Datwon Thomas, someone who worked for you when you were Editor of XXL, is the new Editor in Chief at the magazine. What do you think of that?
Pride. Day-Day has been like a younger brother to me, so there’s nothing but love and hope in my heard for anything that happens to him in his career.
Did you enjoy your time as Editor in Chief at XXL?
No doubt. See, you have to understand, for me, that entire XXL experience was special. Not just from the professional aspect, but also personally. We built friendships there that will last a lifetime and we all went through things during that time that only made us all stronger and gave us a greater understanding of the business of building a magazine and building a brand. We had a crew. I mean a real crew, one that regardless of how it turned out, I would take to battle or do another project with any day. I was involved with XXL from the inception, played many different roles; some major, some minor, throughout its first few years. But once I decided to hold down the EIC (Editor in Chief) spot, I felt that the crew I had with me, the crew that had helped shape the book, I felt we could really change the industry. I really believed that we could build something special. And for five issues, I think we did.
No disrespect to Reggie Dennis or Sheena Lester, who were EIC’s before me, but I’d take the five issues we did and put them up against any magazine during any time period. Maybe I’m delusional, but that’s how I feel about what we did during that time. The company was about to fold the magazine. They were losing money and were going to wash their hands of the whole thing. We, and I stress “we,” saved it. We saved it with those five issues; everyone from Blackspot to Vanessa to Anna to Miles to Don to Bonsu to Tony G. to Datwon. That whole EIC period for me was crazy. I would commute to Chicago to NYC for three days every week and was still doing Slam at the same time. And once Elliott became available, I knew it was time for me to step down. I did what I had to do. It was time for me to get back to my wife and kids on the regular. That said, I want one of those XXL 100 t-shirts!
What’s it going to take for print mags to survive as more and more people use the internet for their primary news source?
Better content. There is a reason Vanity Fair is still relevant in the climate that print media exists in nowadays. They are still concerned, even with all the BS that has surrounded them with the Miley Cirus photos, about content. They know every month it’s going to be very difficult for any other magazine, any other form of electronic media, to do what they do and come as thorough as they do. Reporting, art direction, layout, writers, ideas, concepts, in their mind, they have it locked. And they do! That’s why they are able to stay in the game at the level that they do when everything else around them is doing otherwise. Time, Rolling Stone, In Style, O, People, and even smaller mags like Cookie or Antenna, are making an impact. Maybe not financially to the point that the South Hamptons is filled with publishers from Conde Nast or Primedia, but they are doing more than holding their own in a very unforgiving market. Hell, three of Conde Nast’s mags just won four awards at the National Magazine Awards last week (Vanity Fair, New Yorker and GQ). So to me, they are able to do this and maintain significance because their primary objective is to always provide great content.
Do you ever see yourself getting back into hip-hop journalism?
No time soon. Maybe other forms of journalism besides sports specifically, but not hip-hop. To me, the music no longer lends itself to great journalism. The depth of subject and subject matter is gone. What great stories are left to tell? Back in the day Harry Allen did a story on Eric B. and Rakim for Spin where Rakim talked about how it took him four days to create the lyrics of “I Ain’t No Joke”. Who’s going to tell that story now? Soulja Boy? Cheo Hodari Coker did a story on Kool G. Rap once for Rap Pages where he lyrically broke down his classic line about fashion from “It’s A Demo.” Who in hip-hop now is creative enough to have a journalist break down the lyrics of a song and approach the MC about it and the MC be able to recite back to that person the meaning behind his thought process in creating those patterns or words? I don’t see T-Pain or Young Buck crafting songs like KGR or Big Daddy Kane or KRS-One.
So at the end of the day, you have to ask yourself what are we really writing about here. Even musically, I mean, some of these producers are nice, but they are creating beats as opposed to tracks and songs. Listen to Lil’ Wayne’s “Lollipop” and then go listen to a song like “King of the Beats” by Mantronix. Just listen to the difference in the intricacies of them musically, then I think you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Is it hard with your schedule nowadays to keep up with the hip-hop game?
To a degree. I mean, I’m up on the newness. Tha Carter III is dropping. I still keep the latest Mick Boogie and Green Lantern mixtapes in the clip. But being out of the publishing end of hip-hop, especially since Scratch folded, it’s been harder to stay on top of what’s really going on because it’s not as much as a priority as it once was. So it’s really not about schedule as much as it is about profession for me. But in all honesty, even if I were in the game, I’d be slippin’ a bit. I’m getting to that old man stage I really never wanted to get to, you know, where you start complaining about all of the new music because to you, it’s just not as good. I’ve been trying for like five years not to get to that stage where I start sounding like my father or my uncles when I was a kid. But, and I’m sort of blaming music for this, I can’t stop myself. Feel me? Bottom line, I got Prodigy’s HNIC 2 and Andy Caldwell’s Om: Dubai and I’m feeling Om more. I’m getting old.
What artists are you feeling today?
Producers and MCs that I think are hungry. Like lately, everything Andre 3000 touches. Every time he steps up to the mic, he sounds like he has something to prove! Styles did his thing the last time out. Beans did his thing the last time out. And I’m waiting for T.I.’s Paper Trail to drop. I still roll with Lupe, even though I think his hunger subsided once he released Fahrenheit 1/15. Common is still that dude. Hov on occasion. Ghostface always.
From a production side, Primo is still that cat I listen to the most. I don’t care if it’s Christina Aguilera or Kool G. Rap’s latest single, Primo is special. To me, Timbaland is stretching himself. I love some things but feel that he’s reaching on others. But to me, right now, he’s still the one everyone is chasing in the game. JD’s work on Mariah’s Emancipation of Mimi CD was almost equivalent to what Quincy gave MJ on Thriller or Jam and Lewis gave JJ on 1814. Swizz has been a beast recently. And on the low end, I’m still riding with cats like 9th Wonder and Cipha Sounds and unknown cats like Harvey Allbangers and Fifth Element.
Do you think Nas should have titled his album what he did?
Yes. “Nigger” is a strong title, but the material has to hold up the title. People can say all they want about the title of the album, but if he drops something that is on-line with Illmatic or something that defines this period in time in hip-hop, then the title will become secondary. Like I said earlier, if the content is strong, everything else will fall into place. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not one that’s in favor of us disrespectfully tossing the word “nigger” around flippantly, but I also don’t think we should act like it doesn’t exist and ignore it. I’m not going to dismiss the importance and impact of Richard Pryor’s “That Nigger’s Crazy” because of the title. Nas’ job is to do the same thing – make something so strong that everyone has to accept the message he’s trying to relay on the front of the album.
You’re one of the main writers I check for on ESPN’s Page 2 and in the magazine. What’s it been like writing for ESPN?
Very different, but very good. The whole ESPN experience has been one of great insight for me, internally and externally. The responsibility and exposure are two things I really didn’t expect going in, so that was, and still is to a degree, a wake-up call for me as well as a learning lesson. David Aldridge told me when I first came to ESPN that those four letters change everything. He told me, “You can write the exact same words in Slam or any other magazine, but they won’t have the same impact as they will when those four letters are connected to it, good and bad.” And I’ve learned that nothing has been further from the truth. And I do give ESPN a whole helluva lot of credit for letting me write freely and openly. Even though they sometimes have to “save me from myself,” I do appreciate them giving me the luxury to do me, good and bad.
Do you find that you have enough freedom to write about what you want to at ESPN?
To a certain degree. But I have to be smart and so do that. Real talk. This is a major corporation that we both represent. And although we don’t have to tow the company line, we at all times have to be cognizant of the fact that Mickey Mouse is on all of our checks and we have to honor Disney as a company and what they try to represent. So with that understanding, I’m really in no position to complain or find fault with issues of journalistic freedom. Are there things that I’d love to write but can’t? Yes. But it’s not because ESPN said I can’t. It’s more me knowing what’s smart and necessary to write and what isn’t.
You once wrote that you were continuing Ralph Wiley’s legacy and that you hoped you were doing him justice, to which Jason Whitlock responded in a very negative manner. Do you have any kind of relationship with him today?
No. And probably never will.
Jason Whitlock has been very vocal about blaming hip-hop for Don Imus’ racist comments. He’s also blamed hip-hop’s “prison culture” as the cause for professional athletes getting into trouble. I’ve always wondered what you thought about the amount of blame placed on hip-hop for society’s ills.
Here’s the funny thing – my master’s thesis/journal when I was in grad school focused on the pro-social effect hip-hop can have on the Black community. At the time, hip-hop was in the middle of the PE era. X-Clan, Tribe, Queen Lah and Brand Nub were all coming out. Through the art, many artists were trying to raise the consciousness of the people who listened to them. Then the Left Coast happened, more specifically “Dopeman” by N.W.A. happened. Then after that, the South happened. And between those two eras, everything changed. I say that to say that I really can’t be naïve or hypocritical enough to think that the influence of a culture only works one way and doesn’t work the other.
So yes, I do place some blame on hip-hop for some of the recklessness that has become part of social being. But at the same time, I understand that hip-hop is far from being solely responsible for that. I mean, is hip-hop responsible for Grand Theft Auto IV? Is hip-hop responsible for those bad ass kids we see every week on Super Nanny? It’s just funny to me how, let’s say Three-6 Mafia, is blamed for societal ills and kids get shot up in schools and universities with goth music found on their iPods and satanic lyrics written in notebooks and they’re all dressed in black and somehow Marilyn Manson or that genre of rock and roll or contributions to other cultures are never to blame.
Who knows where Slam Magazine would have been without your contributions to it. How do you look back at your time with Slam?
Thanks. But there’s more to it than just me. I think that the concept Dennis Page, the publisher, had to start Slam would have flown regardless of whether I was there or not. The concept, just the idea to do something like that mag, at the time was brilliant. But I do believe that my being with them made it a little harder for other magazines or ideas similar to Slam to put Slam out of business. And I know for sure there were a lot of people who wanted and tried to make that happen.
My time at Slam was, as me and Don Morris, the former creative director of Slam and XXL, used to say, “Regodamndopeulous!” It was really great. Nothing bad to say at all. Being at Slam for 11 years prepared me for a lot of things that I know I’ll have to face in the future. I was able to do things at Harris Publications that a lot of people, especially those of color, haven’t and will never be able to do. They allowed me to cerate, and that is the one thing that a lot of us are unable to do within a non-independent structure. I was able to provide employment ops for brothas and sistahs in a market that was very limited in opportunities. Were there problems with and at Slam and XXL when I was there? Of course. But that’s the nature of the business. At the end of the day I had the chances to do things that no other journalist in the country, Black or White, had the liberty and opportunity to do. I recognized that then and I recognize it now.
Plus I got the chance to work and build one of, if not the, greatest magazine minds outside of the late Art Cooper of GQ, in the business with Tony Gervino. He’s really an unbelievable dude. I cherish working with him just as much as I do everything else that happened during my time there. I get a lot of credit for Slam, but for real, Tony G. orchestrated that empire over there with Slam, not me.
As a writer, you’ve never been afraid to tackle controversial topics surrounding race. Do you find that most mainstream newspapers and magazines don’t want that dialog in their pages?
No. I think they want to deal with the dialog on and of race. They just have problems with who the dialog is coming from.
From reading and watching writers interview athletes, there seems to be a huge disconnect between the interviewer and the interviewee. Why do you think that is?
Two reasons. I believe one, their approach is not honest and two, most writers look down and/or have very little respect for athletes.
Have rappers or athletes ever gotten mad at what you’ve written about them?
Most definitely. But that’s nothing I’m proud of. I’m not one of those writers that takes pride in pissing the people I write about off. I’ve been told that Ice Cube has been mad at me, so has Common. So has Mack 10. So has Busta and I think, I’m guessing here, that Tyra Banks is mad at me. On the ballplayer side, I just went through an ep with Lebron and Shaq wasn’t happy with something I wrote about him last year. Warren Sapp is another one and Lance Armstrong called me personally to let me know that he wasn’t too pleased about something I put in print. But for the most part, everything gets either squashed, flushed out or understood. I try to be fair, really fair, with people and that’s all I can rally do. But a lot of people want you to kiss their assess 100% when you write something about them. I tell dudes all of the time, I can only kiss your ass 90% of the time. I gotta leave 10% open for fairness.
How do you approach an interview with an athlete?
For the most part, very open. I believe in conversations as opposed to interviews. I know that’s not the way to approach a story or an interview, but I’ve always tried to follow the policy of getting the best answers. Because to me, the answers in an interview are what make the interview work, and the best answers, to me, come in conversations, not interviews. So for the most part, I try to approach interviews as preparing to have a conversation with someone. For the most part, I think because I come with this approach, I’ve been able to have athletes be extremely forthright and honest with me in ways they haven’t been with other members of the media.
You’ve been around both rappers and athletes. What similarities between the two do you find most striking?
Nothing. I mean, both, for the most part, are coming from the same life perspective. Most are either trying to make southing outta nothing or maximize the talent that God gave them. But the one thing that I do find striking is that most of them are no different than the fellas I grew up with and the crew I roll with now. I mean, I know we “all Black” as we like to say and a lot of us came up the same way, but it’s still tripped out to me how “the same” we all really are. It’s like we’re all cut from that same raggedy kitchen cloth.
Who has been your favorite athlete to interview over the years?
I get asked that question a lot and can never really come to a consistent answer. I’m not sure I have a favorite, but there are certain people I look forward to interviewing or writing about with their involvement from Tim Duncan to AI and most everyone in between. I do think one of the best conversations I’ve had with an athlete that appeared in print was one I had with Baron Davis about four years ago. That might be my favorite interview because I literally asked him one question and got a 45-minute answer.
If you have the first pick in the NBA Draft, whom are you taking?
It depends on which team you give me. Like, what can the Knicks do with Michael Beasley when they already have that money and commitment wrapped up in Zack Randolph? And what can Miami really do with Derrick Rose when they already have D. Wade. So, to me, it depends on which team has the first pick. I think Mike Beasley is a no-brainer at the first pick though, almost regardless of what team. Beasley might be that dude because if you don’t pick him and he blows up…It’ll take your team about 10 years to recover. But I’m going to tell you this – whoever gets Stephon Curry is going to win the draft. If I had the third pick, because I really couldn’t pass on Pooh or Derrick Rose, I’d snatch Curry in a heartbeat.
As a Knicks fan, were you happy to see Isiah Thomas leave?
Yes and no. Isiah is from the Chi and has always been like a hero to me. SO in that sense, I’m sad about how things went for him in NY. But at the same time I’m glad because I need to see him removed from that situation so that it doesn’t personally get any worse for him. Now as a Knick fan, I know Isiah isn’t the only problem in NY. The Knicks are not going to get better until they totally change the culture of that organization. They need to do the same thing that the Blazers did in Portland. Just strip the franchise down to the very last compound and rework everything from the draft. Not just Portland, look how that’s worked for Atlanta.
If you were rebuilding the Knicks, where would you start?
In the draft. Of if I’m Donnie Walsh, I find the one player that’s on the roster now and build around that player. And as crazy as it might sound I might find a way, now that he became free/available, to fit Billy Knight from the Hawks into my rebuilding process. His Hawks team is about to run the East in a few years. The Knicks need to incorporate some of what he did into what they need to do.
The Chad Johnson situation in Cincinnati is getting more and more messy each day. How much blame would you place on the media for that?
About half. We tend to run with BS stories and make them so much bigger than they need to be. Now Chad needs to be held responsible, to a degree, for acting like he has publicly, but for the most part I think we, the media, escalate stories like Chad’s to levels that are beyond where they need to be as far as importance.
A lot of times when rappers and athletes say something stupid in an interview, they blame the media for “baiting them.” With all the media training rappers and athletes receive today, is it even possible to “bait” an interviewee or is it just easier to blame the media instead of taking responsibility for saying something stupid?
It is very possible to bait someone into saying something out of context. Very easy, even to the most savvy people. There’s an old saying – a good car salesman can sell a mechanic a bad car anytime. To me, the same applies to the media and entertainers. The media has the power to shape the conditions on which we speak and think. Athletes and entertainers are really no different, but we must understand, there is a demand for them to be two different people at the same time. We want them to be icons, heroes and role models, but at the same time we demand that they be authentic.
So when an Alicia Keys situation happens, where she, being America’s new R&B sweetheart, says that she believes gangsta rap is something controlled by the government, if that’s the way she feels, why should we condemn her if at the same time we demand that she kept it real and not be fake to her audience? Same with the Dixie Chicks and their comment about Bush a few years ago. The whole thing became hypocritical to a certain degree. Yet I do feel that the game has been going on long enough to know how not to get caught up in it. They need to adhere to the policy Ice T set when it came to dealing with the relationship between artists and the media in this country – Welcome to America, say what you want, but watch what you say.