Elliott Wilson: The Boss
How surprising it was when earlier this year word came down that Wilson was relieved from his editor-in-chief duties at XXL. It seemed to be the equivalent of firing Phil Jackson right after his sixth championship with the Chicago Bulls. It flat out just didnt make sense.
Although Wilson has remained relatively mum on the issue, the trailblazing editor took the time to sit down with HipHopDX and discuss his tenure at XXL, the controversies, the possibilities of relaunching Ego Trip and if the magazine game is dying.
Dont sleep because Wilson delivers some much needed jewels for those who dont understand the other side of the industry.
HipHopDX: First things first, how does the top magazine editor in the game get let go from a magazine that really needs his presence?
Elliot Wilson: I cant really get into all that. I look at it this way, its a business at the end of the day. I have this persona where Im Elliott Wilson, Im YN and Ive been this really powerful force in this industry and been in the magazine game for awhile. But dont get it twisted; I dont think that Im above the game. The Hip Hop game is bigger than me. Sometimes you come to an impasse where you feel like you want to make a change. Its a business. You have to deal with that and move on. I wasnt the happiest camper when things were going down but at the end of the day, things get resolved and you move on.
DX: Being at XXL for so long and establishing that magazine to what it is today, do you think that there was a change in the industry that led to your departure from the magazine?
EW: Ultimately, Im not at the magazine because the decision was made for me not to be there anymore. I do believe that the business has changed a lot and I think advertising dollars are harder to get because you have the Internet thats making a lot of noise. But Im not going to be that person that acts like magazines are dead at the end of the day. I feel like magazines will always have their place. But yeahthe business is hard right now. Its hard to sell magazines and its hard to establish yourself as a website when you got rappers who are creating their own websites to compete against you. The whole business is harder. The decision was made for them to move in a different direction. So they moved on and I moved on. Obviously its going to be a controversial thing because of my history. But I couldnt be there for 27 years. It had to end eventually. I dont think I had the ending in my mind on how it was going to go down but I knew that when I took over the mission statement was to beat The Source and I did that. Then it was more about maintaining the excellence and maintaining the product at the high level that I thought it was at. I think whats been great about the whole thing is that I think people recognize and respect me and what I was able to accomplish and it doesnt tarnish my career. I know Im a legend in this game, and Im still going to be relevant and Im going to find a different avenue to express myself. This is just a stage in my career. I look at this as a challenge now as I know there are people that are doubting me [saying], Well this guy is not going to be big again because hes not there anymore. I look at that as a challenge and Im very excited to be the underdog again.
DX: Its not like your name is Benzino and you got the boot from The Source for disrespecting it. People can still look at you as THE Elliot Wilson
EW: Thats the thing that I am real humbled by. As much as Ive been the type of person who was very adversarial and controversial at times, I think people look past all that and understand that Im a passionate dude. They may not always agree with everything that I say but they appreciate the hard work that I did. When I look back at the situation, I didnt recognize that a lot of what I was doing the personal branding of myself had a lot to do with the success of the magazine. It wasnt like some kind of genius plan. It was more like natural progression of me in the battle with The Source. They had that bully like mentality so I had to take it to them and make them feel like I could beat them. I created this wild side of my persona with the whole YN thing. I built a personal brand and I think that even though Im no longer with that magazine, my personal brand is still strong.
DX: Can you briefly go over your history? Many people just know you as YN of XXL while some may just know that you have something to do with White Rapper Show and Miss Rap Supreme. But I think we need to give a clear idea of who you are and where you came from.
EW: I started in 1992. I met Sacha Jenkins; he was a fellow writer. He started a graffiti magazine while he was still in high school. His second publishing venture was a magazine called Beat Down. He had a partner named Hadji. Their first issue had Cypress Hill on the cover. Sacha brought me into the matrix with Hadji and Hadji became editor of Beat Down in 1992. The first interview I ever did was with this guy Divine Styler in August of 1992, and then I interviewed Kool G Rap [click to read]. I quit college, and thats when I figured out that this is what I wanted to do.
It got to the point where there were some professional differences between Hadji and Sacha. I encouraged Sacha to leave Beat Down so we could start our own thing. Sacha showed me a lot of things in the game like how to publish a magazine and since we were friends, we said, Lets do it and thats how we came up with Ego Trip.
Ego Trip was an independent zine that we did from 1994 to 1998, but doing Ego Trip led to opportunities at major magazines. The Source and VIBE took notice of what we were doing because we became like the hottest underground zine. So Sacha got a job at VIBE as music editor and I got a job at The Source in the mid-'90s. We kept doing Ego Trip on the side so we could keep putting that publication out. After that we started doing books like the Ego Trip Big Book of Rap Lists which I still feel is the best book about Hip Hop then we did the racism book. The racism book led to the TV opportunities at Vh1 and now we do a lot of TV programming with Vh1. Our current show is Miss Rap Supreme which comes on Mondays at 10pm.
Aside from the Ego Trip part of it, I was The Sources music editor from 1996 to 1998, and in 1999 they offered me the XXL job and I was there from September 99 until January 2008.
That was a pretty long run there. No editor-in-chief, I dont think, has had a run for so long. I did about 87 issues. Everything I said I was going to do, I did it and Im very proud of it. I think people need to focus less on the drama of what went down and just really give me my props for what I was able to accomplish. I beat the undefeatable giant, I slayed the dragon, I beat The Source. I completed my mission statement.
DX: That you did. The Ego Trip stuff is doing very well. Should we be expecting anymore Ego Trip books in the near future?
EW: Yeah. With Ego Trip we do things on a project by project basis. Right now our focus is on Miss Rap Supreme. After we finish presenting these episodes to you, were going to sit in a room and figure out what our next move is. We take every project very seriously and focus on one thing at a time.
DX: Have there been talks about relaunching the magazine at all? Maybe online?
EW: Of course! I mean it would have to be the right situation. Thats the crazy thing to me. That magazine only came out 12 or 13 times and its got legendary status in its own right and Im very proud of being a part of it. Thats a side of my career that people cant take away from me.
DX: With Ego Trip there are all these different personalities that are Hip Hop lovers. With you running XXL and being a tastemaker and trendsetter at the forefront of this industry. What is your observations of Hip Hop when you first entered the game and where it is at today?
EW: You grow with it. When you first get in the game you are very wide eyed and you are fascinated that you can get a 12-inch that you dont even have to pay for and somebody sends you advance cassettes and you can go to listening parties. You get seduced by it. Then you start to see the horror stories in the industry. You see that some of the legends in this game arent living financially as well as you are. Its really a love/hate relationship that comes with it. I just always wanted to document this culture. I stayed in it while some of my peers have strayed. I hope to be an inspiration to the next generation that comes.
As far as my personal tastes go, as a magazine editor, your job is to apply some of your personal tastes plus think of the right moves to do businesswise. Your biggest decision is who you put on the cover. Who you put on the cover is a business decision. It depends on what your magazines status is. When I was at XXL Im trying to see as many magazines as I can on the newsstands. So even if somebodys mad I put 50 Cent [click to read] on the cover six months ago, if it sold ridiculous and six months later, hes still hot then I dont have a choice. Im going to put him on the cover again. And be prepared to be criticized for it. Then the numbers come back and they look good. So I think you have to balance and cover everything. We covered every movement from Kanye [West] to 50 while I was there, but obviously some of the Lil Wayne and Jay-Z things have higher prominence because they put up the numbers and sold the magazines.
Thats how it goes in the game. When I was at Ego Trip we could just throw Gang Starr on the cover because we werent concerned with selling magazines. But at XXL, my mission was to sell as many copies as I could. You also have to keep it real and not be a glossy pop book so you cover everything that encompasses the culture.
DX: Whats the difference between being the underdog and then standing on the top of the mountain?
EW: It was just the excitement of the process [of getting to the top] that kept me going. I became really arrogant and said to myself early that in a year or two I would have them. I really thought it. I was really nave and underestimating how big that magazine was. After I put it out there all crazy, I had to live up to it. Me and my staff just felt like we put out a better magazine. Then after that you start to feel the climate change. It turns from the, If I dont get the cover of theirs then Ill do that magazine to I gotta be on the cover of this magazine. You feel that energy and it came with the 50 Cents emergence and Eminems problems with The Source. Everything aligned itself like the moment we did the Shyne feature and we gave him his moment at a time when nobody would have given him that moment. There were a couple of benchmarks and people started to respect the product. We were really delivering a quality product each month. That was very exciting.
DX: But how did you stay motivated after the rat finally got the cheese?
EW: Its easier motivation to say that we have to beat this thing and point to the sky. Its harder when you get on top to stay on top and accept that challenge. It isnt as sexy but I was very proud of the people that I worked with at XXL as we maintained that level of performance. They will still have that without me. They arent slouches and they will give it 100%. People will say that they wont be as good because Im not there but theyre going to put in the long hours and the book is still going to be hot. Youll never hear me say anything about XXL. I never could really do that because it was such a great opportunity for me. I made the most of it. Theres not really many opportunities like that for brothers of color. There arent many things where you really have creative control.
DX: Youve seem to take a liking to blogs lately, any particular reason?
EW: Once I first learned about blogs I was mostly just under the guise that it was people who were not that experienced in journalism taking potshots at me. But then I really had to think about it; If I was a kid like I was back in 92, I wouldnt be publishing a magazine, Id probably have a blog. [Blogs] allow you to be more impactful right away. I would probably be the little internet kingpin. So I had to learn to respect the blog. The thing that most attracted it to me was the independent spirit. To see sites like Eskays NahRight.com allow people to eat off of this culture and I like to see brothers come up like that. I respect that. In the world we live in now people want their information faster. Obviously, they go to the Internet. And they dont just want to know whats going on. They want to know what you think about whats going on. Im up on the blogs everyday now.
DX: I know you said that you wont say magazines are dead but what can they do to keep up with the Internet? Why are magazines folding?
EW: I think one of the big weaknesses is that we need more talented young brothers and sisters to really get into the business side of the game. Everyone now feels like they are a writer and creative but we also cant look past the business side of the game. We need more brothers and sisters that understand the culture and can speak to corporate America to explain why this magazine is good and get the advertising dollars. Its really the advertising thats causing magazines to suffer. The reason magazines are having to fold is not just because of the readership has gone down but because they arent making enough money advertising.
Whos the Elliott Wilson of the advertising side? Wheres the young brother out there who can dynamically translate the culture to mainstream? Whos giving Steve Stoute a run for his money? We dont look at that side of the game and theres value to that too. Lets not forget that urban culture is still a hard sell because of the negative stereotypes associated with it.
DX: In another interview I read, you expressed disappointment when the XXL cover featuring Dave Chappelle didnt sell very well as opposed to a 50 Cent cover. That was the issue that saw Chappelle as the guest editor and featured a roundtable with Kanye West, dead prez, Talib Kweli and Common discussing the culture. How does that affect you?
EW: People always say that you should have a wider range of cover choices less gangster rap, less commercial while showing love to the Mos Defs and the Talib Kwelis [click to read]. I took heed to that and found a way to package it with Dave Chappelle and I did get disappointed when it didnt do well. It shows that I am kind of limited when it comes to the cover of the magazine. Jay-Z [click to read] is more of a sure thing whether I like his new album or not. You just start to think that people can be really hypocritical.
We get that criticism now with the Miss Rap Supreme show. People say that were exploiting Hip Hop, its negative to black women and its just like the Flavor Of Love show. But a lot of black people watch these shows! They watch it enough that its up to a season three! So we as black people talk a lot of shit about what we want to do and what we should do, but we are very hypocritical.