Update: This article has caused some controversy that I would like to address. Transparency within hip-hop journalism can be a rare thing when plenty of blogs that attract a ton of traffic are just there to just blast out music videos fed to them by PR agents. A lot of nerdier (and as I qualify in this article, white) journalists have embraced a more emphatically analytical style which, when embraced by someone like Combat Jack who is highly experienced in the game and is deeply concerned with black social issues, is the best stuff out. White people are not better at writing about rap than black people. But there is a lot of non-traditional, analytic rap journalism that nerdy people with desk jobs at blogs that are often caucausian write. With Combat Jack's show, you have all of the honesty and transparency crucial to good journalism, plus it comes from an authentic and experienced place. I find that highly refreshing (and the best example of rap journalism today) and that's what I was getting at in the interview. -Patrick
If you’re not familiar with Combat Jack—the former Def Jam lawyer who has represented talent like Damon Dash and Clark Kent, who then became the managing editor of The Source, and now runs what is absolutely the best hip-hop podcast on the Internet—then you’re kind of fucking up in the “find great content on the Internet” department. To bring you up to speed on all things related to the Combat Jack media empire, I chatted with Combat Jack over the phone for a very reasonable amount of time. We even got to chat about my own personal business bullshit, but all of that has been cut out. So, here you go. Enjoy the relevant stuff.
Noisey: It’s interesting that even though there are so many voices in the hip-hop media, the majority of it is definitely spoon-fed by like press releases and PR agents. And to be honest, I believe that most of the best rap journalism has been coming from nerdy white guys. That is, until your show came around. Your team comes has a very authentic, New York perspective and you personally have a ton of experience in the hip-hop industry, it’s very refreshing.
Combat Jack: Thank you, thank you, thank you. I appreciate that. I worked in the business for years and I got burned out because I saw myself as a therapist to all these rappers and producers, just from hearing about all of their dysfunctions. I originally left the industry with a bad taste in my mouth.
I think that rappers, black males in particular, become either some super-bad nigga, or some incredibly hot lover, a bad guy through the media. You don’t get to see what our daily lives are. We live the same shit, we breathe the same air, we go through the same girlfriend problems, we go through the same neuroses that everybody else does, and if we could just really cut all the bullshit and examine that, then I think that’s the new form of rap entertainment, man.
Agreed. I was hesitating to draw a racial divide when it comes to hip-hop journalists, but it’s true. There has been a significant lack of like transparent, honest black dudes (not to say that they don’t exist) doing hip hop journalism and I guess that can be blamed on ego? Your show is interesting because the episodes are long and you don’t put up any fronts, so it’s just like hanging out with any real black person in real life, because it’s your reality. No one on your show is trying to put on a disguise and your guests go along with that.
Right, and I don’t think that’s just hip-hop in general, I think it’s society in general. If you look at television, black actors either are playing the bad guy or the sidekick or you’re the screwup or you’re the super nigga! That hurts us as a whole, because with those stereotypes people say “Oh, those are just roles on television,” but you know, I fucking hate when I walk in the subway and there’s a white man who looks at me because I have my hoodie on. All of a sudden I read instant fear and panic on his face. And that saddens me because I am not you. You have not had a chance to connect to my humanity. I’m an instant monster to you. So my mission is to demystify and once again humanize our culture. If I can do that in some way, then I’m doing my job.
I believe you’re accomplishing that. I’m obviously fascinated with your show, but I also I want to get into your own history for readers who maybe don’t know you well. You came into your hip-hop career as a lawyer right at the beginning of the hip-hop industry itself. In that position, what was the most frustrating experience you dealt with at that very early stage of hip-hop?
My first gig was at Def Jam, and my biggest rap heroes at the time were Public Enemy, they had sold millions of records, they were definitely the voice of young Black America at the time and I was just getting to learn what contracts were. When I looked at what their contract was at the time I was like, “Oh shit, these guys are getting nothing!”
I was just blown away by the appearances you see in the videos or on the records, and you think of your heroes as these superstars… and it’s like, “Oh shit, they’re not super rich. They’re not infallible.”
I remember going to a party and hanging out with the Bomb Squad for the first time, and I was just amazed at how these guys were so super intimidating with their productions, so super intimidating on their records. But these guys are nerds! You know what I mean? Initially it was a little disheartening but then it was like, “Yo that shit is kind of cool, because it gives a sense of hope to the rest of us nerds.” [Laughs]
Yeah man, also, meeting your musical heroes is always a very bizarre experience. You kind of build these narratives up for artists, where you expect them to be just like the characters in their music, but oftentimes they’re simply not.
It’s funny though man, going back to demystifying or humanizing hip-hop… when I was growing up I would commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan and I was a big comic book head. I’m a big comic book head and I’m a big hip-hop head, those two worlds are not mutually exclusive. But I found that if I’d be reading my comics and some homeboys would come on the train, I’d suddenly hide my comics because I didn’t want to be a victim. So I was always kind of ashamed of being a comic book head. But now I’m talking to the likes of Sean Price and whoever else, and all of us are comic book heads! And I’m like, I spent all that wasted time and energy hiding the fact that I’m a comic book head when we’re all comic book nerds?
Yeah! That’s funny. The Wu-Tang Clan’s aesthetic is very comic bookish, Ghostface calls himself Tony Stark… the comic universe is really built into the DNA of hip-hop.
Exactly. I think black men carry the extra baggage of living up to the myths, when we could get rid of those myths and just fucking breathe, man.
Word. You’ve famously written about the Damon Dash controversy. Since you were his original lawyer and saw him through the struggle to get Jay-Z a record deal… What if someone had come back in a time machine and was like, “One day soon, Jay-Z is going to be friends with the first black president, he will also be partial owner of a Brooklyn basketball team, and he will be considered by many people to be the greatest rapper of all time.” How would you react?
I’d be like, “You’re talking about an alternate universe.” Because you know, hindsight is 20/20; I say this all the time. Back in the early 90s you had a school of New York City rappers that were incredibly talented, I’m talking about the OC, I’m talking about Big L, you know, this is the advent of the Biggie Smalls and Nas and Mobb Deep. Out of that school, Jay-Z literally, in many peoples’ eyes, was the least likely to succeed. He had a weird voice, he wasn’t attractive even as a skinny guy, and he was from Brooklyn. He really didn’t have a shtick. His rhyme patterns was completely different…
I really gotta thank Clark Kent and Damon Dash for believing in him because there were times when you’d be in meetings, I’m like, I’m not seeing the hype that him and Clark are seeing. Clark Kent, bless his heart, would always say to me, “This is the best rapper on the planet.” And I was like, “Clark, you’re fucking crazy.” You know what I mean? It’s not like I was like part of the hype because I was part of the crew. I just didn’t see it.
It must be crazy to even think that you were living through, first-hand, what is literally one of the most epic rags to riches stories in American history. How do you think that affected you?
I think on a spiritual level—and I don’t wanna get weird, but I was having a conversation with a big radio guy about this yesterday—I realized how powerful the spoken word is. I’ll give you three examples of how powerful it is.
Tupac was on this destructive bend, and his words were powerful. His words touched millions of people and ultimately his words became reality, you know? Same thing with Biggie Smalls, Ready to Die… that was his first album. It changed our culture. But ultimately those words became his reality. Conversely, there’s Jay-Z, the least likely to succeed, but his boasts are so convincing even though you may not believe them, years later they manifest into his reality. “Who wanna bet us we don’t touch lettuce?”
You speak it, you believe it, it becomes that.
You made it a hot line/I made it into a launching pad for my career that has since turned out to be pretty successful, so thanks!
That’s a really fascinating takeaway. Now, you know this well, but hip-hop is obviously a music industry that’s full of street dudes who have never worked in a professional environment before. What have been some of the more insane challenges you’ve had to deal with in an environment like that?
The most common one is… I want to represent a client but a client has some kind of beef, but at the same time they have these incredible opportunities in front of them that are very lucrative and could change their and their family’s life forever, but they’ve got these beefs surrounding them. I’ve had to travel with clients where we’re constantly thinking, “Shit, are we gonna get shot at, are we gonna get jacked?” It’s kind of like being in the line of fire where you’re just trying to do a daily job, you know what I mean? That’s one of the challenges.
Another challenge is like, you work long and hard with somebody, they get a shot, they get a couple of hundred thousand out of the blue and you try your best to say, “Listen man, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, don’t blow it. Invest your money, don’t buy the jewelry, don’t buy the hot cars. Don’t do this. You’ve got five kids, just set this shit up. If you plan this shit correctly, it’ll mature and it’ll protect the rest of your family.” Then they blow it all and two or three years later they’re broke again, then they’re blaming me for these deals that I tried to put in place for them, which is kinda crazy. You know what I mean? Like, your own client is blaming you for them sabotaging their career.
Yeah that’s a hell of a problem. It’s crazy to me how you went from hip-hop lawyer extraordinaire to managing editor at The Source, and now you’re heavy in the podcast game. It’s one of the best hip-hop industry career paths that I’ve heard of. What were those transition points like, between starting out in the industry to Def Jam, and then from Def Jam to The Source?
I’ve always been a creative person, and I got into law for the wrong reasons. I was a fine arts major and I remember when I made the decision to go to law school, one of my closest fine arts teachers said, “Down the line you’re going to regret it, because that’s not who you are.” But I was after the money.
When I was practicing full-time I was very good at what I was doing, but there was something missing, man. I wasn’t happy and I became more depressed with the more successful I became, the more money I made the more I was lost inside of that profession. So at a certain point I felt that I was going to snap lose my sanity or my sense of happiness.
So I took a blind leap of faith and shut down my law practice, not knowing what to expect and that’s when I, you know, landed a book deal, discovered the blogs, and was able to reinvent myself slowly. It wasn’t overnight, but I became more comfortable with the blogosphere and exposing some of the experiences I had to a larger audience. So conversely, working at The Source was a way of continuing to find myself, and establish myself in a new setting.
Do I miss those cheques I used to get? Hell yeah I miss those cheques! I’m at a place right now where I’m probably working twice as hard, but it doesn’t feel like that because I’m having so much fun. The legal path was more lucrative but I fucking stressed out 24/7 whenever I got an email on the BlackBerry because I knew it was another fucking emergency. Right now I’m creative and I’m building my network of contacts right now because I’m dealing directly with people I want to deal with. You know?
Yeah, I do. And it’s good to hear when people are fulfilled by their work! But just to wrap this up, what are you listening to right now music-wise?
You know, I fought it and I fought it but I am now listening to, I don’t even know what to call these records, but I think they would be categorized as EDM. And what I find is the culture of New York in the 80s is completely different than it is right now. But as prevalent as hip-hop was, house music was very prevalent in the 80s. I was a big house head, I’ve always been a house head and I’ve got back into it recently after joining my wife’s spin class (laughs). Her instructor plays the fucking best house music that I haven’t heard in a long time.
That’s cool. I thought it was interesting when you were talking with Raekwon about house music because I’m 25 and I grew up with a lot of Italian kids who liked “house music,” but to me that’s more of this Euro, clubby genre that I could never identify with. Then, after hearing Just Blaze and Raekwon talk about it on your show, I came to understand the other historical context. So I thought that was interesting.
Well, the house music you’re familiar with is not the underground. I’m talking about house music with the church influence and the soulful influence that was birthed in Chicago and spread to New York, I’m seeing a resurgence of that, and I’m very happy that I have the opportunity in my wife’s spin class to listen to some phenomenal house music. Yeah, I’m middle-aged now (laughs).
Patrick McGuire obsessively listens to podcasts and interviews the auteur-types behind them, you can also follow him on Twitter: @patrickmcguire