The First Hip Hop Journalist

Talk to me about being raised in Illinois and how you became a writer.

I started a fanzine in 7th Grade and by the 11th I was publishing my own underground newspaper called The Tin Whistle distributed to four high schools, and banned at all of them.

Tin Whistle first issue
My hippie newspaper published six issues in 1968. The schools in Illinois were very racist and polarized at the time, but my newspaper led a movement for recognizing black student rights among other campaigns. We were able to elect the first black student council president in the history of Urbana High School, and he did a lot to heal the broken race relations. His name was James “Chef Ra” Wilson and he taught me a lot about ceremony. We both ended up going to the first Woodstock festival, then he went to Jamaica and became an early Bob Marley devotee. We worked on many projects for decades until one Christmas Day when his heart exploded while he was sleeping.

Jim Wilson Tin Whistle

What was your entry into hip hop?
I moved to New York at the end of 1979. My roommate Jeff Peisch was into the music scene and working at Record World Magazine with Nelson George, and he gave me a promo copy of These are the Breaks by Kurtis Blow. Shortly after that, I went to the New York/New Wave art exhibition curated by Diego Cortez, and was astounded by a subway train titled Break by Futura 2000. The connection between the song and the mural made me realize something was going on and nobody was covering it. As a young reporter, it looked like an opening.

BreakbyFutura
What was the first article on hip hop that you read that changed the game for you? Who wrote it? How did you hear about it?
For over a year I didn’t read anyone’s articles. There were none. I only wrote my own. There were a couple of photographers on the scene, Martha Cooper, Henry Chalfant, but I was the only journalist. Most of the coverage aside from me was coming out of England. But they weren’t on the ground and going to any parties, just reviewing records and sometimes interviewing acts if anyone came to England, which was rare early on.
What was the first magazine/newspaper publication that you heard about just focused on hip hop? Did that inspire you to write for it?
There were no magazines until after Run DMC. I guess The Source was the first big one that went all hip hop, although Phase 2 had a fantastic fanzine he was self-publishing for years. I had long since stopped covering hip hop when The Source appeared.
Who were you looking up to as far as writing?
The journalists who most influenced me were Calvin Tompkins, George Orwell, Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe.
Do you call yourself a hip hop journalist?
I sometimes call myself the first hip hop journalist, because in the early days I was the only professional reporter on the scene. But I have 30 books and only three are on hip hop, and all those concern only the first generation from 1974 to 1984.

ColeLaRock
Coke La Rock, hip hop’s first emcee/deejay

How did you feel when your name was on the cover of The Village Voice for your cover with the words “hip hop” on it?
Bambaataa coined the term and focused the culture. I just told his story. It took the Voice half a year to print it, although it was “accepted” immediately. I was enraged they held it so long because I was afraid someone was going to break the story, but fortunately, after endless phone calls and threats to publish elsewhere, they finally put it on the schedule.
You were able to make a major impact in how we receive hip hop through your writing and Beat Street. Did you ever have any intention to impact the culture the way you did?
If only my script had been used, it was the real thing. The movie was a great disappointment. Only the dance crews and some of the rap performances saved it. The plot was completely whack. I didn’t recognize any South Bronx people I knew and wrote about.

Who was your favorite artist interview?
In the world of hip hop I am closest with Grandmaster Caz, Coke La Rock and Busy Bee. In fact, we are all members of a secret society called The Pot Illuminati and hold ceremonies upon occasion. Those are three of the greatest storytellers in hip hop, and also three of the most overlooked people in hip hop’s history.

Jeffraps
Jeff Peisch raps while I spin the wheels of steel.

Who was the 1st person that you heard of calling themselves a hip hop journalist? What opened up for you because of it?
By the time hip hop went global and hip hop journalism was born, I was long gone and had no interest in the gangsta rap that came up in a huge wave to displace the political fervor of Public Enemy. I only did research on the first generation, from Kool Herc to Funky Four to Furious Five to Treacherous Three to the Cold Crush Brothers. And I also covered graffiti and some of the original dance crews. I was in a rock band in the sixties, and after rap got commercialized, I formed a garage band and played three-chord-rock for a decade. Being around hip hop inspired me to get back to my own musical heritage. Although I did one hip hop performance early on as a deejay with Jeff Peisch rapping and David Bither (now of Nonesuch Records) on saxophone. Between the three of us we had enough talent to give the soon-to-emerge Beasties Boys a run, but it was just a one-off goof. But David blew the lid off that party as I recall, with me scratching up some hip hop anthem.

FuturaCover
My first hip hop story featured Futura 2000, and pieces of his story ended up in my screenplay.

What was the first article you wrote about hip hop?
A biography on Futura 2000 for the New York Daily News. After that I had my Voice cover story, followed by one more Voice story. Then I wrote three articles for the Soho Weekly News. And then a couple stories for the East Village Eye. Then I sold Beat Street and published my book, Hip Hop. Then I stopped covering hip hop and not a single hip hop magazine ever asked me to write anything or even gave me props for blazing the trail, although everyone was reading my book to find out how it all started. Most of the people I was hanging with never got props either, like Coke La Rock. Virtually nobody knows him, yet he was right there with Herc when it all happened and playing a major role. My book went out of print really fast and copies started selling for $500 for years.
Whats your experience with publications?
I prefer to self-publish and maintain control over my work.

Who are some rappers you that you feel changed the game for hip hop?
Grandmaster Caz elevated rapping with his comedy and complex story lines and Melle Mel elevated lyrics to high art with those lines in Superappin’ that became the best part of The Message. In fact, my version of Beat Street (called Looking for the Perfect Beat) was built around the political awakening of a kid in the South Bronx who moves from partying to seeing-the-big-picture. When Run/DMC landed, they brought back the original first generation style of staying hard and giving no quarter, something the original scene had drifted away from.

Everything you were told about religion is wrong

Did religion evolve spontaneously through divine intervention or was it a mind control op from day one? In the mid-1960s, a huge spiritual wave crashed ashore involving a heightened sensitivity to telepathic vibrations. Brian Wilson sensed it when he wrote Good Vibrations, his greatest masterpiece in 1966. Brian was a daily stoner at the time, deep into improvisational ritual theater as a way to manifest spirituality. But spirituality and religion are two different things. State religion started as a conspiracy between a king and high priest to anoint each other with a divine right to rule.

220px-Serapis_Louvre_Ma_1830Consider the history of this dude, Serapis. You don’t hear much about him these days. He was created by Ptolemy I of Egypt, who built many temples in his honor, the largest in Alexandria. Look familiar?

Serapis was created as the God of resurrection and everlasting life, and made Greek in appearance, but wore Egyptian clothes, and displayed a variety of cultural sigils. In other words, Serapis was a hybrid created to appeal to Greeks and Romans to bring them into an Egyptian sphere of influence.

In order to cement this new God into the Greek psyche, Ptolemy invoked the spirit of the recently departed Alexander the Great, who had also sought to unite the spiritual realms of East and West in one temple under one God, and had chosen Amun of Thebes as potentially the most promising. But after being poisoned and on his death bed, suddenly this new statue appears beside Alexander, supposedly the first ever made of Serapis, and Alexander signifies his allegiance to this new God before expiring. The statue quickly finds it way to Ptolemy, who starts building a cult to Serapis in Alexander’s honor.

I’m far from an expert in these matters, but from my uneducated perspective, it appears that Isis (the Egyptian Goddess of magic) and Serapis were involved in fomenting a religious culture that believed everlasting life could be achieved through divine intervention, and these two icons had become dominant spiritual forces of their time, much beloved by common folk throughout the Mediterranean. But then Constantine created modern Christianity through his councils, the first in Nicea, and suddenly all traces of Serapis and Isis disappeared. Perhaps this was done to shake off the Egyptian influence and replace it with a Judaic one? More likely it was done to offset the rise of a recently crucified prophet/artist named Mani, who had also been successfully seeking to unify all religions.

The Vatican was built on Isis’ temple, and they kept many of her sacred objects, especially the pine cone statue. One thing you need to know about Isis: she burned cannabis and frankincense incense in her fumigated temples, only one of which the Catholics kept while banning the other.

Now how does this all figure into Brian Wilson writing Good Vibrations?

Before I explain that, did you know a society of pot-smoking musicians appeared in the Middle Ages in Italy and France and wrote songs exclusively about smoking hash? And these were the first published secular manuscripts, and the Vatican was super pissed off with this society because they wanted to maintain a monopoly on written music. Try searching “Society of Smokers,” although the only thing that likely pops up concerns a composer named Solage who satirized them, and zero on the real society, who were quickly disappeared off the face of the earth, although a handful of manuscripts do remain. I bet the Vatican has more in a vault somewhere, but they will likely never be released.

Back to Brian: In the late 1950s, a group of teens began hanging out on the beach in Southern California and learning to surf while reading Jack Kerouac. In winter, they’d safari down to Mexico, where marijuana was cheap and plentiful. Some became obsessed with spiritual issues and forming communes, while everyone began coalescing around Newport Beach because that town had a huge dance hall where bands could play and hundreds of teens could congregate in one giant room. Yes, it was their temple. These teens were the first hippies because smoking that pot and riding those waves and listening to that rock had clued them into some intense vibrations. Brian was hanging out in this scene practically from the moment it began, which is why he was smoking pot and writing songs about surfing in the first place. Strangely enough, their temple was ruled by a guitarist named Dick Dale, who wrote spiritually-charged power anthems with a middle-eastern tinge (but never smoked pot). Dick didn’t sing, however, which may be why he never became the national figure he should have been.

But suddenly, as this new scene is manifesting incredible energy, a massive wave of LSD is dumped all across America and things start going haywire really fast, including Brian’s psyche. Before long, the temple in Newport is no more and hippies are on the run and hated across the land, a sentiment that continues through to this day.

It sort of reminds me of the birth of hip hop in the Bronx. A lot of potheads were involved in that one too, including Coke La Rock, Busy Bee and Grandmaster Caz to name but a few. But right after that explosion of culture appeared, the Bronx was suddenly flooded with angel dust and crack cocaine, which helped lead an initially non-violent culture straight into gangsta rap.

Of course, maybe none of these dots add up, but it seems you can pretty much derail any spiritual movement based around cannabis by flooding the temples with stronger substances.

Religions are created by and for rich people, doesn’t matter who the original prophet may have been, eventually they exist primarily to serve the status quo and are easily exploited by those in power. However, just because people attend a church doesn’t mean they are under anyone’s mind control. Each congregation creates its own telepathic energy and when people harmonize and share love and empathy in traditional ceremonies to show respect to their ancestors, I believe that’s a honorable act that should be treated with great respect, no matter what the culture.