VIBE and The Source were the aspirational blueprints for hip-hop enthusiasts and journalism hopefuls in the ’90s, and noted vets like Angie Martinez and Sway Calloway continue to keep us informed on the airwaves. Now, a young Brooklynite has risen in the ranks to join those institutions.
Rob Markman has been a key player in the hip-hop space for more than a decade. His talent has taken him from Scratch Magazine to MTV to now, Genius, where he has helped turn the lyric site into a media juggernaut. His humble nature makes top A-listers comfortable, so much so that he is one of the few journalists featured on an actual album cover—Logic’s Everybody.
Markman is of Puerto Rican and Jewish descent, and like many native New Yorkers, hip-hop became his way of life early, and it shaped his identity on his terms.
Inspiring journalists, get out your notebooks for a master class level lesson from Markman in our exclusive below.
Jada Gomez: You started off in the mailroom, transitioning into writing and everything you’re doing now. What motivated you to move from one thing to the next?
Rob Markman: I’m always going to be looking for the next thing. I can’t sit still, and I fear complacency. Just being in the mailroom, I knew I was cut out for more. I knew I could impact more. When I used to try to get promotions in that company, they’d be like, “Nah, stay in the mailroom. You’re good at what you do.” It would kill me. People see you in your current state, when you know that you could level up so much more. You’re not seeing my aspirations. You’re not seeing my hopes and dreams. That was always my motivation, to prove it, first of all to myself, but to other people as well.
I had done everything at MTV. And the only thing left to do was to do everything I did twice.
J.G.: We’ve talked about this before—my dad had the fancy full time JP Morgan job, but he worked at Yankee Stadium selling beers since he was a teenager growing up in the Bronx. And he’ll always say the people at the stadium are the hardest working people with the craziest work ethic. What lessons did you learn from your beginnings that you carry with you to this day?
R.M.: It’s just like that famous B.I.G. quote that Jay used on The Black Album. “Man, Puff told me, treat every day like it’s your first day like when you was an intern.” And that’s really how I approach it. Like even though I was in the mailroom, and I knew I wanted to do more, I used to work hard. I used to bust my ass. I was doing things that wasn’t in my job description. We worked in the building, you know my job was to deliver packages, send out packages, keep mail logs. And I remember that job they wanted to do like an office build. So at this point I’m working with another guy putting up sheet rock and dry wall … like literally creating offices because the company. This ain’t in my job description. But, my whole thing was, I was like cool, now I know to put up some sheet rock. So when I bought my own crib and I needed to build an extra room in my crib, I had the skills. And that’s part of it. Everything is a learning experience. In high school I worked in a pizzeria, delivering pizzas. I worked in the comic book store, mailroom, call center. I never not once told someone, “Yo, that’s not my job.” I’ve never uttered those words. Even to this day, if we’re on a shoot, like one of those IRL shoots we do at Genius where we go on location with an artist, it’s a lot of equipment to carry. I’m carrying equipment. They’re looking at me like, what are you doing, you gotta be on camera. Because I can’t see somebody struggling with three or four heavy suitcases and the camera on the arm and the light strapped to their back. It’s like, yo, give me something. How can I help? That’s always been my attitude. I don’t care how far I get. And I think that’s the work ethic that’ll take you far. That’s probably what your dad had, too. Just an honest living, a hard day’s work. There’s nothing wrong with that.
J.G.: You talk about not being able to sit still. And I think that people get caught up in staying with a company that has a big name. You were at MTV. Rob Markman and MTV were like yin and yang, peanut butter and jelly. And then you moved over to Genius when a lot of people didn’t really know what Genius was. How do you know when it’s time to move on?
R.M.: It was funny because I wasn’t looking. It wasn’t like when I left, I bolted out the door disgruntled. It was just an opportunity that had come to me, and my heart told me that it was time. I was at MTV at four years, and I’ve been blessed to do a lot of things. I walked in as a journalist with only print experience, a little bit of digital experience. And by the time I left I was an on camera personality. I was a television producer, I produced TV shows. I was doing bookings, I was doing script writing. I had done everything at MTV. And the only thing left to do was to do everything I did twice. I just wanted a new challenge. Genius was established when I came as a lyric site, but I don’t think people expected it to go where we’ve taken it over the last two years. So, that in itself was incredibly challenging, and I wanted the challenge. Again, just blessed to be working with a great team who all had the same vision and we pulled it together. It’s just funny, we’re just starting.
JG: On Twitter there are so many young people who are trying to get your attention, to get your advice. What are a couple of nuggets that you can give someone trying to follow in your footsteps?
RM: The first thing is, don’t necessarily follow my story. Because the game is different from when I came in. I don’t know if I could come in, in the same route that I took. But, there are certain things that stand true. One, be the change that you want to see. Do you just want to fit in, and get a space in the game, or do you actually want to change things, and offer something new? If you want to offer something new, look at what’s around. And do the thing that not everybody is doing. It’s a pet peeve of mine when people are just different just to be different. And then two, don’t skip the steps either. Understand that it took me 13 years to get here. Don’t skip the steps. I love the struggle of it. My very first job was at Scratch Magazine, and I got laid off after three months because they folded the magazine. I was distraught. But now looking back on it, I wouldn’t take that back. If I didn’t go through the XXL phase, I might not have survived MTV. If I didn’t do the things at MTV, I might not have survived Genius. Don’t be afraid of going through the process, and don’t be afraid of the work. At the end of the day, this might be cool because you see me in the Instagram picture with a rapper or something. But understand that picture took five seconds to take. So much work was put into that interview, hours and hours of work. But all people see is the Instagram picture that took five seconds. So don’t be disillusioned and don’t be afraid of the work. Because if you ain’t ready to roll up your sleeves, this business is going to chew you up and spit you out.
JG: Let’s talk about identity. I think the two of us are hip-hop journos who really don’t fit in boxes. How do you hold on to the identity that makes you Rob, without letting other people chip away at you?
RM: I’ve been doing it my whole life. I never fit in. At all. My mom is Puerto Rican, and Afro Latina. My mom is dark, several shades darker than me. And then my dad is Jewish. And then I grew up in Flatbush, which is a West Indian neighborhood. They didn’t know what to make of me. I went to an all West Indian school with Haitians and Jamaicans. And my Spanish isn’t good. But then, when I’m with the Jewish kids on my father’s side of the family, I’m the Blackest thing they ever saw, and then they treat you different. So, I learn from a young age to just be me. I kind of embrace all that I am. I’m very proud of my Latin heritage. And my mom had always taught me and my dad to be super proud of that, and being a man of color too, even though my complexion may be light. My mom always taught us to respect the African blood that we had in us. That being Puerto Rican didn’t just mean being Spanish. It’s Taino in there, the original people that were over in Puerto Rico. And the slaves that were brought over and for mixing it up that gave us this culture that we have. So I was always raised to be proud of all of that. But I always just stood on my own as a kid. And it’s funny, hip-hop probably helped with that. Because no matter where I was at, whether you thought I was white, Puerto Rican, whatever … I was the most hip-hop motherf-cker in that room, and that’s just what it was.
I’ve been doing it my whole life. I never fit in. At all. My mom is Puerto Rican, and Afro Latina. My mom is dark, several shades darker than me. And then my dad is Jewish. And then I grew up in Flatbush, which is a West Indian neighborhood. They didn’t know what to make of me.You wasn’t going to be able to outrap me, you don’t know more about this music than I do. I was going to school you … who produced it, who engineered it, what sample they used, I could go verse for verse. You just wasn’t going to out hip-hop me. So it’s funny, hip-hop helped me with my identity and that’s why I identify so much with just being of the hip-hop culture.
JG: What’s the first album you bought, of any genre?
RM: The first thing that I bought was Janet Jackson, Rhythm Nation. And the first hip-hop album … I don’t remember if they came out on the same day, but I had got Kris Kross’ album, and A Tribe Called Quest “Scenario,” the single the same day and they were both on cassette.
JG: You’re known for being a cool hip-hop head, but do you have a nerdy hobby?
RM: I’m like a comic book nerd, for real. My first job ever was in the comic book store in Brooklyn. And that was because I wanted a pair of Jordans and my mother and father refused to get them. I wanted the 8s. And my folks wouldn’t get them for me, they just ain’t see the value in sneakers. So I got a job at a comic book store making $3 an hour, and I saved up. It took me a whole year. But this is before Retro, so this was when a pair of Jordans were gone, they were gone. So the 8s were gone. So my first pair of Jordans were the 9s. And I didn’t really like them that much, but it was just like, I’m a get me some Jordans [laughs]. My hobby is sneakers, but people know me for sneakers. But people wouldn’t expect comic books. I see all the Marvel and DC movies the very first day. I even wrote a comic book. I wrote a ten-page story on The Flash that was published by DC. It was a compilation book that had a bunch of mini stories in it, and I got the opportunity to write a ten-page story. But yeah, real comic book nerd.
JG: Your album is called Write To Dream. What inspired your leap into music, and what’s next for you to dream up?
RM: Well the music was the original dream. My first hip-hop album was Kris Kross, and that was inspiring to me. And I didn’t love them as rappers. I never wore my clothes backward, but “Jump” was the joint. But they inspired me, like yo, kids can do this? I remembering writing my first raps, I had the “Scenario” single, and writing my first couple of bars to the “Scenario” instrumental. So rapping was always the dream. I always wanted to make music. I liked to go to open mics, I used to battle at lunchtime. I used to battle in different clubs as a teen. And the journalism thing took off. One day I woke up and I was just like, life is too short. I’ve been blessed with so many opportunities. Let me see if I can get this one off [laughs]. And I did. And it’s been cool so far. The people that heard it really respect it. I didn’t want to be corny. I could have went out and did a whole bunch of trap records. And not that trap records or corny, but I think, coming from me, it would have been like oh, he’s trying to fit in. One of the things that Ebro had told me, he was like, yo, I didn’t know, I was scared, I didn’t know what to expect because I like you. But, he was like, the one thing I respect is that you wasn’t trying to make money or fit in. You was just really trying to tell your story in a passionate way. And that’s what was important for me. But, in writing this album, the Write To Dream project, I realized that I had a knack for storytelling. I did way more storytelling on this album than I planned to, and I didn’t even know I was doing it. So, maybe it’s writing a film down the line or something like that. Who knows?
JG: I always end by asking if there’s something the subject wants to close with. But I don’t want to do that. You’re a journalist. So, I’m going to close it out with you asking me a question.
RM: The pressure, now you’re putting me to work [laughs]. I follow your work and you put great energy out there. And you’re not afraid to salute or talk about the people who inspired you. And I respect that, because I’m the same way. And that’s great. But I want to know the first time that you recognized the greatness in yourself and recognized that you now yourself are inspiring people. Like, you know you’re one of us now [laughs]. You’re in the X-Men.
JG: Yes, I made it [laughs]. I think for me, it was last year when Macy’s asked me to be the face of Hispanic Heritage Month. It was literally like a dream sequence, and then having all of these girls after, wanting to know my story. I feel like I’m the mama bear of our hip-hop writers generation. But it was at that moment that I was getting the love that I give. I just want to be touchable and tangible.
RM: I see you give so much love. But you’re in it now. You’re on stage. You’re not in the crowd. And it’s been like that for awhile. You’re well into it.