Stepping into shoe business

Tour: Def Jam Records president Russell Simmons is promoting his new Phat Classic sneaker - and empowerment.

March 30, 2002|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons sits yoga-style on a couch in Baltimore's Harbour Court Hotel talking about a sneaker that looks a lot like the old three-striped Adidas shell toe shoe many a rapper sported in videos in the '80s.

Lounging beside him wearing a pair of the shoes is former Run DMC rap group member and Simmons' brother, Joseph "Run" Simmons, one of the men who made the shell toe popular with the hit rap song "My Adidas."

The new sneaker is the latest venture by Russell Simmons, the president of Def Jam Records who also has his own clothing line called Phat Farm. He was in Baltimore yesterday as part of a 15-city tour to promote the shoe - and to spark a grassroots discussion among black youth about slavery reparations and entrepreneurship.

Using his brother as spokesman, Simmons hopes to make the new Phat Classic sneaker as much of an icon as the old shell toe, which many people still wear in a more modernized version.

"There's no athlete or anybody that's done more for a sneaker than what he did for Adidas," said Russell Simmons, nodding toward his brother, who now goes by the moniker Rev. Run.

But Rev. Run emphasizes that the Phat Classic is not the old Adidas. For one thing, he says, it's much more comfortable. The leather sneaker, which only comes in men's sizes, has fat shoe strings and a "P" on the side. The P comes in a variety of colors, including pink to attract some of the ladies.

"It's a whole other shoe when you put your feet in it," said Rev. Run, who owns 50 percent of Phat Farm's sneaker division. "Your foot may go to sleep up in there, it's so comfortable."

While in Baltimore, Simmons and Rev. Run made stops at R&B radio station 92-Q, the Sports Zone at Security Square Mall and a promotional party at a local nightclub.

At each stop, Simmons, while being careful not to criticize the white-owned companies that have profited from hip-hop, stressed the importance of supporting black businesses.

Designers like Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren Polo, he said, have benefited from the hip-hop artists who wear their clothes in videos and concerts. Black companies need to get a piece of that profit too, said Simmons, who started the careers of such rappers as LL Cool J and Jay-Z. He wants people to support companies like his Phat Farm, which in 10 years has grown to a $220 million business with 13 divisions.

Simmons said he has plans to open a debit card company targeting low-income clients with bad credit, and he applauded a class-action lawsuit filed in Brooklyn this week that seeks compensation from FleetBoston Financial Corp., Aetna Inc. and the CSX Corp., companies that at one time profited from the slave trade.

"This is a promotional tour to get people to talk about reparations and think about buying from their own," said Simmons.

The multidimensional businessman also created the HBO show Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry recently to promote positive art. The show brings into the mainstream poetry hitsthat grow from coffeehouses around the country. He hopes the spoken word will eventually encourage rap artists to write more positive lyrics.

"All the business ventures I'm going to do now are going to be about empowering the people," Simmons said.

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