Written by Rob Kenner (@boomshots)
The decision to publish Wale’s irate phone call to a Complex Media editor last week was not made lightly. In the 24 hours following the D.C. rapper’s Wednesday afternoon rant multiple meetings took place during which serious debate ensued amongst Complex’s music department and senior staff. Some felt that we should work to resolve the dispute behind the scenes. Leaving aside the particulars of which lists he made and which lists he missed this year, Wale is an important artist with a loyal following and—despite his mistaken belief that Complex editors harbor some sort of grudge against him—we recognize the value in maintaining a healthy working relationship with him and the rest of his MMG affiliates.
Others, myself included, maintained that any time anyone threatens violence against any member of our staff, that threat must be taken seriously and addressed. Our intention was not to retaliate or sensationalize but simply to document a credible threat against not just one reporter but our entire team—from accounting to ad sales, IT, HR, even college interns. Moreover, from a journalistic point of view, this was a legitimate story: a public figure making threats against anyone, let alone a major media company, and as such, it’s news.
It was argued that publishing the call might exacerbate the situation, so Complex senior staff finally settled on a fair and sensible course of action: reaching out to Wale’s label and management and offering him the chance to clarify his remarks in hopes of having, as Complex News correspondent Jinx put it, “a more constructive conversation.” Complex’s offer was declined, leaving us no recourse but to post the audio.
This is not an OTR aside about whether or not Kanye West is a jackass, or if Drake’s album was really that good. This was a premeditated effort to coerce a publication to change its editorial point of view.
Since last Friday, the story has provoked a tremendous response, making #Wale a trending topic on Twitter. Predictably, many observers took the whole thing as a joke, creating humorous memes that made light of the situation. Others questioned why Wale would single out Complex when several other organizations—Rolling Stone, Spin, Noisey, the Grammys—omitted him from their year-end honors as well. (In that sense, Wale’s outrage was strangely flattering.) Some people were inspired to write essays on the roots of Wale’s frustration. Others—including representatives of various rap blogs and even, perhaps most shockingly, a magazine publisher—argued that Complex was wrong to publish the audio because Wale’s threats were somehow “off the record” or “private.” While paying lip-service to the idea that violence is bad, they tried to make the case that using the power of the pen (or in this case, the pixel) to protect ourselves from violence violated some sort of “cultural code.” They further tried to normalize this behavior, as if threats of violence should be considered part and parcel of writing about music.
This sort of hypocritical posturing is as old as the media business itself. Besides being transparently self-serving—akin to #FakeMediaFriends like Katie Couric sending Kim Kardashian baby gifts in hopes of snagging a big exclusive—such arguments simply make no sense. Wale knew he was calling a journalist and at no time during his tirade did he suggest that his remarks were “off the record.” And even if he had, what is an Off The Record threat? “I’ll fuck you up, money—but do me a solid and keep that between you and me.” What?! Can you commit an Off the Record crime? This is not an OTR aside about whether or not Kanye West is a jackass, or if Drake’s album was really that good. This was a premeditated effort to coerce a publication to change its editorial point of view. What confidence is owed to someone attempting to intimidate you with threats of physical violence?
And although it’s immaterial to the argument, let’s keep Complex’s transgression in mind. It’s not as though we disrespected Wale with a snarky jab or a mean-spirited review, which publications certainly do on occasion and which might conceivably provoke some ire (though it still wouldn’t excuse his behavior). We put together a list of our 50 favorite albums—the best, according to our admittedly subjective taste—and our crime? Enjoying 50 other albums more than Wale’s. It should be noted that plenty of other notable artists with well received LPs, like Justin Timberlake, Prodigy, and even The Weeknd (who graced our cover), didn't make the cut either. While we understand that, as someone who puts a lot of effort into his art, this might bum him out—and we certainly appreciate the fact that he cares so passionately about his music and the value of our co-sign—we do not owe him, or any artist, inclusion on this or any of our lists. Regardless, the lack of solidarity among reporters is disappointing considering the long history of intimidation in hip-hop media.
The first high-profile hip-hop reporter to become a target of violence was Dee Barnes—a member of the L.A. rap duo Body & Soul who began hosting Fox TV’s weekly hip-hop show Pump It Up! Barnes attended a record release party where she was viciously assaulted by Dr. Dre after her interview with Ice Cube cast the other members of N.W.A. in an unflattering light. The group later bragged about the assault in a Rolling Stone feature. (Barnes’ $22 million lawsuit against Dre—who pleaded no contest to criminal assault charges—was settled out of court.) Since that time experience has taught us again and again that there can be no shrugging off statements like “get the security ready.”
Throughout my 22-year career in hip-hop media—starting with the 1992 test issue of Vibe magazine—I’ve learned a thing or two about dealing with mad rappers. Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie’s alter-ego “The Mad Rapper” was a humorous send-up of the self-defeating envy that consumes so many of what the Internet now refers to as “struggle rappers.” When my colleague Jesse Washington revealed Angelettie’s secret identity in an issue of Blaze magazine, D-Dot called a meeting at which Jesse was beaten with chairs and stomped out in a conference room at Vibe’s old Lexington Avenue offices. Jesse proved to be something of a lightning rod for controversy, having gotten into a tense stand-off with Wyclef Jean shortly before the “Mad Rapper” incident, and later being dismissed from his position for hiring an accused murderer. But he sure didn’t deserve the lacerations and skull fractures he received in that attack, which led to criminal charges and a sizable out-of-court settlement.
''Some journalists try to decimate the character of rappers,'' said Ray “Benzino” Scott in a 1998 New York Times piece about violence against rap reporters. ''We're pretty much all young black guys getting money, and they're jealous, so they try to embarrass us. As young black guys, why should we get trampled on by our own?'' A former member of Boston rap crew The Almighty RSO, Benzino was accused of threats and intimidation by numerous staffers at The Source—including former music editor Reginald C. Dennis—before Benzino joined the hip-hop press by founding the gossip rag Hip-Hop Weekly.
We all know when we’re speaking truth to power or preparing to publish an embarrassing exposé, and we brace ourselves for the expected blowback.
''You think twice about asking hard and probing questions,'' said Reggie Dennis in that same Times article. Dennis went on to become editor in chief of XXL after resigning his post at The Source because of Benzino’s undue influence over the once-great magazine’s editorial content. “You have to run your office like it's an armed camp,” he added. “I maintain that a writer is going to get killed.'' When The Source began publishing, few media outlets paid attention to rap, so “the bible of hip-hop” carried huge influence. An artist’s livelihood could be dramatically impacted by a Rap Pages review or the number of mics their latest release earned in The Source. That economic reality combined with the fact that many artists spent their pre-music lives earning a living in the streets could make for a volatile mixture. Nas knew what he was talking about when he said “sometimes the rap game reminds me of the crack game.” And as fearsome as some rappers might sound on the mic, their lyrics often paled in comparison to the deeds of their managers and entourages. The same held true even as hip-hop made inroads into mainstream pop culture throughout the 1990s.
The Mad Rapper beatdown came during 1998, the worst year on record for violence in the hip-hop press. That same year the Insane Clown Posse issued a death threat to Mike Rubin for a four-page cartoon spread in Spin. Ridiculous as ICP and the Juggalos may be, it’s not much fun seeing a web post calling for your murder. Foxy Brown attacked Vibe’s editor-in-chief Danyel Smith, pulling her hair in outrage over an exquisitely crafted and thought-provoking cover story (that she may not even have bothered to read) in the magazine’s December 1998/January 1999 issue. (Rap Media Industry Rule number 4081: It’s not what your piece says about a rapper that counts, it’s what the rappers’ friends say your piece says about them.) The rap genre did not have a monopoly on violence in music media in '98—Marilyn Manson’s bodyguards assaulted Spin editor Craig Marks backstage at a concert while Manson issued death threats to him and his family because the goth icon did not appear on the mag’s cover.
Politics come with the territory in any profession. While it’s nowhere near as bad as being a news reporter in North Korea, Turkmenistan, or Eritrea, rap journalism ranks somewhere between law enforcement and car repossession in terms of the intensity of feelings it can stir up. Anybody who gets into this business hoping to see their love of hip-hop reciprocated by the rap industry will be sorely disappointed. Pissing people off—whether by commission or omission—is a necessary by-product of what we do when we do our jobs well, although today’s rap media game is filled with bloggers who manage artists on the side and publish low-key conflict of interest posts on the regular. We all know when we’re speaking truth to power or preparing to publish an embarrassing exposé, and we brace ourselves for the expected blowback. At Complex we take our rankings of the best or worst songs or albums or movies or TV shows seriously, even though we know that they may lead to bruised feelings, salty comment threads, and social media outbursts.
But all too often there is no rhyme or reason behind the provocations that lead to dangerous conflicts. After my friend Cheo H. Coker’s glowing profile of the Wu-Tang Clan in an early ’90s issue of Rap Pages was accompanied by illustrations rather than photographs—because the group reportedly failed to turn up for the photo shoot—he hardly expected to get punched in the face by Masta Killa the next time he visited Staten Island. “We’re not cartoon characters” the Shaolin soldier exclaimed as he blacked Cheo’s eye.
Back when I was editing Vibe’s Start section, we published a story about the legendary mixtape DJ Ron G. Although he was a street artist with no industry affiliations, we pulled out all the stops, sending a photographer up to the Polo Grounds to do an original shoot, and hiring the esteemed scribe Da Ghetto Communicator to interview the influential mixologist. When I got a call from his manager after the issue hit stands, I was expecting a word of thanks. How wrong I was. “Y’all motherfuckers only gave him one page!” he yelled in outrage. “You don’t treat those West Coast n****s like that. Bet you won’t try to play us when we start kidnapping motherfuckers. The buck don’t stop here! the buck spreads out!” After a series of tense negotiations I was able to defuse that situation without any kidnappings or use of buckshot. But sometimes it seemed, as Slick Rick put it in “La Di Da Di,” as if “this type of shit happens every day.” And sometimes the scare tactics worked: like the time an infamous street thug made his way into Vibe’s offices with a gun tucked into his waistband. He had heard he'd been mentioned in an interview with a famous rapper before it was even published, and he had a message for the writer who had conducted said interview. “Just make sure nobody gets hurt,” the dude said, taking the writer’s hand and placing it where he could feel the weapon behind his belt. As a result, his name was removed from the story before it went to press.
“Every time I was threatened I wrote about it just in case I turned up missing somewhere,'' Reggie Dennis told the Times back in ’98. ''It should not be open season on writers.'' We’ve all come a long way since the days when rap music was rarely played on radio and television, but one thing has not changed—the power of the pen pixel is still our best only protection. The old us-versus-the-mainstream-media argument was no excuse for threatening violence against reporters back in the glory days of The Source, and it makes absolutely no sense now that Jay Z can appear on the cover of Vanity Fairand hip-hop reality shows are keeping Viacom in the black, so to speak. The sort of expert, unflinching criticism we practice at Complex serves a vital function in the evolution of any genre, maintaining a standard of excellence toward which future artists may aspire.
Everyone at Complex was pleased to see Wale’s Instagram video post later that Friday, suggesting that while he may have no remorse, he might, at least, be viewing the whole episode with a sense of humor.
Were we within our legal rights to record and publish Wale’s phone call? Without question. As Complex’s own Foster Kamer pointed out on Twitter, under New York State law either party on a phone call is allowed to record a conversation for their own purposes. In terms of journalistic ethics, Wale never said anything was “off the record.” He simply flipped on an editor and threatened to start “knocking n****s out.” But quoting statutes about “one-party consent” or delivering lectures on the nuances of off-the-record versus on-background attribution doesn’t sound particularly cool in hip-hop circles. Would we have preferred to alert Wale to the fact that he was being recorded? Yes. But as anyone can tell by listening to the call, he hardly let Associate Editor Insanul Ahmed get a word in edgewise before issuing his threats and hanging up. And from the perspective of the streets, were we wrong to take the threat seriously? Ask DJ Vlad, who was severely beaten by Rick Ross’s bodyguards at the 2008 Ozone Awards after posting a story questioning the head of MMG’s street credentials. Vlad pressed charges and filed a $4 million lawsuit that was settled out of court.
In the end, the whole Wale incident seems to have worked out reasonably well for all concerned parties. Wale got his first headlines in months, sparking arguments among fans over the merits of The Gifted (not to mention Juicy J’s remarkable Stay Trippy). We did what we could to protect our team, got a lot of traffic on the site, and as an added bonus learned a few things about our colleagues in the music media. Everyone at Complex was pleased to see Wale’s Instagram video post later that Friday, suggesting that while he may have no remorse, he might, at least, be viewing the whole episode with a sense of humor. In the video he spouts some tough talk about Complex, reaches inside his jacket saying “I got my tool,” then pulls out a MacBook and yells “I got my laptop.” This seems like a back-handed joke that most rap journalists aren’t that tough, and, perhaps, that he isn’t either. Considering that we are writers, and he is a notoriously thoughtful and meticulous musician, this seems like a fair point. Touché.