Is CRWN ‘the cover story brought to life’?

Mike Shane Photography

When the potty-mouthed, ultra-unfiltered 22-year-old rapper Tyler, The Creator appeared two years ago as the debut guest of the paid audience interview series “CRWN,” he was as confused about the concept as anyone.

“Yo, this is crazy,” Tyler said upon taking the stage in New York’s Highline Ballroom. “All you motherfuckers paid $20 to see me talk for an hour? You guys are fucking retarded.”

But the event that night went on to be one of Tyler’s most revealing interviews, validating the price of admission. On Thursday, the 19th installment of “CRWN” filled most of the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Hip-hop journalist and entrepreneur Elliott Wilson, who hosts and co-executive produces the show, has tapped into the trend of live programming for media brands. “CRWN” as a brand is established; as journalism, it can seem a little tenuous at times.   

Wilson, 44, was editor in chief of the hip-hop magazine XXL from 1999 to 2008, and is now CEO of the website Rap Radar, editor of Respect magazine, and host of the “Keep it Thoro” podcast on East Village Radio. With his fauxhawk, notoriously piercing laugh, and relentless stream of tweets (340,000 at press time) to more than 225,000 followers, he’s among the most visible personalities in rap journalism. Backstage pre-show in Williamsburg, he defended the substance of what he and the production company Electus, via its Web platform WatchLOUD, have created.

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“That’s what I want people to appreciate. There’s the journalistic element in all the other things that I’m doing,” he explains, alluding to his diverse ventures. “ ‘CRWN’ is the cover story brought to life. But it’s all journalism [delivered] in different ways, not just this medium of print, or these paradigms that I have to be editor in chief of Rolling Stone to be worthy. I’m an independent businessman, and I’m creating my own platform.”

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Mike Shane Photography

His guest that night was Mac Miller, the 23-year-old Pittsburgh rapper who’s on tour following the release last month of his new album, GO:OD AM. The show began at 8:40pm, with 210 fans—a mix of men and women, mostly around Mac’s age—paying $12 in advance or $15 at the door. There’s no rapping at “CRWN,” pronounced “crown” and appearing as “#CRWN” on a large projector screen behind the stage, which was set with two gilded, ornate chairs. An hour in, the crowd was allowed to ask questions, and the show was over by 10. In a few days, the episode will appear on YouTube, where “CRWN” videos often rack up hundreds of thousands of views.  

In this week’s New York Times Magazine cover story on rap star Nicki Minaj, Vanessa Grigoriadis poignantly observes that “interviews in the social-media era are about being adored, not interrogated.” Wilson doesn’t succumb to “How do you do it?” fawning, but he treads lightly. Most of the Mac Miller interview dealt with the new album. When Wilson asked about a song that deals with Mac’s rocky relationship with his girlfriend, the rapper responded, “Dammit, Elliott” before stammering a bit, then giving a reasonably thoughtful answer. Midway through, maybe due to stress, Mac lit a cigarette but was told by security to put it out minutes later. 

When Tyler heard the pitch for the series, Wilson remembers him replying, “Oh, like ‘Inside the Actors Studio,’ ” referencing James Lipton’s Bravo show that’s filmed before Pace University students. It’s a fair comparison—“CRWN” is more portrait than probing.

Wilson books the biggest rap stars of the day. Sometimes, it’s a tough sell, and Co-Executive Producer Jesse Kirshbaum says a few artists have negotiated topics that are off limits. Other times, artists come to Wilson, as with Drake and Lil Wayne, two superstars known for being uncooperative with media. It’s a safe space, with Wilson’s reputation for tactful questioning and fans’ support. Now that it’s harder to name rap A-listers who haven’t done “CRWN” than those who have, joining Wilson on stage has some cachet. Mac’s mother was in attendance.

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Mike Shane Photography

Thursday night’s crowd was reasonably well-behaved, other than occasional shouted interruptions and one guy who lit up a joint mid-show. On other episodes, Wilson has had to repeatedly shout, “Let me work!” to shut up hecklers. Unlike the intimacy of a radio studio, public interviews can intimidate guests. “The fear of doing it in front of people sometimes brings out good conversation,” says Christian Clancy, who manages Tyler and Mac Miller.

Wilson concedes that “CRWN” had a predecessor. About seven years ago, Peter Rosenberg, the popular morning show co-host at New York’s HOT 97 radio station, developed a live interview series called “Noisemakers,” in which he interviewed an older generation of rap legends. He didn’t have trouble getting a paid audience of several hundred for shows at the 92Y center in Tribeca, but booking guests who weren’t on a promotional run was difficult, and it wasn’t netting a profit. 

“You don’t necessarily get the best interview in that context,” Rosenberg says of the theater venue. “You have a fun night,” but the live setting can be “awkward.” When networks weren’t interested in developing “Noisemakers” into a TV show, Rosenberg eventually gave it up.

“I’m flattered that [Wilson] acknowledges that I was innovative with the platform,” he says. “You’re always going to be biased in thinking your stuff is the best, but I’ve been very impressed with the level of commitment he’s had.”

Most “CRWN” events have been in New York at various venues, although the show has traveled to meet hometown artists in Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Washington, DC, as well as the South by Southwest convention in Austin, Texas. For “CRWN” episodes with corporate sponsors, like Vitamin Water or MySpace, admission is free. Artists are never paid to appear.  

On Twitter, Wilson’s bio refers to himself as “The GOAT of Hip Hop Journalism,” an acronym for “greatest of all time.” He’s known for being uniquely self-promoting. In an appearance with Rosenberg on HOT 97, he said, “I don’t know any other hip-hop journalist that people would pay to see interview somebody” (besides you, he added). It’s a valid point. Maybe that’s due to compromises he’s willing to make in an interview format, or because he’s the one currently wearing the CRWN.

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Danny Funt is a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @dannyfunt