Many of you may have been too young to remember the days when The Source truly was the bible of Hip Hop, I look at those days as fondly for the magazine as I do the music. Reginald C. Dennis was the music editor in those days; those days when Dre didn’t get 5 mics for The Chronic; those days when Nas did get 5 for Illmatic; those days when you didn’t need to be a multi-platinum rapper to get coverage. In his four years at The Source, Reginald saw the magazine go from the bottom to the top, but left after Dave Mays and Ray Benzino created an environment that could not be tolerated. For the first time in the 11 years since he left the magazine, Reginald C. Dennis tells all the tales. “Everything you are about to read is something that I’ve seen, heard, or know. It’s all opinion, of course, but as you’ll see, my positions are highly informed. You can hate it or love it.”
This is a three part in-depth look at everything that went on behind the scenes at The Source magazine, during the early 90’s. Told by Reginald C. Dennis through the amazing penmanship of staff writer J-23. If you just landed here make sure you also check out Part 2: Benzino’s Hostile Takeover and Part 3: Mays, Benzino, and a Gun to get the full story.
“Growing up in Harlem during the 70s, I pretty much had a ringside seat to the birth of Hip Hop. I lived in the Polo Grounds Projects, right across the street from Rucker Park and spent a lot of my childhood doing what I could to participate in the ongoing cultural narrative that was everyday Harlem life. By 1979 I was already well versed in the areas of emceeing and graffiti, but it was “Rapper’s Delight” that pretty much galvanized my generation and inspired me to step up my participation. I got my hands on every mixtape that I could beg, borrow or steal: Grandmaster Caz, Theodore, Busy Bee � I couldn’t get enough.”
Like many in the early generation of Hip Hop, Reginald found his place within the culture, “I was always pretty nice in my art classes and was an avid collector of comic books, so when the graffiti bug finally bit I knew that I’d found my place. From 1980 to 1984 my entire life revolved around graffiti.” With his complete obsession with Hip Hop culture he enrolled in Rutgers University and double majored in English and Africana studies. Things changed for him at Rutgers, “I got involved with campus politics and in the spirit of various anti-Apartheid movements I became quite militant and spent a lot of time being angry at the world. Back home in Harlem, many of my friends started getting caught up in the streets. Crack, guns and fast money was what it was all about and we all wondered what, if anything, we were going to do with our lives.”
In 1988 he discovered a record store called Varsity Records, owned and operated by a man named Bill Moss. It was there he discovered a whole new side of Hip Hop. “I began uncovering hundreds of rap records that I had never heard of. Too Short, NWA, The Ghetto Boys, 2 Live Crew � I didn’t know who these people were, but once I started listening I couldn’t get enough.” One day Bill handed him a magazine that he had received in the mail, and asked him to read it over to see if it was worth stocking. That magazine was The Source, and according to Reginald, “I am not exaggerating when I say that in that moment the course of my life was forever altered. This was the first time that a magazine ever spoke to me in a meaningful way. I had read a lot of good writing on Hip Hop � I was always looking through the Village Voice and Spin � and sometimes even Word Up and Fresh � but The Source was the only place where the music and culture were being discussed in the proper context and with the proper enthusiasm. And it just got better. I started with the third issue and never missed a beat. The Too Short/NWA cover, the Malcolm X issue, the “Decade of Rap” � it was as if I’d been spending my entire life waiting to read something like this, and somewhere in the back of my mind I began to wonder how I might become a part of it.”
It just so happened that in the spring of 1990, months before he was to graduate, he saw a job ad in the back of The Source. To that point, his only writing clip was a venomous rant that he’d sent to the editor of a campus paper for a negative review given to Public Enemy‘s Fear of a Black Planet. It was published on page one of the next edition and immediately became the talk of the campus, even leading to the editor receiving a few anonymous death threats. “It was my first inkling that my writing could bring out an emotional response from people, and I kind of dug it.”
A few days after sending all his info in, he got a call from Jon Shecter, the editor-in-chief and co-founder/owner of the magazine. “I met with Jon and immediately connected with him. He seemed impressed by my knowledge of Hip Hop and invited me to fall by later in the week to meet some of the other staffers. I did so and met cats like Dave Mays, Matty C and Reef for the first time. They were all busy working on the latest issue and deciding what music was going to be included in a summer preview section. We chopped it up and everything seemed to be cool. I was just trying to soak up as much as possible. It was a really cool atmosphere and I was definitely hoping to be a part of it. About a week later I was invited back. It was during that trip that I first met Ed Young. He was the third partner and the first Black person that I had met at The Source�but since I was trying to get a gig on the editorial side I had to focus on making a good impression on Jon and Reef.”
Unfortunately for Reginald, he didn’t get the editorial position. But that didn’t mean he didn’t stick around, “I did all of the work that no one else wanted to do. I shucked and jived and skinned and grinned. I ran errands. I made deliveries. I inputted 10,000 subscriptions into the Macintosh. I helped the art director, Erik Council, with lay out and post up. I tried to anticipate problems and be there to help solve them. I still continued to snag as many writing assignments as I could and slowly built my self up in the eyes of the editors. I was making progress, but it was slow and the only real opportunities seemed to be on the business side so when the Director of Retail Sales decided to leave the magazine, I was offered his position and happily accepted it.” He continues, “In the early 90s there was little confidence in the Hip Hop audience. We didn’t count. Distributors believed that our audience didn’t read and that a Hip Hop magazine would never be successful. Around this time Dave Mays decided to publish a supplement to The Source, which was creatively called The Source Supplement. Strictly for the industry, it was basically a collection of sales charts. I would call all of my retail accounts and get the top five rap sales from them. I would also contact regional video shows and ask what the most requested videos were. We did about two or three issues of the supplement and were astonished to learn that the most popular records in the country were not by the likes of Main Source and Brand Nubian but rather DJ Quik and MC Breed and the DFC. I was like ‘whoa, there is a whole different country out here that is not being reflected in the pages of The Source.’ So I started to step up my writing game, hoping that I could one day break into the editorial side and nudge the coverage so it spoke to a larger selection of the country.”
Soon enough Ed Young secured The Source‘s first national newsstand distribution deal, and the current music editor announced his plans to leave. “The search was on for a suitable replacement. ‘The Record Report’ section was easily the magazine’s most popular – before the ‘mic’ icons were conceived of, albums were awarded a series of exploding records � and there were plans to revamp the section. I thought that I would be the perfect person to take over the job and patiently waited for the editors to approach me. They approached me all right, but only to ask me if I knew anyone who might be interested in taking the job! I was like, ‘what the fuck?’ So I threw my hat into the ring and announced to anyone who would listen my intention to become the first full time Music Editor of The Source. Because of my retail work I had a good idea of what was happening around the country and knew that there was a lot of good music out there that needed to be exposed by The Source. Plus, I just plain felt that I had a better feel for this stuff than everybody else. I told Dave Mays and he literally gave me one of those – ‘Music Editor? You?’ – kinds of looks. He clearly didn’t think I was up to the job. Fortunately David Watkins, Chris Wilder and James Bernard (a Source co-owner) disagreed and put pressure on Dave and Jon to give me the nod. Chris definitely felt that the more Black people on the editorial side the better and I totally agreed with him.”
HipHopDX: 1990 to 1994 was the zenith of The Source. The reputation of “the bible” was developed in those years. Being the music editor controlling such gospel, wouldn’t that make you god of hip-hop journalism?
Reginald Dennis: Well, that’s obviously not my call to make, but for a couple of years there we did exert an enormous amount of influence on this industry and much of what we did was indeed historic. But in those days, because we were all so young and so busy laying the foundations for this particular industry, there was really not a lot of time to put ourselves upon any kinds of pedestals or really look too far beyond the moment. Believe me, in terms of the media, we were nowhere near the top of the food chain. Every day life was often difficult. We were working ridiculously long hours, spending 100 degree summer afternoons in offices with no air conditioning and basically trying to hold all of this together without the benefit of any real adult supervision. The only thing that kept us going was our youth our competitive drive and our boundless energy. We all felt that this could be the start of something memorable, but once we stepped out of our comfort zones we realized that no one gave a rat’s ass what we were doing. But inside our little world, yeah, we were running shit.
DX: At the time, did you recognize the influence that you and your staff had?
RD: Within the confines of Hip Hop – of course! But much of it came from being in the right place at the right time. There was so much going on in the world that affected us, but there really weren’t many places where we could have our say. Let’s just take rap music for an example. When Ice Cube left NWA, the first I’d heard of it was in his interview in The Source. This was a pretty big news story, but since it wasn’t a mainstream story, it wasn’t really a story at all. Today if The Game leaves G-Unit for a week there is 24-hour coverage. But back then, it was felt that if The Source didn’t cover certain things, then perhaps no one else would either. So that was the biggest influence the magazine had. We were in a position to sell water to people who were dying of thirst in the dessert. The circulation was low in those days, maybe 40,000 copies printed. If you weren’t at the record store when it arrived then maybe you didn’t get a copy that month. There were riots in prisons all across the country because inmates were literally fighting over copies of the magazine. There were fistfights in record stores when cats simultaneously tried to grab the last copy on the rack.
In many instances we were the only link people had to this kindred community we all seemed to be searching for. We were so much more than a music magazine to our readers. I remember coming in to the office early one morning and taking a phone call from a distraught reader who had just watched the Rodney King beating on the news and wanted to know how we were going to cover it. He needed to be reassured that The Source would have something to say about the situation. During the first Gulf War I got a letter from a female soldier stationed in Saudi Arabia requesting her subscription be forwarded to her wartime address. She wrote that even though her unit was preparing to roll into Kuwait they very much needed to know the latest Hip Hop developments. I forwarded her subscription and did her one better – I mailed her a box of 100 copies of the latest issue so they could be distributed around the base. A few weeks later I received a package of my own, a thank you note and a small container of Saudi Arabian sand.
In a short period of time we were able to build up an enormous amount of good will, but for me it wasn’t about celebrity access or perks. It was about being able to connect with people all over the country. It was like suddenly finding yourself surrounded by thousands of long lost family members, folks who understood exactly where you were coming from – your tribe. We were simply the conduits for this energy. We were the staging ground.
The most fascinating part about the early days was how so much of it was built by simple word of mouth. Retailers would hook up their most influential tastemakers with the magazine just like sneaker companies would make sure that local drug dealers were the first to have the latest gear. We had a direct line to the streets and the streets had a direct line to us. Our regional reporters and college reps kept us connected to everything that was going on outside of NYC. The Source van was allowed entry into some of the most troubled areas of the country and we never had a problem. We were as safe on the road as we were at home. People � and I’m talking complete strangers here � went out of their way to take care of us. The Source logo meant you could have an all access pass to everything. Our circulation might have been below 50,000 copies, but our readers had a cultural influence vastly disproportionate to their numbers. And truth be told, it was that initial block of readers that held the most influence over the culture. They called the shots and we did our best to listen.
DX: Would you say that is a major problem with the hip-hop industry today? That they dictate the direction now, rather than listen?
RD: One of many problems, I’m afraid. The industry is all about the hard sell and they make no secret of it. This youth market � the largest ever � will be the name of the game for the foreseeable future and with hip-hop already established as the world’s most effective delivery system, young consumers are about to be taken for a ride the likes of which we have never seen. But it’s not their fault, because until you are old enough to develop some semblance of critical reasoning, you will fall prey to every bright, shiny object that comes along. The industry is in the middle of the perfect storm and they plan to stay awhile. They are no longer compelled to listen to our wishes, and as consumers we don’t do nearly enough to voice our displeasure at the way things are going. So we get what we get.
How did this sad state of affairs come to pass? One word: laziness. Instead of going out in the wilderness and finding interesting things to expose, most industry shot callers and gatekeepers just sat back and let things come to them. Now, they still have to sift through a lot of garbage in order to find whatever gems might be lurking about, but what tends to happen is that people all over the country are sifting through the exact same piles of junk and simply selecting and serving up the best of the worst. And if the consumer has no objection � which very few 13-year-olds will – and older heads who might raise the alarm have been long pushed to the sidelines, then junk becomes the standard and the industry makes sure that its junk is attractively packaged and ready for replication and distribution.
This is why so many of the magazines are the same. If the same publicist sends out the same press package to everyone under the sun, and if five people bite, then you’ve got five magazines running the exact same story. If a radio format works in Seattle and Atlanta, then it will probably work in Chicago, Miami and New York. And if these institutions are profitable, then there won’t be any pressure or need for them to reinvent themselves. And this is the rut in which we find ourselves today. Back in the day, when the industry � or “machine” as brother Zino calls it � was still ramping up to speed, it had no choice but to follow the culture – which is why Hip Hop always seemed able to reinvent itself every eight months or so, and stay ten steps ahead of stagnation. The culture had an elasticity that we all took for granted and assumed would last forever. But the industry � and remember: the industry employs thousands of people whose only goal in life is to refine a successful approach until it becomes an irresistible force � is like the Borg from Star Trek: it will consume; it will adapt; and ultimately, it will set an agenda that serves only itself. It took about 20 years, but Hip Hop is now safely in pocket and it hurts my heart to see it come to this. McDonald‘s is already paying rappers to name check hamburgers. Can it get any worse?
DX: Any albums you regret not giving the coveted 5 mic rating?
RD: Ok, we need a bit of context before I jump into this one. Awarding records 5 mics � classic status � has always been, on some levels, troubling to me. I mean, we are not only saying that a particular piece of music is superior to everything that is out now, but it will be better than most things released in the future as well. So we are being asked to be predictors of the future. But let me give you a little more context before I get too deep into it.
The Source started rolling in 1988, well after all the rules and sensibilities determining what was good and bad in hip-hop had already been established. I’d have to check my magazines to be sure, but if I recall correctly, The Source didn’t start really reviewing records until 1989 and those early reviews were not governed by any kind of rating system. You just read the review of, I dunno, Steady B, and either agreed or disagreed with it. By 1990 there was a five point rating system in place (but instead of mics, the governing icon was a series of exploding records). Art director Erik Council changed all that and so we began to rate with mics, and our five-point rating system mirrored what was seen in Rolling Stone and other places with a “1” being garbage and a “5” being a classic. So, from 1990 on we had things under control as far as the ratings went. But the problems was – and it didn’t seem like a problem early on – was what to do with all of the influential albums that had come out before the mic system had been conceived? I’m talking about the records that we compared all others to; the stuff that was never officially reviewed in the context of The Source‘s 5 mic system, but nevertheless became our cultural gold standard. And it’s a pretty long list when you come to think about it. Let’s take a look at but a small sample of records not rated by The Source. (And yeah, I know that the magazine has practiced some revisionist history of late, but it’s easier to call those shots 20 years after the fact.) Raising Hell, Paid in Full, Criminal Minded, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, Critical Beatdown, It Takes a Nation of Millions, Straight Outta Compton, Long Live The Kane, Three Feet High And Rising� Without these records there probably wouldn’t have ever been a need for Hip Hop journalism and there certainly would never have been a Source had it not been for them, so to give records like Brand Nubian and A Tribe Called Quest five mics without ever having rated many of what I consider to be some of the greatest records of all time always made me feel a bit uneasy. But in 1991 it was obvious to anyone reading The Source or making records or writing reviews that everything was being compared to and judged by a standard that was felt and acknowledged by all but documented by none.
Now, with that bit of back-story out of the way, I’ll answer your question about record albums I regret not giving 5 mics. The answer is both yes and no. See, when I took over as music editor, one of the first things I did was put a moratorium on awarding albums 5 mics. My reasons were the following: I believed then � as I do now – that a piece of art can only achieve classic status in retrospect. How can you expect someone to receive an advance cassette of an album on a Thursday, listen to it and complete the review by the following Monday and be 100% confident that this particular record is not only better than everything out now, but will have a cultural impact that will loom over everything to come in the future? I mean that’s what we are really asking. And back in the day you were lucky if you had three days to make that kind of determination (Nowadays I think you are only allowed to listen to albums a few times in a label conference room while you busily scribble notes about what you are feeling. So the process seems to have gotten noticeably worse).
And what about records that are amazingly dope, but will probably not have any sort of enduring cultural resonance? Do you give them 5 mics? I mean, I like TI but I’m not prepared to put him up there with Eric B & Rakim, y’know. Scarface had a record out a few years ago that damn near had me doing back flips, but can’t even remember the album’s title today or recite any song lyrics. I think that record got 5 mics, but was it a situation of that record being the best thing out in a watered down, mediocre field, or did they truly believe that this was a record that folks would still be talking about 20 years from now? That’s the dilemma: temporary dopeness versus enduring dopeness. And a lot of people, in the initial excitement of being one of the first people on the planet to hear a dope record, get caught up in the moment and lose sight of what they are supposed to be doing.
In 1992 we gave Dr. Dre‘s The Chronic 4.5 mics. Had I the opportunity to press reset, I would have given it a 5. Here’s the story:
We got the advance of the album in October of 1992 and it immediately became an office favorite. And our version was a little better than the one everyone else got to hear because we had the joint that was sequenced differently, had different song arrangements and in some instances, different lyrics. It was all good. In fact it was too good – and I didn’t want to let the album out of my sight, so I decided that it would be reviewed totally in house, meaning that a fellow Source editor would handle the task (I didn’t want to risk the tape coming up missing, which was always a concern if you were mailing things out of state for review or dealing with Hip Hop writers who, due to their weed habits, tended to misplace things or drop the critical ball from time to time).
So my man Matty C, fellow editor and the king of Unsigned Hype, did the do, and he gave it 4.5 – he thought “Lil’ Ghetto Boy” was the weak link in the chain – and that was that. I was firm on my “no 5’s” rule and that was also that. If you check the actual review, you’ll see that the byline is attributed to “TMS” (The Mind Squad) – which, for those that don’t know, was how we handled things that were done by group effort or committee. I can’t remember why we didn’t use Matt‘s name, but it couldn’t have been because of anything too serious.
Anyway, no one could have predicted the seismic shift that this album would produce. And it wasn’t like there was anyone on staff jumping up and demanding that this record be a 5. We sent the review off to the printer around the time “Nuthin But A G Thang” started to catch fire and we could all tell that the landscape was about to change. By the time the magazine went on sale the streets had declared that this album � an album that many folks had still yet to hear � (remember: one of the reasons why folks read The Source was because were getting the music first and regularly reviewing important albums two months before they hit the racks) � was going to be a classic. And to tell you the truth, we all knew it as well.
I remember going to the video shoot for Naughty By Nature‘s “Hip Hop Hooray.” It was being filmed in a studio just off Astor Place in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. I had the advance of The Chronic in my pocket the whole day. (I didn’t let that tape out of my sight for a second.) I watched Treach and Spike Lee do their thing for most of the afternoon, and if you’ll remember the video, much of it included footage of huge crowd scenes, which were being filmed that afternoon. So there were a lot of people around, maybe a couple of thousand all total; both inside the venue where the video was being shot and outside milling in the street and blocking traffic. You’ll also recall that that the video featured many Hip Hop guest stars, like Eazy-E and Run-D.M.C, who were also hanging out for their cameos. And because Naughty was so popular and because Spike was a celebrity director the video set became a news event and word began to spread that this was the place to be. It wasn’t long before The Source van arrived on the scene. And when I spotted it I came down stairs kicked it with my peeps. Well, since I had the Dre tape on me, and since the van had a ridiculous sound system, and since we had a huge crowd to play to� I put the tape in the deck and turned shit up full blast to get everyone’s attention and drown out the endless loop of Naughty‘s constant “heeeeey, hooooo” chant. Well, the whole block literally stopped whatever they were doing and converged on the van in order to get a better listen. People were astonished by what they were hearing and began to pepper us with endless questions about the album. It was quite a moment. And when Nate Dogg came in with the “You picked the wrong mutha-fuckin’ dayeeeee�” part, I thought I was going to see people’s heads explode. Fab 5 Freddy actually climbed in the van and damn near put his head on the speakers. It was unreal. So yeah we knew early on that this was going to be the shit. The streets had spoken.
But I was trying to close the barn door after the horse had already escaped, and didn’t allow any flexibility for the possibility that we would encounter something that could be considered an instant classic. I set the ceiling at 4.5; it happened on my watch and I take full responsibility for the error.
Not giving The Chronic 5 mics did two things. One, it increased the level of background talk that The Source was biased against the West Coast. And two, it made getting 5 mics in The Source all the more desirable. In 1992, The Source was still the law of the land and people tended to go along with it. So, if The Chronic wasn’t worthy of 5 mics, then what was? It also elevated the historic status and overall value of the half dozen or so records that had received 5s in the past. By not getting 5 mics, The Chronic did more to elevate the status of the 5 mic club than any record that had previously received the award. It was the event that cemented the mics as Hip Hop’s governing standard.
Now I can talk your ears off about how, in terms of musical innovation and sheer cultural audacity, I believe that NWA‘s Niggaz4Life was Dr. Dre‘s true quantum leap. The Chronic is dope and deserves every accolade it has ever received, but the sudden jump between Straight Outta Compton and Niggaz4Life is a heart stopper. Yeah, by that point we’d all been following the evolution of Dre‘s sound with the likes of The DOC and Above The Law and the 100 Miles and Runnin’ EP, but those first three songs on Niggaz4Life were unlike anything we had ever heard before. Just startling. And as masterful as The Chronic was, nothing on it � with the possible exception of Bitches Ain’t Shit – ever hit me in quite the same way.
The other record that probably should have gotten a 5 was the debut album from OutKast, but I’ll touch on that when I get to all of the Benzino stuff.
DX: Any albums you regret giving 5 mics?
RD: I only gave one 5 under my watch and it went to Nas‘s Illmatic. It was the only time I ever broke the no 5 rule. Jon Shecter had gotten his hands on the album like eight months before it was scheduled to drop. And just like I was with The Chronic a few months earlier, Jon didn’t let the tape out of his sight. Not only that, but he constantly raved about it. Everyday. He played it in the office about a million times and very early on began to lobby for this record to receive 5 mics. Now I was cool with Nas and had been a fan since Live At The BBQ, but I wasn’t really stressing his album. It wasn’t coming out for at least half a year and I had other shit to do. But Jon couldn’t wait. And he began to micromanage everything concerning Nas‘s coverage in The Source. He’d be like, “so who are you thinking about getting to review this album? This is going to be an important release and we can’t give it to just anybody, and I think I should be in on that decision.” I told Jon that we’d work all of that stuff out when it was time to review the album. But everyday, Jon was like, “yo, this album is 5 mics – seriously, Reg, 5 mics.”
Eventually he got on my last nerve and by the time I’d finally gotten a chance to listen to the album (remember: he wouldn’t let anyone borrow the record to check it out, so it was impossible for me to see if I would have liked it or not) lo and behold, I didn’t like it. And it was all because of Jon‘s constant badgering! So when it came time to review the album, I decided that because my opinion had been tainted, I would sort of step back and let whatever Jon and the reviewer decided be the rating that the album got. So Minya Oh (then writing as Shorty, but now known to millions as Miss Info) did her thing and gave it 5 mics. I was happy, Jon was happy, Nas was happy, everybody was happy – except for all of the people who felt that The Chronic should have also gotten a 5. I’m just happy that Illmatic is universally acclaimed as a classic, so no one can accuse me of dropping the ball. But really, Jon Shecter made that call from the jump and he deserves all of the credit for his foresight. And if I hadn’t gone through what I did with The Chronic, I wouldn’t have had the flexibility to allow for the bending of my policy. So I think it all worked out well.
DX: Going back 10 plus years, is there any album that blew you away like no other?
RD: Back then there were so many good albums that it’s really hard to narrow it down to just one. But I will say that Jay-Z‘s Reasonable Doubt will always have a special place in my heart. I’d known of Jay from his appearances with Jaz-O, but it wasn’t until I heard the single, “Dead Presidents,” that I felt that this artist was going to make a huge major impact. And when the album dropped in ’96, I was about as far out of hip-hop as I had ever been in my entire life, and I really credit Reasonable Doubt as the event that really motivated me to get back into the game. I remember going to the HMV on 86th and Lexington on the day the album dropped and buying one of the four copies they had on display. I later checked the Soundscan for that week and was stunned to learn that the album had only sold maybe 25,000 units during its debut. I was kinda pissed off that an album of this magnitude really wasn’t getting a push in the press or setting sales records. And I remember waiting for a loooong time before reading Jigga‘s Darrell Dawsey penned cover story in Rap Pages. I wasn’t reading any Hip Hop mags at the time, but I made an exception for Jay. Why The Source and Vibe were sleeping I don’t know, but when I launched XXL a year later I made sure that Jay-Z was on the first cover. It was only right.
DX: So would it be fair to say Jay is largely responsible for XXL existing?
RD: Well, I’m sure Harris Publications would have eventually put out a magazine called XXL no matter who the editor happened to be, but had Jay-Z not been able to articulate the things he did, I certainly wouldn’t have been inspired to go that extra mile and create the magazine that I did. I mean, Reasonable Doubt and the original 12-inch version of Dead Presidents was Hip Hop for grown ups; Grown man stuff, responsibility, living with regrets and facing the consequences of your actions. It was about depth, subtlety and layers, and I knew that my next magazine would have to embody those qualities. It was time to grow up. But at the same time I wanted to put something out there that was bold, arrogant and would catch your eye, so I just went back to my own personal experience and tried to apply it as best I could. Back in 1984 I would go miles out of my way to find a newsstand that sold The Robb Report and after listening to Jay‘s music I got the sense that he might have done the same. If a magazine is to live up to the name XXL, then it has to be larger than life in every aspect, and Jay was well on his way to being that. He was the template. He opened the door that we pushed the magazine through.
I should also point out that Biggie was the other inspiration for XXL. I knew him from the Unsigned Hype days and there was a level of mutual respect. (Big personally requested that I review Ready To Die, but I had to turn him down � I didn’t need that kind of pressure). Fast-forward a few years and Biggie graces the cover of the preview issue of XXL � a 24-page give-a-way that we cooked up to generate excitement and let cats know that we were back in the game in a real way. I had plans to make Biggie an ongoing presence in the book, but unfortunately he was gunned down two days after we got the preview issue back from the printer. Big was XXL in words and deeds and it was important to me that we get his blessing. We managed to FedEx a copy out to Big the day before he passed, but we never got a chance to sit down and talk about it. I hope he liked it.
We had Jay on the cover of the first issue wearing a suit and walking out of a cigar humidor. And from that moment on everyone knew that XXL would be on some other shit. So even if Big wasn’t here to see it, I knew that Jay would be able to understand and appreciate what we were trying to accomplish. And he did. He would call me out of the blue to have detailed discussions about the magazine and he even name checked us in the song Imaginary Players with the line, I got bail money/XXL money.
DX: In 1994 you left the most sought after position in Hip Hop journalism. Why?
RD: By ’94 we’d been on the grind for a minute, and after many years of struggle things were finally beginning to pay off. The Hip Hop industry was in a mode of constant expansion. There were all sorts of new and exciting business opportunities popping up everyday and The Source was institutionally positioned to take advantage of them all. There were struggles to overcome, to be sure, but most of us felt we were in a good place. Unfortunately, because 90% of our attention and energy was focused on growing the business, we neglected to confront and solve a problem that had taken root within our little enterprise and was now beginning to expand at an alarming rate. The problem I’m referring to is Dave Mays‘ troubling association with Boston criminal Raymond Scott a.k.a. Ray Dogg the Jackal a.k.a. Ray Benzino. The conflict started small – and for a long time was successfully contained by Mays – but by the time things reached their inevitable climax, everything would be forced into the light and our once tight knit family would be fractured beyond repair. When the smoke cleared Source owners Jon Shecter and James Bernard; assistant art director Carlos Vega; editors Shawnee Smith, Sonya Magett, Julia Chance, Robert Marriott, Carter Harris and myself would be forced to leave everything we had struggled to build. The Source – the institution that we had been privileged to serve – had become irrevocably corrupted by a creeping plague and we simply couldn’t stay.