Jon Van Meter gets right to the point. "We don't want to be called or thought of or looked at as a hip-hop magazine," he says of Vibe, the monthly music magazine he edits.
True, both the "preview issue" that came out last fall and the premiere issue arriving at newsstands this week feature rap stars on the cover (Treach from Naughty By Nature and Snoop Doggy Dogg(cq), respectively). And it's equally true that Vibe's founder, producer-musician Quincy Jones, hopes the magazine will do for rap fans in the '90s what Rolling Stone did for rock fans in the '70s.
But for Van Meter, hip-hop - the popular culture based around rap music - is only part of the mix in the magazine. "We cover R&B; and dance music, we cover Hollywood actors," he says. "We really are trying to traffic in a lot of different discussions about race and gender and music and politics and sexuality."
Flip through the new issue and it's easy to see what Van Meter means. In addition to profiles of rappers Snoop Doggy Dogg and DJ Magic Mike, there are stories about singers SWV, Princeton professor Cornel West(cq), Baltimore dance diva Ultra Nate, urban skate rats and 22-year-old record mogul Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs. Even the reviews section take a wide-angle view of the world, covering everything from the latest Kris Kross(cq) and Cypress Hill albums to a documentary on the late reggae star Peter Tosh and a book on basketball star Spencer Haywood.
Van Meter doesn't think there's anything anomalous about his ++ magazine's range or varied interests. Even hip-hop fans, he points out, don't restrict themselves to rap. "When we go to hip-hop parties in New York," he says, "every third song is a house music song. The hip-hop audience doesn't just sit around and listen to rap music. They listen to Martha Wash and Ultra Nate, whether they know it or not.
"I think that what we're trying to do here is create something that has that kind of diversity and love of the music."
Particularly that "love of the music," because that's something Van Meter doesn't see much of in modern music journalism. Oh, sure, there are plenty of writers who wax eloquent on the sound and emotions of rock. But change the subject to R&B;, hip-hop or dance music, and Van Meter finds that few of them have anything of consequence to say.
"When it comes to music criticism, there's a lot of people that don't quite know how to approach [this music]," he says. "They don't know how to think about it. It's sort of like, 'Oh, I like this.'
"There are hundreds of thousands of white guys of every age that sit around and think about rock and roll, and talk about it, and analyze it. But that kind of community of writers and journalists doesn't exist for this music - and I know that more than anybody right now. It's so hard to find writers."
Whether the writers are there or not, it's clear that there's an enormous interest in the music and culture Vibe hopes to chronicle. Moreover, says Van Meter, the biggest and most established music magazines aren't adequately covering that scene.
"Our goal is to fill the void that Rolling Stone has left behind," he says. "And I think Rolling Stone is a relevant magazine. I read it and I've been reading it since I've been, like, 14. I've also had a subscription to Spin since the very first issue.
"But Rolling Stone feels like it's in a bit of a quandary between Eric Clapton and Whitney Houston; I never quite know who they're after. And Spin seems to be really this determinedly alternative rock college radio. There is a huge gap, I think, for millions of people that love pop music that is in this category of this sort of R&B-derived; music.
"So my interest in creating Vibe and being the editor in chief of it is to put my card on the table and say, 'This is another one that should be thought of in that company,' " he says. "And I've always thought that there's no major magazine in this country that takes it seriously."
With national distribution through Time/Warner (which owns the magazine) and an initial press run of 100,000 copies, Vibe clearly has the potential to push its way into the upper echelons of the music press. Although the magazine isn't likely to top Rolling Stone's million-plus circulation any time soon, it could become one of the top five music magazines simply by selling out its press run.
Still, Vibe hasn't exactly been welcomed with open arms by the hip-hop community. Some have suggested that because the magazine is a Time/Warner product, it's automatically too mainstream and corporate to be true to the hip-hop nation. Others have complained about the racial and sexual makeup of the magazine's staff. Rap entrepreneur Russell Simmons, whose ventures include Rush management and Def Jam records, griped as the preview issue came out that there wasn't a single straight black male on the Vibe staff.
Van Meter shrugs off Simmons' complaint. "Before it was actually out, the only thing [people] could focus on was who was putting it together," he says. "But most of that seems to have fairly died down, or at least people aren't saying anything anymore."
Some of that has to do with the way the magazine's staff has expanded. "There are 40 people working in our office; on the test issue, there was, like, seven people," he explains. "So now that we're a bona fide business with a staff of 40 people, it's a little different."
As for whether Vibe is black enough to get props from the hip-hop community, Van Meter - who is white - almost snorts in derision.
"We're not interested in the ridiculous and hypocritical politics that make up this mythical hip-hop nation," he says. "I'm very interested in getting away from the idea that Vibe is a hip-hop magazine. Anything that calls itself 'hip-hop' sets itself up for that horrible scrutiny about credibility that has often to do with sort of how violent you are, you know? Whether you've committed a crime or not seems to be the one thing that I can actually, truly figure out is a mark of credibility.
"But blackness as an idea - not as a skin color - is an interesting discussion, and something we'll definitely write about," he adds. "Maybe we'll do a test someday. We'll publish a test, 'How Black Are You?' I'm speaking about that ironically, really. But it's a very interesting thing, the sort of blacker-than-thou thinking that goes on, and definitely something we deal with every day here."