Crispus Attucks knows that most media companies—especially those geared toward the hot, ambiguously named “urban” market—would rather not have their dirty laundry aired before the world, but he doesn’t care. Since June, Attucks has been running Urban Exposé, a renegade site whose mission is to relentlessly lampoon the marketers and execs callously cashing in on hip-hop’s recent explosion into mainstream culture. Now Attucks is negotiating for a partnership that would allow Urban Exposé to expand into print and television.
With all the attention www.urbanexpose.com has received, Attucks—who hides his real identity behind the name of the first man to die in the American Revolution, a slave—maintains that he and Urban Exposé aren’t trying to inflict harm. “We don’t want to survive these sites,” he says. “We want to see these do good.”
Victims of Attucks’s catty commentary might disagree. “Things over at Honey got a little sticky,” he wrote this fall. “Asondra Hunter was brought in to helm the magazine. Her penchant for getting her weave put in during editorial meetings didn’t help morale.”
This willingness to dish the T—the truth—has won Urban Exposé a loyal audience among professionals who’ve grown up in the arms of hip-hop culture, especially those black and Latino media types toiling in the “urban space”—that long-underrepresented arena where wannabe playaz are building concepts with virtually no business plans and mountains of blown funds. For the writers, editors, and Web architects who’ve played Internet shuffleboard in the predominantly white digital world, the site has proven an invaluable place to vent.
But mention the site’s name to one of its targets, David Watkins, marketing director of ill-fated and cash-burning Urban Box Office Network, and you’ll get a quick statement: “Absolutely no comment.”
Throughout the summer that Urban Exposé came into being, Attucks and company made relentless jabs at UBO execs’ inability to focus resources. When UBO hosted a massive launch party on Ellis Island, the site posted an article asking its audience, “What is UBO? We still don’t know.” UBO heads went so far as to have access to the site blocked from their network, after they learned employees were posting complaints about the company’s management. After news of the outfit’s closing, Urban Exposé posted a 23-page list of people UBO owed money, including names like Serena and Venus Williams.
Although Urban Exposé is operated by a team of writers—all black and young, most from Fort Greene, Brooklyn, none connected to the companies they criticize—the face of the site has remained the faceless Attucks. The self-described “adventurer by trade”—who slyly mentions that he once worked for a cable network and now writes scripts—edits and compiles the site’s wrenching commentary. And yes, Attucks’s nom de net is a direct reference to black revolution. “It’s a way to intrinsically let people know that I’m black and I’m coming from hip-hop,” he says. “I’m about the Web revolution. I believe the next generation of conscious sites are coming.”
The revolutionary connections don’t stop with Attucks; letters to the editor go to harriet.tubman. “I love that he attached his name and Harriet Tubman’s name to the Internet,” says Miranda Jane, West Coast editor of Stress magazine and former contributor to Trace. “He linked it to a slave revolt. A lot of media professionals joining some companies and corporations have made themselves slaves.”
Many African American and Latino creatives took on these shackles when they signed contracts with sites billed as “urban,” an amorphous say-all-and-be-all term that’s often little more than a euphemism for “black.” On the Russell Simmons/BET-produced 360hiphop.com, rap stars like Sisqo and Wyclef Jean flash on the screen, while a tab at the top labeled “buy sh*t” beckons those inclined to flex some plastic. Though it has some strong stories, a site like 360 seems to reflect, and even to feed, the chic for black hip-hop stars who are in essence parodies of street life. “There are mad kids who are not ‘urban,’ ” says Miranda Jane, a frequent poster to Urban Exposé. “Those are the kids buying clothes on 360. They’ve never been to Queensbridge, and may be remiss to deal with ‘urban’ in its reality. But they have the credit cards.”
What’s more, most sites suffer problems both on and behind the screen. While 360hiphop and Hookt host Flash-intensive graphics that would seem to permafreeze the terminals of “urban” youth without a T1 line, content can be relatively sparse and at times in need of an update. 360hiphop’s Jonzy’s World gossip column leaves off telling viewers, “Til next week!”—but the same column has been online for more than a month.
Urban Exposé’s commentary and that of its posters, who ruminate on everything from the state of urban media, to finger-pointing and name calling, to the previous week’s Jill Scott show, have caught the attention of outsiders. Whether on the site or at parties, people constantly speculate about the enigma of Attucks—as if he were a real-life Kaiser Soze. After covering the site’s progression over the summer, the editors of Inside.com arranged an interview with Attucks, who actually came to their offices disguised in an afro wig. The media magazine then wrote an article naming journalist McLean Greaves as the man behind Attucks, but they guessed wrong.
“We had a series of what appeared to be reputable sources,” says Inside editor in chief Michael Hirschorn. “We obviously got suckered. We got clowned.” Greaves threatened to sue, and Inside published a lengthy story giving him his say. Still, Hirschorn has good things to say about Urban Exposé, likening the site to a simpler Web version of Spy magazine. “It’s a team of very intelligent people taking the piss out of these sites.”
The Urban Exposé readers are just as willing to take the piss out of each other, piling up or losing “clout points” based on postings to the site’s heated debates and participation in polls such as the No Buzz List, a weekly countdown of media figures that don’t rate. Although many of the juicier details on companies have come from these messages, some posters spice their screeds with homophobic and sexist remarks. But Attucks and his team monitor the comments, docking wack listings in clout points.
Some say they’ve used their clout ratings to network. “I’ve gotten job offers through posting,” says Rebecca Levine, who works for an Internet advertising agency and posts as Miss Bee.
Attucks says high-profile people tend not to take part—or at least admit it—though a few have called to complain about having their unflattering photos displayed on the site. One media figure who’s not shy about writing to Urban Exposé is Eddie Brannan, creative director of The Fader. “It’s gonzo journalism, but that’s kind of the charm as well,” says Brannan, who did take issue with an article on Trace magazine, where he used to work. “On that story, there were inaccuracies, as there are in the Drudge Report.”
But Brannan is supportive of the site, writing in an e-mail, “I believe this sector of the industry needs some kind of watchdog, to check some of the rampant egos and piss-poor management approaches that so far have contributed to the demise of several large companies and the loss of hundreds of jobs.”
Though Attucks’s critiques may sting, in the end they’re good for the industry. Karen Alston, who works at the Washington, D.C.-based UrbanMarketing.net, notes his influence on Vanguarde Neomedia’s recent Impact Urban Internet Forum. “I think Crispus loves the urban industry. He wants them to come out,” says Alston. “If it hadn’t been for Urban Exposé, they might not have worked as hard to make it as good as it was because they knew people would probably talk about it.”
The execs behind the companies indeed must be listening. Attucks claims that Vanguarde Neomedia’s Keith Clinkscales checks the site. UBO editor in chief Joel Dreyfuss posted a rebuttal to attacks on urban media, bemoaning the site’s increasing tendency to act as “a dotcom doodah in digital blackface.”
Attucks, who says he may reveal his true identity after the new year, maintains that Urban Exposé won’t stop its spiked commentary as long as there are substandard offerings directed at “urban” audiences. “If you have a strong media product or property, it will fly, regardless. Everything can get better from debate or criticism.”