Music News

The Beatdown

For those hoping to rub shoulders with Russell Simmons at Denver's upcoming Hip-Hop Festival and Summit, the event may not be as def as expected.

Hip-hop fans started anticipating big things last May, when Def Jam co-founder and hip-hop impresario Simmons stood next to then-mayor Wellington Webb, touting his Rush Communications pre-paid debit card and promising to bring one of his lauded Hip-Hop Summits to Denver.

It wasn't Simmons who predicted the summit would pump $20 million into the local economy; that was Eugene Dilbeck, at the time still president of the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau. Simmons wasn't the guy who said the event could attract 10,000 people and fill a venue as big as the Pepsi Center; that was Bennie Milliner, spokesman for the Denver Urban League, which was initially given the task of co-hosting the summit. And Simmons wasn't even the one who said the summit would take place in the fall of 2003; that was what some city official told pundits at the daily fish wraps. In fact, Simmons didn't say he'd be here at all. Which is good, because when the event finally takes place next week on May 14 and 15, Simmons won't be around.

According to Jody Miller, spokeswoman for the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN), the non-partisan, non-profit, New York-based organization that Simmons and Dr. Benjamin Chavis founded in June 2001, Simmons's schedule is just too tight. "He wasn't at the L.A. summit, either," she points out. "He's always spread very thin, and he's traveling a lot for business. So it doesn't always allow him to be at each of the summits."

Besides, just a month ago, Simmons was in Denver -- promoting his new footwear line. "He was on a promotional tour at that time," Miller explains. "Sometimes he can be someplace and other times he can't. It all depends on the schedule that's laid out for him and the bigger picture. Please understand, it is absolutely nothing against Denver. He does the best he can to be at as many summits as he can."

But other prominent HSAN figures will be on hand in Denver for the organization's 22nd summit to date. "Artists are always there," Miller offers. "Dr. Ben, who's the president and CEO, is always there; sometimes Damon Dash is there, who's the co-chair."

Despite the grandiose predictions made for Denver's Hip-Hop Summit, Miller says that HSAN's part of the event is exactly what her organization envisioned -- no more and no less. "If the local organizing committees are arranging concerts and things like that, that's something they're doing maybe on the heels of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network," she adds. "But it's not traditionally what we do. The concerts are not a part of the summit. There have been one or two times when the local organizers or Clear Channel, who sometimes is involved in our summit from the radio standpoint or the production standpoint, has added a concert in the evening -- but that's their thing. It may be something that is aligned with the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, but it is not a hip-hop summit."

HSAN's traditional summit is a free interactive discussion with a panel comprising artists, industry people and local activist and youth organizations. HSAN also pushes its Hip-Hop Team Vote, "our main initiative which we launched at the Detroit Hip-Hop Summit at the end of April of last year," Miller explains. "We are really committed to registering two million young voters by the election and helping young people realize how powerful their vote is. If you look at the national news, CNN just did a piece a couple of weeks ago about the hip-hop vote and how politicians and everyone are reaching out now for these young people in the hip-hop communities because they do understand the power of the vote."

"Three years ago, Russell Simmons and myself co-founded the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, basically to utilize the power of hip-hop culture to promote positive social change among young people throughout America," Chavis confirms. "Hip-hop has a very powerful and, we believe, positive, impact on the community, in particular young people. And we wanted to harness that influence and direct it into positive social change, causes like public education and increasing awareness to try to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS."

Besides HSAN's panel and vote drive, everything at next weekend's Hip-Hop Festival and Summit is the work of SafeCity, a Denver agency that grew out of the so-called Summer of Violence eleven years ago; it's putting on the Denver Idol competition, the car show, the workshops and the concerts. Not that anyone's heard much about any of that. I was tapped to help judge both a logo-design contest and the Denver Idol competition, and until I finally reached SafeCity director Charlotte Stevens on the phone a few days ago, I had no information on Denver Idol. At all.