Simmons took the hip hop music he heard in the streets of New York and got it put on the airwaves and in the music shops. He was the business brains that made hip hop into one of the main forms of black music.
No wonder, then, that USA Today in 2007 called him one of the “Top 25 Most Influential People of the Past 25 Years”.
In 1984 he founded Def Jam Records with music producer Rick Rubin. In the late 1980s he helped to put out such old school hip hop acts as Run DMC (of which his brother was a member), Kurtis Blow (a friend), LL Cool J, Whodini and the Beastie Boys.
He also founded Phat Farm, through which he sells hip hop clothing. That in turn gave rise to Baby Phat and Run Athletics.
Simmons is also behind the television shows “Def Comedy Jam”, “Def Poetry Jam”, “Run’s House” and others.
He was born in Hollis, a black middle-class part of Queens in New York, the son of a teacher. He went to City College of New York in Harlem. It was in Harlem in the late 1970s where he first heard the street poets that were called rappers.
He saw that the music industry was overlooking something big. So he dropped out of City College and started pushing rap music. He took what little money he had or could get from his father and made records and put on rap shows in Queens and Harlem. It paid off. He was able to sell 50,000 records for his friend Kurtis Blow. Now he could take on other acts and set his sights higher.
In 1984 he joined forces with music producer Rick Rubin, a punk rocker and fellow lover of rap. Together they founded Def Jam Recordings to put out the kind of music they loved but which the big record companies would barely touch. Later Simmons got CBS Records to agree to distribute for Def Jam.
By 1987 three of his acts were on the top of the black music charts: the Beastie Boys, Run DMC and LL Cool J.
At the time Whitney Houston was a crossover hit: she increased sales among whites by making her music sound more white and less black. Simmons took the opposite approach: he wanted his acts to be as street and black as possible. He did not cut out any of the bad language (as he would later urge in 2007). He wanted something that would ring true with audiences.
At first he was only interested in making black music for black people, not kind-of-black music for white people. But, as he would later point out, hip hop is universal, it speaks to people of all races.
In 1999 he sold his part of Def Jam to Universal for $100 million (20 million crowns).
He was married to Kimora Lee Simmons from 1998 to 2006. They have two daughters. He is the uncle of Angela and Vanessa Simmons, Run’s daughters.
He blogs for the Huffington Post.
He practises yoga and does not eat meat