For about a decade the creators of the independently published hip-hop magazine Ego Trip (Sacha Jenkins, Elliott Wilson, Chairman Jefferson Mao, Gabriel Alvarez, and Brent Rollins) have combined an encyclopedic musical knowledge with a naughty inability to resist saying things about race that are supposed to be left unsaid. Their latest effort, Ego Trip's Big Book of Racism!, kicks off with a deliberately biased multiple choice "Racism Quiz" for whites: The potential answers to the first question, "Are you a racist?" are "yes," "probably," "definitely," and "all of the above." The book then goes on to covers topics from "Black Jesus vs. White Jesus" to "Top 10 Scrutable Asians" to "20 Famous But Average-Looking White Girls Who White People Think Are Hot Just Because They Are White." (It should be fun to see how much of this material they'll toss at a mostly high school audience when Ego Trip appears at the Walker Art Center on Thursday, February 12.)
The quintet recently wrapped up an hour-long special for VH-1, TV Race Riot, which Mao calls an "an irreverent look at how TV has handled race." Which leads us to the obvious question--
CITY PAGES:How irreverent are you allowed to be on VH-1?
GABRIEL ALVAREZ: It's funny because they originally approached us because they wanted to push their programming a little bit, like open it up and be a little more, how should I put it, progressive?
JEFFERSON MAO: Edgy I guess?
ALVAREZ: Hip, or...?
MAO: Fill in the blank with your euphemism of choice.
ALVAREZ: It's really confusing. I just saw a commercial on VH-1 and they could not only say the word "slut," they could actually write the word "slut." But if you say other words, like "cracker," for example, people get nervous. So it's not very cut-and-dry, what you can do.
CP:How does it feel to be "race experts" now?
MAO: De facto race experts? Well, we saw a niche in the market that wasn't filled and we went for it. Honestly, it feels like it's been a natural evolution for us. [When] we started our magazine in 1994, it was just basically music, but the subtext was racially inclined. People would say things like, "Wow, you guys are pretty clever, like Grand Royal or something." And I think they were always really surprised at the racial makeup of our staff, that it was put out by five people of color. It was like "Oh, you guys are good. Where are the white people?"
ALVAREZ: Hey, Keith, I just want to clarify one thing. We did get to say "cracker" on the show. And we're real happy about it.
CP:Was there any point where an idea seemed funny, but then you thought of your broader TV audience, and you worried they might take it too literally or not get it?
MAO: No, that never happened. Are you joking? You've got a pretty creative imagination there.
ALVAREZ: People complain about TV's dumbing down America and making us all a bunch of dorks. It's funny 'cause then you get on this side and they're like, "You really have to explain this, you really have to simplify this." It's like, who's dumbing down for--I'm confused now. I don't even know what I'm saying. I don't even watch that much TV, but working on TV has made me dumber. So, yeah, stay away from TV on all accounts, when someone turns it on, run, because it affects us all.
MAO: But if you're going to watch TV, watch our program, even though it comes on opposite Dave Chapelle's show.
ALVAREZ: I have to say, though, it's VH-1 so they're gonna rerun it a whole bunch of times.
MAO: It'll be on at like ten in the morning, and at one, it'll be on at three, it'll be on at five. Yeah, but there are definitely a lot of interesting differences working within the medium. There were a lot of things we wanted to put on the show that we couldn't get. It was crazy expensive to get the episode of Baywatch where they save the illegal Chinese immigrants from the bottom of the ship. It was impossible to get Aaron Spelling to release the clip for the L.A. riots episode of Beverly Hills 90210.
CP:So what should we expect at your Walker talk?
MAO: We're not really sure what to expect, cause...there's going to be like 300 high school kids there.
CP:Are you afraid some of the kids might be painfully earnest?
ALVAREZ: [Laughing] If they are, I'm gonna walk out.
MAO: Maybe it'll be like that scene in Almost Famous where Lester Bangs tells the kid that everything he thought is wrong.
ALVAREZ: Is it supposed to be high school kids? As long as it's not five-year-olds, 'cause those are the most bigoted people out there.
MAO: We've had difficulty getting through to the five-year-olds. They're just so closed-minded and they've got their own racial agenda. I think kids just grow up really quickly these days. The five-year-old market is one we just haven't been able to penetrate.
ALVAREZ: [Laughing] Hey, watch how you put that.
MAO: I guess we kind of work along the Fat Albert formula. Be careful or you might learn something--and hear some really good music by kids playing on pieces of garbage.