Vibe: Hard to Let it Go

Vibe once nailed down the sweet spot between hip-hop swagger and Madison Avenue polish. But no longer needing to prove hip-hop’s worth to the broader audience, it morphed into a gooey valentine to hip-hop’s ghetto fabulousness.

I’ve done a fair bit of relocating over the past few years, and it’s not much fun at all. The temptation always exists to leave a bunch of long-forgotten, seldom-used crap by the side of the road, free to be taken on by some other serial acquirer of stuff. But there are three boxes, two of which have been sealed for at least a couple of years by now, that I can’t bear to part with, so much so that my wife doesn’t ask anymore why I’m still lugging them around.

They contain my complete run of Vibe magazine, dating all the way back to the September 1992 test issue. More than a decade’s worth of writing and photography about beats, phases, and fads, from new jack swing to hyphy -- it’s all there. From the tail end of hip-hop’s “golden era” to the onset of the digital era, if Vibe wrote about it I still have it in a box somewhere.

I don’t have a sentimental attachment to the magazine per se. My work has never been published in it, I never had to jump through hoops to pick up a copy, and as far as I know there’s no specific dollar value to the collection (although my eight-year run of Wired fetched a nice figure from a spirited eBay auction). But I hold on to them nonetheless, partly out of habit (“why stop now?”) and partly out of my collector’s instinct (“how could you stop now?”).

And I hold on to them because if I let them go, I’d be casting away a piece of black pop history.

Let’s consider the landscape when Vibe launched regular publication in the fall of 1993. Hip-hop music and fashion had finally established a toehold in mainstream youth culture. Rappers were taken seriously, both as recording artists who could move product and as spokespeople for the plight of urban youth. They’d been credited for shedding light on tensions that would erupt in the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and their offhand comments would be dragged into political campaigns. Will Smith and Queen Latifah, having parlayed their musical success into sitcom stardom, were gaining traction as film actors, catching up to Ice Cube and Ice-T. Rap had become diverse enough to sport stylistic differences based on geography, and established enough to lay claim to an “old school” of artists whose heyday predated the genre’s pop explosion.

This represented a different kind of crossover for black pop music into mainstream attention. Apart from sui generis artists like Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind and Fire, Michael Jackson and Prince, the representative heart of R&B, let alone the cutting edge, was rarely represented in the broader market. Instead safer, blander fare like Whitney Houston and Lionel Ritchie got the bulk of the crossover play. But by the early ‘90s, white kids had plugged into hip-hop’s representations of spirit, candor, and rebellion, and the culture’s audience, influence and market share grew exponentially. Naughty by Nature proclaimed hip-hop “the pop of today” in 1993’s “Hip-Hop Hooray”, having no idea that one day rap music would win Academy Awards.

But when hip-hop began to blow up, few mainstream media outlets were taking it seriously. Beyond Arsenio Hall’s 1989-94 syndicated talkfest, hip-hop artists were a novelty on late-night TV shows. Soul Train belonged to a previous generation that never much cared for rap, and treated the music accordingly. Spin was far better than Rolling Stone in its editorial coverage of hip hop, but that wasn’t saying very much. Folks knew better than to expect significant love from daily newspapers. MTV was late to the party, and entered only by sticking rap videos in their own little programming ghetto apart from the main rotation (back when, you might recall, they actually had a main rotation of videos). Before the launch of The Source in 1988, the most serious print coverage of contemporary black pop music may have come from the legendary Village Voice music section headed by Robert Christgau, and starring heavyweights like Greg Tate, Nelson George, and Carol Cooper. The Source grew from its zine-like roots to become the bible for the hardcore rap fan, but hip-hop music was rapidly becoming more than just rap, and no one was giving regular attention to the evolution.

Enter Vibe, a co-venture of music legend/mogul Quincy Jones and Time Warner, Inc. Vibe was groundbreaking on a number of levels. Never before had the full range of contemporary black pop, from Janet Jackson to Master P, been written up so earnestly, its trendsetters posed so stylishly, its music celebrated so unashamedly, on newsstands everywhere. The first few years of Vibe crackled with creative and editorial energy, profiling performers that no one else would touch. Mary J. Blige made her first cover appearance in 1995, when the pop world at-large had barely heard of her. TLC graced the November 1994 cover in fireman’s regalia; this after Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes had torched her dude’s crib. Usher (June/July 1998) and DMX (October 1998) posed topless, and one Toni Braxton cover (June/July 1997) was so revealing that a prison down South would not let an inmate receive his subscription copy, branding it closer to porn than pop. Vibe nailed down the sweet spot between hip-hop swagger and Madison Avenue polish.

The first regular issue ofVibe(October 1993) had Snoop Doggy Dogg on the cover (that was his name then), just about to blow up on his own after his contributions to Dr. Dre’s The Chronic (Death Row, 1992). He would appear regularly throughout the years, as would Sean Combs (both as Puff Daddy and P. Diddy), Jamie Foxx, Jay-Z, Brandy, R. Kelly and a host of others among hip-hop’s A-listers. And sadly, too, were covers devoted to the murders of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G.; it was alleged by some that Vibehelped fan the flames of the East Coast-West Coast rivalry that contributed to their murders.

Vibe underwent various leadership changes at the top, and names came and went from the bylines. But its feel never much deviated from the jump, and it never stopped celebrating all that was wonderful, bold, brassy and ultimately pop about hip-hop. As the culture became an established part of American life, so too did the magazine, winning a National Magazine Award for general excellence in 2002.

But by that time, the magazine had settled into a predictable rut of by-the-numbers writing and layout. The sense of excitement had left its pages, perhaps because its triumph was complete: hip-hop had become as American as Chevrolet commercials, its divas full-fledged fashionistas, its hits in rotation ad nauseum, all accomplished without any apparent watering down of product or attitude in order to reach the masses. It was no longer outsider culture, not with mass market companies adding aural and visual hop-hop signifiers to their ad campaigns. Vibe, no longer needing to prove hip-hop’s worth to the broader audience, morphed into a gooey valentine to hip-hop’s ghetto fabulousness. Thus did Vibe become a card-carrying, bling-following member of the entertainment-industrial complex, with reporting on serious issues affecting the hip-hop generation all but kicked to the curb in favor of the fluff and flackery of mainstream celebrity journalism.

Actually, I’d long since made my peace with that. As a 30-something parent when Vibe debuted, I was already on the outer edge of the target demographic. As time has marched on, I’ve gown even further away from the youth market, and my interests and attitudes have evolved accordingly. I’d still rather consume hip-hop than lots of other offerings, but I no longer feel the passionate identification with it that I did back in the day. I glommed onto Vibe because it validated a community of music and culture in which I was emotionally invested, a world that spoke to me, for me, and about me. But as I moved through the ‘90s and beyond, into various other roles and life stages, hip-hop lost some of that personal resonance for me, and Vibe became less a place to see reflections of myself and more a place to catch up on my music industry research.

And that’s exactly as it should be. As a magazine about youth culture, Vibe must continue to document the current and the new, for better or worse, and not get stuck in a time warp. If I don’t much care about the antics of The Game, if reigning R&B sexpots Ciara and Keyshia Cole are closer to my daughter’s age than mine, that’s of no concern to Vibe. There will always be young starry-eyed fans tearing out pictures of the Aaliyahs or 50 Cents of their day and taping them to their bedroom walls and school lockers, and like all repositories of youth pop culture, Vibe exists more for them than for jaded old farts like me. I still would love to see a magazine that reflected more of my black pop worldview than Vibe does, but I’m not mad at Vibe for not being what it was never meant to be.

But that doesn’t mean I’m going to let Vibe off the hook for not being all that it could be. A couple of weeks ago, its 150th issue blazed up my mailbox with a glittering picture of Blige on the cover, and felt thick and substantial in the way that anything billboarded “Special Collector’s Edition” ought to feel. But it may be the most vacuous issue they’ve ever done. Most magazines would have some special editorial treatment -- some essays looking back through the years, a major interview, or a deeply researched piece of journalism -- to mark a milestone. Instead, Vibe #150 gives us two pages of wet kisses to Blige, a two-page spread on founder Jones, photos from the archives, and that staple of lazy-minded publications, a bunch of lists. About the only eye-opening item was from its list of 150 crucial albums from the “Vibe era”: apparently, all of Public Enemy’s major work predates said era, which might be why not a single album of theirs is included.

Not that Vibe or most other entertainment magazines have ever been confused with, say, Harper’s or The Wilson Quarterly when it comes to the heft of their editorial content. But one would like to think that they could have found room for one decent article in an issue celebrating their longevity as a playa in the publishing game. Over the years, there have been issues of Vibe I consumed in little more than the time it took to ride a bus across town, but this one is more disappointing than any of those. This was the time when they really were supposed to trumpet hip-hop’s glory to the world (and by extension, of course, their own), yet they barely raised the horn to their lips.

And that’s a shame because, for all its foibles, Vibe has its share of good points to celebrate. It still performs a useful service by documenting the wide-ranging galaxy of hip-hop music and its offshoots. And it does so with a graphic flair that still stands out on the newsstands. Further, if journalism is the first draft of history, then these 14-plus years of mushy profiles, insightful reviews, industry dish, and occasionally brilliant writing amount to a de facto account of how hip-hop has made its coin in the American pop mainstream. Such a body of work will be a most useful resource for some researcher, student, or curious fan somewhere down the line. The company would do well to publish more anthologies from its archives. None of this would exist without a steadfast commitment to celebrating the whole of contemporary black pop music, and its tangents in film and fashion, with color and panache.

Somewhere on the planet, the next great rappers, singers and beatmakers are hard at work in their bedrooms, preparing to shock the world. Let’s hope that Vibe stays on its grind long enough to give them their first glossy photo shoots. More than that, let’s hope it lives up to the glorious visions of hip-hop it dared to dream in 1992 – music and culture as an expression of life – and rises above star-studded mediocrity. Let’s hope for a Vibe in which our future stars, and their future fans, could read something that actually lights a spark in their imaginations, minds and hearts.

As for me, I guess I care enough about hip-hop, and its backstory, to keep lugging those back issues of Vibe around -- for just a little bit longer.

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