This week marks the 15th anniversary of an infamous day for the MTV generation. It was on May 25th, 1999 that former MTV VJ Jesse Camp unleashed his one album, Jesse and the 8th Street Kidz on the world . It was a big day, an end of an era and a landmark swan song to one of the ’90s most unforgettable flamboyant curiosities. Let’s take a visit back to Camp.
It was the spring of 1998 when the grand-priest of gangly Jesse Camp first waltzed into our lives. The newly Times Square’d MTV was looking to further its relationship with its ever-changing audience and hosted its first ever Wanna Be a VJ contest. Thousands flocked to the MTV offices at 1515 Broadway for a chance to be the channel’s next darling. Runner-up Dave Holmes told us about his first time seeing Jesse, recalling “He was in line either just ahead or just behind me. I got there at like 4 a.m., so around 9 when they started doing auditions, we kept passing each other. You couldn’t miss him, he was eight-feet-tall and crazy hair with model cheekbones. Then I sort of forgot about him. Wednesday that week, when they narrowed it down to the top 10, I came in that morning and the minute I walked into the greenroom and saw Jesse I thought ‘Well, here’s our winner.’ It was such a character and crazy personality that it was like there was no way this guy won’t win. The objective became to just find a job somehow. He was incredibly tall, weirdly pretty and the things he would say, as you saw him on camera, was all the time. That was pure uncut Camp. He was like that all the time.”
Camp was shuffled into the mix of one of the network’s all-time strongest assortment of VJs, including Carson Daly, Ananda Lewis, DJ Skribble and Matt Pinfield. With off-the-charts charisma, he soon landed the daily program “Lunch With Jesse” during the network’s summer on the Jersey Shore. Camp also lent himself to plenty of memorable appearances on the network, singing “Dream On” with Tori Amos as well as being the center of the “Where’s Jesse?” promotion that fall, a contest where fans had to identify Jesse Camp cameos inserted into random videos including walking alongside the Beastie Boys in “Sabotage” and comforting Axl Rose at the conclusion of “November Rain.”
The easy thing to forget about Jesse Camp during this tenure was that he was only 18-years-old. Yes, he seemed brash, excessive and over the top, but this was the era of Surge cola, Jnco jorts and spelling “extreme” with just an “X.” This was also a time before reality television and audience-voting talent contests were popular–the Jesse Camp phenomenon effectively was among the first instances of the American public voluntarily pledging to see more of an uncompromisingly raw cannonball of a person.
While the contest was intended to be an annual tradition with each winner only serving time at the network for one year, Camp’s time was to culminate with the release of Jesse and the 8th Street Kidz, his debut album. Produced by Ric Browde (Poison’s Look What the Cat Dragged In, Ted Nugent’s Wango Tango) and Rob Cavallo (Green Day’s Dookie, Goo Goo Dolls’ Dizzy Up the Girl) the album had quite the pedigree of talent involved.
Did we mention there’s a song with Stevie Nicks? Yes, Stevie Nicks made a rare cameo appearance dueting with MTV VJ Jesse Camp on “Saviour.”
MTV looked to launch Jesse to the top. According to Holmes, MTV hooked Jesse up with a really good manager who also handled DJ Skribble and Doctor Dre and Ed Lover, who put the deal together for Jesse to land on Hollywood Records with a huge advance and effectively keep him out of trouble. Camp had apparently always had aspirations of being a rock star and the fanfare for the record made it seem like a reality.
The first single from the album was “See You Around,” itself a star-studded affair that boasted cameos from Reverend Run of Run-DMC and Dee Dee Ramone, as well as New York’s infamous St. Mark’s Hotel, just walking distance from where shock rock legend G.G. Allin took his final steps. MTV premiered it amidst a Jesse Camp retrospective and it seemed the stars were aligning to send Camp into the pop star stratosphere.
In 1999, the music industry was as big as it had ever been, and that May was a gigantic month for releases. Two weeks prior, Ricky Martin’s American debut topped the charts, followed by the release of Backstreet Boys’ record-setting Millennium. Camp’s album was to come out on one of the industry’s loaded “Super Tuesdays” on May 25th which also saw heavily anticipated releases from Jordan Knight, the Insane Clown Posse, JT Money, Dave Hollister, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Oleander, and Slick Rick’s first album in five years.
Camp’s album didn’t crack the top 200, moving only 2,600 copies and shocking Holmes. “I was legitimately surprised about that. I honestly really like the record. It’s really fun, there’s a couple legitimately good songs on it. There’s a thing he does that I love where there’s characters in the songs and in the videos. He mentions people, like ‘Who the fuck is Stitches?’ that weave in and out of the songs. It’s like a Hold Steady record. I should be struck by lightning for saying that, but it does a lot of the weird things that I like. I thought it was going to be huge, like ‘how much of a number one album is it going to be?’ He had the ultimate platform to promote it from and it did not crack the top 200.”
Even the Best Buy tie-in of free promotional Jesse Camp Post-It Notes weren’t enough to keep the record afloat.
In the years since, Jesse’s appearances have become a thing of urban legend. Some say he’s working at a pet shop somewhere in Los Angeles. Some say he was an active volunteer in rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He has recently made appearances at the final episode of “TRL” in 2008 and in VH1’s “The TRL Generation” special in 2012. We have a theory he may be Macklemore, but that’s purely unfounded speculation on our part.
If you go to St. Mark’s Place, you can see plenty of Jesse Camp look-alikes still living as “8th Street kids.” We don’t know if Jesse will release another album or when he’ll resurface again, but when he does, we’ll be happy to see him around.