Joe Clair Any real hip-hop fan will recognize Joe Clair from his 6 year run as the host of BET’s Rap City. Now you may recognize him from his stand up comedy and acting. Joe has a LOT more going on that you may not be aware of. Check out this exclusive interview with the man who helped elevate hip-hop through his unforgettable interviews with the biggest icons in rap.
interview by Will Hernandez
WHO?MAG: Tell me a little bit about your history? JOE CLAIR: I am originally from Washington DC; to be exact, a little bit outside of DC. A place called Sea Pleasant, MA. That’s where I grew up because my pops lived in the city. I spent half my time in the county and half my time in the city.
WHO?MAG: How did you get into hip hop? JOE CLAIR: Hip Hop just made sense to me. When I first heard hip hop music, it automatically made sense to me. I don’t if you know a lot about DC, but in DC Go Go music is the big music and not really hip hop, like at one point Bass music down in Miami was bigger than hip hop music. That’s how we got it in DC. I was kind of like a weird kid because I liked hip hop music. I took to it like a duck to water.
WHO?MAG: I was reading your bio on your website. You went to Morgan Sate University, right? JOE CLAIR: Morgan State University home of the Golden Bears. I was the mascot at one time actually for the University during basketball season. Being at Morgan State was a huge turning point in my life.
WHO?MAG: How did you end up hosting Rap City back in 1994? JOE CLAIR: When I first got out of college, I was working with homeless kids. I was a social worker and I was telling jokes at night. I quit the social working gig and mostly just concentrating on being a comedian. When you’re a young starting-out comedian; you’re mostly watching TV all day. I was watching BET most of the time and I was like, “I’d like to be on Rap City”. I called 411 and I got the number for BET. From there, I called BET and asked for the producers of Rap City. I started leaving them messages. I would call once or twice every week. I had to call for a year, man! I didn’t have anything to lose. I never got a call back, but one day I got a call from one of my partners and he was DJing at Rap City. They didn’t have anywhere to shoot, so I offered my crib since it was decent at the time. Rap City came to my crib and one of producers walked and was like “oh sh*t, you’re a comedian right?” I was like “yeah I’m Joe Clair”. He was telling me that he saw me perform with Paul Mooney and I was real funny. He was telling me that he’d like to work with me. Twenty minutes later, the producer that I had been calling walked in. I introduced myself and he remembered that I had been calling him. The other guy was like “this the dude I’ve been telling you about”. So it was like it all kind of came together from there. I did a couple of auditions and next thing you know, I’m the host of Rap City. I was there from 1994 to 2000.
WHO?MAG: Was it difficult for you hosting the show at the beginning? JOE CLAIR: Nah, because I didn’t take it too serious. I was just really excited talking to rappers. (laughs) I put my personality in it and just let it roll. They wanted me to be more jokey joke, but I was like, “nah I’m a real hip hop head”. I can’t interview KRS-ONE and be no comedian. You got be serious when you’re interviewing KRS. I started to think that way about everybody because I felt anybody who could get their music as far as to getting on Rap City deserves a chance to get to shine on TV. I tried to have some integrity and some kind of poise with it when I interview folks. That’s the attitude I had from day one and that’s how I roll. I had one small incident when I interviewed Pete Rock and CL Smooth. This was like my first show. I’ll never forget. CL Smooth told me I was “too hype”. I was too extra and I had to calm down. You’re doing too much. I’ll never forget as long as I live, but I ain’t change my style. This is how I’m going to be and that’s that.
WHO?MAG: Which were the interviews you have fond memories of? JOE CLAIR: Ah man! Of course the Biggie interview. I only interviewed Biggie one time and it happened to be the last interview that anybody ever got from Biggie. That was huge and it always stands out. I remember when we were interviewing the Wu-Tang Clan one time and I met ODB and he was real cool. I though he was going to be crazy, but he was real cool. He had a cool spirit about him. That sticks out in my head. The interview with Jay Z in the helicopter showing me around Brooklyn. That was real fly. Let me think. There’s a lot of them. E-40 and them when they were shooting the “Players Ball” video and E-40 flew me out west to do the interview with him. I met 2pac that day. I met once, but he didn’t remember. I kicked it with Pac, E40, and all the cats from the Bay. That was real cool. The first time I met KRS-ONE and he knew my name. That really blew my mind.
WHO?MAG: One thing I remember about you doing the interviews is you were always concise, asked a lot of good questions, and you weren’t trying to kiss the artist’s ass. JOE CLAIR: Don’t get me wrong, I was a fan at time, but I didn’t want to look like a fan. We got mail from people saying “Why is this n*gga friends with everybody that come on the show? Why is this n*gga Joe friendly with all the cats and whatever?” We did get some mad people thinking I was a d*ckrider or whatever. Most of the people was like “good interview. I’m glad you interviewed my favorite artist the way that you did because I got to learn something from it.” For me, it was about getting that information out about their new project. I didn’t know what the fans thought, but I loved hip hop and I still do. That’s what I brought to the table and at the same time, I felt like we didn’t have people interviewing hip hop artist like on MTV and on other places. They kind of made a joke about it like hip hop wasn’t serious or it wasn’t real music. Like it was bullsh*t music and I never felt that way.
WHO?MAG: I remember also like you mentioned earlier that you’d be traveling around the country to interview different rappers and go to the studio with them. JOE CLAIR: That was the best part of it. We were interviewing Redman in the Bricks [Newark, NJ]. We did at a little garage where they used to kick it at. It was real grimy. Extra extra grimy! We went and interviewed Bone Thugs & Harmony. I remember it was one o’ clock we was at East 1999 and St. Clair and walked around their hood, so the next day when we did the interview, I could have a real feel. Something more than just “what’s up with your album”. That kind of thing. “Tell me about your album and how it relates to this block right here”.
WHO?MAG: I also remember the time you were in the studio interviewing Kool G Rap. JOE CLAIR: Yeah man! At the time, I was listening to all of that. When we did the interview, I had just listened to the album two days before. I’m like “hell I’m loving this right here”. To get to talk to him and be one of the first people to interview him was mind blowing to me. I don’t know how it was for the people watching it, but for me, it was mind blowing. I’m like he got the hot album and the hot single that’s coming out right now. Plus he got tracks on the album that I really like that won’t see the light of day. I want to talk about this song too. So people can see that it’s more than just the single. What about these songs on the album? Ya’ll n*ggas are doing something right here. Interviewing Kool G Rap was something I thought would never happen. When I was a college student, I thought I was going to have to get out and get a job and work everyday. Now I’m interviewing Kool G Rap! That’s “Road to the Riches”, “Ill Street Blues” Kool G Rap, the architect. For me to sit and talk to him in my room, I kept my composure when the cameras where on. I’m thinking “Damn I’m interviewing Kool G Rap. I know there’s a million m*thaf*ckas wishing they were me right about now.”
WHO?MAG: Why did you leave the show? JOE CLAIR: That was a decision they made upstairs by Steven Hill when he came in. He had a different vision for the show. He saw something else. I don’t know exactly what it was. It kind of left me and Big Lez out in the cold. They wanted Tigger to come in and be the main guy. That’s how the whole thing went down. Actually, my man Dee Brandon talked about it on myspace and youtube in the “Confessions of a BET Producer”. He talked about the whole thing.
WHO?MAG: You were cool with Tigger? JOE CLAIR: Yeah, yeah! Prior to that, Tigger and I had done a radio show in DC. We were cool. Cats were always like “f*ck that n*gga”. I was like “let the man do his thing. He got the gig let him do his thing.”
WHO?MAG: What do you think of Rap City now? JOE CLAIR: I still watch the show to tell you the truth. From the Tigger era to the Mad Linx era, to my man from St. Louis Q45. I love the show. To me, it’s still Rap City since I was the guy hosting it. I can’t say who was the best host was because I never watched myself as host.
WHO?MAG: I remember you came out in the Masta Ace video “Sittin On Chrome”. JOE CLAIR: Yeah! I remember that video. He did that video in LA. I can’t remember what year at the car show. He did that before the whole world was checking into the car culture. He was a pioneer in that. I think he’s still big in the car scene.
WHO?MAG: I also read you’re working on an album. Can you talk about that? JOE CLAIR: I got an album about to come out. I’m going to start linking sh*t on youtube and myspace real soon. It’s just another part of me man. I’ve always been an emcee. I always used to rap. I used to rap in front of Go Go bands back in DC. When I was on Rap City, I used to freestyle with the artists. After I got out of Rap City, I tried to start a record label in DC. I recorded an album, but I didn’t like that album. Nobody heard it. I figured since nobody heard it, nobody’s going to be looking for it. I ain’t got to release it. I moved to LA like four years ago and I do production. I taught myself from like 1999 to 2006. I sat down and taught myself how to be a producer, how to work an MPC, how to work that Protools, how to get down with that Reason, what to look for in a studio, how to build a studio, the compressors, EQs, reverbs, keyboards, basically everything. I was producing for people. I had a couple of little cats coming to me for beats so on and so forth. I would also help people ghostwrite. At that point, I might as well put my album out because I got something to say that’s different than anybody else out here. Sometimes I get interviewed and people ask me “who’s your favorite emcee?” I said “me” and they would laugh. But I was serious. They think I’m about to come with some funny lines or something like that because I’m a comedian. That’s not how I rap. I try making them songs, but they don’t work for me. Some of the stuff is funny and lighthearted, but of it, you can feel and understand where I’m coming from. I ain’t no thug or gangsta. I’m a college nigga. I do commercials for McDonalds that kind of thing (laughs). I rap from my own perspective.
WHO?MAG: You did the commercial for Geico. JOE CLAIR: I got the Geico. You know what I’m saying? (both of us laugh) How would I look rapping some thug sh*t when I did the Geico commercials?
WHO?MAG: Talk to me about the comedy stuff you’ve been doing? JOE CLAIR: I did the Def Comedy Jam the season. Mike Epps was there. I’ve been on Comic View, Comedy Central, all of that. To me, comedy is something I discovered that I was good at while I was in college. It just stuck with me. It became a way to make money. It’s something that I love doing. It’s relief to get on stage, just you and a microphone. It’s not like hip hop or R&B that you can fall back on something else Comedy is just you and a microphone. You got to make the people laugh. That’s just my thing man.
WHO?MAG: Are you working on any movies? JOE CLAIR: I just did a movie that went straight to DVD called “Lord Help Us” that’s in stores now, one of the few good Christian movies; a feel good movie. I got good reviews. I didn’t make a lot of money off it, but it feels good to get the movie out. Matter of fact, I got a call the other day. One of my homegirls from college picked up the movie and she told me I did a really good job. I’m really focused on getting this music out and let people see that side of me. Now I write a blog for allhiphop.com and I’m doing a site of my own called joeclair.tv. I’ll be interviewing cats so I’m going to concentrate on what people really expect from me and that’s that interview. What’s up with hip hop. That kind of sh*t. I love doing it, so I’m going to get into that right about now.
WHO?MAG: What do you have on rotation in your car CD player right now? JOE CLAIR: Ah man! I just got that Pharaoh Monch the other day. That sh*t is off the chain! I got “Welcome to the Terrordome” on there. I got KRS-ONE and Marley Marl’s new joint. I play a lot of the down south stuff right now. I’m feeling that UGK, Outkast. I like that Lil’ Wayne. I got that in my car as well. Jay-Z’s “The Blueprint” be staying in my car. Nas’s “Hip Hop is Dead” be staying in my car. I don’t really do the mixtapes too much because if you listen to them too much, you get inundated with a whole bunch of garbage. You can’t keep your head focused on what the music is really about.
WHO?MAG: Is there any artist that you wished you could’ve interviewed that you didn’t or some that you did and could’ve interviewed some more? JOE CLAIR: I wish I could’ve sat down with the original NWA. I wish I could’ve sat down with the original Public Enemy. I wish I could sit down with Rakim. I wish I could get a one on one with Nas. Of course, KRS-ONE. There’s cats today I’d like to interview. I’d like to sit down and talk to Lil Wayne because Lil Wayne is hip hop. Lil Wayne’s been doing it since he was 12. He had a career where he started off as kid. Then he had hits as a kid. People was like “he’s a kiddie rapper. nobody loves him.” He had “500 Degreez”, “The Block is Hot”. Nobody was feeling him. Then boom! He come back as the king of this sh*t. He’s killing it. I’d love to talk to Lil’ Wayne. I’d also like to talk in-depth with TI about hip hop, not about the politics, not about the streets. I want to talk about hip hop music. I want to talk to Jeezy about to hip hop music. I want to talk to Jurassic 5 & Dilated Peoples. I want to go back and talk to whole Hieroglyphics crew and talk to them. That’s what I plan on doing with joeclair.tv. So you can look for that stuff coming soon.
WHO?MAG: I remember you interviewed Run DMC and Jam Master Jay. You were with Jayo Felony in San Diego, CA one time as well. JOE CLAIR: I’ve never forget it. We were at the Hard Rock Café. You got to understand those Rap City interviews were still orchestrated by BET. They put a boundary on me. I knew there was stuff the streets wanted to know that they wouldn’t let me ask and that kind of stuff. I would like to get back and do it my way. I love hip hop in all shapes forms and sizes, from the backpack sh*t, to the gangsta sh*t, to the conscious sh*t, to the superstar shiny suit sh*t. I like it all because it’s hip hop. It’s the voice of our generation. It’s us talking. Yeah, Jayo Felony, I though the world was sleeping on my man. He’s still out here on the West Coast making records. I feel hopefully at some point people will start checking for that cat.
WHO?MAG: You still keep in touch with Big Lez? JOE CLAIR: I saw her two weeks ago. She works for ABC radio doing syndicated stuff; entertainment reporting.
WHO?MAG: Any last words? JOE CLAIR: Keep listening to your boy. I’m keep on doing this till they put me in the box.
For more info on Joe Clair check out http://www.joeclair.com/