“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” – Malcolm X
Rap music is more than just entertainment. It’s information disseminated among artists, fans, and interlopers of Hip Hop culture. Documentation of the genre adjoined with images of Hip Hop’s foundational elements of b-boying, DJing, MCing, and graffiti art showcases its bricolage offering readers a dual sense of individuality and community.
If you have been onto a rap music website, bought a rap magazine to explore your favorite artists and topics about Hip Hop culture, debated in an online forum or chat room about the genre, or have uploaded a GIF or meme about a trending Hip Hop topic on social media, you have unconsciously helped legendary rap journalist and business magnate Dave Mays reach his goal of publishing the debut issue of The Source, 30 years ago and bringing Hip Hop culture to newsstands nationwide.
Mays, founder of The Source — whose original pen name was “Go-Go Dave,” a nod to his Washington D.C. roots — burgeoned the magazine out of his Harvard University dorm room in 1988 at the dawn of the rap journalism industry. The monthly magazine was a platform to profile news releases of rap superstars and the “hype” of unsigned artists across the map. It also gave a political voice to urban youth disenfranchised by the media and government that dubbed rap music as a dangerous fad that was influential with white teenage suburbanites who comprised the majority of the genre’s consumers. The magazine was revered as “The Hip Hop Bible” by any rap nerd over 30 who collected rap industry publications, and rappers who spoke of being in The Source (and its iconic “mic” album rating) as the ultimate stamp of approval.
The pioneering Hip Hop publisher spoke with HipHopDX about the early days of The Source’s primitive DIY operations, the buyout offer from Quincy Jones for the magazine that he turned down, the upcoming presidential election, why Hip Hop awards shows today will never reach the zenith of The Source Awards shows in the 1990s/early 2000’s, his mission for his creation of the periodical Hip Hop Weekly and why it has had a successful 10-year run.
Photo: Pacey Foster
Marketing ‘The Source’ During Its Formative Years In Boston’s Radio Market
HipHopDX: How hard was the printing process for the earliest issues of The Source?
Dave Mays: Well, it wasn’t that hard. Printing was totally different back then. It was paste-up layouts really. Personal computers were just coming into play. I had a big Mac computer that I used to store my databases. The first few years of The Source were done like the paste-up layout for that first newsletter. The first one was a Xerox copy, about 1000 Xerox copies that I made at the copy store. And I just mailed them out to my mailing list. I was compiling a mailing list of listeners to our radio show, which was “Street Beat.” [Jonathan Shecter] and I co-hosted that show. We started that show together in 1986 as freshman and it was two years later that I started The Source as a newsletter for the radio show. I started collecting a mailing list and I would go on the air to tell people to call into the show and join the mailing list. Then I went around to all the record stores like Skippy White’s, Mattapan Music, Spin City. I would put up a box that you could sign your name and address to get on the mailing list for the radio show. And out of that list became the idea for The Source. So the idea was different and it wasn’t digital back then. It was more traditional the way printing used to work. We started to find different printers as we grew. And I started to print more copies, built distribution, and things like that.
DX: Was the Boston college market necessary for New York rappers to tour through during the 1980s to expand their fan bases?
Dave Mays: I wouldn’t say so much that. Boston booked artists for concerts and shows like any other city. And because Boston was close to New York, they probably booked more New York artists and all the artists that were big were from New York. Honestly, it wasn’t that the colleges had that much power. It all depends on whose perspective you’re looking at it from, but college radio was dominant because Boston didn’t have any commercial radio for it. Hip Hop wasn’t played on the radio back then. We had good college radio back then because they were playing Hip Hop, and that was the only outlet for people to listen to Hip Hop back then. As for as listening to Hip Hop on the radio, the colleges were instrumental because for years Boston only had WILD, which was on only during the daylight hours. They didn’t air at night. There was no urban…I mean, even today Boston doesn’t have an urban radio station. It’s the only city of its size in the country that doesn’t have a Hip Hop-formatted radio station. Nobody talks about that. But when you look into it, it’s interesting.
DX: Right, there’s the two commercial radio stations that play rap music, Jam’n 94.5FM and Hot 96.9 FM, are owned by iHeart Radio and Greater Media respectively. It’s true that there are no Black-owned radio stations in Boston like WILD was.
Dave Mays: It’s not even about being Black-owned. It’s just a format as far the type of music they play. Look at the size and market-wise, it’s not like it’s a small-sized market. It’s one of our nation’s biggest markets. It does skew particularly white as far as demographically overall, but that’s also because of the way that whiteness is defined. You know, Boston has a lot of people like from Cape Verde and different ethnicities merging with the Black population, which is a smaller population.
DX: This is vital to the story of the beginning of The Source because Boston in the 1980s was a Top 40-dominant cities as far as rock bands from there that were thriving in pop music. As a scene, Boston did have an urban market but just didn’t have a channel to tune into.
Dave Mays: And it still doesn’t. Jam’n 94.5’s format is “rhythmic” or whatever word they put. But the way they orchestrate and manage their playlist caters to a particular style, and its compass doesn’t center closely to Hip Hop and urban culture. That word “culture” is important.
The Expansion of the Rap Journalism Industry in the 1990s
DX: Who were some of the rappers who would come from out of state to perform in Boston when you started The Source?
Dave Mays: Another thing I did was that I promoted big concerts there. I got into that, so Benzino and I partnered to bring concerts with our man Gurky and another guy named Kenny Mack, God rest the dead. We did one with Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock, Kid N’ Play, Gang Starr, and Almighty RSO at Club Chameleon. Probably one of the more interesting shows was at The Channel nightclub where we did Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, Finesse & Synquis, who were on up Uptown Records. Jungle Brothers and De La Soul show, that was actually the first time they met and the Native Tongue thing had formed. They met at The Channel nightclub.
DX: There were always Right On! and Word Up! magazines that covered rap music dating back to the 1980s. But through the 1990s, there was a shift in which there were more rap publications that launched and veered more towards the art and elements of Hip Hop culture. What was it like to compete against those publications, including ones backed by publishers with deep pockets?
Dave Mays: Well, give me an example of what you’re talking about.
DX: Vibe, Rap Pages, Rap Sheet, Murder Dog, ego trip, XXL, and Blaze are just a few examples.
Dave Mays: Well, most of those weren’t backed by anybody big except Vibe, and Rap Pages was under Larry Flynt Publications. But as for the Vibe thing, the way that it happened was Russell Simmons called me and said Quincy Jones wanted to do a rap magazine. He wanted to put us together for a deal. So we went into discussions with his company Quincy Jones Entertainment. And the negotiations went back and forth with lawyers, numbers, a business plan, that went on for some time. They flew us out to Quincy’s house in Beverly Hills for a big meeting. Eventually, Quincy walks in and says, “Listen, I love everything that you guys are doing with The Source, but I’ve decided to go in a different direction and want to start my own magazine called Volume. I want you guys to be a part of it. I’m going to give you an offer to buy you out right now, and I’ll give you jobs at Volume. What do you think?” basically. So I was intimately involved with the launch of Vibe, which was changed from Volume at some point later.
Vibe was actually helpful in some ways as far as ad sales and some of the corporate doors opening a little bit more than I had been focused on. Initially, they were very focused on the higher end of advertising sales. They were more on advertising like Italian high-end brands like Gucci. None of that really trickled down to The Source, but some of my efforts of breaking into like Sprite and Coke, and companies like that, having [them] in the market validated some of what I was doing and what I was already saying. We had a certain strategy and perspective, and it was strange at first because when the whole Quincy thing fell through, we were expecting this big partnership and that he wanted to invest in The Source. Like, here’s the big deal. It was disappointing at first, but we never swayed from the vision I had. But honestly, and all due respect to Quincy, he didn’t understand Hip Hop. His idea and approach was one that was not the same as mine.
DX: There’s some irony there. A white journalist who got flak for covering rap— a predominantly black music genre — eschewing Quincy Jones, an authority in the black music community who spearheaded the Fresh Prince of Bel Air TV show, and his vision for a publication focused in Hip Hop.
Dave Mays: True. It’s interesting, but it was accurate.
The Source Awards vs. Hip Hop Award Shows Today
DX: Being a pioneer of Hip Hop award shows when you created The Source Awards, what’s your take on Hip Hop award shows today?
Dave Mays: I will say that there is nothing close to what we were doing with The Source Awards. Nothing around then resembled us. What we were doing in the whole value and impact on the culture that it had as an event, and an event weekend. The last few years in Miami, where it turned into a full weekend, the show was such a great place for it. Then BET took over. I had a contract with BET. The last two Source Awards [shows] were aired on BET. I had a three-year contract. The first year was a one-off and then a two-year contract. And we were preparing to do the third show, but then they came in to us and basically said, “We want to do our own show now.” I was a major partner with them as I was with the UPN network when I did The Source Awards in 1999, 2000 and 2001.
Some of these types of things aren’t really talked about. But the type of business deals that I had with The Source, like, I was a full partner in UPN. I put up half the money, owned half of the advertising inventory, had exclusive categories that only I was allowed to sell, and UPN was a big television network back then. You know, similar type of deal structure with BET. So that last year there was a lawsuit that was going on between BET and The Source in 2005. The first BET Awards was in 2005, and that was scheduled to be the third The Source Awards on BET. We had a major case but it was coming into play at the time I left The Source. After that, I was not involved, and I never found the exact resolution of it.
DX: What changes need to be made about Hip Hop awards in the present day?
Dave Mays: The BET Hip Hop Awards just took place a couple weeks ago… We did a Hip Hop Weekly Soundstage and Interview Suite: BET Hip Hop Awards Edition. It was a livestream and I released a statement about how The Source Awards was created to celebrate the authenticity of the culture, something that was very inclusive. We tried to reach out to all camps across the country, relevant people of stature in the music industry. It was about understanding the culture and how to bring it together in a large scale event or an awards that was going to honor, celebrate, recognize, and be inclusive in a lot of ways. I think that’s been lost. I don’t think you get as many awards anymore. It’s very performance-heavy, not as many actual speeches for acceptance of awards, and it lacks a diversity of people being there that’s not just the hottest performers. Performances are just one form of entertainment within an award show, one part of it. But there is other parts of making an awards show that make it exciting and interesting. I think that’s lacking.
DX: The 1995 Source Awards is most memorable for the Death Row vs. Bad Boy conflict that started from there and the fight in the early 2000s. Did those types of occurrences ultimately hurt The Source Awards?
Dave Mays: Well there’ve been others like the Vibe Awards where somebody actually got stabbed. There was a lot of media bias that has contributed to a lot of misconceptions about The Source Awards. And that was very calculated and manipulated by the media for various reasons why that was going on in those years.
DX: In the early 2000s era, beef rap became more marketable than ever. Things like the Beef documentary series, to 50 Cent vs. Murder Inc and Game and Fat Joe, to Jadakiss vs. Beanie Sigel, Jay Z versus Nas, Lil Kim vs. Foxy Brown, et cetera. What was it like for you covering gangsta rap back then?
Dave Mays: Gangsta rap and beef are totally different things. Gangsta rap has been around since “The Message” and other songs from that era. Gangsta rap is a style or format of music within Hip Hop. The beefs in Hip Hop you were referring to were a particular era in Hip Hop when the large music and radio corporations had first seized real control over [our music]. And really took charge of controlling music as a direct way to control the culture. So, a lot of that stuff came from the corporate takeover of Hip Hop. And that contributed to and promoted that image of beef in Hip Hop in a big way. I mean, it was real, but it was magnified, and corporate-backed.
Why Hip Hop Weekly Shouldn’t Be Called a ‘Tabloid’ For Millennials
DX: Who gave you the idea to launch Hip Hop Weekly magazine and how did you come up with the niche marketing plan?
Dave Mays: I wouldn’t necessarily call it a niche. It’s an approach. It was a concept that Benzino came up with. He called me in the middle of the night, woke me up at three or four in the morning and broke the whole concept down. We went to look up the name, it was available, wasn’t trademarked or anything like that, and we got even more excited. We’ve pretty much been working to execute that vision, and it’s been 10 years now.
Part of it had to do with recognition of the digital impact, not just on print but on the speed of information. Seeing that a [monthly]-style magazine that’s covering the culture is going to be a lot harder to remain relevant. A weekly format, those magazines were by far the biggest category in terms of magazines at the time–from People, Us Weekly, InStyle, InTouch, the list goes on. Those kinds of magazines dominated newsstand sales, and there was a bunch of them, but none of them had a sort of urban approach. It’s also that those magazines were successful because of their style, cover format, multiple photos with different headlines, with quick, short stories with big headlines splashing out at you. That format was a better format given that people were absorbing information faster and in smaller quantities now. So it was a way to get into print as a successful business model. We knew that as a brand it would take time to evolve, and what we’ve been doing is waiting for the brand to mature in the market. But that’s the point where I’d like to think we’re at now.
DX: Being that Hip Hop Weekly is sold in many places at the same point of purchase as those other magazines that you mentioned, how do you avoid Hip Hop Weekly being prejudged as a tabloid publication?
Dave Mays: I get it when you ask in that way. We’ve seen Hip Hop Weekly as a brand, and the magazine is the foundation of the brand. But if you look at the blueprint that we created with The Source, not just magazine publishing but with the business as a whole, we did some things that were ahead of their time in terms of a business and branding point of view. The business of the awards and our other TV shows [The Source All Access with LisaRaye & Treach hosting; The Source Soundlab with Ray J] helped to grow the brand, we had major success with other areas like The Source Hip Hop Hits, which became the top-selling compilations in the history of the music industry for Hip Hop, and introduced a format that was prior to the Now compilations. Before those Now compilations, record labels couldn’t get competing labels to license their current hit songs to each other, so they could never create a Top 15 songs of the year-type of an album because they would have to throw five of the Top 15 and then throw in filler material. The Source was able to do those compilations because of the relationships that we had in the industry, like with the labels, the artists and their personal team members. [We] were able to break some of those barriers down and get people to agree like, “Hey, we want to give you this song for our compilation,” because people kind of lobbied for us to do that.
But Hip Hop Weekly sits on the shelves and has an appearance similar to a tabloid, and our look and feel is developed from that style. Us Weekly came up with that, and then all these other weekly magazines began to pop up. But if you look at our content, we don’t get into salacious, negative stuff; we try to go out of our way not to promote anything negative. That’s one of the impacts of the digital age is that people are so starved by numbers and have to make quotas and get so many posts per day, how many hits to their page, and everybody is competing in any way they can to get attention. People will publish anything and everything because they want to get it out there first. The level of fact-checking and accuracy of reporting is nowhere near where it was with The Source, not just for Hip Hop, but for media as a whole.
DX: What can you say about your target audience and content that you focus on now that we’re in the post-blog era?
One big factor to understand is that the Millennial Generation is the largest demographic group in the history of the country. What’s unique about that generation is that it comprises 95 million people. The largest single generation compared to them is the baby boomers, which comprised 78 million people. We’re talking about a much larger population of people who were born between 1978 until the early 2000’s. They were born into a world that was inherently influenced by Hip Hop. So they were already different human beings socially after being reared in that world compared to the baby boomers. Baby boomers became the marketing force of our world the last 30 to 40 years. That’s where the majority of corporations’ marketing dollar has been pushed towards baby boomers for years in the 1980s and 1990s. And that’s why people talk about the millennials because of their size.
But Hip Hop Weekly is also focused on celebrity culture now because that’s a big part of our world. Everybody is watching TV and big reality shows, Power, and things that are talked about in social media. Entertainment news is the biggest form of news out there today. So I see Hip Hop Weekly as a brand that has a huge audience of people that have a perspective on the world that’s been shaped in many ways by Hip Hop, whether consciously or unconsciously. I think that there’s a void. I don’t think there’s any other mainstream publication, cable television or online media brand that has established that voice in an authentic way. Another thing is that websites are becoming as obsolete as magazines, because the monetization of a website is extremely difficult. Advertising rates were always low, and have plummeted as the proliferation of websites has grown. There hasn’t been a successful digital solution for magazine publishers, everybody has a digital strategy but not many have one to stay profitable. But Hip Hop Weekly is in print because there is still a market where people want to hold things in their hand and means something to them with a certain level of credibility they want to be a part of.
DX: With all the legendary Hip Hop artists and guests who showed up at your recent A3C weekend event, would you consider that one of the more memorable moments in the history of Hip Hop Weekly?
Dave Mays: A3C is a big event for Atlanta, and it’s one of the only large-scale Hip Hop-based events with its format. They’ve done a great job of building that festival. Our concept with the Hip Hop Weekly Soundstage & Interview Suite is to basically report on these types of major events weekends, not just in Atlanta, but also branching out into other cities, like our upcoming American Music Awards weekend edition in Los Angeles. It was a networking opportunity for people who are already based in Atlanta, as well as the people from all over the country that come to town. Having people like Jermaine Dupri, along with Erick Sermon and Bone Thugs N’ Harmony, and other people who were in town for A3C to come out was great. So it was a really successful event and to get it in the livestream area to help the brand as part of what we’re doing moving forward.
Dave Mays On the Lost Authority of Hip Hop Magazine Ratings
DX: Since you created the blueprint for “mic” ratings in The Source, what’s your opinion about album reviews and rating in today’s rap journalism industry?
Mays: There’s really no authority, and The Source was an authority. There hasn’t been an authority like The Source in Hip Hop as far as a voice and everything that comes with being an authority.
DX: What do you believe a rap publication’s brand needs to do to become an authority like The Source to hold merit in their album ratings?
Dave Mays: One of the things that I’ve said a lot over the years is that Hip Hop is generally connected to the streets and connected to inner-city communities across the country. That’s as far as the energy and reality to really drive the music and the culture, it’s not like it was but those are the conditions from which Hip Hop still garners a sort of energy. Most businesses, period, that get into the business of Hip Hop just don’t want to deal with the streets in any kind of a way. They want to stay away as far away from the streets as possible, and you can understand that as far as a corporation is concerned. But at the same time if you want to be successful in Hip Hop, you have to be authentic and you have to be a part of the culture from a street level.
And that’s something Benzino and I have done as people representing our brands all these years together, and all the people that we’ve built these relationships with over the years. It’s a catch 22 for most of these companies, but to me that’s the biggest difference.
Why Tupac’s Death Ended Political Rap’s Reign In Hip Hop
DX: What’s your take on the Black Lives Matter movement and Hip Hop publications covering it?
Dave Mays: I wrote a post on my blog and Instagram account about the Ben and Jerry’s situation and how that company has come out supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. It reminds me of when we were just talking about how Hip Hop awards shows are different and the corporate influence and control of Hip Hop that has forced out a much more direct and more powerful influence of the streets in Hip Hop and all areas. A lot of that has a lot to do with the fact with people in corporate America don’t want to associate themselves with the streets or the inner city communities, and I give props to Ben & Jerry’s for standing up for these communities.
I see a lot of problems with the media coverage of “Black Lives Matter,” and it’s reflective of racism. There’s a huge number of people who consider themselves liberal and consider themselves sympathetic to the plight of the inner city. But really they’ve absorbed so many aspects of racism that are still present in our society. That’s always been one of my motivations as a journalist and a Hip Hop fan. Even though I’ve been a businessman, it’s also about journalism and understanding how to report on these conditions in this culture, getting to the root of things in a way that doesn’t happen a lot of times. It’s like that old BDP/KRS-One song in which he raps about Christopher Columbus and basically said, “No, Christopher Columbus didn’t discover America. There was a whole civilization of people here already when he arrived.” That’s what touched me in a way and was part of Hip Hop’s influence on everyone because even many young black people don’t understand they’ve been taught a Eurocentric perspective on things in history. One of the great things about Hip Hop was its ability to reach young middle class white kids like myself to look at something like that as a basic common sense thing to say and have it change your whole perspective on things. It’s just these really insightful things that come from rap music to have that profound effect.
That was one of the things that’s been lost, because Hip Hop culture was defeating the disease of racism that has penetrated in so many areas of our society. For the fact that Hip Hop has been taken and controlled by corporations, it’s very similar to what has happened with other forms of black music like jazz and rock n’ roll. It hasn’t manifested in the same way for a variety of reasons, but it’s no different. The removal of the streets in Hip Hop also removes the social and political thought, which has died. When Tupac was killed, to me, that was the turning point of when we lost [it]. From where it came from us and us being in control of it, and corporations dictating the direction and future of Hip Hop. And I mean radio, music, and TV corporations, unlike Ben and Jerry’s, like we just talked about.
Who Controls Hip Hop and Calling To Arms For The Presidential Election
DX: You were on the Hip Hop Action Summit Network with Russell Simmons in the early 2000s registering people to vote.
Dave Mays: From 2000 to 2004, that’s when I was really involved with the summits and the voter registration. I was working with Rev. Al Sharpton and Russell Simmons, and we started those summits after The Source Awards in Pasadena, California where it got shut down and police had rushed the building.
DX: What’s your perspective on celebrities like Nick Cannon who have influence on the Hip Hop audience and tries to galvanize people to not vote on Election Day?
Dave Mays: He does have influence, no question. But I believe that neither candidate nor their [party] has effectively addressed the issues that are important to me and stuff that I’ve been concerned about for years. The conditions in the inner cities are the worse than they’ve ever been. I think we need another party.
DX: But since we’re still in the Great Recession, would you consider rap music has gained some political consciousness again today mirroring the socioeconomically similar Golden Era during Reagonomics in the 1980s and in the wake of Donald Trump’s campaign?
Dave Mays: I guess that remains to be seen. From my perspective, Hip Hop has been on a downhill path in terms of shedding its most redeeming qualities, which have been removed from Hip Hop in a concerted fashion. But to your point, it does seem to me that now the Black Lives Matter movement and all of these situations with police killing young black men freely may be a turning point and maybe can push Hip Hop getting back in a more socially and politically conscious lane. If it does that, it would be a great thing. Maybe it is happening. But people have to recognize the control is still in the hands of people who don’t believe and understand the culture of Hip Hop…but we can take it back.
Follow Dave Mays on Instagram @therealdavemays and look out for Hip Hop Weekly’s on all local newsstands.