Ari Melber Blends Rap With Politics, Compares Robert Mueller To ‘New Jack City & Explains The Facebook Scandal [Interview]
MSNBC’s Ari Melber expresses his love of hip-hop music and culture, Ms. Lauryn Hill, and why Tom Price and Ben Carson just want to be Puffy and Ma$e.
If you’ve been hiding under a rock (or just stuck on Fox News) then you might not have witnessed the strength of Ari Melber’s street knowledge. The MSNBC host of The Beat has not only become a history-maker at the company (he’s delivered the network’s best ratings at the 6:00 p.m. time slot with the 25-54 demographic) but has shown himself to be a real hip-hop advocate.
Quite a bit different than Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell, and Chris Matthews — Ari Melber has made his position all his own. From having “unconventional” guests such as Fat Joe discussing Eminem’s BET freestyle against Agent Orange to using Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones” lyric to diss the current Commander-and-Thief — Ari seems to have an uncanny ability to place the right lyric at the right time to emphasize the top news of the day.
Melber, a graduate of Cornell Law School with a J.D. degree, was a former editor of the Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy, worked for Senator John Kerry’s presidential campaign, and wrote political columns for publications like The Nation, The Atlantic, Reuters, and Politico. Since 2015, Ari has been MSNBC’s Chief Legal Correspondent, while the streets have dubbed him as one of the true school hip-hop lovers in the political media game.
Aside from his love of hip-hop quotables, Ari routinely takes the road less traveled by reporting on oft-ignored topics and giving them a national spotlight. With all this on his rap sheet, it’s no secret why hip-hop is embracing Ari Melber and The Beat — he’s been keeping it extra funky since his days as a student at Garfield High in Seattle (also the alma mater of Quincy Jones and Jimi Hendrix).
In our chat with the successful media analyst, we talk with Ari Melber about his most memorable hip-hop moments from The Beat, how the Robert Mueller investigation would work as a rap song or movie, and why The Beat is unlike anything you’ll ever hear or see on the news. Enjoy!
Okayplayer: Your usage of hip-hop quotables has helped you to stand out amongst MSNBC’s crop of young anchors and reporters, plus endear you to those who you yourself are a fan of within the hip-hop culture. What have been some memorable moments outside of those that have been published (50 Cent, Havoc and the like) that you will forever cherish as a result of your love of hip-hop and be having your own show?
Ari Melber: We did a report on how President Trump talks about infrastructure constantly, declaring “Infrastructure Week” for three different weeks, but he has not actually secured infrastructure any funding. To hit that contrast, I quoted some classic lines on the difference between talking the talk and walking the walk, from both Shakespeare and Quavo from Migos. Quavo posted the clip with a shoutout on Instagram, and now it’s one of our most watched segments online in the show’s history. We like to think Shakespeare would have done the same if he were on the ‘gram.
Or here’s one that has never been written about, and goes to the roots of hip-hop: I quoted Bob Marley while reporting on nepotism in the Trump administration. Then his son Rohan posted the clip on Facebook, mixing back in the audio of the song, and shouting out the reference. Bob Marley’s global influence on politics and culture is unparalleled, so it truly surprised me that this reference in the news seemed to move his son.
OKP: Speaking of The Beat, you’ve managed to excel in that 6:00 p.m. time slot, while delivering MSNBC’s best ratings and attracting the 25-54 demographic. As someone who has watched your show since it first started, I have been drawn to not only your love of hip-hop but the oft-talked about topics that never really make it onto television. So, two questions: 1) Has anyone pulled a Drake or a Diddy upon making such an impact on television (i.e. sending you a whole crate of Ace of Spades or Ciroc)? 2) What inspires you to take such deep dives into stories that aren’t really highlighted by mainstream media besides hip-hop?
AM: There are no crates of bubbly. None. If anyone’s going to buy bottles for someone in media, I’m guessing they’re for Charlamagne.
We aim to make The Beat an authoritative news show, so any viewer can get all the big news off top. Over the course of the hour, however, we also want to shine a light on other significant issues beyond the “top stories” of the day (or in Trumpland). That could be a police shooting in Baltimore or the investigative report we did on the torture record of Trump’s CIA nominee, or other stories that may never be the top national story, but are profoundly important.
OKP: Our theme on Okayplayer this month is Nostalgia, so with that in mind I must ask you—with a lot of 20 and 25-year-anniversary projects coming up this year—what are you most looking forward to celebrating and why?
AM: It’s funny, 2018 has some incredible 20 year anniversaries for great voices with iconic albums — Gang Starr, OutKast, Redman, Canibus, Goodie Mobb, DMX and one of my favorite albums of all time, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
OKP: Hip-hop has always been a source of political themes, dissent, and commentary. As you dove deeper into the culture who were some of your favorite rabble-rousers of rap? Do you think that Kanye West is still serious about running for the White House in 2020?
AM: Hip-hop is political in the way many dispossessed communities around the world are political — it can be an automatic reality before it’s a choice. If the allocation of resources, or government policy, operates to repress, then the impacted people understand that better than anyone. So hip-hop has a strong political bent, even if it’s not always “electoral.” There are incisive critiques of politics and power from 2Pac, Gang Starr, N.W.A, Jay-Z, Public Enemy, Black Star, Common, Poor Righteous Teachers, and KRS-One, to name a few.
I have no idea if Kanye intends to be a candidate. But anyone underestimating the potential of non-traditional, iconoclastic candidates in 2020 has learned very little from the last two years.
OKP: Your alma mater, Garfield High in Seattle, was also home to Jimi Hendrix and Quincy Jones—both outspoken in their own creative ways. Were there any legendary stories or mythology shared amongst the community that you remember hearing growing up? If not, share a story of some other West Coast rappers and albums that you really enjoyed listening to outside of 2Pac’s All Eyez on Me.
AM: My first rap education came at Garfield. An acclaimed jazz band carried on Quincy Jones‘ legacy. The marching band was cool. Many students were obsessed with rap. I remember people listening to The Fugees, OutKast, Wu-Tang Clan, Digable Planets, Master P, Snoop Dogg, 2Pac — those kinds of artists who were hot in the ‘90s. For the West Coast, E-40 and Too $hort were popular — though there’s plenty to criticize in the lyrics. During my high school years, I also remember driving an hour to a Too $hort concert in a city outside Seattle, Tacoma, and he never showed. You don’t forget that kind of thing.
OKP: As is customary with hip-hop and rappers, time eventually evolves the artist and the content. Do you see a time in your career where the rap references stop or get played out? Or do you believe that these lyrics contain truth bombs that help the audience relate to the overall story you’re trying to share?
AM: Do we ask anchors if they will stop making sports analogies? Or comparing every candidate to JFK? I think we all reach for the stories and characters that might help explain this complex world. So I don’t think there’s an expiration date. Of course, the core of a journalist’s job is to be real — no fake news and no fronting — so if something feels played out, then you adjust. If more people are noticing some of my references now, then great, but for me, it’s not exactly a new thing — I was quoting Three 6 Mafia to explain Mitt Romney’s budget battle six years ago. I just don’t think politics was as central to the culture then [as it is now], so I’m not sure as many people noticed. But I’ve been staying consistent.
OKP: You’ve already shared your exposures with rap and hip-hop, but if you had to tell your own child or a young person one album to start off with that is a good beginning ground to learn about the culture — what would it be and why?
AM: Tough one, but Black on Both Sides by Yasiin Bey (fka Mos Def) is classic in that iconic sense — it is of hip-hop, and about hip-hop, and spans the range from classic lyrics (“Hip-Hop”) to jams (“Ms. Fat Booty”) to social commentary (“Mr. N—-,” “Mathematics”).
OKP: Recently, the Mueller investigation took quite an intriguing turn with the raid on Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen. If you had to compare what might be next in all of this to your favorite hip-hop movie or music video — what would that be? For me, I see what’s next as that scene in Belly where the illest dude in Nebraska (James Comey) drops a dime on DMX (Trump) and his crew and the Feds raid everything and cause a ruckus.
AM: Well sometimes it feels like deep down, Tom Price and Ben Carson and Scott Pruitt just want to be Ma$e and Puffy in “Feel So Good,” with a ton of cash and shiny jumpsuits to show everyone they’re flossing. It’s not a good look for public service.
For a movie, there’s always New Jack City, which illustrates how prosecutorial heat can make just about anyone cooperate, and while ruthlessness can certainly power a criminal enterprise, it can also spawn its downfall.
OKP: Last question, Ari. Thank you for taking the time out to speak with us, too. Last month, you ripped Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook for not being transparent about Cambridge Analytica. Now, after watching the two-day Congressional hearing, and expounding on your takeaways with your audience — how do you see this conversation about personal online privacy evolving as we head into the primaries?
AM: Facebook built a business model on us, monetizing our identities. It’s more than privacy; it’s a matter of identity and democracy. They remain the backbone of much of the internet’s identity mechanism — how many sites and apps require your Facebook login? — so their corporate actions have a huge impact on us. So we’ve been reporting that story on our news broadcast as what we think it is — a major issue of democracy, human rights corporate accountability.
Facebook’s best advantages are complexity and surrender; many people don’t get how this works and many others don’t think a better way is possible. But American history is full of corporations that revolutionize our lives, stoke demand and/or addiction, and eventually face a backlash over their power (banks, tobacco and alcohol companies, tech companies). The Zuckerberg hearings were a potential inflection point, but it will take a lot more for Congress or the tech companies to decide major reform is in their interest.