J-Bird has identified with hip hop since he was a shorty in Waukegan. It shows in everything from his speech to his mannerisms–he sounds like a Bronx teen and gestures with his hands like a laid-back MC. The 24-year-old J-Bird (aka Jason Cook) has just launched a new zine called Caught in the Middle, a 55-page bimonthly that’s Chicago’s answer to the myriad hip hop zines published on both coasts.

“Hip-hop-wise, we’re caught in the middle,” says Cook. “A lot of people here have an identity problem. They say, ‘I’m ‘a do west coast or east coast’ instead of developing their own style. It’s because Chicago doesn’t get near the dap that we deserve. I go to underground clubs and I see so much talent.”

Cook thinks Caught in the Middle can change all of that by focusing exclusively on Chicago’s hip hop scene. He says the $2 publication is following in the footsteps of Seattle’s Flava and San Francisco’s The Bomb. Its dizzying layout features resident DJs reviewing local albums, illustrations by hometown graffiti artists, and Chicago radio personalities interviewing local MCs and break dancers. “The whole thing is to get Chicago out there,” Cook says. “People out of the scene need to know what’s happenin’ too.”

According to Caught in the Middle, what’s happenin’ is that local MC Tung Twisa was dissed by Treach on Naughty by Nature’s last album, sparking a citywide Naughty by Nature “dis campaign”; Excalibur, Ka-Boom!, and the Clique earn “tha middle finger” for nasty doormen; and Resurrection, the second album by local MC Common Sense, is getting props all over the country.

Cook says he started to DJ during the summer after eighth grade. “Initially, everybody was breakin’ [dancing], but I couldn’t break that good,” he says. “So what else could I do? DJing. Half my mom’s living room is records, CDs, tapes. And we live in a trailer.” Cook credits hip hop with keeping him out of gangs.

While studying music management at Columbia College, he worked as an intern at Redlight Records, a heavy metal label based in Chicago. “I got a good understanding of radio from that,” Cook says. He then learned about the sales side of the record industry through an internship at BMG Distribution. Shortly after that, he found a Cypress Hill record before the band hit big. He wrote to them, asking when they’d appear in Chicago, and they replied that they were doing street promoting.

“I sent in a proposal. They hired me, and I handed out fliers, gave DJs records, brought CDs into record stores for in-store play, and got them play at alternative outlets like hip hop stores.”

The Cypress Hill promotion spanned a year and a half, but Cook earned no pay, just enough experience to start his own street promotion company, Ch’rewd Promotions, in 1989 with his friend Jellow. “They hire someone like me in every market. It’s straight up word of mouth. We fell into it, working for a lot of companies. We had to sit down and say, Yo! This is a business!”

It’s a business that comes in handy when pushing a music zine. “I’m working the magazine like a record,” Cook says. “I’m getting it into other cities through street promoting. I’m literally going on the road and walkin’ it from here to Champaign.”

Some take exception to a bald white boy promoting a hip hop mag, but Cook remains unfazed. “I’ve always gotten the white thing,” he says. “I couldn’t say I know totally what it’s like being a minority. But I’ve always hung around blacks and Hispanics, and I’m the minority. I see how they’re treated, and I’m treated the same way because I’m with them. I hear people say, ‘Yo, he’s white, he’s jumping on the bandwagon.’ I don’t go about this trying to prove anything. If people respect me, they respect me. If they dis me, they dis me.”

Common Sense–who pens Chicago-specific verses like “I got more rhymes than the Manor’s got Folks”–graces the cover of Caught in the Middle’s first issue. Cook says the local MC will inspire interest in his publication. “Everybody I talk to, in Texas, in LA, in Louisiana, in Canada, they all give Common Sense mad props. His album is the bomb. He don’t talk about New York. He talks about Jewtown, the Manor, Harold’s Chicken!”

The zine, printed in dark green ink, includes a pullout color poster of graffiti art, and each issue follows a different theme. This issue, for instance, looks at mix tapes, which meld different songs by different artists. The mag even mimics a mix tape by running copy from one story into another, which makes for an interesting design, if not smooth reading.

Printing 5,000 copies of a publication that’s 20 percent ads and 80 percent copy, Cook says he’s not in it for the money. “We’re out to promote. Each issue someone from Chicago will be on the cover. I want more people in Chicago to do shit.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.