The last reporter in the room: A profile of music writer Jeff Weiss ‘03

jeff weiss
Jeff Weiss ‘03 began his career in journalism while he was a student at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. Friday, Feb. 18, 2022. Lachlan Ashenmiller/The Occidental.

As the slow death of print media continues to consume local newspapers, less visible is the loss of alt weekly publications. The small independent newspapers once provided a platform for young writers to express their heavily opinionated takes on eclectic musicians and document hyper-local culture with a disdain for the conventions of legacy journalism, but have disappeared from newsstands in cities across the country in recent years. While legacy journalism has come to rely on billionaire investors like Jeff Bezos and Patrick Soon-Shiong, Jeff Weiss ‘03, music writer and founder of the online magazine Passion of the Weiss, is still there for those with a love for niche music scenes. Since his first opinion piece in The Occidental Weekly twenty years ago, Weiss has been inspired by alt weekly culture, challenging the conventions of legacy journalism to tell a raw truth in the stories he captures.

“That was such a fundamental thing about an alt weekly,” Weiss said. “It liberated you from the shackles of having to write in this forced objective way, because that’s not the truth.”

Weiss, an LA native, formed a ritual of reading each installment of the LA Weekly over lunch at Armon’s Restaurant on Eagle Rock Boulevard. The alt weekly style is apparent in each of Weiss’ pieces. He’s unapologetic about his opinions and writes with a lighthearted voice, and his commitment to music runs deep. This has often meant Weiss is the last reporter in the room covering the stories of young Black artists who are targeted and incarcerated by police and abandoned by national media.

In 2012, Weiss spent a month in Baton Rouge, LA, following the trial of Boosie Badazz, bringing attention to the now fairly common practice of prosecutors using Black artists’ rap lyrics to denigrate them in court. Most recently, Weiss became closely associated with Drakeo the Ruler, as the only writer who followed the rapper’s story when he was repeatedly incarcerated by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and LAPD beginning in 2017. The two formed a relationship over hours-long calls from various Los Angeles-area jails and Weiss was present when Drakeo was stabbed to death at 28 years old, backstage at the Once Upon a Time in LA festival in December 2021, only a year after being released from jail.

“As horrible as it was to witness, I feel like if I hadn’t been there to witness it, the story would have never been told,” Weiss said. “It would have always been shrouded in conjecture and rumor and innuendo.”

Weiss documented the killing in his LA Magazine piece, “The Assassination of Drakeo the Rule,” in January. Weiss and Drakeo first met at a county jail in early 2017 after Weiss named Drakeo LA’s best new rapper on his website. Drakeo’s entourage reached out to Weiss to inform him of Drakeo’s incarceration and offer an exclusive interview. Weiss was in the unique position as a journalist to document the trial of an artist on the brink of mainstream success, who LA’s crime reporters and music writers were neglecting.

“Nobody would have gone to county jail to visit Drakeo the first time,” Weiss said. “There are so many rappers in county jails across America right now.”

In his reporting, Weiss described the inhumane conditions of Drakeo’s incarceration and the manipulative tactics used against him in court.

​​“This is all motivated by two things: the fact that I’m a rapper and the fact that I’m a Black rapper,” Drakeo said in a 2019 article Weiss wrote for Tablet. “When they brought me into the station, [the deputies] were playing my videos, rapping my lyrics back at me, and bragging about the other rappers that they’d sent away. It’s targeted harassment.”

Paul Thompson, a regular contributor at Passion of the Weiss, GQRolling Stone and New York Magazine, said Weiss is committed to reporting a story for the story’s sake, regardless of whether it will be published.

“For the Boosie trial, Jeff went down to Baton Rouge for weeks and reported out the story,” Thompson said. “He had dozens, maybe hundreds of pages of notes and interview transcripts from that time. Almost none of it ever appeared in magazines. I think he’s committed to understanding things and communicating them, even if there’s not a clear professional advancement reason to do it, and that matters a lot.”

Martin Douglas, a music writer at KEXP and former managing editor of Passion of the Weiss, said Weiss’ approach diverges from popular trends in music writing.

“Jeff is the type of person who can’t help but see something through. He can’t help but tell the complete story because the complete story is always — 100 percent always — better than the timely story,” Douglas said. “It’s not this disposable type of music journalism that you see everywhere now. You can go back to that story in 20 years and it will read like a full story.”

Douglas said Weiss’ love and respect for the music he writes about sets him apart from other white writers who cover rap music but don’t understand the culture.

“Obviously, Jeff’s not a Black guy, but at the same time he is deeply rooted in the culture of hip-hop,” Douglas said. “People realize that this dude is the real deal and that’s why they open up to him. He’s got a sense of credibility that other white writers don’t have because he puts in the work to show that his love for rap music is authentic. He very well might be the most authentic person I know.”

Weiss’ first interviews with Drakeo in 2017 were for his own Passion of the Weiss website, both because Drakeo had not yet garnered the attention of national media and because Weiss felt it was wrong to profit off the story of an incarcerated artist.

“It felt gross to sell it. What, are you gonna get paid $150 to go talk to somebody falsely accused in jail?” Weiss said. “I thought, ‘Thank God I had this website, at least I can run something and get it out.’ That’s what the website exists for.”

Weiss started his website in 2005 as an outlet for his early work.

“At first it was just these misanthropic, tasteless rants that are just horrible,” Weiss said. “I’m a firm believer that you shouldn’t be judged for anything you write until you’re thirty, you just shouldn’t.”

Within a few years, Passion became a staple of underground music and a parallel lane for young culture writers like Douglas and Thompson to get published as print alt-weekly publications faded.

“Jeff’s site built a really unique place in the ecosystem of writing and in music coverage,” Thompson said.

Thompson said he got his first byline in Passion after recognizing Weiss while working as an usher at a Lakers game. Weiss was covering the game as a reporter and Thompson approached him to ask about his music writing. Both Thompson and Douglas credit Weiss’ editing as a crucial point in finding their voice as young writers.

“He really guided my work,” Douglas said. “Jeff sees what makes you unique and encourages you to go after that as an editor. He knows when to not touch anything and let you go after your weirdest impulses.”

Weiss said his first published work was written in his junior year at Oxy when one of his teammates on the baseball team, Greg Davis ‘05, was killed in a car accident linked to Greek life hazing at 18 years old. Unsure of where to voice his grief, Weiss wrote a guest opinion piece for The Occidental Weekly (now The Occidental) March 2002 in which he voiced frustrations with how the college and his coach handled his friend’s death.

“I’ll never forget the agonizingly slow way in which the unthinkable was told to us,” Weiss wrote in the piece.

A few weeks later, Weiss was part of a walkout protest on the baseball team against their coach in the aftermath of losing a teammate, which ultimately resulted in the coach’s departure.

The Spring 2002 issues of The Occidental Weekly demonstrate Weiss’ development as a writer after quitting the baseball team. Ranging from rants about Oxy’s party scene to humorous takes on national news stories, early traces of Weiss’ voice shine through the disjointed and arbitrarily chosen subject material of a student writer. A concert review of Wu Tang Clan in which Weiss proclaims the Wu was past their prime appears to be Weiss’ first published music critique.

“The exorbitant sum I forked over to attend the concert made me feel cheated,” Weiss wrote in the article. “For $40 I expected the Wu to deliver a passionate show, yet it seemed as though they were only performing for the money.”

After a few years working as a freelance music writer, tabloid journalist and business writer at various publications, Weiss joined the LA Weekly in 2007 and quickly became one of the most prolific music writers at the newspaper he had pored over as an Occidental student only a few years prior. During his 10 years at LA Weekly, Weiss garnered a larger national audience and became a trusted source on underground West Coast rap.

Weiss’ time at the publication he had once revered took a sharp turn in 2017, when the LA Weekly was bought by Semanal Media and placed under the control of Brian Calle, former vice president of the ultra-reactionary right wing Claremont Institute think tank. According to a 2017 article from Pacific Standard, the vast majority of the staff was fired and the paper’s progressive niche culture was replaced with a profit-driven new direction, reflecting the endemic ransacking of Los Angeles journalism at the time, which had already afflicted the Los Angeles Times and The LAist. The ousted editor-in-chief compared the transformation to Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding massacre. Weiss and former LA Weekly film critic April Wolfe started a boycott movement against the LA Weekly, urging sponsors to pull their advertisements in the paper and readers to cancel subscriptions.

“They were trying to pull a fast one on Los Angeles,” Weiss said. “I’m a big believer that if you’ve got LA in your name, you represent something more.”

In 2018, Weiss and Wolfe co-founded TheLAnd, a magazine born from the unity they found among LA journalists during the boycott.

“TheLAnd is consecrated by the proposition that print is eternal, our sun-bleached soil is sacred, regional writing is universal, and real will always recognize real,” the magazine’s website reads. “TheLAnd is by locals, for locals.”

jeff weiss and the LAnd
Jeff Weiss (‘03) poses with a copy of The LAnd Magazine, of which he is a founder in Los Angeles, CA. Friday, Feb. 18, 2022. Lachlan Ashenmiller/The Occidental.

TheLAnd’s third issue was released Fall 2021. This month, Weiss said he will return to working on his upcoming book about Britney Spears, the tabloid craze of the early 2000s and the death of American dream — a personal project which Weiss had put on hold in 2017 to contribute his time to the LA Weekly boycott and Drakeo’s trial coverage.

“Back in the day, Gay Talese was spending six months following Sinatra in $500-a-night hotel rooms. Hunter Thompson was going to Vegas for three days for 400-word stories,” Weiss said. “That doesn’t exist anymore and it’s unfortunate because we don’t know exactly what we’re missing. We don’t know what stories we’re missing and I think the Drakeo story is a good example of that. Not to take too much credit or anything but if I didn’t do that, I know that nobody would have covered that story.”

Sitting in a window booth at Armon’s, almost two decades after graduating Occidental, Weiss lamented the nearly empty magazine rack by the door and the sponsored content filling the most recent issue of LA Weekly.

“You have to kill zombies,” Weiss said.

This article was updated March 2 at 12:35 p.m. to more accurately characterize Weiss’ early career in the period between graduating Occidental and joining the LA Weekly.