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Combat Jack Died at 53
On December 20, 2017, the hip-hop world lost a true pioneer when Reggie Ossé, known to many as Combat Jack, passed away after a brief battle with colon cancer. “I got hit with some real life shit,” he said via Twitter on October 23, adding that he was rushed to the hospital to undergo emergency surgery. For the next two months, Ossé documented his progress using the hashtag #CombatCancer, before the disease ultimately took his life.
When news of his passing spread, I was, like many, taken aback. I’d admired Ossé for many years, and the few exchanges we had left me invigorated and grateful for his platform. A former music attorney with clients that ranged from Nice & Smooth and Capone-N-Noriega to Diddy and Jay-Z, Ossé could never be described as unambitious. He co-wrote a book, held editorial positions at various media outlets, and remained a respected figure in hip-hop for decades for his many contributions.
But it wasn’t until 2010, after years of running a successful law practice that Ossé, burnt out from the demands of music industry politics, found his calling as host of The Combat Jack Show. Accompanied by a cast of colorful co-hosts and commentators, the podcast, one of the first of its kind, featured in-depth discussions with guests that include retired NYPD inspectors, rappers, filmmakers, and social activists. Ossé’s ability to consistently drive engaging conversations with some of the most influential personalities in media and entertainment was unrivaled.
It wasn’t just his being a professional multi-hyphenate that attracted people to him, though—and definitely not to me. More than that, Ossé was an infectious, positive light, a friend and devoted father of four. Which is why he was the first person I reached out to when I was writing a proposal in late 2015 for a book about hip-hop and fatherhood. To me, he encompassed what it means to be a rap dad.
Naturally, I was shocked when I got a response mere hours after sending him a private message on Twitter. “This sounds amazing,” he wrote after I briefly explained the project and my interest in talking to him about how he balanced professional ambition with the demands of fatherhood. “I’m down.” What followed were a series of enlightening conversations and email correspondence. He was astute and inquisitive. He asked me about my family; he complemented my work, which I was thrilled to learn he was familiar with. He was perfectly fine with opening up to a stranger about his joys and personal and professional challenges.
Ossé told me with pride that nothing took priority over family. “No guest, no event, no conference call, nothing. Being a father comes first,” he said. “I schedule everything else around that.” It was both refreshing and instructive to hear.
“Being a father comes first,” Ossé said. “I schedule everything else around that.”
This approach to work and life was evident in all that he did, he told me. It’s what guided his decisions, from the opportunities he pursued to the ones he passed on. But finding a healthy work-life balance is something that took years of trial and error, he said. Mistakes and oversights are simply par for the course when it comes to parenting. But as Ossé made very clear, he was built for this. And a lesser man might have easily gotten lost in the grind and lose sight of what they’ve built at home.
“My kids keep me fresh, man,”Ossé said. “They help me to see the world as a kid again. I grew up without my father around, so I knew from a young age that I didn’t want my future kids to experience what it felt like. But as a young father I was very insecure. I just didn’t have a blueprint for what a father should be.”
Despite having seen so many broken families around him as a kid growing up in Brooklyn, Ossé always knew he wanted to one day take on the challenge. “The image of raising a family is something that I wanted to push myself to do. And it’s taught me so much, and continues to do so,” he explained. “For one, I’ve learned the value of being selfless. To me, a good father understands selflessness, of being there no matter what he has going on. I make it a point to be available and to do my best to be a great advisor. At the same time, I have to trust my kids to go through experiences without me being overbearing. It’s up to them to find their own way.”
“It’s not always easy,” Ossé continued. “Trying to get them to open up regarding things they’re insecure about can be tough. But the joy of it all is like nothing else. I love watching these little people come out with their core personalities intact, and then seeing them grow to have adult conversations and develop into their own people.”
Ossé’s humility, and the energy he put into imparting knowledge to others, was exemplary.
In our last conversation, in early 2016, Ossé spoke at length about his frustration with the stereotypes that surround dads in hip-hop culture. Artists and entertainers in the urban sector have long been portrayed as less-than-capable caretakers. But, as Ossé said, statistics consistently prove otherwise, and so many men are putting in the work on a daily basis, present and involved.
Ossé spoke about fatherhood with such pride that I couldn’t help but be moved, and challenged to be a better one myself.
“I love being a rap dad,” he said as we wrapped up that final exchange. “A rap kid who grew up with the backdrop of hip-hop and rap, became a man, and now shares that experience with his children.”
From one rap dad to another: Thank you, Reggie.