How a Few Great Hip-Hop Journalists Won in Hollywood
Some of the genre’s best and brightest come together to talk about why they made the transition from rap magazines to TV and movies—and how
It’s easy enough to pinpoint the birth of hip-hop: August 11, 1973, when Kool Herc threw that pivotal back-to-school party for his sister at 1520 Sedgwick Ave. in the Bronx. Doing the same for dedicated hip-hop journalism, though, proves tougher. What we do know is that college student David Mays started The Source as a one-pager at Harvard University in 1988. By 1993, Time Inc. had launched Vibe; XXL would follow in 1997. While other titles like Rap Pages, Rap Sheet, Ozone, Murder Dog, and more would surface over the years, that Vibe/Source/XXL triumvirate would own newsstands throughout the late ’90s and early 2000s.
Around that time, the star writers at these magazines began to get itchy. They’d written cover stories and pivotal features about hip-hop’s biggest names, from Biggie and Pac to Nas and Eminem. What was next? Los Angeles began to beckon; the film and television industry offered more creative freedom, more money, and less drama.
It took some time, but over the past decade, a tight group of hip-hop journalists from that era has racked up credits in film and television both scripted and reality-based, from network series like Empire to acclaimed documentaries like Nas: Time Is Illmatic. Their work includes Oscar nominees and festival darlings, big-budget revivals and Marvel streamers, with more titles on the horizon. Recently, LEVEL brought some of them together for a conversation, in which they pull back the veil on how Hollywood really works. Sometimes it’s all about who you know, among other things—but when you’re doing it alongside folks you were in the trenches with in another life, that’s not so bad.
Aliya S. King: Let’s talk about getting started and the real deal on getting put on. This question is for you, Erik Parker. Every time I ask you for advice about making the move from journalism to entertainment, you tell me to just go do it. I say, “I want to do a documentary. What's the first thing I should do?” And you say, “Go make a documentary.” I say, “I want to do an unscripted show; what first?” And you say, “Make an unscripted show.” I get what you mean. But what does “just do it” really look like?
Erik Parker (Smoke: Marijuana + Black America): I work in the documentary genre, and coming from print journalism, our skills definitely translate, especially the reporting and interviewing. You really do need to trust yourself and just do the thing you want to do. Laura used to do some fact-checking when we were at Vibe. That definitely translated into her work in documentaries as well.
Laura Checkoway (Edith + Eddie): Absolutely, it did. Aliya and I, we were pretty closely connected during the time that I was making my first doc. So, she saw the process.
King: I did. And it was exhausting.
Checkoway: I was freelancing as a magazine writer and writing Prodigy’s book. Then, I had written this photo essay for a magazine about a woman named Lucky. She was dynamic and had such presence, and I just wanted to follow her with a camera and let her speak for herself.
King: You ended up following Lucky for years.
Checkoway: Six and a half years. I had no idea it would take that long. But that doc was my film school. Over those six years, it was me with a single camera and sometimes a cinematographer. I had to learn how to direct, produce, edit, by any means necessary, because that’s what the job required. I’ve had moments since then where I have literally wept while editing my films. Because if I had been able to hire someone for the first one, I would not have learned how to do it myself.
King: Erik, you know something about doing it all yourself.
Parker: Yeah, back when I was still working at Vibe, I always loved Meet the Press, and I thought I was the next Tim Russert. So, I came up with The Parker Report. I rented a studio. Found some shooters. Invited some friends to be panelists. And I was like, let’s do it. It cost me about $2,000. I sat down with an editor for a month to get it right. And then I put it up on YouTube. That’s it. I kept doing it, putting episodes up on YouTube. Eventually, MTV Jams took notice, and it ran there. So, at that point, I’m a producer. And a director. And an editor. And a host. On one show. That was the moment when I thought, “This is it. I’m going to keep doing this.” But I had to do it myself first.
King: Kim, what was your aha moment? You were writing for unscripted shows. And now you’re executive-producing. When was the moment when you knew you could run a show?
Kim Osorio (Love and Hip Hop: New York): It was one moment in particular that switched the gears for me. In unscripted, the writers get no respect. It’s all about the producers. So I knew I would have to write and produce. Producing means doing everything––especially fixing problems. I once had to pull a cast member and the head of a production company into a room. They’re arguing; the show is about to get canceled. So they finish shouting, and I say, calmly, “Are y’all done putting your dicks on the table?” It’s silent. I said, “We’ve wasted a lot of time and money on this show. Perhaps we can put our egos to the side and get back to work?” I walked out of the room and said to my boss, “Now that I’ve saved your show, can I have my co-executive producer credit?” And that’s what it took to get my skill set recognized.
Carlito Rodriguez (Empire): I think writing is more respected in different genres. Dick Wolf is a powerhouse producer. He started as a writer/showrunner. [Production company] Bad Robot, was started by a writer, J.J. Abrams. Shondaland: started by a writer, Shonda Rhimes. Writers can become movers and shakers on their own. Because no matter what you have going on, you need a writer to bring that joint to life.
Elon D. Johnson (senior creative executive of production and development, Tyler Perry Studios): This is it. You also have to make sure you recognize your own skill set—and exactly what you want to do. I knew that my space was storytelling. I had done it for years as a writer. I knew going into film would be just adding pictures to those stories.
King: Erik and Laura gravitated to documentaries while Kim started out writing on unscripted shows. How does someone just starting out figure out which medium they want to work in?
Johnson: Work in all of them! I knew I wanted to work in all the mediums. I wanted to do scripted, I wanted unscripted, I wanted film. I also knew that I wanted to be in a development space because what I really love to do is go into a world. I want to work with these writers and dive into these characters. That’s the storyteller in me. I tell people, “Don’t worry about choosing a medium. Do what feels right to you.”
Checkoway: And because we work so hard in so many different roles, we sometimes have to take a step back and realize we’re actually doing it! You think you haven’t chosen a medium or a role, but you have. I’d been working in documentaries for years when one day, I was grappling with something on set, and one of my producers, Neyda Martinez, stopped me and said, “Laura, you’re a director. And you are directing this documentary, like right now.” Sometimes someone else has to tell you. But that was a moment.
King: I love that. Cheo, you’ve been the godfather of leaping from hip-hop journalism to film and television for all of us. You’ve told every single person on this call, “Get out here to L.A. and start working in film and television. Now.” What was your own moment?
Cheo H. Coker (Luke Cage): I realized all of us in New York were all fighting for the same $5,000 cover story. And the competition was crazy because it’s such a small ecosystem. If you write for Vibe, can’t write for The Source. And if you do this for The Source, can’t write for XXL. All of us were fighting for the same money. I’m like, nah. So, I developed a relationship with John Singleton after a story I wrote on him for Vibe around the time of Rosewood. Even before then, my uncle, Richard Wesley, wrote the screenplay for Uptown Saturday Night. So, there was precedent, and I knew I could do it.
King: But you still had to develop the relationships and show what you could do.
Coker: Right. So, I went to see Get on the Bus with a bunch of industry people. After, we were at [director] Mario Van Peebles’ house, and we just sat around and talked film all night. We talked until 7 in the morning. The thing that struck me was all these guys were talking about film and what they were writing, what they were about to direct, and what they had already directed. They were all living their dreams. And I said to myself, after hanging out, do I want to blink and still be at the L.A. Times, writing stories about people pursuing their dreams, or am I going to just jump in the pool and try to do it myself? Writing about Biggie led to me writing the screenplay for Notorious, and I didn’t look back. You have to decide when you’re ready. Taking the leap is the biggest step you have to take.
King: Carlito, I guess it was 1999, maybe 2000; we all got out of work early at The Source and walked over to a theater to see a premiere of an animated series you were doing called Station Zero. And I remember thinking, “Dang, this is it; Carlito's out of here.” But you actually stayed at The Source a bit longer.
Rodriguez: First, like many of us, I had to break the gravitational pull of The Source. When you work at these magazines during that time, you’re hot. We’re at the top of the food chain. So, when I got the opportunity to run The Source, I’m really thinking, “Do I want to do this? I’m trying to get into television.” But you don’t not run The Source. So, I did. And it was great. Until it wasn’t. Kim, EP, Aliya—y’all know what I’m talking about.
Osorio: Um, yeah. We did that four-part cover. Jadakiss was on one cover.
Parker: Nas was on one…
King: Suge Knight was on another cover.
Rodriguez: And then Dave [Mays] tells me that Benzino is getting a cover too. [sighs]
Osorio: Good times.
Rodriguez: At that point, I was like, “I’m not making a case for why Benzino should not be on the cover of The Source. It’s time to go. I’m out.”
King: You quit. But you still didn’t go to L.A. right away.
Rodriguez: I thought I could stay in NYC and break into television from there, even though the whole industry is in L.A.
Johnson: I thought that too. But you have to spend some time in L.A. You have to be in the belly of the beast. I was already in New York doing television. But L.A. opened up my world. I met people. Got in the right rooms. Started to understand what the money really looked like for different gigs. People talk about money in person—not over the phone. After three years, I could go back and forth from New York to Los Angeles. And then, a year ago, I get the call from Tyler Perry Studios, and now I’m in Atlanta. But yeah, Los Angeles is necessary. It may be different right now. But eventually, it will go back to normal.
Rodriguez: Everyone has that make-or-break moment like Cheo said. Where you have to decide the next step. I had actually moved into a brand new apartment in Harlem. I was literally painting my living room, and I was like, “Wait. What am I doing here?” I knew I had to go to L.A. And then, as soon as I made the decision, I got an assignment to write an essay on the birth of hip-hop. They were paying me $2,500. I said, “Y’all are in L.A.?” I said, “Hold that check. I’ll pick it up.” And I came out here.
King: Was there a sense that magazine folks would look out for each other?
Rodriguez: I emailed Cheo when I got out here. We didn’t know each other particularly well. We were just from the same hip-hop magazine world. So, I asked him stuff like, “What are the best practices? What do you suggest? I’m thinking about making this move, what do you think?” And to his credit, he was instantly open. He hit me up like, “Give me a script to read, go meet this person”—all of that. He was super open from day one. You need that out here.
Coker: Yeah, like I needed you to write for Luke Cage, and you hit me back and said, “Thanks, but I gotta do Empire.” [laughs]
King: I did not know this. Carlito, you had to decide between writing for Luke Cage and Empire? How do you say no to Cheo?!
Coker: Nah, I told him he had to go to Empire. I told him to. It’s not that I didn’t believe in my show. But network television? Brian Grazer? Residuals? Luke Cage was on Netflix, and streaming wasn’t then what is now. I said, “Yo, you gotta do Empire.”
Rodriguez: It was definitely a game-changer for me. I’ve had some serious opportunities come out of working on that show.
King: Laura, what was your game-changing moment?
Checkoway: So I didn’t have that much experience with Hollywood or the film industry because I was so wildly independent. Then, in 2017, my second film, Edith and Eddie, was nominated for an Academy Award. That changed everything. This is a no-budget documentary, and now I’m in these rooms and spaces?! It was all because I just kept moving.
King: That’s what Erik’s talking about. If you build it, they will come.
Checkoway: Although sometimes it feels like what you need to make the next move is that thing you need. It’s like that Mos Def line from “The Questions”: “Why do I need ID / To get ID / If I had ID / I wouldn’t need ID.”
King: Where does your journalism training come in handy on a set?
Coker: After all these years, I can get star-struck on a set. If I’m working with Mahershala Ali or Regina King, and I’m like, “I have to tell these people what to do?” Just for a hot second. And then, I remember, if I were interviewing them for Vibe or The Source, it would be easy. So, I just ask them questions, like I’m interviewing them. We all know how to sit across from anyone and ask some questions.
King: There’s also a lot less yelling in film and television. I would imagine.
Coker: That’s the thing. In some of my meetings in television, people will scream on each other. And inside, I’m chuckling. Because in our world, yelling in a meeting can turn into a fistfight or worse real fast. I remember leaving the television studio after there was a shouting match. And no one was in the parking lot ready to keep it going. I’m like, “Oh. I can handle this.” [laughs]
King: What about when it comes to deadlines? Those of you who are writers, it’s a more solitary experience in film and television—and with more time.
Coker: I always remind myself when I’m stuck on a page in a script. Two hundred and fifty words is one page of a script. Which is the same as a record review [in The Source]. And I knocked those out easy.
Selwyn Seyfu Hinds (Twilight Zone): For me, it’s the wild frontier of it all. Right now, I’m working on a dramatic series that will have a dramatic budget. [laughs] But this is nothing for me. When I was 24 years old, I walked into The Source from The Village Voice, and I was told, “You’re the music editor now.” And this is the most influential music title on newsstands. And I’m like, “Cool, what does a music editor do?” A year later, I’m told, “You are the editor-in-chief.” And I’m like, “Cool, what does an editor-in-chief do?” [laughs] We all had to figure out the frontier.
King: Like when you said, “Aliya. You’re the staff writer. Go write stuff.”
King: There will be people reading this who are trying to move into film and television. What I’ve gathered so far is: Prepare to get to Los Angeles once the pandemic is manageable.
Parker: You don’t have to move. But you have to be flexible.
King: And, you have to be prepared to save your pennies and make your project before you even know how to make your project.
King: And it doesn’t hurt to have connects with people in the industry.
Coker: We look out for each other, for sure.
King: You will all receive copies of my script at the end of this call.
Meet the roundtable
Background: Vibe staffer, 2001-2007
Recent project: Edith + Eddie
Up next: Documentaries The Cave of Adullam and Eshete
Favorite journalism moment: “Working with Prodigy on My Infamous Life: The Autobiography of Mobb Deep's Prodigy”
Cheo Hodari Coker
Background: Vibe, The Source, XXL, Urb, The Bomb Hip-Hop Magazine, Rap Pages, Spin, Rolling Stone
Recent projects: Luke Cage, Diary of a Trap God
Up next: Adapting the book 40 Acres for Netflix with Jay-Z and James Lassiter
Favorite journalism moment: “It’s a tie. My first Source cover, which was an Ice Cube profile, and ‘Chronicle of a Death Foretold’ for Vibe about the final days of The Notorious B.I.G.”
Selwyn Seyfu Hinds
Background: Village Voice, The Source
Recent projects: Twilight Zone (“Replay”)
Up next: Spike Lee’s Prince of Cats, Washington Black for Hulu
Favorite journalism moment: “Cover stories on Puff and Dre. Back to back. Summer of ‘99.”
Elon D. Johnson
Background: Freelance writer 1999-2007: The Source, Vibe, XXL, Essence, Honey, Juicy, King
Recent projects: Forthcoming scripted drama series (TBA)
Up next: Developing multiple scripted dramas and comedy series for various networks and streaming platforms
Favorite journalism moment: “My 2002 cover story on Beyonce for Honey.”
Background: EIC of The Source, 2003-2005
Recent projects: Executive producer, Growing Up Hip Hop, Love and Hip Hop New York, Hustle in Brooklyn, Black Ink Chicago
Up next: Untitled docu-series (still not announced)
Background: The Source, Vibe
Recent project: BET’s Smoke: Marijuana + Black America
Up next: Top-secret limited series for a major network
Favorite journalism moment: “The cover story I wrote on Nas for The Source in 2001.”
Background: The Source, 1996–2002
Recent project: Uptown, BET miniseries about Andre Harrell and his groundbreaking label
Up next: Co-creating (with my wife, Leah Benavides Rodriguez) a drama series for HBO titled Thirst. Vampires in hip-hop, oh snaps!!
Favorite journalism moment: “At the risk of self-aggrandizing, I dug my column, Carlito Ways. I wrote about upcoming music but also dropped in some cultural commentary. I also have fond memories of compiling and editing some pretty dope feature packages, from one on the prison industrial complex to the history of the infamous Lo-Lifes. Those kinds of articles made me feel like we were legitimately chronicling and influencing our culture.”