“The best way to win an editor over is to pitch. If you have a hot idea, magazines love it. Send them some clips if you have a hot idea and it’s that simple.”
Halftime: Describe your position as the music editor at XXL.
Bonsu Thompson: As the music editor at XXL it’s my job to be their ears and eyes of the street and make sure that we’re current and abreast of what’s on the scene of hiphop. I have numerous columns that I’m in charge of like Eightball, which is the Q&A with eight direct questions that people want to know from them at the time. I’m in charge of the entire review section, basically I’m the one that hands out the ratings. With being the ears and eyes to the street, I’m in charge of the new artists section which is called Show and Prove. That’s basically five new artists on the verge. I assign those out to writers and edit those. I also handle the Eye Candy section with the video girls of the month. I do some feature writing as well, my last cover was the G-Unit. I gotta couple covers under my belt. I’m basically in charge of finding out what’s gonna be the next hottest joint, what’s the current hottest joint, what’s gonna be big, what’s gonna be lukewarm, and what’s gonna be wack.
So let’s build on this Eye Candy joint. How do you choose who you want, they be sending you pictures or what?
Bonsu: Everything. I got girls sending me pictures and bios, but the funny thing is that most of the women that send in pictures usually don’t get picked for Eye Candy. It’s usually something simple like me and my niggas are watching the countdown and we see a fly girl and be like that’s the one everybody is talking about we gotta go find her. I’ll either call up the artist or call up the label or maybe I already know the girl or the girl’s friend.
At first I wanted to get you for our writer’s segment coming up because I read lot of your work in King and especially Slam, then I realized you’re doing all that stuff at XXL too. That’s ill.
Bonsu: I’m actually a senior writer for Slam. I got an entertainment company called Dreamz R Real, I got artists, man that’s only half of it. I sleep on weekends.
How much flexibility do you have when deciding what goes in each section?
Bonsu: I have an editor -in- chief who has to cosign but he rarely turns me down. It’s a great working relationship. I have the luxury of having an editor -in- chief who is a music editor at heart. My boss is like thirty something years old and listens to mixtapes like he’s sixteen. He’s constantly sending the intern out to get the current mixtapes so he can stay up on everything. We never lose our hunger for the music so we always give the consumer what they really want. We’re trying to appeal to the 106 and Park crowd, the mixtape buyers in the hood and the people supporting the major artist. We want to put someone on the cover who sold units because we want to sell magazines. But inside the magazine we try to give everybody a forum. If you’re doing it successfully, whether you’re on an indie label and have a good album we’ll try to give you a look like that or if your doing it big and sold like two million records you’re up for a cover or a feature. If we’ve done a cover on you and you’re still hot on your second single we’ll try to do something else on you. Something different we might put you in Train of Thought or put you in our Eightball and ask you something right there to have your face in there and if you’re hot you’ll probably still want to talk even though the first week of your album sales are up. I pretty much have decent flexibility. My boss is appreciative of my ideas and incredibly smart himself so a lot of times he’ll have ideas that make my job easier. It’s a great relationship.
How long have you been in the magazine business and what positions did you hold before this current one?
Bonsu: I got in the magazine game in ’98 so I’m like six years decent. I was in college actually. I started as an intern I was at the bottom of the totem pole and climbed. I got to grow on one team.
What are some of the things you use to help predict what’s going to be hot and included in the magazine?
Bonsu: Soundscan is definitely a major factor. The radio spins. To be honest with XXL we try to give the people what they want. If the people are talking about it, the video is being spun, it’s constantly being beat all through the radio and on mixtapes, and somebody is all over appearances and the talk of the town it’s a no brainer. But you have those months where the music is actually dead and you have to get creative and come up with conceptual things. Rehash artists that have been covered or take gambles and kind of predict what’s going to happen. There is definitely a level of intelligence with it but when we can’t be by the book we have to turn up the juice on the brain.
They was slamming Benzino the other day on the radio down here and they was like I’m with XXL now. They was giving ya’ll mad props. You’re the man right now.
Bonsu: We’re trying man. Everybody trying to make that whole Source XXL thing. I understand that’s the glitz of everything. People like to create competition. If you hot you have to have an adversary. If you a good dude you have to have a bad dude so I understand, but me personally I don’t pay attention to anything else I just try to be hot. If people think it’s the hottest then fuck it.
What are your feelings on Benzino?
Bonsu: I think the dude is an entrepreneur and he’s making his money. I look at things from a larger standpoint. How am I gonna get mad at another black man getting his money when my people have been oppressed for years. I don’t want to get preachy but I can’t look at it like a XXL-Source issue cuz it’s bigger than that. Hiphop is bigger than those two magazines and the black race is bigger than hiphop. I’m not mad at him, dude don’t take no money from my pocket. There is no emotion there. I was raised on the Source, they do what they do, right now I’m on the other team and I’m trying to make my team hot. It’s that simple.
Bonsu: I don’t want to be the only hot magazine out that’s boring. I read the Source every month.
I can’t say I do that but…
Bonsu: I read the Source, you gotta know what you working against. We can’t cover everything so I might see one or two things I may like. Even if you read something that you think is bad that helps you out because you know what not to do.
What do you feel is the biggest misconception people have about working at XXL?
Bonsu: People think it’s flyer than it really is. People like you probably be having lunch with Jay-Z and everything. You do Eye Candy you probably just see models after work.
That’s actually what I was thinking.
Bonsu: It’s totally not like that. We was supposed to talk at 8 o’clock. At 8 o’clock I was in my boss’ office reading the entire review section. How would you like to read eight reviews and six columns in like fifteen minutes. They want you to read it in fifteen minutes. A lot of it is not fun. I got off of work at 9 pm tonight, I was in the office at 9:30 am. There’s nothing sexy about that.
Bonsu: And there were no models in my office.
I know people think the job is glamorous, but what do people be thinking about you personally, once you tell them you work at the various mags.
Bonsu: It’s crazy, plus like we just did that stuff on MTV and I had a couple spots on there in the past couple of months. Cats be running up on you like this dude today. I left the office for fifteen minutes with my home girl to get a sandwich and this dude is eyeballing me all the way down the block. He was like one of those messenger dudes and I’m like what’s really good with this cat. He walks up on me with the screw face still on like yo I seen you on TV. He was like you’re doing ya thing I’ll see you with the screw face still on. I’m like aiight man. He could have smiled or something. It gets a little crazy. I had a couple cats run up on me and being a black man from the city anybody that runs up on you, you’re not expecting a hug. It’s all love though.
I was gonna ask you about that experience with MTV cuz you know how they do that shit is coming on every half hour.
Bonsu: Every time that shit comes on somebody calls me. You on MTV now you must be rich. We ain’t get paid nothing for that man. I didn’t receive no check for that. I wish they had syndication because then I’d be getting paid for that. To be honest let me give you the scoop I’m in talks with MTV2 now to do an Eye Candy special.
That’s what’s up. During your first few issues as Hiphop editor what were some of the situations that served as the best learning experiences?
Bonsu: The best experience I got was being hands on. I got better the more I did it. It was a challenge from the door. I always try to challenge myself because once I mastered something and I got it I want to move onto the next thing. That’s how I am. I came on as an intern but I wanted to write for them so I started writing and they saw I had talent and I kept doing it. I was at school still writing for the magazine before I graduated. I came home became a staff writer to pay a couple bills and got a job as an editorial assistant and did that for like a year or year and a half and told him what I wanted to do as far as music editor. He put me on and I kept doing it grindin’ and picked it up fast to the point where it became easy. Now it’s to the point where I taught somebody else and I have an associate editor under me. That’s why I was able to branch out and do as much writing as possible.
What are some things you wish you knew before you got to where you are now?
Bonsu: I wish I knew all the outlets to make money from the door. There are so many outlets. I can’t say that if I did it over I would do it differently because everything happens for a reason. I kinda picked everything up fast but I think I would have studied more of the craft of the magazine game. When I first got on I should have been reading every magazine. Right now I’m a magazine fiend. I love any type of magazine story and I wish I was doing that when I first started because I think I would have developed even quicker. Everything worked out though. I saw what I wanted, went after it and pretty much got it. I’m kinda spoiled in the magazine game.
What do you feel are the key skills to perform the tasks that you do?
Bonsu: First of all you gotta have it. There are some people I know that have been working at it for years and just don’t have it. You either can or you can’t. There are some people who have worked at it for years, some are decent, and some are good. Some just have it and became incredible with it. I think it’s more of a natural thing because all the people that are great to me in the magazine game have a natural instinct for it, its part of their personality. They live it they don’t just do it for a job. You gotta love what you do. You gotta be at them shows and run home on the weekends and try to catch the videos. You gotta be apart of the culture of the music to be able to judge it from a critics standpoint.
What’s the most difficult issue you have to deal with?
Bonsu: I need more money that’s the hardest issue. When you’re raised you learn the basic rules of being a man like loyalty and things like that so I thought I’m with my team. I had job offers when I was young with Vibe and shit like that but I was like I want to be here. This is who gave me my first chance but loyalty don’t mean shit in the magazine game. They don’t really praise loyalty. It’s actually to your advantage to not be loyal and bounce around. The more you bounce around the more can up your salary. I just happened to be in a system and have a boss that got me the money I wanted so I’ve probably always made more than the average person my age in magazines. No matter what you get, you’re always going to be worth more. I learned that shit.
What suggestions do you have for up and comers aspiring to be in the magazine business?
Bonsu: Do your homework before you jump in the game. Wherever you want to be at know the people who’s there already and who have been there and what they did to get there. People on the rise can put themselves in that position too. Try to develop a relationship with the editors. The number one thing editors look for is writers who follow directions. Matter of fact I’m just going to speak for myself. My boss gets on me because I’m always trying to give a new writer a chance. Most of the time I’ll usually get bit in the ass for that shit. It will be a writer who just doesn’t have it, who turned my edit into a nightmare because I’m going back and forth trying to get what I want out of the piece. What I look for is creativity. Don’t write the same way someone else has written. Don’t say the same thing about an artist that has been written for years. You have to bring something new to the table with every story. That’s why artists reinvent themselves and you see them in different magazines because there is a new story to tell. You have to find a way to describe somebody that hasn’t been describe before or you have to find something new about that person that hasn’t been told before. With edits, you have to be able to comprehend what an editor wants from you so you can deliver the piece that they need. If you can do that with me that wins you over every time. It’s like a one out of seven ratio of the ones that can deliver what I need. It’s real painful. I’m less benevolent as I used to be with new writers but I still try to give everybody at least a shot because somebody gave me a shot.
For that new writer how would they go about trying to get at you?
Bonsu: The best way to win an editor over is to pitch. If you have a hot idea, magazines love it. Send them some clips if you have a hot idea and it’s that simple. You send them a cover letter introducing yourself with some of your clippings. Send them an email or give em a call. Don’t beat them in the head for hours. Just be like I know you’re busy I’m such and such I have a couple ideas for you what’s the best way to relay them to you should I give them to you now over the phone, should I email them to you should I fax them and let them give it to you and do what they need. Don’t become a nuisance but make sure you have something that they can use. I know a lot of people that go about it all wrong. People call up trying to be your friend. This one dude was like yo I heard you got dreads I do too we should hang out. I’m like you sound like Stan right now. That was a complete turnoff.
What’s the best and worst thing about what you do?
Bonsu: I know every month I’m heard in some fashion. That’s probably the best thing. The worst thing is the deadlines. When you’re shipping the magazine kinda runs your life.
Any interesting or crazy stories that you can actually share with us?
Bonsu: The best one I can’t tell ya’ll. But the first time I went to Atlanta I was doing an Outkast cover and I stayed there for like a week and fell in love with Atlanta. We was shooting the Bombs Over Baghdad video the whole week. I was on the set with that, met a couple nice friends out there. Big Boi became a good friend of mine. Me and Killer Mike, who at the time was just a rapper signed to Aquemini Records, hit off from the door and to this day we are tight as shit. I was proud when he came out with his album and I helped him out with the magazine as much as possible with that. Hella models down there. I just fell in love with the Atlanta scene and every couple months I’ll go back.
You mentioned Dreamz R Real Entertainment so plug that joint let us know what that’s about.
Bonsu: Oh the other half of my life. I manage three upcoming artists. Very, very incredible talents. We have an upcoming rapper named L.G. (Lord Gift), he has a new CD called Industry Cosign. Production is from a lot of Heavyweights Ron Brownz who did Ether, and D. Porter who did “Stuntin 101” for G-Unit, DJ Absolut, DJ Envy, every joint on there is cosigned by somebody in the industry. I got an R&B singer that’s in the Hiphop Soul Magazine. Check for him in the review section, his name’s Kenny Dark, an incredible vocalist. I’m getting a lot of attention from labels now. I got a female artist named Bamboo who’s on the come up too. She has a nice buzz in the industry as well. I got two producers as well. We sell tracks, artist management, and make hits.
Which album would you want to go down in history 100 years from now Illmatic or Reasonable Doubt?
Bonsu: I’m gonna say Reasonable Doubt.