It was 2009 when Charles Hamilton graced the XXL Freshman cover.
The rapper had the ears of many with his prose-like flow and his record that became a borough-wide anthem, “Brooklyn Girl”. The Timberlands wearing, Brownsville girl in me appreciated him, and that cover was the first edition of the magazine that I purchased. That same cover introduced me to emcees that I’d go on to be a fan of. Walé, Kid Cudi, and Curren$y. The skillset of those chosen was astronomical, and this cover seemed like a throne only a few would ever get to touch. I was introduced to Hip-Hop Journalism in a way I hadn’t been before, intrigued by the newness of these budding rap stars.
To many, those covers don’t feel the same, but the lane they created for rising Hip-Hop artists remains. As print journalism transitioned to digital, and detailed storytellers grow obsolete, there are still those that continue to contribute to Hip-Hop’s growth with an air of authenticity, while riding its tumultuous waves and rapid changes. Rappers turned executives. Editors turned tech phenoms. All still serving as a complement to the art that raised so many of us.
As I sat in the Genius office, lost in their copy of “The Rap YearBook”, I was reminded that before it was just Genius- rap is what gave the powerhouse website its legs. “Sorry to keep you waiting, we had a meeting.” My thoughts were interrupted by the journalist that helped springboard those XXL Freshman initiative-Rob Markman. His eyes screamed exhaustion, yet he catered to our discussion that would extend his Friday work day. “I love what I do so it’s all good. Thanks for wanting to talk”
With countless print and digital contributions under his belt, Rob Markman has spent the past 13 years building an admirable resumé. His interviews are labeled iconic, as he has the uncanny ability to bring a reader into the head and heart of his subject. He makes the music we listen to matter for more than just the music- a skill that’s innate, speaking to the fact that he was born for exactly this.
Maintaining humility through his ascend up the ranks of journalism, Markman remains accessible despite being able to pick up the phone and likely call any of your favorite rappers. He ditches VIP spaces at shows for General Admission standing room; with an iPhone in his hand, a hat turned to the back, and eyes peeled to the stage. He’s a fan first.
For a young Rob Markman, his idols weren’t the typical colored-cape toting action figures that saved the planet through fictional tales. His heroes sported gold rope chains and were responsible for pioneering a movement of the most influential genre of music the world has ever experienced. They’re praised for spitting the most clever bars and exposing the long existing dystopian society that we exist in but never discussed. They were rappers.
Like many others that call the streets of Brooklyn home, music and a good household were the counters to the rough streets of Flatbush. With the sounds of Jeff Redd and Mariah Carey ever present in his household, Markman’s affinity for music came as a result of his mother, whose weekly trips to the record store gave him a rotating selection of fresh sounds. Despite the presence of soul and R&B, it was Hip Hop that stuck with the teen the most- and eventually the roles reversed, Hip-Hop then resonating with the woman that introduced him to the field he’d ultimately retire in.
“I started getting into music and having money to buy my own stuff, and I remember Biggie’s Ready to Die album came out and that’s all we played. Me and my friends would be in the house playing NBA live or something and my moms would just come walking down like I don’t wanna live no more…(Every Day Struggle). So we rubbed off on each other. I definitely get some of my music taste from my mother.”
That love transitioned over to the high school hallways of Brooklyn Tech, where Markman would be found in the middle of rap battles with his classmates or in 8 Mile-esque style tournaments at the club Wetlands. Music and Markman became synonymous, so while he penned rhymes, anyone that needed music would come to him for mixtapes-always featuring the album cuts that you’d never hear on mainstream radio.
“People used to come to me for tapes like I know you got that new Illmatic …I ain’t make nobody a copy of Illmatic though.”
He was gifted with an ear for great music- a gift he never thought would’ve transitioned him into a longstanding career in Journalism. His first assignment- a Jadakiss album review for Complex Magazine.
“I always wanted to rap…I was a good writer, but I never thought it would be journalism”
The call came from Timmhotep Aku, the man Rob credits to changing his life. The opportunity came from Aku needing a writer in a pinch, fortunately, Rob answered the call.
“This was his [Jadakiss’s] 2nd album. I remember Jin was there, I’m up in Ruff Ryders studio and Jada played the album and it was crazy.” he says with a spark in his eye as he recounts the moment. “That was the 1st night I heard “Why?”…. Imagine you heard why before anybody else? I just knew that it was one of those records that’ll make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and we still talk about that record 12 years later. Kiss was always good to me, there will always be a special place in my heart for him because that was the start of my career. I’m always just indebted to him.”
After the Jadakiss interview, Rob saw a future in writing. He gave up passing out his CD’s in front of Hot 97’s studios and made his pen more of a weapon, becoming more notable with each and every piece. Sway Calloway introduced him to Eminem as “one of the illest journalists doing it” while his byline was rapidly becoming one of the most recognized.
By the time Markman landed a full-time position at Harris Publications (home to XXL and Scratch Magazine), he was on top of the world, or so it seemed. The dream job of many- was the same job that almost led to his downfall. The term starving artist, an unprecedented reality for the superstar writer.
“I was making less money as a full time journalist than I was in the mailroom.”
“There was a time where my career just got really hard. I didn’t know whether I would make it. Money wasn’t adding up and it wasn’t even just the money. The money was one thing, the working conditions were something else and I was just super unhappy- it was very unpleasant.”
“Datwon Thomas (VIBE magazine) saved my career. I might’ve quit. Datwon was Editor In Chief of XXL at one point in time but he left and we stayed in contact because he saw something in me. Datwon gave me the best advice ever and I give it to young journalists. He said Yo whatever you do, do not go on Twitter to vent. Do not vent publicly. I know things get hard, please just keep working don’t say nothing it will happen for you.”
Remaining silent wasn’t the easiest, but with Thomas’s advice in the back of his head Markman fought through the rough patches and looked to his new-found mentor for support, and in him found the will to keep going. The same will that then landed him in the home of MTV- where he’d watch his career blossom larger than it ever had.
This story of sacrifice is one found within the lines of many Hip-Hop tales. It’s familiar to anyone with a dream; the reality of every creative on the come up. The idea that if you want something enough you’ll make something out of nothing despite your circumstances. You’ll make a conscious effort to filter through the white noise, and work hard to remain the last one standing in a sea of competition.
“Everyone says they want to be in the music industry. It’s easy to say it, harder to do it.”
For a newcomer in music, a cosign from Rob Markman is just as coveted than a record deal. Once he says you’re hot, the possibility of your career taking off seemingly skyrockets…and he almost never misses. His opinion is respected, and he couples that with an unwavering commitment to creating spaces for emerging artists to shine. This is frequently celebrated; his name commonly found within the bars of various Hip-Hop contributors.
“I just talk about music that I like, and I like mother f**ckers that could rap. What people fail to understand is…When I met Kendrick, He wasn’t the Kendrick Lamar that I know now. And when I first met him….Jay Rock was the top guy at TDE. I met him when Jay Rock and J. Cole were on the Freshman cover. And I just liked Dot ‘cuz he could rap. So I throw my support to people I feel are talented. Like Russ. And Nick Grant too! I’m not afraid to put my name on the line for what I enjoy. There are other journalists, and other people in the music industry who wait for somebody else to do it and that’s some sucka shit to me.”
“If I wasn’t a Rap Genius I’d get you ROBbed”. – Nick Grant
His prophetic eye for talent, coupled with his long respected tenure is what made him the perfect fit for his newest position at Genius, the lyrics annotation site that’s changing the way the world receives music. As Head of Artist Relations, he creates and maintains relationships with musicians in every stage of their artistry- not just focused on the DJ Khaled level superstars, but the grassroots newcomers that are just releasing their first mixtape who are equally important to the Genius imprint.
“Genius could be the new MTV. It could be the new brand that people trust for music, and we’re implementing that. If you’re a new artist you should be uploading your lyrics to Genius, you should be annotating you should be building your community within Genius. It’s important to me no matter where I’m at that there has to be some sort of platform for emerging artists.”
With Rob’s resumé, one would assume his next step would be that of a music executive or a label of his own. While he has no plans to do either at the moment, he does have his eyes on a few hometown talents that would make the cut.
“I like Your Old Droog. I like Tray Pizzy. He’s definitely an artist that carves his own lane. He’s original.”
Lastly, Red Hook rising star Kris Kasanova.
“Kris is dope. He’s one of those guys that could rap and he takes his sh*t very seriously. I love that he’s coming out of Red Hook. We haven’t really seen a rapper really emerge from Red Hook the right way. So I like his story. It’s a New York Story.”
ME: So about New York falling off…
Rob: Fuck that.
The BluePrint is a series of interviews with Hip-Hops most behind the scenes contributors, sharing how they made it, and how you can too. Only on TheTakeOvah.com