By Ryan Yousefi
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Curiously, even though Club ZNO is named after him, and despite all its own press releases, Benzino is not actually an owner -- at least according to the club's incorporation records. David Mays and local restaurateur Peter Thomas are listed as its sole co-owners. Are Mays and Thomas trying to safeguard Club ZNO's liquor license, or perhaps shield the club from future Benzino-aimed litigation?
Mayor Dermer refuses to get drawn into such speculation, or to comment on a 2001 FBI investigation of Benzino, one the FBI itself also declines to elaborate on. "If people have a legal right to open a business, then they should be allowed to open a business," he reiterates. As for Benzino's background, "I don't go around doing checks."
"Over the past fifteen years, I don't think two days have gone by where we don't talk to each other," Benzino says of David Mays. "It's a close, close relationship: Jewish kid from D.C., Puerto Rican and black kid from Boston." He begins chuckling as he runs the equation through his head: "White kid from a predominantly black city, black kid from a predominantly white city. It's weird how these things sometimes work out."
Mays views the duo as a living example of hip-hop's ability to bridge cultural barriers. As a Harvard University student hosting a rap show on the campus radio station in the late Eighties, Mays says he naturally sought out Benzino.
"He had the hottest local rap group in Boston," Mays explained in an earlier interview. "Hip-hop is what brought us together, and it's what kept us together," as roommates, close friends, and eventually business partners. Mays soon developed The Source from a photocopied two-page newsletter in 1988 into the glossy magazine that today sells 500,000 copies a month, and lies at the heart of a multimedia empire grossing an estimated $25 million annually.
If Mays and Benzino's resurrection of the old-school civil rights alliance -- middle-class Jew and inner-city black -- has raised a few eyebrows, it hasn't been without its benefits. Having someone like Benzino at his side certainly didn't hurt Mays when dealing with race-baiting critics who wondered why a magazine dedicated to a black art form had an Anglo at its helm.
Less clear has been what Benzino gains from this partnership. Indeed Mays's championing of his pal's music has been a constant irritant within The Source.
Mays's stance first came to a head in October 1994. At that time, Mays was the Almighty RSO's manager, and to many of his staffers, his advocacy of their music was a serious violation of journalistic ethics. And the more Mays pushed, the more his staff resisted. James Bernard, Source co-founder and co-editor in chief at the time, claims that Benzino threatened to "put niggers in body bags" if RSO's new album didn't receive a glowing review. Benzino says he was merely joking, though one of his subsequent songs brags of administering a "beat down" to recalcitrant journalists. Conversations with several Sourceemployees attest to the brandishing of weapons, as well as a general climate of fear and intimidation between opposing factions inside the publication.
As the November 1994 issue of The Sourcehit the streets, staffers were shocked to discover that three pages marked as advertising during layout actually contained an Almighty RSO piece written and surreptitiously inserted by Mays. Outraged at what they considered an ethical breach, Bernard, fellow co-founder and co-editor in chief Jon Shecter, co-founder and music editor Reginald Dennis, and five other staff members resigned in protest.
One of those figures explained his bitter decision to leave The Source: "This was a violation of a business relationship. Everybody saw this disaster coming from way back, and it just continued to grow and fester ... trading coverage in the magazine to labels in exchange for favors for [Benzino] -- everything that you could imagine someone could do to abuse their position. And it's still being done." Referring to Benzino's uncanny ability to land his current record contract with Elektra -- after being previously dumped for poor sales by Tommy Boy, Restless, Virgin, RCA, Interscope, and Motown -- this former staffer asks, "How do you think he keeps getting these major-label deals?"
Nonsense, says Mays. "They sought to usurp control of the magazine by concocting a media story," Mays observes of the staff walkout, and he still stands by his decision to run the RSO piece. "The Almighty RSO -- whether they were my partner or not -- merited some kind of coverage in the magazine, the way any other group that had an album on a major label that was making some kind of noise deserved coverage. Because of their problems with me, [the staffers who quit] refused to cover the group in any way. It was my position as the person in charge of everything that there should be something written on the group. So I made sure there was."
"The magazine's done in my mind," griped Bernard at the time. "You can't rebuild credibility."
Perhaps leery of the public black eye his magazine had received, Mays ratcheted down his cheerleading for Benzino. Selwyn Hinds, the Source's replacement for departed music editor Dennis, recalls the mood in his 2002 memoir Gunshots in My Cook-Up."I was well aware of [Benzino's] dark Boston reputation," he writes, "but for the better part of my time at the magazine, the snarling, threatening, nemeses of the old Source editors were just guys who'd pop into town every other week or so and hang in Dave Mays's office 'til the wee hours as weed smoke, loud music, and laughter poured out."