Jack The Rapper: The rise and fall of the world’s largest hip-hop gathering

Sunday was edging into Monday when the Orlando riot squad descended on downtown Disneyworld.

Spent blunts, bullet casings, broken bottles, sun loungers and trash littered the floor of the Buena Vista Palace Hotel. Televisions, chairs and fire extinguishers (most ejected from high balconies) bobbed lifeless in the pool.

As the cops arrived to help security break up fights and regain control, people scattered through the House of Mouse’s opulent battleground. Some guests ran for the relative safety of their rooms, some got to a comfortable vantage point and enjoyed the show; others, oblivious to or unconcerned about the chaos, went to find the next party. It was late August 1994, the final evening of the eighteenth Jack The Rapper Family Affair, the world’s largest hip-hop gathering – a night that would deliver a mortal wound to the once esteemed music convention’s reputation.

The excess and anarchy of that day was in part fuelled by rap’s stratospheric 90s rise and the big personalities and even bigger conflicts that came along with it. Among the estimated 10,000 attendees were future superstars, young moguls, aspiring ‘gangstas’ and all the hustlers and hangers-on that came with them. Each was drawn to the event gathering by a desire to sit at the top table in the industry. It was their presence that would ultimately kill the event, but there was a bittersweet irony, because The Family Affair had never been about rap. The convention was originally conceived by a pioneering DJ whose all-embracing attitude towards every facet of black music would eventually spell its downfall: Joseph Deighton Gibson, Jr, aka ‘Jack The Rapper’.

Gibson sought to unite and champion all aspects of African American music in a single forum

Born in Chicago, Gibson’s first experience on the radio was as an actor, with a stint of supporting roles in short dramas where the colour of his skin was an irrelevance to the prejudices of the day. But with a magnetic personality, it wasn’t long before he moved onto his own show as a DJ, playing R&B hits and ad-libbing between records. Gibson’s fast-talking persona on the mic was an asset that would not only define his career, but become a template for others to follow.

Gibson’s popularity couldn’t be confined to Chicago, and a move to Atlanta saw him become involved in the foundation of WERD-AM, which broke new ground when it was launched in 1949 as the first US radio station to be fully owned and operated by African Americans. And the first voice to crackle across the airwaves was that of 29-year-old Gibson, known then as ‘Jockey Jack’. His pronouncement “We are here! We are here!” ushered listeners into a new age in broadcasting.

This was a pivotal time for civil rights in America, and Gibson became a central figure in the struggle during his tenure at WERD. The station, located in the same complex as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, had a studio fortuitously positioned above SCLC president Dr Rev. Martin Luther King’s office. It was thanks to ‘Jockey Jack’ that King was first heard on the radio. One apocryphal story holds that Gibson would drop his mic down from an upper floor window so King could speak to demonstrators live as marches were unfolding. Indeed, the influence of Gibson and his peers was so great during this time that at the 1967 conference for National Association of Radio Announcers for Black DJs — an organisation formed by Gibson — King went as far as to thank the assembled crowd of DJs for “creating a powerful cultural bridge” between black and white youths. A year after he spoke, King would be assassinated.

The concept behind Jack The Rapper wouldn’t take shape until the late 70s. It was first conceived as a weekly editorial in a newsletter; Gibson had run something similar while working at Stax under the title Telling It Like It T-I-S-is. But now, free to compile the newsletter with autonomy, he took it upon himself to pen an often-scathing look inside the black music industry.

To those who subscribed the weekly bulletin (which became known as “mello yello” due to its mustard coloured paper stock), it was an indispensable insider’s guide; a tip sheet that picked rising artists, listed the latest hits and pulled few punches in its editorial content, with Gibson penning commentaries on the shifting landscape of the music business under the name ‘Jack The Rapper’. But the success couldn’t be contained to paper, and much as he had done with the NARA in the mid-50s, Gibson sought to unite and champion all aspects of African American music in a single forum and turn the pages of his newsletter into a reality.

Jack The Rapper’s Family Affair was born in 1977 and ran in Atlanta (where it had all begun for him at WERD-AM) during the inaugural ‘Black Music Month’. The only meeting of its kind at the time, its nearest rival — held by Billboard magazine — was labelled ‘all inclusive’ but heavily white-centric, and earned a reputation for sidelining black artists. The Family Affair was designed as a counterpoint to that attitude, built on an ethos of inclusivity.

The convention’s success was immediate. The event allowed managers, label bosses, radio promoters and retail executives to check out the competition, see up-and-comers showcase their material, rub shoulders with superstars, swap demo tapes or just kick back and party. Guest speakers ranged from industry professionals to activists and religious leaders such as Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, whose speech at the convention in 1980 would later be sampled by Public Enemy on ‘Terminator X To The Edge Of Panic’.

The convention grew steadily over the course of a decade, becoming the place to see and be seen. A diverse roster of acts, from Prince and Mariah Carey to Luther Vandross and New Kids On The Block all performed, while artists like MC Hammer, TLC and even Kriss Kross were discovered there. A report from the Orlando Sentinel in 1991 sums up how established the event had become, with news of a bizarre dare issued between ‘rival’ artists: “Reclusive pop superstar Michael Jackson isn’t expected to come to the Jack ‘the Rapper’ Family Affair convention in Atlanta this week to accept rapper M.C. Hammer’s daring challenge to a dance-off.”

Jack The Rapper’s Family Affair was killed by the very inclusion it promoted

By the early 90s, Jack The Rapper’s celebration of African American musical achievements had reached its zenith, and Gibson made sure not to turn anyone away who wanted to further the cause. It was an attitude he’d already extended to the hip-hop community, who’d been attending since the mid-80s, and one he continued to stand by despite the warning signs that a shift in the attitude of modern rap towards the violent, hardcore realities of street culture was slowly bleeding onto the scene. It would soon become an unstoppable force of nature.

1993 was a big year at Jack The Rapper. Tupac attended the official Outkast BBQ, Puffy was holding pool parties to rep Biggie and Bad Boy, Wu-Tang Clan were getting major buzz from their showcase and Snoop Dogg was set for his debut solo performance. But all was not well in the crowd. Cultural critic dream hampton, recounting the events in November 1993’s Spin magazine, described attendees as being there “to mill about the hotel’s tri-level lobby, pedalling, pimping and finally personifying my generation’s nihilism, confusion and despair… not only were the co-participants not there to network, but many of them had come to fuck and party gangsta style.”

Death Row Records boss Suge Knight was, if reports from the time are true, quite literally gunning for Luther ‘Uncle Luke’ Campbell. The Luke Records and 2 Live Crew head honcho had released an album earlier in the same year and several of the tracks, including ‘Cowards Of Compton’, were pointedly aimed at Knight, Dr Dre and the entire Death Row stable.

The result was a series of running battles between the two camps which caused mass hysteria. dream hampton vividly picks up the story at the centre of one of the altercations, moments before Snoop Dogg was about to perform: “I didn’t feel threatened until they start letting out their New York war call ‘Ay Yo! Awriiiight!’ I step away and three seconds later they’re bum-rushed by 40 niggas in Luke Records’ T-shirts… the crowd disperse frantically and I’m afraid of a stampede.” She continues: “Minutes later the lobby is stormed by Red Dogs, the drug and gang division of the Atlanta police department, and the Mounted Patrol who arrive at the hotel on horseback in full Confederate regalia.”

It was the beginning of the end for the Family Affair. The LA Times confirmed as much in a report days after: “In view of the numerous fights and gunplay at and around the convention site Aug. 12-15, record executives are wondering whether they want to still attend the meetings.” Gibson tried to salvage what he could, moving the meeting to Orlando the following year, but the violence and madness followed. With the dwindling number of attendees fearful of the worst, and the withdrawal of all major sponsorship, 1996 would mark the last year of the convention.

Jack The Rapper’s Family Affair was dead, killed by the very inclusion it promoted. The real ‘Jack’, who’d stuck staunchly to the principles he’d held since the beginning, found them to be the undoing of his beloved event; it seems modern times simply weren’t made for men of Gibson’s virtue. Abandoned by many of his peers, he died near penniless in 2000.

There is no monument to Gibson; he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry. But his achievements are immutable. He embraced black cultural freedom in its many forms, no matter what the cost, and while the rise of rap may have killed his dream, hip-hop undeniably blossomed under his watch. In 1967 Martin Luther King spoke of the “powerful cultural bridge” which men like Gibson created. And beyond the trashed hotel suites, the broken glass, and the violent struggles that echo across the United States to this day, it’s that same bridge which remains the true legacy of Jack The Rapper.



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