By Sidik Fofana
It was Meryl Streep’s character Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada who hipped the world to that cabal of trendy brainiacs who really make the cultural decisions. I’m talking the movers and shakers known as journalists. As editor of the fictional Runway magazine, Priestly was actually putting her too-good-for-fashion intern in her place when she told her that even her haphazard blue sweater was “selected for you by the people in this room.”
Minus the haughty dryness, Bonsu Thompson is the Miranda Priestly of Hip-Hop. As a journalist and editor for XXL, King, Vibe.com, and other primetime pubs, Bonsu has a major league say on which kicks are on your shoe rack, which rapper is on your ring tone, and which vixen is in your wet dream. He’s a cultural engineer influencing the rap industry like brokers influence the Dow. Luckily, he was nice enough to give us the blueprint.
Corner Boy Jazz: What have you been up to these days?
Bonsu Thompson: I’m pretty much at the independent stage of my life where I’m kinda being outsourced by certain brands. I’m still very much magazine affiliated. I still produce some work for XXL and I’m a correspondent for Vibe.com. They actually purchased my blog at the end of the year.
BT: I got my own company Dreamz R Real entertainment and you know, I’m just trying to get a lot of web programming initiatives off the ground and playing in partnerships so I’m busy.
CBJ: It sounds like that. I first got familiar with you on the journalism tip, reading King and XXL. You know how to get a lot of information out of people. You do it in a slick way, but you ask the tough questions. How did you develop your interview style?
BT: Honestly, my interview style is very much a part of my personality. Anybody who knows me knows that I’ve always been a very direct dude. I’m always hungry for knowledge and so I wanna get things done. I try to eliminate as many channels as possible in acquiring that answer by being direct. Not direct where it’s blunt and offensive, but more so where it’s conversational. I try to inspire the person to give me the answer that I want whether that’s through flattery, catering to their ego, or letting them know that I’m really much aware of the contribution that they made artistically. When a journalist seems prepared for an interview and they’ve done their homework, the subject is most likely to be a little more open with the interviewer. I don’t know if it’s a slick thing. I don’t know if you’re trying to trick anybody. I want the person to forget that the recorder is on and that this is for the media. I want them to feel it’s just a one-on-one conversation between two people and I’m curious to know X, Y, and Z.
CBJ: So do you have any written notes or do you go straight off the top?
BT: I always have a blueprint of what I want. I put out some questions. The funny thing is I never really plan my questioning way in advance. I may have things off the top that I automatically want to ask somebody or I know the public wants to ask a certain subject. I always try to throw my questions on a notepad or my Blackberry like on the way to the interview. I want the questions to be as fresh as possible. I don’t want to ask a question that I wanted to know the answer to a few weeks ago and something comes out online that addresses that in a certain form and it’s not even relevant anymore.
BT: So I try to keep it as fresh as possible. I’m definitely prepared, but nine out of ten times, just throwing those questions down is an exercise in remembering what I want to ask. It’s usually just a combination. You never want to be formulaic with your questions anyway. You can’t ask “What did you eat this morning?” then “What did you have for lunch?” because they may say something about breakfast that may start off something else. If they tell you they had breakfast with Bill Clinton, you can’t be like next question, “What sandwich did you have for lunch?” It’s more like, “You had breakfast with Clinton?” So I’m prepared for the overall story of being present in the moment to hit them with the follow-up to get that real insight.
CBJ: I feel you on that. So who was your best interview?
BT: Wow that’s tough. Honestly my favorite interview—I can’t say best interview—but I would say my favorite interview was with Andre 3000.
CBJ: Hmmm, what made that so good?
BT: Because number one, I’m a ridiculous Andre 3000 fan. If I had to pick a top emcee right now, it would be him, and maybe like Black Thought second, and then Jay-Z. I’ve been an Andre 3000 fan since his first verse on Southernplayalistic, “The Player’s Ball,” and the videos back in ’94. When he dropped The Love Below album, everybody was like, “Yo ‘Dre’s buggin’. You got one of the illest emcees in the game and now he’s singing on some American Bandstand shit, like what’s good?” We started the interview in Atlanta, which is one of my favorite places outside New York. I’m interviewing him and the first thing he said was, “You can ask me anything.” Of course, it wasn’t my first time interviewing him, but ‘Dre was somebody I wanted to get familiar with so that was like music to a journalist’s ears. We talked a lot about music and rap. We talked about his music and his direction with it. He told me his favorite emcee was Q-tip, but the majority of it, which I enjoyed the most, was just a conversation about his questions about women and his relationship with women and it was a very, very honest and almost vulnerable conversation because he had all these questions. You think about this guy who’s looked at as a superstar, extremely bright, a ladies man, and his questions are coming from a very childlike position. It was fresh and honest. I walked away with so much from it and he actually echoed a lot of my own questions and sentiments as well. I really enjoyed it. That interview still stands the test of time in my opinion.
CBJ: Wow. That’s serious. What’s an example of a question that he had that surprised you?
BT: Well, mainly about marriage. He said he didn’t understand the institution of marriage. He was like, “How do I know marriage wasn’t something created by God because he didn’t want nobody looking at his girl?”
CBJ: That’s funny. How do you personally feel about that?
BT: I was like word because it has to be some kind of discussion about Western marriage. Guys are constantly cheating and it doesn’t feel natural to sleep with one woman. It requires a lot of restraint and discipline. I’m wondering if it’s restraint and discipline or if it’s repression. If it’s repression, that’s not really good. You’re depriving yourself of something that you should have or something that feels natural. I always think there’s a level of discipline that should always be exercised no matter what you do, but it’s like to be so universally difficult and to feel so unnatural like what’s going on, what’s good? Are we going against nature’s grain? If you look at ancient civilization especially dealing with the darker people, their thing was men of a certain stature had more wives. But it wasn’t on some just running around fucking everything. It was on some like the more stature you had, the more money you had, the more wives you were allowed to have. If you could take care of your wives and your x amount of children, you were allowed to have that, you know what I’m saying? It’s not it’s like so you love me, you’re stuck with me and only me and I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. I think the older couple that goes through the trials and tribulations that come with marriage and are able to sustain those ways and do their thing and be monogamous is beautiful, but there are so many guys who are great, who are strong in their own way but fail in that area. Like what the fuck? What’s going on? Is it the human being or is it the rule?
CBJ: Yeah that’s philosophy right there, man. Speaking of relationships and women in general, you’ve interviewed and written about a lot of beautiful women for King and other mags. Have you ever had a romantic interest in anybody you covered like, “Damn I should get at her?”
BT: I kinda bitched up with Erykah Badu, that’s for sure. I have a ridiculous crush on Erykah Badu and that goddamn video (“Window Seat”) ain’t helping it at all. I’ve always been an Erykah Badu fan and a few years ago, XXL did their first R&B version, which was Hip-Hop Soul, which I actually went on to be Editor-in-Chief of for a few issues. My assignment was Erykah Badu. The then editor-in-chief knew I was a huge Erykah Badu fan. He knew I would have had a hissy fit if anybody else wrote that story. I went in to do the interview and when I sat down with homegirl, she was just as beautiful as I had imagined. Just her spirit, her tone, makes you feel comfortable. We didn’t really have a lot of time to talk, but even the time we had felt maximized. She was real attentive to me. She did not rush anything and was honest. I’m very professional, but it was like you can look at her eyes and be like, “I see why these dudes are running around in crochet pants and everything.” I could definitely see that. I could definitely be in a kufi, but I’m so paranoid about being unprofessional. I missed out on a lot of opportunities.
CBJ: On the flipside, have you ever been interviewing a model, singer or rapper and been like, “Damn, if I wasn’t mistaken she kinda giving me the eye a little bit…”?
BT: Oh yeah, absolutely. Girls are trickery just like anybody especially if you want somebody’s position or you think you can gain something. Women are always gonna try something. I remember crazy times with girls in the club. They’re showing me model pictures and all of a sudden a naked picture comes up and they’re like, “Oops, my bad. I’m sorry!” I’m like. “Yeah no doubt.” Girls try that shit.
CBJ: Hilarious. Most definitely. But yeah, how did you get into this line of work? How did you decide this is what you wanted to do?
BT: Man, I’ve been doing this since I was a kid. I’ve always been a writer. Coming up I thought I wanted to be a TV broadcaster and as I got older and learned the different professions that writing can offer you. I always flocked to creative writing. I’ve always been inquisitive about people so I wasn’t so much into being in front of the camera. I was into sitting with myself and getting my pen game on and fleshing out that story. I loved the writing process so as I got older I figured journalism would be it especially as Hip Hop journalism grew. It was my love, Hip-Hop music and then writing. It was like hell yeah. This is what I wanna do. I wanna write for the Source. So when it was time to go to school, to college, journalism had to be the thing. The funny thing is I actually got an internship at XXL while I was in college. I learned more being an intern than I learned in college journalistically speaking.
CBJ: That’s serious. How did you make the jump from intern to professional?
BT: Just paid my dues. I had the luxury of being around some really good people who were about to be really big like Elliott Wilson, who had an incredible reign at XXL. When he left the Source, he had a name in the game, but he wasn’t the man he is today. He really made that history with XXL, history that I was a major part of. I started out as an intern for Datwon [Thomas]. He was like an associate music editor or something and I was an intern. I was there when he got his first cover story, things like that. I was with these people on the come up, so basically I had to impress them. Elliott didn’t know me from a can of paint. He just got the co-sign from Datwon. I did maybe like two pieces for Elliott. He was sold. I got a job. From there, I just focused on impressing him. He was actually a music editor by heart, so he didn’t want to give up that music editor position and I was a diehard music head. I was official. Lyrics, songs, I knew it all. I listened to the most misogynistic music and then put on the most underground acoustic rap. He appreciated my diversity at the time.
CBJ: So what advice would you have for people trying to get into Hip Hop journalism in the future?
BT: I don’t know. Study with a great. Hip Hop journalism is not really great today. There’s a lot of media on the internet. A lot of outlets. A lot of people doing interviews and webcams and stuff like that, but it’s not as official as it was. So I think people should learn what it was so they could make it better in the future. I think we’re like in a holding pattern right now and we’re trying to feel each other out. It’s like the web’s too cool. The internet is like the new kids on the block. They don’t wanna give it up to the old g’s which is print and print is like, “We laid this down for y’all. Y’all can never do it like us.“ Until those two sides create diplomacy, I don’t know what it’s gonna be. I know I don’t consider myself a journalist. I’m more of a cultural engineer because I have my hands in so many facets of entertainment as far as music and A&R, management. My whole thing is I’m trying to present what’s not there already. There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are things not being done and there are initiatives not being capitalized on that can help the entire game and that’s what I’m focused on today.
For more from Sidik, visit his blog at http://cornerboyjazz.blogspot.com