Danny Simmons

Interview from June 27, 2011

Etan Thomas: You are the eldest brother of three. And all of you appear to be very close, help each other, and are all very successful. What was the formula that your parents Daniel Simmons, Sr. and Evelyn Simmons instilled in you all? Like, how did they produce three such successful men?

Danny Simmons: The first thing that comes to mind to answer that question is simply love. Our parents spent a tremendous amount of time trying to instill good values, as well as a sense of family and friendship amongst each other. A sense that we could always count on each other and depend on each other no matter what. Those messages really resonated with us and manifested itself out throughout our entire lives. Russell and I bought our first property together, we had a place in Crown Heights. Joey and Russell embarked on the career in hip hop together. Russell and I produced Def Poetry together. Its a sense of comradeship that we’ve experienced since we were kids. Our parents made it a point for us all to sit down at the dinner table together, to go on family vacations together, and really just put a strong emphasis on all of the things that really make family stick together. They taught us to lean on each other for guidance and friendship. To hold each other accountable as well as support each other. I think that was one of the best lessons our parents taught us.

Etan Thomas: How were all of you disciplined growing up? Did your parents spare the rod, and what are your thoughts with that? I know a lot of parents nowadays do time out, but I personally didn’t grow up in a time out household, so what method worked for the Simmons family growing up?

Danny Simmons: We definitely got some spanking as young children. But what we got the most was conversation. Most of it from my dad. He was a very powerful figure in our household and we respected him. We were allowed to be independent, but we were shown guidance. And if we made decisions or choices that they didn’t agree with, they sat us down and talked to us about those choices. The overall respect that we had for our parents kept us from doing a lot of things that we knew would’ve been against their wishes. My father was a black history professor who also wrote poetry and my mother was a teacher and a painter, so we were exposed to so much in our household. My parents spent a lot of time teaching us and exposing us to the world around us, and I think that was an excellent tool of guidance where we now saw the world as bigger than us. Those lessons helped us form into the men we have become. When it came to discipline, they utilized a method of teaching. Now yes we all got punished and I am not trying to paint the picture that we were three little angels growing up because that would be very far from the truth. But we were taught so much by our parents, and those lessons laid the ground work for our foundation.

Etan Thomas: What is the role of the eldest brother? You were the eldest in your house growing up as was I. And a lot of young boys are in that role in a single parent household, but although you had your parents there, explain the role of the eldest brother because it is a different level of responsibility wouldn’t you agree?

Danny Simmons: My role as the eldest brother, I definitely tried to protect them. Especially Russell since he was younger. I was always known kind of as a tough guy in the neighborhood, so I had to make sure that nobody tried to mess with my little brothers, and at the same time, teach them so that they were very capable of taking care of themselves. I always saw myself, and even do now as my younger brother’s protectors. I took on a lot of roles, such as when my mother grew very sick with cancer of going to the hospital all the time and sparing them the grief and the overall heart ache. I wanted to protect them from emotional pain as well. Its almost instinctual as the big brother to shield them from everything. Sometimes, I do have to check myself because they are grown men and can take care of themselves, but as a big brother, I am the protector.

Another example, when Russell first started his business in hip hop, he asked me to be a partner with him on it and I supported him, went to all of the shows he did, and really gave him that moral support that a big brother is suppose to give his little brother. Also, when someone took some money from him, I stepped in and took the money back, gangstered the money back from him (laughing) but that was my role. I was their big brother and protector and they knew that they could always count on their big brother to have their back no matter what.

Etan Thomas: Now, all of you do a lot in the community and a lot giving back to the community. Who instilled that in you because really, its not something that you or anyone else in your position are obligated to do.

Danny Simmons: My father taught us that. We were on the picket line with our dad when we were kids. We watched him teach civil rights and black history to kids in Harlem in summer programs. My father taught us how blessed we were to have a mother and a father who could provide for us the way they did. He taught us that it was in fact an obligation for us to give back. That it wasn’t something we could do if we chose but rather an actual obligation. My father was a deeply caring man and talked about social rights and social injustice all of his life. He taught us how we have to step in and help those who cannot help themselves or who just need a little help. He called it our duty, and that message obviously resonated with us as we grew into our adult life.

Etan Thomas:  How important is a spiritual connection to keep you grounded? It seems like all of you have that spiritual connection in different ways. How important do you think that is because you all are so successful and yet so humble.

Danny Simmons: Yes I went to church growing up, Russell went to church, Joey went to catholic school, but it was much deeper than physically going to church. Anybody’s parents can physically make them go to church, but if there is no teaching involved, and you’re not learning anything, its just pointless. Your just wasting time. You know how kids can be sitting in class, staring at the teacher the entire time and afterwards not be able to tell you a single word that they said, because they were just going through the motions. But my parents actually taught us, as well as make us go to church (laughing)

I think the fact of acknowledging that you are not the center of the universe, the be all and end all is huge for young people. That was what was instilled in me and my brothers when we were growing up. Having that knowledge in itself is very humbling. It was stressed to us that we had to be thankful for everything we had because it didn’t have to be that we. We were blessed to have both parents in our home, but it definitely didn’t have to be that way. The we has to appreciate everything we were blessed with and cherish it because it all could be gone in the blink of an eye. However you approach that, meaning through whatever vehicle, it is important for young people to have that understanding. It makes you become human.

Etan Thomas: Ok one last question, a lot of young men are growing up today in situations where they have two parents. Where they are getting all of the resources, and the love and the foundation like what you Rev Run and Russell Simmons received but they are still choosing wrong. Do you think that truth be told, there comes a point where it becomes simply a choice? That either you are going to choose to do right or choose to do wrong?

Danny Simmons: Listen man, everything is a choice. Everything. No matter how you grow up, you always have a choice. Now, how informed you are in making a choice, thats a different story, but you always have a choice. Always. Its never anyone else’s choice. Yes, circumstances can lead you in one way or another, but at the end of the day, but you don’t have to go that way. You are a human being, you are strong enough to make your own decisions, it is definitely your choice.

There is no formula for success. There are definitely factors that lend to success, but it is important to understand and everyone reading this to understand that there is no perfect formula. People growing up in a situation like I grew up in with two loving parents, all the opportunities, college educated etc. can definitely benefit from that, but its not a guarantee for success. Listen, I was on drugs for many many years. A lot of my friends from the 70s and 80s and 90s are dead from that use. I was lucky enough not to die and lucky enough to get clean twenty years ago, and that was a choice that I made when I was around sixteen years old. I used drugs almost daily for twenty three years. I didn’t stop until I was thirty six years old. We all make choices, and thank God I made the choice to stop using, to get myself clean, go to various drug treatment programs, and turn my life around. But that was a choice I had to make. I had to eventually say enough was enough, and I wanted something better for myself and my life. But that was my choice. And just as it was my choice to start doing drugs, it was my choice to stop.

I can’t emphasize this enough. If the people reading this don’t hear any other point than this, it is up to the individual to make the choice that is best for them. Your parents can’t make the choice for you. They can give you all the love, opportunities, resources, whatever, but it is your choice. You have to decide what you want out of life,and when you make that choice, you can’t blame it on only having one parent, being poor, gangs, not making it in athletics the way you planned, none of that. You make the decision about what is best for your life, and you own up to that decision and take responsibility for what happens afterwards.