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 of The 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 SoundLab and 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 Stone and Spin 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 Stone became 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 Source was 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."
That much is obvious from the bitter debate lingering over Miami Beach's Memorial Day weekend and the fearful whispers that anticipate August's Source Awards show. The Winter Music Conference and its thousands of blissed-out electronica fans wobbling down Washington Avenue produces little anxiety, despite arriving each March with enough pharmaceuticals to bring down a herd of elephants. Likewise it's doubtful a rock-oriented event would spark much outcry. Given rock and roll's moribund state, the notion that it could motivate a crowd to do anything more than buy T-shirts is simply incredible. On that parents, pundits, and fans can all agree.
Hip-hop, on the other hand, seems capable of anything. To many residents, the 200,000 primarily young black partiers who recently converged on South Beach constituted nothing less than an invading army, a menacing force that threatens to return for Mays's Source Awards.
Ironically it's this same specter of violence Mays was hoping to avoid by moving the show to Miami. Last year's affair in Pasadena, California, was cut short when police cleared the hall after brawls erupted in the audience, a spectacle many critics cited as confirmation of their worst fears about rap culture. Miami, a city Mays calls "a neutral area" free of entrenched New York-Los Angeles hip-hop rivalries, seemed the perfect spot, a place to which black celebrities were already flocking.
Over several South Beach visits this past spring, Mays says, "I ran into Puff Daddy, Cash Money, Nelly, Michael Jackson, Brandy, just a ton of major stars hanging out. Everybody seemed real comfortable down here -- and that's the environment we felt would be more conducive to the show than New York City." By late May he'd finalized his plans.
Then came Memorial Day weekend. "You have a culture clash," Mays concedes. "The hip-hop generation, to those who are not part of it, can appear brash, aggressive, abrasive. If you're not used to being around this audience, you can be frightened by it. But those impressions are stereotypes."
Referring disparagingly to newspaper accounts of the weekend's troubles, he continues, "For those of us who are part of this community, we felt comfortable on the Beach. When I look at the statistics, my interpretation is that the number of arrests was fairly small given the number of people here. Whether it was 250,000 hip-hop fans or 250,000 country-music fans, it would've been fairly chaotic."
Although he anticipates a crowd of only 25,000 to 30,000 out-of-towners beyond the awards show's invite-only audience, Mays plans to be well prepared this time, and is working closely with local officials. He hopes to have police close off the streets surrounding the Gleason Theater, with security inside provided by the Nation of Islam -- a force even the most hardened thug respects (or at least fears).
"The message I would like to send is that this is a young, affluent community with a lot of disposable income," Mays says. "If the Beach opens its mind to this community and there's an attempt at mutual respect, good things can come out of it." Besides the economic benefits in what he reminds is the Beach's off-season, there's the prestige factor. "Most major awards shows don't come to Miami."
Most major awards shows don't end in a brawl either.
For the first time Mays's cool demeanor gives way. After a long silence he says brusquely: "We don't expect our show to end in a brawl this year -- or ever again." His voice rises: "Many awards shows and large entertainment events involve fights in the crowd. You go to a WWF wrestling event and there's people fighting in the crowd. You go to a hockey game and people are beating up each other on the ice, let alone in the stands."
They don't beat each other up at the Grammys.
"You'd be surprised!" Mays corrects. "I've talked to producers." He cites a little-publicized ruckus involving Rage Against the Machine at last year's MTV Awards: "They managed to contain it. When these things happen at white events, mainstream events -- when it's not a young black crowd or a hip-hop event -- they don't get treated the same way in the media. The same fears that come out of the underlying racism in our society don't come into play."
None of that is likely to calm aggrieved locals, particularly when they suffer attack simply for voicing valid opinions. Case in point: David Wallack, owner of Mango's Tropical Café on Ocean Drive, who resigned from the Miami Beach Planning Board following accusations of racism after the Miami Herald quoted him as saying that hip-hop fans "are not coming to appreciate the architecture. Their culture is violence. That's their only means of communication with each other."
While there are plenty of good reasons to run Wallack out of town -- his "anything goes" approach to Beach development, his pointlessly obstructionist actions at city hall meetings, his ponytail -- racism isn't one of them. Indeed less than a week after Wallack's public smackdown, one could have heard his viewpoint being echoed by a wide array of black academics, grass-roots activists, record-company honchos, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and concerned rappers at New York City's Hip-Hop Summit, a two-day powwow convened by music-industry impresario Russell Simmons and The Source.
"The style of hip-hop culture is imprinted with the very economic and social misery that it intends to confront," offered panelist and DePaul University professor Michael Eric Dyson, author of Between God and Gangsta Rap: Bearing Witness to Black Culture. The end result was self-destructive rappers with "a narrow conception of what you understood authentic blackness to be."
Public Enemy frontman Chuck D concurred with Dyson, but shifted the onus of blame squarely onto black-entertainment moguls. He heaped scorn on the "spooks who sit by the corporate door," singling out BET head Robert Johnson for drenching his own community in visions of misogyny, mindless materialism, and murderous nihilism. As Southern Christian Leadership Conference president Martin Luther King III alternately blanched and nodded in agreement next to him, Chuck revved up to a fevered pitch: "Tupac [Shakur] sold five million records while he was living, and 22 million records after his death. Selling and marketing black death will make you a fuckin' mint!" He dramatically pointed at several prominent black record executives sitting just feet away and added sharply: "It will get many of you six-figure salaries!"
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"Yeah, I was in the room when he said that," Mays says of Chuck D's speech. From the pained look on his face, it's evident he felt personally under attack. He picks his words carefully, acknowledging that the music industry needs to be pressured to change. "There's more at stake here than just dollars and the bottom line," he agrees. Imagery does matter. But is it possible that The Source could be helping to spread debasing imagery?
Mays frowns and changes tack. "Why is the crime rate so high?" he asks. "Why are guns proliferating through our inner cities? How does this happen? It's a complicated situation and you can't blame rap music at the end of the day. It's a culture that produces so many more positive things.... There are a lot of political forces that don't like what the hip-hop generation represents, that don't want to see young people of a certain ethnic background succeed. Hip-hop is leading the way toward change in American society, bringing the races together, bringing people of different ethnic backgrounds, cultures, and socio-economic levels together."
It's apparent from Mays's furrowed brow that he remains unsatisfied with his own answers, perhaps conscious that this progressive "change in American society" is more often a theoretical promise than a reality. He pauses, deep in thought. Finally, as if speaking of a once-dear, now-estranged friend, he adds, "Somebody like Chuck recognizes the potential hip-hop has, its power, and it hurts him a lot to see that potential going unused." One wonders if Mays is really referring to Chuck.