Closing the Book on XXL
A former writer reminisces over the pivotal hip-hop magazine
Last week, the New York Post reported that XXL, the venerable hip-hop magazine, will cease publication. The mag, published for 17 years by Harris Publications, was sold to Townsquare Media, which plans to do away with the print edition and operate it strictly as a website.
In most circles this news was met with a collective shrug, because media news isn’t particularly exciting to anyone who doesn’t work in media. But for people behind-the-scenes, writers/editors and longtime readers, it was a bit of a drag.
Two weeks earlier, it was announced that Vibe magazine, which has been around since 1993 and has shuffled through a handful of different parent companies, would also cease publishing its print edition.
Are urban music magazines dead? That appears to be so. And it’s quite depressing, particularly for this writer.
Back in the summer of 2004, after seven years of reading the magazine strictly as a fan, my professional writing career began with a byline in XXL. I was asked to write a review of Masta Ace’s A Long Hot Summer LP. It was 300 words, and I got paid $300.
Although I can’t recall who was on the cover that month, I do remember very distinctly what it felt like to write that review, where I was when I wrote it, what I wanted to say and I even remember some of the edits that were made. I purchased it at the newsstand at the Staten Island Ferry, hurriedly flipped to the back pages and thought that it was a very cool thing. The money was immaterial to me—$300 didn’t go far in New York back then, it barely gets you on the train now—but what stuck with me was the idea that I was getting paid to write about something that such a big part of my life.
In the 90s, hip-hop music soundtracked almost everyone’s New York experience. Perhaps even more so than it is now, hip-hop was the soundtrack to young America. So to write about it professionally felt like the most natural extension of who I was. When I published my first piece, I was trying to make it in the music industry as a producer, so there was an interesting convergence there. It felt good to be making music, writing about music, just being involved in music. Dreams do come true, I thought.
After I received my first assignment, I started pitching articles to editors at XXL. I sold my first pitch. It was on a live-event series called Beat Society, which showcased instrumental hip-hop producers and pre-dated the explosion of beat-driven instrumental music. Just Blaze and Kanye West were early supporters, and I really wanted to tell the story of how this little showcase from Philly was making waves.
It’s funny thinking back about Beat Society now, because the idea of me writing it was such a big deal to everyone involved. It was like, “WOW XXL IS WRITING A STORY ON US! HOLY SHIT!” I must have done ten interviews for what would have been a 250 word article, but when I finally turned the piece in, it was so poorly written that it got killed.
That failure notwithstanding, I guess I had some skill. In the years that followed, I went on to write hundreds of articles for XXL, and become a reliable freelancer, one whom editors would email almost every month, without fail. I was in my early twenties then, still lived at home, and would occasionally see friends from high school or college, which I attended locally.
When I went to one of the local record stores, where one of my buddies I went to high school with worked, we’d talk about rap for hours. I’d walk in and he’d say: “I was just reading your XXL review. How could you give that album an XL rating? You’re crazy. That album sucks!”
Naturally, I’d disagree, and just like we did in the lunchroom cafeteria back in high school, back in our youth, we’d argue about it for hours. There was something that always tugged at me about that, a guilty feeling if you will—this idea of getting older but getting paid to play the child’s game, which I still occasionally feel weird about.
Other times, people from my extended group of friends would accompany me to music industry events—they were all trying to get into music back then—and they’d have nothing to say to people, so they’d use me as their way to break the ice, to prove they had some sort of value, as if I had any real value.
“Paul writes for XXL!” they’d offer, bombastically, in that way people who typically do nothing like to talk really loud at industry events.
In hindsight this all seems humorous. In the grand scheme of things, writing for XXL was like writing for any other media outlet. But to my friends, and even to me at the time (because I had such a limited scope), it was a sign of something. Most of us had grown up middle class or worse, poor. And if we were lucky, we’d graduate from a CUNY school and maybe get a job as a teacher, a fireman or sanitation worker. This is honorable work—civil service!—but not exactly what you want to be doing in the concrete jungle where dreams are made.
I studied journalism in college and was taught the New York Times style of writing. This was great training, however I didn’t know anyone at the New York Times; plus, I was young and living on Staten Island—which, if you’ve been there, you know isn’t New York Times country. Among the many newspapers and magazines I read growing up, I did read the Times—mostly the sports section—but I was really reared on magazines like The Source, XXL, Vibe and to a lesser extent publications like Blaze, Rap Pages and ego trip. I always wanted to write for them.
Writing for a rap magazine was my idea of making it.
XXL was started in 1997 by Reggie Dennis, Robert Marriott and James Bernard, former editors from The Source. The first issue—pictured above with a double cover — featured the likes of Master P and everyone’s favorite present-day rapper, Jay-Z. At first, it was a little bit like a baby version of The Source, and for a few years, it lived in that magazine’s shadow. To illustrate this, consider that in the year 2000, on the diamond-selling Marshall Mathers LP, Eminem dissed the mag on the album’s title track:
To top it off I walked to the news stand,
To buy this cheap-ass little magazine with a food stamp,
Skipped to the last page, flipped right fast,
And what do I see? A picture of my big white ass
Okay, let me give you mothafuckas some help,
Um here, “XXL! XXL!”
Now your magazine shouldn’t have so much trouble to sell,
Ahh fuck it, I’ll even buy a couple myself ►
XXL cycled through a few chief editors—Sheena Lester, then Scoop Jackson—before Elliott Wilson took over in 1999. It was under Wilson’s stewardship that XXL stabilized itself. In his early years, Wilson wrote a monthly editor letter that often provoked the mag’s competitors, and eventually lead to some very real and well-documented beef with The Source.
At that point I had no connection to XXL or The Source, and I found their back-and-forth barbs super entertaining. It was like wrestling. Until it wasn’t. For years, I bought both magazines every month, but eventually I found myself innately not buying The Source anymore. XXL had kissed and made up with Eminem, and in the wake of The Source making Em, 50 Cent and Interscope Records the target of their ire, the quality dipped. It had actually dipped well before that, when the majority of the original editorial staff walked out. In hindsight, I’m sure most people at The Source were well-intentioned. There was just a lot going on there that had nothing to do with publishing a magazine.
Eventually, XXL became to us what The Source originally was—the bible of hip-hop. Maybe not to everyone, maybe not even to all the people who worked there. But each month, XXL tried to tell the story of whatever was happening in hip-hop culture. Could they have done some things better or differently? Yeah, absolutely. But you can’t please everyone.
In the 2002 movie Brown Sugar, which grossed north of $28 million, Sanaa Lathan’s character was the Editor-in-Chief at XXL. By the time I’d started writing there in ‘04, things were booming. Things were booming for magazines in general, particularly in the urban space. At Harris Publications, there was also KING magazine, a men’s lifestyle rag, and SCRATCH, for DJs and producers, where I eventually became an editor. Elsewhere there were magazines like Giant, Elemental, Complex and Mass Appeal. There were others, too. They weren’t all music magazines, but hip-hop was the lens that many of them were looking at things through.
It was fun.
Within the span of a few years, everything was different. The music industry was trimming its fat, which left few advertising dollars in circulation, and with the rise of easy-to-use publishing platforms like Blogger and Wordpress—updated daily, sometimes hourly—people were beginning to shift their attention spans to the web en masse. In hip-hop, blogs like Nahright.com, Ohword.com, CocaineBlunts.com and Unkut.com became go-to destinations for new music and commentary, while more expansive sites like Allhiphop.com, HipHopDX.com and Sohh.com featured news updates and interviews.
Waiting all month for a magazine seemed silly.
XXL was certainly cognizant of this, and so they launched a comprehensive website of their own. It, too, featured news and interviews, but its key draw, at least initially, was its blogger section, which championed the musings of Jay Smooth, Byron Crawford, Andrew “Noz” Nosnitzky, Dallas Penn, DJ Drama, Sickamore, Tara Henley and a slew of other rotating characters.
With this, XXL caught a second wind. There was no shortage of fireworks from that group of bloggers. Whether it was Lupe Fiasco or Bun B getting mad at Byron Crawford for doing what Dan Aurberbach of the Black Keys recently called hip-hop “satire,” Dallas Penn producing a collegiate-level content analysis of the simplicity in Soulja Boy’s lyrics, infighting between bloggers or pondering where blogging could go from there, there was always something fun to read on XXLmag.com.
In 2007, after SCRATCH magazine folded, the brand lived on as a blog on XXLmag.com, where I continued to write about DJs and producers. As someone who had been reading the blogs—much like I’d read the magazine, years earlier—I was excited about having the opportunity to write there (“I’m one of the bloggers!”). It was, again, this very fortunate position to be in. ‘Til this very day, in what is often an out-of-sight-out-of-mind type of environment, people still remember that I wrote that blog. That means something to me.
All good things come to end, so after two and a half years I stopped writing the XXL blog. Many of the other bloggers stopped writing, too. Writing every day is a grind, and it was getting harder for everyone to come up with topics. Compound that with the fact that the powers that be—the advertisers, primarily—were beginning to get antsy about the opinionated free-for-all that was happening online, and you can tell where this story is headed. The nail in the coffin was that the reverse-chronological news format became the standard layout for websites—more pageviews man, more pageviews!—and the demand for opinion writing had plummeted.
Still XXL, the magazine, was going strong. And even though the website had seen better days—obviously, I’m very biased here—it kept humming along. But for reasons that have never been quite clear, in early 2008, Elliott Wilson, the face of the brand, was let go. Luckily, a year prior, he and his staff conspired to launch the mag’s most memorable franchises:
Although it’s slowly changing, hip-hop is one of the few genres that concerns itself more with newer artists than older ones. To that effect, the conversation typically revolves around: Who is everyone talking about? Who is going to become a star? Is this new rapper better than that one?
XXL’s Freshmen issues looked to spotlight a handful of those new artists, and eventually became an annual thing, complete with concerts, tours, mixtapes and all sorts of other assorted stuff. I’ve met a million rappers since the inaugural Freshmen issue, and even the ones who’ve played it cool and said they didn’t care about the XXL cover, eventually confided that they did.
The best part about the Freshmen issues was that it gave the fans something to talk about. On social media, in barbershops, in lunchrooms and on message boards, everyone had an opinion. And even if nobody agreed about who was on the cover— and I mean, absolutely NOBODY — it was at least this thing that became a benchmark of sorts, something artists aimed at and aspired to make it on to.
The Freshmen issues proved that XXL still mattered.
Now XXL magazine is gone. So is Vibe. And while some magazines, like Murder Dog, for example, are still around, many others are gone too. Those legacy brands live on as websites, while newer, online-only outlets have attempted to fill in the gaps. Which, I suppose is the natural order of things. People’s attention spans have moved elsewhere, and it’s tough to support a business these days by selling bundled paper to people each month.
But I know this: XXL gave someone like me, someone would otherwise be voiceless, an opportunity to have a voice. My first byline came from XXL, and I’ve always been proud of that. That byline gave me an opportunity that my college degree, which I’ve rarely used for anything, never could.
It also gave a lot of other people opportunities too; primarily—and this is important—people of color, which is a rare thing nowadays. Because even though folks like to throw around terms like diversity, what that really means is having one black person on an all-white staff. And when magazines like XXL and Vibe go under, we’re losing brands that are access points for certain types of people to get their feet into media, music and entertainment. These are businesses that transmit ideas and messages, and if the ideas and messages are limited then the… ah, well, you see what I’m getting at.
There are people now working in various important positions who got their start at little ol’ music magazines that covered rap music. Where will tomorrow’s leaders, the people responsible for transmitting the ideas, images and messages that shape the world as we come to know and understand it in the future, come from, and how will they get their start? And what will they be trying to say?
Maybe that’s a point nobody is thinking about. I don’t know. I don’t get the sense that anyone thinks much about anything anymore other than the sandwich they want to put on Instagram. But when I look at the companies that have money to pay writers and editors—at least in the culture space—they all seem to cater to a certain type of person. Young. Educated. Affluent. Often white, but occasionally multi-cultural. Millennials, basically. They employ the same.
The beauty of XXL, and other magazines of that ilk, is that they were not elitist. You didn’t need to be young, white, moneyed and aspirational to consume them. And you definitely didn’t need to be any of those things to write for them. You just had to have a real interest in hip-hop and urban music. All of media right now is being squeezed, but particularly as it pertains to music, which is often seen as the United Nations of cultural experiences, things seemed to be extremely one-sided. It’s strange.
The last time I wrote for XXL it was September of 2012, and I penned an essay about the Wu-Tang Clan. Last year, I wrote a similar essay for Noisey. I guess the subtle thing to be gleaned there is that there’s only so long you can keep doing the same things before you start repeating yourself, and I think hip-hop culture is one of those things that has been dangerously teetering on the edge of that for a few years.
That fact makes it very difficult, at least on a practical level, to continue putting out a big mainstream hip-hop music magazine. There just aren’t that many interesting stories left to tell at the ‘everyone cares about this’ level. Sure, there are stories, but they are smaller and the audience that is interested in them is far more fragmented. Meanwhile, the big stories, the ones about artists who everyone cares about—Kanye West, Jay-Z, etc.—tend to be held exclusively for the outlets that can deliver the mainstream readers those acts command.
So, it’s tough.
That sad reality notwithstanding, I hope the new digital-only version of XXL—no longer burdened with the responsibility of finding a worthy cover star each time out of the gate—is able to continue the legacy that the print magazine started. And I hope that if it does, some people like me, kids who truly love it, live and breathe it, get to be the ones who write about it.