Discover more from Words I Mannyfest
The Life and Death of Combat Jack
A personal look at what Reggie Ossé meant to me, and to Hip Hop
Today — July 8 — is recognized in certain circles as “Combat Jack Day.” In that spirit, I thought it apropos to re-publish a piece I wrote back on December 29, 2017. 🕊️
— Manny Faces (www.mannyfaces.com)
After mentioning him many times while he was alive, I have invoked the name and work of New York City independent artist/activist Daniel “Majesty” Sanchez in every talk or lecture I have delivered since his death.
Majesty, in many ways, personified Hip Hop, so I feel it is incredibly important to inform or remind people of his contributions to humanity made through Hip Hop, particularly those people who are unfamiliar with the true breadth and beauty of the music and culture that someone like Majesty exemplified.
As I reflect on what the passing of Hip Hop media powerhouse Combat Jack means to me personally, I recognize that his life and legacy must receive the same treatment, long after the obituaries and outpouring of love on social media fade.
I wonder what image the average unfamiliar American would have conjured up upon hearing the news that “Hip Hop’s ‘Combat Jack’” had passed away.
In the days following his death, the New York Times wrote an excellent obituary on Reggie Ossé. “Combat Jack,” the headline read, “Hip Hop Lawyer Turned Podcast Pioneer, Dies at 53.”
I would bet “lawyer” and “podcast pioneer” would not have been at the top of that average Amercian’s list.
I’ve thought about this sort of thing often over the past couple of years, and particularly as I look ahead to 2018 — even more so after being stunned by the death of such a notable man who inhabited a world so close to my personal and professional circles.
As a journalist and content creator focused on the vast expansiveness of Hip Hop music and culture, I have often been critical of Hip Hop’s media efforts, as well as the way mainstream media views Hip Hop, for their collective and nearly-universal failure to properly relay the fantastic breadth of Hip Hop culture to the masses.
Reggie Ossé — Combat Jack — was different.
A Cornell graduate, he was an attorney for many years, representing many clients within the Hip Hop world, handling contracts and record deals and the like. He was smart and talented and respected.
As a blogger and then as an early entrant in the world of Hip Hop podcasting, Ossé used his charisma and prior business connections to breathe unexpectedly brilliant life into interviews with Hip Hop icons and elder statesfolk. It made for great “radio,” in the vein of Howard Stern, who is high key one of the best interviewers that ever breathed into a microphone.
I suspect Combat Jack would have graciously accepted such a comparison.
Though my disdain for what poses as modern Hip Hop ‘journalism’ is often sneeringly thick, as is my disappointment with how many legacy Hip Hop journalists and media personalities have lost their once-forceful desire to disrupt the music journalism landscape — and often, flatly refuse to fully ride for the culture that has sustained them all these years — Combat Jack created and mastered a lane that provided a glimmer of hope for the field. First and foremost, Combat Jack’s guests were not exclusively rap artists, but others involved in the greater Hip Hop universe. This alone showed that he recognized how important it was for Hip Hop to be viewed as more than simply rap on the radio.
More than that, however, Combat Jack was one of few major figures in the game to emphatically push back against the perceived purveyors of Hip Hop musical and cultural stagnation, as evidenced by his never-quite-adversarial-enough-in-my-opinion debates with Ebro Darden, the once-influential former program director of legacy New York Hip Hop radio station, Hot 97.
Yes, admittedly, I always felt Combat should have gone harder. I feel like he always wanted to, but, for whatever reasons, held back.
But he WENT. And he was on the right track. And that is more than most with his level of notoriety was doing. He saw something that I, and many other Hip Hop advocates saw a long time ago when it comes to the music and the culture and the community — that Hip Hop has come to a point where it must be protected. From outsiders. From insiders. From culture vultures. From corporations. From generational discord. From cultural illiteracy by those who sit outside of Hip Hop’s periphery.
It wasn’t because I disapproved of the content being broadcast (though even if I did, I also believe that angle of protest is a foolish folly, as censoring the art — no matter how one feels about it — sets a precarious precedent).
It was because I felt that a radio station which purports to be “where Hip Hop lives,” and has vast reach and influence on the general public — particularly young people of color — was operating in a manner that had little to nothing to do with the proper representation of the greater culture from which the music originates. In doing so, I argued, Emmis Communications and Hot 97 were in violation of FCC requirements that a radio station must reasonably serve its community.
I published the petition on my site, Birthplace Magazine, with a breakdown of why I did it. The whole process was quite an effort — a lot of bureaucracy and legalese that I had to navigate my way through. It was around the time that Combat Jack would be contemplating the same kind of ideas on his show and in interviews with folks like Darden and Duck Down Music’s Buckshot.
While I certainly would have welcomed coverage of what I was trying to accomplish, I didn’t reach out to many “Hip Hop journalists” to directly bring it to their attention.
I did, however, reach out to Combat Jack.
I’m not sure exactly why. It was respect for his stance on the subject, I suppose, and how it seemed to be aligned with my own. It was probably, selfishly, also to try and raise my own stock, somehow get recognized by this higher echelon of participants in this discussion, perhaps even to be invited to speak about it on his show. I had actually used several quotes from his interviews with Darden in the petition, including one key statement where Darden conceded that he was conscious of the criticism that the station was indeed failing the culture and the specific region it was charged with serving, admitting that they could “do better.”
Whatever my exact reasoning, I felt compelled to send the information directly to Combat Jack. I wanted to know what HE thought.
To be fair, we weren’t the only ones thinking these things. Countless everyday rap fans, critics and advocates debated these issues regularly, and in the Hip Hop media world, folks like B.Dot of RapRadar were making similar noise fueled by similar beliefs aimed at many of the same targets.
Still, it was only Combat Jack who I solicited directly.
Even though I had been active covering the NYC independent Hip Hop scene for years, I don’t know if he knew exactly who I was — though I was definitely known by some of his colleagues, particularly those who came up during the PNC Radio days.
But he responded.
This meant a lot to me, despite the fact that his response was nothing more than a question, one that several others would go on to pose in regards to my unorthodox efforts to protect Hip Hop culture.
He emailed back, “Are there any suggestions as to what would replace Hot 97?”
And I paused. Because I hadn’t thought of that.
It reminded me of one of my favorite jokes, which I’ll paraphrase:
A comedian did a bit where he was awakened on a Saturday morning by Jehovah’s Witness missionaries knocking on his door. Audience laughter implied that many were familiar with this phenomenon. Groggy, the comic figured, “What the heck…” Instead of ignoring them or politely declining their invitation as most might do, he invited them into his living room and sat them down.
“Ok, fine.” he asked, “What is it you want to say?”
They sat there stunned. “We don’t really know,” one said. “We never made it this far before.”
The truth is, I never wanted to actually take Hot 97 off the air. I wanted to leverage the power of the FCC to pressure the corporation running the station to recognize that the flippant way in which they were helping perpetuate the idea that “Hip Hop” could be summed up by how they approached the music and culture, was demeaning to the actual music and culture and the community that held both dear.
I answered Combat Jack with something along those lines. He never answered back, but that was OK. I appreciated that he responded. He took my efforts seriously and asked a question that others would end up asking as well, and forced me to prepare for that line of questioning.
I met Combat Jack a couple of years later, though Clarence “Jah C” Fruster, an event promoter who was and is a respected linchpin in the advancement of New York’s independent Hip Hop music scene. I didn’t remind Combat about our brief email exchange when we were introduced. He seemed to recognize my name, but I’m not sure he made the connection. Instead, I merely complimented him on his work, told him I appreciated what he did “for the culture,” as he would often say, and we went about our business of the day.
But deep inside I would have loved to engage with him more on the topic, on or off the microphone. Because again, I believe he did recognize the dangerous state that Hip Hop was entering, and was intent on doing his part to fight back against cultural degradation by continuing his unique style of journalism through The Combat Jack Show, and more recently, his acclaimed work partnering with Gimlet Media on the Mogul podcast series, detailing the life of the late industry powerhouse Chris Lighty.
It was this work that proved to me that Combat Jack was doing the thing that I had privately and publicly berated much of Hip Hop’s legacy media for dropping the ball on. He refused to ride the current, pop-culture wave, but rather, was finding ways to use his voice, platform and connections to tell stories from around the larger Hip Hop universe, stories that Hip Hop fans and insiders would appreciate, but that would inform and entertain outsiders as well.
I don’t know what else Combat Jack had up his continuously reinventive sleeve, but I know that his untimely death almost assuredly squelched what would have been many more insightful and meaningful journalistic endeavors that would help cast Hip Hop culture in the light it truly deserves.
So, as I look forward to 2018 with a number of my own initiatives that are aimed at uplifting the perception of Hip Hop culture, I want to be sure to keep three things in mind.
First, as I and others have been stating for years, the work of true Hip Hop standard bearers like Combat Jack must be heralded, respected and amplified — while they are still here.
Second, outlets like the New York Times and other mainstream outlets must not wait until people like Combat Jack pass away to tell their stories. These journalists, these stories, this culture and its participants are worthy and fit to print, every day.
Covering Hip Hop requires more than just highlighting whatever rap-infused, pop-culture flavor-of-the-moment is trending or writing obituaries.
Third, it must continue to be an important aspect of my personal and professional mission to help ensure that these things happen.
As Reggie Ossé himself tweeted, back in 2011, long before he had any inkling that his time would come only a short six years later:
“Twitter. When I die, make sure it reads ‘It don’t ever stop.’ on my tombstone. Ok. Good Morning.”
And so, it must never stop. It is now up to us who hold his work, those ideals and Hip Hop culture in such high regard, to make sure of it.
Words I Mannyfest is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.