It takes a village to bring an award show from conception to reality. But someone’s got to run the village. Enter Jesse Collins, a cool, level headed veteran producer and DC native who, for the better part of a decade has been involved with some of the most iconic award shows and live events moments of our culture.
In January of this year, Jesse Collins Entertainment inked a first look deal with BET after three years of success with producing the top rated showings of The BET Awards, BET Honors, Real Husbands of Hollywood and BET Hip Hop Awards which airs tonight (Oct.13). We spoke with Collins by phone just days before the night that would see the legendary Scarface both honored and arrested, and about the many planned surprises in store. –Jas Waters
Tell me what we can expect in this year’s Hip Hop awards…
You should expect a good representation of where Hip-Hop is today. We’re putting together a cool surprise moment that is coming together in the last couple of days. Travis Scott is going to be amazing, Rich Homie Quan too. The interesting thing is that these younger artists are not just trying to jump in front of a stage and do their songs. They are actually trying to bring production value and showmanship. I think it’s going to be great. Of course, Snoop Dogg is back as a host, which will be lots of fun too. You can expect a very poignant “I Am Hip-Hop” speech from the legendary Scarface. Our culture has become the culture, which in a way just means that what we’re creating speaks to everyone. I mean look, you’re never going to be able to cover everything. So I think it’s going to be a very well balanced show; where you get a little bit of everything—and one that definitely is kind of leaning towards the youth. We don’t have to sell out, they are chasing us as opposed to us chasing them. It’s a good place to be.
What is the climate like for artists like Iggy Azalea and Macklemore who have a controversial place within the hip-hop community? Do you ever have reservations about those artists participation because of fear of backlash from the rest of the community?
I try not to worry about that. Everybody is going to put out the music that they want to put out, because they have the right to [do so]. You can’t really judge anyone for being an artist. Whether the music resonates in the culture, or resonates period; that’s for the public to decide. That is kind of my take on it. If you say that Macklemore and Iggy Azalea can’t rap then you also have to say that Mickey Guyton can’t do country. Or Chris Brown can’t do a techno record, or whomever can’t do a rock record. It’s music, and everybody has to be able to express themselves.
You have a production deal with BET, and you also have Real Husbands Of Hollywood, which follows Curb Your Enthusiasm’s surreal, satirical format—that many people have tried and failed at. How did you guys know that Real Husbands would work?
We were confident that Real Husbands of Hollywood would work because, you have to remember, it started out as a sketch that we did for the BET Awards. Then there was a huge FaceBook campaign to turn it into a show. So you kind of knew that the audience was looking for it. And then we got very lucky with our cast in the sense that everybody came to play ball. Everybody understood that we are going to make fun of your life. It’s all going to be based somewhat in some reality. We did a whole season arch on Nick Cannon’s kidney issue, Mariah [Carey] and all the rest of his personal life. That’s what makes this show work. You do an episode about Duane Martin getting fired at his table read because he’s cool enough to just go for the funny and not think about what people are going to say to him when he’s walking down the street. Or, that Boris can’t act or any of the rest of it. These guys are all in on the joke and that’s what makes it work.
Has there been a moment where anyone has said, “You know what, I don’t want to talk about this…”? If so, do you respect that or is it a fair game type of situation?
No. When someone new comes in we have that meeting with them to begin. We talk about everything we want to hit and what may be out of bounds. We don’t want anyone to come on the show and have a bad experience. The show is a party; it’s not really a job. It’s just a bunch of guys hanging out on a set making fun of each other. That kind of energy only works when everybody is cool with everything. Arsenio came in the meeting and we were like ‘We want to say you’re living in Paula Abdul’s garage since you got canceled.” Arsenio died laughing. Nothing could be further from the truth—it’s just everyone having fun.
Did you always know that you wanted to work in television?
I started out in radio. In my twenties, I thought this was the greatest thing in the world. [Seeing] Arsenio Hall, that was the thing that really made me think towards television. Initially, I wanted to be Arsenio Hall. I had this delusional thing of how I was going to somehow transition from radio to a talk show. [Late night talk show legend] Johnny Carson was going to retire, so in my head I was like ‘20, 30 years from now, Arsenio will want retire, and I could do a late night talk show.’ Obviously, I did not have enough talent to do that. It kind of still put me in the lane of television, and here we are.
What’s one show you don’t produce that you say “Wow, I wish I would have thought of that?”
I love The Walking Dead. I will probably watch any Law & Order, Criminal, SVU, Law & Order with Anthony [Anderson], Law & Order without Anthony; it doesn’t matter. I’ll watch any of those shows. Those marathons suck you in, and before you know it you’ve been watching some random cable network all day. I love the stuff that Netflix does; I love those big cable series.
Speaking of that, what are your thoughts on current state of television and the On Demand model? How do you think that will affect live specials, award shows and those destination television events? Do you think they will work on a streaming platform?
I think the live shows are kind of the one thing that people won’t binge. The DVR numbers on award shows for the first three days are pretty good. But people still feel like they need to watch them that night. Award shows are like sports–it’s live television that people feel they need to see in the moment because you want to be apart of the conversation. If anything, they watch it so they [can] tweet intelligently about the show as it’s happening. You saw the BET Awards. You saw Puffy’s fall on Instagram and Twitter and everything a million times. But people will talk about it. They’ll say: ‘I was at home, and I saw it happen.’ It’s a moment in history.
What is your favorite award show moment?
There’s a lot of them, for a lot of different reasons. It’s hard to say because sometimes a moment is great to me simply because it worked. Because the audience loved it, everybody was happy–this, that and the other. Then you have moments where things don’t work but you’re proud of it because something else happened. Maybe it’s that person’s first television appearance and you get to be a part of that special moment. I was a part of Drake’s first moment on the Grammys. It was interesting standing on the stage with him. I remember him being like ‘Man, last year I was at the top of the Staples Center watching.’ Then to see him downstairs with Eminem and Wayne and the whole thing was a very big moment. So, being a part of someone’s pivotal moment in their career is memorable. K. Michelle and Tamar [Braxton] on the BET Awards is something I will never forget, too. Yes, it was a great performance, but I was there when Tamar and Patti [LaBelle] and K. had this sidebar conversation, where Patty was everybody’s Auntie saying, “We’re all going to get along here.” To see that moment happen, and to know that you were a part of making that moment happen for those three people is something that you’ll always treasure.
Of course, I have to ask about the Rihanna BET moment: throwing the money and [BET Executive] Stephen Hill. Was it planned or was she joking?
I think it was all in fun. Rihanna was not coming on the network being disrespectful; it was a WWE moment. Rihanna is great for that. She is somebody that is always looking to do something different. Rihanna is fun. Rihanna is a great supporter of the culture and BET. Outside looking in, I saw people on the blogs talking crazy, but that’s not who she is. If it was real money, I would have picked it up. I got a lot of kids.
As part of your production deal with BET, you’re also producing a miniseries about New Edition. What’s going on with this?
New Edition has been a labor of love. We have been working on it for 10 years. We’re looking to shoot next year. We’re still developing the script and there is not much to really say at this point. I think it will air in January of 2017. It’s going to deliver. There are high expectations for what the movie is going to be, and I think we are going to exceed them. I got a group that is very engaged in making sure that the story is right. Those three nights that it airs, everybody is going to be locked in front of their TV sets.
In the past couple of years, we seen modern history play out in these television movies. They either work or don’t work and are sort of regrettable. What do you think makes the difference? We’re dealing with history that we all lived through–it’s very different than telling the Abraham Lincoln story.
I think what is going to make this work is that we’re all on the same page telling the story. And everyone involved lived through it. We don’t have a team producing this movie that had to Wikipedia New Edition to see if there was a movie or not. We all grew up as fans of them, watched them grow and go through all the things that they went through. And New Edition is involved. They are all in a very honest place in their lives— it’s not going to be just the sweet side of life from all of them. We’re going to see some stuff. It’s going to be a great movie with great music. It’s going to be a lot of fun. That’s where we are going to separate ourselves—much like Straight Outta Compton in the sense that it had the music and the involvement of the group. They also weren’t all trying to look like angels throughout the movie. They told the good and the bad, which makes for a great movie. Everybody gets that.
That’s exciting. Have you cast anyone yet?
No, they are still out there. We’re going to get the best set of guys that we can put together. That’s the goal because we all know this movie can’t be bad. I’ll have to move to some far, far distance place.
If it’s bad, I will find you [Laughs].
The pressure…this thing can’t be bad. It has to be the greatest thing in the world. People have to feel like the story was told correctly. Obviously they have diehard-fans, who feel like they know everything, and they are going to find out they don’t. There is a lot of stuff that these guys have not told. There is a lot of stuff that is not in your Right On! magazines from 1989. So we’re going to share that information. We’re going to share that story.
The BET Hip Hop Awards airs tonight Tuesday, Oct. 13 at 8pm/ET