Rollins: Rock’n’roll had never really been challenged by any musical genre until hip-hop, and Rolling Stone had never seen a challenger with the momentum that Vibe had. By acquiring Spin [in 1997], the two magazines collectively matched Rolling Stone’s 1 million circulation.
In 1997, Light was tapped to edit Spin and Danyel Smith became Vibe’s first black and first female editor-in-chief. She left in 1999 and was succeeded by Wilbekin, who styled Destiny’s Child as The Supremes -- with Beyoncé in the Diana Ross role -- on the February 2001 cover, got Jay-Z to write a story about his rise to prominence and memorialized R&B star Aaliyah when she died in a plane crash on Aug. 25, 2001. The following year, Vibe won a National Magazine Award for general excellence.
Wilbekin: We beat out The New Yorker, Wired, Jane and Gourmet. It was a coup, and a tipping point for Vibe, hip-hop and black media. In my acceptance speech, I talked about giving voice to the voiceless.
Hip-hop culture had indeed reached a tipping point. Vibe’s next editor-in-chief, Valdes, ascended to the job in 2004, a time when Usher, Beyoncé, Jay-Z and OutKast ruled the year-end Billboard Hot 100 charts.
Valdes: I got the job at the worst time. It was right when urban music and culture had cemented itself as a global phenomenon. Suddenly, all of the mainstream magazines that had been ignoring it wanted to put these artists on their covers. I realized that in order for Vibe to maintain its credibility, we had to change our cover strategy. Out of 10 issues a year, at least three of our covers needed to make a shot call on a [promising] new artist, like Chris Brown, T.I., Keyshia Cole or Alicia Keys. I started looking for people who I thought were going to have really successful debut albums. [Given our deadlines,] I was working three to four months ahead of [record release dates], so these weren’t easy decisions.
Aliya S. King (contributing writer): Vibe let me rock for years to get this story done [“Love and Unhappiness,” Dec. 2004]. Al Green famously got doused in a shower with hot grits by a woman. I looked it up, and I saw that the woman [Mary Woodson] had died that same night of gunshot wounds. They called it a suicide. I spent a year and a half trying to get her family to talk to me. Vibe kept me in Memphis for weeks. I spoke to Al. In his book he said “I’ll always leave a seat open for her because I loved her so much.” I went to his church [The Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis that Green established in 1976 when he entered the ministry. I waited ‘till it was my turn to walk up and I [asked the congregation], “DOES MARY WOODSON HAVE A SEAT HERE?” Al looked at me like: Is somebody gonna get this bitch up out this church? It took me a year to write this story. They hired two additional fact checkers to work along with the two fact checkers that were on staff. So one day a couple months later, I get a call from ASCAP: “You won the Deems Taylor Award for magazine writing this year." I went to the fancy-schmancy Radio City awards, and her family came. They were all in the back. And I was sobbing like a baby.
Memsor Kamarake (fashion director, 2005-09; consulting fashion director, 2012): At Vibe we were never star-struck, because we were meeting all these artists at the ascent of their careers. They were almost like family, and we knew we were helping family get to a better place. Beyoncé flew into New York for her cover shoot during a snowstorm [“Beyoncé Strips Down,” June 2007], one of those Nor’easters where everything was whipping around. She was leaving the same day, and I said to her, “I know it’s not the norm for us to ask these sorts of questions, but how do you maintain it all?” She’s always so composed. But for one second, she released the veil -- something in her eyes. And she said, “This is what I asked for. This is what I dreamed of. And it’s happening.” Two seconds later, the veil was back up, and it was business as usual.
Vibe continued to delve beneath the glittery facade of black music: Its October 2006 cover showcased an angry-looking Bobby Brown with a quote referencing his spouse, Whitney Houston: “Don’t tell me nothing about my wife, ’cause I will hurt you.” But a much more positive, nationally transformative story was brewing, and Vibe would take ownership. Illinois senator Barack Obama was running for president and Danyel Smith, who had returned for a second stint as editor-in-chief, made him the first politician to grace two different covers for Vibe’s 14th-anniversary issue in September 2007. Declared one: “It’s Obama Time.” According to Kenner, Vibe was also the first to endorse Obama for president.