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The Source, an independently-owned voice in hip-hop for more than 15 years, made news recently when it exposed, distributed, and reprinted the lyrics to an early Eminem recording replete with misogynistic phrases and racist slurs. A court battle ensued, pitting the magazine's owners against Eminem and his label, Interscope. Eminem eventually issued a formal apology for the lyrics, citing youth and anger, but ripples were felt throughout the rap community: Rival magazine XXL sided with Eminem, slamming Source founder and CEO Dave Mays and his colleagues with some vitriolic words of their own; the magazine suffered a backlash from advertisers who sided with the artist as well; and last week, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons stepped into the fray, praising Mays and his publication for their discussions on race issues and hip-hop culture. While it remains to be seen whether this incident was a Dixie Chicks moment of passion or merely a publicity stunt to boost Source enterprises, Dave Mays recently sat down with mediabistro.com in his Park Avenue South office to talk about how The Source is moving on.
Hometown: Washington, D.C.
Birthdate: January 24, 1969
First section of the Sunday Times: I don't read the Sunday Times as a habit. When I pick up the Times, I typically pick up the Business section.
The first time many people heard of The Source was a few months ago when the magazine made headlines for the battle with Eminem and his record label. How did the Eminem controversy come about?
Some kids from Detroit, white kids, drove here from Detroit and showed up at the office and said, "Hey, I got this tape of this guy from 10 years ago." He had these songs calling black people the n-word and black women bitches and calling black people porch monkeys and spear-chuckers—blatantly racist material. Our job is to put the info out. We're still in court with him—he's suing us in federal court for copyright infringement. We managed to defeat him in an early round and were able to put out a CD with our February issue. And I think once people got to read the magazine and listen to the CD and engage in a dialogue about it, the public now is very much in favor of The Source. We just put out a press release talking about readers' responses, talking about how The Source was right. I wouldn't say it's completely over, it's an ongoing issue. We'll see how it continues to play out. People have a short attention span. It made the news, it was controversial, and it got the word out about The Source. It made news worldwide.
Why does a magazine marketed in part to young, white, male hip-hop fans, decide to take on Eminem, one of the biggest artists out there?
That statement is a little misdirected. Eminem, I don't even know the guy. I have no personal issue with the guy. I'm white. I'm not out there telling white people you shouldn't be in hip-hop, but we need to respect the culture and the history that created this thing. Yeah, you can market with hip-hop but don't take advantage of it, don't exploit it, don't take black artists out of the picture. If you asked the average American today—"Do you know that rock was invented by black people?"—they would probably say you're crazy, Elvis created rock and roll. The whole history has been basically wiped out. The same thing happened with jazz—it went through the same process where it was co-opted and taken from the creators.
Radio station programming is operated by somebody sitting in an office somewhere in Colorado. And Eminem, while it may not be him doing this, he's the number-one tool that the music industry is using to cut out the black artists. It's not a natural commercial growth; in my opinion, it's a calculated plan. We've been speaking out about this, but we're speaking out about very powerful companies, like Interscope. He's a billion-dollar asset to them. The last thing they want is for this agenda to be exposed. So they work very hard to try to put The Source down, to discredit us, to make it seem like The Source is putting down this poor white rapper Eminem, he's just a guy who struggled from being poor. These are specious arguments.
There have been a number of articles lately about how hip-hop's main audience now is young white guys—stories about so-called "rap-surveillance" and the mainstreaming of hip-hop. What do you think of this?
I think those statistics on white audiences are misleading, and I have a problem with those stories. Hip-hop has been dominantly purchased by white males since the mid-'80s. White kids got into hip-hop like I did in 1979, when "Rappers' Delight" came out by the Sugar Hill Gang. I was a 5th grade kid in D.C., hearing the song on the radio, and I was running around the playground rapping the lyrics. I can remember that. And then you had Run-DMC when they collaborated with Aerosmith for "Walk this Way" in 1985. The point is that the white audience and consumer base has driven the growth of hip-hop for 20 years now, so it's no new finding to go out and start talking about this now. I am not sure why the media has tended to do that recently.
The majority of people today who write about hip-hop haven't been writing about it, don't understand it. They have to portray themselves as knowledgeable about it, as experts. That's one of my criticisms of the mainstream media: You can't assign people who have never dealt with hip-hop to write about it. The media has historically misreported on hip-hop and put a lot of stereotypes and misinformation out there to the masses.
How did you get from the lily-whitest part of northwest Washington, D.C., to starting a hip-hop magazine in Boston?
I went to Harvard as an undergrad coming out of public high school. My major was in government. When I got to Harvard as a freshman, I ended up deciding sort of on a whim to join the campus radio station and started a hip-hop radio show out of a dorm room in Cabot House. I was the host and also sold advertising for the show. The Source was kind of born out of that. Most of my listeners were kids in the Boston area, not Harvard students, and I started to build a mailing list of about 1,000 names and addresses. I started The Source as a one-page, Xeroxed newsletter. That was kind of the impetus. Hip-hop fans really were starving for information. This was 1988 and hip-hop had been around for about 10 years. There was literally no info for fans out there. No magazines covered it.
How did the other students react to your publication?
Well, I mean, I had a few friends at Harvard. And I got along with everybody, but once I got into the radio show and the music, it sort of drew me into the inner city of Boston. I could say I maybe didn't fit in as well with the average student there.
And after you left Boston?
I wrote a little bit, I did the design, I sold the ads, worked on the circulation. I did pretty much everything. It grew gradually for a couple of years. I stayed up there over the summers and kept working on it. It went from one page to four to eight to 16 pages—from a newsletter to a little booklet. I started to sell it for $1.25 at record stores around town. Sometime during that early phase I received a gift—a book on the history of Rolling Stone magazine. I didn't know who Jann Wenner was. I read the book, and I was like, "Wow. Here's this guy, this rock fan, who started this underground newspaper and turned it into the voice of his generation, this pop-culture success." I said that's going to be my model.
In the first 10 years or so of building the business, you could find Dave Mays holed up in his office every day all day, just hands-on doing everything it took to get the magazine out. I've gotten out a lot more, and I've begun to build more contacts and relationships. The Source is in the process of transforming from a magazine to a multimedia and merchandising company. The future of the company surrounds a series of media platforms that allows us to engage our advertisers in a multidimensional way. We've begun that process with the Source Awards; we are also delivering content through cell phones, developing CDs, DVDs. We're expanding both of those businesses. We're launching a fashion line, a toy business, Source-branded toys—the first one is an interactive computer device that allows you to record demos of rap songs and download beats and upload your demo up onto our website.
Hip-hop artists like Sean Combs and Russell Simmons are also very good at this sort of branding—moving from music into fashion, business, now politics. Why do you think this is such a successful formula, this fusion of hip-hop and business?
Hip-hop has been evolving and growing for the last 20 or 30 years. For the majority of that time, nobody paid attention to it. Only a handful of us—Dave Mays and Sean Combs and Russell Simmons—were there from the beginning. We know it like no one else knows it; we understand that better than anyone, and we've been able to build our brands because there's been no one competing for it. That's the transformation I've seen from an advertising standpoint. In '88, or '92, I couldn't call up a car company. Slowly, in the mid-'90s, we started to get sneakers and soft drink companies—companies targeting teens, black teens. All of the sudden, you hit around 2000 and 2001, you have this explosion and awakening of Madison Avenue and corporate America. Now everyone has done this 180-degree turn from paying no attention to being like, "Who's the hottest rapper? I've got to get into the middle of this."
The hip-hop generation is a very smart generation—these are very smart, entrepreneurial people. It's made young people want to become entrepreneurs because they've watched those guys and others build businesses from nothing.
You've had some very in-your-face stories and covers lately, including the March cover on rappers who are in prison. That, combined with the Eminem controversy, makes me think: Is the magazine being gratuitously provocative and confrontational in order to boost sales?
I never really thought of it like that. My mantra for the editorial content of The Source has always been information and a voice for people who don't have a voice in the media. I have always said we don't want to be the New York Post or the National Enquirer of hip-hop. We don't want to print rumors, innuendo, just controversial stuff to titillate and sell magazines. Now that hip-hop has become this big, mainstream, attention-getting thing, issues that The Source has dealt with since day one are becoming national issues. The issue on rappers in prison is an incredibly important cover that came out weeks before all this police profiling stuff that's in the news. The Source has been covering this stuff for a decade. You could say that's controversial, but we're doing it because it's a great story and it's of interest to our readers.
Sarah Horne is a news associate for CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown. She's also a New York freelance reporter for Us Weekly and has written on theatre and music for papermag.com.