XXL has had a banner year. From a comprehensive expose of Jay-Z’s move to the Carter Administration, to a plethora of XL ratings on numerous major and indie releases, now to their very own CD, 2005 watched XXL fly high. However, some critics argue that if Interscope Records is doing good, it’s only natural that XXL would follow suit. The magazine’s Founder and Editor-In-Chief, Elliott Wilson isn’t dodging any criticism or questions.
The controversy bleeds onto XXL Raps the forthcoming compilation that may connect budding Hip-Hop fans to the top-selling music mag. In a conversation with AllHipHop.com, Elliott Wilson sheds light on this plan, speaks on the controversy, and even reveals his early role in 50 Cent’s success. If that wasn’t enough, wait till you read what’s happening with Ego Trip’s Race-O-Rama, which will pull everybody in, even the girl that’s still watchin’ Channel Zero. This feature is extra extra large!
AllHipHop.com: It’s been years since XXL has established itself comfortably. Putting out a CD probably isn’t a hard thing – then, or now. What about 2005 let you know it was time?
Elliott Wilson: Wow, that’s a good question. It just felt right. We wanted to move slowly with stuff. We didn’t want to come out the gate. To me, we had to build an audience, build credibility, build the readership. I think, a lot of times, magazines will try to come out and right away [get above themselves.] Back in the day, we were like, “These are the greatest MC’s” – [we did] something controversial in order to get people to read your magazine. I don’t know, we’ve been grindin’ for six years. It’s a certain point where I can honestly say that we’re the number one magazine. The ABC Audit, which proves the numbers – our Soundscan, it says it. We’re number one – the top selling – not just Hip-Hop magazine, but music magazine on newstands. Now it’s time to really expand the brand.
AllHipHop.com: The last Hip-Hop project I can recall Razor & Tie Records being a part of was Prince Paul’s Politics of Business. Why did you go there?
Elliott Wilson: They’re an indie on the other side of the game. Not signing with a major, I don’t have to do favors for anybody. I don’t have to promise nobody no covers – getting their songs, or anything like that. I can be out here, and if you don’t wanna give me a song, don’t give me a song. I’mma find a way to put together a good enough album. The thing with Razor & Tie that’s good is that they have a lot of ties with TV exposure, which is good. They buy a lot of TV [advertising] time. That, to me, is gonna help sell my brand, XXL, to people who really don’t know about it yet. There may be a kid who only bought the issue that had Eminem or 50 on the cover. That kid is getting hit in the head – “XXL, oh s**t, I’ve heard about this. Okay.”
AllHipHop.com: You’ve got a nice crash-course of mainstream Hip-Hop in 2005 on this compilation. Certainly, people are missing. But are you trying to archive this period in time as well?
Elliott Wilson: Yeah, it’s actually the last year and year and half. I’ve got a Fabolous song on there called “Ghetto” that was on his last album. Some of it’s slept-on. What happens is – the biggest albums out now are the Now That’s What I Call Music volumes. That is shared by all the major labels, and they sort of pass that around to each other. What happens now is, you can’t really clear singles that well. What they call it is ‘holdbacks’ – and they hold the song to see if they can get it on a Now compilation. So I got banged in the head that we can’t play the single game. So let’s try to pick that rare banger – that album cut – Paul Wall’s “Trill” or David Banner and B.G.’s “Bloody War.” To me, that gave the album a harder edge. It made it the anti-compilation. Compilations are usually very Pop because it’s the big records that you hear over and over. Why should I put “Gold Digger” on a compilation when you gonna hear it on the radio 85 times? The Now series is basically White people mixtapes for middle-America. We live in this iPod generation – these songs are basically [a playlist of what] I think are dope.
AllHipHop.com: Did you do this alone or with your staff?
Elliott Wilson: It was all me [laughs]. But you know what, like I said, “Bloody War” with David Banner and B.G. – my Editor, Vanessa [Satten] loves Banner. I kept things like that in mind. But no, I hand-picked all the songs. My staff is busy making this magazine. It was a long, tedious process too. It took about a year to put it all together. I didn’t want them to get bogged down. I got a chance to sequence the album too. I feel like it flows good from beginning to end. I’m a real Hip-Hop fan. I grab stuff off the mixtapes every day and sequence them my way.
AllHipHop.com: Okay, since you’re mentioning that the sequence was your call – middle-America probably won’t pick up on it, but it’s pretty explicit – but you open with five consecutive G-Unit related songs on the album…
Elliott Wilson: I know where you’re going… [laughing] Okay, well the thing with G-Unit is, I had a 50 song, a Banks song, a Buck, and a Yayo. It’s like… when I listened to the songs and thought where they’d fall together – my first instinct was to separate them. I felt in the best interest, it really wasn’t sequencing properly. Their sound has a certain feel. I knew right away that I liked the record starting with “Evil Deeds” – kinda the way Em’s album starts, I like that energy. I felt “Ski Mask Way” was my one-two punch. It’s the Clive Davis A&R [theory]. They’re the two biggest motherf**kas, the two songs are their songs. That’s the way Clive Davis used to A&R back at Arista. He was big on putting the big records at the beginning of the record. Boom boom. Then I went to one of the G-Unit concerts at the [Madison Square] Garden, and I was like, “That energy is crazy. You know what? That’s really the feeling I’m going for. I wanna keep that energy up.” That crew is the hot crew right now. Hate it or love it, I felt like it flowed better. Boom boom boom boom. Also, it would make the haters mad too. I’ve always said, I’m not ashamed to support the artists that I think are dope. If they’re signed to Interscope, they’re signed to Interscope. I’m not owned by Interscope or Jimmy Iovine. I had to fight for clearances on these songs, like any songs.
AllHipHop.com: To look at the history, were you also the A&R for the Ego Trip’s Big Playback album?
Elliott Wilson: No, the Ego Trip’s Big Playback album – my boy, Chairman Mao did that one. I had a little bit of input. But he definitely put that record together more than the rest of us. [laughs]
AllHipHop.com: I’m always glued to your Editor-In-Chief letter each issue in XXL. For a letter to people who hopefully just supported your brand, you talk a lot of s**t in there sometimes to the reader. When you write that letter each month, who do you pretend you’re writing to?
Elliott Wilson: [laughs] I mean, it just comes out of me, man – whatever’s been goin’ on in my life that last month. Especially, the last week or so before. If I’m mad, I’m happy, it comes across. If I’m love, it comes across. If I hate someone, it comes across. People are gonna take it how they gonna take it. In the beginning, it was a bragadocious, “I wanna be number one. It’s obvious who’s number one magazine out here. I’m the new jack. I wanna take their spot and be number one.” That became the prevailing theme. I went after them crazy until it changed. I felt the torch was passed, then it became something else. Now it’s like industry battles behind the scenes, or just what’s going on in my life. I’m happy that people care enough to read it. I never felt anybody read an Editor’s Letter, so I’mma do the things that they say you’re not supposed to do – mention your competition, mention industry people in negative way, all that stuff.
AllHipHop.com: Hip-Hop magazine staffs seem to be changing a lot right now. Lots of revolving doors. Tell me about your staff at XXL…
Elliot Wilson: That’s the key to my success. That gets lost a lot in the hype and battles. I have a great, dedicated staff. Vanessa Satten and Bonsu Thompson were with me from day one. We’ve added people, and very few people have left. We have a devoted team who has worked together for several years. That’s key to me. You develop chemistry. I value my people – their skills and loyalty. I try to be competitive with raises enough to keep them happy, financially – but also empower them on a business level, to make decisions. If you talk to rappers and industry people, they’ll say, “I never speak to Elliott. I don’t know who Elliott is.” That’s ’cause I empower my team, and you have to go through my team to get to me. I definitely have the best staff in the game.
AllHipHop.com: The lifeline of a Hip-Hop journalist is very short. Do you hope to change that with this vision?
Elliott Wilson: I think I’ve always extended it by doing different things. I still have Ego Trip which started out as a magazine which I co-founded with my partner, Sacha Jenkins, and it evolved into books, and now television. Ego Trip is doing big things in the TV world. We’re trying to get more shows and just be on TV with more regularity, instead of just having these specials every once in a while. We feel like Dave Chappelle sort of opened a lot of doors for race humor. That’s our forte. Our humor is a little different from Dave’s – but we’re funny too. We’re not really the persons in front of the camera, but why not be the next Saturday Night Live and recruit these young, talented comics. I love magazines, man. I wanna create more magazines. I had this magazine, Hip-Hop Soul a while back, a R&B magazine, I’m thinkin’ ’bout relaunching that. I just wanna prove that not only can I make XXL number one, but that I create other successful magazines. I’m blessed right now.
AllHipHop.com: Every music journalist has a story of changing an artist’s career. What’s yours?
Elliott Wilson: I got one. It also leads into my alleged corruption from Interscope. People talk about 50 Cent always being on the cover. There’s a lot of reasons. One of the reasons is because I gave him a big five-page story before he even signed to Eminem. Kris Ex was a guy who had been cool with Sha Money XL, and he liked 50 and was connected to 50. 50 started putting out those early mixtapes – [many of which were] shot by this [photographer] who used to work for XXL. We did this feature before the mixtapes even really came out. Even in his MTV book, Kris Ex ended up doing his book. In the book, Fif says that we were the first national magazine to give him that kind of love. What it was, was when I was at [The Source], you had to put things in different categories. You couldn’t just do a five-page feature on a new artist. But this is XXL. There’s no rules here. That definitely helped his career – the foundation was set. Artists remember that first look. The reward was that he signed with Eminem and Interscope, who at the time, we had a feud with. That helped bridge that gap. 50 was like, “What’s wrong with XXL? Those dudes are good.”
AllHipHop.com: Lastly, being the competitive dude that you are – if Steve Stoute or Jay-Z ends up buying The Source, then what happens?
Elliott Wilson: Oh, I’d crush ’em. Come on! [laughs] I don’t care who’s runnin’ it. I took the crown, I’m not givin’ it back. It fits nice on my head. It leans to the side. [laughs]