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Hip-Hop Fridays: Hip-Hop's Journalism Crisis

There is a very serious problem in Hip-Hop that you probably won't read about in any major magazine. The problem has been with us for over a decade and while everybody "feels" its effects, few seem to want to do anything about it. The problem is that Hip-Hop is being weighed down by a talented but compromised, gullible, ignorant and even manipulated journalism community.

The problem is layered and really the result of a confluence of forces. Therefore, it would be necessary to devote many more words than this space allows, to a thorough dissection and analysis of the problem. But as an approach to an introduction to the problem, we begin by taking a brief look at a few of the more prominent factors that contribute to the general weakness of Hip-Hop's journalist community. We want it to be abundantly clear that we do not have every writer in mind. There are a minority of very good writers in the industry. We also want it to be known that we do not have in mind the majority of alternative Hip-Hop websites and their writers, who have vastly improved the flow of information among members in the Hip-Hop community as well as countered some of the non-reporting that passes as professional journalism in the "mainstream" Hip-Hop magazines.

The new album as cover story factor. This factor is maybe the most obvious indictment on the mainstream Hip-Hop magazines. The vast majority of them seem to think that the top story every month is the biggest album to be released during the time-frame of that issue. Later for breaking news, exclusive interviews, or an investigative report - whoever has the hot album dropping that month gets the cover. To be sure, Hip-Hop is driven by the music and new music is always a topic of conversation. But there is no way you will get us to believe that month after month the Hip-Hop community is most concerned with the latest album. The reality of this problem is that Hip-Hop magazines, because they lend their covers to this practice, have become the PR firms or part of the marketing plans of the major record labels. When I was in the music business I would always hear the rumors that so-and-so had "paid for a cover". We are more certain that Hip-Hop magazines offer covers to major artists, groups and record labels in exchange for exclusive interviews, and advance copies of albums. When I was general manager at Wu-Tang this was frequently offered to us. Even if the rumors weren't true about money changing hands, the fact that the suspicion is so great, it damages the reputation of the Hip-Hop media. This inevitably leads to the compromising of the integrity of a magazine, whether they are receiving cash or not for turning their mag covers over to the "flavor of the month". Any publication that deliberately pimps its magazine cover in an effort to curry favor with a record label or group or in exchange for cash, compromises the appearance of integrity, objectivity and critical thinking of its journalists and reporters, in the eyes of artists, record labels and most importantly the fans and consumers of Hip-Hop.

The journalist as groupie factor. This factor is the most scandalous. To get right to the point: there are numerous journalists – male and female who, even as they write and cover stories, are more fans than they are journalists of Hip-Hop. Many journalists and photographers are people who just want to be around celebrities and meet them. Their craft - the pen or the camera – is just a means to an end. They use their profession to act out their own personal desires in this area. The result is that you will encounter numerous writers, as I did when in the music business, who don't investigate, analyze or perform critical thinking. They are superficial, all day long, looking for gossip and the quickest direct or indirect avenues to meet an artist. Then, there were others who were sincere reporters, but so star-struck that it did not take much for them to cross the line and become intimately involved with their subjects. The sad thing about that is that these reporters who would have sex with the Hip-Hop artists and executives that they were writing about, probably did not realize how they were being talked about in private settings. I can remember several instances where artists that I worked with and others who were friends of mine would tell me about the reporters who were known for having sex with artists that they were interviewing or covering. The result was that the reputation of all journalists were compromised by the actions of some. To this very day, I will see Hip-Hop journalists on TV or with a by-line in a magazine and all of the old stories about them and their compromising behavior (some of which I know are true) come back to mind. It causes the disrespect of that individual and the profession.

The journalist as artist factor. This factor could also be called "the style over substance" factor. Everyone of us has seen it. This factor is manifested when the writer tries to turn their article into a movie, whereby the emphasis, of the writer, is on using flowery language and excessive descriptions of the smallest detail in order to appear as "deep". In many cases the writer hasn't decided on what their objective is: do they want to render an accurate depiction of the setting or do they want to take you on an imagery roller-coaster where they get to showcase their grasp of Hip-Hop lingo and advanced vocabulary, while focused on a tangential factor like describing the way in which the artist walks into the room for the interview? You can see what the journalist is trying to do but it never seems to come across properly, in how they write it. And some of the stuff is downright silly. Some of the interpretations, provided by journalists, of what the artist must be thinking as he or she sits across from them are ridiculous. I have read several stories where the artist is describing the eyes of a rapper and detailing what they are revealing. It was absolutely some of the stupidest stuff we have ever read. I have even been at interviews with artists that I have worked with, having actually arranged them, and the story and the interpretations made by the journalist have no grounding in reality. It is as if the journalist writes, records and observes and then gets drunk or high right before they write the story. Or, it is as if, the writer was a rapper that never made it and now, through their journalism post, is trying to live out their dream. I can tell you that there may not be a more hilarious scene than watching a group of artists read a story about themselves out loud. I have been there more than once and it took all of my effort to keep from literally getting an ulcer from holding in the laughter. Some of the interpretations and excessive language are pathetic. And then, there are those few moments where the journalist nails the story; reads the artist perfectly; and takes the reader to a higher level. It is a heavy experience to see an artist read an article about themselves where they know the writer rendered the information given to them accurately and saw exactly into the artist what was within them. Journalists like that will always get true respect. They have earned it.

The journalist intimidated by artist factor. This factor is the saddest of all and maybe the hardest to recover from. Because Hip-Hop artists have gotten away with punking and even physically harming reporters, fear has permeated the industry for years. The artists are wrong for doing what they have – responding immaturely to an album review or to an article about them that offended them. But the Hip-Hop journalism community has been wrong to not stand up to artists and demand respect. Because many are so compromised and want the favor of artists more than they want a good story, journalists quiet criticism of artists in order to avoid offending them or catching a beatdown. Whatever happened to standing on the Truth regardless to the consequences? The bottom line is that although many Hip-Hop journalists try to portray their industry differently, virtually every group of writers, in whatever field, has been physically attacked by their subject(s). It happens in economics, politics, crime and other fields of entertainment. It is wrong but it comes with the territory. If a person knows that you are "shook" before you even turn the tape recorder on, then you are already through and possibly making it even easier for an artist to abuse you – verbally or physically. If Hip-Hop journalists had each other's backs like they do in other disciplines, artists would be scared to death to lift a finger against them. But it all begins with journalists losing that fear that they have.

The RapCOINTELPRO factor. This is the most sinister of all factors where we are outright suggesting that some of the stories, especially those which attempt to aggravate or invent "beefs" between artists are absolutely in harmony with the FBI's COINTELPRO of the 60s and 70s where stories were planted, informants were used and reporters were fed information in order to start conflicts between peers. Even if that is not deliberately happening today we believe that the effect of the writing of many magazines in Hip-Hop accomplishes the same. Akiba Solomon, editor-at-large of The Source magazine took exception what we wrote of how The Source was very COINTELPRO-like, in our opinion, in its hyping up of an alleged beef between Jadakiss and Jay-Z, as well as that of Nas and Jay-Z several months ago, even though they could not produce any proof from the direct words of Jay-Z, Nas and Jadakiss, in what they wrote. We offered to run her comments on this website, unedited, but suddenly Akiba asked that we not do so. We respect her wishes. But Akiba and others who write for The Source should not be challenging us before they ask why is it that in the Jadakiss, Jay-Z article, one of the two quotes that is lifted in bold and raised out of the body of the piece is the quote used by The Source to infer that Jadakiss has a problem with Jay-Z. Who at The Source was responsible for lifting that quote? Akiba, from the inside, should be concerned with that, we think. And anyone who tells us that lifting a quote like that is not designed to get the reader's attention on that specific piece of information is ignorant of the publishing business. The Source wanted its readers to focus on the innuendo that it dropped that there is a beef between Jay-Z and Jadakiss. But it produced absolutely no proof . This was a tactic used by the FBI under COINTELPRO. We seriously believe that if all of the elements or ideologies that the FBI warred against in the 60s and 70s are present in Hip-Hop today, then there is a high probability that the COINTELPRO program, even if executed by another government agency, is in effect against the Hip-Hop community. The media was a big part of COINTELPRO, how could the Hip-Hop media not be a part of a "RapCOINTELPRO"? Some of the writing in Hip-Hop magazines that hypes up beefs between artists carries the very spirit of the government's war against youth, certain organizations and ideologies. There is legitimate reason to suspect journalists, editors and publishers of being part and parcel of an effort to oppose revolution, civil disobedience and activism among the youth and hip-Hop community. Anyone who does not see this in Hip-Hop is either compromised; has blinders on; or maybe on the payroll themselves. How can anyone dismiss our suggestion in light of the fact that the NYPD has the Hip-Hop industry under surveillance; the government has taken marketing plans of major Hip-Hop artists from major labels; and the DEA had a full scale investigation of Rap-A-Lot records; as well as the fact that ATF and undercover NYPD officers were following Biggie's car at the exact moment that he was shot? If the Hip-Hop journalist community was worth its combined paychecks it would examine these issues to the fullest extent, maybe even give them a cover story. Be honest, when was the last time that a serious Hip-Hop issue/event garnered the cover of the most prominent magazines?

Hip-Hop's fourth estate is a laughing stock in the eyes of many for several of the factors we mention. There are other reasons that we left out. The saddest part of this whole problem is that the media is so important to the growth and evolution of Hip-Hop. And sadly, we think, has much to do with what is wrong in Hip-Hop today. If the industry and culture are to be preserved, improved and perfected, the journalism community is going to have to clean itself up and show more respect for artists, its audience, and its profession. In many ways, because this has not happened as it should, Hip-Hop is dying, an increasingly agonizing and slow death.

It is time that Hip-Hop journalists take responsibility.

Cedric Muhammad

Friday, July 20, 2001

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