The Wildest Record Convention On Earth
Jack The Rapper’s “Family Affair” brought black music executives and artists together for two decades. But the spectacle — rappers, strippers and brawlers — soon eclipsed the business.
By Bill Stephney
Photos by Gregory Ross
There is a vivid quote from the newly-released autobiography, Mello Yello: — The Incredible Life Story of Jack The Rapper (as told to Walker Smith), about the famous late 20th Century record convention that bore his name:
The 1994 Family Affair was like a war zone, complete with bought-and-paid for mercenaries. And those that weren’t sent to create trouble were there out of a misunderstanding about my name. Suddenly, a convention that had encompassed all forms of black music was being touted as a big rap convention. And as we began to attract more and more rappers, gangsta and otherwise, fewer and fewer of the other black artists attended. There were shooting incidents, fights breaking out in the lobby of the hotel, threats of retaliation — it was just a nightmare. And even with all the security we had hired, it just couldn’t be contained.
Now, how on Earth could a gathering so innocuously titled “The Family Affair” steeply descend into chaos?
Well, it didn’t begin that way. And for those like me — at the time an up and coming record label executive lucky enough to attend nine Jack The Rapper Family Affairs in a row— it was a wonderful, enlightening, sometimes frustrating ride.
When the annual convention began in 1977, Joseph Deighton Gibson, Jr, also known as “Jack The Rapper” or “Jockey Jack” Gibson, was a well-known and well-respected figure in what was then-referred to as the “black music industry.” Jack’s fame derived from him once being the pioneering disc jockey on the nation’s first African-American owned radio station, founded in the years after World War II, WERD in Atlanta.
Gibson was part of a generation of radio personalities that talked “jive” or the hip-speak of the day, lending colorful, jargon-filled and often-rhymed commentaries to the listening audience in-between record spins. They had names like Tommy “Dr. Jive” Smalls, “Genial” Gene Potts, John “Honey Boy” Hardy and “Long Tall Lanky Larry Dean.”
A typical Jockey Jack radio talk-up would go as the following: “Well folks, at 4:40 was supposed to tell y’all that you’re listening to WERD, but it’s 4:45 now, so I hope the Man ain’t listen. Anyway, here it is — this is the Jockey playin’ the hits on WERD — 860 on your dial — the good word station — the only all-Negro station in Atlanta, Georgia…”
He took the name “Jockey Jack” to humorous heart. In fact, he would sport actual jockey silks while on his air shift. Later in life, he would demonstrate his knack for the outrageous, like the time when we saw him arrive at a Jack The Rapper convention dinner honoring the group Kris Kross by dressing as Kriss Kross: all of his clothing worn backwards, and pulling it off with a bravado that only a slickster in his early 70s could do.
Jack would often tell many of us “young heads” the story of being on the air at ‘ERD, which had its studios in the same building as the famed Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When Dr. King wanted to alert the masses about an upcoming rally, he would bang on the ceiling of his office, which was directly under WERD’s air studio. Responding to Dr. King’s signal, Jack would lower his microphone through the studio window, down one flight to the SCLC window, where Dr. King would grab the mic to announce his calls to protest.
Gibson left radio in 1961 to work as a promotions executive at Motown Records. It was during that stint as a record man that he devised the idea to produce a newsletter to promote artists on his label. Fast forward to the 1970s, upon a suggestion from his devoted wife Sadye, Gibson re-launched the newsletter into an across-the-board black music industry tipsheet called Mello Yello.
According to Gibson, Mello Yello name reflected the color of the stock of paper he used so that his publication would stand out from its competitors. Many in the music industry thought that the Mello Yello title was an attempt by him to self-honor (and mock) his extremely-light complexion.
He would punctuate the coincidence himself:
I laughed at the irony, because all my life, I’d been called as yella nigga. So from that day forth, the newsletter was known as Mello Yello.
The black music industry, from the 1940s until probably the late 1980s, tended to operate like a well-knit extended family, connected by culture and constant concern. This was largely due to its marginalization by the “Elvis Presley-infused” domination of the white end of the industry; and— with necessity at the time truly being the mother of invention— an abundance of creative freedom by virtue of its isolation. Family-friendly competitors produced wondrous works both on the air and on wax.
Very much like Don Cornelius creating Soul Train after having observed the tremendous white mainstream success of Dick Clark’s television dance show American Bandstand, Gibson figured that he could build a black music annual convention similar in structure to Billboard Magazine’s yearly confab, except that his emphasis would be different.
The first Jack The Rapper Family Affair was in 1977, set in what Gibson would always refer to as “Martin’s Town,” Atlanta, Georgia. Major labels such as CBS Records provided sponsorship. There were seminars about radio programming and music production. Parties abounded. And amongst all of that, Minister Louis Farrakhan was one of the maiden Family Affair’s keynote speakers.
That first Family Affair was a big success, and along with Sidney Miller’s annual Black Radio Exclusive conference in Los Angeles, the black music industry could rely on at least two opportunities to network, strategize, promote fellowship and party hearty.
Others followed, including the Impact Convention, the Young Black Programmer’s Coalition conference, the Urban Network conference and Tom Silverman’s New Music Seminar. Attending any of these, but especially the Family Affair and the BRE, connected you to the past, present and future of a glorious music based-culture. Some of it quite sober, other parts just silly.
In one corner of the conference hotel, you could see Jack Gibson in close dialogue with a political dignitary, while over at the down escalator, you’d observe a sixty-something music director from a local radio station purring “slap it, flip it, rub it down baby” to a disturbingly-interested, possibly-just-out-of-her-teens young woman. If you listened closely, you could overhear ribald conversations about the old “race music” days between octogenarian blues promoters Dave Clark and Joe Medlin, while out of the corner of your eye, a teenage street-team member is placing 50 promotional stickers trumpeting a new rapper’s release on an air-conditioning vent.
Longtime George Clinton adviser, Archie Ivy, told me of one spontaneous song promotion idea at a Jack The Rapper convention that launched a funk/break beat classic:
“The Zapp song ‘More Bounce To The Ounce’ was the one we played in the lobby and the elevators. It was the marketing genius of desperation that made us come up with that approach. The fact of the matter was we couldn’t afford a suite to preview new releases so we took it to the elevators. The song was so popular that everyone was crowding into the Warner Bros suite the label that had the record. By the end if the night we had the record playing in all the suites because people would not stay if the record wasn’t playing!”
Contradictions of the celebratory atmosphere versus the relative lack of black power within the larger music industry didn’t go unnoticed. The late, southern music radio promotion man Luther Terry once pulled me to the side, complaining: “Look at this! Two thousand niggas here and not one of ‘em can sign a check.”
I attended my first Family Affair in 1986 as head of promotions for Def Jam Recordings. I flew in with my boss, Russell Simmons, who could work a hotel lobby full of southern radio folks with dazzling finesse. “Hey Russell baby, when you gonna bring Ron” — it was never “Run” — “DMC by my station?”
Russell would put his arm around that radio guy, and using social tools influenced by Max Julien’s epic portrayal of Goldie in “The Mack,” he would convince that programmer to ignore his own station’s edicts against playing rap music just to program our artists in playlist. “Talk to Mr. Bill, he’ll hook you up,” would be Russell’s parting line to them, making my job easy as a Georgia Sunday morning.
Gibson was well known for his welcoming attitude of the fast-growing hip-hop industry to the Family Affair. But I was in the hotel ballroom at one of the late 1980s Family Affairs for a Saturday late night reception sponsored by Skyywalker Records, featuring the 2 Live Crew and Luther “Luke” Campbell. Perhaps Jack Gibson’s open-mindedness got the best of him that night, when group members Luke, Brother Marquis, Fresh Kidd Ice and DJ Mr. Mixx were joined onstage during the reception’s headline performance by about 30 dancers from the nearby gentlemen’s entertainment facility. This socially-conservative audience— many just two decades removed from personally hearing sermons by Dr. King at Ebenezeer Baptist Church and barely used to the gyrations of Tina Turner or the swiveling of Marvin’s hips during “Let’s Get it On” — was not spiritually prepared for what was about to go down.
A bevy of young women took the stage, scantily clad in Frederick’s of Hollywood-style lingerie, gyrating and surrounding Luke Campbell and the 2 Live Crew as they performed their repertoire of underground hits. In what seemed like seconds, the lingerie disappeared completely. With the nakedness came (I hope) simulated intimate acts. I recall the look on Gibson’s daughter Jill’s face being one of dread, then merged with anger, finally overwhelmed by disbelief. Within minutes, Atlanta police cleared the room.
By the early 1990s, hip-hop culture had pretty much made its transition from African leather medallions to Glock 9 millimeter pistols. The street crack trade industry, facing increasing and unrelenting pressure from law enforcement, saw many of its veterans retreat to the rap business. Also, those in the music business sensing the changing winds — their college educations and middle-class status notwithstanding — adopted personas to match the emerging emphasis from rhymes to crimes.
At the 1993 conference, I recall sitting in a panel discussion in one of the hotel parlor rooms, only to hear a rumbling sound coming from one of the other rooms. A chair-throwing, fist-flying commotion had broken out at one of the rap industry panels. Rumors swirled that it was a manifestation of a growing war between camps representing Suge Knight’s Death Row Records and Campbell’s Skyywalker Records.
After the dust cleared, I briefly walked into the room where the brawl had occurred. Tables and chairs were all over the place. Police then cleared out the lobby. I returned to my hotel room. While I recall a great deal of “See, why we gotta ruin a good thing” recriminations swirling during the rest of that conference, perhaps that melee signaled a more profound shift. The Family Affair — founded by Gibson, to galvanize the black R&B music industry against external forces and foes of discrimination — now had to encounter internal combativeness fostered by some of the members of the new “G’s Up” generation.
Gibson himself tried did his best to surf the tidal wave. As mayhem increased at subsequent Family Affairs, he stood firm:
I certainly didn’t want that violence any more than anybody else did. Many of my backers blamed me, because I had refused to ban rappers from the convention. But how could I ban the rappers? They are just as viable as any other black music, and I was not about to engage in some sort of modern-day segregation practice. I guess it was just one of those cases of having to pay for your beliefs. Well, I was paying, all right. I was flat on my ass.
He relocated the 1994 Family Affair from Atlanta to Orlando in order to avoid the past incidents that marred recent conferences. Young, hustling entrepreneurs like Sean “Puffy” Combs and artists Guru, Heavy D, Das Efx and Redman were earnestly in attendance that year. Yet, some of the rough action that occurred in Orlando was documented in the 1997 Miramax film Rhyme & Reason, as recorded for a television news report.
After 19 years of gatherings, the final, Gibson-sanctioned Family Affair took place in 1996, with heavily reduced sponsorship support from the record labels and low attendance. In his book-telling to author Walker Smith (who interviewed Gibson prior to his death in 2000 at the age of 80), Gibson was candid about how the black music industry abandoned him after his conferences faded away. Cruel irony for a man who tried to foster “family” relationships in a business not known for its internecine warmth.
As lamentations reign these days over matters of “cultural appropriation” and the lack of sales and pop chart representation for African-American artists (or the Gibson generation used to call it: “black music”), a reading of Jack The Rapper Gibson’s Mello Yello might provide a time-travel glimpse into a period when internal community focus encouraged institutional and cultural development. It also may serve as a cautionary narrative on how much we’ve taken for granted past accomplishments, and our own culpability in undermining them.
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