It was 2000. The tech-bubble was swelling. I was working at a print magazine. And my co-workers were leaving in droves to internet startups: UBO. Volume. 360. Hookt. BET.com.
The web was the future! Print was dead! Come to the internets or you won’t have a job!
I resisted. I like the feel of magazines in my hand. Still do. Although the internets have me publishing more content in the past sixty days then I have in print in the past year. But that’s another story.
One day, someone told me to log onto a website: www.urbanexpose.com
Someone with inside information was throwing up stories about the new urban websites and the print media as well.
And it wasn’t pretty.
The tone was scathing (and sometimes, downright mean). The stories were packed with inside information on what was happening at all of the urban media sites and magazines. And there was a uniform way of posting photos of subjects as disembodied heads that made everyone they covered look weird and goofy:
What really struck me was that all of urban media’s secrets were being exposed. The things we talked about in bars at night over drinks. The things we whispered about in staff meetings. The juicy gossip: who was getting fired; who was sleeping with whom. Which magazines were being shut down. All of that was being published, on a website, using people’s real names.
It set off a maelstrom.
People couldn’t figure out who was behind the site. But it quickly became addictive. If you worked in the industry in the year 2000, you know you logged on to urban expose every single day—twice a day. Or more.
After a year, it was over. The man who posted as Crispus Attucks revealed himself to be John Lee, a former hacker from Brooklyn.
I never knew anything about Lee or why he started the site in the first place. I spoke with him recently to get some insight.
Lee’s complete story was new to me. I didn’t know that he was the first Black kid on the cover of WIRED magazine, in a story on his hacking crew. I didn’t know he’d served time for hacking. His life before urbanexpose is fascinating.
I spoke with John Lee aka John Threat about his backstory, why he looked at urban expose as “an experiment” and how much urbanexpose was worth at its height…
Happy Crispus Attucks Day…
ASK: Where are you from?
JT: I’m from Brooklyn. From Brownsville. I grew up with my mom in Marcus Garvey Village. It was cool. When I first moved there, I was six. I was walking down the street. And I was welcomed by getting punched in the stomach by some kids. I was like, ok.
ASK:What kind of upbringing? Was it tough. This is Brooklyn in the 80s so I’m assuming…
JT: I was faced with a lot of problems of duality, street life and idolization mixed with book learning. I was a good student. We were poor but my moms bought books. When the fellas would come over they would say damn, I never seen so many books.
ASK: Was your mom a big influence on you?
JT: My mom is sharp and has a rapier wit. She would read a lot and passed that down to me.
ASK: How did you start out with computers?
JT: My mom worked at a high school and I would be there after school. There was a lady there who would say, hey you should check this out. She let me play with the computers. I was like, eight.
ASK: Rocking with the Apple II C…
JT: Yeah. The Apple II Plus. It was beige. Looked like a skateboard ramp.
ASK: When you first started messing around with computers, did it feel like, yes this is it!
JT: No. I was good at it. But it didn’t feel like my calling. I’m a chameleon. I was always changing.
ASK: What could you even doing on a computer back then? There were no video games, right?
JT: There were no video games. You had to code if you wanted to do anything. There was no Windows. No Mac. No interface at all. To get a computer to print good morning on a piece of paper, you had to program it. There was this matrix-esque feel to it. That’s how they operated back then. Once computers got fancy and networked, people didn’t see that anymore. Except hackers. They still saw the coding.
ASK: And you eventually would become a hacker. But before we go there, when did you get your own computer?
JT: I got my own computer around 12. I was in the 6th grade. Before that I was borrowing it and they would let me take a computer home for the summer.
ASK: Okay. So you’re tinkering with computers in your bedroom. How do you end up becoming a hacker?
JT: At one point, I got on this system. It was Q-link, the precursor to AOL. I typed a message: Anyone listen To Bizmark? And a user who called himself NKOTB typed a message back to me: that’s nigger music.
ASK: Oh wow..
JT: Yeah. So I start looking around the site. And I’m seeing all these people and their user names and their rudimentary sites. There was a forum for hacking. People were talking about how to do it. One guy was posting as The Great American Hacker. I was entranced by the name. It was magnaminous. I wanted to be on a pedestal like that. The Great American Hacker! I started focusing on that. How do you hack into a system? I tried it. Successfully. And then I just got better at it.
ASK: What was the first company you hacked into?
JT: I think it was a pantyhose company.
ASK: Why a pantyhose company?!
JT: I just wanted to get in. It wasn’t very exciting.
ASK: What’d you see?
JT: Accounting records, manufacturing lists, shipping lists. A few interoffice romance emails.
ASK: Is it true that you were also in a gang at this time? The Decepticons?
JT: Nah. I used to run with some people in The Decepticons…
ASK: So hacking was your only illegal activity?
JT: Nah. There was the occasional robbery here and there. But I was probably the only kid using my money from robberies on computer equipment….
ASK: Ha. Yeah, I’d imagine you were.
JT: I remember walking into Albee Square Mall. Just finished a robbery. I go buy some computer equipment and then go to the eating area of Albee Square Mall. And this guy says John bought some computer shit with his money. And the entire place erupted in laughter. I almost cried.
ASK: Ouch. The outsider is born…
JT: They thought it was the nerdiest shit ever. And now they’re putting their rap music up on their myspace pages…
ASK: Why did hacking win out over robbery?
JT: The amount of people who actually do stuff like robbing people is very small. I would go and actually do it. And then I realized, half of the people who do this stuff are psychotic and have no filter. And the other half are just passing on stories like they were involved. I’d go with nine of my boys to do something crazy and I’d be the only one actually doing it.
ASK: So how long until you were hacking into big companies and agencies?
JT: Not long. Before it was all over, I saw some heavy stuff. It makes you rethink how the world operates. It’s like whoa. One of the places we broke into was the NSA.
ASK: Um. I read that about you. I couldn’t believe it. Your crew really broke into the National Security Agency?
JT: Yeah. It was on this network and one of the companies we could get in to was selling fishing equipment. We weren’t interested in anything that small. But I was watching the traffic going into this company. And I’m seeing generals and admirals logging in. And I’m thinking What’s a general doing working at a fishing company. We realized they were disguising the network. And we got in. It was the NSA.
ASK: Is that how you got caught?
JT: No. What really pissed the authorities off, even more than the NSA, was when we got into all the telephone systems in America. And all the credit rating companies…
ASK: Did you ever change someone’s credit score?!
JT: [Laughs] I remember the first time I looked up a friends credit report. He had a credit card and messed up. I took a look. And at one company, TransUnion, if your credit was messed up, it would say something like HawkAlert right next to your name. I’d never really paid attention to credit ratings. I realized then how important it was and that people take their credit rating seriously.
ASK: So you did change credit scores. You hacked into TransUnion and changed credit scores. Holy crap!
JT: That’s what they say. [laughs] They say we did that.
ASK: I need you to paint a clearer picture for me. Where is all this taking place. You’re in your bedroom in Brooklyn?
JT: Or at a payphone on the street…
ASK: What? A payphone? What are you talking about?
JT: You take an acoustic coupler and you connect that to a payphone. It covers the mouthpiece and the earpiece.
ASK: And then you can connect to networks.
ASK: So you’re telling me, that as a teenager, you’re standing on a street corner with a computer and an acoustic coupler, hacking into phone companies. That visual is crazy to me.
JT: We had Nynex, we had GE, we had AT&T. We broke into Bell Corps. We had mobile shit. It was crazy.
ASK: And then, it was over. You got caught. You get arrested. Go to court. Found guilty. Then what?
JT: I went to boot camp. I got out and went back to college. I got violated a few times. I finished school. I was done with hacking. I started working for a detective agency. Then, I was working at a Comedy Central. I leave there…I’m burnt out. I had a good time there. I was getting restless. I went away for a while to travel. I leave the country for six months. When I get back, there are all these urban websites poppin’ and they got all this money. Now I’d worked in entertainment. I knew a little something about computers. I was on the cover of Wired with the hacking thing. And I was doing a little writing. I figured there’s something out here for me….
JT: I went to all of the sites and said hey, here I am. I sit down with one dude. He’s from Canada. He’s barely paying attention to me. I give him my pitch and he says, I’m actually bored with the whole Internet thing. But I saved the 200,000 salary and I’m gonna start a rock band.
JT: Yeah. So I said before you leave, get me a job. I’m fumbling with all these papers where I’ve drawn up plans for social networking. He’s like, ah yeah. I’ll see what I can do. And nothing happened.
ASK: What happened when you went to other companies?
JT: Same thing. I met up with a VP of Content. Gave him all my ideas. He just looked at me and said, I don’t really understand what you’re talking about. The meeting lasted two minutes. Then I tried to meet with him again in a new position and he stood me up. One guy set up a meeting with me and sat there texting the whole time.
ASK: And this is because you weren’t down with all the hip-hop journalists and executives who were moving to the web.
JT: Wasn’t down with none of them. But I was qualified for whatever. Now, I’ve been rejected before. But it’s nicer. I usually get a Coke and at least thirty minutes of the CEO’s time. This was just…
ASK: Wait. John. So urbanexpose was your retaliation for not being able to get on in the early days of the urban techno-bubble. I never knew that. Urbanexpose makes sense to me now. At least your motivation for doing it…It was just like the dudes who laughed when you bought computer equipment…You were an outsider.
JT: Urbanexpose was a classic outsider experiment.
ASK: What were you trying to accomplish?
JT: The blueprint was one part content and one part information warfare. There is an episode in The Twilight Zone. The lights go off and no one knows why. And then the lights come back on in one house. And people say how come they have a light on? And they turn violent. Then the aliens say, taking over this planet will be easy. This was a theory I was putting together. How do you stir up political instability on a rapid basis using technology?
ASK: Instability is a good word. That’s exactly what it created. How long did it take to get urbanexpose running?
JT: It took me three hours to code the site. I had my own servers. I have friends who own server companies. I got a whole bunch of servers. And that was it…we were up and running…
ASK: What was the first story about?
JT: The first to have an impact was on Omar Wasow. I went to school with Omar Wasow. We went to Stuyvestant together. He was a few years ahead. The first story slayed him. He’s a great guy. But I knew if I went hard on him, it would make an impact.
ASK: How long did it take for the site to blow up?
JT: An hour maybe? [laughs]
ASK: No, seriously…
JT: It all happened very very fast. When the first piece on 360.com went up, this woman, a receptionist, she blasted someone in the comments section. And you have to understand, this was very early in this game. I don’t think she really understood that she was writing to everyone who could see the page. She didn’t understand the ramifications.
ASK: The comments were brutal!
JT: No one in urban media was safe from scathing stories that just ripped these companies to shreds. And urbanexpose turned its laser focus back on the writers. And writers write. They are used to having the control. So now the focus is on the writers themselves. They started freaking out. That was its strength. The executives couldn’t ignore it.
ASK: I was at The Source at the time. I was shocked to see how many people were posting under their real names. In the beginning at least.
JT: Russell Simmons said in Forbes that it was his favorite site. Before UE, it was taboo to criticize an urban company. The theory was, it’s so hard to get funding and make this work, we can’t knock it.
ASK: Very true.
JT: But that became our model for the site: criticizing the sacred cows. We criticized these urban companies for not being able to get it together. But there was a twist. At the same time, we were making a successful urban site without a big budget. All while criticizing the existing sites.
ASK : You knew how much money people made. Who was being interviewed for a job. Who got fired. Who was getting fired. Which sites got funding. Which lost funding. How did you get your information?
JT: Sometimes I would go pretend to be a janitor and sweep up at different places.
JT: Yeah. I did. And I would go to all the parties and stay in the background. Just like a gossip columnist. Listening.
ASK: I had no idea you went that hard. I have a newfound respect for you. Did you come across any stories that were to juicy to publish?
JT: I tried to stay away from sexual mores. I killed some stories that were too scandalous. With some folks, I just let people talk about them in the comments.
ASK: You remained anonymous throughout the whole experiment, using the name Crispus Attucks. And you would don a colonial style wig if you had to go out in public as Crispus. Why did you choose this historical figure?
JT: Crispus Attucks set off the revolution – took a bullet for something he didn’t have a stake in. They forgot about him, even though he sparked the events and set the foundation for what you see around you. The deus ex machina if you will. The site was full of inside jokes like that – I like the whole concept of operating on different levels in everything I work on. I learned about Crispus because he was on a book cover I had for my history textbook for school. I guess students were supposed to feel good that Crispus got shot so his family could be enslaved real quick after the revolution.
ASK: There was so much speculation about who you were. Everyone was giving everyone the side-eye. How come no one was able to out you?
JT: Two people figured it out: Omar Wasow and Harry Allen. And neither of them went public with the information. Omar knew me from way back. And he had a hunch. He called an old phone number he had for me. And I had been using that line as a test voice mail for urban expose. So he got it. But he never said anything.
ASK: How close did you get to becoming exposed?
JT: There was an incident in the mainstream media. Inside Magazine calls and says, we know you are. I said no you don’t. The writer said, you’re Mclean Greaves. I said, Fuck!
JT: Yeah. So they thought I was Mclean Greaves. I did the interview and disguised my voice. The writer says meet with us. I go meet with the writer… I go with a wig and the kind of glasses that McLean wears. I use a faux accent. I’ve got the Crispus Attucks wig. So I say on the record, I am not McLean Greaves. I tell him, look, I’m doing you a favor. Don’t publish that I’m McLean Greaves.
ASK: But they published it anyway.
JT: And all hell breaks loose. They have to take that back. Because McLean tells everyone it’s not him. People were calling me every day and asking me, do you know who it is? I’m like, nope. I don’t know. A friend of mine called and said his boss at Time Warner asked him…
ASK: Any other close calls?
JT: UBO wanted to hire a hacker to break in to the urban expose site and find out who was running it. And guess who got the call?
ASK: No way. What happened?
JT: I don’t know. It fell through at the last minute.
ASK: What would have happened if they really went through with it?
JT: I would have put on my fake beard and got a check.
ASK: Did you like running the site? Can you honestly say you enjoyed it?
JT: It was fun. But it’s not the business I wanted to be in. Now, some of these sites are making some serious money.
ASK: I don’t ever remember seeing ads on the site…
JT: We didn’t have ads. We had the text ads that Google does now. Via PayPal you could buy an ad on the top of the site.
ASK: How much money did you make from urbanexpose?
JT: I made money, but I was anonymous so I couldn’t take advantage. But some of the companies I was covering…they were crashing so fast. I would go talk to them and tell them to buy the back end from urban expose. But that didn’t work. They were going out of business so fast.
ASK: How much could you have gotten for urbanexpose at its height?
JT: I was in talks for a million dollars.. But the sector crashed hard. For me, c’est la vie.
ASK: Your urbanexpose days are now firmly behind you. What are you up to now?
JT: Right now, I’m doing film. I’m doing television. Music videos. I did a feature, I direct stuff for Starz. I’m busy creating new stuff.
ASK: What websites are you going to on a daily basis?
JT: Facebook. And more Facebook. [laughter] I’m a big fan of Facebook.
ASK: Do you have hacking out of your system?
JT: Nah, I don’t have hacking out of my system. I’m pitching something right now called Hacketeer. It’s an ill adventure show. Kind of like 3-2-1 Contact mixed with MacGuyver. You can check it out at hacketeer.com. People seem to like it.
ASK: Can you still compete with young kids who are hacking into stuff today?
JT: Yeah, I can run with them. Why not? There’s different levels. Even Jordan on a bad day is still better than most. It’s like basketball. You can have a dude who is in good shape, he’s played all his life. But he’s not Jordan. He’s not Kobe. You either got it or you don’t.
ASK: Do you still consider yourself a hacker?
JT: You’re a hacker for life. Right now, I’m not interested in it. But if I needed to, I could train people or work for a detective agency. Hacker is a personality type. Computers haven’t changed that much. Yeah. I’d have to practice. But unfortunately, for the networks, it’s still TCP/IP. That came online in 1970. And its still the prevailing network.
ASK: Do people still hate you for what was said about them on urban expose?
JT: I run into some people who still want to fight me. I’m a big dude so that never materializes. There are people who will turn around and walk in the other direction if they see me, cross a busy street to avoid me.
ASK: Can you blame them? Some of the stuff on that site was really hurtful!
JT: Most of the hard hitting stuff came from the comments. Not the editorial content. But people can’t separate. And I know we still fostered the environment.
ASK: People’s lives were dissected on urbanexpose. Salaries were exposed. Folks were reading about their babies and wives and husbands. Your experiment hurt people.
JT: I feel bad about that. If anyone got hurt, that was not the purpose. The comments went crazy. For some people it was their first exposure to being online. They weren’t as savvy as we are now. I had a book written about me and the hacking thing and I didn’t like it. So I know what it feels like to be misrepresented…
ASK: Though I must say, I think people have much thicker skin today. With things like Facebook and twitter and the proliferation of blogs, we put ourselves out there much more.
JT: I look at sites like ConcreteLoop. The comments can get crazy. But still, it’s about celebrities.
ASK: If someone wanted you to start the site again, exactly the way it was…
JT: I get calls about that. But you can’t go back. It was fun. But that time has passed.
ASK: Thanks for sharing your story with me. I get it now. I see your motivation for the site. Very interesting stuff…
JT: I appreciate it. Thank you.
dear readers: were you up on urban expose? If you worked in the industry back in 2000, keep it real and tell me how often you were going on that site. Do you think a gossip site focused solely on urban media would have the same impact today? I’d love to hear from you…