30 Years Ago, The Source Set A New Standard For Hip-Hop Journalism
This week, Hip-Hop culture is celebrating its 45th anniversary. The first documented South Bronx rec room party with DJ Kool Herc behind the wheels of steel was on August 11, 1973. Like the origins of the culture, that event’s significance would live by word of mouth if Hip-Hop had no writers and journalists to document and editorialize its place in history.
During the 1980s, some critics deemed Hip-Hop to be like like Disco—a passing urban music fad. In the eyes of many, DJs, MCs, graffiti writers, and breakers could never surpass the stardom of their Rock & Roll counterparts. The journalists, photographers, and videographers who shed light on Hip-Hop’s growing popularity believed in its progressiveness. Many documentarians were either heavily involved in the emerging Hip-Hop culture (and eventual industry) or were closely associated with its gatekeepers. There were plenty of early voices at news and culture publications, as filmmaker and author Nelson George recently reminded, celebrating the anniversary of a particular benchmark piece:
July 1978. My twenty year old intern self convinces @NYAmNews to publish my piece on obscure Bronx DJ @koolherc after seeing him spin in a schoolyard. Pioneering #hiphopjournalism #learnasyougo #andyoudontstop pic.twitter.com/Usalf0MEOX
— Nelson George (@nelsongeorge) July 18, 2018
Thirty years ago (historian, journalist, and podcast host Dart Adams states that July 25, 1988 is the official day), a publication was born that was entirely devoted to Hip-Hop. Although mags such as Right On!, Word Up!, Hip-Hop Connection, and others arrived first, The Source would go on to become a name-brand institution within the culture and industry. At its peak, The Source was the monthly “Bible Of Hip-Hop” in the hands of many. The contents of those pages became something of scripture. At one point in the mid-90s, more than a reported seven million monthly Heads leafed through the pages, relating to Biggie’s “Juicy” dream-come-true of one day seeing their name inside. However, The Source is far from an overnight success story.
The magazine began as a newsletter that was launched by Harvard University alum Dave Mays. He and his former roommate, Jonathan Shecter, the magazine’s original editor, co-hosted a Rap radio show called Street Beat at their alma mater’s WHRB 95.3 FM radio station since their freshman year in 1986. They launched The Source as a newsletter to list their most-played songs in the mix-show’s rotation as a form of taste-making. In addition to a news and happenings column, the periodical became a mailing list for listeners who shopped in the Boston area’s few stores that sold Rap records including Skippy White’s, Spin City, and Mattapan Music.
Previously, R&B-focused mags had given profiles to commercial Rap stars such as LL Cool J, Kool Moe Doe, Whodini, and Run-D.M.C. Spin had notably put The Beastie Boys on its cover in 1987. However, The Source devoted all of its real estate (small and large) to Hip-Hop, and audiences responded. This month, founder Dave Mays shared the first newsletter issue (August, 1988. Volume 1, Issue 1):
Public Enemy, Chill Rob G, Stetsasonic, Kool G Rap & DJ Polo, MC Lyte, Eric B. & Rakim, EPMD, Ultramagnetic MC’s and others were listed in the inaugural “Hot Picks.” Mays co-authors the “Inside Scoop” column with Jackie Paul. MC Tee’s Mantronix exit and a breakup between LL and DJ Bobcat were front-page news, long before the mag sprawled to more than 100 pages. The column also describes an impromptu battle between Grandmaster Melle Mel of the Furious Five and Mikey D of The L.A. Posse (and later, Main Source) at the 1988 Battle For World Supremacy. That same night, DJ Mr. Magic reportedly doused a battle contestant with water after he was not given a mic or an impromptu seat to judge the affair. A pre-Cactus Album MC Serch is mentioned, along with some ground-floor support for De La Soul’s “Jenifa Taught Me” single.
From that very first August 1988 newsletter, The Source exponentially grew its readership. Issue #2 may have arrived that November, but operations picked up steam. Partner James Bernard was hired and added to the mix, and he remained a Source senior editor for five years. Another stakeholder from the Harvard days, Ed Young, became associate publisher. Magazine operations eventually moved to New York City, near many record labels, artists, and events. With its iconic logo and subtitle (“The Magazine of Hip-Hop, Music, Culture & Politics”), The Source scored early review access of the best new albums, while covering issues that affected the urban community pushed the needle of popular culture in the process. There are memorable covers, legends of unhappy artists bum-rushing the office, and an indelible impact on what albums fans sought out. The “Unsigned Hype” column knighted would-be G.O.A.T. MCs and groups. Once the mag’ was in its color glory, A.L. Dre’s “The Last Word” artfully (and often lightheartedly) framed the Hip-Hop conversation. Thirty years later, the iconic 5-mic rating system remains part of the Rap fan lexicon.
At a time when the Grammy’s were barely cracking their doors to honoring Rap artists in the 1990s, 5 mics or a The Source Awards trophy were the most coveted distinctions that an artist could achieve. Rappers such as KRS-One and Ghostface Killah revered the mag’s stamps of approval with their lyrics. “The style that I am kickin’ is like chicken / It will be bitten, rewritten / Then performed for 25-dollar-admission / Reviewed in The Source,” Kris touted on “Rappaz R. N. Dainja.” Ghost’ warned on “Poisonous Darts,” “Got jerked at The Source Awards / Next year, 200 ni**as coming with swords.” Rap would eventually witness a civil war on stage during the 1995 Source Awards when Death Row and Bad Boy, and others campaigned. The same night, award-winning OutKast told the masses that the South had something to say. In all ways, the magazine was a living, breathing vessel with the culture.
Thirty years ago, The Source gave Hip-Hop fans, journalists, and industry insiders a reason to be excited for the latest information in the culture. The conversation has moved from a one-page 1988 newsletter to filling mailboxes and magazine stands with glossy pages. In 2018, flipping pages has largely evolved to scrolling and sharing. No matter where it goes from here, we all must take time to respect the architect.
#BonusBeat: Travel back with MC Serch to The Source‘s Manhattan offices and meet its staff circa 1991:
Footage uploaded by Cocaine Blunts.
Additional Reporting by Jake Paine.