By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
The recent revival of The Source's front-of-the-book must largely be credited to Allah, an intern in 2001 for Voice investigative reporter and senior editor Wayne Barrett. The Hurricane Katrina spread in the November issue outpaced competitor XXL's catch-up job in December. An ambitious cover story package in the December issue considers the impact of the criminal-justice system on hip-hop.
In addition to recharging its feature articles, The Source 's co-owners have come out swinging in the courts to defend what's left of their business credibility. On October 19, Source Entertainment filed a $100 million suit against Black Entertainment Television, accusing executives of pulling out of a deal to televise the annual Source Awards slated for last month. A BET statement said only that it was Mays who failed to uphold his end of the deal, but one can guess at why BET's owner, Viacom, might rethink its relationship with the (indefinitely postponed) awards show. In 2001 The Source's former network broadcaster, UPN, called it quits after a riot broke out at the Pasadena show the year before.
Multiplying problems have affected how advertisers perceive The Source.Cris Dinozo of the Publisher's Information Bureau says last year the magazine stopped paying its dues to the organization, which tracks advertising pages. Steve Cohn, CEO of Media Industry Newsletter, points to a downward trend since 2000, when ad pages in The Source reached a height of 1,648 for the year. Cohn, who gets his data from internal sources at the magazine, says that by the end of 2004 The Source was down to 1,149 ad pages, and this year it's at 779 ad pages.
Fewer people, it appears, are reading The Source. It's hard to know, because in 2004 it pulled out of the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Textron in its lawsuit asserts that Source circulation hovers around 250,000half of what it was two years ago. By way of comparison, the primary Source competitor, XXL, has an ABC-certified circulation of 314,355.
The magazine's revenue has also nose-dived, according to the Textron lawsuit. The lending company estimates 2005 sales at $20.7 million, a $5.1 million drop from the previous year. Profits have disappeared, says Textron, which asserts that The Source's net loss will rise above $2 million, more than twice the 2004 loss. All evidence to the contrary, Chris Flatley, associate publisher of The Source, calls the magazine "the number-one selling music magazine on newsstands in the world." And that "many of corporate America's largest consumer marketers continue to embrace The Source for its honest and thought-provoking coverage."
There once was a time when calling The Source the "bible of hip-hop" made sense. As Wiredwas to geeks, as Deneuve was to dykes, so The Source was to the hip-hop generation. Its anomalous conception in the dorm room of two white Harvard students in 1988 didn't much get in the way, because by the early 1990s David Mays and Jon Shecter had cobbled together a multiracial dream team of devotees who, in a few short years, transformed a xeroxed newsletter into a widely respected glossy fat with ads.
Subjects that mattered to black kids and wannabes were given regular, serious treatment. "We had the greatest interviews; there were no publicistswe had pager numbers for when something went down," says Reginald C. Dennis, one of the first music editors. "Hip-hop wasn't media savvy then. It was young black people speaking their mindspeople who had never been given the opportunity to speak."
Trouble began in November 1994when The Source was at its zenith. It came in the form of a long, fawning profile of the Almighty RSO, a rap group fronted by Benzino, the big-mouthed Boston rapper who would later reveal himself as co-owner of the magazine. Mays felt his sidekick deserved some press; the Source staff disagreed. So Mays himself wrote a feature on RSO and slipped it in behind the editors' backs. There was an editorial-side exodus, with the highly regarded editor in chief James Bernard writing an emotional resignation letter to the hip-hop community. The scandal destroyed The Source's editorial credibility.
"Every two or three years there's a big upheaval and the whole editorial staff changes over," says Jeff Chang, author of the hip-hop history Can't Stop Won't Stop. "You get to the point where you're chasing away so much talentat a certain point it becomes unsustainable."
"It's been like watching Rome burn," says former Source writer Kenji Jasper.
Obvious cronyism and erratic critical standards have continuously afflicted its music reviews department. Editor in chief Fahiym Ratcliffe, Dasun Allah's predecessor, resigned in August after a dispute with Mays over a music rating. "You want to work for someplace that you believe in," Ratcliffe told the Voice. "If there are constant clashes with owners, then you have to remove yourself."
But more than the internal scandals, it was the relentless campaign against Eminem that turned off readers. In 2002, Scott worked tirelessly to persuade readers that the rapper is a bigot, backing up the charges by playing old recordings to reporters featuring a 15-year-old Eminem disparaging black women and big butts and niggas. Few observers disputed Scott's claim that part of Eminem's success is due to his color, but it raised another question: Where would Raymond "Benzino" Scott be if it weren't for his Caucasian best friend and cheerleader David Mays?