A Family Affair: How Jack The Rapper Elevated the Business of Black Music
By Walker Smith
Photos by Gregory Ross
The following words from industry pioneer Jack “The Rapper” Gibson (as told to Walker Smith) provide a fascinating window into the “glory years” of his highly influential black music convention “Family Affair.” This passage is excerpted from Mello Yello: The Incredible Life Story of Jack The Rapper.
It all began with a suggestion from Sadye: “Jack, why don’t you revive that newsletter you used to do when you were with Stax?”
I thought, why not?
So we hired a girl in our complex named Barbara to type up our first newsletter — one page on legal-sized paper with print on the front and back. I think I just called it the same thing I had called it at Stax — “Telling It Like It T-I-S-is!” And, of course, since I was rappin’ my ass off, as usual, I just kept going by “Jack the Rapper.” I did a pick of the week, and rated the top singles and albums, but I added something new. I decided to run my own style of editorial pieces about the condition of the black music industry. If there was somebody to be told on, I was ready and willing to do it. The ending line was always the same: “Stay black till I get back.”
When we went to get it copied, the man told us he could give us a good deal if we used this goldenrod paper stock, which was a sunshine-yellow. Guess he was overstocked with that color. I didn’t mind, because, if nothing else, that wild color would get the newsletter noticed. Anyway, we bought enough stamps to mail it out to all the disc jockeys and record companies we could think of, and waited for a reaction.
Well, we definitely got a reaction! Several folks called to tell me how much they liked it, but a couple of folks threatened to sue me. I just laughed the threats off. “Oh, please sue me,” I said. “The notoriety of a lawsuit would bring me just the publicity I need.”
Guess what? Nobody sued.
After a while, I got wind of a nickname that somebody had given to my newsletter: the Mello Yello, because of the color of the paper it was printed on. I laughed at the irony, because all my life, I’d been called a yella nigga. So from that day forth, the newsletter was known as Mello Yello.
Now we were rolling. Before long, everybody was reading the Mello Yello like it was the bible of black music. Not only for the tips and ratings, but to see who The Rapper was gonna barbecue on any given week.
The idea of a convention began rattling around in my brain when I heard about a bad scene at Billboard magazine’s regular convention. Some of my friends in black music told me that they had attended, but found themselves standing around in the lobby with nothing to do. It seemed that, as far as Billboard was concerned, black music was not important enough to have any seminars or events dedicated to it.
As you might guess, I proceeded to raise hell in the Mello Yello. I talked about Billboard like all kinds of dogs and got threatened with a lawsuit from them. I gave them my standard reply: “Please sue me. Oh, please. You’ll make me bigger than baseball.”
They didn’t. Probably because they knew that what I’d written was true, but I’m pretty sure that their lawyers must have figured out exactly what I was thinking. The publicity would have benefited me and hurt Billboard.
The mighty little Mello Yello pressed on.
What had started out as a one-page newsletter was now a 16-page weekly tip sheet. We began to get advertisements and subscriptions, and we were finally financially stable. I began to gripe about every issue that came up, and I never ran out of things to gripe about. Sometimes it created change, sometimes it didn’t, but it always made folks aware of what was going on and I guess that’s a good thing. Once, I remember there was a white disc jockey in Washington, D.C. who was an early shock jock like Howard Stern. He called himself the “Grease Man.” Well, after all Stevie Wonder’s work to get Dr. King’s birthday passed as a legal holiday, it had finally happened. And the Grease Man went on the air and said, “Well, they finally pushed through that holiday for Martin Luther King. If we kill four more of ’em, I guess we’ll get ourselves a whole work week off.”
Not only did I rant and rave about that remark in the Mello Yello, but I initiated a letter writing campaign to the FCC to get him off the air. Week after week, I was relentless. “Grease Man must go! Write the FCC today!” The FCC received more irate letters about the Grease Man’s racist statement than they had ever received before. They pressured Grease Man to issue a public apology on the air, which he did. Coretta Scott King contacted me to thank me for standing up for her husband’s memory, and that made me feel good. But not as good as I would’ve felt if the FCC had snatched that damn Grease Man off the air. All we ever got was that apology, and that S.O.B. went on doing his show like nothing had happened. But I’m sure that after we lit that fire under his ass, he thought twice about making any more cracks about dead black heroes.
The Mello Yello was now officially a hit and things were going better than I had ever dreamed. In fact, after a year or so, we were actually making enough money to venture out into the idea that had been tapping on the door ever since I left Disneyworld. A big convention. A Black Music convention.
The very first “Jack the Rapper Family Affair” was held at the Colony Square in Atlanta, Georgia in June 1977. The plan to make June “Black Music Month” was in the works, so we figured June was the perfect month for the Family Affair. Later, when the bill was passed, off I went to the White House for dinner to celebrate with President Carter and his family. By that time our annual convention was a powerhouse in the music industry.
In the beginning, we chose Atlanta because I knew from first-hand knowledge, that Atlanta was the birthplace of black radio. Remember the Kid back at WERD, beltin’ down his Big Mary’s corn liquor and playing the jams? That was “Dr. Jockey,” slappin’ the baby on the butt. So there was no other possibility for our conventions, and I had come full circle — back to Atlanta.
The Mello Yello gave us the perfect springboard to announce the launching of “Jack the Rapper’s Family Affair,” and we began to get registrations right off the bat. Sadye was my right-hand lady for registering, and she was so good at handling people, she just took a big load of the work off my back. With my know-how from my time with Disney and Sadye’s hard work, we put together something that most people thought was impossible. And we took pride in it like it was our third baby.
Sadye helped me in my dealings with catering departments and obtaining sponsors; I secured the hotels; and we came up with the idea of an awards ceremony to be held on Saturday night of the convention. We gave awards for every aspect of black music, including Best Song, Best Artist, Best Disc Jockey, Best Album, and for outstanding achievements in different areas of the industry.
I remember some of the recipients were Marvin Gaye, Cameo, Kool and the Gang, the Gap Band, the Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff, and Snoop Doggy Dogg. But there were many more. In honor of my old buddies in the “Original Thirteen,” I named an award after each one of us. So there was the “Tommy Smalls Award,” the “Larry Dean Award,” the “Jack the Rapper Award” for rap. Some of the rappers who received that one were Heavy D, Ice-T and Dr. Dre. We even had an award for comics called the “Redd Foxx Award.” I remember Martin Lawrence received that award one year. We put the word out that the Family Affair was strictly a formal affair, and it quickly became a big-time social event in Atlanta.
The first year, CBS sponsored the dinner and the speaker was none other than Minister Louis Farrakhan. That was some speech! There we were, all dressed up “frontin’” and the Minister wrung us out with his speech about responsibility to our people. I’m sure there were more than a few folks there who felt guilty when he finished, because they were there to party and outdress each other. But the Minister definitely brought us back to earth. And after he finished with us, Joe Tex took over and turned the place out with “Skinny Legs and All.” That night set the tone for the next 18 years — we had a little bit of everything.
We conducted seminars during the day, which addressed the issues facing black radio. Then we’d break for a luncheon, which was also sponsored by one of the record companies, and back for more discussions and meetings.
But there was a lot of partying going on. At least until Sunday morning, when we did a Gospel Music Breakfast. But starting with Thursday, the record companies would throw non-stop parties in their respective suites, and everybody had a good time while they were networking and promoting their records.
After a few years, we had so many industry people wanting to sponsor seminars or dinners, I ran out of things for them to pay for! After all, there are only so many hours in the day. That’s when I decided to add another one called “Rappin’ in the A.M.” That was held from 2 to 5 in the morning. And the sponsors snapped that one up, too. Now, with all this activity going on, about the only sleep I got was late at night, just before “Rappin’ in the A.M.” started. But that was soon turned into “Midnight With The Rapper” which ran from midnight to 2 a.m. Oh, well. Who needed sleep? The Family Affair had become a round-the-clock event and my name was on it, so I just stayed up. My whole thing was giving the Family Affair the personal touch, so I had to be where things were going on — no matter what hour it was.
Shortly before the first Family Affair in Atlanta, Sidney Miller kicked off the first “Black Radio Exclusive” or BRE Convention in Los Angeles. Black music now had two strong voices in the industry, and we were determined to make change. We agreed to space out the conventions through the year so that everyone could attend them both. And looking back on that, I’m very proud of us for not falling into contention with each other. There was room for us both, and Lord knows black radio had been pushed aside by white radio for long enough. So we coexisted peacefully and got a lot accomplished.
By the third year of the Family Affair, we had outgrown Colony Square. So we held it at Peachtree Plaza in 1979 and ’80. That year, we had a wild night with George Clinton and his Dr. Funkenstein act. Bob Marley was there too; I believe it was his last appearance before his death. Before long, you couldn’t turn around without bumping into a celebrity. Aside from the multitude of music stars, folks like Jim Brown, Marla Gibbs, Bill Cosby, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Reverend Al Sharpton, Wesley Snipes, Daddy King and Joe Jackson came out to party with us. Mayor Andrew Young and later, Maynard Jackson, always attended.
I always liked to make a grand entrance at the awards dinner (the ham in me was always in charge). I’d wait until everybody was seated and walk in wearing one of my wild suits. My buddies Frank Edwards and Ed Fizer escorted me in, and that always got everybody’s attention. Now here’s what I meant by the personal touch: I’d start at the back of the room and stop by every table to shake hands and chat with every disc jockey, or music company employee. I’d kiss all the ladies and tell everyone how nice they looked before thanking them for their hard work in black music that year. Then I’d dip back into my old folksy radio style to make everyone from the back to the front of the room feel at home. And I did it one by one:
“Hey, man. This yo’ woman?”
“Yeah, Jack. She sure is.”
“Well, she ain’t gonna be for long. Good as she look, I’m takin’ her up to my suite tonight and you won’t be nothin’ but a memory!”
So they’d laugh and enjoy my silliness. And I must’ve been enjoying it too, because I don’t know how I came up with things to say to everybody, but I did. I guess I was just genuinely happy to see so many folks having a good time together. And it felt good to know that Sadye and I had made it possible.
We had convention books filled with paid advertisements, official T-shirts, caps, bags, you name it. Not only did sales of those items pay for the convention, but they made a profit. So we were practically set for the next year’s convention before the current one was over.
By 1981, we moved the convention to Dunfey’s and booked the entire hotel. Since Dunfey’s had a pool, we added a pool party to the convention schedule, and somebody sponsored that. It was at Dunfey’s that Eddie Murphy made an appearance at the Family Affair. He did 90 minutes and to’e the place up! We had Janet Jackson and LaToya Jackson that year too, and Minister Farrakhan made a return appearance at Dunfey’s as our speaker.
After four years we outgrew Dunfey’s and moved to the brand new Marriott Marquis. We were the very first convention held at the new hotel. The affair was nice that year, except for a racially motivated incident involving a white hotel employee who was supposed to be assisting us. He had the nastiest attitude I’d ever seen on a cracker, and I’d seen plenty, believe me. He had been under the impression that ours was a convention for radio and TV. in general, and assumed that the attendance would be mainly caucasian. Well, when he saw all of us, he complained about the “atmosphere” we created in “his” hotel.
Guess he didn’t like black atmosphere.
Well, tough. Because I wrote a letter and fought tooth and nail until I got that cracker removed from his position at the grand new Marriott Marquis. We decided not to go back anyway. So we moved to the Marriott at the airport, and threw an even bigger convention the following year.
Well, everything was going more than smoothly, but there was still something missing. I wanted to do something for the new talent and give them a chance to be seen by all these industry folks. What better way to showcase an act than at the Family Affair? So I organized something I called “Trackin’ With the Future Stars.” Some of the acts who started out at the Family Affair (I’m proud to say) were MC Hammer, New Kids on the Block, Sylk, Eric Benet and Kriss Kross. Even Spike Lee screened one of his films, although I can’t for the life of me remember what it was.
Sadye took care of so many things by this time, she had her own staff. She oversaw the registrations, sales of promotional materials and just everything, I guess. I don’t have to tell you what a logistical nightmare each one of these conventions was, but she made it look easy, and stayed right in the middle of everything like the main engine, while I mingled with everybody doing P.R. She had the patience and compassion to deal with all the people it took to pull these conventions off, and everybody loved and respected her. They called her “Ms. Sadye” or “Ms. Rapper.” On the Wednesday night before the convention began, I’d give the staff my regular pep talk, and after that, Sadye would just take over.
One of my little private events just for my close buddies was something I called “Jack the Rapper’s Family Affair Film Festival.” This event was definitely not on the regular schedule and no record companies sponsored it, because it was kind of an underground thing. This film festival was really a porno festival, and it ran continuously, day and night, throughout the convention, even though I wasn’t even there most of the time. At times, the film festival would pull SRO crowds, until some legitimate convention event would begin. But boys will be boys, so you know there were always a couple of “movie lovers” in my suite enjoying the “film festival” no matter what else was going on.
I decided to have a special honor for the pioneers in the entertainment field, so that the new kids wouldn’t forget who had opened those doors for them. One year: Joe Williams, Nancy Wilson, Ruth Brown, Arthur Prysock, and Billy Eckstine. In 1990, we were all set to honor Sarah Vaughan until we got the news that she had died. Sassy’s death was a blow, but it only made me more determined to contact all my buddies from the old days and honor them at the Family Affair before it was too late. For me, it was like holding hands with my own past with one hand and holding hands with all the bright future stars with the other. It was a kind of a time-bridge and I enjoyed that a lot.
Over the years, we had so many stars performing at the Family Affair, I’m sure I’d miss somebody if I tried to name them. But in addition to those I’ve already talked about, I remember The Jacksons, and later LaToya came out to perform. Peabo Bryson, Natalie Cole, Mary Wilson, Ashford and Simpson, The Mighty O’Jays, Phyllis Hyman, Mariah Carey, Vanessa Williams, Luther Vandross, B.B. King, Stephanie Mills, Tina Turner, Marvin Gaye, Kriss Kross, Whitney Houston… and believe me, the list goes on…
One performance that stands out in my mind is the show Prince put on one year. He was at the height of his popularity at that time, and I guess I don’t have to tell you that we had folks stuffed into the ballroom like sardines that night. Everybody wanted to see Prince, and he didn’t disappoint them. That young man had folks hollering like you wouldn’t believe during that show.
But afterward, it was a different story. As flamboyant as he is onstage, Prince is the complete opposite offstage. He stayed secluded in his room and, despite the hundreds of requests from people wanting to meet him, he wouldn’t see anybody. I respected that, just happy that he had agreed to perform for the Family Affair.
Then, to my surprise, I received a note saying that Prince wanted to meet me. I went to his room and shook hands with him, trying to convince myself that this soft-spoken, shy young man was the same person who had just exploded like an atomic bomb onstage such a short time before. We didn’t talk for very long, but I do remember that he smiled and told me that I reminded him of his father.
Wish I was his father. I’d say, “Son, why don’tcha build a nice, big purple mansion for the ol’ man to live in?” (Smile.)
The Family Affair was something that Sadye and I took great pride in as we watched it grow bigger and more successful over the years. So often in life it seems that we work and work, sunup to sundown, and see no results. But the Family Affair’s benefits to African Americans in the music industry were tangible and immediate. All the national networking that went on at the convention not only resulted in heavier airplay for all the black recording artists, but it aided the black executives in climbing the corporate ladder.
I’ve enjoyed watching so many of the talented artists who got their start at the Family Affair develop into superstars. Our seminars and discussions gave the behind-the-scenes people in the industry a chance to bounce new ideas off each other. They returned to their respective companies equipped with some fresh concepts, ready to make some changes. It may sound like I’m patting myself on the back, but I’m not. The participants themselves made all the dreams of the Family Affair come true. Exciting things just seem to happen naturally when everybody gets together to talk things over. I’m just happy that I could be the one who got us all together. But I can’t help but think that it was no coincidence that many major labels expanded their black music departments during the eighteen years of the Family Affair. Just like Sidney Miller’s Black Radio Exclusive conventions in Los Angeles, it was an empowering event for everybody who attended, including me. I always felt a kind of energized buzz for about a week after each convention ended — until it was time to get started on planning the next one, that is.
Those were the glory years.
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Excerpted from Mello Yello: The Incredible Life Story of Jack The Rapper, As told to Walker Smith. Published by Walker Smith Books | Available now at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s Books and other fine retailers.