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A Street Culture Icon On How His Kids Keep Him From Making Terrible Business Decisions

Since 1993, Marc Ecko has gone from being a scrappy New Jersey graffiti artist who made t-shirts to a street wear kingpin and the head of Complex, a huge media company that battles Vice for the title of “MTV For Millennials.” He’s been a youth culture guru for over 2 decades, so it’s ironic that some of his primary sources of information on what’s coming next live under his own roof. Despite a staff of the most connected 20-somethings in New York City, Ecko increasingly gets his take on the future of culture and media from his own kids: 2 daughters and a son, ages 12, 10, and 8.

How much do you influence your kids’ cultural tastes, and how much do they influence yours?
I grew up listening to hip hop and my passion is jazz, and my wife strictly listens to salsa and merengue, so our house is pretty mashed up and that resonates with the kids. No doubt, they influence and inspire me. It’s fun to watch them consume popular culture. For their generation, it’s not the broadcasts or the products but the user experiences and the technology. Anecdotally, it signals where things are going. It gives you a gut sense on a trend and it’s interesting to see what they react to and how that can inform some of your intelligence on the job.

It gives me a different view than my staff without kids. They can be stubborn about something, but they’re expressing their own narrow world view. That age range, from 21 to 30, pre-child, everything you say is gospel because you roll with the cool kids. Having a kid gives you humility; no matter what, things change and evolve and even someone who’s standing on the front line of a generation is just one marker in time.

Sounds like you’re speaking from experience.
Parenting frames a better understanding of that period of your life. Pre-kids, it’s hunter gatherer 101 — that’s nature, it’s how your designed in terms of obstinance and hubris. You can’t hate on it; it drives your independence. And age doesn’t necessarily soften you, but it becomes more refined and well tuned after you have a kid. You learn not to pull out that blade as recklessly as you do when you’re young. It’s a sword and helps you among your peers, defines you as a leader, but you learn not to wield it so recklessly.

Can you think of a time, pre-kid, when you maybe wielded that stubbornness recklessly?
I remember in 99, traveling abroad and getting inspired for the fall collection in 2000 — I got on this Matrix wave, this futuristic wave. I came back and took an insistent view with the direction of the line, that it should parrot all this shit I saw in Amsterdam and Paris. I didn’t keep that perspective of, hey, will this stuff appeal to my market? I fell in love with it and insisted it inform the product. It leapt things 3 or 4 years ahead aesthetically and the sales guys were like, “Are you sure?”

“It’s like in karate, learning a new move — Oh, shit, I’ve got the flying guillotine! I’m going to take off heads! But you burn everyone out on that move.”

We go to market and one of our buyers at a big retailer, a big stakeholder, I’ll never forget — he said, “It’s never too far down the road to turn back. If I buy this, your business is going to crater.” And I fought everyone. I was allowed to be that stubborn because I didn’t have kids. What was my risk? My obligations were different.

If that were to happen today, I’d have a more seasoned framework of how to get enthused without overly parroting something. It’s like in karate, learning a new move — Oh, shit, I’ve got the flying guillotine! I’m going to take off heads! But you burn everyone out on that move, versus having a repertoire of moves and keeping the new ones within the aesthetic of my own language and not over using it.

With Complex, you’ve done a good job staying ahead of the curve when it comes to media and youth culture. Given what you know about how it’s evolving and metastasizing, are your excited or terrified about the media world your kids will grow up in?
There’s nothing new under the sun. We’re so convinced that this is the most volatile time or the most tech-empowered. When motherf—kers weren’t going to school and they released the printing press, suddenly distributing the stuff that people were studying in the church, that changed the course of history. That’s some culturally disruptive shit. That’s the marker; these are all just new modalities — print, digital, the only distinction today is that everybody’s thoughts are vomited into the ecosystem and are searchable and discoverable.

The only thing I’m sensitive to is teaching my kids the notion of discretion, the notion of being empowered enough not to get caught up in the vomitorium of broadcasting every thought, which makes thoughts less meaningful. I understand, your friends are on the [Insta]gram, especially my daughter. That’s cool, but look at that — there’s something kinda powerful about being discrete. It makes the exchange of communication more meaningful. Don’t get caught up, parroting your friends, and know that, if you do, there are going to be repercussions, because that shit doesn’t go away. I use the word, “shit.” That shit doesn’t go away.

In 2008, you bought the ball Barry Bonds hit to break MLB’s all-time home run record for $752,467, had an asterisk etched into it, and then donated it to the Hall Of Fame. Have you explained that whole thing to your kids?
It hasn’t really come up, but they understand, philosophically, the idea of expressing themselves and speaking up. The Barry Bonds ball was a protest of intellectual dishonesty and cheating. I talk about this in my book, the ironic thing of intellectualizing that when I was going through a crazy period during the sale of my company in the mid 2000s — everybody was cheating. The financial system was cheating, even I was cheating. That became a metaphor. It wasn’t to indict Barry Bonds; when we laser etched the asterisk on the ball, I did it over Bud Selling’s name because, in my view, the owners and the commissioner didn’t know what was going on?

In fairness to Barry, it’s been interesting to watch so many other lauded athletes like Roger Clemens and Lance Armstrong — culturally, that’s not a good look. I recall when the Lance Armstrong thing was going down, my oldest asked me about it. I think they get the idea that cheating is not a good vibe.