"I don't battle anymore! I uplift motherfuckers!" - GZA
Sunday, February 15, 2009,1:46 AM
Egotistical Bastards
Dead mag helps VH1 talk about race, from Ice Cube to Elvis to Costello

Ta-Nehisi Coates

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."

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posted by R J Noriega
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