In the rich pantheon of 20th-century black music, it's difficult to imagine a clearer embodiment of the potential and perils of assimilation than Quincy Jones. The son of a sharp-dressing father with a weakness for women and juke joints, and a domineering mother who floats through his life like a malevolent spirit, Jones found escape from his hellish home life through music, where his prodigious gifts were recognized early. Following a traumatic childhood and adolescence, Jones set out for a life filled with wine, women, and song. By the time he reached his late 20s, he had backed Billie Holiday, worked with Frank Sinatra and Count Basie, and was well on his way to becoming one of the top arrangers of his time. Over the course of the next few decades, Jones broke new ground with innovative scores for In Cold Blood and The Pawnbroker, among dozens of other films and TV shows. He produced Thriller, Bad, "We Are The World," The Color Purple, and The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air. He also fathered seven children by five women, including actresses Peggy Lipton and Nastassja Kinski. But as rich and successful as Jones eventually became, the scars of his childhood have never really healed; they cast long shadows over a series of dysfunctional relationships, as Jones details in his autobiography, Q. Jones castigates himself throughout for his unwillingness and inability to deal with his thorny emotional and personal messes, but to its credit, the book explores Jones' failings as a son, husband, and father with disarming frankness and vulnerability. Jones' formative relationships with his deeply religious mother and his brother Lloyd are portrayed with particular poignancy, especially in a heart-breaking late chapter written by Lloyd as he lay dying of cancer. Like his protégé, Def Jam head honcho Russell Simmons, Jones is a shameless name-dropper, but his respect for the towering legends who helped shape his musical psyche (Sinatra, Gillespie, Basie, Stravinsky) is palpable in his glowing, evocative anecdotes about each. Q grows less interesting following Jones' 1986 nervous breakdown, as compelling anecdotes and emotionally wrenching relationships give way to literary air-kisses and tedious lists of awards received and business partnerships cemented. But Q's devolution into an orgy of self-congratulation is at least earned, which is more than can be said about the torrents of self-infatuation blowing through Life And Def, Russell Simmons' entertaining but ridiculously self-serving autobiography. Like Jones, whom he describes as a beloved mentor, colleague, and occasional rival, Simmons made an indelible mark on popular culture by taking previously stigmatized music into the pop mainstream. Under Simmons' savvy tutelage, Def Jam and Rush Communications helped make LL Cool J, The Beastie Boys, Run DMC (fronted by Simmons' brother), Slick Rick, and Public Enemy into household names, in the process laying the foundation for one of black America's most impressive business empires. Also like Jones, Simmons is an assimilation proponent who prides himself on his colorblind approach and sees hipness, not race, as the defining distinction in his life and work. In Simmons' worldview, the world is divided not between black and white or rich and poor, but between savvy folks clued into the next big thing (from the Internet to synergy to upscale clothing) and the clueless suits who just don't get it. The product of a well-educated, middle-class black family, Simmons took to the streets during his teenage years, selling drugs, running with gangs, and habitually taking PCP—and, like Jones, ultimately seeing music as his salvation. He got in on the ground floor of rap music's meteoric rise, managing and co-producing early megastar Kurtis Blow, overseeing the career of Run DMC, and turning Def Jam into the biggest, most important label in rap. Beginning with his crucial partnership with co-Def Jam head Rick Rubin, Simmons sought out personal and professional relationships that crossed racial and class boundaries, working with public figures from maverick filmmaker Abel Ferrara to Donald Trump (who, on Def's back cover, praises Simmons as "a winner!"). Co-authored by veteran hip-hop writer Nelson George, Def begins strongly, with an intimate, lively, and sometimes hilarious look at Def Jam's early growing pains and Simmons' hedonistic lifestyle. But as Simmons and Def Jam grow more successful, the book becomes self-serving and less interesting, bottoming out with a lengthy section on Simmons' enormously profitable Phat Farm clothing line that reads like a cross between an annual report and a press release. Simmons is quick to lavish praise on his artists, particularly Public Enemy and The Beastie Boys, but fails to address, even in passing, his public disputes with both acts. By the end of the book, Simmons seems more interested in finance than music, but in a world where capitalism and hip-hop have become inextricable, drooling over diversified revenue streams and untapped markets might be his way of keeping it real.
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