Embarking on a transformative journey from an outcast Lebanese-Cypriot kid on Australia’s Central Coast to the heart of New York City’s rap scene, I forged an unbreakable bond with hip-hop during its Golden Era, with its pro-Black consciousness and self-empowerment ethos.
Defying adversity at every turn, I emerged as one of Australia’s foremost hip-hop journalists, eventually becoming Content Director at the iconic Source magazine. Living in New York for a decade, I immersed myself in the culture, interviewing the artists who defined an era.
Now, 50 years since the birth of hip-hop, I’m looking back at the pivotal moments that have graced my remarkable career in hip-hop. Each is a testament to the enduring power of hip-hop’s influence and my forever love for it.
I kick myself every day for losing this audio file! Aaliyah was filming Queen of the Damned in Melbourne, and her publicist pitched a phone interview with Juice magazine, where I was an editorial assistant. Juice focused on rock and pop music, and its senior editors had no interest in hip-hop and R&B, so I was given these incredible opportunities as a 20-year-old intern. Aaliyah and I were around the same age, which made for a great conversation (I remember us both fawning over a mutual crush on NBA star Allen Iverson). She was sweet, warm, and driven.
Months after our chat, I celebrated my 21st birthday on August 26 (America is a day behind, so it was August 25) with my extended family when news broke that Aaliyah had died in a plane crash. I rushed to the desktop computer, frantically typing in her official website. On the homepage was a heavenly image of her surrounded by stars. She had passed. I cried like a baby.
After signing with Def Jam in 2005, Rihanna released her first two albums: Music of the Sun (2005) and A Girl Like Me (2006). In early 2006, she joined fellow Def Jam act Ne-Yo on an Australian promotional trip, where I interviewed them both in Sydney (they returned for the Roc Tha Block concert tour later that year). I sat with an eighteen-year-old Rihanna in her hotel room for an intimate, extended talk about growing up in Barbados, her newfound fame, her shyness, and her excitement at making her dreams come true. Even as a teenager, she was unequivocal about not being pigeonholed as an artist. She told me, “I like to be creative, take risks, and try different things.” (I recently found this classic footage and will post it soon.)
Mary J. Blige (2009)
While living and working in New York City, I spoke with the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, Mary J. Blige, at the opening of The Mary J. Blige Center For Women in her hometown of Yonkers. During the centre’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, an emotional Mary broke down about overcoming a dark incident at five years old and growing up surrounded by domestic violence. When it was time for our chat, we shared a warm hug, and she told me giving back to her community made her “heart full”.
I mentored girls with an organisation called New York Youth At Risk, so I asked Mary if a centre like this would have made a significant difference earlier in her life. “Absolutely,” she said. “I probably wouldn’t have gone through so many abusive situations I’ve gone through while I was Mary, the superstar.” She paused to reiterate that point, giving me a moment to process her profound observation and then asked if I understood. I did. She continued. “I would have been prepared. The centre is for this — to prepare young women. So you’re not covering up with Gucci and jewellery, because that’s what I was doing. I was covering up, but inside, I needed someone to come and rescue me.”
Nipsey Hussle (2009)
I was honoured to meet Nipsey Hussle when his star was rising. I organised for him and two other emerging West Coast rappers, Roccett and Mr Finley, to model at an event for my then-employer, DrJays.com, in Las Vegas. I also featured Nipsey in Summer Sensations, a digital fashion campaign for new talent I created for the retailer. Nip had an intelligent aura, and a quiet strength, which sparked instant curiosity to learn more about him. From our first meeting, he made it clear he was ready to leave the streets behind to make it in the rap game. His untimely death is a heartbreaking tragedy.
Nicki Minaj (2009)
For the same Summer Sensations fashion shoot, I booked another young talent taking the industry by storm: Nicki Minaj. Dramatic, poised and professional, Nicki was readying the release of her breakthrough mixtape, Beam Me Up Scotty, with the lovely Deb Antney managing her. Nicki had Safaree, her very attentive ‘wardrobe stylist’, trailing her every move. We later found out he was her long-term boyfriend. I told Nicki she was already a lightning rod for rap fans and asked what her detractors didn’t know about her yet. She said: “They don’t know that I’m the strongest when I have an obstacle. The more you hate on me, the more I will become a superstar.” And she did just that.
When I asked Louisiana rapper Webbie on the red carpet of the BET Hip-Hop Awards about his outfit for DrJays.com, his response came out of the blue: “I got a big dick!” I played it off lightly, probably letting it slide quicker due to the chaos of the red carpet than I would have if we were seated for a one-on-one chat. But years later, I reflected on how his approach wasn’t excusable.
The talent reporters interview in hip-hop is often hyper-masculine, even a little oddball, and female journalists are encouraged to develop thick skin early on. Especially before the #MeToo movement, it was assumed that women in rap must roll with the punches. However, considering our individual and often disparate thresholds of respect and disrespect, it can be murky waters.
Iggy Azalea (2011)
I was sceptical when I first learned about Iggy Azalea, a white girl from regional Australia rapping with a thick American accent. Still, her growing buzz was undeniable, and it felt right for me to conduct her first-ever on-camera interview. Iggy’s management organised it when she was in New York for CMJ Week, an annual music festival. We filmed the chat inside the stairwell at DrJays.com’s Union Square headquarters. When we started chatting, it dawned on Iggy that she knew who I was — the former editor of Urban Hitz magazine in Australia — and we developed a great connection. We talked about her new visibility, rapper growth, industry peers’ feedback, her famous booty and more. She had a total artist vibe from day one, and I believe she was destined for success.
Kendrick Lamar (2012)
For Invasion Radio, I chopped it up with future Pulitzer Prize winner Kendrick Lamar on the eve of good kid, m.A.A.d city, his critically acclaimed major label debut. Kendrick is a deep thinker and highly knowledgeable, with fame mapped out from a young age. I asked him about going through his old photos to choose one for the memorable album cover, and he replied: “You know what’s crazy? I had this premeditated for years.” He exclusively revealed the track tied to that image (‘Black Boy Fly’) and went “On Da Spot” with DJ Scram Jones and me with a classic freestyle.
When DJ Steel took over the reins of Invasion Radio from DJ Green Lantern, we created a new comedic bit called The Threesome. We meant for The Threesome to be a light-hearted, sexually-themed series, but numerous artists revealed information that, in hindsight, I should have taken much more seriously. Like the time Nelly (who always gives great interviews) disclosed that he lost his virginity at 14 to a girl who was 17 — which technically means he was raped. To this day, I deeply regret somewhat trivialising the topic and not examining revelations like that one further.
A$AP Rocky (2013)
I brought my two great loves together — hip-hop and mentoring — when I chatted with A$AP Rocky in front of a group of teenage mothers in his birthplace of Harlem. A snowstorm hit New York City that afternoon, so he trudged from his Soho apartment through crazy weather to come uptown and sit with us for hours at the National Black Theatre.
During our discussion, Rocky acknowledged it was the first community event he’d ever done, which was uplifting. He told me he was doing it in honour of his mother, who was also a local teenage girl when she gave birth to him. Rocky took time to get to know the young people in the room by listening to their ambitions. One girl, who wanted to put her dance videos on YouTube, told him she feared what people might think. “You’ll love life way more if you don’t care what people say,” he told her.
Simone Amelia Jordan is a journalist, author and mentor living on Gadigal and Wangal land. Get to know her here. You can pre-order Simone’s upcoming memoir, Tell Her She’s Dreamin’: A memoir for ambitious girls, here — it’s out on August 30. She’s also hosting a trivia night to mark the 50th anniversary of hip-hop on Friday, August 11 at New Britannia in Eora. You can learn more here.
Image: EPA and Kiko Huesca / EPA and Etienne Laurent / Getty Images