By Chuck Strouse
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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People be asking me all the time, “Yo Mos, what's getting ready to happen with hip-hop?' People talk about hip-hop like it's some kind of giant in the hillside coming down to visit the townspeople.
-- Mos Def, "Fear Not of Man"
"I want to build the Time Warner of the urban generation," says David Mays, publisher ofThe Source, hip-hop's most influential magazine. There's neither cocky bravado nor tentative hopefulness in his voice as he speaks, only the tone of a man accustomed to realizing his dreams. One imagines Mays would announce something less grandiose -- "I want to build an outdoor patio" -- with the same understated confidence.
Of course there's good reason to take Mays at his word. At age 32 he's already one of that urban generation's foremost machers, presiding over not only The Source but a burgeoning media empire. There's the Website TheSource.com; the nationally syndicated television show Source SoundLaband Source: All Access; a series of platinum-selling compilation CDs; and The Source Hip-Hop Music Awards show, set to arrive at Miami Beach's Jackie Gleason Theater on August 20. (Not only has the annual television broadcast of the event become the UPN network's top-rated program, its nominations easily eclipse the Grammys in prestige for most rap fans.) Mays has even extended his reach into the world of philanthropy, creating The Source Youth Foundation to take a "hip-hop approach" to education and job-training programs.
It's the foundation that has brought him to Miami Beach today as he sits at a table with Kulchur inside the Loews Hotel restaurant, Preston's. At his side is Edward DeJesus, director of The Source Youth Foundation, and Mays's father, Arnold, a sixtyish-looking, bespectacled figure whose passionate voice and intense air make it clear he's retired in name only. The three have just begun to examine some paperwork when Mays spots R&B crooner R. Kelly amid the television executives swirling past as part of the PROMAX/BDA marketing conference. He leaps up from the table. When he returns a few minutes later, R. Kelly has become another of the stars slated to appear at The Source Awards.
This multitasking is a family affair. As Kulchur and David talk, Arnold and DeJesus confer on the other side of the table, engrossed in a sheaf of papers, jumping from discussions of meetings with Mayors Kasdin and Penelas to tête-à-têtes with Snoop Doggy Dogg and Ice Cube. But when Arnold overhears Kulchur making a comment he finds troubling, his attention instantly shifts. He whips a folder down onto his plate and locks eyes.
"How many awards shows do you know of that arrive in town a month early to do charitable work?" he rhetorically demands of Kulchur. "There's another side to hip-hop beyond all the crap you read in the papers."
This power lunch is a world away from The Source's modest origins. As a Harvard undergraduate in 1988, David Mays began the publication as a photocopied single-sheet newsletter, an attempt to reach fans of the rap and go-go show he hosted on the university's radio station.
"People were always calling up asking, “When is so-and-so's album coming out? I heard such-and-such. Is it true?'" Mays says. "Even as big as hip-hop had become by the late Eighties, there was very little media coverage available to the fan base. Rolling StoneandSpin didn't cover hip-hop. The black teen mags were just teenybopperish. Even BET wasn't really playing rap videos through most of the Eighties."
In 1990 a friend passed along a copy of Robert Draper's Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History, and Mays's future began to come into focus. "I didn't even know who Jann Wenner was before then," he admits, "but after I read that book, Rolling Stonebecame my model. I saw so many parallels between hip-hop and rock and roll as more than just music -- as youth-culture movements encompassing lifestyle and politics."
In hindsight it all seems logical enough. But Kulchur wonders how Papa Mays felt about his son utilizing a blue-chip Harvard degree -- a solid entrée to the corporate business world -- to enter the rap game. Arnold laughs but offers no Father Knows Best admonishment. Instead he chides Kulchur: "The Sourcewas already going by the time he graduated!"
David laughs and nudges his father. "Be honest," he says. "It's all right."
"I was concerned he was devoting so much of his time to the magazine that he wasn't making time for other aspects of university life," Arnold offers diplomatically.
He isn't concerned anymore. And if there's something surreal about this elderly figure being fully versed in the intricacies of the hip-hop world, it's also a reminder of the music's reach. Beyond its economic clout (according to the Recording Industry Association of America, hip-hop garnered 12.9 percent of last year's $14.3 billion in record sales, second only to rock's 25 percent), it has seeped into virtually every facet of American life, transforming Anglos such as Mays and blacks alike.
But irrespective of rap's preeminent sales position, rappers themselves continue to generate an uneasy tension in mainstream America, maintaining the dissident edge stripped from beatniks, hippies, punks, and (despite enduring pockets of resistance) ravers as they were assimilated into popdom. "A couple of decades after it emerged in the Bronx," writes The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik, "hip-hop remains the pig in the python of American culture -- the indisputably new thing that refuses to get digested."