This Is What It Looked Like: Interview with Danyel Smith, EIC of Vibe Magazine

This time last week I was in a club, watching West Coasters U-N-I spit their souls onstage on London town. Ten minutes later, I was seeing the news of Michael Jackson’s death break on blackberries across the room, to the point that the gig was paused, the performers distraught and thrown, and the DJ promptly spun some MJ classics in tribute whilst we all clicked away for official confirmation.

It’s been a bleak week for music. Michael Jackson’s death needs little explanation for its impact; the musical genius was unquestionable. But we also lost Vibe magazine. With one final issue left to print, the magazine will revert to online only. A cold aftershock to the urban music industry.

There’s a little bookshop in Notting Hill, London that I like to swing by for random inspiration and bargains. In the ‘Everything 50p’ basement I always check out the magazines, generally nosing around for an old issue of Vibe. Every time I’m reminded of the leading, inspiring writing that ran through Vibe’s core.

vibe7At the time of writing this I’m flicking through a 2002 issue with Brandy on the cover, featuring an emotionally evoking piece on a journalists visit to see the late, gritty ODB in jail. Writing that made you sad, happy, introspective, reflective – you knew, from the first paragraph, that this was no XXL or Source. Vibe had it’s own identity – broader, more encompassing, more open than other Hip Hop publications; the most positively androgynous of Hip Hop magazines.

That’s not just my impression. According to the Editor, “[Vibe has] pretty much a 50/50 readership, 50% men and 50% women. Sometimes that’s awesome and sometimes it makes it more of a challenge making Vibe appeal to everybody. We just want to be intelligent and fun. We want our readers to feel a sense of satisfaction when they put it down. I would like to think more the most part that both genders can read the magazine and enjoy themselves.”

And we did.

Vibe was the reason many of us write, live the Hip Hop journalist dream, keep pushing on despite the millions of magazines that can’t afford to pay contributors – and despite the millions more people who have more recently developed the urge to write, type and broadcast, fighting for freelance pennies to distribute their opinions, reviews and conversations.

Almost this time last year, on my last visit to New York, drawn by that universal admiration I walked into the newly located Vibe offices and met Danyel Smith, Vibe’s Editor-In-Chief. It hadn’t occurred to me that one year later, the magazine would no longer exist. Perched on the Editor’s couch, I asked her for her experiences of the music industry and Vibe – and their (then, current) Jay-Z covers celebrating 50 years of the magazine’s existence. “This is what it looks like,” they proclaimed, coining Jiggaman’s Glastonbury Festival uttered phrase.

This week, as I reflect on Vibe’s history and re-evaluate what’s left, I decided to dig out the interview. No time like the present… Here’s to the past.

danyel3“I was one of those little girls who started reading very early and was fascinated with books really early and began to think at a young age – six or seven – once I knew what an author was I began to think that was something I wanted to do; make books. I almost can’t remember a time when I wasn’t feeling that way…” our interview began.

Getting her start at the San Francisco Guardian as an Editorial intern, writing a cover story about Hip Hop in the Bay in 1989, Danyel Smith swiftly became the paper’s Music Editor and the go-to journo for on point music coverage. Joining VIBE’s editorial staff in 1994, Smith’s first byline at Vibe was in the second issue. Her first Vibe cover was issue No. 3. Her role in the growth and development of the magazine from inception embeds Danyel Smith in VIBE history; “I don’t own it but I feel like I’ve been down damn near since day one. I feel like I have been a part, over the last 15 and a half years, of making this brand what it is. I feel like I definitely helped build it.”

We talked about her relationship with Vibe, in the sense that she stopped working for the magazine for a period before returning as Editor-In-Chief. In doing so, she became the “first female editor of a music magazine, period.”

“Have you ever had a bad boyfriend who was also really really good?” she asked me.
[Can I get a collective swoon and sigh from my ladies?]

“That’s Vibe to me,” she continued.

“It’s the worst boyfriend who’s like the best kisser in the world. I met Vibe when I was very young and fell in love with the brand and with the readers and just with how important it is, and when they called to talk about coming back… I was just thrilled.”

vibe2Trying to work out her favourite issue of the bad boy is “like asking to pick your favourite kid!” she complained. “I think it’s a safe bet to say that I’m most proud of not particular issues but the fact I was here at VIBE for the fifth anniversary which was major and it was the biggest issue this magazine has ever published in terms of page count and editorial page count. Will Smith was on the cover. Super proud to be Editor-In-Chief for that issue and to still be here ten years later for the fifteen anniversary issue with Jay-Z on both covers.”

She fondly remembered Vibe’s coverage of the Obama Presidential campaign, the first time the magazine had ever officially endorsed a political candidate. “People wanna assume the worst about what a rapper is, or a singer is. Her skirts are too short or he can’t rap or her weave ain’t right. These people are grown ups, a lot of them, they have families a lot of them, they pay taxes, they have parents and grandparents and they are citizens of this country,” she says of the artists Vibe features. Drawing on them for commentary and opinions on Obama, Smith found “most of them had very intelligent and some even wise things to say. We’re really happy to just present that side of Hip Hop culture to everybody, hopefully. It’s been a long time since there’s been a new conversation.”

For many, and myself, that’s exactly what Vibe did – it presented a spectrum of the good and the bad, intelligently expressed Hip Hop culture to the world.

On the less glorious side of things, Smith conceded, “The thing about Vibe is we take ourselves a lot of times so seriously, we just believe that what we’re doing is so important – and it is – but we even make it more so.

“So there’s stress and ups and downs and the rollercoaster of working at a monthly magazine and dealing with celebrities. It can be very fun, but it’s very, very stressful and it requires a huge commitment of time and energy and a sense of purpose and sometimes you can let other things in your life go to the wayside because of Vibe, sometimes you can forget to go to the gym, sometimes you can forget to eat.”

vibe6Smith’s time at Vibe shattered her former misconceptions – “I thought everybody was friends in this business,” she revealed. “I thought everybody told the truth all the time. I thought no one ever had a personal agenda. I thought that all the hugs and kisses that people give each other in the street are completely sincere. I thought when people told me that they had Vibe’s best interests at heart, that they did. I thought that when people looked you in your face and told you something, swore on their mother’s grave and on their first child’s life and stick a needle in their eye if they lie, I thought that was all absolutely and completely true. And it certainly is not.”

“So sometimes it’s like ‘oh god… it’s Vibe,’ in the mornings I can be like ‘ugh, must I go up there…’ and then when I’m halfway here I’m like ‘I am not mad at myself right now, I have a great job! I am so glad to be back at Vibe’ – and that’s what gets you through the tough times.”

From public perceptions, Vibe’s tougher times were in re-branding, adapting to the digital age, and continuing to publish the quality and originality of features of past issues. There were discussions of Vibe being ‘better back then’ in amongst conversations on the general decomposing quality and more-ads-than-content of music and media output in general.

I don’t know about you, but I was still buying issues. I certainly had more faith in Vibe than most other Hip Hop publications still standing.

vibe3Smith’s take was that the magazine’s objectives had never changed. “Vibe is here to be in service to its readers – that has never changed to me. I think our readership is criminally undeserved in terms of quality journalism, and that’s to take nothing away from magazines like Black Enterprise or Essence or The Source or XXL or Ebony or any of those publications because they’re all fine publications, it’s just that even with all those publications there’s still not that much.

“If you go to the newsstand and you look there’s maybe two or three thousand magazines, and how many actually exist that thoroughly and honourably and relentlessly cover African American culture in terms of music, movies, fashion, sports, how many? And then how many exist for the mainstream audience? So their readership is criminally under served. So we exist to serve them and really we exist to over serve them – and that’s what we try to do: over serve them every single month.”

Much like my impressions of Vibe’s general editorial code, Smith feels strongly about maintaining informed standards of English, at the same time embracing linguistic revolutions. “I don’t want writing as an art form to die. I don’t care if it danyelmorphs, I don’t care if it changes, I don’t care if people use more abbreviations – that’s all fine, that’s all part of a living language. But have somebody teach you what this language is and what it is to write. It gives you so much power to have that knowledge of the English language. Or whatever language you’re writing in.”

I’m left mulling over Smith’s final words to me about her time at Vibe: “Not everybody wants to work at a place anymore because everybody can be their own thing and their own brand and their own editor and all of that. I say ‘yay for you,’ but I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything in the world.”

Those of us developing our own brands feel that our own foundations are all we’re left with when the “guideline” publications – the leaders – cease to exist. With that realisation comes the sinking feeling that, as open as the goalposts now are, we kind of liked having a marker. Perhaps we even need a marker. Alas for me, online has never been that marker. As we cruise into the digital age of 2010, sky’s the bittersweet limit.

Thank you MJ. Thank you Vibe.

Marsha Gosho Oakes