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Michael Grecco

From The Vault: Poetry In Motion - The Director, John Singleton (Fall 1992)

John Singleton battles racial tension in L.A. as he takes his road movie, Poetic Justice.

Simi Valley, Calif. — April 29, 1992

Today an all-white jury in this predominantly white community found a group of police officers charged in the beating of Rodney King innocent. As the old folks would say, it is the Day of Reckoning. Generation after generation of African Americans in Los Angeles had grown up saying don’t trust the police, and, finally, the videotape of King’s beating showed millions outside the hoods just what they’d been talking about. President Bush would later declare on prime-time television that he found the verdict “hard to understand.” Whether or not the system failed, things certainly look that way.

Hard thoughts run through John Singleton’s mind as he hears the verdict on the radio in his Pathfinder all-terrain vehicle. He’s driving to the set of his new Columbia Pictures film, Poetic Justice. Singleton, the 24-year-old director of last summer’s explosive, money-making Boyz N the Hood, is livid. Impulsively, he decides to drive directly to the courthouse. With him is his assistant, a 6’7” man named Shorty, who used to work for Tone-Lôc and was hired to keep Singleton insulated from the masses that besiege him during a shoot.

On the courthouse steps, Singleton and Shorty are immediately pressed by newspaper and television reporters barking questions. In the quiet, steady voice he adopts to make a point, Singleton tells them: “The judicial system feels no responsibility to black people—never has, never will. We have too many lawyers who don’t practice true law. They had a chance to prove the system works and they messed it up.” His piece said, he heads for the Pathfinder.

Back on the set, everyone tries to carry on business as usual. But the King verdict has turned Los Angeles into a tinderbox, and film crews are not immune. Some crew members say they feel there’s a schism between whites and blacks on the set, though there are no overt incidents. The blacks are visibly angry, the whites either silent or apologetic. The racial split on this crew is about fifty-fifty, unusually integrated for a big-studio production. But holdovers from Boyz, whose crew was almost entirely black, feel the added white presence.

It doesn’t help that, on a street only yards away from the set boundary, a dozen police patrol in full riot gear. It’s almost as if they think Singleton might lead a riot, then and there.

The first shot goes up. The scene is set in an old-fashioned open-air drive-in theater. Because the initial shot is panoramic and doesn’t involve any of the actors, most of the crew, including Singleton, aren’t directly involved. They spend the time crowded around Singleton, who’s sitting in his director’s chair holding a small television on his lap. The two dramas unfold concurrently—one starring Janet Jackson, the other starring the angry throngs of Los Angeles. On the small television, the riot looks surreal, a Hollywood concoction of burning buildings, cars on fire, helicopters circling and people in the streets.

All three days shooting continues in Simi Valley as the riots rage on. Although the physical violence never reaches this suburban area, other kinds of violence do. The whole time, crew members alternate between watching the news and the scene being filmed. By the weekend, the worst of the riots have passed, but upon returning home, many of the cast and crew find that their neighborhoods have been hit hard. Singleton’s own neighborhood of Baldwin Hills, a pleasant middle- and upper-middle-class black area, was only brushed by the violence. It takes days for the blunt anger to dull and the miasma to lift. To many on the set, the whole idea of making a movie amidst all the destruction of property and spirit seems an aberration.

But, like everyone else in Los Angeles, the cast and crew must get back to work.

Flashback

John Singleton sold Boyz N the Hood shortly after graduating from the University of Southern California’s film school. Because of its relatively minuscule $5.7-million budget, it generated the most pure profit of any film last year. Boyz was straight-up family drama—with the twist that it was set in the hellish epicenter of South Central Los Angeles. Its sleeper success started a tsunami brewing, one that Roger Ebert promptly dubbed the black new wave. To Hollywood, it proved there was a new way to sell pictures. And it earned Singleton all of the town’s most valued perks, including creative freedom, numerous ducats, and representation by Hollywood’s most powerful agency, CAA. It also created for his second picture the kind of expectations that can only be called unrealistic.

Poetic Justice is the story of a young black woman named Justice who has known more than her fair share of tragedy. She writes poetry, hence the movie’s title. Through a blind date and a crazy road trip, the winsome poet is thrown together with Lucky, an around-the-way boy who teaches her a thing or two about men. But make no mistakes, Justice couldn’t have been directed by John Hughes. It is populated by black women you know and love: mamas, aunts, and grandmas; best friends and sisters; rappers and chit chats, divas and hootchies. After the male-heavy Boyz, Singleton decided to focus on women’s stories this time around.

Even before casting began, Singleton and casting director Robi Reed were besieged by black actresses asking to read for parts — from the famous (Robin Givens, Lisa Bonet) to the vaguely familiar (Jada Pinkett from A Different World) to the unknown. It has been said that sexism is a bigger monster than racism in Hollywood. For black actresses, who must deal with both, meaty roles that move beyond simple stereotypes (hooker, welfare mother) are few and far between. In the end, the lead went to pop singer Janet Jackson. She did not supply her own poems, however—they were penned by Dr. Maya Angelou.

Jackson isn’t new to acting, of course. As a child and teenager, she appeared on such television shows as Good Times, Diff’rent Strokes and Fame. Understandably, there were doubts that the Encino-bred Jackson could play a girl from South Central. But Jackson, sporting the de rigeur Fendi bag and Nefertiti-like braids, went to town in the screen test. The head honchos at Columbia were duly convinced.

In the movie, Jackson is teamed with another musician, rapper Tupac Shakur. On a recent solo pin from Digital Underground, Shakur landed a smooth one-two earlier this year with a hit movie, Juice, and a boomblasting debut album, 2pacalypse Now. Ice Cube, for whom Singleton wrote the role of Lucky, turned it down because he was “too busy.” Ultimately, Shakur and Singleton made a fine match. The scene in his video “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” in which Shakur’s seen holding an infant, reminded many of Singleton’s point in Boyz that the black man must be a real father to his children.

Poetic Justice also features Boyz co-stars Tyra Ferrell, Baha Jackson, and Regina King. Roger Smith (Do the Right Thing, Deep Cover) gets a lot of laughs—at singer and co-star Keith Washington’s expense. It’s a very musical cast that also includes rappers Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, Tone Lôc, Dina D., Miki Howard, and a cameo by rapper Nefertiti. Singleton insists that the musicians were the best actors that auditioned, (Likewise, music videos have become a stage for many would-be actors.) He’s also confident that this movie will be better than his first because “it has rhythms—ups and downs, drama and humor, like a good song.”

Los Angeles — Spring 1992

The song begins. It’s the first day of principal photography, and, because the crew hasn’t become comfortable with one another yet, tension hangs in the air. Everything is brand-new, including the director’s chair. The logo on the back of the cast’s and crew’s chairs reads: POETIC JUSTICE: BACK TO THE HOOD. Singleton is dressed in his usual B-boy uniform of T-shirt, baggy jeans and baseball cap, a Malcolm X pendant dangling from his neck.

We’re in a predominantly black Los Angeles community, near where many of the scenes in Boyz were shot. It’s a street scene: Lucky is driving up the street to visit somebody he knows in the neighborhood, and on the way he runs into a few old friends. While that encounter unfolds in the street, non-actor neighbors peer out of their windows and around the corners of buildings, out of range of the cameras.

The street is full of cars and people. But it’s hard to tell which are the studio cars, which people are actors, and which live in the area. In some circles in Hollywood, fantasy is out and reality is in. Particularly African-American reality. Singleton knows his strengths: every hour or so, he says to whoever wants to listen, “This is it, this is the real shit.”

As a practical matter, the experience of shooting Boyz N the Hood made Singleton a stronger filmmaker. He admits, “With Boyz, I didn’t know how to direct a movie. I just went with my feelings. Somehow, it came out right. I was really intense in film school, a lot more intense than I am now. Whenever someone foils a person’s ability to be creative, they make that person dangerous. A lot of people should be glad I’m making movies. I could be out somewhere robbing cars.”

Culver City — Later

Singleton drives onto the Sony Pictures lot, blasting Leaders of the New School on his sound system. He is happy because Boyz is up for two big Academy Awards—Best Original Screenplay and Best Director. He is the youngest person ever to be so honored.

As Singleton approaches the lot’s gate, two young brothers guarding it shout, “Whaddup?” They give him dap for the nominations, obviously proud, even a little in awe of him. Singleton thanks them, shaking their hands.

“These are the people I make movies for,” he says, driving on, “the regular brother and sister on the street.”

Many expected the writing nomination, but best-director is a surprise. With it come two firsts. Not only is Singleton the youngest director ever nominated (Orson Welles was 25 when he was nominated for Citizen Kane), but he is also the first African-American director to be recognized by the Academy.

The latter is a fact that makes him both proud and uneasy. He says, “It’s all political. Spike should have got it first. If not for School Daze, then for Do the Right Thing." Spike Lee and Singleton have a close friendship, with Lee functioning as a mentor to the younger filmmaker.

Lee is many things, but he is not a darling of the movie industry. He lives in Brooklyn and doesn't play on Hollywood's social lots; he's a no-show at industry parties and refuses to join the Directors Guild. On the other hand, Singleton is Los Angeles born and bred. Although he won't win an Oscar this year, the industry likes the USC grad. If nothing else, they like the fact that he made a movie for $5.7 million that took in ten times that much at the box office. Politics, racism, and class struggle go over a lot of these people's heads. Money does not.

Los Angeles — One Week Later

The cast and crew have moved to a different location, a residential block in a more upscale neighborhood. This neighborhood is also predominantly black, but it has bigger houses, with pretty gardens and lavish, rolling lawns around back. About fifty people, cast and crew, stand disconsolately inside and around a comfortable-looking house, doing nothing, burning up studio dollars and valuable production moments. It’s a couple of hours after lunch, and Singleton is sitting outside, quietly fuming.

The trouble is, an important video segment hasn’t arrived as scheduled. Today’s scene can’t be shot without it. It’s a scene in which Justice sits in the living room of her home watching television; the missing segment contained the images that were supposed to be played back on the television. Production assistants point at one another, saying, “I thought you were supposed to bring it,” and, “Like hell I was.” Because of the timing and location, there’s nothing else that can be done until the tape shows.

Singleton is characteristically even-tempered. Sanguinely, he says, “It should’ve set us back an hour, but it’s taking most of the afternoon.”

While many directors habitually rant and rave, Singleton has never been known to blow up. He admits to getting frustrated and says he often wants to vent. But he doesn’t believe overt anger has ever made something happen more quickly on a set.

For some reason, the delay has raised the tension level to its highest pitch yet. It’s still relatively early in shooting, and the crew has yet to settle in. Everybody looks uncomfortable. Trying to cope, Singleton locates a box. He puts on Rick James’ “Super Freak” at block-party decibel level. A few of the crew members start dancing. Singleton says, “I should have thought of this sooner. Play some music when things are getting tense. We used to do this all the time on Boyz.” The earlier film was shot in six furious weeks; the box was out a lot.

The Poetic Justice shoot must be going smoothly, because he hasn’t had to pull out Rick James until today.

Los Angeles — The Next Day

A 12-year-old girl visits the set with her mom and two brothers in tow. She wears a key on one of her hoop earrings and a “Rhythm Nation World Tour” T-shirt. Looking around anxiously, she explains that she is “Janet Jackson’s biggest fan.” Her little brother pipes in, “You should see her room. Janet Jackson everything.”

The girl explains that she met Singleton last year when he visited her elementary school. When she heard Jackson was co-starring in Singleton’s new film, she wrote him a letter asking to meet her. “John liked the letter and invited me to the set,” she says. The girl keeps one eye cocked, looking for Jackson at all times. She spots Jackson’s chair and squeals, “Oooooo. She’s here. This is her chair.” Like Goldilocks in the Three Bears’ house, the girl and her two brothers take turns sitting in Jackson’s chair.

Singleton comes out and greets the family as respectfully as he would any studio vice president. Then Jackson comes out to meet her fan, trailing two bodyguards who try to stay unobtrusive. She looks like any of the very pretty black women on set, the sort of girl who’s always told she should be a model or an actress. Face to face, and not projected larger-than-life on a video screen or dancing around a stadium stage, you realize that she’s a real person. It’s oddly comforting and reassuring.

Although not very tall, Jackson has an almost regal grace and posture. Perhaps the most-avoided subject on the set is the fact that she’s the youngest member of America’s First Family of Soul. Clearly, to this little girl, meeting Jackson is like meeting the Queen. After burbling a few compliments, the girl and her family is shuttled offset so that the actress and director can continue. The meeting is a rarity; the schedule is so tight that every interruption, be it from fans or press or studio heads, takes away precious minutes.

Los Angeles — Two  Weeks Later

A month into shooting, the barrage of visitors continues: press, industry, and financial-types, hangers-on and hopefuls, most of them gunning for Singleton. The array of suits constantly dogging him includes his legitimate Sony colleagues, as well as the enemy—writers and producers who bluff their way onto the set and try to woo Singleton with big talk and outrageous promises.

So, the two white men in suits standing near the camera truck could be anybody. They’re talking to another white guy, a member of the camera crew. The suits, who obviously haven’t read the Poetic Justice script, ask him what the movie is about. “It’s a love story,” the camera guy says. The suits pause.

“So, it’s a nice story?” one of them asks.

“Did you see Boyz N the Hood?” the camera guy says, looking at them dubiously.

“No.” The suit shakes his head. “But I saw New Jack City.”

It’s a minor moment, but it makes you think. There will always be those who throw Singleton’s work into that big grab bag called Films About Black Folks. Those who will never be able to tell the difference between Superfly and Lillies of the Field.

Baldwin Hills — Two Weeks Later

On location in a Baldwin Hills hair salon, Singleton is reading Rising Sun by Michael Crichton between takes. A fictional diatribe against a perceived Japanese threat to our way of life, the book is being made into a film—a major production—starring Wesley Snipes and Sean Connery. So Singleton is especially curious about this novel, though he is always working his way through one book or another. That is, when he isn’t playing Lynx, a hand-held video game system. Either way, he has the ability to concentrate on the book or game despite the bustle of activity surrounding him.

The mood on set is light. It usually is while shooting scenes in the hair salon, where Justice works. They are typical on-the-job comic riffs, like sitcom set pieces—Cheers meets the ghetto. Shampoo for afros. Today’s scenes strike the giddy crew, at least, as the film’s funniest so far.

Singleton looks up from his book and shouts, “Action!” Jackson and Tyra Ferrell cut up, almost losing their self-control in a maelstrom of giggles. Their timing is right-on, but after film stops rolling, Peter Collister, the director of photography, says that the shot was no good because one of the screens used for lighting purposes shows in the shot.

“Maybe it will just show a little bit,” Singleton says, hopefully.

Don Wilkerson, unit production manager and first assistant director, shakes his head. “John, at a drive-in, that screen will look a block long.”

Singleton looks annoyed. “But the performance was so good. It gets no better. Damn, I hate when this happens.”

Seizing an opportunity to nag, Collister says, “Now if we were on a soundstage….”

Singleton just smiles at him, acknowledging the point. He fought for location shooting, even though Hollywood lots make work much easier. Defiantly, Singleton says, “I didn’t want to be on a soundstage. It’s too artificial. I wanted to be on location. With my people.” To emphasize his point, he turns and hugs the person standing next to him. He does this a lot.

The screen is cleared and the picture’s up again. Singleton whispers directions to the actors between shots.

After one good take, he yells from his chair, “Now that was perfect. Let’s do it again.”

The cast and crew groan. They’ve heard the line before. And they’ve also heard what comes next: “I love you and I love myself. Action!”

 

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TBT.... Me at my purest time... 1986.... Graduating Blair High School.... On my way to USC Cinema School where is planned to make my mark on the world.... Today is October 2015.... Four years after this picture was taken... And 25 years ago I began principal photography on Boyz n the Hood... I was only 22... Now today I'm blocks away from where Boyz was shot doing scenes from SNOWFALL my first TV series... More dreams to be fulfilled and soul to capture on film. Give blessing to God that I've survived when so many of my folks didn't make it... I think our purpose is to honor those that came before us and pull as many of us trying to get ahead forward as well... I was a kid with lofty dreams in this picture now I'm a general on the battlefield.... Time to work!!

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* This article originally appeared in a 1992 issue of VIBE Magazine.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Photographer Michael Grecco wrote a passage reflecting on John Singleton's passing. Read below:

Monday was a sad day knowing that great American artist John Singleton passed away. John was a truly extraordinary creative artist, and in his memory, I wanted to share a special moment we had many years ago.

I had the privilege of photographing John in 1992, in a shoot that marked my career transition from photojournalist to an artistic portrait photographer. On a personal level, John has come to represent this final switch from covering events to developing my own vision.

At the time of our memorable shoot, I had spent five years in L.A. working for People Magazine. Moving from the Boston Herald on an invitation to be one of their regular shooters was hard for me. I loved the storytelling aspect of being a news photographer but wanted to explore my personal vision as an editorial and commercial photographer. This was uncharted territory. Little did I know John Singleton would help me take the first steps in this direction.

Prior to the Singleton shoot, I had just purchased the Holga camera to experiment with. The Holga was a plastic camera with plastic lenses that took artistically slightly soft images. It also gave me the ability to use my strobes (flash) outdoors.

On that early spring day in March, I picked John up and he suggested that we go to South Central for a location. I didn’t know that area at all, but I figured the legendary Watch Tower was a good symbol of the neighborhood, and so that’s where we went. I pulled the Holga camera out for the first time. John truly understood how to collaborate and make the elements of the photograph tell a story. During our shoot, he was a true creative partner, contributing his ideas, patience, and intellect.

The experience and resulting portrait were unfamiliar in a new and tantalizing way. With John’s help on that day in 1992, I had broken ground into new photographic territory. Since then, I have moved my career into a more creative and stylized direction of portraits, capturing celebrities all around the world. Thank you John, for taking that first step with me. I will miss your achievement and contribution to this world.

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Kamaiyah On Long-Awaited Debut 'Got It Made,' Independent Status

On a cloudy afternoon in New York City, rapper Kamaiyah is dressed for comfort, wearing a purple sweatsuit, and the purple beads adorning her signature box braids match her fit. She’s made a stop at the VIBE office during a day of interviews, accompanied by a crew of three women, including her newly appointed A&R Justice Davis. Kamaiyah is observing more than speaking, preserving her voice since she is recovering from a nuisance cold. But the East Oakland native’s energy switches from laidback to zealous as we discuss her lead single “Still I Am” for Got It Made, her long-delayed forthcoming project dropping February 21.

 

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After almost 4 years I present to you my project “ Got It Made “ 2•21•20 the wait is over we going up and this mutha fucka slap 💁🏾‍♀️ flood my comments with 500 ☂️’s and I’ll drop a song tonight 👀 (Presave link in my bio)

A post shared by Kamaiyah🧿 (@kamaiyah) on Feb 3, 2020 at 11:00am PST

On the CT Beats track, the go-to producer for her hypnotic g-funk sound, she earnestly raps, “I done took plenty losses/ That's why I feel like I deserve to keep flossin'/ This shit is exhausting/ When you boss up and run your own office.” The verses point to her departure from Interscope Records and YG’s 4 Hunnid Records and the launch of her new label GRND.WRK (pronounced groundwork), in partnership with Empire last August. She decided to dip after the release date for her project Something To Ride To was pushed back multiple times. This makes Kamaiyah one of few women in hip-hop, and perhaps the first from the West Coast, to run her own shop.

“It's very important and vital because a lot of people feel you need a man to make you an artist,” Kamaiyah said. “You need a man to mold you into what you need to be.” But Kamaiyah — who has been rapping since she was 9, recording in the studio since she was 11, and dropped a critically acclaimed mixtape A Good Night in the Ghetto (2016) before she was signed to a major deal — already knew what kind of artist she wanted to be before she signed on the dotted line.

In the months since she left the label, she began building her office in the upstairs area of her loft; finished recording, mixing and mastering Got It Made, a project she was planning before she parted from Interscope; and her manager Brandon Moore became her partner on her new venture. 2020 will be the first year Kamaiyah has full control of her career since breaking into the mainstream hip-hop world in 2016. This was always part of her master plan and why the previous arrangement did not fit her.

“I signed too fast, but I never wanted to sign,” she reflects. “I was always the artist that was like, I don't want no deal. I want to hustle because I knew where I come from. Everybody does it independently. But at that time it was the best decision for everybody. I took that L for the team and we learned a lot. It was like four years of music business school.”

Kamaiyah wants to carry on in the spirit of Bay Area hip-hop legends like E-40, known for their independent spirit of hustling their CDs out of their car trunks. But she also wants the pop accolades of hip-hop superstars like Drake, Missy Elliot, and Oakland’s original hip-hop icon MC Hammer. Her biggest hit to date is YG’s "Why You Always Hatin?” also featuring Drake, which charted at no. 62 on the Billboard Hot 100. But she wants more. Success for Kamaiyah means Grammys, Billboard no. 1s, and gold and platinum plaques. Partnering with Empire, a digital-first independent distributor, and a label launched by San Francisco native Ghazi Shami in 2010, could be her winning ticket. In the past decade, Empire’s launched several successful hip-hop projects such as Kendrick Lamar's Section.80 album and Anderson .Paak’s album Malibu. This partnership can give Kamaiyah the independence and support toward the mass appeal she’s seeking. Having dealt with project release delays in the past, her strategy going forward is consistency.

“Great quality music at a rapid rate...People just want to see you [working]. And if they know you consistent, they gon’ consume the music.” Kamaiyah also wants to use her platform to sign new talent, especially in the Bay Area, where she said artists can benefit from music business education when their records go viral. “Once they get the traction and the record, it becomes this egotistical thing and it's like ‘I made it cause I'm cracking out here.’ But they don't realize it's a whole world to build towards.”

Her first project Got It Made will be the blueprint for GRND.WRK. The project is feel-good music her fans “can shake their asses to and vibe out to and ride out to,” she said. For instance, she teamed up with veteran Trina for the f**k boy revenge track “Set It Up.” They role-play as two women who have been cheated on by the same man. “We get together and we go against the ni**a instead of us going against each other,” Kamaiyah says. On “Get Ratchet,” which she calls a “modern bounce” record, she taps DJ Espinosa, a San Francisco native known for winning Red Bull Music’s 3Style DJ competition, to spin at the end of the track. For “Digits,” a song about getting someone’s number, she brings on fellow Oakland rapper Capolow, a newcomer she’s excited to give a bigger platform to. She describes the track as “magical gangsta sh*t.” On past projects, Kamaiyah sampled 80s and 90s R&B (i.e. “I’m On” and “Leave Em”) but says the only track on Got It Made that has a sample is “1-800-IM-HORNY.” She intentionally avoided the high cost of clearances, an obstacle contributing to past project delays. She won’t mention names but says she enlisted “legends who created those records that we’re sampling” to shape the project's sound. Fans can expect Kamaiyah to begin touring the project in April.

Although she’s finally releasing her project, her fans might be curious about the status of her other promised records such as Woke and Don’t Ever Get It Twisted. Will they see the light of day? “Anything I did at that part of my life I have PTSD from,” Kamaiyah said frankly. “It was done with good intentions, but then it became something negative and when you put that out, the world is going to feel that. And energy is transferable so I'm not putting out that shit.”

While Kamaiyah was facing career obstacles in recent years, she witnessed the impact of tragedies close to her community. The death of Nia Wilson, an 18-year-old Black woman who was murdered at a train station in the Bay Area Rapid Transit in 2018, hit close to home as Kamaiyah has family close to Wilson’s family. (John Lee Cowell, who is accused of stabbing Wilson to death, is currently on trial.) “Do I feel like he should be convicted? Absolutely. To the furthest extent. You took this woman's life. She barely got to live.” Then there was Nipsey Hussle’s murder in 2019. Kamaiyah said she had a long talk with Nip a month before he was killed last March. He wanted to see her reach her full potential, especially as a woman representing the Bay Area. “He’s telling me, ‘What you mean to our culture we never had’,” Kamaiyah said. That last conversation put the battery in her back when she was on the fence about her music. “I'm frustrated career-wise and that's a person that was like, ‘Don't stop because we need you in this culture.’ So I gotta hustle 10 times harder ‘cause other people see the long end of the vision.”

Justice Davis, Kamaiyah’s A&R, is ready for Kamaiyah’s vision to come to life. Davis began working as Moore’s assistant and after giving input, moved up the ranks. As a Los Angeles native, Davis said she brings the knowledge of her city’s culture together with Kamaiyah’s Oakland hustle. She wants to see Kamaiyah grow as a businesswoman, artist, and for their team to prosper. “[I hope] for people to see her talent and know she really is the queen of the West coast."

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Jack Dempsey for Crown Royal Apple

Joe Freshgoods Put On For Chicago With Royal Apple Goods Collection & Pop-Up

The Windy City's chilly air seeps into the building as the main door cracks wide open. Busy crew members scurry between rooms, ensuring every fixture and branded display is arranged perfectly before the clock strikes 3 o'clock. A group of focused workers huddles nearby to go over loose ends and delegated tasks. Throwback hip-hop jams float throughout the warehouse, teasing the chill vibes to come. Time is of the essence and it's almost showtime; Confirmed guests will soon start trickling into Moonlight Studios in the next hour or so. It's the calm before the storm at The Royal Pop-Up, a two-day event curated by Crown Royal Regal Apple and its creative director, streetwear designer extraordinaire Joe "Freshgoods" Robinson.

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Tell us about the Royal Apple Goods capsule collection. What inspired the designs?

Royal Apple Goods was pretty much inspired by basketball, my love of lettering and a bit of my colorway. I wanted to make cool basketball merch. Just stuff that you can go to the gym in and rock. I just wanted to make it a dope basketball-themed collection.

We noticed that you decided to work with some fellow Chicagoans for different parts of this pop-up. Why was that important to you?

Oftentimes, when these big activations pop up in different cities, they never really tap into the community. It was pretty dope to be able to have my people around town who I collaborate with —a lot of the barbers, DJs, artists, nail techs, people that are moving and shaking in Chicago. Everybody that's working in each booth [at this event] is someone that people respect. I think if we're doing a project in a city as big as Chicago, you want guests and people to recognize, "Oh, that's [Spifster] the nail tech." Because a lot of these people are really booked. You don't often get to see these artists in one room at one time. Like Rodge, you’ve got to book him two weeks in advance. I know with Spif, she's booked six months in advance. It's rare to be in an area where you can just go from station to station, get merch from me, get your nails done by the hottest nail person, get your hair done, and listen to good tunes. It was just important to just tap in with the local community. It just made sense.

With your style mantra being "Clothes is art defined by the times," how do you define today's time in fashion?

I think for me, you hear that streetwear is dying and that it's always like a thing where I still thrive on the art of, "Oh, wow." I love merch related to a time, you know? Everybody that gets my merch today and tomorrow, it's going to be dope to say, "Yo, I went to this event that Joe helped put on, and he had merch."

I love making clothing like concert merch. That's my whole vibe. If I was a rapper that did a show in Chicago, this would be my merch for that show, you know? That's how I approach a lot of my products with different brands. This is what I wanted to do with Crown that made sense for the community. Right now, I've got the hottest shoes dropping today, but I'm doing something different with Crown Royal. I like to give some stuff away, so this feels good.

If you were to create say a retro '90s fit, what would that look like? What's Joe wearing from that decade?

I was always a fan of the Naughty By Nature overall. I don't know. I like that rugged Timberland...I just like that real rugged, man-man, streetwear look, you know? Obviously, I love to dress colorfully, but I've always been a fan of that construction worker wave of the early '90s. That was with all the sweatsuits and all. That's always been my wave. Yeah, real Treach, Naughty By Nature vibes.

In a recent interview, you mentioned how Chicago kind of plays the little sister to other cities and is often overlooked or left out in different ways. What do you think this week means for your home city when it comes to fashion, the culture, and everything?

I think this week is very important. When Chicago first got the news that there was going to be a very big basketball week, it was pretty dope. This is one of the first times since being a kid to have all these people from out of town here. Since I've been an adult, there hasn't been a Super Bowl here or anything. I don't know, and we had this big thing about Chicago where it's like, "Am I safe here?" But it's a beautiful city.

The Royal Pop Up was a vibe during #NBAAllStar weekend. Here's what you missed: https://t.co/etxoU0pPnp pic.twitter.com/gVS4nmmUHt

— Vibe Magazine (@VibeMagazine) February 20, 2020

I think it's one of the top food cities to me, in my opinion. Yes, it's a cold city, but it's pretty awesome to see all these events going on. All this positivity. Complex Con was here. That was big, but this is bigger. It's so cool to see all my peers doing their projects, and everybody supporting each other. There's no beef. Everybody's about community. It feels good. With this big basketball weekend, I'm glad so many people are getting to experience Chicago for the first time like this.

It's insane and to imagine the last time All-Star Weekend was here a little over 30 years ago? It's a sigh of relief for Chicago to be a city of attraction where people are comfortably out and about versus being in Cali or Los Angeles.

Exactly.

With the NBA All-Star game set to honor the late Kobe Bryant, what’s one of your favorite memories of Kobe?

Kobe was so serious on the court. He performed to the highest level. Every time he stepped off the court, and you saw Kobe in commercials, it was like whoa. I was always a big fan of his commercials, especially the one with Kanye. When he was dancing with Tony Hawk...it was always dope to see that, "Oh, he’s human," even though he was a shark on the court.

Every time Kobe would just make people laugh. In certain in-game moments, he would dance a little bit. He was so stern on the court, but every time Kobe showed personality, every time he was a comedian, it was just funny because it was coming from Kobe.

As a man of many talents, can we expect you to indulge in any other endeavors? What's next? Joe Freshgoods: The Movie? 

Not yet (laughs). I'm really just trying to expand the brand. Right now, I'm building a really great team. I think teamwork is so key to movement. For so long, I was so used to doing things myself, but within the last three, four years of just having a team, it's felt like there are endless possibilities. I'm just kind of expanding. I'm really big on pop-up shops. It's something that I've honed in on as my thing, being able to connect with different communities across the world. I kind of want to get bigger at that. That's the goal for the next few years is to just kind of expand on these pop-up moments, and make them live a little longer in different cities.

What inspired you to take the pop-up shop route with your brand?

It's pretty simple. It's like the Master P formula when it comes to going from state to state selling your mixtape as opposed to having your mixtape in Target, or Best Buy, or in Sam Goody. For example, I could make more money going to New Orleans. No brand ever goes to New Orleans to show love. But with me, I pull up with my team, we do a pop-up in NOLA and actually get to touch the community.

Traditional retail is kind of dying in the sense of going to New York and opening up a big store. That whole model is changing to the point where now I can go to a certain area and pop-up for five days, and do well, go to L.A. and then go to Houston, you know? With that formula, a lot of brands can't do that, but I can and I'm going to keep doing it.

Lastly, if the Royal APPLE GOODS collection had an accompanying playlist, what three songs would be on it?

Ooh, that's a really good one. Aw, man. The Bulls theme song (“Sirius” by the Alan Parson's Project). That's one, that's just a vibe right there. Man, I need a toxic Future song (laughs) Okay, "March Madness" and Hall & Oates' "Sara Smile." Yeah, I like that.

Additional reporting by Obehi Imarenezor

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Scotch Porter

Scotch Porter Founder Calvin Quallis Talks New Haircare Line, Self Care Beyond Products

Calvin Quallis worked multiple jobs that he hated before founding Scotch Porter, but between childhood memories at his mom’s beauty parlor and his own trips to the barbershop, one thing stuck out. “On some of those worst days, I’d go get a haircut and come out thinking I could take on the world,” Quallis said. “So I’ve always known that grooming and self care had the chance to make you feel better about yourself.” After founding a barbershop called Center Stage Cuts  in New Jersey and seeing so many customers with dry, damaged hair in their beards, he began to research ingredients and start making products in his home. In the first 12 months of Scotch Porter – named after his favorite drink (scotch) and his favorite musician (Gregory Porter) – he made more than a million dollars in sales. Since then, Scotch Porter has become one of the most known names for black men’s beard and skin care products.

This year, Scotch Porter is seeing changes. February has seen the launch of a new hair care line, and a new set of ingredients to the beard and skin care products that were already so popular. Plus, the signature brown tubes that hold their products has been changed to new, streamlined blue packaging. Quallis visited the VIBE office to talk about the foundation of the company, 2020’s new leaf, and Scotch Porter’s emphasis on community and lifestyle beyond what their customers put in their dopp kits.

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VIBE: Black men have always cared about how we look, but in recent years, we’ve been more comfortable using products for our faces and beards. Where do you think that comfort comes from?

Calvin Quallis: I think it’s a couple of things. One, access to social media. We’re always in front of a camera, always visible. When you’re always visible, you want to look your best. Two, folks are just much more comfortable that were in the past considered female-oriented. So, always being in front of a camera, with selfies and the gist, and wanting to look your best and becoming comfortable using products that were originally toward women.

VIBE: I’m not sure that you were the first black beard company that I heard of, but you were definitely one of the first that I had seen that didn’t just seem like a homemade thing. You were very professional. What kind of strategy went into how you presented the product?

I did work at a design firm. So just seeing designers put together beautiful buildings and different projects, and also in my own personal life, I like nice things. So in terms of the overall aesthetic for the brand, I think it comes somewhat naturally, and then also working at a design firm and seeing how they put together projects, and how they start from scratch, and how they think about design. I think that lended a hand as well.

VIBE: When you were selling this early on, was there any convincing you had to do for the customers?

At that time, I didn’t see many folks talking to black men about beard care or hair care. I didn’t see ads on Instagram or Facebook. So when we launched, it was easy to break through the noise. I noticed at the shop that guys were growing out their beards more, and there weren’t products on the market meant specifically for coily, curly, dry hair. So I seen that as an opportunity, and folks weren’t advertising products like that. It kind of made it slightly easier than it is now, because every other day there’s some new product that’s popped up that someone has created. At that time, it was easier to cut through the clutter because there wasn’t much available for guys with hair textures like us, and they weren’t advertising it if it did exist.

 

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All the hair care you need is right here. Try the Scotch Porter Superior Hair Collection, to clean, nourish, hydrate and style your hair from start to finish. ⁠With key ingredients Kale Protein and Biotin, achieving the healthy hair & scalp you need is waiting for you. 👀 no further... add this collection to your cart. #MensGrooming #ScotchPorter

A post shared by Scotch Porter (@scotchporter) on Feb 11, 2020 at 10:01am PST

VIBE: Tell me about the new hair products you’re launching. 

We’re launching new reformulated hair care products, along with reformulated beard and skincare products. Our new hair care line includes five products: our Hydrating Hair Wash, Nourish And Repair Hair Conditioner, Smoothing Hair Balm, Smooth & Shine Hair Serum, and our Leave-In Conditioner. All of these hair care products, including our beard and skincare products, are multifunctional, so they do more than just one thing. Our hair balm and hair wash don’t only cleanse and condition, but also include some flake reduction actives, and healthy hair and scalp botanicals that help with things like dandruff, and it also helps prevent hair thinning.

VIBE: I’ve been using Scotch Porter for so long that I always associate the image of the brown containers. What made you decide to change up the look?

I’ve noticed for a while, the space is just becoming increasingly competitive. I’ve known for about a year that we needed to reinvent ourselves, and to reup. Make better products, make them more affordable – we’ve been able to reduce the price point on all our products by about 25 percent. Also, pull out things from our products. There’s no BHTs, there’s no parabins, no formaldehyde donors. We’ve gotten rid of phenoxyethanol, and we’ve included really interesting ingredient stories. This, again, is all based on seeing how the landscape has gotten increasingly competitive.

VIBE: I wanted to dig into that a little bit. You were one of the first in the space. What do you think is the balance between sticking with what you know, vs. knowing when you need to change?

Part of it is insight. You’ve got to pay attention to what’s going on around you, with a focus on the consumer. Understand what’s going on in the marketplace, but also thinking how we can better serve the customer by delivering even better products. The products that we’ve reformulated are even better than we’ve had before. Thinking of price points and making products more accessible. Then, just giving folks more value and pulling out interesting ingredients that help with some of the issues that men have as it relates to grooming.

VIBE: One of my favorite parts of Scotch Porter is the emphasis on lifestyle and community. Last year, I went to the pop up shop you had, and I was impressed – not only did you have the products at a discount, but you also had the panel for black men to congregate. You also have the email newsletter, and the print manual; in the former, you recently told customers to go to the doctor. Also, each purchase comes with the NakedWines voucher. It just feels like there’s an intention to make black men enjoy each other and love themselves.

It stems from our mission. Our mission from day one has always been to help men feel their best and to live their most fulfilled lives. These touchpoints are just expressions of that. Even as I think about wellness – over the last 14 months or so, I’ve lost 60 pounds. I’ve been getting better at looking at what I’m putting in my body, and what’s important, and these are the things I need to do if I want to be around longer. I’m still on my journey; I ain’t there yet. But we’ve always been talking about how internal and external wellness are a big part of helping guys to feel their best. Some of the articles you see, or the pop-up shop where we have a discussion around mental health, and even the articles on going to the doctor. It’s a holistic approach to helping men feel their best. For us, it’s never been about just giving you the next goop to put in your beard, and that’s all that you need to look and feel your best. It’s internal and external.

VIBE: The manual and the newsletter have these important messages, but it doesn’t feel like they’re talking down to you. It just feels like one of my homies emailing me about it.

Because that’s the only way you’re going to be able to digest it. And again, I’m on my own journey. I’m not there yet. I’m not rocking a six-pack. And it’s not necessarily about that. Each and every day, what can you be doing to make your life better? For us, that’s what it’s about, and that’s the conversation that we have with guys. It’s not about us being on a soapbox pretending we have it all figured out.

 

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It’s official! We’re proud to share that #ScotchPorter is now available at select @Target retail locations across the nation. (CLICK LINK IN BIO FOR STORE LOCATOR) • • We’re pumped about our retail expansion as it provides us with the opportunity to bring our #MULTIPurpose better-for-you Beard and Face care products straight to your local #Target store. • • When it comes to accessing products that are non-toxic and healthier for you, you deserve options that won’t break the bank. With key ingredients in our Beard and Face collections including Biotin and Pomegranate Enzymes, our products have you covered. • • Thanks for riding with us, we’re just getting started!☄️ #MensGrooming #TellAFriend

A post shared by Scotch Porter (@scotchporter) on Feb 17, 2020 at 1:55pm PST

VIBE: Within the past couple of years, Bevel sold their products in Target and they were later acquired by Procter & Gamble. Do you have any plans to expand in terms of selling products outside of the website?

On February 9, we launch in about a third of the Target doors with our beard care and skin care products. We’re super excited about that. Target has launched a campaign, and I’m included in the launch for their black history month Black Beyond Measure campaign, where they’re highlighting black founders and their success stories. Excited to be a part of that and share my journey, both with potential entrepreneurs and regular customers.

VIBE: Anything else about Scotch Porter that people should know?

One of the things that’s always been important to me is providing access, opportunity and employment to people that look like us. It’s really intentional. I’d say about 95 to 98 percent of the folks that work with us look like me and you. We provide opportunity, and we provide what I consider great pay. I remember when I was working for somebody else, feeling like I had to fight to climb the career ladder, the limitations that were put on me had nothing to do with my skill set. When I was starting Scotch Porter, I made it very important to hire people who look like us and give them an opportunity to climb up.

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