Deep in the Broadway offices of VH1, Gabriel Alvarez and Elliott Wilson, two-fifths of the Ego Trip brain trust, are debating an issue that could forever alter race relations in the Empire State—should Puerto Ricans be allowed to use the word nigga? “If these Spanish kids are on the train saying ‘nigga this,’ ‘nigga that,’ ” says Wilson, “this old black man is looking at them like they’re crazy because he’s experienced some real-ass racism.”
“I try to explain to him,” says Alvarez, gesturing at Wilson, “that Puerto Ricans have African blood in their ancestry.”
Oh yeah, that’s real convenient coming from a goddamn Puerto Rican.
“That’s the thing,” notes Alvarez, laughing awkwardly. “I’m Mexican.”
It is this type of inane yet complex racial debate that has helped Ego Trip go from defunct underground zine to arbiter of the color line. The Ego Trip crew has produced two books and, this year, a special for VH1’s TV’s Illest Minority Moments. Now they’re slated to make three more specials for VH1 under the rubric of “Race-O-Rama.” Proposed shows include Dude, Where’s My Ghetto Pass? and Black-O-Phobia!
“Most of the time VH1 just looks back at the stuff we love, or makes us laugh or whatever,” says Joey Anuff, supervising producer at VH1. “But when you take a look at Ego Trip‘s books, you see they’re looking at the same stuff with a much more charged lens. In a way they’re the perfect VH1 project.”
Well, not on the face of things. While VH1 likes to focus on the intricacies of John Hughes flicks and the “Where’s the Beef?” lady, the Ego Trip aesthetic wallows in such highlights of racial dialogue as Elvis Costello calling Ray Charles “a blind ignorant nigger,” Ice Cube threatening to “go down to the corner store and beat the Jap up,” or the black community’s penchant for conspiracy theories.
Ego Trip came into being in 1994 as a magazine co-edited by Sacha Jenkins and Wilson, who at the time were both working as hip-hop journalists. The duo borrowed $8,000 and printed up a new issue whenever they had the funds. Ego Trip began strictly as a hip-hop zine, but later expanded to rock and finally to what Jenkins calls “the new pornography”—race. “A lot of people thought that a magazine that covers rock and hip-hop and has decent writing had to have some white boys behind it,” says Jenkins. “So, we created a fake publisher, and he was a white, racist, and out of touch. He’d write these editorials he thought were progressive. That attitude that we created in the magazine trickled out into our other projects.”
The magazine stopped publishing in 1998, which didn’t bother Jenkins and Wilson much, because they’d always seen Ego Trip as a concept that could take a variety of forms. “We didn’t look at ourselves as businesspeople,” says Wilson, who now edits the hip-hop magazine XXL. “We were creative people, but we recognized that we were creating a brand. The Ego Trip brand became a magazine but it also became our own joint sensibility.”
After shutting down the magazine, the Ego Trippers added three more members to their cabinet (Alvarez, Brent Rollins, and Chairman Jefferson Mao) and then published two books—Ego Trip’s Big Book of Rap Lists and Ego Trip’s Big Book of Racism. Both featured exhaustive research, but the second is both more arresting and more disturbing. What passes for race talk today usually amounts to painfully stilted arguments that seem not to have shifted since 1970. Ego Trip’s Big Book of Racism replaced discussions of ethnic diversity and democracy with more pertinent questions like “Whatever happened to baseball players named ‘Whitey?’ ” and “If I should associate with the knights of the Ku Klux Klan, what will be required of me?”
Flippant as it all may sound, Ego Trip‘s brain trust is convinced that the truth lies not in the polemic but in the mundane—and the insane. “We are always fascinated by ignorance,” says Alvarez. “When you listen to people talk and say things that are ignorant, you have a better understanding of where they’re coming from, and maybe they’ll hear what they’re saying.”
The Big Book of Racism‘s penchant for abrasively noting the places where pop culture and race intersect eventually attracted the attention of VH1, and thus spawned “Race-O-Rama.” And while the relationship has produced the occasional corporate headaches (like “Race-O-Rama” being slated to air during Black History Month), it’s also afforded the crew an opportunity to launch a discussion that demonstrates exactly how much race matters—not that anyone will ever mistake them for Cornel West. “We’re down with Cornel West,” says Jenkins. “We think he looks like Gene Shalit. We’re down with that.”
Times does strip tease
A lucky smattering of folks who picked up The New York Times on Monday were treated to a spadia—a strip just wider than a column, overlapping the front page, that announced the day’s highlights. Magazines like Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New Yorker have used spadias for years. But seeing one on the front of the Times was a first. According to Times people, the motive for the change was simple—cash. “It’s a way to promote the contents of the paper,” says a spokesperson for the Times. “Ultimately the goal is to generate newsstand sales.”
As it happens, the spadia also creates room for what amounts to an ad on page one. If you turned back the flap on Monday’s run, you found a full-color pitch from Macy’s, right alongside the news from Iraq. The wrap also pushed the hallowed editorial page from its traditional position, instead finishing the front section with a spread of advertising.
The main push for the teasers came from the Times circulation department, which had been searching for new ways to drum up some interest. The experiment is slated to run from August through the end of year, appearing only on select newsstands in Manhattan and Westchester County. The spokesperson couldn’t say how many.
For now, the Times may stand alone in this approach. Have any other newspapers experimented with a spadia? “I don’t believe so,” said Bill Mitchell of the Poynter Institute for journalism.
Color me pissed
Esquire‘s coronation this week of Andre 3000 as the world’s best-dressed man adds a dash of color to the lily-white world of men’s fashion magazines. That is not a good thing. Here is the hidden beauty of segregation: When Esquire trots out Matt Lauer as an icon of fashion, I can always laugh it off as some white shit. All things being unequal, I can study the magazine’s “Man at His Best” department and conclude that but for a token or two, I’m free to be at my worst.
But Outkast’s Andre—darling of black girls the realm over—on the cover of the September issue is a problem. On its face, it’s just Esquire acknowledging that the hip-hop generation is finally growing into blazers and button-ups. Pharrell Williams is also featured inside, along with the less hip-hop, but no less black, Kofi Annan and Thabo Mbeki. Good for Esquire. Not so good for cats like me, who can’t seem to let their Timberlands go. Inclusion means competition, and thus the end of retorts like “Baby, you wouldn’t want me dressing like a white boy.”