Citizen Wilson

An Interview with the Editor of XXL

by Pierre Hamilton


Elliott Wilson is relentless. When his phone doesn’t ring at 1 PM—the time of our interview—he calls me. When the article fails to appear online—in a timeframe that suits him—he emails me, asking when he can expect to see it. Cracking the whip comes easy for him; he is, after all, the outspoken, much-maligned editor of XXL magazine, and for today’s purposes, the Citizen Kane of music journalism. The road to the top is paved with your enemies and Wilson has flattened most of his. When we speak, it’s clear his agenda is to rise so far above the competition as to be untouchable.

To do that, XXL has released its first CD, XXL Raps Volume 1, the so-called “greatest hip-hop compilation ever made”. Never mind that Tommy Boy Records’ 12-CD, 144-song tome, Hip Hop Essentials 1979-1991, exceeds it in both scope and quality, XXL Raps features 18 of the “freshest tracks from today’s chart-busting hip-hop superstars”, all handpicked and sequenced by Wilson, something he takes great pride in revealing.

Mind you, the album isn’t groundbreaking or classic. When Vol. 2 comes out, Vol. 1 will be a distant memory. Plus, the proliferation of file-sharing makes it easy for anyone to make this compilation without spending what it actually costs.

Wilson says this album outdoes other compilations because he “took the non-single approach”. Instead of stoking it with the best-selling singles, he dug up b-sides from the best-selling artists. The not-good-enough-to-be-singles—yet still great songs—songs. Along with Razor & Tie, XXL Raps’ record label, Wilson is carpeting bombing the mass media with advertising in an effort to “open doors and give [the people] something more”. Something, if you own the top-selling artist’s albums, you already have.

Wilson wasn’t always at the top of the hip-hop world. Like Citizen Kane, he had humble beginnings. He started as a freelance journalist, writing for independent rap magazines. Then—along with Sacha Jenkins and Chairman Mao—he started Ego Trip magazine in 1994. In ‘96, he left for The Source (Ego Trip imploded two years later).

The Source became the number one-selling magazine of all genres while I was there and [then] I left for XXL.” Wilson fails to mention that he joined The Source after a power rift between publisher David Mays and the editorial staff led to a mass exodus and began the magazine’s slide into irrelevance. Or, that XXL was started by those disgruntled employees.

As a reflection of hip-hop’s competitive nature, the magazines battled. The focal point of the battle was Eminem. The Source launched an all-out attack on the rapper, featuring cartoons and editorials about a white emcee profiting off a predominantly black culture, which was odd considering that Mays, who was Jewish, also profited from hip-hop through his ownership of The Source. The beef took a nasty turn in 2003 with the discovery and release of tapes in which a young Marshall Mathers says “nigger” and says that black chicks are all “dumb” golddiggers (But when Kanye West does it, it’s cool, right?).

“When they made the move to attack him, Eminem went to us,” Wilson says. XXL gave Eminem a chance to address the tapes. True, but it also looked like they chose sides, which only intensified the battle. Things quickly spun out of control, a fact to which Wilson readily admits. “We crossed the line, we became the story”—something objective journalists seek not to do. At its peak, each new attack drew the two magazines closer to violence.

“It had to stop or someone was going to get hurt. I stopped dissing them. If you check my magazine, you’ll see that nothing negative has been written in two years. Now that their problems have become public, people expect me to say something, but I won’t. My focus is deeper than that.”

The Source never regained theirs. A November 22, 2005, Village Voice article “The Source Under Fire” lays out the numerous complaints, allegations of sexual harassment, multi-million dollar lawsuits, declining readership and issues plaguing the publication. And as The Source fell, XXL clawed its way the top.

One thing Wilson tells me about The Source leaves his magazine open to criticism: “It’s hard to be a credible magazine when you alienate the top artist.” Alternatively, it is hard to remain credible—at least in the eyes of ever-suspicious hip-hop fans—when one record label, Interscope, dominates your coverage. In the past 12 months, two covers went to The Game, one to Eminem, two to 50 Cent, and one fold over cover to the entire G-Unit family.

The minute I dredge up the appearance of impropriety, Wilson gets defensive. He snarls, repeating my question louder and more aggressively. “What is my relationship with Interscope?” he asks. “I’m not indebted to any one label. I’m concerned with selling my magazine and doing it with integrity. Very few artists have the total package that can sell magazines and get results. Eminem, 50, Jay-Z, they guarantee results.”

There is no doubt that Interscope/Aftermath/Shady/G-Unit is the undisputed juggernaut of hip-hop. If your business is selling magazines, the market dictates that you align yourself with the best-selling artists. But that hasn’t stopped one blogger from mocking Wilson by insisting that he is XXL editor-in-chief and vice president of marketing for Interscope Records. Fine, but Wilson has higher ground from which to mount his defense.

“I put Suge Knight on the cover [in October 2005]. He bashed Dr. Dre and 50 Cent. I doubt if I was working for them that I’d be able to do that.”

Ever the opinionated editor, Wilson uses his monthly column to let lash out at his rivals and, frequently, the music industry.

A sample from his latest: “Trumpets please. I’ve stopped counting the years (six or so). I’ve stopped counting the issues I’ve commandeered (65 or so). I’ve stopped counting the feelings I’ve hurt on this page (I’ll let you industry fucks do the math). I’ve stopped dissing the magazines I’ve crushed (I’ll let you Internet geeks handle that)”.

“As an emcee, you create a character,” he says, referring to his alter ego. Marshall Mathers had Slim Shady; Wilson has Yellow Nigga. “I broke rules to be provocative. I bucked old school rules: revealing my salary, putting our sales numbers out there.” Despite the friction his column has caused, he is unapologetic.

Knowing this, I ask his opinion of the modern day rap game, and his answer surprises me. “The artistry has suffered as the business has increased. [With today’s artists], artistry plays the backburner.

“A lot of hip-hop is based on hit singles that will get played a bazillion times and that’s a common criticism. However, these young men are businessmen. They have become millionaires. They are concerned with building up their crew.

“Can you say that they are creating classic golden era type records?” Obviously not.

“[But] The emphasis isn’t there anymore,” he says, tracing the reasons for my own abandonment of the mainstream gangsta rap. Then he trots out Kanye West and OutKast as artists “raising the bar artistically,” abandons the cookie-cutter, self-promotional responses and says something that makes perfect sense in the context of rap culture.

“Hip-hop is what it is. You celebrate what you do like and criticize what you don’t.”

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