Then And Now: The Complexities Of Hip-Hop Journalism’s Changing Landscape

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Journalism as we know it has changed. Thanks to convergence and ever-evolving technological advances, newspapers and magazines are phasing out. In addition, writers have to pull double duty by becoming evergreen producers of the culture, while also using decorum with certain topics such as incidents involving police brutality and issues pertaining to race if they choose to report on them. Not only is the landscape of the medium changing, but so are the responsibilities of those working in it.

“It’s so much more complicated these 20 years later than it was when I jumped in and was able to see everything kind of blossom,” says current VIBE Editor-In-Chief, Datwon Thomas, of how the journalism scene has continually fluctuated. He started his journey as one of the VIBE digital interns in May of 1996, when the Internet boom was just beginning. While Thomas worked in both print and digital, VIBE’s first E.I.C. Jonathan Van Meter is a self-described “old media person” who wishes that print journalism was still as prosperous as it once was.

“Everything has become bite-sized pieces,” says Van Meter, a Vogue Magazine writer now, over-the-phone. “I write long-form profiles. That’s what I love, that’s what drew me into it [journalism]. That’s what I was reading when I was a kid in Rolling Stone, and what I wanted to read and wanted to do with VIBE. That’s dying. That’s a dying art form. The Internet’s effect on magazines has been profound.”

Thomas, who returned to VIBE in 2010 after working with XXL, KING and Global Grind, said that digital hip-hop journalism may have begun to take precedent over print during the late-90s, especially when it came to the deaths of some of the genre’s forever favorites, Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G.

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“It sounds super early to say that, but that’s at least when I saw the significance of the speed of it,” Thomas explains. “Even though we were working on dial-up back then, people were still able to get the information out a lot faster with the magazines. If we knew something, or we had a development, we could put it out immediately. We didn’t have to wait three to six weeks for the magazine to come out.”

Since it’s inception in mid-1993, VIBE has attempted to keep up with the landscape of hip-hop journalism while also stepping outside of the music and culture fence to inform readers about the latest happenings in national and world news. However, venturing outside of a niche can be controversial at times. During VIBE’s earlier years, Van Meter notes that the mag was subject to bouts of criticism for printing stories featuring topics that many felt were not as welcome to discuss in the hip-hop community, such as homosexuality, gang-violence and other less-glamorous aspects of the lifestyle.

“Issues in the community that are sensitive, that people felt made the community look bad, that kind of stuff, they were always things that were tricky,” Van Meter says with a sigh. An interview with dancehall artist Buju Banton published in the Oct. 1993 print version of the magazine regarding his controversial song about murdering homosexual men caused “grief” for the VIBE staff.

“We thought we were really boldly going forth to sort of treat every issue just like every other magazine would, and it was a constant, constant battle,” he continues.

Today, Thomas suggests that many hip-hop publications tip-toe around controversial issues and other triggers in order to uphold a journalistic moral code, while also attempting to keep the peace.

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“What’s right to put out there?” he asks. “What’s good to have circling in the Internet and in the galaxy? It’s tough to make that call. Do you go with the old school value of ‘you’ve got the information, put it out,’ or do you go with ‘you know what could potentially happen, and you could make things worse it you put it out if it’s not attributed to something.’ All these different things. You have the already hectic aspect of journalistic integrity, but you also have to have some sort of moral obligation to not make the world worse with what’s going on now.”

Another former VIBE Tribe member, Billboard’s Adelle Platon, believes that a journalist should approach a difficult interview topic in a personable way, and not just for ratings or clicks.

“People can smell desperation and can sense when they’re being treated as a big, shiny get for a network as opposed to a person with a story,” she explains. As a former member of the booking team for Good Morning America, Platon also got to witness the televised side of journalism. “The more personable a journalist can be, the easier it is to land a big scoop especially when reporting on a sensitive story.”

Does the reputation of hip-hop being “hard” make it more difficult for hip-hop writers to tackle certain topics in their writing that are not usually discussed in the community? Neither E.I.C said that it should, however, the issue of inclusion and exclusion in the genre certainly makes things more difficult. What may have deterred Van Meter from further working with VIBE is that he did not feel accepted in the community, despite having a deep love for hip-hop, because he is a white, gay man. However, he wanted to believe that things would change with him at the helm.

“I was just obsessed with music magazines and music journalism, and that’s where I came at this from,” he explains. “I just assumed that somehow, I was going to be able to overcome these inherent difficulties, but I wasn’t. Not long after VIBE started, hip-hop took a turn towards gangsta rap and it became a little less inclusive. The further on we got into publishing issues, the more intense and heated the world of hip-hop got. It made every day very difficult for me.”

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“This is where we are now and it needs to be accepted,” Thomas says of the societal acceptance of homosexual men and women, and how hip-hop is working towards that direction. “Hip-hop opens up those kind of tough conversations and hard discussions on the things that everyone else wants to sweep under the rug, and it’s going to continue to do that.”

Inclusion of larger audiences in hip-hop journalism is also a bridge that members of the industry must figure out how to cross. Thomas explains that while VIBE did not initially try to be exclusive to the hip-hop and black community, due to the portrayal of blacks in the mainstream media, a gradual shift began during his early years at the top of the masthead.

“We had Kesha on the cover and Diplo on the cover, and all these people connected to us as far as musically, but very disconnected as far as community,” he says. “I felt like when I took over, I was like ‘yo, we gotta get back to blackness,’ because everything is getting taken off the news stands that had a black face on it or a black publication. I felt like we needed to focus in on the now a little bit more, so that we could show that urban isn’t dead.”

However, he is apprehensive that the exclusivity of hip-hop will have a long-term effect.

“My biggest fear is that we turn around and no one’s checking for us and our struggle,” he sighs. “That they’re gonna be like, ‘that’s not inclusive enough, that doesn’t reach the masses,’ and I wanna be able to reach someone and reach what people are talking about.”

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Considering all of these factors, what can hip-hop journalists do to become more well-rounded? Van Meter suggests that they expand beyond their niche and explore different ways to join their world and the other genres of writing, while also implementing converging technologies such as implementing smart phone-capabililty and posting stories to social media apps like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to make sure that their writing reaches as far as possible.

“Expand your world,” he says. “Widen the lens and pick up other things around it that aren’t necessarily music-related and make sure that you’re not seeing it in a bubble, but seeing it as part of a larger world, and the larger world is affecting it. Those interactions, those places and those things, I would encourage people to write about them.”