Hip-hop style

Fairfield Daily Republic ©

Remember when we thought hip-hop was a fad?

I recall, more than 25 years ago, when this whole concept of hip-hop hatched into style. Run DMC and Kurtis Blow were the "in" rappers, break dancing was performed at every possible street corner (78th Street in Queens, N.Y.), and being part of a gang ("Death Defying Dames," written with black Old English letters ironed onto a hot pink sweatshirt) was the ultimate sign of coolness. Ah, those were the days. Right.

This was also the place and time when media mogul and entrepreneur Russell Simmons was influenced for his hip-hop culture - from the inner-city streets of New York. Well, that's what he says, but I wonder.

As a damsel in distress during the late '70s and early '80s era in those very city streets of Queens, N.Y., I recall, much to my dismay, the style of dressing consisted of tight clothing made from that wonderful fabric called polyester - the same fabric that unveiled to the world every possible flaw and roll a body could possess. By the way, this phase was also considered a great introduction to anatomy.

But as much as I may try to ponder those fond memories of yesteryear, I don't recall the enormous clothing that is now considered a part of that very hip hop culture that once embraced my very being.

So, Mr. Simmons, which came first, hip-hop fashion for the music or music for the fashion? Obviously, it was the latter, and that's what Simmons does best.

A native New Yorker, Simmons took a culture that represented a creative explosion in music and mind, one that was dwelling on street corners, at "home" parties, and the school yards of the New York public school systems, and brought it to the forefront. His goal consisted of an incredible vision - to introduce the culture of hip-hop to the different classes of America with hopes of it taking off. And it did.

By 1984, Simmons Co-founded Def Jam Recordings, which quickly became known as the premier rap label. The roster included L.L. Cool J, the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy and today the label has a revenue of more than $250 million. Although the label was sold to The Universal Music Group, Simmons still holds the title of chairman.

He next ventured into film, advertising, television, the Internet and lastly, the fashion world with Phat Farm.

I tried to catch up with him one evening, several days prior to his appearance at Macy's West in Hayward to launch part of his Phat clothing line. Incredibly, I was squeezed into his busy schedule and we briefly chatted on the phone as he drove to his yoga class. Not a good thing on my part.

"Phat Farm is a classic American buy. We have classic American flavor and we want to put a more rugged style out there, a sort of alter ego based on a rugged youth," he said as he simultaneously conversed with someone named Brother Kenny.

The line, he said as he parked his car, is inspired by the streets of New York, namely, Hollis, Queens.

"I'm in those streets every day, I live in this world," he said, then began to search for his yoga bag while yelling incredibly loudly for Kenny. "The style is something people were thinking about and the creativity is in the color palette."

Somewhat frustrated since I didn't get to ask questions (he assumed my questions and supplied them to me), I quickly realized Simmons had one particular role to play in this interview and it was not to converse or shoot the breeze with me.

Instead, it was to relay the message of his line, the one he founded in 1992 and last year sold for $140 million, that Phat Farm is a phat line on a roll.

And it is. The empire, which now consists of watches, books, cell phones, and family clothing, generates nearly half a billion dollars a year in sales.

But guess what? His clothing line is not being purchased solely by the culture he brought to light. More than 70 percent of the hip-hop culture is consumed by suburban whites, according to Henry Louis Gates Jr., chair of the African and African-American studies department at Harvard University. And they have made the culture a $10 billion-a-year industry.

So now that he's commercialized a culture from the streets, which has swallowed all classes of society, what's next for Simmons?

"I want a combination of preppy and hip hop clothing because it attracts people from all different graphics," he said before hanging up.

Very interesting.