the thing you’re doing?

SIMMONS: Oh the Artisan Series. What we do is we have art programs in various different parts of the country and we bring them all to the finals in December. And then we start over again in the summer. And those programs have been great competition. See one of the things the Rush Foundation does besides underwrite art education for inner city kids is that we underwrite 2 galleries. And a lot of new artists are shown in those galleries mostly artists of color. Kehinde Wiley was discovered there. Alice Cooper was one of the ones there. So a lot of the artists the urban artists who are becoming mainstream have come through our galleries and that’s what we do.

KING: You deal more in philanthropy more today than you do in making money?

SIMMONS: Well I run the Rush Foundation, The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. The Hip Hop Summit is active in some political and social matters. And the Diamond Empowerment Fund I’m the chairman of and we underwrite higher education for people living in territories where diamonds are natural resources mostly in Africa and now moving in India. So I have those things and then there’s all the political things that matter. We just got the Governor and I want to thank him again.

KING: Which governor?

SIMMONS: [Andrew] Cuomo for standing up and being one of the first ones to do it in a fashion of which he did. He has now a special prosecutor. In every case of police impropriety. That’s a very special executive order he issued because they couldn't get it done in the state senate. So he issued an executive order to have special prosecutors in cases and I… it’s been something we march for. We’ve talked about. We’ve rallied and rallied and held so many press conferences. It’s an amazing step forward. Because he could then start a chain reaction. Other governors see him and taking that leadership we could do it state by state or also could be a federal. It wouldn’t be—come on the executive order but the federal government could do something about that.

KING: But they do come in on..

SIMMONS: Yeah but no one gets indicted. If your brother kills somebody you bury the body. That’s why the DA should not be responsible for indicting the police. It’s a flaw that’s obvious that everybody knows. And the fact is NYC and state went first, I’m very proud of that. NYC I thought it was insane that the police chief had so much power.

KING: Do you see the killing of that guy on Staten Island?

SIMMONS: Eric Garner.

KING: 5 million 6 the city had to pay.

SIMMONS: I know Eric Garner's family. And I can tell you that they loved him more than any amount that the city can pay. It’s a very tight knit, loving family. I’ve been around them all from a young Eric Garner Jr. who is a basketball player. Plays at college right outside of New York. He’s a wonderful kid and he lost his father so for me it’s—I didn’t know that they were awarded that much money.

KING: OK it’s been thirty years since you founded Def Jam records. How’s the state of the music business today?

SIMMONS: Well music has created opportunity to build so many companies. I think it’s up to music to now harness it’s power. It's emotional connection with people. And build companies based in music. As opposed to just being a music supplier for companies that are building themselves based on music.

KING: Like based on music like what?

SIMMONS: YouTube. Number one thing on YouTube is music. It’s the number one thing. So these companies are huge now. The Spotify’s in the world, all these companies have been growing based on music. I think it’s up to music to harness some of that power.

KING: What do you think of Jay Z’s Tidal music service? Streaming service.

SIMMONS: Jay Z is pretty smart. I’m sure they’re going to figure that out. They're going to need more than one service. I’m sure they’ll figure it out. People are quick to judge that thing. They made some mistakes maybe marketing early on. Nothing that can’t be corrected.

KING: It was announced lately that you will be starring alongside Master P in the...


KING: In the docu series growing up hip hop.


KING: That’s not true?

SIMMONS: No. I saw that in the trades and I have to… It’s a reality show that my niece is on and I did do interview for it. But there’s no sense in announcing me as the star of the show.

KING: Is Hip Hop the music of today?

SIMMONS: It’s been still . Look we have Rock of Ages for Broadway. Talked a lot to Cirque Du Soleil. I’d like to make that. I have a rap opera in development which will be in production. Alexander is during very well on Broadway.

KING: Oh ya Hamilton is a rockstar.

SIMMONS: Ya that’s right. With that said Hip Hop has a lot of places to breath into. It hasn’t had a chance. I’ve been there sometimes to put it there whether it be the first movie “Krush Groove” or whatever. That was thirty years ago. These ideas though they’re just sitting waiting to be exploited that’s what I’m going to do. I’m in Hollywood now.

KING: You’re an LA guy.

SIMMONS: That’s right. I had a bunch of shows.

KING: You’re a Beverly Hills guy.


KING: You’re a neighbor

SIMMONS: Yes, I’m not too far from you, Larry.

KING: I recently spoke with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and he told me he believes the world would be better off and less violent if more women were in power. He thinks it’s a scientific fact that women, I don’t know how many men would agree with this, are more peaceful than men.

SIMMONS: I agree that that’s likely to be true. And his Holiness says it I believe him. I’d much prefer to have more women in charge.

KING: I think we’re coming to that. Are you going to support Hillary?

SIMMONS: I like Hillary. I thought you were going to say something about Trump.

KING: I’ll get to Trump.

SIMMONS: Hillary is a long time friend of mine. She was an activist when we tried to change the Rockefeller drug laws. When we got them changed she was there at the rally and she spoke and she’s been a big supporter of a lot of really important things. When it comes to underserved communities. That’s what all my votes are about. All my political social efforts are to get people who have the least, give the opportunities to be competitive. So Hillary is the best bet we have right now. I haven’t met with her about her campaign but I’ve always been a supporter to some degree.

KING: Does any Republican impress you of the announced candidates?

SIMMONS: No not to me. No.

KING: What do you make of Donald Trump and this question with Mexico?

SIMMONS: Well I’ve known Donald probably twenty five years.

KING: Me too.

SIMMONS: These comments unfortunate and they are insensitive. I think that like I said a lot of things are being exposed. I wouldn’t say that he’s a racist. I wouldn’t go that far but I would simply say that it was very insensitive, those comments and Donald’s not the kind of guy to back down. So his response to people’s outrage has been not so great either.

KING: You know him. Does this shock you?

SIMMONS: No. Not at all. I let people be… everybody's got opinions social political opinions. I don’t like to judge where they all come from. I can’t say for sure. So I would never make those statements. I don’t believe those statements are true or in any way you can generalize based on a few people. You make these kind of heavy judgements and get away with it. It’s..

KING: Sad. It’s more than sad.


KING: Just days ago you wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about sexual abuse of girls and it’s pipeline to the prison system. What do you mean?

SIMMONS: It’s the abuse of women and young women and the pipeline to the prison system. A lot of it goes back to what we talked about. Everywhere we can figure out to put some money behind prison we do. We lock up as you know the most...

KING: In the world.

SIMMONS: In the world by far. In a fairly peaceful society. We’re locking ourselves up. And we’re teaching ourselves to be violent ourselves. We’re putting ourselves in violent conditions. And we’re putting back into the community the same poison from those conditions. I talk about the prison industrial complex every chance I get. And our lack of—It seems like we discuss it a little more now. But still there’s no real strong legislation to change the way we incarcerate people or what they learn in prison and can we separate people. And young people that are being put in prisons for adults. The story recently in The New Yorker I think it was of the young person who was accused of stealing a backpack.

KING: Ya it was The New Yorker.

SIMMONS: Ya. Long story. Horrible story that led to his suicide. We have to do better. Our justice system needs an overhaul.

KING: Is all this success you’ve had personally, business-wise, and yet you look and you fight in so many causes. Are you optimistic or pessimistic?

SIMMONS: I think we should go to work every day and seek one thing in life. Like I always say, a comfortable seat. I would talk to you about my book Super Rich the State of Needing Nothing. Operate from a comfortable seat and do the best you can and play the game but the seat is where everything comes from. That happiness. That thing that we’re seeking. That’s here. And then you can go out into the world. You can run as many charities or as many can be an activist and all the causes that matter. The animal rights thing.. it’s the destruction of our whole planet. It’s the end of the planet. If we don’t start to treat our animals differently, raise our animals differently, save some of the species that are on their way out and shift. There’s a lot of companies now that are going to help us a lot because a company like Hampton Creek and there’s one Beyond Meat. There’s these companies that are doing research on 40,000 plants. They’re biotech companies and they're studying these plants and they’re trying to create substitutes. See once you realized you had a car and you never needed a horse to pull a carriage again nor will you need meat once you have the right substitute. Everything can’t be tofu. For instance one of the first products that Hampton Creek came out with was interesting. I’m thinking about investing in that company the next round comes up. But it’s kind of amazing that they created a B protein out of P plant from Canada that is like a substitute for eggs. If we can do that then we don’t need animal product and we don’t need to waste all the natural resources to make the animal product or feed to animals.

KING: You constantly amaze me, Russell. You’re an incredible human being.

SIMMONS: Thank you that’s sweet of you.

KING: You’re a great person.

SIMMONS: Thank you.

KING: Thank you for joining us

SIMMONS: Pleasure.

KING: For more info on Russell's philanthropic work and the Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series Program, go to And thank you for joining me on this edition of PoliticKING. Remember I like hearing from you. Join the conversation on my Facebook page or share your thoughts with me on Twitter by tweeting @KingsThings use the PolitcKING hashtag and that’s all for this edition of PoliticKING.