This is part of Complex's The 1996 Project: Looking Back at the Year Hip-Hop Embraced Success.

1996 was a great year for hip-hop—that is, until the whole 2Pac getting murdered thing. Reasonable Doubt, It Was Written, ATLiens, and Muddy Waters are four of the classic rap albums to drop that year, none of which warranted a cover in VIBE magazine.

 In VIBE’s defense, it was never just a rap mag. Quincy Jones’ stated goal was to found “a Rolling Stone for the hip-hop generation,” but the staff—which I joined at the magazine’s launch, in 1993—aspired to create something closer to Vanity Fair.

With all due respect to The Source, Rap Pages, and Murder Dog, VIBE changed the game in hip-hop journalism. With backing from Time Inc., we had deeper pockets than most, and we served up some of the best journalism, photography, and cultural criticism hip-hop has ever seen. Yet our multiracial staff and corporate connects were always viewed with some suspicion by the hip-hop community. We had to earn respect by doing great work—and we did a lot of it, printed on large format heavy stock paper, left over in a warehouse after Life magazine folded.

VIBE was the first periodical to cover rap, R&B, rock, reggae, dance music, fashion, sports, and politics—all through the prism of what people were just beginning to call “urban culture,” another way of describing what Steve Stoute would later dub The Tanning of America.

“At the time there was no Internet,” says Keith Clinkscales, the magazine’s founding president and CEO. “There were no text message updates. There was VIBE. The Source was an afterthought. As the president of VIBE, I was the commissioner of the culture. CNN, all those guys—when shit got real they were coming to VIBE. It wasn’t just some rap magazine.”

To be sure, there was nobody like Gilbert Rogin on the masthead at other hip-hop publications. An elderly, eccentric former managing editor of Sports Illustrated, Gil’s title at VIBE was editorial director. He and his colleague Bob Miller, former publisher of SI, played decisive roles in getting the magazine green-lit in the corridors of power at Time Inc. before ultimately breaking off from the parent company to found the stand-alone business VIBE Ventures. Although Gil was rarely present in the office, he would occasionally kill stories from his home in Connecticut or fax extensive notes demanding rewrites. Sometimes his edits were journalistically valid, but his complete disconnect from hip-hop culture was a constant source of frustration.

Twenty years ago VIBE was three years old and still finding its way under its second editor-in-chief, Alan Light. The first EIC, Jonathan Van Meter, had either resigned or been forced out after a creative dispute with Quincy, who objected to the unbearable whiteness of JVM’s cover choices. Q killed an ultra-expensive Madonna and Dennis Rodman shoot because the Beastie Boys had graced the previous issue’s cover, and his vision presumably meant featuring people who wouldn’t make the cover of Rolling Stone—more on that later.​

VIBE’s cover choices in ’96 reflect the magazine’s wide-ranging mandate: Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, R. Kelly, and the Olympic Basketball “Dream Team” on a gatefold cover (the worst seller of the year but still pretty awesome). With the exception of the Fugees (who earned their cover look on the strength of their certified-diamond sophomore album, The Score) and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony (whose Sacha Jenkins-penned cover story stands as one of the finest pieces of writing the magazine ever published), the ’96 rap covers were pretty much part of one continuously horrific narrative: December 1995/January 1996: “Live From Death Row.” September 1996: “East vs. West—Biggie and Puffy Break Their Silence.” October 1996: “Free At Last—Dr. Dre is off Death Row and on a Mission to Rule the World.” November 1996: “Tupac Amaru Shakur 1971-1996.” (This cover was supposed to be about New Edition’s reunion, but ’Pac’s murder compelled us to staple a second memorial cover over top of the New Edition joint at the last minute.) Finally, to close out the year, December 1996/January 1997: “Snoop Dogg: Last Man Standing—Without Tupac and Dre Is Death Row Still America’s Most Wanted?” Notice a theme here?

The narrative would come to a tragic conclusion the following year when Biggie was murdered, nine months after his former friend Tupac Shakur, just as he was leaving a VIBE magazine party in Los Angeles.

The first artist to be featured on VIBE’s cover was almost Janet Jackson, but Van Meter declined the opportunity to run exclusive outtakes from the janet. album cover shoot, which her label was offering—sight unseen. After VIBE passed, Rolling Stone happily agreed to use the label’s images, which became the iconic hands-over-boobs cover. The coincidence was ironic, given Quincy’s mission statement. The mainstream media (which none of us really considered ourselves a part of, no matter how big VIBE got) was already catching the vapors.

It’s interesting to speculate how VIBE’s future might have been different if Janet had been the first cover subject. Instead we decided to send staff writer Kevin Powell—a talented young journalist who had become famous from a stint on the first season of MTV’s The Real World—out to Los Angeles to profile a new rapper named Snoop Doggy Dogg. It was the summer of 1993, and Dr. Dre’s masterpiece, The Chronic, had set the world on fire, pushing uncut gangsta rap onto MTV (back when they played music videos) and into the pop charts. Profiling Snoop was the right call, and Dan Winters’ photoshoot was so amazing that Death Row Records bought the outtakes to use for the CD booklet (remember those?) in Snoop’s debut album, Doggystyle.

That same September 1993 issue contained Scott Poulson-Bryant’s lengthy profile of Sean Combs, an A&R at Uptown Records who was responsible for the success of Mary J. Blige and Jodeci. I vividly remember Scott—the man who came up with the name VIBE when the much less compelling title Volume had to be changed at the last minute—explaining that the hip-hop generation was not just interested in the artists; they wanted to read about the inner workings of the industry and considered the young black execs behind the scenes to be celebrities in their own right. Van Meter had the good sense to trust Scott’s instinct, and our piece on the A&R who was then known as “Puffy” was the first serious coverage he ever received. Of course it would not be the last: Just as the issue was going to press we learned that Puffy had been fired by his mentor, Andre Harrell, setting the stage for the phenomenal rise of Bad Boy Records.

Contrary to popular belief the tensions between the East Coast and West Coast were not created by the media. There were real hard feelings, real money on the table, and real blood spilled. To paraphrase De La Soul, stakes was high. But I’d be the first to admit that the press in general—and VIBE in particular—played a part in fanning the flames. Sometimes in ways that we could not have foreseen.

A byproduct of being one of the few reputable publications covering hip-hop was that anything we printed was taken very seriously by labels, managers, producers, artists, and their respective crews. It was not unheard of for rap journalists to get stepped to by mad rappers (literally and figuratively) for expressing critical viewpoints that were much less reckless than your average YouTube commenter in 2016. Oftentimes, the flashpoint was some innocuous thing that you never expected to cause trouble. 

My first inkling of the brewing East/West feud came when the manager of a certain NYC mixtape DJ, who had received what I considered a pretty nice writeup in VIBE’s “Start” section, called my phone, outraged. “Y’all giving these West Coast motherfuckers all this love—now we gonna show you how New York niggas get down. Wait till we start kidnapping motherfuckers.”

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