Jackson, Mississippi’s MAYOR Frank Melton has an eye-to-eye relationship with Hip Hop. And just like the powerful culture, he’s got as many haters as he does supporters. Take a sneak peak into the city David Banner put on the map, and the mind of the most controversial public official you’ve never heard of.
hen Kwame Kilpatrick was elected mayor of Detroit in 2002, Russell Simmons labeled the then-31-year-old America’s first “Hip Hop Mayor.” The abrasive image that rappers like Eminem, Trick Trick and Guilty Simpson portray of the crime-riddled city (it ranked first on CQ Press’ most recent annual City Crime Rankings: Crime in Metropolitan America list) seemed to run congruent with Kilpatrick’s football player stature, fresh-off-the-block swagger and ability to talk both policy with pencil pushers downtown and survival with the people on the streets. Rocking an earring and throwing lavish parties didn’t hurt his “Hip Hop” image either. In rough-and-tumble Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter may be a little too old to be labeled “Hip Hop.” But that didn’t stop him from reciting “Rapper’s Delight,” word for word from beginning to end, at his inaugural ball earlier this year. While you shouldn’t expect him to be spitting any Beanie Sigel lines anytime soon, he still had ?uestlove from The Roots DJing alongside him. In bustling Atlanta, Mayor Shirley Franklin has embraced the Hip Hop brass, including rappers on everything from tourism interests to community initiatives. In 2005 she enlisted R&B/Hip Hop producer Dallas Austin to write a theme song for the city which opened with a big “Ladies and Gentlemen!” from Jazze Pha. She was instrumental in bringing the BET Hip Hop Awards to town and even quoted Andre 3000 in her speech at the 2008 MLK celebration. But none of those mayor’s relationship with Hip Hop compares to that of Jackson, Mississippi mayor Frank Melton. He’s both locked rappers up and courted them for votes and support. He’s shut down Hip Hop nightclubs. He even serves as the Chairman of the Broadcast Music Industry’s (BMI) Performing Rights Committee which oversees the execution of contracts for the likes of T.I., T-Pain, Mike Jones, Slim Thug, Lil Jon, Kanye West and Polow Da Don just to name a few. During his 2005 mayor campaign, Melton promised local artists that he’d use his industry rolodex to build a state-of-the-art recording studio on Jackson’s equivalent of Memphis’s Beale Street, Farish Street. As much as Melton appears to be in tune with the Hip Hop community, you shouldn’t expect him to rap Banner’s “Like A Pimp” at any upcoming ceremonies, although some say that’s exactly how he operates. A native of Houston, Texas’ 5th Ward, Melton has had his iron fists in almost every plate imaginable. The late 50-ish husband and father of two comes from a background that includes an 18-year run as CEO and principle owner of Jackson’s WLBT-TV 3. With financial backing from Dallas tycoon Robert Buford and First Chicago Bank to the tune of $23-plus million, he bought the station in 1984. Prior to his purchase, the station had a storied reputation for supporting segregation, refusing to cover the Civil Rights Movements of the 1960’s, selling airtime to the Ku Klux Klan and featuring little to no programming including African-Americans, even though they made up a sizable portion of the viewing population. After many complaints, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) revoked WLBT’s license in 1969.
Ironically, by the time the station got back in good standings and under Melton’s rule, he used the station, and his money, to voice his own interests. In the late eighties Melton caused a stir when he started purchasing billboards and plastering the faces of known drug dealers and a hotline to call if you saw them doing anything shady. But his tenure is mostly remembered for hosting a notorious television segment, The Bottom Line, where he’d call out slacking city officials and neighborhood drug dealers by name. “I started that program because I had a 15 year-old kid named Ricky ‘Chicken’ Moore who came to my office at WLBT, who had just came home from juvenile,” says Melton. “He was on his knees telling me he had been robbing the trains on Mill Street. I had a speech at 7 p.m., he came in at 6:15 p.m. I gave him money to join the Boys & Girls club, which he did do. But by 8:30 he was dead, shot four times in the chest. In my heart I knew I should have taken him with me. A mistake like that is pretty devastating. So with The Bottom Line, I felt like it was something that was really needed to deal with some real community issues.” To this day, the show is a subject of folklore. Ask a Jacksonian about the show and they’ll almost automatically imitate Frank’s closing gesture, stuffing an ink pen in his suit pocket and quipping, “And that’s the bottom line!” “I thought Frank was crazy when I first saw The Bottom Line,” says Jackson native and rapper Kamikaze. Together he and David Banner as the group Crooked Lettaz introduced Jackson Hip Hop to the masses with their 1999 album Grey Skies. “I didn’t think he was gonna make it for another two years. I thought he was going to get assassinated. But that showed me that when you have money and power, you can do and say anything you want. Almost.” Melton’s days at WLBT were riddled with conflict, largely because he fired many black employees and eventually sold the station in 2002 to a majority-white company for a sum that reportedly exceeded $200 million. The same year that the station was sold, Melton was appointed head of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics by former Governor Ronnie Musgrove. According to Melton, he was appointed after joking with Musgrove that he’d come run the bureau since he seemed to be having a hard time with it. To this day, that move has drawn scrutiny because Melton reportedly had absolutely no prior experience in law enforcement and operated seemingly under his own rules. However, Melton insists that he did have experience, as a certified deputy in Angelina County, Texas in the 1970’s. Melton’s tenure provided plenty of headlines. In addition to openly carrying weapons and perusing the city dressed in camouflage, Melton frequently set up random roadblocks to conduct drug searches, much to the disapproval of the U.S. Supreme Court. Melton’s hands-on approach and ethics also came into question because of the drop in drug arrests during his reign. Since 2000, drug arrests in Mississippi hovered around 3,000 per year. During the 14 months that Melton ran the MBN, the total didn’t even reach 2,000. This low number, coupled with the fact that Melton often caught young dealers, and invited them to live in his house and work for him, birthed rumors that Melton himself was involved in the drug trade or at least capitalizing off it. “I’ve heard the rumors about the drugs and gun running,” says Melton. “I was accused of bringing guns out of Texas and giving them to the gangs. I’ve been accused of being the biggest drug dealer in Mississippi. I’ve never consumed, distributed, or caused anyone to consume or distribute narcotics in my life. As many dealers I’ve put in jail over the last 27 years? If I was dealing drugs and standing up publicly calling out dealers, you’d see me floating up in the river.” When Governor Musgrove was succeeded by Haley Barbour in 2004, Melton was dismissed from his MBN position.
“I didn’t think [Melton] was gonna make it another two years. I thought he was going to get assassinated. But that showed me that when you have money and power, you can do and say anything you want. almost.” - Kamikaze OZONE MAG // 63
Ozone Mag #65 - Mar 2008