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Transcript: "Rebels"

Narrator: Baghdad... January 16th, 1991.

Reporter: .... fire coming up there in the air, flashes going off.

CNN Headquarters Manager: Don't you hear air down there? Don't you hear what's on the air, folks?

Narrator: This was the moment that CNN founder Ted Turner had been waiting for.

Ted Turner: I've been an innovative thinker, okay, I mean, I thought of CNN.

Bernard Shaw, CNN Anchor: The skies over Baghdad have been illuminated.

Narrator: His rivals had once called his brainchild "Chicken Noodle News"; but at the start of the Gulf War, the whole world was watching CNN, the first 24-hour TV news network.

CNN Headquarters Manager: I know, but this is where it's happening!

Porter Bibb, Biographer: Ted Turner and CNN put the viewer in the middle of history, as it was unfolding, and that was revolutionary.

Ken Auletta, Turner Biographer: You think the CIA had more information than CNN did? Of course not.

Reporter in Baghdad: That came down fairly near our hotel...

Robert Goldberg, Turner Biographer: [When] Ted Turner [started] CNN ... it scared the crap out of the people who were working with him.

CNN Headquarters Manager: Get the French on the air!

Ted Turner: If you've got an innovative idea, and the majority does not pooh-pooh your idea, then you must not have a very good idea.

Russell Simmons: Now to the press conference.

Narrator: No one had believed in Russell Simmons's idea either. But he ended up with a multi-million empire in hip hop fashion, comedy and poetry...He even produced an acclaimed show on Broadway....

Def Poetry Jam, Opening Night on Broadway, November 2002

Def Poetry Jam Poet: ...it was poetry, but now they call it rap.

Narrator: And it all started when he unleashed a controversial new kind of music in America, rap.

DMX: Bring it. What? We right here...

Russell Simmons: Sometimes we talk about rap and how people don't like to hear what the rappers are saying. That's God's soundtrack.

Alex Ogg: If you're wondering why so many white kids are impersonating black culture ... it's all to do with the way that Russell Simmons has marketed the phenomenon which is hip hop.

DMX: Here we go again...

Sir Harold Evans, Author, "They Made America": Russell Simmons produced the browning of America, in the sense that a culture which was born in the ghetto became universal.

Narrator: Russell Simmons and Ted Turner brought the world closer together.

Russell Simmons: Give me a minute, alright?

Narrator: You may not know their stories, but they made America.

Ted Turner: For awhile, it's gonna be out of control.

Russell Simmons: Thank you, uh, thank you all for being here.

Control Room Director: All right, stand by twenty-three, xxx on three...
Ted Turner (arriving at Atlanta Press Club): Good evening.
Control Room: Dissolve, all right...

CNN Announcer: CNN's complete coverage of today's...

Control Room Director: 40 seconds...Houston, you're clear.

Ted Turner (Atlanta Press Club speech): I couldn't have done any of this without a lot of help....

Control Room: Roll C...

Ted Turner: We all did it together.

Audience: Applause.

Control Room: 30 seconds...

Robert Goldberg: Ted Turner's innovation was 24-hour news...(and) what that means is that...you can watch history live.

Control Room Director: We're coming back.

CNN Announcer: We're live in Baghdad...

Robert Goldberg: You can watch history as it's happening. ... So we tend to look back, and we say, 'Well, obviously, CNN was going to be a big success.' But in fact, when it was started, there was no indication at all that it was going to be a success, and in fact, they were teetering on the edge.

Ted Turner: I lived for ten years, during that time, I lived in my office on a foldout bed.

Harold Evans: One of Ted Turner's great qualities: He makes us excited about everything he does. He's not a man in a grey flannel suit.

Ken Auletta, Turner Biographer: When he was working his 24-hour days, I mean, he was driven by a desire to get it right. And part of his drive in life is to prove to his father that he's worthy.

Robert Goldberg: Ted's father was a billboard magnate. He had a billboard company...He was expanding and doing better and better and he did this one big deal where he bought out General Outdoor Advertising. And this was his big break. Ted was incredibly excited. His father originally was very excited but soon started to get scared. He was worried that he was overextended. He was worried that this whole empire would come crashing down. [So]...It was the morning of March 5, 1963, and Ted Turner's father went downstairs, and he had a big full breakfast. Then he went upstairs, took out his revolver, the same revolver he had taught Ted to shoot with, and he killed himself.

Porter Bibb: When Ted's father killed himself that was the ultimate blow to Ted Turner who could never, ever get his father's approval that he had spent his life, up to that point, seeking.

Robert Goldberg: Ted's father did it in a way to leave his family -- each of them as millionaires. Ted wasn't interested in being a millionaire. He could have taken the money, he could have gone off to be a millionaire on the Riviera, but instead he says, 'No, I want to take this company. I want to show my father, I want to show everybody I can do this.'

Ken Auletta: Part of his mission in his life is to prove to his father that his father was wrong. And in fact, once he looked up at the heavens, and said, 'Dad, are you satisfied now?'

Ted Turner: I used to tell people, when I was in my 20s, that I wanted to get to the top, and I wanted to get there in a hurry, not even knowing where the top was.

Go ahead and eat your cereal.

Narrator: Everyone thought Ted Turner was too inexperienced to take over his dad's billboard company.

Ted Turner: Well, hustle it up, Chago.

Narrator: But he made money. And in 1970, he splurged on a rundown, money-losing UHF station in Atlanta.

Ted Turner: We changed the call letters to WTCG, and then later to WTBS, for Turner Broadcasting System. But WTCG was 'Watch This Channel Grow."

Robert Goldberg: When Ted buys WTCG, it's a TV station that's....hemorrhaging hundreds of thousands of dollars a month.

Bill Tush: Good morning. Hope you're doing OK this morning. Morning, Tina.

Robert Goldberg: There was a FCC requirement to put news on. Instead of putting real news on [Turner] had put on joke news.

Bill Tush: Ronald Reagan hopes to beat... [laughs]

Narrator: To help fill his programming schedule, Turner bought his hometown losing baseball team -- the Atlanta Braves -- and broadcast their "away" games. Many saw the move as a foolhardy gamble, but Turner loved cheering the underdog players.

Ted Turner: Wayne. what do you think of this team.

Wayne: I like every one of them.

Ted Turner: Come see the big-league team with little-league spirit. And hey, we're in Atlanta.

Barney: Sure hope the bug don't get down in my larynx.

Robert Goldberg: While everybody else might have been doing serious shows or news shows, Ted Turner was rerunning, because it was cheap, 'Gilligan's Island' and 'Leave it to Beaver'

Skipper: Gilligan!

Gilligan: Oh, I gotta go.

Porter Bibb: Ted sold advertisers on the idea that your commercials in color will stand out on our station because everybody else is running color programs and color commercials. But we're running black and white programs. [laughs] And your color commercials will jump out of the set.

Ted Turner: Well, when are we ready?

Narrator: Turner's strategies worked. But soon after his station was in the black, he went into debt again, in a bet-the-company move: Before it was a sure thing, Turner bet on cable.

Music video singer: He was cable, when cable wasn't cool.

Narrator: Turner wanted his local UHF station to be one of the first national stations offered by the fledging cable industry, which was wiring the country to provide better reception than shows broadcast through the air.

Ted Turner: Heck, all I did was jump the gun.

Music video singer: Cable wasn't cool.

Narrator: But Turner needed an efficient way to send his signal to cable companies sprinkled throughout the United States.

Ken Auletta: And he said...you know, this bird just went up in 1976, and that's a satellite. And that satellite, what if we hooked up to that satellite?...Bingo -- innovation.

Music video singer: How can anybody start a network, down were the cotton grows?

Narrator: Turner borrowed money to buy a dish that would beam his Atlanta TV signal 22,000 miles above the earth, bounce it off a rented transponder on a satellite over North America, and beam the signal back down to receiving dishes owned by the country's cable operators.

Ted Turner: By being a Superstation, I can be super.

Narrator: The networks tried to get Congress to stop him. But Turner went on a rampage about the network monopoly and beat them.

Music video singer: It really is amazing how he second-guessed those jerks.

Ted Turner: The only difference between us and WCBS is that our antenna is 22,000 miles up in the sky instead of 2,000 feet.

Music video singer: He sends out programs day and night, bouncing off his satellite.

Ted Turner: I must be doing something right.

Music video singer: Cable now is cool.

Narrator: In the summer of 1977, Turner was taking on the established networks. And with a second-hand boat and a youthful crew, he was taking on the refined yachting establishment in the prestigious America's Cup race.

Porter Bibb: [Ted Turner] was definitely not cut of the same cloth of the other members of the New York Yacht Club. He was a loud, obnoxious... and profane in his language.

Narrator: Turner cherished the role of outsider; he thrived on being the underdog.

Ted Turner: Don't over trim it like that. You gotta ease out.

Narrator: By now, it was a familiar role to him.

Harold Evans: When he first began to pick up his father's billboard business, the advice was, 'Don't do it, you'll go broke. You can't do it, you don't have enough experience.' When he buys UHF, they said, 'Don't go, it will cost you all this money.'...'Don't do the Superstation, we can't afford a -- '

Ted Turner: It's all over, baby. We won!

Harold Evans: Every single time he went out on a limb....it was actually like a springboard and diving for Ted Turner, and he came down and made a perfect dive.

Narrator: Turner was on a winning streak -- bad news for his employees. It usually was a sign that he was growing antsy and about to bet the company on a new venture.

Robert Goldberg: Ted Turner loves to have his back against the wall. ...And if his back isn't against the wall, he'll go out of his way to find a wall to put his back up against.

Narrator: In 1979, Turner backed himself against a wall that would make or break him.

Ted Turner: This industry is out of control. It's like a train...

Narrator: At an annual cable meeting, he announced that he would get an entirely new satellite channel up and running in just one year. It would run only news, 24 hours a day, and it would be called Cable News Network, or CNN.

Reese Schonfeld, Founding President, CNN: He said, 'There are only four things that television can do. They can do this regular entertainment programming, and the networks have got that. They can do sports, and ESPN's got that. They can do movies, HBO has that. All we've got left is news, so what the hell, I'll do news.'

Ted Turner: The industry ought to say, "Stop."

NARRATOR: Twenty-four-hour news was Turner's craziest idea yet. The established networks lost money producing just one news show a day.

Reese Schonfeld: In the days when the networks were everything, you had to watch your news between 7 and 7:30...22 minutes of news...a whole network psychology, philosophy, which said, 'Look, news is a public service. We don't do this to make money. ...'

Ted Turner: I have the advertising companies coming to me and asking me, "Whose gonna make it?'

Ken Auletta: So what does Ted Turner do... 'wait a second, he decides, these networks, they have a half-hour, an appointment at night for a newscast. What if I had 24 hours of news?' Bingo. CNN. Innovation.

Narrator: Turner went to the New York Times to pitch his new idea.

Robert Goldberg: They were asking them, 'So what's going to be so great about this CNN?' And Ted said, 'Look, it's going to be live. It's going to be live all the time.

Reese Schonfeld: One of the deputy editors turned to me...and said, 'Aren't you with live all the time...gonna wind up covering a lot of one-alarm fires?' And I said, 'Until it's over, you never know whether it was a one-alarm fire or the fire that burned down Chicago.

Narrator: Turner needed $30 million dollars for start-up costs, and another 2 million per month in operating expenses. He started selling assets -- and he was counting on cable fees and advertising to generate income for CNN...that is, if the industry ever shared his faith in the zany idea.

Harold Evans: It was a universal reaction that Ted Turner would go bust, he was wasting his time, people didn't want 24-hour news, what were they playing at.

Robert Goldberg: Ted Turner starts CNN without -- with very few commitments from the cable industry and really not much in the way of financing. He doesn't really have banks behind him, he doesn't have money behind him. So it's all kind of a wing and a prayer, and frankly, it scared the crap out of the people who were working with him.

Ted Turner: If you've got an innovative idea, and the majority does not pooh-pooh your idea, then you must not have a very good idea. It's not enough of a breakthrough to make that kind of a difference. It didn't bother me at all. It did not bother me at all. In fact, I considered it -- I said, I must really be on to something.

Narrator: Now, with weeks to go before launch, the staff was assembling for rehearsals. There were eager newcomers -- and TV veterans looking for one last romance, one last go around in hard news.

Bernard Shaw: Roone Arledge and I had negotiated a new contract at ABC News, the country was in double-digit inflation, our children were about this high, and here I was thinking about going to work for a network that didn't exist.

Narrator: In the dry runs, just days before the launch date, the CNN staff still couldn't produce news for two hours in a row, much less 24.

Ted Kavanau, CNN: The rehearsals were a nightmare...people would call for things that weren't ready, the tapes weren't there, the scripts were not completed.

Reese Schonfeld: They started giving me a valium in my orange juice in the morning. But I didn't know anything about it. After a week she stopped, because it wasn't making any difference.

Bernard Shaw: Those demands, says Reagan, are rejected are totally unacceptable.

Bernard Shaw: I wanted to twit the traditional networks. Those people at ABC, CBS, and NBC who said, this will not work, they are inept.... I wanted to join Ted, along with the other men and women at CNN, to prove those bastards wrong.

Narrator: On June 1, 1980, ready or not, CNN was scheduled to begin broadcast. Turner threw an opening day party.

Robert Goldberg: I think what I loved about that opening day is that it was so grand and so rinky dink at the same time.

Speaker: ...and only cable television could give the consumer the choice.

Robert Goldberg: It was a network that was kind of like its owner, Ted Turner. It was a little ragged around the edges, but with grand, global ambition.

Ted Turner: You'll notice out in front of me that we've raised three flags -- one, the flag of the United Nations -- because we hope that the Cable News Network will bring a better understanding of how people from different nations live and work together.

Ken Auletta: Turner wanted to shrink the world. He wanted Americans to understand the world, and not be isolationist, not be comfortable in our little cocoons.

Ted Turner [opening day speech continues...]: I dedicate the news channel for America: The Cable News Network.

Ted Turner: You know, it was a real good plan. It was plan to conquer the world, but with ideas, not with weapons.

David Walker: Good evening, I'm David Walker.

Lois Hart: And I'm Lois Hart. Now here's the news. President Carter has arrived...

Narrator: Inside, CNN started its very first broadcast with little fanfare. If Turner had it his way, it would continue from this moment until the end of time -- that is, if his staff could survive the first few months.

Narrator: Turner had launched CNN during a presidential election year, just six weeks before the Republican Convention. The major networks, which would try to bar CNN from the White House press pool, all laughed at Turner's unprepared reporters.

Bernard Shaw: Can you button your jacket? There's a lot of white there.

Sandy Kenyon: I'm Sandy Kenyon and I'm the writer-producer here in the booth with Bernie Shaw. These are our convention facilities. Over here...

Sandy Kenyon: The booth that CNN had rented for this convention was about the size of a large bathroom. And it was totally open, and it was above the band. So that when the band played, we had to cut to a commercial.

Reese Schonfeld At the time our greatest critic was Roone Arledge, who ran ABC News. ABC called us "chicken noodle news," and they used to say, 'Cockle doodle do," when the crew would appear.

Narrator: For his part, Turner was doing everything he could financially to keep his new network afloat.

Reese Schonfeld: We do every stunt we can. The cable systems that carry us, we give them a discount, a large discount if they'll pay in advance. Ted's got hot dog money coming in from the concessions at the Braves stadium. He makes the same deal with the concessionaire.

Daniel Schorr: Can you just pull back a second.

Elizabeth Dole: Okay, sure.

Bernard Shaw: [Ted Turner] knew we were working slavish hours. He knew we were underpaid.

Daniel Schorr: Okay, pull the plug out there.

Bernard Shaw: And it was his trying to maintain the team spirit and say, 'Hang in there. I'm losing millions of dollars. I'm depending on you,' and that was one of the attractions.

Cameraperson: Are we gonna do an interview?

Jim Miklaszewski: Yeah, we're gonna do an interview?

Narrator: With its on-air glitches, it was easy for the experts to dismiss the all-news network. But CNN was just getting started.

Jim Miklaszewski: Do you want me to move anywhere?

Narrator: And only three months after launch, Ted's Chicken Noodle Network had something to crow about -- when Turner's gamble to cover live stories paid off in a small town in Arkansas.

Jim Miklaszewski: This is as close as the military will allow us to get to this Titan II missile silo sight installation just outside of Damascus, Arkansas. A Titan II missile had exploded in its silo and spit its warhead several hundred yards out onto the ground. And the Air Force officials had told the mayor of Damascus there was no warhead on the premises. Is there a warhead on the sight?

Air force official: I cannot confirm or deny it.

Jim Miklaszewski: We put the camera in the cherry picker bucket. And as the cherry picker rose up, you could see now over the trucks. And you could see this center of activity around what we later found out was the actual warhead. Look at that, look at that tank...that's what I asked you...in the crane. Can you see that picture? We gotta go live, NOW. This is it, baby.

Robert Goldberg: That's a moment where all of a sudden news is no longer something that's reported at the end of the day. News is something that's happening right now.

Jim Miklaszewski: They're going to hide it. They are going to hide it in just a second.

SOT: We gotta go now.

Reese Schonfeld : By the end, the L.A. Times correspondent said he learned more about the story sitting in his hotel room and watching CNN, then he learned from being on the scene.

Ted Turner: Get a picture with him -- that would be...

Narrator: CNN's exploits with the Titan II missile had another keen observer -- Cuba's Communist leader Fidel Castro, who was reviled by the U.S. government. In a move that drew criticism, Turner accepted an invitation to go to Cuba.

Ted Turner: So he was watching CNN. He had heard about it, and somehow obtained a satellite dish, and the signal, the United States signal spilled into Cuba, so he was able to pick it up. And he thought it was just terrific, well, for the tremendous hospitality you have shown us and the wonderful time.

Ken Auletta: Ted Turner was a very conservative guy. So, the thought that he would one day consort with Fidel was just totally alien.

Fidel Castro (through interpreter): Though we receive the news, we don't pay for it. I myself don't know how much money we owe the CNN.

Ted Turner: I think he was the first Communist I ever met, and, but serious one, anyway. And he certainly was the first dictator I ever met. I didn't know any dictators.

Narrator: Turner's trip was a revelation to him. When he saw the impact that CNN had on Castro, Turner was eager to expand more quickly the coverage and availability of CNN all around the globe. But he'd need the cooperation of foreign governments suspicious of the American press.

Ted Turner: When I came up with the idea of going international, there was tremendous resistance all over the world by broadcasters and governments to having an American news organization just come into their country, that they had no control over, and they were really concerned that we'd somehow come up with a pro-American agenda, anti-whatever...

Correspondent 1: ...being abducted and put on that aircraft. But he said, 'At the end of the day, Haiti is the first ever black independent state'...

Ted Turner : So I said, "I'm going to create a two-hour program every Sunday afternoon that will take news stories unedited from any broadcaster in the world that wants to send them in, I will run them unedited."

Correspondent 1: Around 500 demonstrators marched towards the gates of....

Correspondent 3: ... the most tense situation in Columbia for the last 10 years...

Ted Turner: I had a meeting of my top executives. ...And they said, "Oh, there's no way you can do that." I said, "Why not?" They said, "We'll get -- Khadafi will send in a story about Libya's right and we're wrong. And Castro will be sending in stories from Cuba that say, "Down with the United States."

Correspondent 1: ...Geneva has lost one hundred and fifty-five men with six hundred...

Ken Auletta: It was controversial because you are not supposed to turn 'space' over to the people you're reporting on. Turner basically is turning over a half hour of a time to a government.

Ted Turner: Every year we had a World Report conference where we brought them all into Atlanta, put them up in the hotel for a week. And we had Russians, we had -- that's how we met the Iraqis. The Iraqis came to the World Report Conference. And when, later they let us stay in Baghdad when everybody else had to leave, because they knew us, they were friends. We were friends with everybody.

Correspondent: OK, now we are seeing more anti-aircraft fire ...

Robert Goldberg: There's this moment when CNN comes of age, and, and it's actually a very precise moment. It's on January 16, 1991, at about 6:35. It's the beginning of the Gulf War, the first Gulf War.

Bernard Shaw: All hell broke loose. Sirens started wailing, search lights searching the dark sky....

Atlanta Headquarters: John Holliman, Bernard; John Holliman, Bernard.

Narrator: Back at Atlanta Headquarters, CNN producers turned the cameras on themselves to document their news gathering of the first war covered live on TV.

Bernard Shaw: ...and that's when I yelled through the four-wire, 'Atlanta, come to us, come to us.' The skies over Baghdad have been illuminated. We're seeing bright flashes...

Narrator: The CNN crew, holed up in a hotel in Baghdad, had direct communication with Atlanta, using a special phone line called a four-wire.

Atlanta Headquarters: Yes we can, we can hear you.

Narrator: When the bombs started dropping, and Baghdad's electricity and phones went out, only CNN was reporting live.

Atlanta Headquarters: Baghdad. Baghdad is back. Take Baghdad right now, Dave.

Peter Arnett: Now the sirens are sounding for the first time. The Iraqis have informed us.

Atlanta Headquarters: They just cut the line. Get the French on the air! We're coming back to French. Keep it prefaded.

Anchor, French: Well, we heard Peter Arnett saying the Iraqis have informed us, and then we didn't hear anymore. This is probably just a technical glitch.

Ken Auletta Tom Johnson, who is chairman of CNN, wanted to pull Bernard Shaw and Peter Arnett and the team out of Baghdad...

Atlanta Headquarters: Show me 17! Put 17 on the air!

Ken Auletta: ...and Ted Turner interrupted and said, "Tom, put it on my back...they're grownups....if they want to be there as journalists and cover this war for the American people, by God, I want them to.

Anchor, French: Wolf. Let me interrupt. I'm sorry to interrupt, but we're going back to Baghdad, because we can, and we have Peter Arnett.

Atlanta Headquarters: Shut up, Blitzer. Let me see, let me see French. Don't you hear air down there? Don't you hear what's on the air, folks?

Narrator: Turner's gamble to create a network for live news had paid off. The networks that had laughed at him now had to rely on his reports at the start of the Gulf War.

Atlanta Headquarters: I know, but this is where it's happening. All right?

Robert Goldberg: And the world tunes in to CNN. There are people in the White House watching CNN, there are people in the bunkers of Iraq watching CNN, at the Vatican..

Ken Auletta: Everyone was watching CNN. It was, you know, you think the CIA had more information than CNN did? Of course not.

Bernard Shaw: We're going back over the window now...

Ted Turner: [CNN] was a democratization of information. For the first time in the history of the world, every world leader, and everybody in the world, had access to the same information at the same time.

Narrator: The same year that Ted Turner scored his greatest journalistic coup at the start of the Gulf War, he married actress Jane Fonda.

Minister: Will you have this woman...

Harold Evans: [Ted Turner] becomes a man of peace for the United Nations, a man who stresses international relations, a man who wants to get rid of nuclear weapons, a man who sees the destruction of the environment from global warming.

Ted Turner: I give thee..

Minister: In the name of the Father...

Ted Turner: In the name of the Father...

Narrator: In the years to come, Ted would sell Turner Broadcasting to Time Warner, and he would cease to play a prominent role in CNN.

Ken Auletta: He'd become convinced that the media were always becoming more and more concentrated with these giant companies, and you needed a tremendous amount of energy and resources. He felt he didn't have the resources to compete, and he was losing his energy.

Narrator: But in 1991, Ted Turner was on top of the world. Only one thing was missing: If I had one wish, Turner said, it would be to have my father come back...I'd like to show him the whole shootin' match...I think he'd really enjoy it.

Russell Simmons: All right, we can do it.

Employee: Russ, this is the factory. What we --

Russell Simmons: What -- is it too expensive, you say?

Employee: It's just that there are a lot of unknown variables.

Russell Simmons: No, we're making sneakers in [expletive] Hong Kong just like everybody else, although I know some of the other competitor, competing companies...

Bill Stephney, Def Jam, 1984-1989: Russell Simmons is a fearless, driven, business person, thinker.

Russell Simmons: I want to be in our factory, in China, to show...

Bill Stephney: Russell created this model of the multi-tasking, African American, confidant icon.

DMX: [Chanting]

Russell Simmons: I want that whole London, Paris, Berlin, all that stuff tied together.

DMX: Bring it! What?

Alex Ogg: If you're wondering why kids are wearing baseball caps backwards. ... If you're wondering, you're wondering, why so many white kids are impersonating black culture and taking their role models as...rappers, it's all to do with the way that Russell Simmons has marketed the artistic phenomenon which is hip hop.

DMX: Come on. Is you cats doin' comin' around like this?

Narrator: Russell Simmons sits on top of a multi-million dollar hip hop empire. But he didn't limit his business to music. He created a cultural movement in hip hop fashion, comedy -- and even poetry, giving voice to a locked out segment of society.

DMX: That's my word.

Narrator: Hip hop became known as "the CNN for black America."

Alan Light, Editor, "Tracks Magazine": In a famous turn of phrase, [rappers] referred to hip hop as 'black America's CNN'...

DMX: Y'all go'n' see that the hottest [expletive] out there was, is, and will be me.

Alan Light: Before the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles and the riots that followed, there was nowhere in the American media that you were hearing about...how bad the state of relations between the police and young black men in this country had gotten. You didn't hear about these things from Dan Rather, you didn't hear about them in the New York Times. These were things that were being discussed for years in rap records.

DMX: We don't care...

Russell Simmons: Sometimes we talk about rap and how people don't like to hear what the rappers are saying. That's God's soundtrack. You have to listen to it.

DMX: Bring the noise...

Bill Adler, Def Jam, 1984-1990: Russell Simmons is the Moses of hip hop. He's the person who led the hip hop nation to the promised land of American success and prosperity...

DMX: We're not going anywhere. We're right here.

Bill Adler: In 1964, Russ' family was among the leading edge of Black folks who integrated Hollis, Queens, so they had achieved the American dream in that way...But there was always action on the corner and Russ...always wanted it both ways, I think. If he stayed home, he had two parents, and he was going to get a good education...and if he went to the corner...He could get into all the trouble that he wanted.

Nelson George, Author, "Hip Hop America": Russell was a low-level drug dealer...

DMX: Oh my god...

Nelson George: [and] there was a guy named Red who...was preying on and robbing the drug dealers of the money they would make. So he came on the block...and a group of guys out there, including Russell, gave chase. ... And someone handed Russell a gun.

DMX: Crossed the line

Nelson George: The way he recounts it, it's like one of those moments of truth about whether or not, "If I shoot this guy, this is a bad thing. But if I don't shoot this guy, if I don't shoot at this guy, I'll look like a punk.'

DMX: Click, click boom

Russell Simmons: I shot over his head. I told everybody I tried to kill him. ...He escaped. I didn't go to jail. I didn't kill anybody...I'm very, very lucky, and a lot of kids I grew up with weren't so lucky.

Eddie Cheba: Put your hands up, let's reach, let's reach, let's reach, until you reach...

Nelson George Charles Gallery was a spot on 125th Street...about a block... from the Apollo Theater...

Eddie Cheba: Somebody say, 'Oh yeah!

Audience: Oh, yeah!

Nelson George: So Russell goes in, he's at City College. ...And he sees Eddie Cheba.

Eddie Cheba: Come on. Clap your hands and stomp your feet and say, 'Oo wee.'

Russell Simmons When I saw Eddie Cheba spitting them flames on the mic...that first experience blew my mind.

Eddie Cheba: Somebody say, 'Oh yeah."

Narrator: Until Eddie Cheba, Russell Simmons had never seen a rapper, someone who chants rhymed lyrics over music.

Eddie Cheba: We don't need no music, a little louder...

Audience: We don't need no music

Narrator: Cheba's chanting wasn't as sophisticated as later rap music, but when Simmons heard it, he felt as if he'd witnessed the invention of the wheel.

Eddie Cheba: Uh huh.

Russell Simmons: I knew then that I wanted to share that, promote that.

Nelson George: And that led...Russell...to evolve out of being sort of a scrambling, college student-slash-drug dealer into a promoter, entrepreneur.

Russell Simmons: This is the color, right here. Alright, let's just work on that a little, develop it a little further. I like it. We haven't had a decent casual shoe in a long time.

Nelson George: Russell Wendell Simmons is a great American innovator, because he took something that no one wanted, which was hip hop music, that most people disdained,

DMX: What?

Nelson George: and helped pushed it outside the doors to a place that no one could have imagined.

DMX: Just like that.

Harold Evans: Russell Simmons produced the browning of America, in the sense that a culture that was born in the ghetto became universal. Seventy percent of the kids buying rap records are white.

Russell Simmons: ...the new and improved Phat Classic...

Nelson George: There will be people studying Russell's career at Harvard Business School, if they are not already, trying to figure out how this happened.

DMX: We're right here.

Holly Taylor: Russell's gotta go, guys. I'm sorry.

Narrator: It's opening night on Broadway for a daring new show that Russell Simmons has produced. The entire show will feature poets reciting their hip hop poetry -- urban, sometimes offensive, in-your-face poetry.

SOT: As the founder of Def Jam Records, he has helped bring rap music to the mainstream.

Narrator: Russell's hustle is in high gear on this day to promote the new show.

Russell Simmons: Good morning.

SOT: Good morning.

Russell Simmons: If you go to a high school, maybe 80 percent of the kids raise their hands and say they're writing poetry. It's an obvious step, I believe, for hip hop.

Narrator: Simmons knows that hip hop offends many people. "To those of you who feel that way," Simmons says, "I just ask you to be open to hearing my story," the story of how a low-level drug dealer became a Broadway producer.

Russell Simmons: Now, we're all down to the press conference. How are ya doing?

Narrator: Around the time Russell Simmons headed to City College in Harlem, the ghettos of both Harlem and the South Bronx were undergoing a sea change. Coming from the parks of these written-off neighborhoods was a song unlike anything heard before.

Bill Stephney: There were problems in the 70s. We had inflation. In New York, we had a terrible fiscal crisis. Cuts to arts programs and school programs basically knocked out. Young people say, 'Well, you know, if you can't give me that symbolic place to party, I'm going to go into the park, and take my parents' turntable, and I am literally going to create my own renegade party outside, outdoors, big, gigantic speakers. It's out of that necessity-being-the-mother-of-invention mindset that hip hop develops. And that's where Russell comes from, his entrepreneurship, his incredible ability to create opportunity.

Russell Simmons: I'm gonna be brief, 'cause I'm not a public speaker or a great orator, or nothing.

Narrator: Where others saw a passing fad, Russell Simmons saw in hip hop a cultural revolution. And he wanted to lead the charge, by promoting Run-DMC -- a group that included his own brother -- with their plain-talking song, "It's Like That."

Run-DMC: Unemployment at a record high, huh! People coming, people going, people born to die

Alan Light: What Russell did beginning with the first Run-DMC record, was say, 'It's just going to be guys rhyming on the microphone.

Bill Adler: We don't need background singers, we don't need any horns. We're going to make music like we make it in the park.

RUN-DMC: People in the world trying to make ends meet. You travel by car...

Narrator: Simmons took a demo of "It's like That" to all the major record labels and found no takers. White executives said 'no,' but so too did black executives.

Russell Simmons: You know, blacks are very conservative. And to sign up these niggers out the street, to represent the images of black America, or to -- you know, that was a difficult one for them. The record executives were, you know -- polished, you know. They were lawyers. They weren't from the street. And if they were, they escaped.

Narrator: Russell Simmons was determined to promote hip hop in a radically different way from a 60s predecessor, Berry Gordy of Motown Records.

Swingin' Time Host: There he is, the young man. Berry, it's a pleasure having you with us.

Bill Adler: Berry Gordy was the president of Motown Records. He says, 'The only way I can get my black artists to Las Vegas is to whiten them up.

Narrator: Gordy made his approach known on TV when asked about the first day the three beautiful members of the Supremes walked into his office.

Berry Gordy: Well, first of all, they weren't beautiful.

Bill Adler: He was going to put the Supremes in satin ball gowns, and he was going to give them elocution lessons, straighten their hair. He's going to try and teach them white manners, is really what it comes down to.

Run-DMC:

Bill Adler: But Russell's idea was, 'I'm not going to make any concessions to white manners and to white styles.... I don't have to cross over. I'm going to pull the mainstream in my direction.'

Run-DMC: ...It's like that, and that's the way it is...huh!

Narration: Frustrated by the closed doors at the major record companies for his artists, Simmons sought out a Long Island punk rocker who had been making rap records in his scruffy dorm room. Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons got together in the fall of '84 and formed their own record company: Def Jam.

SOT: It's Def!

Nelson George: So if it was 'def,' it was great, it was hot, it was exciting.

SOT: It's Jam.

Nelson George: 'Jam' is like a record, so 'jam,' so it was a 'Def Jam.' So that just meant that this is a hot record.

Alan Light: The unifier was Def Jam. Under that umbrella, there could be something as you know silly and goofy and accessible as the Beastie Boys.

Beastie Boys: You gotta fight for your right to parrrrty!

Alan Light: Something as political and edgy as Public Enemy.

Public Enemy: We've gotta fight the power.

Alan Light: Putting a record on Def Jam, it meant you were the best of the best that was out there. Every one of them sold. Every one of them was great.

Run-DMC: My Adidas!

Narrator: But Simmons wanted to sell more than music. He wanted to sell a lifestyle. And his chance came when he directed his brother's group to sing about their favorite footwear.

Run-DMC: ...on stage front page every show I go,
it's Adidas on my feet high top or low. My Adidas.

Russell Simmons Anybody coming up in the hood, today or when I was young, knows that you can't wear dirty sneakers. You're coming out of struggle. If you really think of yourself a certain way, sneakers had to be clean.

Run-DMC: Yo, my Adidas!

Bill Adler: Russell arranged to have executives from Adidas fly in from Germany to see Run-DMC perform at Madison Square Garden. And there's a moment when Run's on stage, and he says, 'All ya'll wearing Adidas, let me see you Adidas. Wave 'em in the air, right?' And so, "whoo", you know, there's 10,000 pairs of Adidas going in the air, and the guys from, you know Adidas from Germany are going, 'BOING.' You know, what? Here, take a big check now. We want you on our side.

Run-DMC: My Adidas

Narrator: Run-DMC went on promotional tours for Adidas, and their song headed for the top of the pop charts. Hip hop was clearly more than just music, and Russell Simmons was becoming its marketing maestro.

Alan Light: You read statistics like a quarter of all spending is somehow impacted by hip hop. People are talking to Russell Simmons about automobile lines now. There's not an end to how big this stuff grows, partly because hip hop has this sort of consumerist thing built into its DNA.

Bill Adler: Russ started to see the fashion potential of hip hop very early on. Advertisers were going to come to him to say, 'Listen, can we -- can we use Run-DMC in a commercial, and will they wear these clothes for, for us?' And, you know, by that time, Russell is dating models, and he's going to runway shows. And you know, if Tommy Hilfiger is going to design something that's hip hop influenced and make a zillion dollars out of it, and Russ is sitting there, watching it happen, he's thinking: "Well, wait a minute. Why should he make all the money? These are my people.' So that kind of thinking led pretty quickly to the formation of Phat Farm.

Narrator: In the early years, it was a struggle to make Phat Farm profitable. Simmons refused to sell to big city department stores that intended to relegate Phat Farm fashions to their "ethnic" or "urban" sections. He wanted hip hop to be a youth culture, not just a black one.

Alan Light: Russell gets a call from Madonna's camp, saying, 'We want some hip hop for this tour...We want to get Run-DMC on this tour. And Russell says, 'Well, you know, you can't afford Run-DMC. Run-DMC is too expensive, you can't have them. But I got this other act, I got this group, the Beastie Boys.'

Beastie Boys: (yelling)

Nelson George: The Beasties you know, um, well, the Beasties were white, and one of the things Russell had always preached in that time was that hip hop wasn't black music. It was teenage music. And that idea that hip hop was about an attitude toward life, as opposed to about color was very important.

Steven Tyler: 1,2,3,4!

Narrator: Simmons was now hustling hip hop to white America. He even managed to get hip hop noticed on MTV after "Walk This Way," a breakthrough music video featuring Run-DMC and the already well-known rock group Aerosmith.

Run-DMC: There's a backseat lover that's always under cover and I talk to my daddy, say...

Narrator: At the time, MTV featured few black artists. And its suburban audience was isolated from the new urban hip hop movement.

Run-DMC: ... Cause the best things of lovin' was her sister and her cousin. And it started with a little kiss, like this!

Narrator: "Walk This Way" brought urban to suburban, white to black and rap to rock and roll.

Alan Light: It would be hard to spell out any more obviously what they were trying to do with this song and with this video, breaking down the physical wall between rock and hip hop and bringing these artists together.

Run-DMC/Aerosmith: She told me to: Walk this way! Talk this way!

Narrator: 1986 was a heady year for Simmons. The album including "Walk This Way" went triple-platinum, selling mostly to white males. Simmons was the godfather of a whole new hip hop empire.

LL Cool J: What's going on?

Narrator: But in the early 90s, Simmons entered what he later described as the single most difficult phase of his life

Russell Simmons: These kids who are not necessarily -- uh, don't have the same opportunities.

Narrator: With his attention focused on other aspects of his hip hop empire, the innovative Simmons had stopped innovating, and his hot record label went cold. The center of the rap world quickly moved from Def Jam on the East Coast ...

N.W.A.: Tell us where you're from; straight out of Compton.

Narrator: ... to a new form of rap from the West Coast: 'gangsta rap.'

Alan Light: Whether he wasn't listening enough to his talent scouts, his A&R people on the street, this whole movement sort of came up and caught him looking the other way. And Def Jam went through a slump in the first half of the 90s that was the most difficult time he's faced

Harold Evans: One of the lessons in innovation is the moment you succeed is the moment you have to start innovating all over again. Because at the moment of success, you, kind of, the air goes out of you. You relax, you keep doing the same old thing. That's what happens with Russell Simmons with Def Jam records.

Narrator: Simmons owed his record distributor $17 million, and he was floating payments for his artists on credit cards. If his hip hop empire crumbled, Simmons as an unprecedented role model would never come to pass.

Bill Stephney: His impact is when you go into a classroom of young black kids, that you'll ask them, 'Well what do you want to be? Nine times out of ten, they say, 'Well, I want to run my own business.' [And] that notion of controlling your destiny as much as you possibly can, did not exist within the community until Russell Simmons.

Russell Simmons: So there's a truth you learn on the street.

Narrator: During the bleak time for Def Jam, Simmons sought advice from the man he calls his mentor:

Russell Simmons: Yeah, hello? Yes. Hey Donald.

Narrator: None other than Donald Trump, the real estate mogul.

Russell Simmons: I hope so, he's a nice guy, I've been on his show like four times so I...Donald Trump influenced me in a number of ways, but the thing that impresses me is what he said about himself having been out of business two or three times, but at least he had his name. Donald Trump's father told him, when he was going to name [a] building Tiffany's, because he owned the rights to the Tiffany name, he said, "When you change your name to Tiffany, then call it the Tiffany building. But for now, call it Trump."

Nelson George: Trump puts his name big as life on every thing he does. Trump this, Trump that. And so Russell knew and learned from Trump that if Trump means buildings, then Def Jam means -- needs to mean -- cool. Def Jam needs to mean urban. Def Jam means attitude.

Narrator: Simmons needed to bolster his Def Jam brand. And around this same time, he noticed the emergence of black comedy nights, at clubs around the city, with in-your-face humor, just like hip hop music.

Aries Spears: Picture Mr. Magoo having sex. Wouldn't that be cool. 'Cause Mr. Magoo would be like: Oh, Ah, Uh....

Bill Adler: Russ says, 'I'm going to take it to television now, and I'm going to birth a whole generation of hip hop comedians.

Nelson George: But instead of calling it, you know, the Black Comedy Jam, he called it the Def Comedy Jam

Announcer: It's the Russell Simmons Def Comedy Jam!

Nelson George By emphasizing the kind of outrageous, edgy, raunchy level of that comedy, he was able to find a kinship between that and the rap music.

George Wilborn: But I have -- I'm having this reoccurring dream that I wake up and one day there's nothing but rap music left. Can you imagine a world with nothing but rap? Can you imagine Frank Sinatra singing rap? Pork. Pork, pork that cuchi. Pork, pork that cuchi, pork that cuchi, yeah. That bitch! Ha! That bitch better have money.

Russell Simmons: I had discussions with Bill Cosby. He was offended by the language. I'm more concerned with cursed ideas than I am curse words. That's my opinion, of course, right. And I'm also very excited to hear those people who are locked out, with their poetry, or their comedy, you know, talk about their experiences

Eddie Griffin: '91 was a trip. '91 was a year everybody went crazy. Police lost their mother f---ing minds. I know you all seen the Rodney King beating, came on every night, turned into a TV series.

Russell Simmons: Def Comedy Jam became very popular.

Nelson George: Def Comedy makes Def Jam seem even cooler.

Russell Simmons: And if not for Def Comedy Jam, I don't think Def Jam Records would have survived.

Martin Lawrence: Russell say a little something to the people and how you feel.

Russell Simmons: Thank y'all for the block party. I'll see y'all next week. Peace.

Bill Stephney: Russell presents that wonderful model of diversification -- that you have a number of eggs in different baskets, so that if one basket indeed does fall, that you know, you're not broken.

Narrator: And that is how Russell Simmons ended up, in November 2002, with an opening night on Broadway. With the Def Jam name fortified, Simmons had geared up to do for poets what he had done for rap artists and comedians, in a show called Def Poetry Jam.

Poet: The streets ain't got nothing for you, shorty. Nothing but a history of misery and I'm spittin' realness hoping your feeling me...

Russell Simmons: There's some blacks today, still, you know, they can't believe that those images are images of mainstream black America. Well, they're not. They're images of black America, the part that's been left behind.

Def Poetry Ensemble: I write America. I write America. I write America. I write America. I write America. .... I write America. I write America. I write America -- a Dear John Letter.

Alan Light: Russell Simmons took the perspective and the sensibility of an entire segment of American society that did not have access to the mass media. And not only got them in front of the rest of the world, but got them in front of the rest of the world in such a way that it changed the rest of the world.

Poet: It's like this. It's like that. It was poetry, but now they call it rap.

Harold Evans: America before hip hop and Russell Simmons was a very different country. It was a country identified basically by exclusion. For all the high ideals in the Constitution, for all the progress made over many years, it was still exclusion.

Poets: Hip hop, uh huh, yeah, what?, uh huh....

Danny Glover: And the winner of the American Theater Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event goes to Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam on Broadway.

Announcer: Accepting the award, producer Russell Simmons.

Bill Adler : Russell Simmons, through his stewardship of hip hop, has made the world a browner place, a louder place, a more colorful place, a funnier place. He's managed to bring the races together. People are less fearful of each other, and that's -- that's a beautiful thing.

Audience: RUSSELL!

Russell Simmons: I don't believe this.

page created on 6.30.2004
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