Words by Marcia Howard
Photography by Mari Sheibley
Elliott Wilson may have been a polarizing figure during his time as Chief Editor of XXL, but he’s endeared himself to a new generation of hip hop fans with his presence on social media (if there is such a thing as a prolific tweeter, its definitely him) and his knowledgeable, insightful interviews with stars such as A$AP Rocky, Kendrick Lamar, Nicki Manaj, Tyler the Creator and Drake. On his Twitter page that he’s the self described “GOAT of hip hop journalism”; with a resume that includes Ego Trip, XXL, Respect Magazine, Rap Radar, Life+Times with Jay-Z and now CRWN, we can’t help but agree. We caught up with Elliott in his record, CD and cassette filled SOHO office, so he could give us a peek into his own life and times.
BC:What does the nickname YN mean and how did it come about?
Elliott: Yellow N-word. It was a nickname I gave myself. Back then there was a lot of pressure on black owned publications. I was doing my thing. Me and my partner, who was Hatian and African American, started a company called Ego Trip. But there was always this idea of selling out when I got a real corporate job and I thought, I’m going to show you, I’m just as black as anybody. You’re going to see the product that I put out and it’s still going to be just as authentic and real. I just took it to that extreme.
And then the YN thing ended up representing my editorial voice. I used to write these editorials where I just gave everyone a feel of what was going on behind this magazine. Some insight into what my mentality was and what made my magazine different. At the time, we were really trying to be number one above The Source magazine, which was an established brand in that space. It was all part of this bravado and kind of a precursor to what I’m doing now on social media.
They didn’t get to know Elliott Wilson first, they got to know YN. A focused, yet determined guy who wanted to do anything it would take to make XXL successful. To me YN is someone who is very passionate and a great journalist that really loves hip hop culture. That’s kind of what its always been.
We’re all blessed to make a living doing what we love and what inspires us. That’s the thing I was trying to do when I was in my 20’s and it’s the same thing I’m trying to do with my 40’s. It’s just framed in a different way.
I always felt like I wanted to be successful but I don’t want to be in the forefront. I wanted to be behind the scenes.
BC: Well lets talk about your 20’s. How did you get your start, in journalism and hip hop journalism specifically.
Elliott: I kind of put myself on. I met a couple of people, this guy Haji Akhigbade and Sacha Jenkins. They had started a magazine called Beat Down. I had dreams of being down with The Source magazine, because that’s what I’d started to read and I was like, there is a magazine devoted to our culture? This is amazing. But those guys were doing something independently and I didn’t know what that was to make your own product and be an entrepreneur. To get files laid out, bring physicals to the printer, have it printed out, and they ship you a box. You have your product and then you try to distribute it. Even if you’re giving it away for free, you’re trying to get people to pay attention to it. To not toss it away or look at you like you’re crazy on the street. You leave it at Tower Records, you leave it at Patricia Fields. You leave it at these places and you sit and watch and hopefully people are observing what you do. It forced me to be entrepreneurial. I didn’t know about the music industry and how to get put on. I just had that desire. So meeting those guys made me feel like, ok, we can do it ourselves. Style it to get my voice out, on my own terms and by doing that, we caught the attention of the Sources and Vibes, places that were a little more established. I started to realize I could make a living doing this.
BC: After Beatdown and you moved on to Ego Trip?
Elliott: Beatdown was the first thing. I came along as the music editor. We did that for a year and a half. And then me and Sacha stepped out and did Ego Trip. And the idea behind Ego Trip was kind of a foreshadowing to the way the world is now. The fans of the 90’s era music, they were listening to Red Hot Chili Peppers and Dr. Dre. There was no divide. We saw hip hop being this dominant force in pop culture as it was developing and there was no independent zine at that time that truly reflected the audience, this ‘new everyone’. We felt like this is hip hop, this is rock, this is skateboarding, this is graffiti, these are the experiences that I’m having in New York with Sacha in the east village in the 90’s. There wasn’t a magazine that reflected that.
We also brought humor to hip hop journalism. A lot of people were taking themselves too seriously, and you know, you could be critical but to love this, you could also make fun of it. We’re a beautiful people, we have a great sense of humor. There really wasn’t a voice like that. We were pioneers in terms of creating it. Not taking ourselves too seriously, hold ourselves to task, be able to make fun of ourselves at times and it came across in all our writing and all the product we put out.
BC: From Ego Trip and XXL to Life+Times and CRWN. How did that progression come about?
Elliott: I always felt like I wanted to be successful but I don’t want to be in the forefront. I wanted to be behind the scenes. This new stage in my career is the complete opposite of the way I used to do things. I used to be very obsessed with numbers and sales. I would look at newsstand sales and what every Vibe sold and every XXL sold and every Source. When I started the website (Rap Radar) I just wanted to have fun and do what I think is right and not worry about it.
CRWN came from knowing how important SXSW was to our culture and trying to figure out my place on it. I met Jesse Kirschbaum, a booking agent at the Nue Agency, and he said why don’t you do an interview? A lot of the interview stuff gets boring with panels and there’s no energy to it. And he’s like, well who would you talk to. Kendrick Lamar had just put out good kid, m.A.A.d. city and I’d never interviewed him. So I got there and we did it. The energy of the crowd was different. It felt special. It didn’t feel like a bad music panel. So I said to Jesse, we got something here. I feel like I can get people to pay to watch me interview somebody. Does that sound crazy? (laugh).
And then Tyler The Creator was coming out with a new album and I felt Tyler was misunderstood. He’s a pain in my butt and there is a lot of things he needs to work on, but I think in his heart, he’s a very smart dude. He’s a smart businessman, and I felt like no one was really getting to know who he was. It sold out in a day. That’s when everybody was like, ok, this is serious.
There is a bit of an adjustment for me to go from being the guy that’s behind scenes to being the guy that’s on camera. You deal with the hate that comes along with it, but I feel like I’m blessed. A lot of people respect the work that I’m doing and it just motivates me and pushes me further to try to live up to that.
BC: You’ve seen most of the trends that have come through the 90’s to the 2000s. What do you see is informing a lot of the style trends now in hip hop?
Elliott: There is no longer a divide. When we were running magazines we were so fueled by the idea of these hip hop, urban clothing lines. Now those lines are blurry and it’s more about personal style. A hip hop kid can rock Rag and Bone and rock high end sneakers. It’s a little more minimalist, a little less Coca Cola across your chest and there is a personalized touch to it. I remember being in the Hot97 Summer Jam and literally 80% of the people had throwback jerseys. Males, Females. That’s just what we all did and we had long white tees. I think that you see more individualism, which I think is good. Rarely will you see a group of friends where three of them are dressing completely the same. We applaud individualism now, because we also see more judgement than ever. You’re going to Snapchat your outfit, put it up on instagram, everyone’s going to say something. Its more about the challenge of letting your individualism come out.
BC:Your wife mentioned that you were thinking about your whole look today. Is your beard new?
Elliott: Yeah, it’s her creation. I’m growing a beard. (Laughs) My wife is my stylist, she does everything. She has ideas about what she’d like to try and I’m always resistant at first. I can’t grow a beard. I’ve never had a beard. This is the longest my thing has been my whole life. But I love it. You’ve gotta switch things up. Its all about staying fresh. And I love that I can still give people something to talk about. When I had cornrows, it was during the XXL era. And I was like, I can’t have cornrows, my hair won’t hold it. Then I grew my hair long enough and it still would be a mess in three or four days or whatever. I remember going to meet with Dame Dash with cornrows and him being like, “Oh you have cornrows now, you think you’re tough or something. That’s how we doing it.”
I’m into it now. Danyel proved me wrong again, because now I have a big ass beard and I didn’t think it was possible. We were joking, people are going to think that Elliot grew this beard so he can be part of some Bevel thing.
BC: Any tips on how you keep it maintained?
Elliott: My hair is very soft. This is a coarser rougher hair. I do have the right oil to put on it and kind of comb it and brush it down. To kind of soften it. Its about keeping it moisturized.
Danyel chimes in to say: “I love it.”
Elliott laughs in agreement