HBCU giant, Howard University, in Washington DC

Russell Simmons came into the world in 1957 in Jamaica, a part of the borough of Queens on outer edges of New York City in the Empire State. He was the second of three sons born to graduates of Howard University in Washington, D.C. His father was a teacher who eventually became a professor of black history at Pace University, and his mother worked for the New York City Parks Department as a recreation director.

When Simmons was eight years old, the family moved to the place that altered the course of history, but very nearly led Russell Simmons to personal disaster or worse — the Hollis neighborhood of Queens. Their home was near a corner that was a known meeting place for drug users and dealers. His older brother, Danny, was pulled in by the scene and became a heroin addict. Russell seemed headed down a similarly sad road. He began selling marijuana while still in middle school, and for a time was a member of a local gang called the Seven Immortals. When he was sixteen, he shot at someone who tried to rob him. He was arrested twice on other charges and received a term of probation. Danny, however, wound up serving a stint in jail for drug use.

Even then, Russell was undeterred that he was destined for greatness. “Black culture or urban culture is for all people who buy into it and not just for black people. Whether it’s film or TV or records or advertising or clothing, I don’t accept the box that they put me in.”

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