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Hey, How'd You Become Hip-Hop's Social Media Authority, Elliott Wilson?

"Being on Twitter all day is my job because the lifeline of the culture runs through [it]."

- May 15, 2014
If you are a fan of hip-hop, chances are you can't escape Elliott Wilson, the self-dubbed "GOAT of Hip-Hop Journalism." Even if you don't get his constant barrage of tweets, retweets, posts and re-posts directly on your Twitter and Instagram feeds, they likely find their way there if you are a consumer of hip-hop content. "People used to be like 'How do you do your job if you're on Twitter all day?' Being on Twitter all day is my job because the lifeline of the culture runs through Twitter; it runs through social media," Wilson said.

The 43-year-old has worked in the field of hip-hop journalism for 20 years and his storied career includes time spent at The Source and a prominent role as XXL's editor-in-chief, among other magazine positions. He also has television and radio experience and has co-authored a couple of books. Now social media has kicked Wilson's career and overall presence into overdrive. Tireless self-branding has raised his profile and the profiles of the brands he built, including Rap Radar, a hip-hop website, and CRWN, a live interview series with hip-hop's latest and greatest. Wilson juggles these responsibilities with hosting duties for his show "The Truth" on Jay Z's Life+Time's YouTube Channel and his work on a forthcoming print project called HRDCVR, a collaboration with his wife Danyel Smith (2013-14 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University, former editor of Billboard and former editor-in-chief of VIBE) -- all while tweeting and posting, of course.

"Now the pace is even more strenuous than it probably ever was. I like the challenge of proving that I can still adapt to that and still be at the forefront," he said about covering hip-hop in the social media age.

Here, Wilson discusses how he leads the conversation about hip-hop on social media.

Can you describe the evolution of your relationship with Twitter and other social media platforms?
I really think my relationship with social media is definitely the key to the success of my website Rap Radar, the resurgence of my career and [responsible for] putting me [at] the forefront of the culture. I joined [Twitter] in summer '08. And in the early days of Twitter, I just remember a lot of it was galvanized around the President Obama campaign and the Democratic Convention, and the Democratic debates. It would be me and Danyel, Questlove and just… a small group on there talking about politics and… just having the excitement around this whole energy that Obama was bringing.

And then I launched my site Rap Radar in March 2009. And around that same time is when a lot of people in hip-hop started joining Twitter and it started becoming more and more part of our culture. What helped us a lot with Rap Radar was that we were kind of at the forefront because I had already begun to establish myself on Twitter.

"My relationship with social media is definitely the key to the success of my website Rap Radar, the resurgence of my career and [responsible for] putting me [at] the forefront of the culture."

And at Rap Radar, we would screengrab tweets and make news posts about them. We started documenting [hip-hop] culture and using Twitter as that platform. A lot of traffic started coming to Rap Radar from our Twitter feed and from Facebook. I started to realize if I could try to become really dominant on this social media platform, I could bring the audience to Rap Radar. And that's kind of what's happened since '09.

You're a prolific curator of tweets. What merits a retweet or a re-post from you and how do you select them?
Obviously, this is a 24/7 world. Anybody at any time can say something, reveal a song, or show a picture. So you want to be on top of it, but you really can't be on top of the Internet 24/7. So I… created a list of 100 people who I rely on, who I trust. A mix of artists, media professionals that are my peers, industry people. People I felt like were doing, to my knowledge, social media well. They had some insight and some opinions that I respected, even if I disagreed. I would get up first thing in the morning, go back and look at my feed based on those people and I would just start retweeting what happened in the night. If I sent a tweet at 11:30, 11:45 [p.m.] I would go in reverse order and I would retweet things that happened eight hours ago or five hours ago and so my timeline was deceptively looking like I never slept. And then I started becoming known for it, and then I started realizing that… the artists and everybody has the power to express themselves, but no one was really housing the conversation in one place. So I started doing that and my timeline documents [hip-hop] culture in one way that Rap Radar may not.

And now with Instagram, I've done it in a very similar way [as Twitter] where I'm just… trying to make sure that I don't miss anything, and cover up the moments when at the end of the day I have to get some sleep.

What are the elements that make up your social media persona?
Well, I think my social media persona is also an extension of my character. I have a decorated history; I've been in this business for over 20 years. I'm an entrepreneur. I'm very boisterous. So I just kind of play that up and I kind of put it all out there and use it to promote and market my companies or promote and market artists that I feel deserve that, for no compensation. It's just what I feel is good for the culture. Or I may have something I'm doing with the artist and I want the artist to get some notoriety.

"I want hip-hop culture to be respected and acknowledged as the dominant force of pop culture, which I think it is."

When an artist puts out an album… I'll retweet their iTunes link and try to encourage people to buy music because I think it benefits the culture overall. But, in terms of me, I think I do a good job of showing who I am -- the same way I did with the XXL editorials I used to do -- and my real personality. I'm really competitive, I really want to win, I really want to be a celebrated entrepreneur, I want to be an authority of our culture, and I want to prove that nobody has as much passion about it or drive as I do. So I share that but then I also welcome other voices and other points of view. Because as big as I'd like to be, I don't think I'm bigger than the culture itself or bigger than anybody in this profession or the business itself. I want hip-hop culture to be respected and acknowledged as the dominant force of pop culture, which I think it is.

Have you ever been surprised at all by social media?
When something happens, we all just kind of galvanize around it. I think it's killed the press release. We still get press releases, but now, pretty much, everything's going to be first put out there through social media -- mostly through Twitter. As a journalist, I'm just continually astounded by the power of that. At any time, something can happen. And given the situation I'm in, people expect me to know whether something's true or not or have some insight on it. So I have to accept the challenge of that. I interviewed [Lil' Wayne] for my CRWN series last week and I was telling him that it was a year ago at South by Southwest, where he had the hospital seizure situation and TMZ had pronounced him dead or said he was on his deathbed. It was crazy because there was an event called FADER FORT out there at South by Southwest… and I was [backstage] with Pharrell and Solange Knowles and we're all hearing this terrible rumor about Lil' Wayne, and they're looking at me like 'Do you know if he's alive?' because I need to know as a journalist, right? So I think that that's the power of it. I think that it forces you to do your job and be on top of things and, almost like a doctor, you're always on call. There's a big challenge because information comes out at any hour from any place. And a lot of times artists are empowered to share their content themselves. You just have to be adaptable and passionate to have that drive to keep up with it because it's super fast-paced.

What was that process that went into selecting Myspace to host the CRWN series?
Myspace is trying to redefine itself and they have created some really good content that I think gets overlooked because they're still dealing with the shadow of… what the company used to be. And I think that CRWN's exposure helps showcase that they are creating a lot of great original content and approaching business in a different way. It's a very unique partnership to have WatchLOUD and Myspace with CRWN.

"I think that [social media] forces you to do your job and be on top of things and, almost like a doctor, you're always on call. You just have to be adaptable and passionate to have that drive to keep up with it."

I would say CRWN is like the cover story brought to life in front of the people, in front of the fans, in front of the world -- it's this really honest hour-long dialogue that really captures where the artist is. And former hip-hop journalists like Ben [Meadows-Ingram, director of content at Myspace] and Joseph [Patel, vice president of content at Myspace] get that.

So what do you foresee in CRWN's future?
The bread and butter of it is to embrace the biggest artists in hip-hop, especially the new generation of stars. But I also want to go with Justin Timberlake or Justin Bieber or Beyoncé or Rihanna -- artists that are of interest to me. I think artists today kind of marginalize media because they do so much of it. As a journalist, I have to do everything I can to make my content and my interviews stand out. And I do that by being selective about who I sit down with. But there [are] a lot of great artists, like... the artists I mentioned and also Nicki Minaj and Kanye West and Eminem -- artists I haven't really sat down with in a really long time or never at all. So there are endless possibilities. And I think that Lil' Wayne was a great success and it sort of brings [CRWN] to another level.

You know what's great about CRWN, too? It's scary to be an entrepreneur. It's scary to create new stuff and a lot of times you're met with some skepticism, or a lot of skepticism, about it, but… I knew it was special because everyone loves it. It's hard to find somebody that doesn't like it or respect it. I think that I never created a brand in my 20 years of doing this that has had so much positive reception to it from out the gate. And it continues to grow.

Elliott Wilson's Tips for Winning at Social Media Branding:

1. Be natural. "It has to be organic. You have to find your voice. You have to be fearless… even if you are private. You have to have confidence in expressing yourself. Be sincere and honest."

2. Log off sometimes. "You don't need to be on [social media] 24 hours a day, [especially] if you're not in the right mood or you're not in the right headspace. There [are] times when even I have to unplug for an hour or two… because [social media is] not really inspiring me."

3. Join the community. "Respect other people's voices. Be of the people and talk with the people. Don't talk at them. Engage with them. And by being open to doing that, you develop a comfort in it, and I think that that's really the key."

Janday Wilson is a storyteller based in the greater New York City area. You can find more of her work at jandaywilson.com.


NEXT >> Hey, How'd You Launch an Inspirational Photography Campaign, Eunique Jones Gibson?

© Mediabistro Inc. 2013. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of Mediabistro Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of Mediabistro Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.



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