We were lucky enough to chop it up with famed hip-hop scholar and visual artist James “Koe” Rodriguez.
Please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about what you do.
My name is James “Koe” Rodriguez, bka Koe Rodriguez. I’m a visual artist who’s had the pleasure of wearing quite a few unique hats in this industry of ours. I manage the business affairs of pioneering New York photographers: Jamel Shabazz, Ernie Paniccioli and Joe Conzo. I’m also currently working with the Heritage Brand of Hip-Hop Culture, Sedgwick & Cedar, to help reposition the company as a global lifestyle brand. I like to stay busy.
Most of us recognize you from being in the sneaker documentary Just For Kicks. How did you get involved with CAID Productions for that?
In truth, most people recognize me as Koe the Graff writer from JC, (Jersey City). That’s actually where the name Koe comes from, initially spelled with a C and later with a K. Just For Kicks was something that came about via my man Jamel Shabazz. Caid Productions wanted to interview Jamel and he thought I should ride shotgun, which is how we occasionally roll for interviews. I’ve been a “style child” since the 80’s and definitely no stranger to a fly pair of kicks, with matching laces of course. I had a bag full of old fat laces from the 80’s that I took to the shoot and when I showed the crew at Caid, they lost their minds! They were like, you need to drop some jewels, and that’s exactly what I did.
The Director, Thibaut De Longeville from Paris told me that Jamel & I were two of his favorite interviews in the whole film. I guess he wasn’t bullshitting, ‘cause in conjunction with PUMA, they flew us out to Paris (along with my man Bobbito Garcia and DJ Cash Money) for some very dope promotional events. We were out there like rock stars, smashin’ up the town. Thibaut has become a good friend ever since and we were hanging out in Paris just a few months ago. I also got kool with Thierry Daher over at Caid Productions in New York and Joe Conzo and myself were one of the stars of his 2008 film, Way of the B-Boy.
What’s a typical day in your life / job like?
It used to be a ton of running around, man: meetings, premieres, release parties, launches, blah, blah, blah; the usual industry shit. Nowadays, I work from the comfortable confines of my home in Central New Jersey. I still travel when I have to and minimize my trips into New York for priority business n’ such only. I’ve paid quite a few dues and don’t have to move around as much as I used to, although working from home sometimes sucks. I’m inherently an extrovert and love being in the mix.
How did this type of work interest you and how did you get started?
Everything that I’m doing now is a direct result of my involvement in Hip-Hop, particularly the 1980’s Graffiti scene. Graffiti was my ticket into the industry. Through Graff, I’ve met so many people, explored so many places and have been afforded so many opportunities over the years. I was able to parlay my creative abilities (and some decent business sense) over the years into what I presently do. Trust me, there wasn’t a plan. I just stuck to my guns and exploited every opportunity that came my way. I really don’t believe in luck. We all have the power to be where we want to be in life. Luck is winning the lottery or cheating death.
How did you get your job? What jobs and experiences have led you to your present position?
One of the things I’m most proud of is creating my own job. No one gave it to me. I’ve learned much as an artist and hustler in Hip-Hop over the years. If Hip-Hop was an institution of higher learning, I would definitely have a Masters Degree. I’ve just spent that much time involved in it. I’m going on 40 next year and I’ve been down with Hip-Hop since the Carter administration; do the math. I consider myself cross platform (so to speak) because I not only have the unique ability to be creative, but to also act as a businessman as well.
I’ve been a partner in at least 4 business ventures in the past and I’ve learned a lot about business. In truth, I miss being more creative; again, I’m an artist at heart, but I’m just at a different place in my life right now. I’ve always loved Hip-Hop, (every nook and cranny of it) and it was one of my goals to be self employed in it, which I currently am. I’ve seen some of Hip-Hop’s best years and being a part of that all set the stage for where I’m at today.
Can you suggest some ways a student could obtain this necessary experience?
Sure, go out and be a part of something; as they say, “get some!” Wasted talent is a sin, man! If you’re even remotely good at something, not just an element of Hip-Hop, pursue it with unwavered heart and passion. Don’t let anyone crush your dreams and/or knock you off course. It’s kool to be a cheerleader on the sidelines, but nothing’s better than being in the game. I’ve always been a devout student of the culture, way before cats labeled me a connoisseur or scholar. Me being a part of several films, books, shows and other special projects is because I know my shit; I took the time to learn about this culture in addition to being a part of it. Being educated (in any respect) is important and that’s when respect and opportunity come your way. Know that which you love inside-out and always respect the OG’s and your fellow artists. You need humility and knowledge, not just talent to survive in Hip-Hop, and life in general.
What are the most important personal satisfactions and dissatisfactions connected with your occupation? What part of this job do you personally find most satisfying? Most challenging? What do you like and not like about working in this industry?
Personal satisfactions would be getting ahead in my career and continuing to make money and have fun doing it. Dissatisfactions would have to be the complete opposite. Most satisfying would be brokering nice deals with big corporations such as Nike, Adidas, and Viacom. In addition, travelling the world, being a part of special multi-media projects and just having a grand ol’ time with Hip-Hop. Most challenging will always be bigger and better paychecks, maintaining my creativity (and sanity) and dealing with politics, egos and bullshit. What I like most about working in this industry is the progressiveness and unpredictability of it; it’s never a dull moment. Most of the elements never cease to amaze me and always remind me of why I got into this thing in the first place. As for my dislikes regarding the industry, I pretty much touched on it above. I sometimes hate that Hip-Hop has been so compromised and that not enough real heads are at its corporate reigns. Lastly, I dislike that our culture is so accessible and neatly packaged up at times. There was a time when Hip-Hop was this secret society. Not everybody could get in, get down and move so freely through the realm. There were rules & regulations; beat downs for biters and violators; and no short cuts to being down by law. Once Hip-Hop went mainstream and we officially had an industry with an infrastructure (of sorts) an economy, politics, bureaucracy and nonsense, it lost something. I’m all for moving forward, but…
What are some of the other jobs available in this field or organization?
There’s a bunch of jobs in this industry, some very lucrative. Whether or not one is qualified to perform any is really the question. An occupation in Hip-Hop doesn’t work like filling out a job app on Monster.com. You have to really get in where you fit in – period. It’s what I had to do and so many others as well. It really helps to know people and possess some form of talent. Hip-Hop is a multi-billion dollar industry and much like any other profitable industry it will take care of those who are the most qualified, talented and hungriest.
What particular skills or talents are most essential to be effective in your job? How did you learn these skills?
Creativity, balls, thick skin, patience, knowledge, tenacity and good communicational and interpersonal skills. I hate a lot of these smart dumb people out here. You have to have some degree of smarts to do anything on this planet, let alone work in an industry that eats its young. Everything I know was self taught or absorbed from other positive and very talented people. They say God doesn’t give you what you want, he gives you what you need and the rest is up to you; well, that couldn’t be truer. I’m not against school and certainly not a drop-out, but degrees aren’t always a ticket to success – passion and desire are.
How is the economy affecting this industry?
First n’ foremost, I don’t believe in this so called recession of ours. When people stop buying flat screen TV’s, anything Apple, shopping in malls, driving luxury automobiles, sporting labels, and buying 5 dollar coffees to hold in one hand while they yap on a $500 phone in the other, I’ll believe cats are hurting out here. I think new technology has affected this industry more than the economy has. The web is like the gift and the curse; it has people downloading free music, videos and other forms of media that they would’ve paid for in the past. It has companies spending less on traditional forms of advertising, (i.e. print, TV and radio) because the internet offers more bang for their buck. Depending on your industry, technology is either your friend or your sworn enemy. I knew a guy who had to recently close down a once profitable photo lab because companies online offered cheaper prints/services, and spots like CVS and Walgreens offered the same quality prints he offered, but for far less. They basically cut his throat. He’s a miserable car salesman now and understandably so.
How has your job affected your lifestyle?
My job is my lifestyle and vice versa; and I really can’t complain. Working in this industry has its ups and downs, but that’s life in general. There’s definitely more ups then there are downs nowadays. I love what I do and whenever I start complaining about something, I drive to a train station in the morning to see people scrambling to get to work, looking all miserable and frustrated and remind myself that I can always go back to the rat race if I’m not happy being my own boss.
What abilities or personal qualities do you believe contribute most to success in this field/job?
Having balls, thick skin, an innate ability to hustle and undying patience and persistence! Having brains and a talent or two doesn’t hurt either. God blessing me with creativity (in so many respects), being educated both in-and-out of the classroom and having immense resilience and persistence has helped me greatly in life. I’m kool by nature and I’ve been hustling since I was a kid; which has only helped, not hurt me.
How did your relationship with Sedgwick & Cedar come about? What are your thoughts on their current collection with (your artist) Jamel Shabazz?
I’ve known the Riccio brothers, Ray & Ed (R.I.P.) the owners of the brand since 2005 and have always admired their desire to marry the essence of our great culture to urban fashion. They came in the game with a plan, crazy respect and a ton of humility. In other words, they came correct. They supported a big show I curated in Brooklyn with my guys back in ’05 called 3 The Hard Way and we’ve been kool ever since. S&C represents a very unique standard and special place in Hip-Hop apparel today. Regarding the Shabazz collection, what can I say; it’s everything we thought it would be. Jamel & I have been a part of the collection from A-Z. I’ve had a lot of say regarding the creative process and how the product is marketed and promoted. The collection has gotten a very strong international buzz and we expect the same (if not better) for Joe Conzo and Ernie Panicciolil’s forthcoming collections as well.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with us Koe. Do you have any last words or shout-outs?
Hip-Hop is still as beautiful and as progressive as ever. If you’re not doing right by this gift the great Afrika Bambaataa and DJ Kool Herc blessed us with, you should bounce! There’s still cats like myself who love Hip-Hop and want only the best for it. It’s done right by me and so many others across the globe, so let’s continue to say thank you by supporting our pioneers and uplifting our culture in general. Peace, Love, Unity, Fun, Knowledge, Wisdom, Equality and infinite Positivity, people! Respect to Peter & The Goodie Bag, my 1 LOVE crew: Jamel Shabazz, Ernie Paniccioli, Joe Conzo and Latee. My Boricua brothers: DJ Disco Wiz, Bobbito Garcia, Ivan “Doc” Rodriguez, Mare 139, TATS CRU, Ken Swift and Kenny Dope. My S&C fam: Double R aka Ray Riccio, Dan “The Man” Sears, Ryan “Undying” Krauchick and Pash & Crew over at Digital Soup. My better half Christy Milanes, my daughter & son, Serg the Barber, Lo-Lifes, Zulus, true Hip-Hoppers and my international familia, you know who you are. Roc on…