In late 1997, The Source magazine celebrated the release of its 100th issue with an enormous bash at the Hammerstein Ballroom. Hip hop’s era of excess was at its blinged-out height. Everybody was getting money and flaunting it. Even the journalists. Before the party, Dave Mays, the co-founder and co-owner of The Source, distributed diamond-encrusted medallions emblazoned with the company logo to about 10 members of the staff. They were later appraised at $7,000.
The party was a victory lap for Mr. Mays. Over the previous 18 months, The Source had doubled in circulation—then doubled again. The company had expanded into television, launched a record label, and begun producing awards shows. Times were good.
I missed out on the glory days of The Source. I interned in the music department in 2002 and eventually became staff writer. But aside from the time I shared a blunt with Mr. Mays during the August 2003 blackout, we didn’t converse much. I left the magazine in early 2005. Less than a year later, Mr. Mays and his controversial business partner, Raymond Scott, a rapper from Boston nicknamed Benzino, were also out.
The flame-out was dramatic. Mr. Mays and Mr. Scott were sued for sexual harassment by former editor-in-chief Kim Osorio, and Mr. Scott was indicted for tax evasion. (He was later found not guilty of failing to file; a jury threw out Ms. Osorio’s discrimination and sexual-harassment complaints but found that she’d been wrongfully terminated. She was reportedly awarded $7.5 million.)
The partners were largely written off by the publishing industry as well as the hip hop community. “It was me and Ray in a fucking raft out at sea by ourselves with the sharks swirling,” Mr. Mays said.
“People thought we were going to be buried,” Mr. Scott added. “But we felt like we could bounce back as long as we stuck together.”
Late one night in March 2006, Dave Mays was asleep in his New Jersey home when he received a phone call from Mr. Scott. They’d been kicking around start-up ideas, and Mr. Scott had had a eureka moment. “He said, ‘I got it!” Mr. Mays recalled. “And he broke down how there were all these celebrity magazines like Us Weekly and People, and they were all successful but all featured the same group of people: basically, white celebrities. There was a void in the market.”
Their new magazine would come out twice a month. “We realized that the monthly magazine is a dying breed,” Mr. Mays said. “I’m sure you can do a monthly sewing magazine but with hip hop, there is shit happening every day, second and hour.”
They named it Hip Hop Weekly and began quietly publishing in late 2006. There was no lavish launch party, and the operation ran on a shoestring. Whereas The Source at its height had more than 80 full-time employees working out of a 20,000-square-foot office on Park Avenue South, Hip Hop Weekly works out of a small office in Miami and is put out by 10 part-time employees who mostly work from home. The website is run by a single part-timer. Photo shoots are a rare luxury.
The approach appears to be working. According to Mr. Mays, the magazine became profitable in 2010 with approximately $4 million in revenues and a circulation of around 100,000 (the figure is not audited).
“They’re not quitters,” said Russell Simmons, a longtime supporter. “Their appreciation for the art form is so honest. Their passion for hip hop is obvious. Authenticity sells.”
The Source’s origin story is now hip hop lore. In 1986, Dave Mays, a Harvard student from an affluent part of Washington, D.C., met another white Jewish hip hop fan, Jonathan Shecter, and together they began hosting a radio show. Mr. Mays created a newsletter to promote it, and soon The Source was born. While at Harvard, Mr. Mays also befriended Ray Scott, a rapper from hard-knuckle Roxbury, who went by the name Benzino.
Following graduation, Mr. Mays and Mr. Shecter moved to New York City, and the magazine flourished. The partners had spotted a market that had been neglected by the publishing industry, and The Source grew as rapidly as the genre it covered.
There was no shortage of turmoil. In 1994, the founding editors left in protest after Mr. Mays surreptitiously inserted a feature on Benzino’s rap group, the Almighty RSO, into the magazine. Following the upheaval, Mr. Scott became co-owner of the magazine, though his exact role was vague, an industry guessing game. Still, the magazine continued to grow.
By 2001, it was selling approximately 360,000 copies on newsstands and reportedly earning annual profits of around $10 million, an extraordinary figure for an independent publisher.
In April 2002, Mr. Mays sold 18 percent of the company to the private equity firm Black Enterprise Greenwich Street Fund for $12 million. Months later, Black Enterprise helped the company obtain a $18 million dollar loan from Textron Financial. Mr. Mays said the cash infusion was to cover an existing loan and offset losses incurred by The Source’s website. It eventually cost him the company. “The biggest reason The Source went down and we lost it was my mistake in betting the farm on the Internet,” he said. “I made a stupid deal with the private equity people. I was naïve. I was believing my hype too much.”
“The ideas that the Source.com staff [had] were bigger than what the Internet bandwidth at the time allowed,” said Carlito Rodriguez, who served as editor-in-chief of The Source from late 1999 until spring 2002. “It seemed like they were doing O.K., but then the Internet bubble burst.”
Further problems arose for The Source later in 2002, when Benzino exchanged a flurry of diss records with Eminem, whom he branded “the rap David Duke, the rap Hitler, the culture stealer.” Naturally, the magazine chose sides—one issue featured a fold-out poster of Benzino holding Eminem’s severed head—but while Benzino claimed the beef was a selfless attempt to defend hip hop from corporate influences, it didn’t resonate with readers.
Worse, it made enemies out of not only Eminem but out of Dr. Dre, 50 Cent and Interscope Records as well.
“When Ray went after Eminem, that’s when we started to see newsstand sales decline,” said Jeremy Miller, The Source’s COO at the time. “Within a year, newsstand sales went from 380,000 to 300,000 to 270,000. That was huge.”
The partners seem to have let bygones be bygones: Eminem is regularly featured in Hip Hop Weekly. “Anything he’s doing gets covered in the magazine,” Mr. Mays said, while admitting, “We haven’t done any interviews with him.”
Mr. Scott’s duties at The Source were always a little fuzzy. At Hip Hop Weekly, the 46-year-old is listed as co-founder/chief brand executive while Mr. Mays, 42, is co-founder/publisher. Asked what he does, he told The Observer, “That’s always been part of the mystique of ’Zino,” adding, “Honestly, I’m pretty much involved with everything that goes on up there. I let Dave handle a lot of the business side and I’m picking the staff, the stories. Do I read every single story that comes up? I’m not a copy editor or anything, but I get the issue plan together and pretty much pick all the covers.”
Mr. Mays agreed. “Every idea, every concept, creatively 99.9 percent of everything is his ideas,” he said. “At The Source people didn’t really understand or appreciate [his] contributions. For a long time, it was not known what his role was, and we kept it that way. And of course, it’s Dave Mays, Harvard graduate, and people automatically associate me as the smart one. Little do they know that he’s the real genius of the partnership.”
Mr. Mays also blamed that dynamic for feeding the scuttlebutt that Mr. Scott was strong-arming him and using The Source as a cash register for his recording career. “[It’s] like, ‘Dave is being taken advantage of, or he’s threatening him,’” Mr. Mays said. “That’s the stereotype one would think: the Harvard guy and the street guy, and that’s the only way they can be getting along. And it’s a believable story because of those stereotypes.”
Mr. Rodriguez called them “the tightest, best of friends. Brothers.”
Still, The Source had a spending problem and observers naturally began to wonder where the money was going. “People were like, ‘You’re spending the money on Ray’s career and that’s what it is,’” Mr. Mays said. “No, schmuck. I just spent $10 million on Source.com, dickface. That’s where I fucked up the money. Did I fuck up money? Yeah. Was it on that? No.”
“Everybody at The Source had an assistant who had an assistant,” Mr. Miller said. He also said there were several people on the payroll who weren’t working at the company. He dubbed them “phantom employees.” “I used to joke that if we made $5 million in profit, Dave would spend $6 or $7 million. But I think he has learned a hell of a lot. There is no way he could put out Hip Hop Weekly and have it succeed if he didn’t go through what he went through at The Source.”
I rarely interacted with Mr. Scott at The Source until November 2004, when I wrote a cover story on his friend, the rapper Ja Rule. I thought I’d written a fair piece, despite the fact that Ja Rule, like The Source, was feuding with 50 Cent. I was wrong. On the Monday morning after publication, Ms. Osorio told me that Mr. Scott was furious about the story and I was going be fired. Mr. Mays and Mr. Scott met with the editorial staff that afternoon in Mr. Mays’s office.
The meeting quickly turned into an inquisition on the cover story, and Mr. Scott asked if I was a fan of Ja Rule’s music. I rambled about objectivity and journalistic integrity. He then asked if I preferred 50 Cent’s music. It was a yes-or-no question. I told him I did.
Throughout the meeting, Mr. Scott picked at his cornrows. After an hour or so, half of his mane was an unruly mess while the rest remained braided. His hair looked wild. A colleague said that it was an intimidation tactic he often used during long meetings.
In the end, somehow, I was spared. But a few years later, I learned that sometime before that meeting, Mr. Scott allegedly told Ms. Osorio that he’d “cut [my] pinkie finger off.” It was also recounted in her 2008 memoir, Straight From the Source. I asked Mr. Scott about the story. “Picture that,” he said. “Again, that’s one of these urban legends. Cut off his pinkie finger? That sounds like a movie to me. Honestly, it does.”
Such turmoil was common. “I’ll never forget writing a Ludacris cover story and being told at the 11th hour it might be pulled because he was performing at Monday Night Football instead of at the Source Awards,” said former music editor Jerry L. Barrow. “That was just the regular unpredictable nature of working at The Source. You had to be able to bob and weave.”
Hip Hop Weekly employees have seen significantly less turbulence. “I knew what people in the industry had to say,” editor-at-large Cynthia Horner noted. “But I have not seen any of the problems that you used to read about.”
Mr. Scott said that he’s mellowed in recent years. “Getting older gives you a different perspective on life, but I’m still a passionate person,” he said. “I’m just focusing on raising my kids, getting this magazine off the ground, doing music and just enjoying life.”
Both he and Mr. Mays said they miss The Source because it offered them a platform to tackle social and political issues, but they’re confident that Hip Hop Weekly’s format is a better bet in today’s marketplace. They recently beefed up the ad team and are developing a television show—think Entertainment Tonight meets Rap City. They’ve also published successful one-offs, such as a Michael Jackson tribute, a 3-D swimsuit calendar, and Skyboxx, a sports lifestyle publication.
Meanwhile, Mr. Scott is considering writing his memoirs. “I don’t think people understand what my true motives are,” he said. “There have been people riding with me since day one. The ones that haven’t because they’ve been misinformed are the ones I want to get to.” And the others? “The ones that hate my guts, I really don’t care about them anyway.”