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Hip-Hopped Up

What's that sound? Urban-music titles are raising the volume at the newsstand -- and agitating to become the "Rolling Stone" of the future.

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The most important story in the magazine industry this year isn't the war of the men's magazines but the continued explosion of ad pages, circulation, and newsstand sales in a genre that remains, even today, relatively unknown: the hip-hop magazine.

But even if the rise to prominence of The Source -- the standard bearer -- and its competitors has been neglected in some circles, plenty of readers and advertisers are taking notice. There are more hip-hop magazines than ever before, they're more popular than ever before, and they're bristling with more ads than ever before, indicating a belief on the part of mainstream advertisers that hip-hop can no longer be seen as a niche market.

This shouldn't come as a surprise. Hip-hop-album sales were up 32 percent in 1998; more than 80 million hip-hop records were sold. MTV's music programming looks more like BET's every day, while Lauryn Hill's sweep of the Grammy Awards (and her Time cover) testified to the mainstream critical acceptance of hip-hop. Now consider these numbers: For five straight Audit Bureau reporting periods, The Source has seen its paid subscriptions, its single-copy sales, and its total circulation take double-figure jumps. Every month, The Source sells more copies on the newsstands than any other music magazine -- a remarkable 350,000 copies. In 1998, its circulation was up 13 percent (topping 400,000) and its ad pages were up 31 percent, even as the industry as a whole saw ad pages rise just 2.6 percent. Vibe, meanwhile, whose ad pages went up 11 percent in 1998, saw circulation jump almost 20 percent, to 600,650, after a 16 percent rise the year before; after Rolling Stone (circulation 1.25 million), it's the most-read music magazine in America.

These numbers are especially impressive given the fact that the hip-hop-magazine landscape has become increasingly crowded. As in any market, success breeds competition as new players smell the opportunity for profit. The two most prominent entrants are Harris Publications' XXL, which debuted in August 1997 under the editorial leadership of ex-Source editors Reginald Dennis and James Bernard, and Blaze, which Vibe Ventures (a division of parent company Miller Publishing, which also owns Spin) launched in August 1998 as a direct competitor to The Source (neither XXL nor Blaze is audited). Blaze had a booming debut, racking up by some accounts the most first-issue ad pages of any music magazine in history (though it's always hard to know what to make of ad-page counts, since magazines often discount or give away pages in debut issues). XXL, meanwhile, which is now on its third editor, began with audacious ambitions -- claiming a target circulation of 500,000 -- but currently sells a hardly dazzling, though still respectable, 175,000 copies an issue.

Robert "Scoop" Jackson, 35, the new XXL editor, points out that launching a hip-hop title is difficult because in the competition for exclusive covers, XXL will always lose out to Vibe and The Source; though Blaze presumably has a slight advantage because of its Vibe connections, the start-up is rumored to be struggling financially. (The dismissal two weeks ago of the editor-in-chief, Jesse Washington, after he wrote an editorial in support of one of the accused murderers of Jonathan Levin, puts Blaze in an even shakier position.)

While The Source's rise to prominence is something of a Horatio Alger tale, Vibe's pedigree is rather more distinguished. It was launched in September 1993 as a joint venture between Quincy Jones and Time Inc., and its production values and aesthetic reflect its origins. Vibe's design echoes that of Rolling Stone, and, in a curious sense, so does its editorial mix; its breadth -- it meanders happily from R&B artists like Mariah Carey and mainstream rappers like Will Smith to underground giants like Silkk the Shocker -- certainly separates it from The Source and its imitators, which are strictly hip-hop-focused. At a time when hip-hop and R&B are pretty much the whole story in pop music, Vibe's range gives it, if not cultural authority, then at least a serious shot at becoming the definitive pop-music magazine -- a description that would have been unthinkable just three or four years ago.

It's not surprising, then, that in Vibe Ventures CEO Keith Clinkscales's conversation, Rolling Stone is a touchstone, both as a model and as a competitor. "We don't think of ourselves as a hip-hop or R&B magazine. Vibe is a music magazine, the way Rolling Stone is a music magazine," Clinkscales says. "Our goal is to be as important as if not more important than Rolling Stone. What we want to emulate is not just their music coverage but also everything else they do."

The irony, of course, is that what Vibe has explicitly not emulated is Rolling Stone's slow awakening to the fact that rock is no longer the real music story. Rolling Stone has tried much harder to devote serious attention to urban music -- nearly everyone I talked to mentioned its Puff Daddy cover three years ago as signaling a significant change -- but its institutional vision is still driven by rock. "Vibe literally exists because Rolling Stone did not really address urban music," Clinkscales says.

I find it hard to imagine that Vibe could have a bigger hip-hop fan editing its pages than Danyel Smith -- who calls hip-hop "the most amazing thing that happened ever" -- but it's certainly true that Vibe's vibe is a long way from being hard-core. As Smith, 33, puts it, "We write about hip-hop and R&B because our readers love both. People go out and boogie to Master P and they come home and make love to Toni Braxton. And some of us corny people actually listen to Jewel." That inclusiveness makes Vibe an easier sell to advertisers than its grittier competitors, and it improves the magazine's demographics. But it also makes Vibe a harder sell to younger readers, especially the ones who think listening to anything but Juvenile or the No Limit roster means you're a sellout.

Those are the readers who gravitate toward The Source (and Blaze and XXL and Rap Pages and a host of other small magazines). Since publisher David Mays founded the magazine in 1988 as a two-page newsletter, The Source has retained a strict focus on what it describes as "hip-hop music, culture, and politics," although the magazine's editorial voice has oscillated wildly over that decade. In the early nineties, under the aegis of Reginald Dennis and James Bernard (who later ended up at XXL), The Source had a harder political edge and a more highbrow critical sensibility. But in 1994, Dennis, Bernard, and four other staff members left the magazine after Mays substituted editorial pages about Almighty RSO, a rap group in which he had a financial stake, for ad pages, and in the wake of their departure, the magazine struggled to discover a new voice. It did so just in time for its core market to blow up.

"It really took us that year, 1995 to 1996, for the magazine to get back on its feet," says editor Selwyn Hinds, who's just 26. "And it took time to shift from being a guerrilla mom-and-pop operation to being a large magazine." Although rumors of The Source's impending sale are perpetual (even Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner has come courting), Mays insists that there are no plans to take in a major outside investor. And the fact that 85 percent of each month's circulation comes from newsstand sales is both a vestige of the days when the magazine couldn't afford to do mass mailings and a testament to the fact that its core readers are teenagers and young adults who are a little too noncommittal to fill out subscription cards.

Even today, reading The Source feels a little bit like reading dispatches from the underground. That's not so much because of the articles -- though there's something truly subversive about a popular magazine describing a DMX record as selling like "two-for-fives" (meaning two crack vials for $5) -- as because of the magazine's look and, above all, its advertising. The Source underwent a redesign last year, but it still has a slightly ragged feel. And though major advertisers now include DKNY, Calvin Klein, and Perry Ellis, they're flanked by page after page of ads for clothing lines that you won't find in Macy's and records that you're unlikely to hear even on Hot 97. As you flip the pages, you can almost hear the kids saying, "I've gotta buy that and that and that . . ."

"We're going to do our share of stories about celebrities, but we're never going to be a hip-hop InStyle," Hinds says. "I don't think there's any other magazine in our category that does so many political stories or that covers so much stuff that falls below the radar of the mainstream press." In fact, The Source's editorial mix, in all its confusion, is a faithful reflection of the chaotic blend of political radicalism, cultural nationalism, multicultural openness, and unapologetic capitalism that defines hip-hop today. A critique of police brutality and a heavy-handed eulogy for former Black Power advocate Stokely Carmichael are followed blithely by pieces on the hip-hop scene in Montreal, black fashion entrepreneurs, and a technology column that calls the Palm Pilot "a pretty hype piece of equipment." The most familiar complaint about The Source is that it's too gushy, and there is a fan-magazine quality to some of its profiles (thoughhow many glossy magazines can that not be said of?). But that may have more to do with how young The Source's writers are than with their stance toward the people they're covering. As Hinds points out, titles like The Source and XXL and Blaze have created opportunities for young writers -- especially young black and Latino writers -- that simply did not exist before.

"There's no way you can say that it's not different for us, because the chitlin circuit is kind of small," says Jackson, of XXL. "Because mainstream journalism still tends to look down on this kind of journalism, it's not going to be easy for people -- black people -- to leave here and move into other parts of the industry. Jonathan Van Meter and Alan Light former editors of Vibe, both white can leave Vibe and go to Time or other big magazines, but if Sheena Lester or Reginald Dennis do that, they're going to be pigeonholed."

Similar tensions pervade the relationship between these magazines and the broader hip-hop community. Although hip-hop has been a vibrant music genre for almost two decades, serious journalistic criticism remains a somewhat revolutionary concept, which is why The Source has been routinely lambasted from the stages of hip-hop clubs for the past decade. It also seems to be why Jesse Washington was involved in two well-publicized clashes with rappers in the past year. In the first, he and Wyclef Jean of the Fugees argued over a bad review of an album Jean produced. Washington claims that the producer pulled a gun to express his anger, but Jean denies it, and charges were never filed. In the second, Washington says Bad Boy producer Deric "D-Dot" Angelettie and three associates beat him badly over an article exposing Angelettie as a character named the Madd Rapper. Angelettie has been charged with assault.

The Washington incidents have lent themselves to a portrayal of hip-hop magazines in thrall to rappers who want every profile to be a puff piece. But while all of these magazines face pressures in terms of access to the industry they cover, the same is true of Vanity Fair or Esquire. You could see what happened to Washington as being on a continuum with companies' pulling advertising or P.R. agencies' cutting off access to their clients in reaction to what they perceive as unfair coverage -- just as it makes sense, as hip-hop starts to look more and more like mainstream American culture, to put Vibe and The Source on a continuum with more traditional culture bibles like Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone.


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