Russell Simmons Wants You--To Vote
By Russell Simmons; Julie Schlosser

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Russell Simmons started out in the music world (he co-founded Def Jam Records), then built a business career (he has a beverage company, a banking card business, and a clothing line, which he sold this year for $140 million). Now Simmons, 46, is turning to politics. As chairman of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, a non-profit and nonpartisan advocacy group, he's organizing concert-like events across the country in an effort to encourage urban youth to register to vote in this year's presidential election. FORTUNE's Julie Schlosser caught up with Simmons on his ever present cellphone to talk about drug laws, voting drives, and reality TV.

Where are you now?

We are at the Mandarin hotel now, but we're heading to the Downtown Locker Room in the 'hood. We're selling sneakers, and we're also registering voters. Tomorrow we have a big event to get out the vote.

You've come into the political spotlight with your Hip-Hop Summits and your fight to repeal the Rockefeller drug laws, which mandate minimum sentencing for drug crimes. What got you into politics?

If you are concerned with people being locked up, you have to talk to legislators. When politicians aren't being accountable to the people who elected them, and you can point it out and use your celebrity to create energy that will make a change, then it is the same as a social initiative. You can't avoid being political. You are part of a team. Your tax dollars. Your karma. If President Bush goes to war with my tax dollars and I think it is an unjust war and I don't speak up, then I am not doing my job as a citizen.

Are today's rappers more involved politically than they were in the '70s and '80s?

The collective consciousness of hip-hop is rising. There's no question about that. Everyone from Jay-Z to Puffy to Beyonce to Eminem. They all show up at Hip-Hop Summits, and they all contribute not only their celebrity and time but their actual money to efforts to uplift their community. There is a trend of rappers' giving back. Will Smith hosted a summit with LL Cool J and others in Philly and registered 80,000 voters. Beyonce hosted her summit in Houston. Master P., Puffy, Reverend Run, and Ice Cube came to that summit and registered 25,000 to 30,000 voters. Snoop Dogg, Damon Dash, and others hosted the L.A. event and brought in 60,000 voters. And the mayors of all these cities were involved.

You were a big Howard Dean supporter?

No, I've given to all the Democrats. But our registering voters is a nonpartisan effort. I want people to be heard no matter who the President is.

Aren't you protesting the GOP convention in August?

There is a march on New York. That's about the Rockefeller drug laws. I want to work with the [Republican] governor to resolve what amounts to the worst law in the country regarding mandatory sentencing.

How much contact do you have with other CEOs?

Not much. I know the famous guys. Donald Trump is a good friend. He's taught me a lot about brand building. He's been very influential and an inspiration.

What about Sean [P. Diddy] Combs? He's busy with his fashion line and he's on Broadway in A Raisin in the Sun. Are you working on any projects with him?

Just friendship. We talk every day. Or by two-way pager. He's working his ass off now. He is such an inspiration. He works more hours than anybody.

Speaking of Combs and Trump, they're both reality-TV stars. Do you have any similar plans?

No. But my brother Reverend Run does. He's a reverend; he's got five kids. They live down the block from me, so I guess I'll have to be on it some time. But I don't want to be on a reality show. People don't need to see my underwear.