Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Foundation Magazine: Laying the Bricks for Hip Hop and Journalism's Future?

In a series of strange occurrences on April Fool's Day 2008, Chris Malo, the editor-in-chief of mixtape magazine Foundation, found himself at the other end of a Lil Wayne rant against mixtapes. After leaving the awkward encounter at the star's Atlanta mansion, Malo knew he had valuable material but he also knew he had to use it wisely.

Although Foundation started as one of the get-rich-quick schemes pitched to Malo by his partner, B. Mack, Malo is more concerned with the editorial side of the magazine than the business end of things. Despite his idealistic approach, Malo had to weigh the business consequences as well as the ethical complications for “pissing off the biggest guy.”

Despite Lil Wayne's hatred for mixtape Djs, he considers himself the Arthur Nobel of mixtapes. His comparison is right in that he detonates the competition by dropping multiple "bombs" of mixtapes and stealing beats from well... everyone. He then honors the people who make mixtapes, except instead of handing out money and peace prizes, he sues them.

“We're concerned about our integrity but we also have a 'fuck you' attitude towards a lot of stuff,” Malo said. Lil Wayne's manager said Wayne was sorry but he still would not grant another interview to Malo. Malo had to consider whether going forward with the material was worth risking access.

“He's signed to Universal and they paid for me to stay there and do the interview. We talked about whether running the tape was worth burning bridges with Universal.”

Malo received a call earlier that day from his partner, B. Mack, telling him that Foundation's investors had all pulled out before the release of their next issue. B. Mack called back, saying the pull out was an April's Fools joke but there were some complications concerning the next issue. Finally reaping the benefits of what Malo describes as the magazine team's “hustle,” Foundation found itself in a dilemma: Lil Wayne and 50 Cent both wanted the cover for Issue 7. They scheduled both interviews for the same day, writer Mike Cohen took care of 50 Cent and G-Unit interview while Malo got metaphorical bombs dropped on him by the self-proclaimed Arthur Nobel of mixtapes.

When Malo called to tell B. Mack, his partner's first reaction was “did you get the audio?” However, the audio could not be released as quickly as it was retrieved.

“Something that is a huge wave of breaking news is gone in a week,” Malo said. “Nothing stays current very long. We held on to the audio so that we didn't lose the buzz.”

In a world where the immediacy of the Internet causes a controversial statement to go viral and get distributed in so many places beyond the original source, Malo knew he needed to maintain control over the audio. “What I did was I didn't even tell people. I wouldn't let my partners even have the audio. I kept it under my sole control. We thought the best idea was to go to other media and get promotion for us. I sent it to a few of the DJs we had been talking to.”

As much as Malo tried to maintain control over the audio, one of his friends ended up putting the audio online earlier than planned. “The way it was supposed to be done, the week before the issue came out Kay Slay was gonna put it on DJ Drama's show,” Malo said. “We quickly had to regroup how we were going to handle this media onslaught. We wanted to make sure that our name was attached to the audio. We tagged the audio so that it ended up going out and made ourselves available to talk about it.”

The Foundation team put their promotion into overdrive to maintain their ownership of the audio. Malo says the magazine used all their connections to make the buzz work to their benefit. “We sent the audio to mixtape DJs. We had it on the radio, we hit up Sirius radio and XM radio. It became a way of getting our name out there.” Malo noted that their networking helped them “capitalize in two senses. You want as many people as possible to know about your brand and you want to reach potential advertisers that are interested in how many people your reaching.”

Foundation's guerrilla-marketing schemes prepared them well for the Lil Wayne incident. Malo says the magazine has become known for their tireless hustle. “We have street teams in different cities and we'll send t-shirts, stickers and magazines out. Clint Sparks was in one of our issues and he was willing to do a lot for us and he would fly around the country and just hand them out at events he was doing. This dude in LA has a studio he'd hand magazines out there.”

The magazine has used their connections within the community to spread the word well. They used their networking abilities to cover the Mixtape awards in New York. Malo said “It was Justo's girlfriend, a mixtape ambassador who had just died. All we had was business cards and we just went up there and got introduced to all these big name Djs.”

B. Mack and Chris Malo are not just riding on their friends coattails. They have learned that no one in the music business or the journalism business is going to get respect without earning it. “We're known for our hustle. We just run around with boxes of mags. We're not just these white kids with daddy's bankroll, we legitimately love this.”

They understand the need to work on long term relationships to build Foundation. “We started talking to this guy in Houston who will line up writers, photographers in Houston which is a big market for us. It's a two way relationship, you have to give out to get back. We'll make sure when we get something that he needs, we get it done for him.”

The founders of Foundation knew they needed to invest in the community itself in order to grow. Malo says “where we're at is good and we had to go through what we went through to get where we did. We did that work on the streets, we go to the corner stores, we do the swap meets. We don't just want to be in Borders.”

While the magazine may be distributed on the streets, Foundation puts a large amount of effort into promoting the magazine online also. Malo said in addition to Foundation's website they used messageboards and social networking sites to spread the word. “When I was like 'yo, we need a myspace,' we thought it would be a waste of time,” Malo said. “I never realized so many myspace pages are run by the actual artists. We got TI's people to run the magazine cover on his myspace for a week and saw results from that.”

Karen Naylor, an adjunct professor of journalism at Temple University, said the online component to the magazine was essential to keeping the attention of their target audience.

“The 18-to-24 year-old demographic just does not buy magazines, you need to use the internet to get their attention in order to get them to buy a magazine,” Naylor said. “Magazines are a difficult way to make any money.”

Malo can attest to the fact that his magazine is not money making machine but that is not his intention anyways for now. He says he had to take himself off salary in order for the magazine to make it to print. Malo says making the magazine has been more rewarding than risky. “We knew the only thing stopping us from making a magazine was ourselves. We haven't invested any of our own money or gotten a loan from anyone,” Malo proudly proclaimed. “The only thing we had to lose was time and energy.”

The magazine definitely took time and energy from the Foundation team. Malo say the magazine prides themselves for their “ignorance” of the business. None of the members had ever worked on an operational magazine. They found themselves piecing together their magazine without much direction. “Initially, there were just the four of us. We'd rely on our collective skill,” Malo said. “We were just fumbling our way through. We thought advertisers were going to flock to us. It's inconsistent and changing.” Malo said his partners helped fulfill duties he could not do. “We had this guy who worked with us at the beginning and he could just learn anything, we'd tell him to go learn HTML and he'd come back the next day with the answers. We had another friend who was just street smart and had him sell advertising for a while.”

Foundation seems to have stumbled upon a system that works despite their rookie roots. Malo says he meets weekly with B. Mack where they run ideas on an dry erase board. At the meeting, they make a wish list of profiles and features for their next issues. Chris says they focus on how to fill their “main staples of things we do every issues.” However, the improvisational spirit still remains a part of the process, Malo admits that they still “throw in stuff randomly when we know something big is coming along.”

Foundation has an advantage in covering a constantly changing musical community. Although most mixtapes are illegal because mixtape DJs frequently use unauthorized samples from other artists, mixtapes production is a much faster process than the traditional recorded album and is constantly growing on the internet. While Malo recognizes that mixtape download websites like are creating more music than his magazine, his magazine does not have to fear becoming too big for the feds. This works towards Malo's advantage however. While others take the risk of creating the music everyone wants but is technically illegal, Malo's magazine can maintain a legitimate existence and become the authority on what their audience needs to know about the confusing world of mixtapes.

Because the Beatles and Jay-Z were totally going to do an album together before Dangermouse dropped the Grey Album

The illegal nature of mixtapes makes forces them into the internet's equivalent to the underground concert scene which is a demassified form of media by necessity. This is the audience which Foundation serves to crystallize the form. Malo finds, “It's easier to work with people instead of against them.”

Many hip hop purists complain about the commercialization of hip hop attempts to exploit an organic culture. Hip hop fan Alexander Telenson said “a hip hop magazine needs to benefit the artists and the community rather than stealing other people's music to sell advertisements. Stealing other people's beats for profit is what Lil Wayne does.”

Malo recognized a need to understand the hip hop community as a whole. “There's a balance between relationships where things need to be beneficial,” he said. “I think that the packagedness comes from perception. With mixtapes there's a much wider spectrum than what people expect. We're looking for things that are off the beaten path and off the radar. The feedback I like hearing most.”

Malo says if Foundation wants to be authentic and not just be flashy, we can't just play favorites.”

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They know they need to connect with the community to cover it. “If we're representing mixtape culture as a whole, then you can't ignore a whole group of people. We try to give credit to those who aren't even getting it.”

Hip hop is one of the most entrepreneurial markets because as Chris says “there's always a changing approach to this. We're in talks with iTunes to do some digital stuff. We do a lot of events, release parties, artist showcases. The idea is to build the brand just as much as the magazine.”

In businesses where people tend to compromise principles for profit, both in hip hop and journalism, Foundation declares an ambitious mission “to be an industry standard while maintaining our integrity.” Chris says this is difficult in an industry where “behind the curtain, you can go through magazines and tell who paid for what editorial.” He maintains that while “there's compromises that need to be made, there's nothing that we would put in the magazine that we don't stand by.”