July 6, 2000

Guarding the Borders
Of the Hip-Hop Nation

In the 'Hood and in the Burbz, White Money
Feeds Rap. True Believers Fear Selling Out.


e waited until the bus was ready to leave before
squeezing up front to address the passengers. The
Greyhound was going from Chicago to Indiana. It was
winter. The sky was suffused with gray.

He surveyed the bunched rows of seats. There were only 19
passengers, most of them young, most of them black. Billy
Wimsatt was white. It was an audience that made him especially

He held aloft a slender book. "I wrote this book," he said over
the chitter of talk. "It's pretty good. It normally sells for $12. On
this bus, I'll sell it for $5, and you can read it along the way

It was called "No More Prisons," and was about incarceration
and philanthropy and hip-hop, always hip-hop, for hip-hop was
the everlasting undertone to his life. He was a writer and activist,
and over the years his work had made him something of a minor
cult figure in the hip-hop world, a white man with unusual
credibility among blacks deeply protective of their culture. He
was an unbudgeable optimist, convinced he could better the
world by getting whites and people of other races to talk together
and work together. He spent most of his time on the road, on a
yearlong tour of several dozen college campuses, preaching his
message. Now the bus was taking him to Earlham College in
eastern Indiana.

Shared Prayers, Mixed
by Kevin Sack

Best of Friends, Worlds
by Mirta Ojito

Which Man's Army by
Steven A. Holmes

Who Gets to Tell a Black
by Janny Scott

A Limited Partnership by
Amy Harmon

At a Slaughterhouse, Some
Things Never Die
Charlie LeDuff

When to Campaign With
by Timothy Egan

Reaping What Was Sown
on the Old Plantation
Ginger Thompson

Growing Up, Growing
by Tamar Lewin

The Hurt Between the Lines
by Dana Canedy

The Minority Quarterback
by Ira Berkow

Guarding the Borders of the
Hip-Hop Nation
by N.R.

Why Harlem Drug Cops
Don't Discuss Race
Michael Winerip

Nancy Siesel/ The New York Times

Billy Wimsatt, whose tag is Upski, top, and Elliott Wilson, the editor of XXL.

Some passengers gave grudging looks of curiosity. What gives with this guy? Six people
beckoned for copies. One woman gave hers back after 15 minutes, opting for sleep. A man
behind her bought one. A woman said she'd take one, too. "Cool," Mr. Wimsatt said. He gave
her a big smile and a hug.

Billy Wimsatt was 27, still clinging to the hip-hop life. He didn't look terribly hip-hop, and not
because he was white. He was balding and brainy-looking, with an average build and an
exuberant nature.

He was born as rap music was being invented by blacks and Latinos in the South Bronx. What
began as party music became their cry of ghetto pain and ultimately their great hope for a way
out. And as hip-hop -- not just rap music but fashion, break-dancing, graffiti and the
magazines that chronicle it all -- blossomed into the radiant center of youth culture, Billy
Wimsatt and lots of white kids found in it a way to flee their own orderly world by discovering
a sexier, more provocative one.

Like many young hip-hop heads, he regarded hip-hop, with its appeal to whites and blacks, as
a bold modern hope to ease some of the abrasiveness between the races. Hip-hop, as he saw it,
endowed him with cultural elasticity, allowed him to shed the privilege of whiteness, to be as
down with blacks as with whites. For a long time, he felt black in every respect but skin color,
he says, which was why he had been able to get away with that much-noticed article seven
years ago in The Source, a magazine considered one of the bibles of hip-hop.

It was a withering critique of "wiggers," whites who try too hard to be black so they will be
accepted. Soon, he argued, "the rap audience may be as white as tables in a jazz club." In the
last paragraph, which The Source cut from the final version, he warned black artists that the
next time they invented something, they had better find a way to control it financially, because
whites were going to steal hip-hop.

"And since it's the 90's," he concluded, "you won't even get to hear us say, 'Thanks,
niggers.' "

Yes, Billy Wimsatt seemed about as authentically hip-hop as a white guy could get. But as he
slid into the complexities of adulthood, he said, he often found himself wondering if that was
enough, unsure which culture was truly his. He had drifted a long way from his black hip-hop
roots. Now, on these unsettled grounds, he was far from certain he could stay true to his ideas.

Join a discussion on the
articles in this series.

People around the nation
talk about race.

A Believer on the Brink

On a clangorous Manhattan sidewalk,
Elliott Wilson stopped to study the
bootleg rap tapes splayed on a street
vendor's blanket. Music emanated from a
portable stereo.

"Some dope stuff here," Mr. Wilson, a
gangly, light-skinned young black man
with inquisitive eyes and a contagious
laugh, said approvingly. The bargains
got him pumped up. He peeled off a
five-dollar bill and bought "Opposite of
H2O" by Drag-On.

Elliott Wilson had never met Billy
Wimsatt, but their lives had traced similar
trajectories across the hip-hop landscape.

Tell us about your
experiences with race.

Responses from our readers.

Nancy Siesel/ The New York Times

Billy Wimsatt embraced hip-hop as a boy to slip the bounds of his whiteness.

More photos, exclusively
on the Web.

As a writer and editor, he too had spent much of his adult life thinking about hip-hop. And not
just hip-hop, but race and hip-hop. Race was unavoidable in hip-hop -- what with all those
black rappers idolized by white teen-agers -- and like Billy Wimsatt, Elliott Wilson was
preoccupied with that conjunction and what it meant in his own life.

Which culture was his was not Elliott Wilson's worry. Hip-hop had inspired him to believe
that, precisely because he was black, he could achieve what whites simply assumed was theirs
by birthright -- a gainful life over which he asserted control.

When he read Mr. Wimsatt's "wigger" article, he and a black friend were beginning their own
hip-hop publication, Ego Trip. They saw it as a brash challenge to the established,
white-owned magazines like The Source. Bubbling with assurance, Mr. Wilson had judged the
"wigger" article amusing; for all its ridicule of whites, he had still considered it "a white boy's
perspective on hip-hop." He certainly hadn't seen it as a prophecy of personal doom.

Now, he sometimes had to wonder. He was closing in on 30, trying to hold fast to his own
idea of the hip-hop life. He had watched with anger and growing pessimism as Ego Trip folded
and whites asserted ever-greater control over the hip-hop industry. Recently, he had become
editor of a promising hip-hop magazine, XXL. It was white-owned. And so he wondered if he
was selling out, if he would ever become what he wanted on his own terms. Was hip-hop his
story, the black man's story, after all? Did hip-hop unite the races or push them further apart?

A White Boy Confined in His Skin

Growing up in Chicago, Billy Wimsatt remembers, he believed the only way he could have a
good life was to be black.

His own life felt proscribed. He was an only child. There was rarely music in the house, just
the droning news stations. He saw an awful lot of "Nova" on PBS. He was to avoid the
unsavory black neighborhoods.

Yet, he recalls, black children seemed to roam freely. They seemed to grow up faster. In fourth
grade, his teacher asked if anyone baby-sat. A black girl's hand shot up. Incredible. Black girls
were mature enough to baby-sit. He says he longed to live in the projects.

Where he lived was the integrated neighborhood of Hyde Park, in a perfectly diverse six-flat:
two white families, two black, two mixed. His father taught philosophy of science at the
University of Chicago. His mother was sort of a perpetual student.

At his mostly white private school, he was not especially popular. He imagined becoming a
computer programmer, a scientist, an astronaut. Then, in sixth grade, a black kid told him to
listen to a rap song, "Jam On It." "It was like a message from another world," he said.

Read comments from the
reporters in this series.

Thoughts from

For Students: Tell us about
your own experiences, in
this student questionnaire.

For Teachers: Bring this
story into classrooms with a
Lesson Plan.

Past articles from The

Increasingly, he disconnected from a
white culture that he equated with false
desires. He had jumped out of his
container, he said, "like spilled milk."
After sixth grade, he persuaded his
parents to transfer him to a largely black
public school. The cool kids, he noticed,
wore fat sneaker laces, favored gold
jewelry, did graffiti. He began
shoplifting fat laces, fake gold jewelry
and markers and selling them to hip-hop

He started break-dancing on the streets.
And at 13, he began sneaking out at night
and riding the trains with black and
Latino friends, bombing the city with
spray paint. Upski was his chosen tag.
From then on, little Billy Wimsatt
became Upski, one of Chicago's most
prolific graffiti artists.

A selective guide to
race-related sites.

Nancy Siesel/ The New York Times

"My magazine isn't some white-boy magazine," says Elliott Wilson, who has been editor of XXL for a year. Still, "it can't be totally black if a white man is signing the check."

His frazzled mother, dogged by insomnia, would discover him gone at 2 a.m. She barred his
graffiti crew from the house (one of them even burglarized the place), sent him to a
psychiatrist, threatened military school. When he persisted, his parents plunked him back in
private school. But he barely associated with white classmates, he says. Hip-hop had cloaked
him in a new identity.

Astonishingly, and much to the dismay of many older people who abhorred its defiant attitude,
its frequent misogyny, violence and vulgarity, hip-hop culture was becoming a great sugar
rush for young people of all races. Before long, rap would eclipse country and rock to become
America's top-selling pop-music format. And whites would be the ones buying most of those
rap albums -- a full 70 percent.

For many, even most, young whites, hip-hop was ultimately a hobby, to be grown out of in
good time. For Upski, it became a cause, especially as the late 80's gave rise to politically
conscious rappers like Public Enemy, with its peppery blend of black nationalism and
rebellion. "Once it became a pretty full critique of American life -- race, politics and political
hypocrisy -- that's when it really registered with me," he said.

A Black 'Leader of the Nerds'

Elliott Wilson grew up in the Woodside Houses project in Queens, the oldest of three brothers.
His mother was of Greek and Ecuadorean roots; his father, a printer from Georgia, was black.
Elliott was very light-skinned, and his hair was different from the black kids'. When it came to
skin color, he picked up some mixed messages.

He was 5 when his father told him: "You're going to be judged by who your father is. I'm
black. So you're black. Accept it before you get hurt." And he did, he said: "I felt like the black
man from the jump."

He also spent a lot of time with his father's mother. She was tough, and she had friends of all
races. She called white people crackers, but told Elliott, "Never trust a black person darker than

Attending predominantly white schools, self-conscious about his looks, he never really fit in,
he says, recalling that time now. The black and white students didn't mix much, and while the
black football players were cool, he was no football player. Instead, he befriended the outcasts.

"I wanted to be a cool kid and I wasn't," he said. "But I didn't want to sacrifice who I was to
fit into the system. I'd rather create my own system. I wasn't going to be a fake. So I was the
leader of the nerds."

His parents sheltered him from the influence of the streets. He watched a lot of television. He
loved "Happy Days" and "Good Times," admired Howard Cosell and imagined becoming a
sportscaster. In high school, he says, he increasingly felt himself an outsider. His grades,
always good, fell.

But there was hip-hop. Hip-hop was cool, and his growing love of it made him begin to feel
cool. His parents bought him a set of Technics 1200 turntables and a mixer. On weekend
nights, while classmates were out on dates, he would be home taping the hip-hop shows off
the radio.

When he listened to Public Enemy, he began to shake his head knowingly. For young Elliott
Wilson, unaware of so much, the group's powerful lyrics of oppression and rage, especially
the album "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back," were an awakening to what it
meant to be black in America. He got a Public Enemy jacket, with the group's logo on the
back: a black man in the cross hairs of a gun.

He became more aloof. He no longer said hello to white people, even family friends, unless
they greeted him first, he now says. They asked his parents, What's gotten into Elliott?

He went to La Guardia Community College -- in part because Run of Run-DMC had gone
there to major in mortuary science -- and then to Queens College. He began writing for hip-hop
publications. One day first semester, he had an interview with Kool G. Rap. School felt
irrelevant. He walked out of class and never returned. He entrusted his fate to hip-hop, and
hip-hop breathed possibility into his life.

"If I came out of school without hip-hop, I wouldn't have thought of owning my own business
and having power," he said. "As a person of color, to be legit, you think you have to be a
worker for someone. Hip-hop made me believe."

But hip-hop was full of bizarre crosscurrents. When he saw white kids simulating his
behavior, he got annoyed. It was one thing if they had grown up in the culture. But those
well-to-do young whites who tried to appropriate hip-hop for themselves, he says, were
simply insecure "image chameleons."

Right here was the enigma of hip-hop: The black rappers certainly weren't preaching
integration, inviting whites into their homes. They were telling their often dismal stories, the
pathologies they felt had been visited on them by a racist system they yearned to escape. But so
many white kids were turning that on its head. They wanted to live life large, the way the
rappers did.

A Reason for Rhymes

The phone rang. Dog got it: "He here. We here. I'll hit you back later. You gonna be in the

It was afternoon. Like a lot of aspiring rappers, Dog and his friend Trife were living life small,
passing time in Dog's rampantly messy apartment in Brooklyn's Clinton Hill section. Passing
time was what they did most days. They played games, gossiped, drank Hennessy, chewed
over the future. Weekends, they went bowling. They were 23, young black men seeking
sanctuary from the streets by rhyming their lives.

With their friends Po and Sinbo, they had formed a rap group, Wanted and Respected. Dog's
closet was stuffed with recording equipment; his specialty was creating the beats. He made
some slim money doing tapes for kids with their own rap dreams ($100 a tape) and selling
shirts on the street. The group had played a few clubs, always gratis. Others shuttled in and
out, but life weighed on the composition: members kept getting jailed, and one had been killed.

Dog and Trife had followed a trajectory of intense poverty and outlaw life. Dog's grandmother
basically raised him -- a dozen relatives packed into a three-bedroom place. Trife grew up with
his mother, an R & B singer, and seven others in the nearby projects; he still lived there with

They had belonged to a gang called the Raiders, they said, selling drugs and doing other things
that landed them in prison. If a white person came into their neighborhood, they said, they
robbed him. They all packed guns. "It was bad as Beirut," Dog said. Trife said he still sold
drugs, and some of the others did dubious things.

A few years ago, they gravitated to rap, embracing it the way so many poor blacks have long
embraced basketball. But it was better. There were more slots. And it seemed to demand less
talent. "You don't even have to sing well," Dog said.

"Music is my sanity," Trife said. "If I wasn't doing this, I'd probably be doing 25 to life."

Dog laughed. "If it weren't for rap, I'd be dead."

Many older blacks felt rap denigrated their race. They hated the constant use of "nigga" in the
songs. Dog and Trife shrugged this off. Rap was raw and ugly, but that was their lives, they
said. Rap was a blunter truth.

Dog found it curious that whites -- suburban mall rats, college backpackers -- bought most rap
records. "White people can listen to rap, but I know they can't relate," he said. "I hear rap and
I'm saying, 'Here's another guy who's had it unfair.' They're taking, 'This guy is cool, he's a
drug dealer, he's got all the girls, he's a big person, he killed people.' That is moronic."
Later, Dog said: "Hip-hop is bringing the
races together, but on false pretenses to
make money. Look at Trife. He's got
two felonies. That means he's finished in
society. But he can rap. His two
felonies, in rap, man, that's a plus."

"It's messed up," Trife said. "In
hip-hop, I'm valid when I'm

Trife recited some lyrics he had written:

You can't walk in my shoes,

If you ain't lived my life.

Hustling all day, clapping out all night.

The Cool Rich Kids' Movement
Nancy Siesel/ The New York Times

Dog, right, Po and Trife, left, the members of Wanted and Respected, at a housing project in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Trife sees music as his sanity. "If I wasn't doing this," he said, "I'd probably be doing 25 to life."

The road to Earlham was speckled with billboards for Tom Raper RV's, the Midwest's largest
RV dealer. The trees were sheathed in glass from the freezing rain.

Earlham, a small Quaker college, was predominantly white, marginally into hip-hop. Upski
was to give a talk, accompanied by a hip-hop group, Rubberoom.

Upski had dropped out of Oberlin College in his junior year. He had only reluctantly gone to
college at all. He spent more time doing graffiti and reading magazines than going to class. He
wrote an anonymous column for the black paper that scathingly denounced white people. He
had a hip-hop radio show: "Yo, this is live from Chicago." Many people thought he was black.

Even so, he says, he was sporadically queasy about his hip-hop moorings. He knew his
infatuation with blacks could be taken different ways. He could be accepted as credible, or
taken as exploitative.

"That is the great fear of blacks," he said. " 'Oh, you'll be fascinated with us, and then go back
to dominating us and you'll be better at it because you'll have inside information.' " When he
had shown drafts of his writings about race to a black classmate at Oberlin, she had slipped
them back under his door and stopped talking to him.

He committed himself to journalism and activism. As he put it, "I saw it as my job to get white
people to talk about race."

In 1994, a year after his influential "wigger" article, he self-published "Bomb the Suburbs" --
part memoir of a white man's life in hip-hop, part interviews with hip-hop figures, part treatise
on race and social change. It sold an impressive 23,000 copies. The gangsta rapper Tupac
Shakur declared it "the best book I read in prison."

Upski hitchhiked around the country, promoting the book, pushing his views on racial
cohesion, further cementing his eccentric renown. "I thought white people would start listening
to and liking black people," he said, but ultimately, he was discouraged.

He refocused. He would become a social-change agent, motivating whites to be activists. Last
fall, he published "No More Prisons" and began the "Cool Rich Kids' Movement." He would
coax cool rich kids to give money to the cause. He started the Active Element Foundation and,
with an ally, a well-to-do white woman, also started a group, Reciprocity, that paid him a
modest salary. This year, he began his college tour.

At Earlham, before a mostly white audience, Upski said: "The thing that drives me is getting to
know people and making relationships across race and class, which doesn't happen so much in
America. Some of the stuff I'm going to say is going to sound heavy, and you're going to say,
'Let me go smoke some weed and chill.' "

He bounced around the room, his manner that of the motivational speaker. He said: "My goal
today is to encourage you to accept the best and worst things about yourself." He talked about
how they were too comfortable in this school, and how he had been "saved" by transferring to
a black school after sixth grade. And then Rubberoom performed, and a lot of people left and
the remaining ones danced. Upski danced.
Upski had brought along a copy of
Stress, a small hip-hop magazine
published by people of color. Upski told
the students to read this, not the
white-owned magazines.

He used to write for XXL, a fledgling
magazine with a white owner and
publisher. In 1997, the original black
editor and black staff quit after being
refused an ownership stake. There were
innuendos of racism, but whether it was
just business or race depended on the
vantage point. Upski, however, swore
never to work for XXL again.

After all, there were always ways for a
smart white guy to make money.

Agonizing at the Monkey

When the editor's job at XXL was
offered to him last August, Elliott Wilson
was put in a delicate spot. He was broke.
In college, he accepted a flurry of credit
cards and bought all the "fly" clothing.
Now he owed $8,000.

He remembers thinking about how
Chronicles of hip-hop abound. Like The Source and XXL, they are mosty white-owned. A brash and satiric black-owned hip-hop magazine, Ego Trip, did not survive in print. A white prophet of hip-hop, Upski, wrote a memoir, "Bomb the Suburbs," and followed it up with "No More Prisons."

blacks needed to think more like whites. "We have a short expectancy in life," he said. "So we
go for the quick buck. That's why kids sell drugs. That's why they rob. We don't feel we can
be on a five-year plan to success."

The XXL job came with excellent pay -- low six figures. But talk of racial tension stained the
place. He asked himself, he said, could blacks think he was selling out? First, he had to
discuss it with the Ego Trip collective. He went over to the Monkey Academy.

Two rooms in a Chelsea basement, the Monkey Academy was a shrine to hip-hop. Roosting
on a shelf was a "Talking Master P" doll ("Make 'em say uhhh") and a memento from Puff
Daddy's 1998 birthday gala. Rap posters adorned the wall: Snoop Doggy Dogg, RZA, Jungle

Ego Trip was five young men of color with ambitions of hip-hop entrepreneurship: Mr.
Wilson, Sacha Jenkins, Jeff Mao, Gabriel Alvarez and Brent Rollins. They saw race as a
depressive undercurrent to everything, and it was the focus of their scabrous humor. "We're
always talking about the blacks and the whites," Mr. Wilson said. "That's the way me and my
boys are."

The very name Monkey Academy reflected their saucy attitude. As Mr. Jenkins explained it:
"Call me paranoid, but when I meet with white people, I feel that with their eyes they're calling
me monkey. So why not wear that proudly? Everyone in hip-hop wants to use the N-word, so
why not take it to the next level? Call us monkeys." They especially liked to trace their
understanding of society to the "Planet of the Apes" movies, where the light-skinned
orangutans controlled the dark gorillas.

Several years ago, the group published Ego Trip, which they saw as a magazine about race
disguised as a hip-hop magazine. They invented a white owner, one Theodore Aloysius
Bawno, who offered a message in each issue, blurting his bigoted views and lust for Angie
Dickinson. His son, Galen, was a Princeton-educated liberal who professed common cause
with blacks. But in truth, he was an unaware bigot, as Mr. Wilson says he feels so many
young whites are.

So much of the hip-hop ruling class was white. As Mr. Wilson put it, Ego Trip wanted "to
strike at all the black magazines that are white-owned and act as if they're black." It was a small
irony that Ego Trip's seed money of $8,000 came from a white man, but at least he was a
passive partner.

Though it gained a faithful following, Ego Trip stayed financially wobbly. No new investors
came forth; the collective suspected the reluctance had to do with skin color. Ego Trip gasped
and expired.

Now its founders scrambled with day jobs and worked on projects like "Ego Trip's Book of
Rap Lists" and a companion album. Hip-hop Web sites were proliferating, and they hoped to
start one, too. They said they wanted to hear the roar of money, on their terms.

"Black people create, but we don't reap the benefits," Mr. Wilson said. "We get punked and
pimped. If we were white boys, we'd all be rich by now."

On that August day, he recalls, he sat on the couch, his emotions in an uproar. He had to
wonder: was he now going to work for a true-life Ted Bawno? The others, he says, expressed
a dim view of the XXL offer: "They were feeling I was pimping."

Not long before, he had been music editor of The Source. One duty was to rate new albums,
on a scale of one to five "microphones." When he gave three microphones to "Corruption" by
Corrupt, he says, the white publisher, David Mays, increased it to three and a half without
telling him. When he confronted Mr. Mays, he concluded that the publisher did not respect
him. Mr. Mays wouldn't give his side, but as Mr. Wilson tells it, he quit over half a

He felt strongly, he recalls, that he had to help himself. He no longer saw hip-hop as a great
equalizer. "Who because of hip-hop now believes, 'I've seen the light, I'm going to save the
blacks'?" he would say.

Sure, there was something positive in white kids' idolizing black rappers, but "what's going to
happen when these white kids lose their little hip-hop jones and go work for Merrill Lynch?"
he said.

What should he do? Months later, he remembers the confusion, the vectors of his life colliding.
His throat tightened and he began to cry. He went to the bathroom of the Monkey Academy
and composed himself. The message left hanging in the air from the others was, Do what you
got to do.

As a black man, how many opportunities would come his way? He had this unslaked desire to
prove his mettle. He took the job.

Tapping the Unconscious Biases

Upski went to the laundermat. Shaking in detergent, he talked about how he was a bundle of
contradictions, subject to irrational racist phantasms for which he had no cogent defense. "I
have patterns like every other white guy that I'm not very aware of that play out as racist," he
admitted. He laughed at racist jokes. Walking down the street at night, he felt threatened if he
saw a shabbily dressed black man. "I frequently feel I have more of a level of comfort and trust
with white people," he said.

He talked differently to black friends ("Yo. . . That's wack. . . Peace, brother."). It infuriated
his white girlfriend, Gita Drury. "I'll say to him, 'Do you know you're talking black now? Can
you talk white, because that's what you are,' " she said. "I think it's patronizing." When he got
on the phone, she could detect at once the caller's race. When he talked black, she would wave
a sign at him: "Why are you talking like that?"

She saw this episodic behavior in other ways: "If we walk down the street and a black person
walks by, he will give this nod, raise his chin a bit. He wouldn't do it with a white guy. I'll
say, 'Oh, you have to prove to a black person that you're down.' "

Not long ago, Upski recalled, he spoke about race at a prominent college along with a black
friend. He was paid twice as much as his friend. He spoke longer, but not twice as long. He
never told his friend.

Sometimes, he said, he believed that black people were dumber than whites. Sometimes he felt
the opposite. Now, as the washers ended their cycles, he hauled the wet clothes to the dryers.
A stout black woman stood beside an empty cart. He asked if she was using it. She stared at
him, bewildered. He asked again. Nothing.

Exasperated, he simply grabbed the cart and heaped it with his clothes.

Later on, he said: "When that happened, part of my gut reaction was, 'This is a black woman
who has limited brain capacity, and it fits my stereotype of blacks having less cognitive
intelligence.' "

Would a white woman have understood?

"It's dangerous for me to even say that," he said. "But that's what I thought."

Embarrassed by Rap's 'Babies'

The strip club was scattered with patrons with embalmed looks, solemnly quaffing their
beverages. Elliott Wilson pulled up a stool beside a dancer. A fistful of dollars flapped from a
rubber band curled around her wrist, the night's rewards.

Strip clubs, in particular this one in Queens, had a powerful hold on him. Though rap was his
music, he said, he liked to unwind here rather than at a hip-hop club. There, everyone wanted
something. Here, no one wanted anything but his money. "I'm not caught up in me and Puffy
having each other's cell phone numbers," he said.

He had conflicted feelings about rap and rappers. "A lot of rappers rap about sex and violence,
because people are interested in it," he said. "But it's art. It's poetry. If a rapper says, 'Kill
your mother' in a song, it doesn't mean kill your mother. You can't take anything at face
value." The real-life violence and arrests of rappers were something else. "Rappers are babies,"
he said. "They don't know how to balance their success and their street life. When I hear about
Jay-Z this and Puffy that, I'm embarrassed to be part of the profession."

Mr. Wilson and his friend Gabe Alvarez shared an apartment in Clinton Hill, next to Fort
Greene, a gentrifying neighborhood promoted by Spike Lee before he moved to the Upper East

"Part of it's good and part isn't," Mr. Alvarez said. "You go a block over and there're the drug

"It's like the classic black neighborhood," Mr. Wilson said. "The liquor store, the bodega. I
want good restaurants. I don't want to live in the 'hood. Who wants to live in the 'hood?" He
wanted to move to Park Slope.

It was not his thing to go out of his way to patronize black businesses. It was fruitless, he said.
He had seen that so much in hip-hop. "There's always a white man somewhere making
money," he said. "You can't avoid the white man. My going to a black barber or something
doesn't do anything."

Upski Meets Dog and Trife

Upski had gone to get his hair cut at the black-owned Freakin U Creations. He only went to
black barbers, and part of his manifesto was to direct at least half his money to minority stores.
Fort Greene afforded plenty of possibilities.

All in all, though, he found the neighborhood imperfect, already too gentrified. His girlfriend
lived there, so he did. He had lived in a black neighborhood in Washington. He said he felt he
belonged either in a rich white neighborhood, where he could persuade residents to integrate,
or in the true 'hood, where he could organize. He mused about moving to East New York.

Upski chatted with one of the owners, Justice Cephas. Two young black men waited their
turn. Mr. Cephas was a hip-hop promoter on the side and was working with their group. They
were Dog and Trife.

Upski said, "Don't take anything off the top."

Dog studied Upski's pate and said, "What's there to take off?"

Upski laughed. He asked how they felt about whites' moving into the neighborhood.

"Five years ago, I would have beaten you up just for sitting in that barber chair," Dog told him.

"Oh," Upski said.

"But I've matured," Dog said.

Later, though, he talked about how he was still deeply bitter toward white people. No white
person had ever done anything positive for him, he said. As he remarked of whites: "I've never
been with you. Why would I want to be with you now?"

Trife added, "If you're not my people now, you're not my people down the line."

Dog and Trife had told Upski about their group, Wanted and Respected. Trife's older brother
had started a record label, Trife-Life Records, and they were working on its first album. They
hoped to sell it on the street, create some buzz. All the while, Trife said later, he was thinking,
"What is this white guy doing in this barbershop?"

Upski smiled. These young men, he said, reminded him of the black friends he used to run
with in Chicago. If he were younger, he mused, he might want to run with them.

The Beatles Parallax

Inside Elliott Wilson's XXL cubicle was a computer, a stereo and a table strewn with rap
albums. The music was on -- loud.

His eyes scanned the screen -- copy for the next issue. He fiddled with it. "I'm adding curse
words," he said. "Putting in ain'ts. Making it more hip-hop."

The publisher, Dennis Page, came in with his beneficent smile. "Hey, man, we doing O.K.?"


Mr. Page peeked over his shoulder at the screen. He nodded: "That's dope."

They went on like that, bantering.

Mr. Wilson called his boss D.P.G. -- Dennis Page Gangsta, after Snoop Doggy Dogg's crew,
the Dogg Pound Gangstas. Mr. Wilson had given D.P.G. an inscribed copy of "Ego Trip's
Book of Rap Lists." He wrote, "I don't care what people say, I know your favorite color is

It was how he felt about the relationship. They were both there for the money, he said.

Dennis Page was 46. He had the black walk, the black talk. His father had run a liquor store in
Trenton, and Mr. Page had hung around with black kids and absorbed their ways. Now, he
says, he has no real black friends. He admits he's been called a wigger. "I feel stigmatized by
black people in hip-hop who feel I'm exploiting them," he said. "I don't feel I'm exploiting.
It's a business. The record companies are white-owned. But I feel I take more heat. Certain
black people feel that white people shouldn't even buy hip-hop albums, no less write about it.
I'm not saying a black man can't buy a Beatles record."

XXL was just going monthly, and its circulation, which it gave as 175,000, was still far below
the leading magazines' -- Vibe sold more than 700,000 copies, The Source 425,000. XXL had
been heavily political, clearly aimed at blacks. To build up the white audience, Mr. Page and
Mr. Wilson agreed to tone it down, focus it almost entirely on the music.

"My magazine isn't some white-boy magazine, though," Mr. Wilson said. "It's black, too. I'm
not sacrificing what XXL stands for." Even so, he added, "it can't be totally black if a white
man is signing the check."

'I Preach to Mess Up'

Tuesday dawned muggy. It started badly and got worse. Upski was addressing about 250
students at Evergreen College in Olympia, Wash. Maybe 10 weren't white.

He had gathered a panel of half a dozen students. One, Evelyn Aako, was black. Introducing
her, he said: "I don't know her very well, but she's black. And she's going to talk about issues
of being black on campus."

Ms. Aako gave him an arch look. "That was very weird," she recalled thinking. "Like I was a
little dark object."

As Upski began talking, the white audience got defensive. One student said: "Why do we have
to talk about race? Why can't we talk about how we're alike?"

Ms. Aako was getting disgusted. Finally she told Upski: "I've been sitting here with an
uncomfortable feeling in my stomach about how you introduced me. I felt tokenized and on
display. This follows a tradition where black people serve as entertainment for white people.
That's not what I do."

Upski said: "I screwed up. But what can we do? The world is screwed up."

Some white students were looking irritated. One said: "Can't we hear Upski talk? We can talk
about race later."

A black student said: "What do you mean later? We never talk about race."

Some whites left. Virtually all the students of color followed. Before leaving, Ms. Aako said,
"It's not my job to educate you."

Later, Upski sounded no less confident of his ability to stimulate change. But perhaps, he said,
he needed to refine his approach.

"I think the main thing that keeps white people from growing is they're afraid to look bad," he
said. "So I preach to mess up. One of my blind spots at Evergreen was that Evelyn wasn't
going to trust me, that black people and white people, we're still at war."

Increasingly, he said, he was questioning his own evolution. Here he was intent on helping
blacks, and spending most of his time in white culture. He had had a string of black
girlfriends, but now he was with a white woman. A few years ago, probably two-thirds of his
friends were black and Latino. Now it had flip-flopped.

Hip-hop itself had moved away from political and racial talk and for the most part sold excess
and riches, women and violence. So much of hip-hop, he said, was self-denigrating, imitative
and shallow. It was candy.

"One of the things I have the least respect for about parts of black culture," he said, "is there's
so much pain and insecurity that it gets medicated by aping the worst aspects of white culture."

He talked about how so many of his old black and Latino graffiti friends hadn't survived
hip-hop too well. One got locked up for firebombing a car. Another fell from a fire escape
while trying to rob an apartment. He is now a paraplegic, drinking away his life, Upski said.

And yet, Upski had to admit, he was cruising along. His girlfriend, Ms. Drury, had inherited
money, though they lived modestly. He didn't earn a lot, but he didn't worry. Until recently,
he never took cabs and rarely ate out; he called it flaunting privilege. But now he was traveling
more in white circles where everyone took cabs and ate out. So he did, too. And, he
acknowledged, he liked it.

"The part of Billy that wanted to be black for a good part of his youth, that's fading," Ms.
Drury said. "One of the issues in our relationship is he's a chameleon. The thing with Billy, he
wants to be liked."

He had always cared so much about how he looked through black eyes, he said. Now his
success depended on how he looked through white eyes. He had always dressed poorly and
now he owned three suits. Where was he going? he wondered. As you got older, holding onto
your hip-hop values seemed a lot harder if you were white.

Traps and Trappings of Success

Elliott Wilson climbed the stairs to the basketball court. The old guys were already there. The
doctor had told him he had high blood pressure, a real slap in the face. "I've got the black
man's disease," he joked.

Who knew the factors, but he had never eaten properly. He was also feeling the pressure of his
job, he said. A friend who had been editor of The Source said the same thing had happened to

His doctor put him on medication, urged exercise. So he had begun playing full-court
basketball three mornings a week. There was an early crowd of young guys, but Mr. Wilson
wasn't ready for them. He played with a bunch of white guys, some in their 50's and 60's,
and one black guy in his 70's. He hit some baskets and missed some. He changed and headed
for XXL.

He had now edited four issues. The first one, with
DMX on the cover, had outsold any previous issue.
He felt he was making a mark, he said. He had his
disputes with Dennis Page, but they got along. His
Ego Trip comrades felt proud of him.

He was making such good money, more than three
times what Upski made, but somehow, he said, that
wasn't the point. What he really wanted was to "take
The Source out in a year or two," then expand the
reaches of Ego Trip. Still, there were always seeds
of self-doubt.

"Do I feel secure?" he said. "No. Because I'm black
and I have bad credit. Having bad credit in this
country is like being a convict. You don't have a
prosperity mind-set when you're a person of color.
You have something, you always feel someone is
going to take it. You're always on edge, wondering
what next."

'I Just Want the Money'

Dog twirled the dials and gave Trife the signal to start. In the tiny apartment, Dog and Trife and
Sinbo and Po were rehearsing for their album, the one they hoped might be destiny's next
chosen one.

Scrizz, Trife's brother and the C.E.O. of Trife-Life Records, was listening like a jittery father.
With no product yet, Trife-Life was not a paying job for him. His background, like that of the
others, was drugs and crime. At the moment, he was out on bail while fighting an assault

Wanted and Respected started in on its song "All the Time." Golden bars of light streaked
through the windows. Scrizz tapped his foot. He, too, had a got-to-happen mentality. He
didn't much care who bought the album, white or black, but he knew where the money was. "I
just want them to eat it up," he said. "I just want the money."

It came down to that. A group of young black guys in Brooklyn rhyming their lives, betting on
a brighter tomorrow sponsored by white kids' money.

Dog turned up the music. They cleared their throats and kept rapping.

Related Sites
These sites are not part of The New York Times on the Web, and The Times has no control over their content
or availability.

The Source Magazine

XXL Magazine

Ego Trip