Started by a pair of white Harvard-educated rap nerds in Boston in 1988, The Source magazine was the most widely read rag in hip-hop journalism by the early ’90s, each issue a conversation piece all its own. With its newsstand dominance came the idea for a natural brand extension—an award show.
In 1991, The Source began handing out trophies on a special episode of Yo! MTV Raps, and three years later came a full-fledged production, complete with a stage show at Madison Square Garden’s Paramount Theater. The next year, The Source returned to that very same theater, except the climate in hip-hop had changed dramatically. 2Pac had been shot and was sequestered in jail, Bad Boy was the hottest new label in music, and beneath it all an East Coast-West Coast rivalry was bubbling.
“Any artist out there that wanna be an artist, stay a star, and won’t have to worry about the executive producer trying to be all in the videos, all on the records, dancing—come to Death Row!”
Suge Knight’s famous remarks that night became the first real shots in a deadly battle. But there was more. Snoop Dogg’s rant (“The East Coast ain’t got love for Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg?”). Diddy throwing shots (“I live in the East, and I’m gonna die in the East”). OutKast getting booed and Andre 3000’s prophecy (“The South got something to say!”). And, too, there was an early sighting of Raymond “Benzino” Scott, then just an unknown rapper from Boston, presenting an award long before his behind-the-scenes involvement in The Source became the magazine’s Achilles’ heel.
The events of that night reverberated through hip-hop for years to come. The East Coast-West Coast beef ballooned into a true rivalry, culminating in the deaths of 2Pac and the Notorious B.I.G.; rap’s balance of power shifted south of the the Mason-Dixon Line, albeit temporarily; and The Source itself became an even bigger powerhouse, with even more award shows, and eventually more competition to do battle with.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the 1995 Source Awards, we called up Dave Mays and Ray Benzino, the magazine’s controversial former co-owners, who parted ways with the company almost a decade ago, after years of warring with Eminem, XXL, and a myriad number of former staffers. While they’ve both moved on to greener pastures—a supermarket tabloid called Hip-Hop Weekly and Love & Hip-Hop Atlanta, respectively—neither has spoken publicly about The Source since then. Until now.
How did the Source Awards get started?
Dave Mays: The Source Awards as a thing began in 1991. I made an arrangement with the producers of Yo! MTV Raps, and we had an afternoon where we gave out Source awards. Several different artists got awards, these little trophies we made up. We just called them out, they came up and got the award. At the time, what The Source was about was championing hip-hop culture during a time when it was expanding rapidly, commercializing rapidly, globalizing even. But it was also very much shunned by the mainstream. It was the brunt of a lot of negativity, attacks by the media and politicians. The awards was just kind of a natural idea I came up with out of my passion for hip-hop and my desire to kind of showcase the talent, bring some of these incredible artists, producers, lyricists, musicians, and dancers—everybody that was a part of hip-hop—a platform. I think it was as early as ’88 when the Grammys added a rap category, and it was widely criticized in the hip-hop world, because it was Tone Loc, Will Smith, and Jazzy Jeff. That set a tone of mainstream award shows snubbing real hip-hop, not televising awards, and the process of nominations was very suspect. After the Yo! MTV Raps thing, I tried to put a plan together to make it into a full-scale award show, and that was when we had the first one, in 1994, at the Paramount Theater. It was untelevised. 2Pac was there. Many others.
People get excited about the concept of being awarded things, and rap is very competitive, so even at the Yo! MTV Raps stage, what was the mood like—were people arguing over these things?
DM: First and foremost it was excitement about something that was authentic. As it became a bigger thing, like the first major one in ’94, then, of course, came the debates over nominations and who should get what. By that time, it became a more formalized process. The first few years we had The Source staff involved, these meetings to develop the nominations, some balloting we used with different people in the industry. It became a real bona fide thing. Nothing like it had ever been done.
Who got ballots?
DM: At that time, DJs, some of them at radio and others who were just influential. Retailers. The mom-and-pop retailers were influential in those days, because they were in the trenches in the community. So, retailers and DJs. That might have been it.
Even at that early stage, were labels jockeying for nominations like the movie studios do with the Oscars?
DM: It was definitely taken seriously, and people definitely wanted to be a part of it. Labels supported it. The Source had become influential enough. That made it valuable to the record labels, artists, managers, and everyone else. The Death Row set that opened the 1995 Source Awards, Suge Knight spent over $100,000 to pay for that set. That just shows you the kind of commitment people had to the show and what we were doing.
Were there security concerns in ’94?
DM: I know we had to get insurance, but I don’t remember it being a big issue. We were able to secure that kind of venue. Money talks! I don’t know off the top of my head, but if you’re going to go in and put a deposit down on a theater like that, for a big event, $25,000-$50,000? You’re signing a pretty big contract that is worth a substantial amount of money.
Talk to me about what happened between 2Pac and Q-Tip at the ’94 awards.
DM: I’m not sure what footage exists of it, but basically, 2Pac was there. He had a bunch of guys with him. I think he was anxious to perform, and at some point he went backstage to the soundman and gave him his DAT tape or whatever he was performing to. I don’t think it was intentional; I just think he was anxious and excited and wanted to get out there. And it happened that the tape started and he ran on stage at the same time that Q-Tip and some other folks were I guess either accepting an award or giving out an award. The music just blared on and he ran out on stage with his guys and started performing. And the people at the podium, which was off to the side of the stage where Q-Tip and the other folks were, were just looking like, “What the hell is going on?” They were surprised and I think a little offended. The Zulu Nation was there with Q-Tip, and I think ultimately there was some conversation. There was not any conflict that took place.
Between ’94 and ’95 an East Coast-West Coast rivalry starts brewing.
DM: When ’Pac got shot, if I’m correct, that’s really the genesis of it. It’s often blamed on this, that, or the other, but that’s where it started.
But 2Pac was in jail for the 1995 awards. So what were you thinking heading into that night?
DM: I knew Suge was coming and he had a whole bunch of people coming. I had Puffy coming and Biggie coming. I was cool with everybody, and there wasn’t any type of, like, huge expectation that there was going to be some problem having them there. ’Pac got shot and like you said, he was in jail. He hadn’t really united with Death Row. When he got out of jail, when Suge bailed him out, that’s when the thing went to the next level, because whatever beef ’Pac had with the situation where he got shot and robbed, that sort of became a Death Row beef together with ’Pac, against the East Coast, the people that had set him up. So there was certainly tension when Suge went up there and said what he said. It was direct. He was standing there on stage, and Puffy and Biggie were seated in the front row, off to his right. And Suge and his people were seated to the left, off the center section. It was a pretty direct jab at Puffy, and Puffy had his people there too. It was later when Snoop came out with his whole love for Death Row rant. It was a night like the one from the first event, but now times 10, because it was being televised and it was bigger.
The awards took place in New York. What role did the city itself have in what transpired?
DM: The Source, although we were based in New York, went out of our way to make sure our point of view was not New York-centric. Because New York people were sort of snobbish about hip-hop. That’s the birthplace. And they looked down on hip-hop from other regions. So that particular year, it was in New York. The artists all come and the labels all come, but we were selling thousands of tickets to the public, and these are people from New York. So the overwhelming majority of people in the crowd are pro-New York.
During the Bad Boy performance, Diddy says: “I live in the East, and I’m gonna die in the East.” Was he firing back at Suge?
DM: Yeah, absolutely. They performed later on. Everybody had calmed down. There was all this tension, but no fists were thrown and everybody got back to business. But an hour or so later, when his performance came up, I guess that’s what he decided he was going to do. He was in New York and I guess he had to save face, do something, say something. But I believe that was a direct response to what had been said earlier in the evening.
When Snoop came on and did his rant, what was the mood in the theater?
DM: There was some back and forth. As passionate and demonstrative as Snoop was, I think that was a reaction to the energy he was getting from the crowd. People booing, people talking shit. Whatever he felt out there. This wasn’t the Grammys. For these artists, this was like a dream come true, to be a part of something like this. All that you see, the emotion of the moment, is real. That’s the authenticity, and that’s what The Source represented as a magazine, its award shows, and other things that it did. That authenticity, it isn’t there [now]. You don’t see that at the BET Hip-Hop Awards, or anywhere else.
When OutKast won they got booed. Hard to believe, considering their icon status today.
Ray Benzino: Andre 3000 accepted his award, and he was really serious about, look, “The South got something to say.” And as big as N.W.A was and that whole movement out in L.A., New York didn’t play too much West Coast music. So I think the Source Awards let New York know that hip-hop was alive and well in different regions.
Towards the end of your time running The Source, the magazine was dogged by concerns about Ray’s involvement. But even as far back as the 1995 Source Awards, he was there, presenting an award with his group the Almighty RSO. So it was kind of out in the open already. Talk to me about that.
DM: We became friends and business partners from early on, before there was a Source, OK? I met him in ’87. I didn’t start The Source until ’88. I started working with him on his music and his group. I was managing their career. He was helping me in different ways as I was building The Source up. That relationship and that dynamic just grew further over the years. He had a record deal. He was signed to RCA Records. They made good music, and yeah, he was my friend and business partner, so allowing him to go up and present an award wasn’t a big deal, shouldn’t have been a big deal. A lot of the stuff that has been made of this, the root of it, comes from just the kind of dynamic and challenge that he and I had over the years dealing with an editorial staff that took a lot of things personally.
I think a lot of the stories and the voices that you’ve heard have come from people that—you gotta look at it on its face—they’re disgruntled. They did leave under some circumstances, and only their version or their side of things has been told. James Bernard, people like that, years later are reaching out to kind of apologize to me and let me know that they understand. So, I just think, for whatever reason, Ray was a sort of like a scapegoat, because he was an easy target for people, people in the journalism community that developed a negative perception of me, The Source, and him. It did come from the James Bernard thing that started all that, the petition—writers and editors calling for Dave Mays to step down from his job. The perception that James Bernard created by writing this letter with all these false accusations and made up things that he was trying to use to gain some leverage, it started from there. Where people felt that Ray’s the bad guy, that Dave’s the smart white Jewish Harvard guy. Ray is this thug from the streets that everybody is scared of, and therefore he must be dumb, Dave must be smart. People still till this day underestimate things. He’s by far the smarter of the two of us, I can say. He didn’t go to Harvard, but he’s a brilliant man.
The Source had a tremendous amount of power and influence in those days, so if you couldn’t be down with us, you had an agenda against us. I think Ray became a target. A lot of the guys that walked out on me and turned against us over the years, in some ways he was always looking out for me. A lot of these people were counting on my naivety, and Ray would come in and kinda see what’s going on. People weren’t comfortable about that. That caused conflict and caused people to try and say and do things about him.
“The Almighty RSO relationship was always a battle. The editorial side, all the editors, they said, ‘Why should these guys who are Dave’s friends get coverage?’”
So was presenting the award an awkward moment?
RB: The Almighty RSO relationship was always a battle, because there was the integrity of the magazine, me being involved with Dave. The editorial side, all the editors, they said, “Why should these guys who are Dave’s friends get coverage?” So we was dealing with that from day one. The Source Awards probably got everyone even more upset, because they thought we didn’t deserve that. I probably couldn’t really feel the real love because of that, always having that in the back of my mind, these people thinking that I didn’t deserve to be there, that we’re from Boston, Mass. A lot of people didn’t know but Eazy-E was about to sign us to an album deal in ’94, then we got signed by J. Prince in ’95-’96. So we was always battling with that. Giving out an award was dope, but again, being from Boston and dealing with the editorial staff, people feeling like we didn’t have a right to be up there, I guess that was kind of in the back of my head.
You were an artist at the time. Did you personally know Puff or Suge, and what were your takeaways?
RB: Not at all. I hadn’t even met Biggie at that time, and I hadn’t met Suge at that point. ’Pac’s whole crew was from Jersey. Even though E.D.I. Mean and some of them from the West Coast, he was running with Jersey niggas hard. And his brother, for that matter. ’Pac was fucking with New York heavy. Especially after Juice. And New York was embracing him. But Dave’s right: After ’Pac got shot and Suge opened up his arms and bailed him out, he was like, “Hold up, my allegiance is to Death Row, and Death Row is on the West Coast.” They had spent so much money because they wanted to show New York that Death Row was really popping. Everybody had to keep their gameface on. Even Snoop. Maybe Suge was a different ballgame to New York rap, but you could tell Snoop respected and appreciated New York MCs because that’s who they all grew up on. So they were excited to show New York what they were all about.
After the award show, did you think this would blow up and become a whole East Coast-West Coast beef?
RB: Once Suge said what he said, I knew right from there this was gonna keep going. I didn’t know it was going to go to the extent that it did, but at the end you didn’t see Suge and Puff hugging. Suge had over 100 people in the audience. All from L.A. Gangbangers. I don’t think New York really grasped the whole thing about gangbanging until that time. You had bloods and crips sitting in New York City, and I think that was the first time that was taking place.
A year later, 2Pac is dead. Months after that Biggie is dead. How does the Source Awards change from that point on?
DM: I don’t think we made money on the ’95 show. We spent a lot to get it televised and that was also right after we had the staff walk out. I was restructuring and rebuilding the company. So I think that was part of it. Those few years were the most turbulent years, with the deaths of 2Pac and Biggie, so that may have had some impact.
In looking at the state of media today, The Source seemed to be way ahead of the game, with these different event experiences and brand extensions—award shows, radio shows, TV shows, the magazine, weekend retreats. Do you think you get the credit you deserve?
RB: Hell no. We don’t credit for shit. We don’t get the credit for it, and people don’t say it, but I think in the back of people’s minds, they know who started this hip-hop awards shit. I know Stephen Hill knows. I know BET knows. We gave the blueprint. Wasn’t nobody giving these guys from the streets awards to honor them and celebrate them. We did that.