Up From the Underground
After three tough years representin' hip-hop Canada, Pound magazine's Rodrigo Bascu??n and Michael Evans have found commercial success. They're expanding into the U.S. and, if all goes well, moving out of Rodrigo's Mom's basement
Saddam Hussein circles Lanny McDonald, preparing to spit venom at the retired hockey player. Twirling his moustache, McDonald stares the dictator down. The Iraqi leader and the hockey legend line up head-to-head in the cipher, preparing to face off in the final round of the battle of the moustaches. They bump mikes, declaring lyrical warfare.
Hussein drops the first verse:
I got you stuck off my moustache, I be the praised
You heard the name
Officials certified me insane
Saddam come equipped for chem-warfare, beware
Of gases you can’t see but you’ll damn sure feel
For all those, Iran to Kurdistan
Rock Mac tonight, Iraq ain’t no Playland
I’m all alone in the Mid-East, blastin’
Every tribe’s on its own in my land I be gassin’
Shaken by Hussein’s wounding words, McDonald retaliates with:
Yippy yappin’ ’bout oil politics, dodging the subject
And I’m-a beatbox Iraq’s boss like vocal percussion
Fact is, my ‘stache is bigger, better, stronger ?
facial pube perfection
Problem is, this comp’s not rigged, this ain’t some
wacky Iraqi election
Hockey player hater,
You don’t even have the best mustachio for an evil
Can we say “Heil Hitler?”
Who’s the thickest spitter?
Hands-down whisker victor?
A former teammate of Darryl Sittler
So if you ain’t gonna drop bombs, kindly get off the
The aftermath: “Lanny’s verse, the rap equivalent of shaving a man with a chainsaw, decimated Saddam’s hopes of victory. Even with the Devil behind Hussein, there was no denying the weapon of destruction that Mac’s verse represented.”
Who witnessed this war of words? The readers of Pound magazine. Such exchanges, real and imaginary, are what they’ve come to expect from the three-and-a-half-year-old hip-hop title: rhyme and politics rolled into one.
Hip-hop is to “playas” and “thugs,” what rock music was to hippies in the 1960s: the voice of a new generation. Popularized by stars like Eminem, this music has become an extension of pop culture. But for real aficionados, hip-hop goes beyond the beat: It’s a melding of diverse people and cultures that share a common social consciousness, and encompasses storytelling in rap and rhyme, b-boying (also known as break-dancing), deejaying and graffiti. It is these elements that give hip-hop its distinct identity.
It’s an identity that has finally found a stronghold in Canada. After more than a decade of lobbying with the CRTC for a broadcasting licence, Milestone Radio established the country’s first urban-format radio station with FLOW 93.5 FM, which hit Toronto airwaves in February 2001. Similar stations in Vancouver, Ottawa and Calgary soon followed.
“Urban radio has helped to bring hip-hop to the forefront. It’s paved the way for new artists for development. It’s made record labels wake up and say, ‘Hey, this is now,’ turning it into a very viable and profitable business,” says Wayne Williams, music director at FLOW. “Now that it’s getting the exposure on-air, a lot of businesses ? record labels, retail and clothing ? are starting to put money into the whole hip-hop scene. When you talk about hip-hop, you’re talking about an entire culture.”
To represent that culture, Pound was born. Established in 1999, the six-times-a-year magazine ? available for free at record stores, radio stations and other shops around Canada ? has built a loyal following of predominantly young urban males. The saddle-stitched glossy boasts a national circulation of 30,000 and a 100 per cent pick-up rate. While publisher Rodrigo Bascu??n is reluctant to pin down exact profits, he concedes: “Let’s just say that we are doing well.”
Much like hip-hop, Pound began underground. “It did start in a basement, but not this one,” says Bascu??n, who runs the publication from his parents’ home in the St. Clair Avenue West area of Toronto. It’s not the kind of “ghetto fabulous” area where you would imagine a hip-hop title would be based. There’s no graffiti on the buildings ? an art form in hip-hop culture. There are no hip-hop heads b-boying in the alleys. There are no ciphers on the street corners, featuring emcees battling in exchanges of rhyme. Instead, the neighbourhood is quiet and conservative.
But there’s nothing conservative about Bascu??n’s sense of mission for his music. The self-proclaimed hip-hop head spent six years working as a deejay at various Toronto nightclubs and on the campus radio station, CHRW, during his time at the University of Western Ontario, where he studied biology. But through those years, Bascu??n and his friends couldn’t find decent media coverage of their music anywhere.
They weren’t alone. “I’ve never found that newspapers spend a lot of time on pop culture,” says Julie Adam, program director at Toronto’s KISS 92.5 FM radio station. “They do a lot of classical music and jazz. They do a lot on the so-called intellectual music.” A search on music articles published in the Toronto Star during 2002 found 94 articles about classical music compared with 12 on hip-hop ? including a letter to the editor complaining about the newspaper’s poor coverage of the genre. Adam points out that newspapers are not hip-hop publications, but says it is surprising that the media are not covering a form of music that has become an important part of pop culture. “It’s the most popular music there is right now,” she says. “It’s huge.”
Matt Galloway, music writer at Now magazine, agrees that hip-hop is “stronger than ever before,” but notes that the media give it little attention. “Unless somebody major comes out, you don’t really get any coverage,” he says .
Phil Vassell, publisher of Word magazine, one of Canada’s 14 hip-hop titles, says the media is behind on popular trends. “The mainstream media in Canada have not kept pace with the U.S. mainstream media as far as hip-hop coverage is concerned. Come to think of it, it has been several years now since Lauryn Hill [the hip-hop artist who earned five Grammy Awards in 1999 ? the most ever by a female artist in one year] made the cover of Time,” says Vassell. “Young readers know their interests aren’t covered or taken seriously, so they go elsewhere.”
Bascu??n hopes that youths will turn to Pound, a name that characterizes the hip-hop lifestyle. “It’s like the salutation, to give someone a Pound,” says Bascu??n, demonstrating the greeting. “It’s also like ‘the musicPounds,'” he says. The “P” in the magazine’s logo holds a double meaning as well. It is the letter “P,” but its design also resembles a fist.
With fist and ambition in ample supply, the Pound group started from scratch. Bascu??n read about publishing, registered in a young entrepreneurs class and put together a pilot issue that he had copied in colour at a printing house. Approximately 500 copies were sent to prospective advertisers and investors. The trial issue generated a lot of interest, but little in the way of funding. Money was, in fact, the group’s biggest roadblock; they had tons of ideas to hustle, but no “bling” to finance their venture. Salvation came with the approval of a $12,500 credit line ? $7,500 in the form of a government loan and $5,000 in overdraft. ThePound staff contributed another $15,000 of their own. “I was just lucky that I went to schools with affluent kids,” says Bascu??n.
The first issue was published in December 1999 ? a 64-page book with only six pages of ads. That unhealthy ratio coupled with an overly ambitious distribution of 40,000 copies instantly thrust Pound into the red, with a $20,000 loss. “That’s a third of our debt for the whole three years we’ve been around,” says Bascu??n. “That put us right against the wall from the get-go.”
But success wasn’t far away. While handing out flyers promoting the Pound launch party, Bascu??n ran into Michael Evans, an acquaintance from Western. Intrigued by Bascu??n’s project, Evans offered to help. He had already started an advertising business with his father, specializing in the sale of new, innovative advertising. His experience served as a natural background for his foray into selling ads for the magazine. ByPound‘s eighth issue, Evans had helped the title turn a modest profit.
But it wasn’t easy. “A lot of people would say, ‘Why don’t you see me after you do three or four issues?'” says Evans. “I felt like saying, ‘Well, I need you now.'” Also tricky was explaining hip-hop to advertisers who knew the magazine fit their demographic, but didn’t understand why.
At one meeting with a panel of ad reps, Bascu??n and Evans watched in disbelief as one woman frowned and made rude gestures as she leafed through their publication. In her view, the magazine’s content was too negative to be associated with her product. “To write about police brutality and how it occurs, when it occurs and how important it is for us to address something like this ? you just can’t sweep something like that under the carpet,” says Evans. “But that’s negative in her eyes. To be honest, she might as well have said that there are too many black people in this magazine. That’s the feeling you got.”
It’s a feeling that’s shared by other members of the hip-hop community. “With the exception of a few writers at the dailies, I’d have to agree that the mainstream media’s coverage of hip-hop continues to be biased and based on sensationalism,” says Errol Nazareth, music writer at eye Weekly, and former music columnist atThe Toronto Sun. “I fought this every step of the way when I worked at the Sun. For every wire story about DMX getting busted for some dumb behaviour, I’d write a story about, say, hip-hop artists protesting police brutality or helping raise awareness about AIDS.”
Harris Rosen, publisher of Peace magazine, says that a lot of the prejudicial attitudes toward hip-hop are the result of mixed messages sent out by the community itself, from sexist images in music videos and in song lyrics. But there is more to the lifestyle, he says, than what is presented to the audience.
Besides contending with hip-hop’s shady reputation, as a music magazine, Pound is perhaps not taken seriously in the industry. “Magazines in the category tend to fall victim to boosterism and not a lot of critical coverage that I can see,” says Bill Shields, editor of Masthead, the magazine industry trade title. Certainly Bascu??n’s own interest in the genre smacks of the smitten and has been the driving force behind the magazine. “I think the main motivation was just caring about the culture and wanting to do it justice in another medium,” says Bascu??n.
That said, his approach is clearly working. After three years in the game, Pound is springboarding off its success into other ventures. In the next year, Bascu??n plans to produce a series of books based on the magazine’s regular political section, Babylon System. “The first book, Babylon System: Weapons, addresses the main weapons ? arms, media, food, education ? that are used to oppress people in the world,” says Bascu??n. “The second book, Babylon System: Tools, will teach readers how to combat these weapons.” The Pound posse also plans to setup an American version of the publication and are in the process of developing a new international general-interest magazine. Bascu??n hopes this new title will allow him to cover issues that don’t quite fit into his hip-hop magazine. Pound for pound, the Pound boys are “pushing weight.”
With the March 2003 issue, 2,000 copies of Pound hit New York City, and another 5,000 ? at $4.95 a piece ? appeared on Canadian newsstands, alongside larger American hip-hop titles like The Source, XXL and Vibe. The bulk of the circulation, however, still comes from shops that continue to offer the magazine for free.
Growth and change are not new to Pound. Shields has noticed the title’s improved production values. “The latest incarnation seems to be quite ritzy compared to what it was looking like two or three years ago,” he says. “They’ve increased the quality of their paper-stock, their trim size is a little larger, and they’re obviously investing more money in production.”
Others are more lavish in their praise. “For my money, Pound is doing the best job of covering hip-hop culture in Canada. The articles are well written, insightful and interesting,” says Nazareth. “The writing in the majority of hip-hop magazines ? here and in the U.S. ? reads like fan mail, and I am being kind when I say that. Either the publishers and writers do not have the courage to ask tough questions or the brains to offer something insightful, or they are scared to piss off their advertisers ? which include record companies ? that pump so much money into their magazines.”
Sitting in his basement office as a fax machine rattles off documents from advertisers, Bascu??n takes all the attention in stride. “Either everyone is full of it and kissing our asses, or they’re being honest,” he says. “I think they’re being honest, though.”