Using a senior citizen to hype a rap contest doesn't seem like the smartest marketing ploy, especially when the man in question can't name any rap songs but knows he likes the ones "with the singing in it."
But this senior citizen's name is Jackson, first name Joseph — the authoritarian patriarch of America's most famous musical family. Though the Jackson name has become synonymous with scandal, it still had enough cache last week to lure out a few dozen gawkers, wannabe stars and curiosity seekers to a low-budget lounge for "Joe Jackson's Hip-Hop Boot Camp."
"It's not so much of Joe Jackson knowing about hip-hop, it's about Joe Jackson being able to groom the next generation of superstars," says business associate Charles Kopay, who is hoping to develop the boot camp into a reality show. "Somehow it's touched a nerve."
The way Jackson groomed his own children into superstars is the stuff of legend — and according to his some of his children, of enduring nightmares.
The former musician-turned-steel mill worker from Gary, Ind., had nine children with his wife, Katherine. He drove a young Michael, Tito, Jackie, Jermaine and Marlon through long rehearsals, countless amateur contests, nightclub gigs and concert dates until they landed a deal with Motown and became bubblegum superstar sensations The Jackson 5. He also managed the solo careers of his children, including Michael's and Janet's.
Instead of "Dad," his children called him "Joe," and he developed a reputation as a brooding, intimidating figure who dominated his family. Michael has long talked about beatings he suffered at the hands of his father, and how it scarred him emotionally.
But in person, Joe Jackson's charismatic, genial demeanor belies his image. During an interview at the Boot Camp audition, natty in a dark business suit with a small diamond hoop dangling from his ear, he downplayed talk of physical abuse.
"Katherine whipped Michael more than I did," he says of his wife. "She had to. I was working, I had two jobs. She was there with them all the time— not just Michael, all the children."
Yet he also makes it unapologetically clear that he pushed his children.
"I started them early, when they were young. When they said they didn't want to go I pulled them by the hand and said we're going— we're gonna do this," he says.
By the time Michael morphed from superstar to icon in the 1980s with "Thriller," Joe Jackson was gone from his son's circle of advisers, dropped as his manager (all his children eventually cut their professional ties to him). Soon after that, Michael's image began to change from that of dazzling entertainer to eccentric oddity.
"I started watching them or other people around them, I started getting worried," says Joe.
In 1993, Michael was hit with his first child molestation accusation. LaToya posed for Playboy and accused her family of abuse (which she later recanted), and family dissension spilled into the tabloids. Janet was regarded as the only "normal" one — before her infamous wardrobe malfunction.
Michael's career waned even before he was acquitted of another molestation claim. And last month, Janet denied rumors of a secret child as a nude video of her sunbathing circulated on the Internet.
Still, Joe Jackson, who faithfully attended his son's trial, dismisses the notion that the family name has been tainted.
"That's not true," he huffs. "I don't know how they perceive us. All I know is we put out a record we sell records. We go to entertainment centers to perform, we sell out."
Jackson — who remains his family's biggest booster — has no regrets introducing his family to the business that has brought them plenty of wealth, but also misery.
"I wouldn't wish the family wasn't successful. I never wish that because we worked hard to make that happen," he says. "But what I don't like is when they try and frame the family in some fashion or way or another to make money."
And it hasn't soured him on the prospect of creating new superstars. "We're looking for the best hip-hop artist in the world!" Jackson declared at his Boot Camp, sitting backstage as a Notorious B.I.G. track played in the background.
"Everybody is liking hip-hop now. I'm gonna have to clean it up a little bit — all that vulgar language out there," he said.
"I'm gonna have to keep that clean, with nice singing in it, and great music behind it."
Jackson is managing three different singers and has helped produce two movies, including "Destination: Fame," whose cast includes the singer Mario, former New Kids on the Block star Jordan Night and ... Joe Jackson himself.
"It makes me feel good," he said of his various endeavors, "to do something that I like to do."
By Nekesa Mumbi Moody