Chatting With the Chairman: An Interview with ego trip's Jeff Mao (part 2)
The end of ego trip was just the beginning of ego trip. Soon, Jeff "Chairman" Mao and his partners found themselves knee-deep in books and then television.
Published: Friday, April 18, 2008
[continued from page one]
APA: I know that part of the decision to end the magazine was business-based, but what was the editorial thinking that went into it? Did you guys feel like there was nothing left to do in some sense?
JM: It was just getting to be too much. I really think the last three, four issues of the magazine were really great. Brent designed the last three issues and it's just a world of difference. His work was on a different level from what we were doing before. Really sophisticated, really in tune with what we're about. We felt like we were putting enough effort into every issue that it was like a book every time. And it was like, "Well, we can do books. We could do that."
APA: What lead to The Book of Rap Lists?
JM: We got lucky. We met somebody who was an editor at St. Martin's, who was a big fan of our magazine and we wound up getting a book deal. It was the logical next step -- something that has a little more shelf life.
APA: With both books, I have this scene in my head that a lot of writing of the book just involved sitting around, brainstorming different chapters and lists. Is that basically how it went? Just people sitting in a room, thinking, "how about this, how about that?"
JM: That's how the magazine went too and it was a natural extension of that. A lot of stuff in the magazine we would write together. We'd literally sit in front of the computer -- five people. Whoever was at the keyboard was driving. That was our term for it. So, "who's gonna drive?" And they would guide it and we would just throw things out.
APA: Rap Lists was really brilliant. It was a total geek fest but a love letter to hip-hop too.
JM: It was basically based this Dave Marsh book, The Book of Rock Lists. I was a huge fan of it; I read it when I was getting into music criticism. I loved the format.
APA: There wasn't anything in hip-hop comparable to that.
JM: Steven Hager's books, David [Toop]'s too, all this stuff has been done and done really well. So what's the point of rehashing the same thing? You need to tell the story in a different way and nobody had really done it in an obsessive fan's way, which was really what we were about. So that was our voice.
APA: The Big Book of Racism! seemed more risky.
JM: I think we had a lot of problems with that, in terms of feeling a little out our element. Even though we are all people of color, all of us felt individually like misfits. We didn't necessarily relate to our respective races and ethnicity. In a weird way, the second book was like a weird autobiography of us.
APA: You've said before that you felt like a lot of people didn't get it though. And what did you mean by not getting it?
JM: Our approach was: let's make a book that's pop culture-oriented. Not academic in approach. We tried to avoid things that were straight ahead and dry. But it's not going to be a bunch of race jokes. When you do Rap Lists, then they'd expect you to do...
APA: ...Part Two.
JM: It's funny 'cause when we pitched [Big Book of Racism!], St. Martin's had a right of first refusal on our next book option and when we presented our proposal, they were like, "You guys don't really want to do this. You just want to get out of the deal."
APA: Well, the book ended up at Regan Press instead.
JM: Our editor had left St. Martin's and gone over to Regan's, so we wanted to work with her again 'cause she understood us and we had a great relationship. [The book] was a controversy within that [publishing company] as well. We had a section called "The Yellow Pages," [about Asian stereotypes]. People who worked there got really offended by that. We had to copy edit our own book because the copy editing department refused to work on the book.
APA: Did they not get the satirical nature of the book?
JM: No, I don't think [they did]. Our whole thing [with] racism was... everyone participates. It was a celebration of ignorance, with humor. It was satire. But people didn't get it, or that you'd want to call your book Big Book of Racism! with an exclamation. People didn't figure it out and the people at the publisher didn't figure it out. So yeah, it was a little bit of controversy.
APA: Someone must have "gotten" the book since your first work for VH1 was more or less based on racial humor, just like the book.
JM: What happened was Christina Norman, who used to be in charge of VH1, gave the book to certain people as a Christmas present or something. The development executive called us up one day out of the blue: "Do you want to do some TV stuff?" Us being us, and doing things the way we did, it was like, "Okay, we did this book, what we do now?" Basically, that's how we got a meeting at VH1 and [they said], "Do whatever you want to do."
APA: But it wasn't like you really had carte blanche, was it?
JM: At the time, VH1 was doing all these talking heads and clip-based shows. "I Love the 80s," "I Love the 70s," "Best Week Ever." So they wanted us to do something like that. We didn't like those shows, but we did something where the material at least spoke to our sensibility So we did the first one, which was called "TV's Illest Minority Moments." It was originally called "TV Race Riot." But at the last minute they changed it.
Hip-hop to the future
APA: How did the "(White) Rapper Show" evolve out of the VH1 one-off shows?
JM: Again, it was an accident. We finished those [previous] shows and go meet with an executive over dinner. VH1 was starting to move to reality programming. Sacha said something like, "What if we put a bunch of white rappers in a house in South Bronx?" It was kind of a joke. The guy from VH1 was intrigued. I was like, "That's a good idea, actually. We should do that."
APA: How did you settle on the name?
JM: [I thought we should] call it "The White House," you know, like "Temptation Island"? But that was too subtle. And then we were like, "It's gonna be 'The Great White Dope'" but dope has a negative connotation. We were arguing over stuff and then [one of us suggested], "why don't we just call it '(White) Rapper Show'?" 'Cause that's what people are going to say: "did you watch that 'white rapper Show'."
APA: [Laughs] Which is actually great logic. To me what was really interesting about the show was how it worked on these two different levels. There's this very subtle, and I think, very sharp layer of critique of race and whiteness that's going on underneath it. But as a reality show, it was compelling on its own. My wife isn't really that into hip-hop but she really enjoyed getting into watching it, so that was telling.
JM: There was gonna be a certain degree of clowning just because of the premise. But that joke would have gotten really old, really quick. It had to work on another level. Once you get past that initial layer of clowning and humor, it's actually a tribute to the characters who were cast. They were interesting and you appreciated them as people too. You started to sympathize with them. You did get invested.
APA: The characters were great -- Jus Rhyme, John Brown. All those folks were so interesting on their own.
JM: We got lucky. John Brown was an incredible, incredible character on the show. He's a really shrewd guy. He represents so much of what the phenomenon is: people who are attracted to hip-hop and want to be a part of it. They are genuinely inspired and excited by the music. But they're also aware of the baggage involved and try to figure out which way to fit in. And you're not quite sure if he's serious, if he knows he's clowning himself, or if he's sincere. Besides John Brown, Just Rhyme was an incredible person to have on the show. His presence was like a fucking huge present with a big huge bow on it, because this guy was so sincere and earnest and upfront for what he stood for.
APA: How did it do, ratings-wise? Apparently, good enough that VH1 gave you guys another show.
JM: It did well. It was a moderate hit. It's not a huge audience, but the people who get it, really get it and are really like, "This is the best shit I've ever fucking seen." People didn't get the show at the same time. I remember doing a radio promo for the show and people [wrote on our] MySpace page, "Stop desecrating hip-hop."
JM: And it's the same thing that goes back to the 'zine. "Oh God man, are you so caught up in this shit that you can't like step back and see the big picture?" Certain people got really offended. And certain people just felt like it was desecrating hip hop or thought, "Oh, the kids are whack." But it wasn't just a competition. It was also a social experiment. It was a lot of different things.
APA: Could there have been second season of that same show?
JM: I don't know. We thought about it. And we played with different ideas of different places to go, but it turned out that we didn't [want to do it]. Ultimately I'm glad that there isn't, just seeing all the messages from frustrated white rappers who weren't on the show. It's like, "Sorry, Money, you know you had your chance. It's too late. The window's closed. The ship has sailed. The definitive statement's been made, and you weren't a part of it." I love that to some degree.
APA: Let's talk about the new show: "Miss Rap Supreme."
JM: It's definitely more of a challenge. As hard as it is to do a show like "(White) Rapper Show" when you've never done one before, this poses an even bigger challenge in a lot of ways. We shot in LA as opposed to New York. This to me is a real "road game." Dealing with white rappers and shooting in New York -- that's in our wheelhouse. We're gonna take some good cuts and we can hit it out the park. This is just different. It's like an away game. It's tricky to get everybody focused in one direction, in one vision. It's a grind, man, [but] it beats interviewing rappers.
APA: Why did it end up in Los Angeles, as opposed to keeping it in New York?
JM: It was just logistics. But Serch is back as a host. He turned out to be a really good host in terms of the business of relating what needs to be done on the show, explaining the challenge, setting up rules. And he's a performer. He felt very at ease in front of the camera. And his co-host is Yo-Yo, which just makes sense because the location was the West Coast.
APA: Is this going to be like "The (White) Rapper Show" except with women instead of white people?
JM: The format is different. It's like a faux beauty pageant format. We're able to address the things that the industry dictated historically as being a priority for female rappers in a way where we also get to lampoon an interesting convention: [the beauty pageant as] a competition between women. It's going to be interesting. We'll see what happens.
APA: Last question: Hip-hop has obviously been a part of your life since very, very early on. It's helped define your life as an adult, and certainly, I feel very similarly. Based on where you are now in terms of your own age or life development, whatever you want to call it, is hip hop as meaningful to you today as it was let's say 10, 20 years ago? And if it's changed, what's changed about it?
JM: The music now doesn't necessarily mean as much to me, in terms of what's out there. Because it's not made for me. It's easy to slip into "Eh, music sucks now." Angry old hip hop guy. It's so easy to do that. I do it all the time. But I think doing the [Chairman's Choice] column for this many years has been good for me. Because it forces me to keep my ears open and it genuinely makes me feel good when I'm able to give light to something I really like. 'Cause this shit can't continue unless there are new people doing things. There has to be something new that you enjoy. Somewhere.