If your toe is remotely dipped into Hip-Hop in any way, then you’ve certainly heard of Jay Smooth. The former Source writer and founder of WBAI’s The Underground Railroad [NYC’s longest-running hip hop radio show], has been an integral part of the culture for over two decades. His Ill Doctrine video series has covered a range of topics from Hip-Hop, to race, and Jay has curated videos for multiple brands while also appearing on TV as a pundit for racial issues.
Above all, Jay Smooth is a pioneer—someone whose passion has taken him through every form of media and secured his position as a living legend. To think he did all of that with only owning one mirror in his home. He talks to Bevel Code about his journey, leaving behind his record collecting habits (he did buy one during our photoshoot though), and how his laid back approach to creating videos carries over to his personal grooming style.
Bevel Code: How are you so comfortable in front of cameras?
Jay Smooth: That’s part of why I started making videos: to sort of challenge myself to be more comfortable with looking at myself and thinking about my appearance. I’ve always been an introvert, and then I’m a radio person, so my life’s been set up to go along with my instincts of not really thinking about what I look like. Outside of the bathroom mirror, I didn’t really have a mirror in the house before I started making videos. So part of why I did it was to challenge myself—thinking about how I look and looking at myself and to change how I feel about myself out in the world in pretty basic ways. People think I look normal when they see me out in the street, so I can be comfortable.
BC: Did you suspect people were going to latch onto those videos and really just take in everything that you were putting out there like that?
JS: I didn’t know in advance. I did radio for a long time, and I’m the kind of person that I love a creative challenge. Once I’ve proven to myself that I can do it, I want to find the next thing that I can figure out if I can do that. So I did that with the radio show. I did that with writing for The Source and other hip-hop mags. I did that with starting one of the first hip-hop blogs. Then video blogging was kind of taking off right when I was getting bored with regular blogging, and the challenge of finding the right words to say and making the visuals match up with it and how I’m delivering it. It just seemed like a cool creative challenge, figuring out how to have fun with editing. Once I started doing it, immediately I saw that there’s a connection you make in that medium that’s totally different from anything else. Like I could say the exact same words in a video and people just feel the trust and connection with it that they never would if they were just reading words on the page.
I wish the prime years of my show had been in this age where everything’s recorded and documented, because it would be such a rich history, but it’s good to even have the memory.
BC: That takes such an incredible amount of foresight to be able to look at a medium that hasn’t quite erupted and jumping on it and using it in a way that people only latch onto years later. You’ve done that throughout your entire career.
JS: Yeah, I read that the old comedian Steve Allen was talking about the early days of TV once and he said that if you just get into a new thing early enough, you’re going to be remembered as a pioneer even if you were just mediocre at it. So I try to remember that and look for—not that I’m aiming to be mediocre. I do my best, but I know if you get in early and plant your flag—especially as someone who tries to represent hip-hop culture and a certain point of view—I can set a standard that will not only bring me credit, but also encourage other people who have the same principles to step in and make their voices heard. We can sort of build a community that holds to those same principles.
BC: What made you decide to even start Underground Railroad years and years ago?
JS: Well I was still in high school back at that time, and I grew up in a very politically activist oriented household and actually a very musically artistic household. My dad was a poet who worked with Gylan Kain, who was one of the original Last Poets. I grew up with that milieu with my dad and then my mom was a jazz musician who hung out with jazz people pretty much all the time. So I was always around that and of course they had lots of records around, so music and that sort of cultural—that connection between culture and political expression was always in the house for me. When hip-hop got going, I was blessed to be in New York right when things were building in the ‘80s, and it was this perfect oasis for me to jump into this incredible creative expression for my people and my town and something I could really take pride in being a part of. I got an internship at the radio station when I was 16, and I knew right away I would love to do a hip-hop show. I didn’t think there was any chance that would happen, but pretty soon they started figuring out they could get a younger audience by doing a hip-hop show. Originally Dick Harris wanted to do a show, but he flaked out. I put in a proposal I think my junior year of high school, I was 17, and they thought that I had some adults ghostwrite the proposal for me. They were like, “This is too well-written; we don’t think this kid actually wrote it.” Once I came in and talk to them: “Okay, he actually is articulate like that.” They wound up giving me the show. I started senior year of high school.
Make sure to click on the image below for Jay’s curated Bevel Code Spotify Playlist.
BC: Do you have any Underground Railroad memories you turn to as the happiest or the best ones or the coolest ones or whatever?
JS: Man, you know I’ve been doing it for so long, 25 years. It’s crazy. There’s a lot of great memories. I mean each time I had A Tribe Called Quest on was really special, especially now that we lost Phife looking back. There was one time we did a whole Tribe tribute show and DJ Spinna did this mix of all classical tracks and then Q-Tip was getting all choked up in the interview part. It was like man, so many memories. Then when they freestyled, Phife was making fun of Q-Tip for getting choked up and also I didn’t even know this until years later, but that was the night Dilla came to my show and I met him, but I didn’t know who he was at the time. Years later Spinna told me that night was when I first met Dilla because he was just in the entourage of the Tribe that night. So there’s so many moments like that that you don’t know it’s a piece of history when it’s happening, but you can look back on it and say wow. This was the first time they came out, so having them all in the same room—I look back at that now and can’t believe it happened, but back then it was just this new group that had a 12-inch and we knew there was a hot new 12-inch. I wish the prime years of my show had been in this age where everything’s recorded and documented, because it would be such a rich history, but it’s good to even have the memory.
If you’re an old head who’s not messing with Kendrick Lamar like I just…you just don’t want to have joy in your life as far as I’m concerned.
BC: As someone who documents what’s going on in this world and what’s happening, how do you continue doing what you do when now everything today is so “microwavable”?
JS: That’s a good question. I mean it’s always a tug-of-war because everything in media is set up that you have to make something that will have a headline that people will want to click on, so there’s a lot of deep, important, nuanced thought that you might want to express. But if you can’t contrive to make a clickbait headline out of those thoughts, it’s not worth writing at the end of the day unless you’re independently wealthy. You kind of have to play the game in a way that’s really limiting to what ideas you’re going to express. So in some ways that’s the creative challenge I enjoy, like finding ways to tap into the news cycle of what people are talking about and find bigger ideas that I can connect to whatever is happening in the news cycle now. Find something that’s really worth saying and not just repeating heavy.com for facts that you need to know not to take random shots, but yeah, that’s the challenge we all deal with now. I think you just got to figure out ways to play the game as it is and ride the wave people are talking about and steer it over towards something you feel is worthwhile and has value.
BC: So what right now is currently exciting you?
JS: That’s a good question. I mean I can’t really say the election is exciting me. I’m fascinated by just trying to understand why the Donald Trump phenomenon is happening, but I can’t say I’m really excited to think about it or talk about it. I think musically this is a really great time for hip-hop. For us grumpy old heads, I feel like there’s so much rich music. If you’re an old head who’s not messing with Kendrick like I just…you just don’t want to have joy in your life as far as I’m concerned. People forget how much wack stuff there was back in the day and there’s just so much more music to explore now than there was 30 years ago. I would go to the Music Factory in Times Square—there’d be like 30 or 40 12-inches on the wall—and that would be all the music that came out in the world that month basically. There’s probably some small regional things we weren’t seeing, but basically all the new hip-hop were those 30 or 40 records on the wall. Now there’s 30 new songs every 10 seconds, so they’ve got to make more effort to separate the wheat from the chaff, but I feel like there’s always lots of amazing stuff. I don’t really understand how much time people my age spend worrying about Lil Yachty and why people like him. [The kids] are having fun listening to that. Let them have that. We can find stuff we love.
BC: True, true. Do you still collect vinyl?
JS: I don’t. I just ran out of room in my house. I got up to about 10 thousand records and I had to let it go because I can’t really afford to put records in storage and I had to be focused more on my online work anyway. It just became easier for my collection these days to come into the radio show, and I can experience new music through them and stay connected with the culture through them. It’s been a while. I bought one record when we did the Bevel photoshoot because I couldn’t resist. For the most part that’s a stage of my life I had to reluctantly let go of. That’s one advantage to how things work today. You can just keep buying another external drive.
BC: Absolutely. Which vinyl did you buy?
JS: Something really random. Jonathan Schechter who founded Source Magazine used to have a rap group named BMOC—Big Man On Campus–from when he used to cover in his Harvard hoodie. So they had a copy of that. One of these random records produced by Nile Rodgers. It was so funny to see that.
BC: It’s cool that you are still excited to show up every Friday night for your radio show.
JS: The blessing is having a crew that I do it with. The first five years I was doing everything myself. I was making mixes at home and bringing them—or someone else’s house that had turntables—bringing them in and planning everything out myself. If I had to do that for 25 years, I would have quit a long time ago, but the beautiful thing is getting to make it a community outlet where I can bring in people like DJ Spinna and give them one of their first breaks and then watch them blossom into what he is today. It’s kind of like our weekly hip-hop church service where we share this thing that we love and it replenishes us for the rest of the week, and I get to give them this outlet for them to put themselves out in the world. Then they can pass that on in their way, and it just builds into something that’s much bigger than me coming in here and doing this myself. That makes it an invigorating thing instead of an exhausting thing.
BC: Do you think you’ll keep it going? Are you still in it for the long haul?
JS: Yeah, I’m going to do it as long as they let me and if the radio show stops for some reason, I’m sure I’d do some form of it online. It’s not the center of my life the way it once was because I’ve been blessed to do all this work online, especially making the videos. In the last 10 years, it’s been probably the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I’m always going to want to have that. I mean even if we just get together in the room and do it and no one can hear it, I’m going to want to do it because I’m going to want to share that experience. There’s something about old school radio that’s just a unique way of engaging with culture and engaging with an audience. I have my little chat room every Friday. It might only be 10-15 people that come in and talk to me while we listen to the music, but it’s a certain kind of thing I don’t think you can replicate.
BC: With Ill Doctrine, how do you get inspired to do episodes? Does it have to be where you do it when you feel like there’s something to say? Or do you commit yourself to a schedule?
JS: That’s a question I’m trying to find answers for now because the last few years I’ve been making videos for other media companies and they usually have a set deadline, like, “get it to us everything Thursday at noon.” That doesn’t really work for me because I need to sit with this idea until it’s finished. I want to make sure the idea—I want to make sure I’m communicating the idea right. I want to make sure I’m being fair to whoever I’m criticizing because I’m usually going at somebody in some form, and I’m trying to build a sort of narrative arc that makes sense and has jokes in it. Sometimes I’m going to be stuck figuring something out, and I don’t know how long it’s going to take to get it just right, and whatever I put out there I have to live with it forever. People are going to walk up to me on the streets five years from now, “Hey, what was up with that video where you said the thing? Waka Flocka is not garbage. What are you talking about?” I didn’t say Waka Flocka was garbage, but I made a thing were people took it that way. So that working on a straight-up deadline doesn’t work for me. But if I don’t have any structure, I’m just doing it for myself, like my inner perfectionist will kick in so hard I’ll put out a video once every two months. So I’m trying to figure out what the balance is to make some kind of public commitment to people like I’m going to do this every so often. It might be on a Wednesday or it might be on a Friday, but I’m going to hit you with the next one once a week. I’m hoping to do a crowd-funding thing and just have a direct relationship with people who love the work, so I’ll have that fire under me to keep putting things out there.
BC: So you mentioned that for a while before doing the videos you only had a mirror in your bathroom?
JS: I’ve never been naturally inclined to be thinking about my appearance. I’m sort of the inside my mind with my thoughts. Keep to myself and hope people aren’t looking at me type of person.
BC: It must have worked. Didn’t I see your name on the sexiest men list like Salon?
JS: [laughs] Yeah, that happened. I don’t really know what to say about that. I think it was the kind of thing where they had all these really hot celebrities and then they wanted to have like one token nerd who’s not famous, so I kind of take it with a grain of salt. I mean it’s definitely flattering just to see that people think I’m average or above-average looking. My goal is always whatever I need to do to make sure I don’t stick out as looking ridiculous. If I met that mark, then I can relax.
BC: How often do you get your hair cut?
JS: It’s often enough that I don’t have an interval in mind. I would guess it’s about once a month. If I have some kind of public event or media thing that I’m doing, I try to wait until right before that, but overall I’d say about like once a month or so.
BC: Do you have a favorite barber?
JS: I just go to the old Russian guy that’s on my block. Just an old school Russian dude who I appreciate because I was in the barbershop once and there was some kind of missionary from Indiana or something and the missionary was making small talk about religion and he was like, “So I think Christians and Jews, we have the same God, but Muslims, they have a different God.” And my barber was like, “No, I think they have same God. So I was like, “Yes!”
BC: You’ve kept a very similar hairstyle throughout your career, but did you ever rock like braids or locks or anything?
JS: No. All through high school I always had a baseball cap on and never had a haircut, so it was like hat-head disaster if I ever took my hat off. Then since I left high school, it’s pretty much been the same. My hair used to be nappier when I had a full head of hair—like it would grow into an Afro if I let it go, but it used to be the same as it is now but there was more of it and I let it be wilder and fuller.
BC: What about your facial hair situation? You alternate between sort of mustache, sort of goatee.
JS: Yeah, that’s another thing that I sort of just never really had a clear game plan, but I figured out if I set the trimmers to “one” and did that with the mustache and half goatee and shaved everything else that’s a look I’m pretty comfortable with, and I don’t have to think about it. If it grows out a little more it’s not too crazy either, so it gives me some leeway to be confident I’m looking decent without thinking too much.
BC: So it’s like the approach to your grooming is kind of like the approach to your videos. Making it when you feel like it needs to happen and if you have all your thoughts in order it will happen.
JS: I would compare it more to like how I approach lighting in the videos. I figured out how to make sure I have enough lights, so I just do it the same way every time, and it looks decent and I can focus on the product I really care about. If I can groom myself well enough that I can leave the house, I’m not invested enough to think beyond that.