It's All Happening with Justin Hunte
From investment banking to freelance writer. From freelance writer to HipHopDX Editor in Chief (EiC). From HipHopDX EiC to HipHopDX Video Strategist/Brand Ambassador/Business Development Executive. Justin Hunte has overcome and accomplished milestones in various different career paths, making him undoubtedly knowledgable through his experiences.
He sat down with us back in 2014, where we covered topics such as the layout of HipHopDX, the difference between Los Angeles and New York, and his very own blog "The Quotable." Now, Justin Hunte revisits JRECOGNIZE where he shares his position transition at HipHopDX, dealing with controversy, OG Maco being one of the most important voices of this generation, advice on getting involved in the music industry and more!
You went from HipHopDX Editor in Chief to Video Strategist/Brand Ambassador/Business Development Executive, what does that entail?
Really my primary focus is continue to expand the brand into new avenues and new markets, so one of the things that was unique about my tenure as Editor in Chief as opposed to previous EiC’s is that I was the first EiC to actually work in LA while the company had an office. One of my earliest tasks was making sure everyone in LA (but also everyone in music who came through LA) knew that HipHopDX was now a physical company and they need to come see us. We were virtual for 13 years before that.
Another task that I had was to develop a video platform/video programming opportunity (however you wanna describe it). You remember, a lot of my time was spent with the video team trying new ways to make content that was profitable for the organization. In a way, the Brand Ambassador is an extension of those responsibilities along with looking at new opportunities for revenue through some of the things that we created in our video program that have been successful, one of which is the show called The Breakdown. It’s wildly popular within Hip Hop at this point.
So we’ve had a number of conversations with different production companies and studios who are interested in licensing the content, licensing our video opportunities. Also we’re exploring the podcasting opportunity to take our video content to more platforms. We’re about to announce partnership with Daily Motion, kind of like the YouTube of Europe. As well as expanding our DX Live and other live streaming programming.
Brand Ambassador includes a lot of those things, as well as Business Development Executive but also when it comes to just different partnerships we have SiriusXM, Shade45, The All Out Show for example. We do a show on Tuesdays with Rude Jude, we talk rap news every week, so that’s an extension of that, as well as different speaking engagements and panels and such. It’s kind of like what I was doing before but with a bigger emphasis on video strategy and partnerships and less emphasis on overall content strategy for the site.
I remember you kind of wanting to hone in more on these ideas you had to expand HipHopDX. So when I saw that you had changed your position I thought it was so dope that now you’re able to focus on what you’ve been wanting to do, not that you didn’t want to be Editor in Chief but... you know!
No, you’re right! From where the organization was when I took over as EiC to where it is now — mission complete. We have awareness. People know DX is in LA. Everyone in LA knows HipHopDX and everyone in LA has come through at some point in time at this point. Just the number of ways we’ve been able to integrate into the culture is more dynamic than it’s ever been before so I’m excited about that.
For me the one challenge that I had as Editor in Chief was being so far away from content on a consistent basis and it’s more of a strategy job, definitely more of an editing role, more of a managerial position. I loved every moment of it. So now I’m at another point where it’s awesome to be able to focus on specific content opportunities and ways to expand those, too. I’m ecstatic. Trent Clark is the new EiC of HipHopDX and Chris Mitchell is now the Managing Editor of the site. They’ve been doing an incredible job these first three months, so 2017 is going to be awesome for the site.
I’ve been watching The Breakdown and it’s super dope! I’m curious as to how you come up with the topics for them? I feel like they can get really controversial.
That’s when I realized that these things are actually working — when they’re causing conversation and causing discussion (and in some cases causing friction), then I think things are going in the right direction. The thing about The Breakdown, it’s honestly an extension of the DX Daily we used to do all the time. We started breaking down whatever the biggest story of the week was on the Fridays before with mixed results, mixed levels of success. We made a few subtle changes that ended up opening up our audience significantly. The Breakdown will shift between topical things like, “I Miss the Old Kanye West,” when Kanye was on a rant talking about his support of Donald Trump. That was significant in the sense of it was just something unexpected of someone who has made so many public statements in the direction that seemed to be totally opposite of what Trump was talking about. But that one is solely based off of that week when Kanye happened to say that. Same thing with — it used to be called “Beef with The Game” and now it’s “Game’s Beef with Meek Mill” — that was solely about The Game versus Meek Mill which was the biggest topic that week. We just took that basis of the conversation to open up a broader discussion on police brutality.
That’s really what the Breakdown does. The Breakdown at its core looks at the world through the lens of Hip Hop, as opposed to looking at just world news maybe with an anecdote about Hip Hop. We’ll take a topic like DMX — this is how his career was, this is the impact he had, these are the challenges he had, how he talked about them at various points in time, how he talks about his battle with addiction and then that opened a discussion about mental illness. Most people don’t realize that addiction is a form of mental illness because past a certain point the ability to make wise decisions for yourself erodes after you become addicted to substances.
That’s the overall goal every week. Weeks where there is a very big news story like the other week: J. Cole to me is filling this Nas role and people got really upset at me when I said that. The thing that’s interesting about that is because the similarity that I see is you have these two artists who are consistently criticized for similar reasons. The beat selection for example, arguably a lack of evolution over the course of their careers. Arguably. But they have such strong fan bases. You can’t go into a rap concert and talk bad about Nas. You can’t go to a rap concert and talk bad about J. Cole because their fans love them so much and to me that’s similar. They’re both speaking up on issues that are happening in the world. They’re talking about societal ills that are affecting Hip Hop culture, Black culture, minority culture consistently. They both have at some point expanded on creative ideas that have already happened in a space or maybe come from other artists. Not to call them biters but they’re not afraid to expand on things that we’ve seen in the space before and that was a topical discussion because J. Cole’s album came out, it was the biggest conversation that week. So we’ll do that.
But we’ll also look at the GOAT series which is completely evergreen. There’s probably 30 to 50 different artists - if you listed their accomplishments on paper, if you look at the impact that they’ve had to different communities or throughout Hip Hop, they have a real argument as to why they could be the Greatest of All Time. Hip Hop is a medium that is competitive and being the best is something that is paramount, it’s in the back of every artist’s mind. Somehow we end up talking about the same five artists all the time. It’s always Biggie and Pac and Jay and Nas and Eminem. It’s five or six guys that are talked about as GOATs and I’m like, "Whoa, what about Redman?" Redman created Eminem to some degree, you know? If you look at Redman’s whole early albums when he came in. It was Redman and Reggie Noble alter ego thing. Eminem borrowed that from Redman. If you look at his first album and the second album (Whut Thee Album & Dare Iz A Darkside) he produced quite a bit of those albums. Most people don’t think of Redman as a producer. With Whut Thee Album he used funk samples and that album came out before The Chronic came out. He was on G Funk before Dr Dre. He’s a multi million album sold artist who’s been in movies and television shows and rocked with Christina Aguilera. He was a superstar. Why can’t he be the GOAT? How come he doesn’t show up? Most people don’t think of these type of things so that series specifically aims to talk about those topics.
The other week we just dropped one which was called “Carolina’s Finest: Do Hip Hop Regions Still Matter?” and in 2017 we’ll do more pieces that are more regional based. One thing I thought that was great in 2016 was that North and South Carolina artists had a lot of light. If you look at Rapsody’s new project Crown. Well’s had a great project called The Way I’m Living Makes My Mom Nervous. Awesome album titles and really talented artists. Nick Grant had one of the best BET cyphers in 2016, he’s been rapping circles around those people. All these people are from North or South Carolina and you see them all doing positive things. J. Cole — he’s from North Carolina. You see all these people doing positive things but they’re not collaborating. That’s a very similar story that I hear when I go to other regions. When I go to Dallas, or Austin, or Minnesota, or Denver or any place that isn’t New York, LA, Atlanta. There’s some version of “Yea man artists here we don’t really work well together.” I don’t think any of these artists that I mentioned in The Breakdown are necessarily in conflict with each other but at the same time you got more artists from North and South Carolina that are making noise at the same time. The region itself, North and South Carolina made significant contributions to Hip Hop for 20 years. For 20 years you got artists that have come out of the region and have done amazing things. You turn on the TV you see Aziz Anzari he’s from South Carolina. Stephen Colbert, he’s from South Carolina, Charlamagne tha God is from South Carolina, Anthony Hamilton from North Carolina, Fantasia. You have so many talented people coming from this region but nobody knows about North or South Carolina. Somehow they escape having an identity. I don’t know if that’s necessarily good or bad but at the same time you have all these things happening and these people aren’t necessarily working together the way that we think about New York, or Chicago or LA or Atlanta. It really opens a discussion on whether regions are important at all anymore. We’re all from the internet. Does it really matter where you’re from? I don’t know. I’m not even sure. So The Breakdown really takes a long cut approach to an open ended question that I genuinely don’t have the answer to most of the time.
I feel like in media, definitely in music, everyone seems to have all the answers all the time and as a journalist I literally ask questions for a living. These are things I genuinely don’t have the answer to - so that’s what we try to capture in The Breakdown.
In “Hip Hop Hates Mumble Rap” you mentioned OG Maco being one of the most important voices of this generation.
The light hasn’t really been focused on Maco yet so there’s a lot of things that I’m privied to that I don’t think are common to listeners or to the audience just yet. Maco was writing for some of the most important people in music without people knowing this. He’s written on albums that did incredibly well in 2016 and 2015. His credits might not be on their albums. This is one of the ways the music industry works. I’ve been in a number of conversations with people who are very influential either in the streaming side, the label side or just on the creative side and his name comes up consistently. That’s just stuff that comes back to me from some other place. My interactions with him — he is one of the most genuine people to talk to that I’ve met on or off wax, so to speak.
But the thing that resonates the most, I implore everyone to watch any Maco interview ever. He speaks truth to power when it comes to social issues, when he talks about the importance of education, the importance of originality. The first time I sat down with him was in 2014 or 2015, I can’t remember, at South by Southwest and it was right after “Bitch You Guessed It” dropped. I just thought that whole song was just another example of a throwaway tune that would probably disappear within the next 18 weeks or so. The thing that surprised me most with my conversation with him then was how much he hated that song. He hated that song. He was like, “I made that song as a joke. I didn’t even want to make that song. All of a sudden I made it and people said to put it out became it was a viral sensation. But that’s not who he is and that’s not necessarily his perspective. Away from just what his messages are, the things he talks about away from music he’s released, or the influences he’s had from much larger artists who sell a ton of records, he is actually making very progressive sounding music. Inspirational, motivational awareness that comes through in a really hard, really grimey way.
I think from a creative standpoint what he does with his voice, the perspective that he has and the avenues that he’s been able to touch prior to his own notoriety in two to three years I don’t think there’s going to be any question about the type of person OG Maco is and the impact his words actually have on people in other industries.
I caught a lot of hate for that one though. But even just analyze what he said in that little clip from “Hip Hop Hates Mumble Rap” that clip is a great point!
Maco isn’t one to hold his tongue in either direction when he sees something he really believes in or he sees something that he hates but I think he makes a really great point. For him to do so in that scenario in an honest way is something that we’ve seen in people who’ve become bigger voices even outside of Hip Hop. Killer Mike doesn’t hold his tongue. Kanye West doesn’t hold his tongue. I’m not necessarily comparing him, the music he’s making now, or the impact he’s had to what those guys have done over the course of their careers. But if I’m looking at where artists are starting? It took Killer Mike a long time to really blow up in a certain way. He was making a much bigger impact before people realized how far his web really reaches. Same thing for Kanye. I think the best of Maco that’s still to be seen.
Going in the direction of controversy, I feel being in the Hip Hop industry you have to have a strong backbone. And I’ve come to find that no matter what if you’re putting work out into the world, you gotta be able to handle criticism. Especially since your line of work and your opinions cause controversy or spark discussion, how do you personally handle criticism?
I don’t mind criticism as long as my research is tight. It doesn’t bother me anymore if people disagree with me. I’m fine with that. The problem that I have is if I got something wrong. Those are the things that stick with me and those are the things that I try to rectify later. Like I did a “Breakdown Rebuttal” and I was looking at the DMX Breakdown and I felt like I didn’t do a good enough job, a solid enough job of connecting the relationship between addiction and mental illness. It was very easy to do so and I just didn’t do it. Some of that filtered into the comment section and I was like, “Man if i had just put in another 45 seconds it would’ve been a little clearer what I was trying to do.” Those are the things that stick with me.
In terms of people disagreeing with me or the conflict that comes when people are having passionate discussions, I think that’s part of life, that not just a part of Hip Hop. We just went through an entire Presidential election cycle and there was a lot of passionate conversations going on on TV. Somebody was raising their voice at somebody about something they really believed in. I actually revel in that now. When I first started my career, I used to feel like I needed to be the expert on everything and I needed to know everybody's Wikipedia page like the back of my hand and the next 12 pages of their Google search like the front of my hand. That kind of takes the fun out of the conversation ‘cause now I’m just sitting there talking to them about everything that I know about them. But what actually makes them talented isn’t necessarily what they’ve accomplished, it’s their perspective on the world that allowed them to accomplish those things. So I don’t mind when I share my perspective or I offer open ended questions or a series of reasons why I think about something and someone has something totally different to say that makes them feel that way. I think through that exchange is hopefully how we both get smarter but definitely I get smarter. That’s been one of the best things in my career is the opportunity to talk to people who have accomplished so much. In most cases with so little. And it wasn’t necessarily because they were always in a room full of people who agreed with them. The backchannel conversations usually are the ones that end up being the most pivotal.
I think people remember Kanye West’s last call off of College Dropout and on that one he’s sitting there talking about one phone call he had with this artist that he was trying to sign to his production company that ditched him and went to another label. There was another part in that same outro where he’s talking about how there was only one guy at Capitol Records who believed in him and nobody else did. These are backchannel kinds of things that I’m sure helped Kanye West approach the next few years of his music career from the business side.
I have an interview that’s dropping with Charles Chilly Patton, he’s Lupe Fiasco’s business partner. He’s the one who’s currently serving 44 years in jail over heroin charges. Lupe’s battle with Atlantic Records has been almost at the forefront of his Google searches at least, something he’s been vocal about and we’ve only really seen the public side of Lupe talking about it.
The head of the label didn’t like Food and Liquor at all, according to Chilly they didn’t support it. Chilly refinanced his house, pulled out a hundred thousand dollars off of his house, pushed “Kick Push” to radio with their own money and that’s how that song first caught traction. That will put you in a different position on how you look at your contractual situation with your label if from the beginning they not only didn’t like your music but you had to mortgage your own house for it to become successful on its own. That’s really not what people sign to a label for. You sign up with a partner so that you can have financial support behind your music. They didn’t need a label to do that. That makes me look at what Lupe’s talking about — he hates 360 deals, Atlantic Records, he wants to retire and often sounds frustrated — well that’s three albums and five years later. It was like that from jump street!
So those are types of things that happen behind the scenes and are the things that you only really get a chance and opportunity to learn by asking really good questions and having the opportunity to be in a conversation with someone that’s coming from a different perspective and has more information. I don’t mind at all when people disagree on my opinion on “How to Beat Drake in a Rap Beef.” I’m just using that off of things that I’ve seen and research that I’ve done. If you think that I’m 100% wrong and you have an incredible way to explain it, that’s awesome. Because now I know what I said, the research that I did, I know that that’s not wrong. I know that now there are more things to add to it, which can still change the entire story. Or maybe we just end up in the same place but it’s just more colorful. But that back and forth, that discussion, is what’s powerful and impactful about life, not just Hip Hop.
Making your way up in this industry, I’m sure there’s been a lot of obstacles and what may have seemed like failures at the time for you. Could you give me an example of a time where you felt just so discouraged (perhaps as a writer) and how you personally overcame it?
In 2010, I got my first job running a website — BrooklyBodega.com — and Brooklyn Bodega is the organization that puts on the Brooklyn Hip Hop festival which is one of the largest Hip Hop festivals in New York City. Everything in that organization is built around the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival and in a way the website is a promotional tool for the festival. They allowed me to run it. It was a volunteer job but it was a bigger platform that I had at that time and I was in love with the organization. I have a lot of respect for Wes Jackson and everything they’ve accomplished over there. I put together a content strategy that would help amplify the artists performing that year at the festival. It was my first time managing a staff, at least an editorial staff, having weekly calls and doing all the big build up. The focus was our main day festival coverage and then the benefit (what I thought was going to be the jackpot) was after the festival while the rest of the organization is quiet, because again everything revolves around the festival and the festival takes place every year in July. I’d still be able to amplify the brand with all this content that was still going to be coming out that was exclusive, original and to be picked up by other publications. So we’d be able to carry on the importance of what happened at the festival but also the impact that the organization was having within the culture, even off cycle.
But right after the festival that year, the website was hacked. So I couldn’t even access the website. Because the organization is so wrapped around the festival, the website wasn’t making very much money and it was like they didn’t care. This website is down. I can’t post all this awesome stuff that we did. I spent all year, a lot of firsts (managing a team, etc.), preparing for this particular time and it seemed like no one cared. No one’s moving on this. No one is calling up somebody wherever trying to fix stuff. The main thing I did in that organization was run the website and I just felt dejected. I couldn’t run the content anywhere else because it was proprietary. It was exclusive to Brooklyn Bodega so I couldn’t put it on my own blog or sell it somewhere else. That would be just shady or underhanded. And I wasn’t getting paid. The benefit for me was that I got access to artists that I didn’t have access to and now I can publish stories based on conversations and experiences that I had with them that would help further my own personal brand. I couldn’t do that. I just fell into a hole for 10 days or so and just slept late and took naps all day and closed my eyes and smoked a lot of weed. After 10 days my girlfriend Laurel was like, “Yeah there’s other things we can be doing with this time.”
After myself self loathing ended, it ended up being a blessing to a certain degree because it was the first time I thought about seeing what other opportunities there might be. I still had access to the radio show which I had just started hosting, so I was in my first three months of hosting radio. That was steroids to my brand.
Then I started writing for Patch.com and covered local news. Expanding my portfolio by writing about restaurants and small businesses and just local stuff. Really boots on the ground journalism. The time that I had that I was free because the site was down I was able to increase the freelancing that I did for HipHopDX, which became paramount within the next year because that's how I became Editor in Chief of HipHopDX.
That moment I had no clue what would happen. I was a year and a half off of quitting my job and I had these grand dreams of how I was going to become the greatest rap writer of all time. Here I didn’t have a platform to publish to and an organization that didn’t to care because truthfully it cost them more money to run the site and plus they spend all year putting together the festival, then they go on vacation. That was a very, very challenging time. It was the first super challenging time I had in this industry. I had had three or four major ones after that but that was the first one that I encountered and the thing that I learned from that one was there’s always other opportunities to contribute. When those other challenges happened later on in my career I reminded myself of that time explicitly because some of my best writing came from that site being down. When I didn’t have an artist to talk to consistently, when I didn’t have stories just handed to me (that I basically just had to transcribe and turn around), that’s when I was closer to becoming a journalist. I had to go out and find stories and make them interesting. Shake hands, network in new ways, build trust with organizations, find things to talk about and that’s something I remind myself of constantly when I think things aren’t going the way that I want them to.
What does success look like to you?
I’m already successful. I write about a product that people don’t buy. I shouldn’t exist. If you really think about journalism in general, people put more stock into what their friends say on Facebook than what somebody reports. We have elections that were skewed by fake news and Russian hacking. Denzel Washington quoted Mark Twain and said you read the paper you’re misinformed, if you don’t you’re uninformed. It’s just such a weird murky area. We literally had Trump talking about the media on his campaign as the enemy and he didn’t start that. Everyone blames the media for anything. You do an interview with someone, you write down what they say and they change their mind two days later, they’re mad at you. In this space, talking about music culture, people don’t buy music, people haven’t bought music in a long time. People stream music. You don’t need to go to a website to find out what the hot song is. You go on Spotify, see what Discovery suggests. It’s a totally different game.
The fact that I have an opportunity, that my job everyday is to wake up and contextualize what’s happening in culture, the music culture specifically, Hip Hop culture even more specifically, and I get paid for it and I have insurance — that’s already successful. My overall goal hasn’t changed since I first started in this journey. My goal is to be the greatest rap writer of all time with a consulting firm and there’s different touch points that I’ll hit along the way on my personal journey. This is my second dream job. I worked in investment banking for six years. I loved that. I said I wanted to write about rap, within three years of quitting banking I’m EiC of my favorite Hip Hop publication ever. I moved to Los Angeles and got to build video reps.
I’m doing good right now. I’m excited about this journey and for these next couple checkpoints but the thing that’s most important, the thing that will always be important, is that for me success is based on my own personal goals and my ability to hit them. I’ve been fortunate enough and on time enough to hit those earlier than I expected. I had a five year plan after I left the bank, it took me three.
For someone who wants to be involved in the music industry in some way, shape or form but doesn’t necessarily know everything that goes on behind the scenes — what advice would you give to them?
One, they should know explicitly is what it is that they want to do. I wouldn’t tell anybody to get into the music industry and just try to kind of figure things out. There’s not a whole lot of money in the music industry all together. Not necessarily from just money in general but the money that is available to most people in the industry is generally consolidated towards the top. So you have the label owners or the big name artists, they’re getting the largest chunk of the pie. The distribution services, the streaming side, there’s the tech side of it, they’re getting the next piece of the pie. Not a lot for that junior marketing person or for that aspiring PR agent or that writer. So it’s not a place that you go if you’re sitting here thinking you’re trying to get paid. It’s a place to go if you want to go to a lot of concerts! But not a place to go if you want to stack chips right away. It’s a very difficult thing to do. So I say first thing is know exactly what it is that you want to do and make sure you don’t lose sight of that. The music industry is fun because it’s based around people having fun. There’s a lot of distractions and so our work is other people’s leisure. There’s a lot of work that goes into a 21 Savage show and not a lot of people that are making money at that 21 Savage show. Most people there spend money and give it to 21 Savage for entertainment in return. It can be very difficult to go out there, cover a show, have a fun time, go home that night and cover a story and have it up the next day. Then happen to write your other assignments. When do you sleep? How much did you actually make for that story that you wrote? How many people actually read that story that you wrote in the first place? Knowing exactly what you want to do is paramount.
Second of all is to be relentless at it because, I say this all the time and the reason why I say it all the time is one because I’m noticing it now at this juncture of my career. I started writing about rap in October 2006 on my own personal blog for the first time and so I just crossed 10 years and my goal before (again) was to be the greatest rap writer of all time, actually back then I just wanted to write the greatest rap review of all time. That’s just where I started. I thought album reviews were the greatest thing ever. I didn’t realize in three years they’d be irrelevant. When I looked downstream it was really crowded. There were a million writers who I read everyday who are doing things, are more talented and have bigger audiences than I did. Ten years later, there’s a lot less people still around. A lot of people who were around haven’t had opportunities that I’ve had. There were writers that I was reading every day in 2006 who never became Editor in Chief of a site. So you have to stick with it! Had I quit (for example when I was so discouraged) I would’ve never made it to this point. Being relentless at what your goal is also paramount. You cannot lose that and that’s extremely important.
The third thing is, look at what the future of music looks like with sincerity and try your best to understand it. It’s one thing to read music publications and know what’s happening but also take a look at Ad Age and Adweek. Try to understand how publications are making their money. What’s happening with ad rates? Are ad rates increasing but are publications still making less money because of where people are engaging with the content? Most people’s audiences are primarily mobile now. People make less money on mobile because their screens are smaller, so ads are smaller. Most people don’t consider that. Understand what that might do to a publication if you’re looking at being on the writing side.
What are you afraid of losing?
You know I just got over a big one. In September is when I announced I was going to step down as Editor in Chief. In 2015, we hired Trent Clark in December and we brought him on board (in the back of my mind to become the next EiC of DX). I didn’t talk to him about it, he didn’t know that that was my plan. Neither did the organization. Personally I felt like my time in tenure as Editor in Chief, at my most effectiveness, was passing. As the date came closer and it was going to be announced, I started feeling this incredible fear of, “Fuck will I still be as cool if I don’t have this title?” Again there’s not that many EiC’s in music publishing. You’re literally talking like nine to ten people and I had the fortune of getting one of those slots probably too soon in my life, in my career, and here I am forfeiting it because I have other goals for my own reasons. But I’m forfeiting it. I didn’t wash out.
I just really felt I had to do something different, it was time to move on. I was terrified of what that actually looked like. I was terrified of my phone not ringing. What am I not going to be invited to? Who’s not going to call me? Am I still going to be cool if people don’t think that I’m a gatekeeper of some sort? So I was absolutely terrified. After the announcement came, I mean you gotta push forward. My fear of losing cool points I actually delayed the announcement by two weeks. I actually took another two weeks before telling people because I was literally that scared. Change is scary. I have to remind myself that the times I’ve been the most scared (and the scariest situations), that’s when I actually had the biggest leaps.
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