In a recent Seattle Weekly pre-Grammy roundtable, one critic posed a question that was surely on many a music fan's mind: "How did Radiohead's Hail to the Thief fail to get nominated for Album of the Year?" His colleagues' response? "Hip-hop exists." That elegantly simple answer is fast becoming philosophy, as hip-hop reshapes the way we divvy up awards, the way we make music, the way we wear clothes, even the way we use words. Hip-hop has been flirting with the strangest of mainstream outlets for years now—most famously in 2000, when Nightline did a three-part investigation into this "new" cultural phenomenon—but this was the year it became such a juggernaut that even the traditionally staid Grammy voters were forced to sit up and take notice. This was the year, says Vibe magazine's editor-in-chief Mimi Valdes, that hip-hop became "undeniable."
Valdes, who started her career more than a decade ago at the urban music monthly and took over top editing duties from Emil Wilbekin in September 2003, should know. Vibe itself has become somewhat undeniable lately; in fact, the magazine's trajectory has been remarkably similar to the music it covers—its small but fiercely devoted fanbase has recently exploded. As circulation nears 1 million, it's become such a publishing force that it beat out The New Yorker to win a National Magazine Award for General Excellence in 2002. Valdes recently spoke to mediabistro.com about the love she has for her career, her magazine, and her music.
Birthdate: September 13, 1970
Hometown: New York City
First section of the Sunday Times: Sunday Styles
Take me through your career. You've been with Vibe since the beginning, and you were fresh out of college—how did you get your start there? Did you have any experience going into this?
None. I graduated from NYU with a degree in magazine journalism in the fall of '92, when Vibe put out that test issue. My interests were always music and fashion, so when I saw the magazine, I almost died. I was like, "I have to work here." Fortunately, just going to NYU and knowing people in the music industry, I found out in March that they'd gotten the go-ahead, and they were going to be looking for assistants. So just through contacts, I sent a cover letter and resume, and I got a call back. And then, over a month-and-a-half period, I interviewed with six different people. It was a long process.
But I ended up, in April of '93, working at Vibe, for the music editor as well as the person who did the "Start" section, Rob Kenner. From there, I got promoted to assistant editor and associate editor, and then I left Vibe to go work for a record company—the biggest mistake of my life. Hated that. That was maybe a year and a half I was gone, and I came back to Vibe as the style editor. When I was there, even though I'd worked in the music department, I still always contributed to fashion stuff. So I came back as style editor, and then Vibe started Blaze. I went to work at Blaze as the managing editor, and eventually got promoted to editor-in-chief there. When we closed Blaze down, I came back to Vibe as executive editor. But when you're executive editor, you're not doing a lot of writing and I kind of missed that. So I changed my position to editor-at-large, and that's when I was doing a whole bunch of cover stories—Alicia Keys, Beyoncé, Justin—into September. That's when I got promoted to editor-in-chief, when Emil got promoted to brand director.
Why do you say that the record company was the biggest mistake of your life?
I'm such a magazine head, and I love music. And when you go work for a label, you're only dealing with the artists on that label as opposed to when you're working at a magazine, you have access to everybody, you hear all the news, it's such a different thing. It just wasn't a good experience, and it made me realize how much I love working at a music magazine. I wanted to come back, and I was lucky that when Danyel Smith became editor-in-chief, she brought me back to the magazine.
So what are your responsibilities now?
Kind of everything. It's been a great ride for me, because I inherited a great staff. As editor-at-large, one of my responsibilities was helping Emil find talent to bring to the magazine. I was involved in all the interviewing, so most of those people, I had hired. You know when there's a new editor-in-chief, it's like, are people going to listen to you, going to respect you? There was none of that going on. But my daily responsibilities are just overseeing the vision of the magazine and making sure that all the editors of their respective sections bring that vision to life. They're very much involved, not just in the words—I also allow them to have say in the pictures, as well as who we put on the cover. I run the magazine kind of like a democracy. Everyone knows, for the most part, that I have the final decision, but I like to empower them, because I feel like the staff is so much our demographic, who we're trying to reach.
Music writing tends to really polarize readers—what do you think is the most controversial story you've written at Vibe?
I don't know if they're really controversial, but if I was going to be forced to pick one, it's probably the Justin Timberlake cover story that we did. Because that was a sort of debate: Here's this pop phenomenon, and even though he did do a very R&B album, does that mean he's cover worthy? But the way the story was written was that I put those questions out there. The story, instead of being like, "Oh, he's great," more was like, "OK, what's this white kid doing R&B—what's that about?" That was probably our most controversial because definitely people were surprised to see him on our cover. But it was a good move for Vibe in general, because even though we're seen as a black magazine or whatever, it's more about the music. And even though R&B and hip-hop is made predominantly by people of color, everybody can enjoy this music. As long as the music was good, we were cool to embrace it.
This crossover appeal was really evident at the Grammys this year, too. It was a huge year for hip-hop, but it's been a long time coming—what do you think was the turning point?
You know, everybody's talking about "Oh, there's so many hip-hop nominations," but it came in a year that it was just undeniable. They would have looked crazy if these people didn't get nominated because hip-hop had such an impact on the charts last year. But I don't have a lot of hope for the Grammys to ever really get it right. The fact that 50 Cent didn't get nominated for Record of the Year, when "In Da Club" was the most played record on the radio, and the fact that he didn't win any Grammy—I'm just appalled. I don't understand how you can have the biggest record of 2003 and not walk away with a Grammy. I hope that the Grammy people are embarrassed right now, wondering what happened, because that's crazy. Again, I was happy to see the nominations, but I also felt like "Eh, well, it was obvious. They had to."
Do you feel like this embrace of hip-hop by the mainstream has affected Vibe's readership?
Definitely. I mean, the magazine has grown so much. We're at 850,000 now, 11 years later, and we have fans that have been with us since day one, when the magazine industry thought we were a novelty and we were going to close within a year or two. But we also have all those other people that came to us as they discovered the music. I think that's what Vibe has always done well. Because we were there from day one and always believed in the music and its power, we always treated it with a lot of respect and a lot of love, and showcased these artists that weren't going to be showcased in Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone might embrace hip-hop a little bit more, but R&B isn't something that they necessarily embrace. I mean Mary J. Blige—she might have been on a group cover, but she's never had her own cover, which is mind-boggling. Or R. Kelly. These are major artists with major record sales and they still don't get the recognition at other places.
Hip-hop has been a little bit different because I think that's been the part of the music—the traditional rap or whatever—that has grown the most and seen the biggest attraction of fans. That's also what's made our magazine grow, because there have been more and more people that have discovered it and fallen in love and they're coming to us to read more about it.
OK. So if there are all these hip-hop fans out there, hungry to read about these artists, what do you think went wrong with Blaze, which was meant to deal strictly with hip-hop as opposed to all of urban culture?
The wrong business plan. Blaze got started because the people convinced the board that they could take The Source out within a year. Well, that was stupid. That was impossible, because in hip-hop, what matters the most is who was first. People take that very seriously. The Source wasn't something you were going to take out right away. So when the magazine first started under Jesse Washington, we basically did the same exact thing The Source did. The Source had Jay-Z, we put Jay-Z. The Source had Method Man, we put Method Man. And we couldn't get the big multi-platinum artists first, because who are they going to do? The new magazine or the established bible? So when I became editor-in-chief, I thought, "This is a sinking ship. The only way I can do this magazine is if I bring something new to the table." Basically I told them, "Look, that vision is not working. We can't do the same thing The Source is. We have to create something different so that people have a reason to pick up The Source and Blaze. We're going to put the next generation of platinum superstars on our cover." So my first cover was Ja Rule, and the second one was Eve—these were all people who were debuting with their first album.
We had success with it, but that wasn't the magazine the board got convinced to do. That was something that was going to build slow. What's funny is that we were actually selling more on the newsstands than Spin at the time, but they just decided, "You know what? This grassroots, growing it into something—we don't have time for this." Of course, all those people that we put on the cover went on to become huge superstars. It could have been great. I think that's where XXL comes in—they took off where we left off, they started putting those kinds of people on their covers, and they've had such a great success.
So where does Vibe go from here?
One of our biggest challenges is that now that hip-hop has gotten so big, we're not the only ones wanting to cover it. For the most part, because we've been there since day one and we've been following for so long, we have way more access than the other publications. But you have Rolling Stone that wants to dabble every now and then, and Time magazine doing stories about hip-hop's influence. The challenge is making sure we deliver new and exciting information, making sure we have information that no one else has, especially with the cover stories. I'm a big believer that your cover story sells your magazine, especially music magazines. Cover lines and all that other stuff, that's great, but people pick it up on the newsstand because they're interested in who's on the cover. So the staff and I really want to create that sense of urgency with our cover stories, that people feel like they have to read it. I think in the past, Vibe has been very traditional in how they chose cover subjects. It would be, "So-and-so has a new album coming out." Usually that's the surefire formula. But we're not afraid to shake it up a little bit.
And what about you? You said that right out of college, this was where you wanted to work—can you see yourself going anywhere else?
You know what, I'm having so much fun I didn't even think it was possible. I've seen all the editors-in-chief work at Vibe, and I've seen the good things they've done, and the bad things, and I just had no idea that it could be such an amazing, fun experience. So until it stops being fun, that's when I'll move on. But until then, they’re going to have to throw me out the window.
Jill Singer is the deputy editor of mediabistro.com.