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From AJR,   December 1998  issue

A Revolutionary Approach to Music Reviews   


By Natalie Hopkinson
Natalie Hopkinson is associate editor of TheRoot.com.      

Blaze magazine Editor in Chief Jesse Washington prides himself on being a revolutionary. The 9 mm pistol he claims was aimed at his chest merely punctuated the point.

The trouble started when the hip hop magazine launched by the creators of Vibe introduced a new concept to journalism: publishing music reviews with an accompanying response from the artist. With the magazine's first issue in August, Blaze broke the tradition of never showing an article to its subject before it goes to print.

About three weeks before the issue hit the newsstand, as Washington tells it, he was sitting at the Hit Factory studios conference room in New York City when platinum recording artist Wyclef Jean pointed the gun at his chest. Jean was miffed because a record he had produced by rapper Canibus, titled "Can-I-Bust?," was going to get a negative review. Jean told Washington that the writer had reviewed an incomplete recording.

"He hints that there might be bloodshed if they don't get a 'fair shake,' " Washington wrote in the magazine's premier issue. But Washington decided to give Jean the benefit of the doubt by not printing the review and waiting for the "complete version." "This is the price you pay for daring to be revolutionary," he wrote.

In an interview on MTV, Jean said Washington's story was just a stunt to gain publicity, adding that he never pulled a gun on the editor. Jean's spokesman would not comment further to AJR.

Aside from this alleged life-threatening reaction, Blaze's concept raises serious journalistic questions. Musicians and the general public have long complained about what they believe is the media's bias. Theoretically, printing artists' responses would be a way to give readers deeper insight into the artists' work and raise points writers may have missed.

But others say this approach may prompt pre-publication objections, as it did with the review of the Canibus album.

Washington acknowledges that Jean's rationale for stopping the review was possibly less than ingenuous. In fact, he says the final album by Canibus reflected very few changes--one additional song and a new beat in another--from the version reviewed by the writer. But if he could do it all over again, he would react the same way, Washington says, since he couldn't be positive the review copy was the final version. "Fairness is the most important thing to me," he says.

Washington, a former assistant New York bureau chief for the Associated Press and managing editor of Vibe magazine, got the idea of publishing artists' views when he was an English major at Yale in the early 1990s. It didn't make sense to him that literary critics could be interpreting what a writer meant to convey 400 years earlier.

He says the artist is the best one to accurately explain his thinking. Consequently, at Blaze, a writer provides a copy of a yet-to-be-published review to the artist, who is given equal space to respond.

Washington says a degree of restraint is positive in that it makes writers more cautious about getting facts right and providing a thoughtful critique. "In this genre, writers take cheap shots at the artists. I want to put more pressure on the writers so they have to back up what they are saying," he says.

However, some dismiss the new concept as a way for Blaze to ingratiate itself with the hip hop community. "If you're going to be a critical publication, you risk [losing] access to artists," says Ta-Nehisi Coates, a music critic for the Washington City Paper who is planning a 1999 launch for his own rap magazine, Hip Hop Quarterly. "But if no one takes a stand, [artists] are going to continue to run all over you... Your ultimate responsibility is to the reader, not to present the artists in the light they want to be presented." Coates says Blaze's new policy simply reflects the too-cozy relationship between writers and the rappers they cover, a notion in journalism hardly limited to hip hop.

Nathan Brackett, record reviews editor for Rolling Stone, says rappers and the hip hop publications that cover them form a tighter-knit community than exists in many other genres of music, often socializing and throwing lavish parties together. That has led to tension and, in a few extreme cases, violence between the two groups.

"Unfortunately, a lot of rap magazines have had conflicts with the artists," he says. "It says something about the editorial power of those magazines."

A record review should provide thoughtful analysis, not necessarily another platform for the artist, Brackett says. "I think it could set a bad precedent because the magazine gives up some of its authority. The fact is that any artist can write a response to an interview after it's been published."

Washington says the response to Blaze's concept from musicians and other journalists has been mostly positive. But the policy "hasn't been universally embraced," he acknowledges.

One rapper responded to a review with a heavy dose of suspicion. "I feel like [asking me to comment] is using me as a guinea pig to spark controversy," wrote rapper Fat Joe, in a response published underneath a critical review of his album.

"Perhaps people would expect Fat Joe to respond in a violent manner," he continued, "but I refuse to go along with the plan. I respect your opinion, but we'll let the consumers decide."