Beat-downs. Bad press. And big breakups. Hip-hop magazines, usually the subjects of glowing business stories, have been surfacing lately on the crime and gossip pages. Last week's resignation of Vibe Ventures president and CEO Keith Clinkscales caught seasoned media insiders -- and even some of his colleagues -- completely off guard. "It was a total surprise," says Bob Miller, CEO of Miller Publishing, the company that owns Vibe. "I didn't find out until Monday, when Keith showed up in my office in L.A. He said, 'I want to be you. I want to build my own media company.'"
Clinkscales, 35, began his Vibe tenure in 1993, when the title was co-owned by Time Inc. and Quincy Jones. The magazine was bought by Miller Publishing in 1996; the company added Spin to its stable in 1997 and launched hip-hop magazine Blaze in 1998.
Clinkscales would neither confirm nor deny rumors that he is buying hip-hop start-ups Honey and XXL from Harris Publications. "I'm in discussions with a lot of different magazines," he asserts, adding that his partner in his new venture will be departing Vibe associate publisher Len Burnett.
Clinkscales's reign at Vibe was not without controversy. Insiders maintain that he exerted undue influence. "I've never been at a magazine where the ad people had so much control over editorial content," says one source. Clinkscales counters, "I have a passion and a respect for the editorial product," but adds that "people sometimes like the suits to shut up and go away. I won't do that." Miller Publishing editorial director Gilbert Rogin acknowledges that "Keith had very strong opinions about the music we cover . . . but I don't think he put anyone on the cover."
Nonetheless, until recently, Vibe's editors-in-chief answered to both Rogin and Clinkscales, an arrangement Miller characterizes as placing editors under "two masters." In March, Miller consolidated all editorial authority under Rogin. "I realized that I had been putting editors in an awkward position," Miller admits. This decision effectively placed Clinkscales out of the loop, a move some regard as key to his resignation. "I might not have handled it the same way," Clinkscales says pointedly.
More problematic are allegations that Clinkscales brokered a hush-money settlement from Def Jam Recordings to Vibe editor-in-chief Danyel Smith after Foxy Brown, one of the label's artists, allegedly assaulted Smith in a restaurant in October. When asked whether money was involved in the deal, Clinkscales says only, "I will confirm that I arranged for a settlement." Smith, reached on vacation in the Bahamas, insists that "there has never been any agreement about me keeping quiet about anything."
Even in the sniping environment of magazine publishing, Clinkscales seemed to cultivate more than his fair share of enemies. "I've always suspected that Keith was the architect of my demise at Vibe," says Jonathan Van Meter, the magazine's first editor-in-chief. Another magazine insider holds Clinkscales responsible for turning Vibe into "a shallow industry publication."
Clinkscales's resignation is just the latest high-level exodus from Miller Publishing. Michael Hirschorn, editor-in-chief of Spin, was dismissed in January after the magazine posted lackluster 1998 sales numbers. In March, Jesse Washington, editor of Blaze, was fired after hiring Montoun Hart, the man acquitted of murdering Time Warner chief Gerald Levin's son Jonathan. (In a fax sent to music-industry offices, Washington claimed Clinkscales had approved Hart's employment.)
There are rumblings that Clinkscales's departure won't be the last. Bönz Malone, who will resign from his longtime post as Vibe's "consigliere" later this month, says that "there is a strong possibility of mutiny" at the magazine. "With the names that are now running things," he says ominously, "Vibe is doomed."