Combat Jack and the Slow Death of Hip-Hop Journalism
The man formerly known as Reggie Ossé has passed away. But he showed us a path to covering hip-hop in a nuanced, informed way—a lesson many in the industry need to take to heart.
The death of Reggie Ossé (aka Combat Jack) at age 48 this past week after a battle with colon cancer reverberated throughout hip-hop corners.
As host of the beloved podcast The Combat Jack Show, Combat Jack was venerated for his wide-ranging knowledge of hip-hop—both the music/culture and the industry that has grown out of it—and his uniquely informed approach to interviews. He was passionate, legitimately connected (having been an industry attorney for years) and the perfect conduit between hip-hop’s rich history and the genre’s ultra-lucrative present. For almost anyone who wanted to become a podcaster and speak to that audience, Combat Jack was the blueprint. He may not have been the very first, but he was the standard.
“It was a way for me to start recording a show with my friends. It became like a private space with other people. It was very cathartic,” Ossé told Billboard back in September. “[There] was no thought about making a living out of it, as much as, ‘How could I compress from all the stress, and especially the corporate PTSD, I developed from years in the music industry?’... I just knew in my gut it was going to turn into something.”
With his passing, I’ve been thinking a lot about the state of hip-hop media. After 15 years of doing this professionally, 20 years of doing it for the love and 30 years of just being a fan, it can be frustrating to see how rare knowledgeable critiques have become in the most visible spaces; how disconnected various young hip-hop journos are from the genre’s decades-long history; how cynical we’ve all become about this thing that has given us so much in the way of focus, ideology and careers. Combat Jack presented hip-hop in a way that was engaging and intellectual—and authentic. His conversations with figures like Ice-T, N.O.R.E., Chuck D and Dame Dash helped illuminate some of the misconceptions in their public images, while his vast knowledge (bred from years as an exec and entertainment lawyer) gave him cred and made his show a free-flowing conversation amongst personalities who all “got” the culture because they were of said culture. Surveying the landscape of hip-hop media, we sure could use more of what Combat Jack gave us.
So many of hip-hop media’s flagship brands have either been shuttered or mutated beyond recognition—it seems that “the culture” is being carved up in a sort of digital colonization. And as hip-hop’s trendiness remains as steadfast as ever, that same trendiness is used to cheapen the scope of the art. Sites churn out “Top 10” listicles for a genre that’s 40 years old and a culture that’s almost 50, but how many create content that illuminates who these great emcees and groups were beyond just a name and a face and that one hit song that gets spun during “Old School” radio hours? Do fans recognize that hip-hop has a multitude of subgenres within its framework—or have we been conditioned by limited exposure to see hip-hop as a monolith? When there are platforms that care about addressing these questions, hip-hop undoubtedly wins, because the scope of it becomes more recognized. We don’t have to be WorldStar-meets-Bossip with some album reviews thrown in to remind everyone that we’re a “hip-hop site.” And it matters who is “minding the store.”
“I’m able to just jump into the meat of the real issues and real questions,” Combat Jack explained to the Columbia Journalism Review in July. “I don’t have to explain. It’s not arrogance as much as it’s pride in my culture and wanting to protect my culture and wanting to be one of those people of the culture that curates the culture. I don’t give a fuck about those that really don’t understand the culture. Black people have been in this country for 400 years, and it seems as if white America has been studying us for 400 years, and they still don’t get us. So if this were a class in college, a lot of white people will get an F in Humanities 101, man.”
Sometimes those who are making the decisions don’t fully understand why certain aspects of hip-hop’s voice have to be present in the commentary on hip-hop—especially with an industry rife with manipulation. Breaking down the nuances of the hip-hop industry is a necessary facet of how the industry is covered. Black music has traditionally been pillaged and exploited, and hip-hop is no exception. Having media voices that recognize this can help keep the public and artists informed as to how not to get jerked and why they should never believe the hype. But so many of the genre’s platforms are too politically-invested in the machine to ever call it what it is, and they’re selling off hip-hop’s soul by pimping themselves to that machine. But they can’t say shit when you poppin’—if your voice speaks to the people and the people show love, the industry will have to respect it. The machine needs the media as much as the media needs the machine; grow a backbone and hold the suits accountable for their lack of vision and surfeit of greed. Have someone on the writing staff who can speak to industry politics and broken business models with knowledge and clarity. It can be done. We’ve already been shown the way.
The variety of its voice is often under-recognized, and while we’ve gotten a barrage of biopics/documentaries/miniseries events about 2Pac, the Notorious B.I.G. and others affiliated with the iconic 1990s labels Death Row Records and Bad Boy Entertainment, so much of hip-hop’s past is pushed to the margins for the sake of telling the same six stories. You have the opportunity to explore the shifting landscape of early 2000s hip-hop, the decline and resurgence of the West Coast as a formidable voice, the necessity of indie rap in an ever-changing industry landscape and the evolution of production on rap records. There are so many angles to explore, and there aren’t those online exploring them. Do the big dogs know? Do they care?
Hip-hop media is suffering from a lack of knowledge. It’s been overrun by gossip and trends; and some of that can’t be helped in the age of scandalous clickbait and social media trending topics. But that doesn’t excuse the way we’ve shortchanged this music, art and culture by feeding to the lowest common denominator. Of course, it’s not everyone—but it is pervasive. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been so frustrated as a part of it all. Reggie Ossé was living proof that this thing does not have to be dumbed down or rely on controversy and drama to get the peoples’ attention. You can be knowledgeable. You can be passionate. You can be committed to presenting this thing in the most informed, nuanced light. And you can still win.
“I was going through this midlife crisis,” Ossé told Forbes in June. “And I’d found my second childhood as Combat Jack.”
We’re all better off for it. His second childhood could give us all a roadmap for how to do this thing right. He inspired me to want to be better at what I do. And I hope that others follow suit. We’ve been shown the way.
Long live Combat Jack.