Vibe magazine was the first true home of the culture we inhabit today. Before top radio stations across the country branded themselves as places for “hip-hop and R&B,” before TV shows and films and commercials regularly reflected hip-hop sensibilities, before mainstream publications regularly put people of color on their covers, Vibe launched with a confidence that all of these things would soon produce a new, multicultural mainstream.
Conceived as a hip-hop magazine by two unlikely parents — the most powerful black record producer in the world, Quincy Jones, at the behest of the most powerful media executive in the world, Steve Ross — it was dropped into the laps of media professionals who were largely clueless about the culture. With a rocky start that included a last-minute name change and the resignation of its first editor, Vibe was nurtured by a motley crew of seasoned editors, bean counters, visionary designers, photographers and, most importantly, young writers and intellectuals who had honed what some called a “new black aesthetic”: a creed that championed hip-hop but thought broad and wide about the genre’s connections to the past and the future, and its implications for just about every other art and science.
Vibe would quickly exceed its founders’ wildest expectations, becoming a top-selling music magazine. It would make celebrities out of a new crop of young artists — Snoop, Diddy, Biggie, Tupac, Usher, Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill. It would publish articles that broke news and inspired movies. And it would foster a generation that, today, populates nearly every corner of American media. It would be one of the first to give a cover to Barack Obama, in 2007 — “Ladies & Gentlemen, (Is This) The Next President of the United States?” — but also the first to document the not-so-secret love affair in the 1990s between hip-hop and Donald Trump — “Money Boss Player” — in May 1999.
What follows is a selective oral history of the magazine, from its birth and ascent, through its 21st century transformation into a digital cultural bellwether and its 2016 acquisition by the Billboard Music Group.
In 1991, Steve Ross — the man whom Quincy Jones called his “guru” — called on the vaunted music producer for help. Two years earlier, Ross had executed the world’s first media megamerger, combining the record companies and film studios of his Warner Communications with the behemoth magazine and book publisher Time-Life to create Time Warner. But the two very different business cultures — hip Warner and stodgy Time — weren’t blending.
Quincy Jones (record producer/entrepreneur): Steve Ross said the “synergy” was not working quick enough for the Time Warner people. He said, “If you got any ideas, give it to me.”
Greg Sandow (former music editor, Entertainment Weekly): I get a call at my desk from Gil Rogin, one of the top three editors at Time. And he says, basically, “What the fuck are we going to do? We have a deal with Quincy Jones that says he can do anything he wants to do. And he wants to start a rap magazine!”
Gil Rogin (former corporate editor, Time Inc.): Sandow wrote this 11-page memo about whether Time Warner should start this magazine about hip-hop. Because everybody was worried it was a fad. And [the memo] went on and on and on and on.
Sandow: I said, “Don’t think of it as a rap magazine. Think of it as an urban youth-culture magazine.” That seemed to make them feel better. I’m summoned to this meeting on the 34th floor [at the Time Inc. executive offices]. And here came some serious concerns. This dapper guy in a suit and beautifully polished shoes says, “We’re publishing this. Does that mean we have to put black people on the cover?” It was a privately but not publicly stated policy at those magazines not to put black faces on the cover. Because, they said, covers with black faces didn’t sell. I was speechless. The guy finally solved it himself. He says, “Wait a minute, we publish Sports Illustrated. We put Michael Jordan on the cover and people don’t say, ‘There’s a black guy!’” Though maybe he needed a little more reassurance, because he turned to me and asked, “Is that how it is with rap guys?”
Robin Wolaner (former vp magazine development, Time Inc.): We knew how to test magazine ideas without staffing up and incurring lots of costs. I called Adam Moss [now editor-in-chief of New York magazine] and described what we needed. He suggested [former Vogue assistant editor] Jonathan Van Meter. Adam said: “He’s gay and he’s white, but in his heart he’s a 14-year-old black girl.”
Jonathan Van Meter (editor-in-chief, 1992-93): I convinced Rogin because I knew so many people who knew so much about hip-hop. At the time there was, like, one black person that worked at every magazine — exactly one — and I knew them all. And I understood music enough, and was able to talk him through what an issue could look like.
Scott Poulson-Bryant (senior editor/writer, 1992-96): I got a call from Jonathan. He said he liked my writing, Quincy Jones liked my writing. So I thought, “Well, I can either get stuck writing a hip-hop column in the back of Spin magazine or I can be part of the launch of a Quincy Jones magazine — at the time, I think they were calling it Noise. I was hired as senior editor. A few weeks later, the name of the magazine was changed to Volume.
Van Meter: The opening essay [in the test issue] was by Greg Tate on the year in hip-hop. There was a Bonz Malone piece on baseball hat brim etiquette. A piece by Lisa Jones about Minneapolis and Prince. Rosemary Bray wrote about how she wants to be mad at [“Baby Got Back” rapper] Sir Mix-A-Lot but she’s too busy laughing at him. Kevin Powell on Naughty by Nature. Nelson George on black new wave cinema. Bobby Brown by Scott Poulson-Bryant. Martha Wash by Hilton Als.
Poulson-Bryant: We were set for a September launch when we [learned] there was a British magazine called Volume that might launch in the States. I called Jon and said, “Yo, we should call the magazine Vibe.” Quincy loved it.
Carol Smith (former publisher of parenting, Time Inc. Ventures): It was a very easy sell in that we positioned it as: “What Rolling Stone was to the ’60s, Vibe is to the ’90s.” As soon as we said that, people understood it.
Jones: They did a “wet test” for $1 million. I thought they were talking about a venereal disease. It tested well.
Van Meter: We had a 45 percent [newsstand] sell-through.
C. Smith: I wrote a $10 million business plan. Bob Miller [head of Time Inc. Ventures] and I presented it. I hired John Rollins and Keith Clinkscales, and we went right into launch.
Kevin Powell (staff writer, 1993-96): After the test issue, Scott Poulson-Bryant, Joan Morgan, and myself — the three staff writers – had a meeting with Jonathan Van Meter. And each of us was asked what we wanted to write about. And when it got to me, I said Tupac Shakur. Why? Because I had been an activist, and in the black activist community, the Shakur name was royalty. I was fascinated that this rapper had a background that was connected to the 1960s.
Rob Kenner (senior editor, 1993-97; editor-at-large, 1997-2012): In that meeting, I remember vividly Scott Poulson Bryant saying that hip-hop audiences don’t want to just hear the record. They want to know who produced the record and who was the A&R and who styled the video so we should be writing about people like Sean Combs.
Alan Light (music editor, 1993-94; editor-in-chief, 1994-97): Visually, everybody else was going crazier and busier. Vibe was spare and really clean, with full-page photos. George Pitts was the photo editor. So many photographers broke out of there. [Pitts died in 2017.]
Van Meter: Our art director, Gary Koepke, has never gotten full credit for how Vibe looked.
Emil Wilbekin (associate editor, 1993-95; style editor 1995-97; fashion editor, 1997-99; editor-in-chief, 1999-2004): When we launched, I started editing the NEXT section — which, over time, broke OutKast, Aaliyah, Brandy, Missy Elliott, Usher and Maxwell. My first cover story ever was Mary J. Blige’s first, too.
Light: The problem with Vibe in the first year was that it was too erratic from one month to the next. And Quincy was concerned: Was the magazine getting too far away from hip-hop? Was it too white? Was it too gay? One issue would sell really well. The next issue would tank. We just couldn’t find a rhythm. The very first cover, Snoop [Dogg], did pretty well. Wesley Snipes tanked. George Clinton tanked. Then Rosie Perez did pretty well.
Rogin: I ran into Rosie Perez at an airport baggage claim, and I said, “I want to tell you: You saved Vibe. Your nipples were sticking out of your top. Your nipples saved Vibe.” First and last time I ever spoke to her.
Van Meter: Sometimes [Rogin] could come around and upset me. He could be such a prick. But what he convinced me of was treating the cover not as part of the magazine but as an ad for the magazine. I wasn’t getting that in the beginning. The covers were a little bit too arty, too precious.
Poulson-Bryant: The controversy in the field was, “Who is this white gay guy from Vogue [editing Vibe]?” I wasn’t surprised a white guy was hired, and I felt he had some passion for the project. That was my test, and in a lot of ways, I did test Jonathan. And he did convince me. At the end of the day, Vibe had to be irreproachable in its quality, both for the white people at Time Warner and the black folks who were going to read it.
Joan Morgan (staff writer, 1993-96): The magazine was always grappling with the idea of legitimacy and with the homophobic charge at the beginning that it could never be a “real” authority on hip-hop culture because there were too many gay men there.
Wilbekin: I contracted HIV while I was fashion director. It was terrifying. I didn’t tell anyone for many years. I lived in fear, but it fueled my activism as a black gay man. People often criticized me for the LGBTQ content in Vibe. For me, it was personal and urgent, and that narrative needed to exist in a black music and culture magazine.
Van Meter: I was 30 years old. I was the oldest person in the office. There were no grown-ups. And things got a little crazy.
Mimi Valdes (editorial assistant, 1993-94; assistant editor, 1994-95; style editor, 1997-98; executive editor, 1999-2002; editor-at-large, 2002-03; editor-in-chief, 2004-06): Jonathan booked Madonna and Dennis Rodman as a cover. And Eddie Murphy’s publicist was mad as hell that Madonna was getting the cover over Eddie. We all wanted Eddie over Madonna, so we were upset about it too. When [word of the cover choice] started to get out in the industry, we all felt the need to save Vibe’s reputation.
Poulson-Bryant: I said [to Jonathan], “The staff needs to have a conference. People are really not happy about this.”
Van Meter: I said, “This isn’t The Village Voice. We’re not unionized. You can’t come in here representing the staff.”
Valdes: We were all standing by waiting for Scott to give us the go-ahead to come in. When Jonathan saw us, he got really upset.
Van Meter: I felt like I was losing control. And I said [to Scott], “You’re fired.” People in the hallways started crying. Mimi Valdes was screaming as if she’d just found out her mother was shot and killed. And I was like, “Oh, my God, I made it worse.”
Poulson-Bryant: He came to my office: “You’re not fired. Look, we’ll have a staff meeting.”
Jones: I was staying away from editorial policy. I got involved when Jonathan put the Beastie Boys on the cover and told me he was following up with Dennis Rodman and Madonna. He had already shot it!
Van Meter: I guess Quincy was getting a lot of shit from people for putting the Beastie Boys on the cover, and when he sees the Madonna cover, he went crazy.
Jones: I said, “Over my dead fucking body! That’s the way you blow an urban magazine.”
Van Meter: Madonna was queen. You can’t not put her on the cover. I couldn’t conceive of killing the best cover story we had done so far. [Quincy and I] ended up having a fight on the phone, and I smashed my phone into a thousand pieces and cleared off the top of my desk onto the floor. I think I said, “I quit.” I went home. And then the phone calls started. Everyone tried to get Quincy to change his mind. Even Madonna called me at home. She was really pissed.
Jones: I called Madonna and I said, “I’m telling you as a friend: it’s not personal, but you cannot pander with an urban magazine this early.” She said, “Quincy Jones, you and I can take over the world if we want to. See you around, pal.” I haven’t talked to her since then.
Van Meter: No one could get Quincy to change his mind. Carol Smith and Robin Wolaner called and said, “Just get as much money as you can and walk away.” By the way, I think it was a terrible idea that they hired me. I look back now and realize how incredibly naive I was.
Valdes: For all the criticism he got, Jonathan really established the tone and the vision for the magazine. We had a research department. We had a fact-checking department. A photo department. Our art department was top-notch. He created a beautiful magazine.
Van Meter: I kept saying, “Let’s make black people beautiful.” There had been an inability for people to perceive of hip-hop and elegance together at the same time, but that was my mantra from the beginning.
Bob Miller and Gil Rogin offered Alan Light the chance to replace Van Meter — with a caveat.
Light: I was 27. I’d never managed anything. I’d never seen a budget in my life. They said, “You have to cut spending in half. We need to see visible newsstand growth. And you’ve got to show it in these next three issues or we’re going to shut the magazine down.”
Danyel Smith (music editor, 1994-97; editor-in-chief, 1997-99, 2005-09): Alan called me for the job as music editor. We were under a great deal of pressure to turn it around as soon as we could. Alan had a very simple plan, and I’ve followed it ever since: Give people 70 percent of what they want, and they will trust you with the 30 percent of what you think they should have.
Light: I had been flirting with Prince a year-and-a-half for a story. The first week of June 1994 was when I went to go do the interview with him, and they were the first interviews he had done in five years. Not a bad way to come out of the gate. The next issue, Danyel did Janet Jackson, the Poetic Justice cover. Third issue, Joan Morgan does TLC and we get them to put on firefighter suits.
Morgan: What intrigued me was this idea of black female rage being called “crazy.” Lisa [“Left Eye” Lopes] was called crazy because she burned down [her boyfriend NFL player] Andre Rison’s house, and I felt there was a backstory to that. Crazy is always linked to some kind of trauma or pain. We know now that it was domestic violence. I was shocked when their publicist, Lisa Cambridge, a childhood friend of mine, let me know that they were really upset by the story. And then I saw the cover. My first thought was, “Oh, my God, this is genius.”
Light: TLC was our breakthrough cover. All three sold. Not a straight-up hip-hop cover among them.
D. Smith: Alan believed in reporting. He believed in having the hottest story at the moment when it’s the hottest. Quincy Jones, Alan and I — we all believed that Vibe should be the magazine of record.
Throughout Vibe’s print run, the magazine owned some of pop culture’s most compelling stories thanks to enterprising investigative journalism. The TLC story was followed by another breakthrough when Vibe became the first publication to confirm rumors of R. Kelly’s marriage to his underage protégée Aaliyah. When Kelly got wind of the story, his manager abruptly canceled a scheduled interview. (Ironically, Kelly still sat for the cover shoot.) Writer Danyel Smith ended up piecing together the first story to expose Kelly’s troubling behavior with young women.
D. Smith: “R. Kelly: The Sex, the Soul, the Sales — and the Scandalous Marriage to Teenage Superstar Aaliyah” [December 1994/January 1995]. Carter Harris ran down the actual marriage certificate. I interviewed everybody and their mother for that story. The situation was tragic even then.
Powell : I wrote three Tupac Shakur stories for Vibe [“Is Tupac Crazy or Just Misunderstood?,” February 1994; “Ready to Live,” April 1995; “Live From Death Row,” February 1996]. Did any of us know that he would become the most iconic figure in hip-hop history? Absolutely not. Did any of us know that in three short years Tupac would go from a marginal figure in hip-hop to the center of a storm between the East and West Coasts that was largely created by some folks? Absolutely not. We were simply following a rapper’s journey.
Kenner: Harry Allen’s interview with Oprah Winfrey, the Media Assassin meets the Queen of All Media [“Owned by Nobody,” September 1997], is one of the greatest things we published. I have the audiotapes where Oprah keeps pushing [the departure of] her private plane back because he’s just hitting her with thoughts and she was weeping and answering the truth. She ended up inviting Harry to be on the show.
Kenneth Li (contributing writer): The reason I pitched [“Racer X,” May 1998] to Vibe is a few years before that, they had published a story about urban street skaters — Black, Latino and some Asians — taking what was an upper-middle-class sport, making it their own and in the process transforming the whole world of skateboarding. I wanted to write a version of that story about the car culture in New York. Much later, I got a call from someone at Universal talking about a movie option. It became The Fast and the Furious.
Though Vibe validated the careers of many artists, the magazine fostered the growth and shaped the narrative of two figures in particular: Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. Their rise — and the ensuing war of words between them — became the story upon which Vibe truly made itself indispensable in American culture. It began in November 1994, when Shakur was shot in the lobby of a Times Square recording studio. A few months later, Kevin Powell interviewed the rapper while he was in jail awaiting sentencing on a sexual abuse conviction. In that discussion, Shakur insinuated that Sean “Puffy” Combs, Uptown Records founder Andre Harrell and B.I.G. had some foreknowledge of the ambush (“Ready to Live,” April 1995). Vibe printed vigorous denials from all three — and others Shakur had mentioned — in its August 1995 issue. The coverage of this conflict was the subject of much internal and external debate, and the violent deaths of both young men were a dark coda to the most compelling era in Vibe’s history.
Light: Biggie went from a NEXT piece, to a two-page feature, to an inside feature, to a cover. That is the greatest relationship you can have with an artist in a magazine. Every time we put Pac on the cover, it sold better each time. Anything that we wrote about him generated more reaction, more mail, than anything else. And he and Kevin Powell had a certain relationship. The Rikers [Island] cover — when we did the Q&A with him from prison that set off all the madness — was where he first said that he thought Puff and Andre were behind the shooting. Did I have qualms? Sure. But we reported the hell out of the responses [of the people Shakur named]. All of those guys spoke with their reaction and their version. [Hip-hop legend] Fab 5 Freddy did all the response interviews.
Powell: I remember praying that the Tupac I interviewed in jail — Rikers Island — would be the Tupac who would come out of jail. But it ended up being the Tupac that we wrote about in “Live From Death Row.” There was no way to predict what was going to happen. I remember being in Las Vegas at that hospital and feeling, “This is insane that this man is dead.” Did we have anything to do with that? Nah, it’s much bigger than East Coast vs. West Coast.
Light: When Pac died, that was the one time in my life I actually had to say, “Stop the presses.” The cover, on the New Edition reunion, was already printed, so we bound a new cover around the existing one and added 12 pages.
The death of Shakur on Sept. 13, 1996 — just weeks after the publication of Vibe’s “East vs. West” cover featuring Combs and The Notorious B.I.G. (September 1996) — was followed by the murder of Biggie outside a Vibe party at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles on March 9, 1997.
Karla Y. Radford (executive director of events and artist relations, 1993-2007): That night, Biggie smiled and laughed a lot. He was walking around on a cane, and I hugged him and Puff and took them to their seats. I had them right next to the dancefloor, and [Biggie] stayed posted that whole night holding on to that cane. People were taking bottles of Moët from behind the bar and nobody got mad. It was the best of times. And then it turned out to be the worst of times.
Kenner: I was not at that party, but it affected all of us. I felt very bad about Biggie’s death in particular, and the “East vs. West” cover line is a part of what I felt bad about. When the issue was in production, I had made a point of stating that we must not use the phrase “East vs. West” on the cover. The situation was so tense, I said, that if anything happened to anyone in the Death Row or Bad Boy camps, we would have blood on our hands.
Light: Biggie got shot and people said, “You guys were heating everybody up.” [But] people were already awfully heated up by that point. The East-West cover came out after “Hit ’Em Up” [Shakur’s blistering attack on Biggie in which he bragged that he had had sex with his rival’s estranged wife, Faith Evans]; and after the Dogg Pound stomped on the Manhattan skyline in the “New York, New York” video. Given the way things played out, of course you second-guess your choices. But you have to make the decisions with the cards that are in front of you. I think that we walked an appropriate line.
STATE OF INDEPENDENCE
By the late ’90s, Vibe had spun off from Time Warner and branched out into conferences, books and syndicated TV. The multimedia brand would enter the 21st century with enough clout to entice an emerging political sensation to appear on its cover — a black senator from Illinois who would soon announce his run for the presidency of the United States.
Keith Clinkscales (COO, 1993; CEO, 1994-99): The Vibe Music Seminar was about having the courage to expand on Quincy’s vision [beyond the magazine]: to talk about fashion, talk about music, talk about film and TV, and politics.
Light: Various pivotal things happened at the Vibe Music Seminar including ODB snatching Slick Rick’s mic and one of Biggie’s first public performances. We hired FOI [Fruit of Islam] to work the backstage security. I get a call from the New York Post saying: “We understand you have hired FOI. You’re the editor of this magazine and you’re Jewish. How do you feel about supporting these anti-Semites?” And I said, “Look: I’m not hiring them to give a speech. I’m hiring them to work security. I’m concerned about the safety of 5,000 people in this room. This is who works hip-hop shows. I don’t want the guys working the Rangers game doing the security for this.” So they run a story in the Post saying, basically, “Time, Inc. is writing this check to FOI and the Jewish editor in chief of the magazine is supporting it.” The JDO [Jewish Defense Organization] puts a hit out on me. On their answering machine they said: “There is a Nazi-loving, bootlicking traitor among us, and his name is Alan Light. And he must be stopped, and here’s his home address.” I’m at the seminar and Keith Clinkscales basically grabs me by the arm, hustles me out of the room, and is like, “We gotta get you outta here.” I lived in hotels under a pseudonym for two weeks. And I felt like: I did not spend six years in Hebrew school to have to be running from a guy named Mordechai.
John Rollins (publisher, 1993-96; co-president/group publisher, 1996-2001): In 1994, the top executive role at Time Inc. went to Don Logan. Thereafter, Bob Miller and Mr. Logan came to an agreement that Bob would exit the company to found his own publishing firm and the first property that he would acquire would be Vibe. Time Inc. didn’t really understand Vibe’s market, but Bob had seen the increasing newsstand numbers and wanted Vibe to be the anchor for his new company.
Clinkscales: We went independent as early as ’95. Bob founded Miller Publishing, and Vibe Ventures was a part of that.
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.
D. Smith: We introduced Obama to the culture. Our photo shoot took place in his Washington, D.C., Senate office. Terry Richardson was behind the camera. We see those shots everywhere now, and it’s funny because we were all there, asking the future president to wear Jordans with his suit, or to at least wear one of the many watches or some of the cool apparel we’d brought. He looked at us like, “Wish I could, but I won’t.”
Kamarake: He ended up wearing what he had on. But we were at a loss as to how to make him feel more relaxed. Then we asked him to take off the jacket. He started to roll up his sleeves, and I stepped in: “Unh-unh-unhhh! This is my job!” So he extended his arm and he jokes, “Oh, we have a professional here. You went to school for this?”
Kenner: The shot of “It’s Obama Time” was literally him checking his watch because he had to get back to the Senate.
The rise of media websites as an alternative to print, the decline of print circulation and advertising, and the market collapse of 2008 staggered many a print publication. With a heavy debt load and no real digital strategy, Vibe’s creditors shuttered the magazine in June 2009.
Kenner: We ended up moving to a vacated office space on Wall Street because so many financial firms were folding. We had a beautiful riverside deck — amazing cut-rate real estate — but during that time everybody took pay cuts. Michael Jackson died [on June 25, 2009], and we were going to have essays on all these different aspects of his career. I had this whole thing mapped out, and then the bankers pulled the plug. This place where I had worked for 17 years closed. There were literally armed guards from the bank who showed up at the office and escorted us out.
Vibe did not stay dead long. In August 2009, a group that included private equity fund InterMedia Partners and Uptown Media Group purchased Vibe’s assets and began searching for a new editor.
Jermaine Hall (editor-in-chief, 2009-14): I went out to lunch with [Vibe’s new co-CEO] Brett Wright. I told him that if there wasn’t a strong pivot in making dotcom the mother ship and having the magazine take a backseat, I didn’t know if bringing Vibe back would work. So when I got there, it was a hard restart. There was no one there. I had to put a team together. Brett brought Kenner back. For the [comeback issue], I knew we had to make a splash [with a double cover]. It couldn’t just be anybody. One cover was Chris Brown, and this was when Chris was still going through everything with Rihanna. He hadn’t really spoken on the situation at length yet, so I got Eric Parker to talk to Chris about everything. For cover two, I felt like we needed to really cosign somebody. So [writer] Lola Ogunnaike goes to Toronto and talks to Drake — talks to the team, talks to the mom. Fantastic story. We sent a strong message that we were back.
King: I had written “The Mystery of Puff’s Daddy?” [June/July 2010] under Danyel’s second reign. It was ready to go and then they shut down. Jermaine picked it back up after Vibe’s relaunch. The problem was that Puffy wasn’t talking about his father at all. He wouldn’t give me a sentence. He didn’t know the details about who his father Melvin was until that story dropped, including who killed him. He was very upset when it was published. It opens up with a violent scene of his father shot in a car. His mother had called that a car accident for his entire life.
Hall: Aliya did another piece for us called “The Mean Girls of Morehouse” [October/November 2010]. It was about men at Morehouse College [an all-male, historically black school in Atlanta] who’d walk around campus in dresses and heels.
King: The backlash from that piece still haunts me. You don’t take black people, conservatism, the Deep South and [historically black colleges or universities] and seemingly shame them in a black publication. I’ve only gotten “let’s go to the police” death threats twice in my life, and one of those times was after that story. Twitter had just started having trending topics, and Morehouse was trending at No. 2 worldwide. They found a picture of my 3-year-old daughter. It was scary how many people were retweeting her name. They found my address. But I don’t regret the story.
Brett Wright (Co-CEO, 2009-13): We believed — and still believed to this day — that Vibe was the strongest music brand in the space, hands down. So we had visions of licensing the brand for venues, events, film, consumer products, and more. The plan was to limit the number of issues on the print side and build a digital business. But investors have a very hard time taking traditional businesses and allowing you the latitude to grow. If you trip once, they pull the rug out.
Vibe would change hands yet again in April 2013, when it was acquired by SpinMedia, a digital media company that included the web-only version of its former sister publication. In September 2014, Vibe ceased printing, becoming a web-only outlet. A little over two years later, the Hollywood Reporter-Billboard Media Group bought SpinMedia, making Vibe a sister brand.
Datwon Thomas (editorial director, 2010-11; executive editor, 2011-13; editor-in-chief, 2015-present): After Jermaine left, I got a call from one of the staff members asking if I’d be interested in coming back. I’ve been here since February 2015. We focused exclusively on digital, and the concept of digital covers. The story I love to hang my hat on is the one Keith Murphy wrote commemorating the [N.W.A] Straight Outta Compton movie. At every other publication, it was all about Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. Everyone put Eazy-E in the corner. So we did a digital issue dedicated to Eazy-E. We found everybody. We went and got his son and people that worked at the label. The numbers were incredible. Vibe has been through so much — and we’re still here.
THE MEANING OF VIBE
Clinkscales: No conversation about Vibe can occur without talking about Quincy Jones. It was his career, and the way he did things, that set the stage for belief that Vibe could happen. Here’s one other thing: Nobody recognizes how hard it is for people of color to get an opportunity. The position I had at Vibe was a gift from God, and Quincy, and Bob Miller. It was one of the greatest opportunities that I’ve ever gotten.
Wilbekin: My father died right when I became fashion director. We were very close. [Over the course of] three weeks, I had to bury my father, comfort my mother, shoot three fashion stories for the September Fashion issue, and fly to men’s fashion week in Milan in my new role. Quincy Jones was going to the shows with us. When I told him that my father had just passed away, he said, “Don’t worry. I will be your father on this trip.” I’ll never forget that.
Kenner: Vibe is an indispensable part of the American story. We changed culture and the media landscape. There is a direct line from Tupac in a straitjacket to “It’s Obama Time.”
D. Smith: Many people who worked at Vibe often called the mainstream “the so-called mainstream.” We always said that Vibe is the actual mainstream. Rap music is responsible for more friendships and relationships, more coalitions between different races than perhaps any other art in the history of the world. Back when the culture was still new, I used to think, “Who are all these white people? Who are these Spanish brothers over in the back? Why are all these fly Asian girls in here? How are we all just partying together and know all the words to the same songs? Why are we all getting along? This is incredible.”
Li: One really cool legacy that came out of the success of the Fast and the Furious [franchise] is the “casual diversity” that touched a nerve in the first film and caught on. If you look at the cast of the movie, you’ve got Asian, black, Latino and white — and they all co-exist as a family or as rivals. There isn’t really consciousness about “Hey, look! We’re diverse!” It’s unusual in Hollywood, especially 15 years ago. Vibe started a magazine with that same kind of diverse ethic behind it. It’s why I couldn’t think of any other place but Vibe to do that original story.
Valdes: It still freaks me out anytime I’m in a random restaurant and Biggie comes on the playlist, and it’s like nothing. I remember when this would never happen. And as proud as that makes me, sometimes it makes me a little … possessive? There’s a part of me that just feels like everyone has access to it now and its just a part of the fabric of American culture. But for so long it wasn’t considered American. I sometimes wonder if people recognize the history.
Morgan: Vibe played with boundaries, definitions. It was a place to at least begin to be nonbinary in our thinking about gender and sexuality and music and culture and all the delicious ways that those things intersected.
Jones: Vibe kicked ass.