Stick a knife in it, they’re done:
Jay-Z unknowingly celebrates VIBE’s last Juice issue, September 2008
When I went upstairs yesterday, to the 21st fl. of 120 Wall St., and the offices of VIBE Media Group, I first noticed the seated retirees at the door. I suspected, and it was later confirmed, that they were security, sent by the company’s owners to maintain the premises as the magazine’s personnel began packing up their professional lives.
I didn’t recognize any of the staff, and they all seemed about half my age. I asked the receptionist for Danyel Smith, the editor-in-chief, or Rob Kenner, my oft-editor particularly as the magazine aged, the last person there who’d been at the company from its start. She dialed their phone extensions, but neither answered. She then said I could sit and wait. “Where?” I asked, since there were no chairs. However, she’d moved on to other stuff. So, I started walking around.
My first thought was that it felt like I was on the Borg Cube. If you watch Star Trek, you know there’s always a time period, after an Enterprise landing party beams onto the alien ship, during which the drones don’t notice them. These killing, half-man/half-machines will literally walk past armed people, who’ve just rematerialized into their spot, as though they weren’t there.
Well, that’s what it was like at VIBE yesterday. As I walked away from the reception desk, I saw a copier with what seemed like a couple hundred photo prints, in varied sizes, scattered on the floor around it. People walked back and forth, some snapping pictures, some dragging boxes. No one seemed to notice I was there, no one paid much attention to me. Everybody seemed a touch dazed, but only a touch. Perhaps the fact that the mag had recently cut work days, salaries, and the number of issues it would make per year had kept the end from being a harsher surprise.
I walked past the archive, with almost every edition of the magazine ever printed, as well as the young woman-focused VIBE Vixen‘s entire run, on its shelves. I walked more, saw a conference room, and sat down.
There was a sheet of papers with fine lines and columns on it, so I picked one up. It was the outline of the entire September issue, the 2009 Juice issue, that, now, will not be printed. Planned was a series of short profiles on “The New Music Industry”; people like Karen Kwak, sr. VP of A&R at Def Jam; Josh Deutsch, CEO of Downtown Records; stylist Mariel Haenn; gossip blogger Nicole Bitchie, and others. Their “Best Rapper Ever” spread. A “Hot 16s Opener” piece, that being the number of years the mag would be celebrating, with staffers critiquing the hottest opening verses on tracks made during the mag’s lifetime: Biggie on Craig Mack’s “Flava in Ya Ear (Remix)”; Lil Wayne on DJ Khaled’s “We Takin’ Over”; Scarface on Jay-Z’s “This Can’t Be Life.” That these typically guard-them-with-your-life notes were just lying there—like money in the streets after the zombie apocalypse—told me what time it truly was at VIBE. In fact, skateboarder Chaz Ortiz—part of that issue’s “Hot 16 List,” along with Trey songs, porn star Roxy Reynolds, and others—was in the middle of his photo shoot, above, when photographer David Anthony learned his client had ceased to exist.
The Juice cover subjects, by the way, would have been Lil Wayne and Kobe Bryant.
I looked around, through the glass doors on either side of the conference room. Through one, I could see the back of the receptionist. Through the other, a wall, on which, the day before, had been mounted covers of the approximately 179 issues the magazine produced. Lots of them, especially the early ones, were torn away, surely ripped out by departing staffers, for whom those images were sentimental favorites, or even ones they’d received as fans of the mag before working there. (If Mase’s Oct. 2004 cover, right, is really Heather Faison’s most loved, as former staffer Aliya S. King reports, well, it was still on the wall when I left yesterday. Hurry up.)
Because I’d stopped writing regularly, or pretty much at all for VIBE—my last piece for them was one on Palestinian hip-hop in March 2008—I’m not going to miss the income. Because my writing career precedes VIBE, and because, though I wrote for the mag from its early days, I never had a job there, or even a contract to write for them, I don’t have the sentimental attachment, or sense of world-endingness, that many possess now that the publication has been shuttered. (For a good sense of what it was like to intern there, check out Belle Woods’ excellent post.) It was always amazing to me, that in other parts of the country and world, there were people who would have given there lower jaws to travel to New York and meet the staff of VIBE.
In fact, my feelings about the magazine are somewhat complex, pardon the faint pun, in that I often thought its staff was too white; I never thought I got enough work from them, particularly later in the mag’s years; and for a long time felt somewhat irked that I’d never been offered a gig there, or even a column. It was only after noting that I have never been offered a job at any publication for which I wrote that I realized, “Oh, yeah: You have to apply for those.” Ha ha ha.
I finally did connect with Rob Kenner, though. I went and sat in his office and, eventually, he showed up, glad to see me. Rob had e-mailed me the night before about working on the mag’s planned Michael Jackson memorial feature, only to call me that afternoon with the news that VIBE was history. I was downstairs on the 10th floor, at WBAI, having just finished an interview, when I got the news from journo friend Jenyne Raines. By the time I got to the offices, Danyel had long gone.
Rob and I talked about the magazine and about the future. He offered me some delicious chocolates that he’d bought as a celebration for finishing a long run. He showed me the Dungeon Family organizational tree that he and writer Linda Hobbs (destined for greatness, that one) had worked out on whiteboard, for the now-dead Part 2 of a piece that ran in the August issue. He then presented me with a copy of that very issue, VIBE’s last edition, the hot pink cover of which featured songwriter The Dream embracing girlfriend/singer Christina Milian. In the image, Dream’s right hand is grabbing her left tit, and his left hand is sliding into her pants.
Classy. It’s odd: In a way, the August issue, one of the mag’s best, and a solid way to end its run, is typical of VIBE, in that it often seemed to be trying a bit too hard—the cover—even as it waged a quiet authority—the Dungeon Fam piece. At its best, VIBE covered human culture that no one else seemed to think was important, doing so with tremendous nuance, depth, and a lot of flair and style.
I hope Quincy Jones can bring it back as an online venture, as he’s saying now, but, in truth, I am doubtful. VIBE never seemed to understand the web the way I thought they should have. However, who am I to put anything past the man who created VIBE, and produced Off The Wall and Thriller? Until it does return, I’m reminded of just a tiny few of my many memories of the mag:
• Sitting up late one night with Danyel, after everyone else had gone, talking about story ideas she wanted to do, but had not been able to make happen, such as the piece they finally did on the DeBarge family. “It’s a fucking saga!” she’d exclaimed that evening.
• The time that Duane Pyous, asst. photo editor at the time, as he cracked up, refused to let me take home an astoundingly retouched photo—wax pencil all over it!—of the April 1996 Mariah Carey cover image, after the mag did a huge print dump. (It’s not the June 2008 one, right, though, clearly, that’s had work done, too.)
• Once when the magazine carelessly placed editorial about Public Enemy Terminator X’s bird farm, and a semi-nude Michael Johnson NIKE ad, so when you held the mag a certain way, the headline over the near-naked photo of the track & field star read, “My Ostrich Weighs a Ton.” NIKE was steamed. Blaze magazine editor Jesse Washington and I had a great laugh about that one.
• Publishing “Digital Underground,” the first large piece on MP3 music technology to ever be run in a major music magazine, in October 1998.
• Whenever I looked through the window of managing editor Sarah Min as she sat in her office. The woman had the most spotless workspace I have ever seen in my existence. It looked like something from a photo shoot…all the time. Literally not a pencil out of place. To this day, I do not understand how she did it, or why.
• The moment I called Rob from my Chicago hotel room, after speaking with Oprah Winfrey in May 1997, and told him, “I don’t know if what I have is garbage, or the greatest interview I’ve ever done.” Later, Oprah told Danyel it was one of the two best profiles of her she’d ever read.
• Hosting two producers panels, in two different years, at the VIBE Music Seminar, with such artists as Nile Rodgers, DJ Clark Kent, the RZA, Hank Shocklee, Kenny Gamble, on and on.
• My roundtable with actors Aunjanue Ellis, Tracy Ross, Vivica A. Fox, and Kerry Washington, particularly when Kerry, right, said that she, as an actress, was the only person in her peer group who would regularly be turned down for work because she was Black, then told this, as well, without fear of reprisal.
• Working on my Harry Allen: HyperText piece with Rob: A visualiztion of the semantic arrangements within Notorious B.I.G.’s “Niggas Bleed.”
• Seeking out, and meeting, artists Leo & Diane Dillon, after one of their paintings, of an African female astronaut, was commissioned by editor Bob Morales for his section. I adored the image so much I bought it.
• Interviewing Magic Johnson, Quentin Tarantino, Jamie Foxx, Salt-n-Pepa, Nas, Jay-Z….
• Seeing the October 2005 cover, right, of the recently deceased Luther Vandross, done under Mimi Valdes. In a certain, Michelle Obama-esque sense, it was the first time I was ever actually proud of the magazine. By that point, I was pretty used to VIBE not covering subjects I thought were important. It was clear to me, thoug clear sooner to them, that my interests and VIBE’s were going in different directions.
When Vandross died—four years ago today, as it turns out—I was sure that he’d not even get a cover blurb. When I saw that incredible photo of him, though, with nothing else in front except his name and life dates, I felt like a proud daddy. I thought that they’d gone beyond the call of duty. It was almost as though the magazine was trying to, again, teach its readers the greatness of Black culture, and that it is often found in places, and in weights, that others do not see or celebrate.
I think they were right.