Ah yes, my dysfunctional superheroes: Chairman Jeff Mao, Sacha Jenkins, Elliott Wilson, Brent Rollins, and Gabriel Alvarez. Together they are ego trip. Frankly, no one classifies who they are and what they do better than them so here it is, straight from ego trip land:
“Contrary to popular rumor, ego trip is neither a cult, a terrorist cell, nor an off-Broadway theatre troupe with dreams of performing a rap-gospel stage play called A Johnny Blazin’ In the Sun. (Although the thought has crossed our minds. Repeatedly.) ego trip is, in fact, a multi-hued, multi-faceted, five-person creative collective based in New York.
It’s modus operandi is to continue a hell-bent path (which began in the independent magazine world) infiltrating all forms of underground and national media with the expressed interest of turning them a darker shade than pale. This mission includes writing mo’ mind-bogglin’ books and producing mo’ electrifyin’ television / film projects. And eventually (Lord willing), hamburgers. That’s right. Hamburgers. Oh yeah.”
The roots of ego trip trace all the way back to a “once upon a time” hip hop newspaper called Beat Down founded by Sacha Jenkins (1/5th of the ego trip crew) in NYC circa 1992. Jenkins later recruited Elliott Wilson and Chairman “Jefferson” Mao after running in the same circles as hu$tlin’ freelance writers for publications like Urb, Rap Pages, and Vibe. Together they conceived the ego trip love child: a hip hop lifestyle magazine (off shoot from Beat Down) that covered everything from skateboarding to indie rock to Smif-N-Wessun. In other words, it was way ahead of its time. I should mention, Gabriel Alvarez eventually became the managing editor and Brent Rollins joined the magazine after it’s third year as Art Director. Oliver Wang of “Asia Pacific Arts” perfectly captures ego-trip’s anti-essence and its lasting influence on hip hop headom:
“As ‘the arrogant voice of musical truth,’ ego trip took a strident, sardonic tone that cut sharply against the conventional style of major magazines such as The Source or Vibe. It made ego trip the favorite publication amongst a small but intensely loyal group of fans, especially other rap writers for whom a byline in the mag was a mark of privilege. Even 10 years after its end, ego trip is still widely considered by many to be the best hip-hop publication ever.
Unfortunately, I was too young to have been one of those loyal fans but not too young to have followed them after the magazine’s folding in 1998 and ego trip‘s rebirth into a “budding multimedia empire” (Wang). In 1999, ego trip published an instant cult classic Big Book of Rap Lists: a rap aficionado’s guidebook tailored for the ADD generation (read: LOTS of pictures, diagrams, charts and an excessive reliance on wit/obscure popular culture references). As comedian Chris Rock put it “It’s the best book I’ve ever read-and I can’t read!” By 2002, ego trip debuted another “fearlessly funny, encyclopedic in scope” book called Big Book of Racism. Described by Amazon.com as…
“…a glorious, hilarious conflation of the racial undercurrents that affect contemporary culture at every turn. This one-of-a-kind encounter with the absurdities, complexities, and nuances of race relations is brought to you by five writers of color whose groundbreaking independent magazine, ego trip, has been called “the world’s rawest, stinkiest, funniest magazine” by Spin.
Filled with enough testifying and truth to satisfy even the good Reverend Sharpton, ego trip’s Big Book of Racism is a riotous and revolutionary look at race and popular culture that’s sure to spark controversy and ignite debate.” Word up!
More recently, ego trip has produced two vh1 hit reality series: “The (White) Rapper Show” and “Miss Rap Supreme”. However, I still hold ego trip’s vh1 sponsored Race-O-Rama and “TV’s Illest Minority Moments” (original name: Race Riot) series closest to my heart. In both series, ego trip got famous folks (John Singleton, Kelis, Outkast, RZA etc) to tackle controversial/provocative questions about race and race relations with the utmost honesty and well, absurdity. One of their more famous bits “Dude, Wheres My Ghetto Pass?” explores/makes fun of white people’s obsession “with all things black” — for the first time artists were actually talking about cultural appropriation, interracial dating, racial/ethnic fetishes in hip hop/popular culture AND they managed to keep it funny and interesting all at the same time. Impressive. Although I thoroughly enjoyed “The (White) Rapper Show” and John Brown in particular (King of the Burbs, SWVs/SATs), I’m still a bit nostalgic for the earlier days of ego trip. The fact remains: anything these dudes touch turns to gold. I can honestly say, as a young naive (and simultaneously jaded/cynical) writer, I draw significant inspiration and strength from ego trip and its success over the years. Apparently, creating a think tank of quirky multiracial politically minded and effin’ hilarious writers, journalists and hip hop heads is possible (granted they’re all men). So, who’s down? They have my dream job and their humble beginnings serve as a cliche reminder that I can be anything I want to be so long as I start off doing shit work for Vibe, Urb or Rap Pages? And clearly adopting a witty @$$ name like “Chairman Mao” can’t hurt. The point is: research these guys, be on the look out for their next projects. I swear, ego trip is unstoppable and smarter than all of us. I wish they had a blog…
Click here for a podcast with Brent Rollins and Robert Alvarez
Click here to read an extensive interview with Chairman Jefferson Mao