Words: Adell Henderson, Editor-At-Large
Photographer: Trevor Sage-El
Cover/Layout: Jon Powell
RESPECT. Founder: Jonathan Rheingold
Copyright Musinart LLC 2018
Nick Cannon is in a zone. With over 20 years of time spent in entertainment, the media mogul/artist has figured out a way to win big by simply being himself. Add an overwhelming level of hard work to the equation and that’s pretty much the secret to his success. Whether it’s comedy, music, television, film, business or philanthropy, he has always unapologetically embraced his artistry and refused to be put in boxes.
Long before Cannon got rich, he started out as a broke high school kid who was determined to travel two hours back and forth every week from his hometown of San Diego, California, to Hollywood in pursuit of a better life for him and his family. Between his hustler mentality and persistence, Cannon charmed himself into the popular adult comedy clubs and eventually became a professional stand-up comedian at 15 years old. By the time he was 17, Cannon had become the youngest staff writer in television history after joining Nickelodeon’s hit show, All That as a writer and series regular. That same year, Cannon wrote a script for a pilot that was acquired by Will Smith, who then sold it to Warner Bros. Although that particular show never got picked up, his confidence continued to rise, which ultimately led him to accepting a senior position at TeenNick for Nickelodeon, which made him the youngest chairman in television history at the age of 28.
As the creator and executive producer of MTV’s smash comedic improv television show Wild ’N Out for 11 seasons and over 200 episodes, Cannon is proud to have presented a successful mainstream platform of entertainment by employing a large number of underground comics and giving hip-hop and R&B artists an opportunity to shine. As a matter of fact, the winning brand has become so well received that Cannon is currently expanding into a variety of different verticals, including a new chain of Wild ’N Out sports bars, home games, video games and comedy tours, as well as an upcoming Wild ’N Out School of Comedy.
RESPECT.: It’s very fortunate that you turned out to be one of the rare successful child-star stories. How far back does your professional career go?
Nick Cannon: I was professionally doing stand-up at 15. That’s when I got my first check for like $7 from the Comedy Store. That was when I really got on the grind. But before that, it was all talent shows, family and church more than anything. Playing instruments, just like what a preacher’s kid always does, trying to keep himself entertained by entertaining others.
So for those who have been following your career since the beginning, some may know you from doing stand-up comedy, but many of us discovered you as an actor. Where did this whole rapper thing come from?
I wanted to be a rapper at first, and that was all it was. Having musical talent and music ability at a very early age, I recorded my first demo when I was, like, 8 years old. But knowing that I had to do something unique and different, stand-up comedy is what kind of opened that door for me. I was on my first stage in my first talent show at, like, 11, but I took it serious as a career at the early age of 15.
You do understand that the idea of taking your career seriously at 15 makes so many of us feel like underachievers, right? Before we get into career stuff, give us some background on your lifestyle growing up.
Grew up in the projects, wanted to be a gangbanger. I was influenced by the gangbangers and dope dealers in my community because my mom was a single mom, and my dad had moved off to go to seminary and started his ministry in North Carolina. My mom said, “You probably need to be with him for a few years.” And during that time, that’s when my dad shook me up and said, “Instead of trying to be this rah-rah little kid, here, follow my footsteps and I’m gonna show you how to express yourself and channel that energy in a positive direction.”
Isn’t this around the time that you were introduced to the Public Access television equipment and studio?
That’s a credit to my dad, who had his own televangelist ministry, and he ain’t have no crew [laughs]. I had to be the cameraman, the soundman. I was rolling with Pops as he was putting his ministry and everything together, and as a reward, he would say, “When you finish working on the show, you can utilize the space and cameras to film your own stuff,” and that’s when I would create little demo tapes and record
television stuff that would actually air. It was cool. It showed me a work ethic of what goes into being an entertainer and every aspect of it, and that really kind of created the appetite to know more, just in front of the camera. I want to be able to do everything.
This is clearly where you developed your passion for television production and being so hands-on in front of and behind the scenes. Being that production equipment is so much more affordable, and there are tons of ways to create, edit and distribute your own content, why aren’t more creatives creating projects for themselves?
I call that the audition mentality — the worker-ant mentality as opposed to being a soldier ant. There are two different types of ants: There are people who fall in line, show up to the audition, show up to work, and clock in and go back home. But then there’s the soldiers who blaze their own trail, who break off and create new avenues and trails, and then the worker ants follow them. So I’ve always just been that person who was never gonna allow anyone to put me into a box. To me the box doesn’t even exist; I don’t need the box. When you categorize or live your lifestyle based on, “Oh, this is what I want to do” or “This is what society sees me as,” that’s a fine lifestyle for many people, but you limit yourself. And I really feel like I have a limitless persona, or the frequency that I operate on. I don’t really see any boundaries, I don’t see the box.
You definitely have no shame when it comes to expressing yourself through various forms of art. People are so fickle. If we discovered you as an actor, usually we don’t want to see you crossing those lines to do something else. Why are you so fearless when it comes to pushing those boundaries?
This is what I do. I’m blessed enough to wake up every day and be creative, and however I can spread my creativity, wherever I can put that energy, that’s what I’m gonna do. Really, it’s the mentality of a hustler, growing up in environments where you had to make something out of nothing. That’s really where I come from, and I just utilized entertainment as the thing that got me in the door. But once I got in, I was like, “I’m going to create businesses, I’m going to show them this aspect of me, I’m gonna show them that aspect of me.” I’m truly an artist at my core, whether I’m expressing myself through music, through acting, through stand-up — but the core of it is just the art and the energy of the art.
Going back to the idea of you getting serious about your career, what were some of your earliest memories of how you wanted to operate in business?
At 16 or 17, I was talking about having my own label — that’s just how I moved. I was signing artists even though I ain’t have nothing to sign them with. I could play music, and because I could play music and make beats, I was selling beats — and this was as a teenager. While everybody else was going on auditions as comedians and actors, I was writing scripts. I sold my first script to Will Smith when I was 17 years old, and it was based off of, “These guys are writing scripts, so why can’t I write a script?” And from that mentality “I want to be the producer of the show, I don’t want to be just the guy in front of the camera.” So when I was able to actually put some points on the board as a writer, as a producer, then it allowed me to even see beyond the spectrum. So I said, “One day I want to run this company; one day I want to be a real executive and create many opportunities.” So by the time I was 28 years old, I was the youngest television chairman in television history.
That’s crazy! I remember that whole thing happening. That move was such a big deal. One thing that people definitely know about and can’t deny is Wild ’N Out. I can’t believe you’re on season 11. How did you even come up with that concept? And why?
When I was 24 I created Wild ’N Out, and I did that to create opportunities for my friends. I wanted to see them shine. At the time, people hadn’t really heard of Katt Williams or DeRay Davis or Kevin Hart or Affion Crockett. They didn’t know who any of these guys were; they were just my friends. They was in the hustle, they was trying to make it happen on the stand-up circuit, but I was in a position where I could write, I could produce, I could create, and they would listen to me. So instead of just creating something solely for myself, I created a platform where I could allow everyone to shine. And it wasn’t just the comedians, it was the rappers, too. I was giving everybody an opportunity to get it off.
It’s crazy to think of the wide range of talent that you’ve had come through the show over the years. You recently released a very dope song and video called “Motivation,” which features your great-grandmother and a bunch of other beautiful elderly women talking and sharing things about their lives. What was the inspiration behind that?
Powerful women who all had something to say. That’s our history, that’s the definition of true beauty right there. And especially to be a black woman — when you understand how demoralized, how downtrodden black women have been in this country, that they really have been put at the bottom of the totem pole — to know they embraced their inner queendom and persevered through all that.
You seem like you’re in a very calm, positive, spiritual and peaceful mind-set. You’ve been rocking the crowns on your head for quite a while now. Will we see more of what you’re experiencing spiritually through your art? What are some of the things you’re over there cooking up?
Ultimately, it’s about controlling our narrative and understanding [that you can’t] let the media manipulate you, you’ve got to understand how to manipulate the media. I feel like our community is underserved, especially when it comes to sharing and telling our stories. And when I say stories, I’m not just talking about movies and books and stuff; I’m talking about really controlling our narrative of who we are. And that’s where I feel like it’s my job and my duty to tap into the community, because specifically as young black men, we’ve been demoralized in such a way that we don’t believe that we’re great, we don’t believe that we come from kings. We’re happy being savages and thugs. We embrace it as opposed to changing that narrative. We’ve got to recondition the mind-set to be like we’re more than that. They told us that we were these things, and we’ve accepted it and we’ve excelled in that, but imagine if we were told we were kings and that we were rulers, and that our legacy is to be the dominant force — I think we would be in such a different place.
Any efforts that are genuinely about moving the culture forward, I’m down to support 100%.