Most people know Scoop Jackson as a sports journalist lending his colorful opinions to outlets like ESPN and Slam magazine. Few people actually know that Scoop Jackson has an extensive Hip Hop background.
Robert “Scoop” Jackson is the founding and former Executive Editor in Chief of XXL magazine, a former Associate Editor of Rap Sheet, and a former columnist for Scratch, VIBE, and Source magazines.
It’s safe to say he knows his stuff.
Wouldn’t you know it, I met Scoop Jackson at a Hip Hop event in the fall of 2009. As I walked into Chicago’s Shrine nightclub I saw Vinny and Treach from Naughty by Nature, the legendary Bobbito Garcia, and award-winning writer Scoop Jackson in a summit–a Hip Hop summit.
I recently picked Scoop’s brain about the past, present, and future of Rap. It was one of the most intriguing interviews that I’ve ever done and now I get to share it with the world. Hip Hop as Scoop Jackson sees it–enjoy!
HipHopDX: We know you from ESPN, but can you tell the readers of HipHopDX about your background in Hip Hop.
Scoop Jackson: Well the history with the culture goes back like a lot of people’s. A lot of people got involved with it as it evolved. I am 46 years old right now, so I’m that kid that grew up on Herman Kelly’s “Dance to the Drummer’s Beat” and Fatback Band’s “King Tim III” –the original songs that were Hip Hop. Most people will tell you that the Sugar Hill Gang was the first Rap record they ever heard, [but] I would say “Ball of Confusion” by The Temptations was the first Rap song I ever heard. My being immersed in the culture is a lot like everybody else but I was able to connect to it on a professional level. I want to say it was when I was in [college] because that’s when I first started writing about Hip Hop.
My last semester [as an] undergrad I did a little newsletter for a teacher as an assignment. Like, you gotta create something in order to graduate type of thing. This was in like 1985 or ’86. I did this one page newsletter about Hip Hop called The Scoop/The Source. This was before The Source magazine came out. It was basically my version of what Nelson George was doing in Billboard magazine at the time. Nelson was the only person that I knew at the time that was writing about Hip Hop. I basically took Nelson’s thing and flipped it–for lack of a better word I sampled it. Years later, when I got to Howard University and it came time to do my Master’s thesis, I decided to do it on Hip Hop–if you really need a jump off point that was it.
At the time in 1990 or ’91, there had never been any academic or theoretical study on Hip Hop. There had been one! There was a book out by Houston Baker and there was a lady at the University of Maryland, but nobody had really done an academic or theoretical study on the music of Hip Hop. So what I did was I took Albert Banter’s Social Learning Theory and W.E.B Dubois’ The Souls of Black Folks and applied that to the pro-social effects that Hip Hop could have on the black community–that was my Master’s thesis. Understand that when you do a Master’s thesis, that’s a year of studying. At the time, there weren’t other studies done that I was able to go back on and use as templates to build my study on. All I had was the culture itself. All I had was the music, the impact, the graffiti, the sound, the lyrics–that’s all I had to study. I was already into it but it made me look at the art at an entirely different level because I was applying it to something that was academic. Everything kind of rolled from there.
I’m not going to sit up and say I was the first person to do a Master’s thesis on Hip-Hop but there were very few people that had done it–less than a handful. That’s really what got me into it. I used it to help me to graduate and get my master’s degree. Back then, Hip Hop was viewed as strictly noise–it wasn’t even looked at as an art form at the time. I lucked up because at the time we were looking at the cusp of Boogie Down Productions, X-Clan, Public Enemy, Brand Nubian, Gang Starr, and Ice Cube had just gone solo after leaving N.W.A. There was a conscious movement going on that I was able to sell to my professors to look at this as an art form of substance and something worth studying at the academic level.
DX: How did you take that and go into being an editor for magazines like XXL and Rap Pages?
Scoop Jackson: What wound up happening is that I started doing somewhat social commentary, writing editorials. I had a regular column at the Hilltop Newspaper at Howard University. But then some of my stuff was popping up in the Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor and USA Today. I was doing open editorials and a lot of them were based in Hip Hop. From there, I started to get my hustle on from a freelance standpoint. I was trying to write in The Source, get in Rap Sheet, get in Rap Pages, VIBE hadn’t even started yet.
Then I created my own newsletter in Chicago called The Agenda and it was extremely based in Hip Hop. I wanted to do the black version of the Village Voice. It extended itself because that’s what I tended to write about. Sports, there was no outlet for me to write sports. My history from school and doing a Master’s thesis on the subject of Hip Hop I realized I was one of the few people that had my feet in both worlds. I was still stuck in Hip Hop from a personal standpoint and a lifestyle standpoint but I was dealing with it from an academic level. I could probably tell some Hip Hop stories that were not being told to an audience that wasn’t paying attention to Hip Hop. With that in mind, of course I started approaching some of the magazines that were doing it.
Rap Sheet in Los Angeles gave me the chance to really start writing about Hip Hop. New York was very cliquish, especially The Source. They had their crew and to break into that, if you ain’t from there or forcing yourselves on them every day they’re not giving you a look at all, at all. The editor of Rap Sheet was Darryl James, he said, “Look man, I like your stuff. I like what you’re trying to say,” and he gave me the opportunity to write. After writing for a while he put me on as [the] associate editor and I just started flipping stories from there and doing them on a regular basis.
DX: You mentioned earlier about acts like X-Clan, Ice Cube, and Public Enemy—socially conscious groups. We don’t really see those acts in rap today and you could almost draw a parallel with sports where athletes aren’t as socially conscious. What do you think the reason is behind that…
Scoop Jackson: I’ll ask you, who is socially conscious?
Scoop Jackson: Yeah!
DX: In sports or…
Scoop Jackson: In life! See, you gotta understand from my stand point this feeds off of what happens with society first. Society sets the tone in this instance. Back in the day we’re talking about Roy Innis, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and Louis Farrakhan really being at the forefront. Come on, let’s be serious. Look at the role Louis Farrakhan had back then and the role he plays now in the black community. You’re talking about a time where Hip Hop fed off of that. Back then there were people all over the country talking about the impact of the 5% Nation [of Gods and Earths]. Ask any cat under the age of 30 right now if they even know what the 5% Nation is and they couldn’t tell you. Hip Hop didn’t start that. Voices came from a societal role where our backs were pushed up against the wall because of what came out of the Reagan Administration and we had to fight back—we had to get vocal. If you look at the history of black folks in this country you’ll find that to be true.
Every time we find our backs up against the wall we find a way to find a voice and it comes from society first. Dr. [Martin Luther] King did not start the Civil Rights Movement that was going on way before he was, but he became a major figure in it. Listen to the music that came from that era, the music didn’t start the crusade for blacks to find freedom in the ’60s. Curtis Mayfield didn’t start that movement, Gamble & Huff didn’t start that movement; they fed into it because that’s what was going on in society at that time. The same thing applies to Hip Hop. So when you ask about the musicians and the athletes not doing social commentary, I need to ask you, in society who is basically doing it?
DX: That’s a great point, there’s nobody.
Scoop Jackson: Thank you. There you go. It doesn’t start with that. I don’t think we need to be of big belief that the arts or entertainment is what’s going to lead us out of whatever situation we feel is holding us down. It has to start with society; it has to start with us. There has to be a groundswell that comes from the street or wherever, somebody’s house or somebody’s basement. It’s a different form of activism and it doesn’t come from entertainment. The reason why it’s not being done now is because as far as I’m concerned it’s because it’s not being done from the blueprint. The blueprint hasn’t established that type of movement yet. We haven’t found it necessary.
There was a small movement affront with [President] Barack [Obama] and our contribution in getting him elected which was huge. That was like a collective effort. That wasn’t like a fight that had to deal with race and oppression. It’s going to be hard to look for something to come out of that. Entertainers and athletes did play a big role in that, and I was happy to see that. But I don’t think the place that we live in right now historically is going to allow us to see the music from back in the day that was about movement or nationalism for lack of a better word. You’re not going to see that right now because we’re not pushing for that—we’re on something different.
DX: Common always tells the story about when he was a ball-boy for the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan came into practice with a boom-box bumping Whodini’s “Friends”….
Scoop Jackson: I could believe that.
DX: MJ never gave off the impression to the public that he was a big Hip Hop listener. We never got that from him but Allen Iverson came along and he became the Hip Hop Generation’s ball-player. Talk about Iverson and his impact as Hip Hop’s ball-player.
Scoop Jackson: I’ve always thought that [Allen] Iverson, even to this day, is the most influential athlete we’ve had over this past generation. He represents an entire generation the same way Mike [Jordan] did a generation before, the same way Julius Erving did before that, and Muhammad Ali before that. Iverson represents this generation of athlete. If you look at the role that athletes have played in the history of African Americans you’ll understand it’s more than just what they do. At the center of us being able to do things, integration, civil rights, it’s pointed at our athletes. I’m specifically talking about Jackie Robinson. Look at the role that Muhammad Ali played–and our athletes are not just athletes. They tend to transcend what they do—Iverson is the same way. If you look at Iverson as just a basketball player you’ll miss his point. The same way if you look at Jordan as just a basketball player you’ll miss what he stood for.
I think for this generation there has not been anyone that has had the type of impact that Allen Iverson has had. He makes the cats that he visually and theoretically represents feel that he speaks for them in a larger arena. At the same time, he’s also found a way to break down the walls of certain parts of America that are straight up in fear of that person or who that person represents and lessen that fear a little bit. He’s been able to do both the same way that Michael Jordan was able to do certain things as far as people in America resisting their sons and daughter idolizing a person to that degree. Michael made it palatable to say, ‘hey it’s cool to idolize.’ I’m not talking about just having a poster on the wall, that’s one thing but when you have kids wanting to be like someone, that’s a whole different realm.
If you really think about it Michael Jordan made it cool and understandable for a lot of Americans who would have problems with their kids saying they wanted to literally be like Mike. I can do that, I’m not going to lie and say you can be Charles Barkley but Mike we can take. [Laughs] The same thing happened with Iverson to a different degree. He made it a little easier for certain families in America to accept what he was bringing to the table. I’ll put it to you this way, if there was no Allen Iverson as a buffer I don’t think white America would have embraced 50 Cent the way that they did or Lil Wayne. Think about it, if they had to jump from Michael Jordan straight to 50?
Scoop Jackson: There has to be a buffer to say hey we can swallow this pill because the next pill is bigger. It makes it a little bit easier and it happens over time. That’s the importance of someone like Allen Iverson.
DX: I’ve been a Chicago Bulls season-ticket holder for seven years. I noticed when Yao Ming comes to town, Chinese people come out in full force, but when Iverson comes to town, the hood is there. I don’t care if he’s with the Detroit Pistons, Denver Nuggets, or Philadelphia 76ers I never see that many black people at the games.
Scoop Jackson: Nah, because he represents a part of us and a part of our society that we’re proud to see break through—whether we love him or not. There are certain individuals that really aren’t supposed to make it because everything is stacked against them and he’s one of those dudes—really. He’s one of those dudes that even though we may not agree with a lot of things that Iverson has done or what he stands for, there’s a deep appreciation whether its covert or overt that respects the fact that he has not let the game change him. He has stood strong and stood through it all for good or for bad like, look this is what I’m from.
The one that thing we as black people totally understand, totally as long as it doesn’t get to the borderline situation of dealing with ignorance, is for you not to be ashamed of who you are–we appreciate that. We’ve seen it so often where black individuals get to a certain point and turn away from what they were. From moving out of the neighborhood, to putting down other black folks, to now getting all types of feature changes, there are all types of subtleties where we separate ourselves from where we were. Iverson has never done that. He has been unapologetic and that’s why you see people from the hood represent because of that alone. And it’s not even defiance it’s more like pride.
DX: Iverson is the Hip Hop ball player, but you’re the Hip Hop sports journalist. Talk about the ups and downs of being a sports writer with a Hip Hop style.
Scoop Jackson: It’s that alone. Basically what we just got through talking about with Allen Iverson. I’ve been called the Allen Iverson of sports journalism. Basically, you just take it for what it is–you have to take pride in that. A lot of what I just said about Iverson I’ve had to apply to my own career. Chuck [Iverson] and I have joked about that—it’s an ongoing joke between us. We joke about our careers because of the parallels that come with it. I by no means had the same kind of upbringing or life that Allen Iverson had. From the journalist perspective, it kind of has been because I’m the kind of guy that’s cut from a different cloth.
I’ve never been ashamed of where I come from or who I am. I’ve never been apologetic of what I had to go through to get there. When you’re dealing with a society that loves to label certain things I’ve been given the label of the Hip Hop journalist. I’m not one to run away from that, I’ll accept it. I’m one of those cats that has always felt comfortable that if you stick me in that black box that a lot of black folks don’t want to get put in. You hear black folks saying I don’t want to be looked at as the black this, that, or the other–I don’t ever run away from that. I want that. I’m cool with that because I understand the impact and importance of something like that. It’s not about trying to sell five million albums. It’s not all about trying to be Michael Jackson. I’m comfortable being Frankie Beverly & Maze. You know what I’m saying?
DX: You know that’s an interesting analogy. I interviewed O.C. & A.G. —
Scoop Jackson: — Ah man before you even get into it I’m going to ask you a question. This is an argument we had a long time ago. I’ll take the Diggin’ in the Crates crew period, from Lord Finesse, Diamond D, Showbiz & A.G. and lyrically stand them up against anybody in any point in time that you would consider a crew. I’m talking about the Native Tongues crew, Death Row [Records], and The Juice Crew. Lyrically, I’ll take Diggin’ in the Crates.
DX: I’m a little biased; I have to roll with the Wu-Tang Clan.
Scoop Jackson: Okay. See I’m looking at them as a group, not a crew. Native Tongues was [A] Tribe [Called Quest], De La [Soul], Jungle Brothers, Monie Love, they were a crew, The Juice Crew was Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, Masta Ace, Biz Markie, and Roxanne Shante, that’s a heavy-weight crew!
DX: That’s a tough one man. I don’t even have an answer for that one.
Scoop Jackson: You threw out O.C. & A.G., and A.G. was so ridiculous. The trump card in all of that is Big L. You throw Big L out there and I’m like man can’t nobody fuck with Big L! Man you can print this; I got into the biggest argument with Timbaland. I was doing a story on him for XXL. We were at Jimi Hendrix’ studio Electric Lady in New York, and got into an argument about who was the better rapper Eminem or Big L. I said, “Dude, you joking me right now!” He said, “Six million people can’t be wrong about Em. Em is sick.” I’m like, “There’s no way in hell Em could come close to fucking with Big L.” We got into an argument about it man, I’m serious, and it fucked up the whole interview. [Laughs]
DX: [Laughs] That happens in Hip Hop discussions. I was talking to A.G., and I told him how I told some young dude that Ghostface Killah was nice and he was like, “He ain’t got no money though.” They don’t even know his financial status but they know he’s not 50 Cent…
Scoop Jackson: He doesn’t have hits either. That’s the thing; they equate relevance to some sort of fame or success as opposed to talent and skill. I think Posdnous said, “Fuck being hard, I’m trying to be complicated.” I think that was the mindset back in the day. When you look at emcees and us coming up on those emcees we looked for cats to be able to do things that a cat off the street couldn’t do. That’s how we equated greatness.
Scoop Jackson: Now it’s like you gotta move some units now! If you ain’t moving units we’re not giving you a look at all—at all!
DX: There seems to have been a shift. When I was coming up MC Hammer was the one who sold records. Eric B. & Rakim did great but they didn’t sell what Hammer sold.
Scoop Jackson: Not even close.
DX: But they had respect, Hammer didn’t. Now it’s like whoever sells the most gets the most respect.
Scoop Jackson: Right! But if you really think about it that’s the way the game is shifted right now and it shifts like that in everything. That’s the way society has changed. We’ve really gotten out of touch with how we judge what is and what is not great. If a movie does not make a certain amount of money, whether we love it or not we just automatically go, “Ah, it wasn’t that good.” At some point what gets lost is the skill–the ability of folks doing stuff that the average person can’t do. It goes across the board on everything. Hip Hop has been victimized from that more than anything. Look at singing in general. I dare you to tell me anybody vocally that can out-sing Jennifer Hudson.
DX: I don’t even know.
Scoop Jackson: But if you ask anybody who the best singer is her name is not going to come up because she hasn’t moved those units. It’s about the hotness right now. They will tell you Lady Gaga or Katy Perry who can sing but they can’t touch Jennifer. You know that—it’s not even close. Alicia Keys, come on now. They’re not going to mention Jennifer because she’s not moving those units. If you ask a singer, a singer-singer who is the best singer there may be two people they mention. One is Christina Aguilera—we know she can blow. And the other person is Kim Burrell, the Gospel singer out of Houston. Do you know who Kim Burrell is?
DX: No idea.
Scoop Jackson: See! If you ask any singer from Beyonce to Mary J Blige they’ll be like, “Kim Burrell can blow anybody out of the water.” But no one knows who she is. The testimonials will come to her but society will never accept her as being one of the greatest because she’s not moving units. Back in the day, we used to take pride and appreciate what people do. Rakim is a classic example. Depending on the age range of the people ask who is the greatest rapper ever and a lot of folks will give Jay-Z that title. There’s no argument about that but who would Jay-Z say? Rakim.
DX: Before Obama was elected I was talking to a co-worker about going down to Grant Park to see Obama on election night. I said you know the greatest day of my life was being at the Million Man March and this might surpass that. I told the guy that I was heavily influenced by Louis Farrakhan and he laughed in my face—this is a black man now. He said he hated the Minister and asked me, “Why do you like him?” I said dude he saved my life. I was in the streets doing nothing and being a knucklehead until my boy gave me a Farrakhan tape. It changed my life. The guy looked amazed. He said are you serious? I see similar things in Hip-Hop. It’s a generational thing—this guy is in his late 20’s. To him Farrakhan is a joke, but for me he saved my life.
Scoop Jackson: Farrakhan saved a lot of people’s lives. He set the pace for what we were talking about earlier. Everything flowed from him. Rap music didn’t put Farrakhan at the forefront, he did that for them. He made the climate comfortable for rappers to say, it’s cool to say this. That was the culminating moment of Farrakhan’s movement but before that we’re talking about 15-20 of work. It wasn’t like he woke up and got a million men to show up, it took 15-20 years of work for him to get people to believe in what his word was.
When someone laughs in your face when you mention the name Farrakhan this is where we need to go with this from this point forward, if you look at the Obama campaign, this is what I loved about the Obama campaign because it exposed all of our so-called leaders for what they really were. If you go back and look at everybody, there were only two people, two that we consider black leaders that were unequivocal in their stance behind Barack and were very open about it. They didn’t question anything and understood the significance of it; it was Oprah Winfrey and Louis Farrakhan—that’s it.
This is one of those things where we’re starting to judge who our heroes and icons are and who we follow, there will be times in history where we find out how black you really are and what this really means to you. Is this about us or is this about you? If you sit here and tell me that you’re a black man and you’re behind Obama, let’s look at those whose feet never left the fire when it got hot. There are only two people that let their feet get burned because of this and Farrakhan was one of them. After that you can’t tell me shit bad about Farrakhan now. You can’t say shit to me about Oprah Winfrey. She was more supportive of Barack than Michelle [Obama] was.
Scoop Jackson: Think of what she had to lose!
Scoop Jackson: Everything. At this point you can’t tell me nothing about Oprah. As for cats who laugh at Farrakhan, put it in perspective and give them something to think about.
DX: I try to avoid that conversation.
Scoop Jackson: Well it’s not avoiding the conversation, it’s putting an end to the conversation. That’s a part of educating so we make different generations think about stuff so they learn something. That’s why today you got cats like Lupe [Fiasco] who can’t get a look, but Drake is considered the best emcee—something is wrong.
DX: In sports there’s a certain amount of respect for the people who came before the new generation. In the NBA, they honor Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Julius Erving and so forth. In Hip Hop, you don’t hear Kool Moe Dee’s name mentioned anymore. Melle Mel is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and his name doesn’t come up when the greatest emcee conversation comes up. Why do you think there is a different amount of respect for the elders in Rap?
Scoop Jackson: This is what has to be done because it may be old, but [great emcees from yesteryear are] not a joke. [If I’m a young Rap fan], I may like Weezy better, I may like Wale, I may like Drake, or Gucci Mane but I’m not going to look at this cat as a joke. If you ask these young cats right now they see LL [Cool J] on fucking Sears commercials and they’re like, this cat is a clown!
DX: That’s another good point. I asked a group of young guys who was the best west coast emcee, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, or 2Pac, and they all said 2Pac unanimously. I would put Cube’s first three albums against anything that Snoop and ‘Pac ever did.
Scoop Jackson: Easily!
DX: But these guys see Ice Cube as a guy who makes bad movies.
Scoop Jackson: This happens because in our involvement in music culture as far as telling stories and musical outlets are concerned we aren’t continuous in telling stories—we’re caught up in the now. When you’re dealing with an infrastructure like the NBA it’s not the players that make a point to stay reminded of the groundwork that is laid before them, that’s what the league does. If you’re listening to NBA basketball games, you don’t hear young cats calling these games, you get Hubie Brown. And if you listen to them it’s always a sense of history. Look at the NBA outlets, hoop magazines, and throwback jerseys that’s a part of history. These magazines are always telling stories about Lew Alcindor and Bernard King, it’s always in your face. Hell, LeBron James lost two years of high school basketball because of a Wes Unseld jersey! Do you think some rapper out here is going to lose two days of school because he’s following Kool G Rap? He don’t even know who the hell Kool G Rap is.
Who is informing them of this? The NBA and the NFL has an infrastructure in place to keep that history alive. Look at the infrastructure in Hip Hop and how fractured and fragmented it is. Even at the record industry stand point, they don’t even send these cats on tours so this generation knows who these cats are. They don’t treat Hip Hop the same way they treat Rock & Roll. I can go and see the Grateful Dead right now. Jerry Garcia was eight generations ago. Bruce Springsteen, if The Police decide to gets together they’re going to get to tour. They’re still radio stations in every city that I can tune in and hear this music all the time. People say radio stations are obsolete but they are still a source of information. Tell me what city you can go to and turn on the radio and hear Kool Moe Dee?
DX: They don’t exist. I don’t listen to the radio at all. A female co-worker of mine said, “Well, how do you know what’s new?” It never dawned on me that this is some peoples only source of hearing music and that’s scary.
Scoop Jackson: Yeah. Look at it from a distribution stand point. Everything is so isolated now. You can get your history of music going into a mom-and-pop record store. If you go to Virgin or Target the sales people aren’t educating you on the history of music. If you go to the mom and pop store they’re either playing some shit or talking about some shit. So when you talk about lineage of music as opposed to the lineage of sports it’s a disconnect—it’s huge, really huge. To me it goes back to the infrastructure from radio, to print, to conversations, to the record industry supporting certain things, there is a break off–a vast break off that’s partially responsible for the fan base of Hip Hop not understanding the importance of what was done before these cats got to where they are right now.