Letter From The Editor: How To Make It In Hip Hop Journalism

posted February 28, 2014 01:09:00 PM CST | 59 comments

Letter From The Editor: How To Make It In Hip Hop Journalism

In his opening address, HipHopDX's Editor-in-Chief offers perspective on how to be a successful music journalist.

I didn’t know I was going to become a journalist.

I just liked Lupe Fiasco’s music enough to email my friends about it.

Outside of most One-Percenter measures, life was already pretty exceptional. I was 24 years old, living in Sunset Park, Brooklyn; working in Banc Of America Securities’ Financial Institutions Group, drinking in Manhattan, passing out on trains, waking up on buses, smoking Sour Diesel, traveling whenever booty called, dissecting Rap lyrics. Kanye West's “Touch The Sky” had just dropped and Lupe’s “I’m trying to stop lion like a Mum-Ra / But I’m not lyin’ what I’m layin’ on the beat” had just broke the record for the Most Consecutive One Night Replays in my Cousin Sha’s Coney Island apartment.  

Finding a Millennial minus an older cousin/sister/brother/uncle/neighbor who introduced them to Hip Hop is nearly impossible. Anyone born after 1979 immediately understands two things:

A. Rap.

B. Video games.  

We all can talk about Rap or video games whether or not we like them. We remember Busy Bee or B.I.G. or Bonecrusher just like we remember Pac Man or Oregon Trail or Super Mario. We have no memory of a time when none of those existed and we knew they were important because we had someone older explaining why they were cool. For me, that was my Cousin Sha. And outside of Battle Rap and Lupe Fiasco, in the mid-2000s, Cousin Sha was bored by just about everything happening in Hip Hop.  

Rap conversations were especially polarized then. Lil Wayne said he was “The Best Rapper Alive.” Nas said “Hip Hop Is Dead.” Label’s called it “Pirating.” Blogs called it “Sharing.” Jay Z dropped the Black Album and backed out before backing back in in a soon-to-be Budweiser-branded speedboat. Old industry pillars like print media and radio seemed jaded and confused. Tommy Cherian, J-23, Andreas Hale, Meka, William Ketchum III, Brillyance, and others were defining HipHopDX. Market disruption: Complete.

The Tipping Point

And while the murk immersed, Lupe Fiasco kicked incredibleness.

Incredibleness.

The Fahrenheit 1/15 mixtape series redefined modern Hip Hop storytelling. Every aspect of emceeing and song writing masterfully exemplified; every limit of lyrical imagination magnanimously repositioned. If Andre 3000 was in the cosmos extending the universe, Lupe Fiasco was in the quarks extending the Periodic Table.

None of Carrera Lu’s self-sabotaging symptoms were yet apparent. He was crafting rich joints out of legendary songs like Nas’ “Thief’s Theme” (“Twilight Zone”) and Kanye West’s “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” (“Conflict Diamonds”), so he didn’t yet have a production problem. He was still rocking the low cut Caesar, spectacle wearing, maybe-I-might-skateboard-but-I-can-still-rhyme-about-drugs-better aesthetic, so he still fit every conversation. He was still largely living in third-person wizardry, so we were still too enamored by his perspective to be dispelled by his personality. He was a conscious sounding Lil Wayne (minus the dreads and tattoos).

Fiasco’s the first blog darling to truly break big. Take a look at XXL’s first Freshman cover. Name a solo artist that’s more influential. Other than arguably DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, India Arie, Common, Drake and Macklemore, he’s the most common-man Grammy winner ever in any Rap or Urban category, and absolutely the least likely in retrospect. He doesn’t have a platinum album, but neither does Rick Ross, and Lupe’s much more difficult to digest. He was turning project buildings into robots while detailing the ironies of superstardom on a platinum selling single and explaining why “the Streets is a demon in a dress” on a classic LP.

I’d never heard words worked that way before. It was enough to inspire me to work words.

Those initial emails were called Lupe Fiasco’s Daily Quotable. I felt compelled to tell every maligned Millennial I knew about Cornell Westside and his then approaching debut album, Food & Liquor because, in my opinion, he represented the convergence of all of our generation’s most defining touch points: Politics, technology, entertainment, video games, Rap music. I wanted him to win.

I was addicted to e-Hip Hop conversations by the time the album dropped, so I changed the name of the email blast to Justin Hunte’s Daily Quotable, and wrote about every incredible online emcee like Little Brother and MF Doom.

Three months later, a close friend opened a blogspot for me in attempt to convince me to save my hobby on the Internet.

Three days later, I created the The-Quotable.

Three years later, I quit the bank to venture through New York City Hip Hop with the goal of earning a teacher’s salary writing about Rap.

Three-point-five years after that, I became the Editor-in-Chief of my all-time favorite Hip Hop publication: HipHopDX.

No step came easy. Every inch felt like traveling with Big Pun on your back.

DX crossed a significant milestone this week. After 13 years of pushing Hip Hop content virtually, in February 2013, CEO Tommy Cherian opened the company’s first headquarters in Hollywood, California. For the first time, the majority of our staff worked side-by-side under the same roof. Yesterday we celebrated our one-year anniversary. It was enough to collectively revel in our wins, refocus on the next checkpoint and reflect on how we made it this far.

No one can tell you exactly how to accomplish whatever it is that’s cluttering your dreams. Whether you subscribe to Jay Z’s #NewRules or Diddy’s #NoRules, rules all together are becoming strikingly less important. What I can do is offer a few pieces of perspective that I’ve leaned on during my personal journey. In a nod to one of my favorite journalists, Bill Simmons, here’s How To Make It In Hip Hop Journalism (highlighted through Lupe Fiasco lyrics).

Stay Focused On The Next Checkpoint

“Then he put him down and went back to the kitchen / And put on another beat and got back to the mission…” – “Hip Hop Saved My Life”

I’m not a trained writer so every time I finish an article it feels like I won a world championship. I’ll go back and reread the piece, analyze it, make subtle changes, reread it again, check the comments, refresh the page, check the comments again, analyze again, etcetera. I break to bask in completion, accomplishment. By the time I’m finished tickling my own balls, I’ve squandered an opportunity to harness that momentum into the next story. And since the most difficult aspect of writing for me is starting, in a sense, I’m my own kryptonite.

I don’t know if DX News Editor, Soren Baker ever has that problem. He’s been writing about Rap for nearly two decades. He’s published 12 books about all of your favorite emcees and worked at every revered publication, Hip Hop or otherwise. I look at the reputational wall he’s built brick-by-brick over his career and the mentorship he provides to us in #DXHQ and marvel at how everything he’s accomplished seems like reflex. He’s churning out five stories or more each day in the office, edits every other piece that appears in the News section, then goes home and writes more. Soren never seems to be elevated or distracted by his success. He never loses sight of the mission. Celebrating small wins is paramount, but not at the expense of the bigger picture.

Always Be Intentional With Your Words

“Speak easy like prohibition” – “Lupe The Killer”

It took me four months to adjust to life in Los Angeles. The rules of engagement are 180 degrees away from anywhere else I’ve lived. People in Greenville, South Carolina and New York City and Amsterdam are more direct. They’ll give you an honest answer faster—at least in my experiences. Trying to determine who was lying to me was driving me crazy like Vinny Chase. Then I realized that I was the problem. This is Hollywood, after all. The most common job title on resumes is “Actor.” People from all over the world literally come here to be somebody else—anybody else. It’s the status quo. Fighting that wave is like fighting a receding hairline. So the only option is to default to the most resounding principles I’ve learned by living on two continents: Treat everyone fairly, be open, be honest, be vulnerable and give everyone equal opportunity to shit on me once. No one can hide from who they are personally or professionally. To paraphrase Jay Z, whether or not the grass is cut the snakes will show.

Journalists tell stories for a living. Our business is words. Whether on or off Word, it’s imperative that we use every character with intention and understanding of its impact. Trite commentary or factual inaccuracy can be as damaging as slapping Suge Knight. There is no room for rushed judgment because in an industry warring over pageviews from an audience growing increasingly reluctant to click on anything, authenticity is the truest currency. Speak who you are and your ideal doors will open organically.

Never Be Afraid To Respectfully Use Your Voice

“I think that all the silence is worst than all the violence / Fear is such a weak emotion / That’s why I despise it” – “Words I Never Said”

My first byline was born out of fear. I created the moniker “The Company Man” because I feared getting fired for using office hours to talk Hip Hop. I was also afraid of accidental dream killing criticism from friends and family once they found out I was writing about Rap. I knew I enjoyed what I was doing. But the thought of not being good forced me into hiding.

I talk to aspiring writers all the time now and the question I receive most often is, “How do I ask tough questions without pissing off the artist?” Technique aside, never be afraid to respectfully use your voice. DX Features Editor, Omar Burgess is a great example. O’s been writing professionally for nearly a decade and is awesome at asking penetrating questions and providing scathing critique without ever encroaching on disrespect. His interviews delve deeper than most in this industry, his research is impeccable; his commentary almost always lands right at the heart of the story. As a result, he’s become one of the most respected Editors in online journalism. Artists are as sensitive as journalists, so both sides of the conversation have that in common. But succumbing to fear of using your voice not only subtracts from your fiduciary responsibility to your audience—to report the truth—but it places you right in the middle with everyone else. Standing out on your research and integrity is imperative.  

Do Everything You Can To Never Miss A Deadline

“At the same time I was pushing the margins so far to the left that I ended up writing on my desk” – “Trials And Tribulations”

If you want to write about Rap, or anything else, you have to write. Write. Write. Write. Write. Write. When you’re tired of writing, write. When you’re not sleeping, write. After you leave the gym and cook dinner and put the kids to bed, write. Smoke weed and write. Don’t smoke weed and write. Just make sure you’re constantly writing. There are no other options.

Kathy Iandoli, DX’s Music Editor will tell you the same thing. Not only are Kathy’s freelance clips the stuff of Lester Bangs, but throughout her entire decade-plus career she has only written for the top publications. Kathy writes with color, with comedy, with conviction and she does so masterfully because she has 10,000 hours of repetition. She’s constantly writing. She reminds staff members that they need to write more often. She probably writes while driving. As a freelancer for HipHopDX, Kathy blasted me over email for missing a deadline—and rightfully so. I spent an extra week thinking about what words I wanted to use in my review of J.Period’s The Abstract Best Vol. 1 and I completely missed the arc of the online conversation. At that point the review lost significant pageview value. Kathy benched me for next three months and I deserved it. The point is this: You can’t be a writer if you’re not writing, and you'll lose opportunities if you miss deadlines.

Steal Like An Artist

“They want me to make Prince pants / But I withstand. I ain’t gotten into that / A little BIG in the waist / Tupac-ets on the back / Call ‘em Luvy’s / OGs covered in blue dye.” – “Pressure”

A close friend of mine, DJ Sav One, sent me a book for Christmas called Steal Like An Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative. Author, Austin Kleon drops a ton of jewels about life and ways to exercise your imagination. Those initial years practicing at The-Quotable were spent straight jacking the writing styles of Bill Simmons, Maureen Dowd, and Scoop Jackson. I loved everything about the way they phrased whatever they had to say. After years of copying how they framed conversation, unexpectedly, I stumbled into a brand new style that was a combination of theirs. I did the same with Matt Taiibi and Toure. While hosting Brooklyn Bodega Radio and The Company Man show on PNC Radio—and in each of my seven Revolt Live appearances—I heavily benchmarked Sway and Rachel Maddow. I’m doing the same now with Bill Maher, Kris Ex, and Jon Caramanica. If you love the way someone else does something, study what they do and how they do it. Make them your long distance mentor. Then move on to the next inspiration while always crediting the source.   

“Hatin’ on your happiness / You hit ‘em off with laughs / Smile ‘til they surrender then you kill ‘em off with Glad” – “Strange Fruition”

I just love that line.

Do Everything Necessary To Build The Right Relationships

“My most coveted thing is a high self esteem and a low tolerance for them telling me how to lean.” – “Gold Watch”

Professionally, my most coveted thing is my relationship with Jake Paine. Jake was the Editor-in-Chief of HipHopDX from 2008 until 2013. Over that time, the site increased in profile, doubled in traffic, doubled in respect. In December 2009, I trekked to Newark, New Jersey, crossed two rivers during a blizzard, paid $50 to “cover” a new artist showcase put together by Vegas Records because Paine was sitting on a panel of experts critiquing aspiring talent. I waited through 13 hours of the most mediocre collection of Hip Hop acts America had to offer hoping to snag a few minutes to interview him. My plan was that he’d be so impressed by my knowledge of his career and HipHopDX that he’d offer me the opportunity to freelance for the site. It worked.

Jake is the definition of the Quiet Giant. Jake is younger than me, a better writer, a nicer person, and in this industry, infinitely more accomplished. He’s been doing this since he was a teenager. He's humble. He’s Hip Hop’s William Miller. I’ve never met anyone who’s ever had anything negative to say about him personally or professionally, never seen him shy away from making the hard decisions. He’s the best example of how to have a career in music without drowning in cynicism or complacency. When our previous News Editor left unexpectedly, Jake stayed on board an extra six months to make sure the transition went smoothly. When he finally stepped away last Summer, he added one more notch to his talisman of accomplishments: He steered HipHopDX’s highest trafficked period in the history of the publication. DX’s reputation is a testament to the talents of Jake Paine. I’m not sitting in this seat without him.

Embrace Evolution

“If you are what you say you are / A superstar / Then have no fear / The cameras here” – “Superstar”

Looking back on HipHopDX’s first year in Hollywood, and my first year as Editor-in-Chief, I’m ecstatic about the future. In Andres Tardio, Sparkle Pratt, and Janice Llamoca, we’ve added what I believe to be three of the hungriest, most promising young journalists in the space.

DX Social Media Manager, Mike Trampe continues to study the rapid changes in how information is shared so that we can more effectively foster quality Hip Hop conversations through Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

We’ve evolved our content strategy to include full copy in our Singles and Video sections to help us better contextualize the importance of the music coming from the culture.

We’ve invested in our video program and work daily to improve our visual capabilities because we should punch ourselves in the face if we’re going to be the LA-based publication without cameras.

We have more surprises in store.

Even in DX’s most personality driven era—Andreas Hale's superbly executed blog era—never did this publication sacrifice quality conversation for shallow ball-tickling. That’s why HipHopDX has always been so important to my life. The site always played it straight. So the opportunity ahead is to continue improving at what we do well, extend our core values into compelling visual content, and have exponentially more fun on and off site every single day. Thoughts are physical. Anything less doesn’t exist.

“We all in agreement on the wall paper / Happy with the color scheme / Welcome to the crib” – “Just Might Be Okay”

Justin "The Company Man" Hunte is the Editor-in-Chief of HipHopDX. He was the host of The Company Man Show on PNCRadio.fm and has covered music, politics, and culture for numerous publications. He is currently based in Los Angeles, California. Follow him on Twitter @TheCompanyMan.

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