R.I.P., Vibe, 1993-2009
Someone had to be around to document hip-hop’s journey to the center of the pop-cultural universe. Enter Vibe. But now it’s gone. Where does that leave hip-hop?
Vibe magazine is dead. Just like that. No wake, no second line, no funeral. Nothing. Vibe is gone like a pocket full of singles at an Atlanta strip club. Gone, but certainly not forgotten.
I can remember the inaugural Vibe magazine cover like it was yesterday. Snoop Doggy Dogg—as he was known at the time—mean muggin’ in a West Coast skully. This was 1993 and Vibe was on point like Stacy Adams, when Snoop, Dre, Suge and the West Coast were dominating the rap game, having momentarily housed the culture from its origins in New York. Vibe, the brainchild of Quincy Jones, who says he’s trying to buy his magazine back, was on the pulse and set to bring a certain journalistic legitimacy to hip-hop, similar to what Down Beat had done for jazz and Rolling Stone did for rock and roll.
The Source magazine actually jumped off before Vibe, but The Source was always geared toward the true hip-hop heads, those who were interested in the music and music alone. Vibe had bigger fish to fry, thus the grease needed to be hotter.
In the early ‘90s, hip-hop had made the successful transition from Sedgwick and Cedar through Compton on its way to global dominance. Along the way, as the music grew more and more pervasive, its influence had started to become evident in multiple cultural arenas. Spike Lee, John Singleton and other filmmakers were bringing that hip-hop energy to cinema. Hip-hop infused comedy like that showcased on In Living Color, and HBO’s Def Comedy Jam was holding court, while Will Smith was showcasing an especially decaffeinated, though highly successful version of hip-hop steez on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. With the verbal and visual firmly locked down, the only thing missing at this point was the printed word.
Vibe always saw hip-hop as an expansive lifestyle brand, and the magazine went about promoting the culture in the broadest sense possible, documenting hip-hop’s journey to the center of the pop-cultural universe. The magazine, in many ways, helped to make the argument that hip-hop was a comprehensive culture that transcended the music. Vibe featured stories on figures from the worlds of film, television, fashion, sports, politics and beyond, all from a hip-hop perspective. At its best, the magazine could, like Public Enemy, “reach the bourgeois and rock the boulevard.”
To this end, the magazine found itself first reporting on and then being firmly mired in one of the biggest stories in the history of hip-hop, the East Coast/West Coast beef that would eventually claim the lives of the culture’s two most celebrated figures, Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur. There was the Kevin Powell cover story where ‘Pac famously, though prematurely said “thug life is dead;” another red-tinged cover touting “The New and Untouchable Death Row Records” and the classic photo of B.I.G. posed as the “rap Alfred Hitchcock,” among other such prose and portraits during hip-hop’s most tumultuous era. Many at the time accused Vibe of fanning the flames of this unfortunate rivalry. Some even suggested that Vibe had blood on its hands after the two murders went down.
In hindsight though, Vibe’s place as a nexus in this bi-coastal war cemented the magazine’s status as a relevant chronicle of hip-hop’s rapidly expanding evolution from sub-cultural status to mass cultural behemoth. Vibe, like the Washington Post during Watergate, no longer simply reported on the story; the magazine had at this point become an integral part of the very story that it was supposed to be reporting on. While some more traditionally minded journalists might disparage such things, there is perhaps not more of a ringing endorsement about cultural relevance that a publication can have than to be both an observer and a participant at the same time. In this way, Vibe was like hip-hop itself, constantly moving between first-person and third-person narration, while recognizing that the provocative power of words and images ultimately lie in the presentation.