Dances With Words
Raymond Roker is an unusual magazine publisher.
He’s 28, and his head is shaved. He’s an ex-graffiti artist who failed 12th-grade English. He admits to enjoying a night of drug-induced raving now and then. And he keeps two turntables and a mixer next to his desk for those evenings at the office when he needs to let off steam by deejaying breakneck techno for no one else to hear except maybe the night janitor, a familiar face.
He is an unusual magazine publisher.
He is also the archetypal California kid of the future. Part black, part white, he’s laid-back and liberal. He built a business on one computer, a lot of late-night stress and the inspiration he finds in graffiti, electronic dance music and hip-hop culture. He is mostly driven, however, by 28 years of being a mixed-race child in a world that is black or white.
“Most profound in my development is being mixed,” Roker says. His eyes are deep and benevolent. His face is round and unshaven. “Black kids didn’t want anything to do with me. So I grew up with white kids who said things in front of me that they probably shouldn’t have.”
He started his Hollywood-based Urb magazine out of his bachelor apartment in 1990 to cover a world that wasn’t getting much press: club culture. Urb stands for “urban,” and the magazine thrives on the sounds of the streets, the vibes of warehouse parties, the fashion of the city. Roker didn’t really know it at the time, but he was at the forefront of a revolution in music--the British-led dance music revival--and in publishing--the desktop revolution, which generated untold dozens of small youth culture “zines.”
Urb, with a coast-to-coast distribution of 50,000, has become the largest national voice for dance music culture. It has an unusual mix of hip-hop and dance--a formula seen in British magazines such as Muzik and Jockey Slut. In fact, Urb’s biggest challenger is a new U.S. edition of Britain’s dance music bible, Mixmag. Roker doesn’t consider more mainstream magazines such as Vibe and Spin as much competition, although the big music magazines are now hyping dance music as The Next Big Thing.
Some go as far as to compare Roker to an early Jann S. Wenner. “I think of Urb as a Rolling Stone for the year 2010,” says Steve Levy, co-owner of Moonshine Music, the largest independent dance music label.
And make no mistake, “Raymond and Urb are one and the same--interchangeable,” says Jason Bentley, a former Urb editor who now presides over a dance music label and two radio shows.
Urb, which is celebrating its sixth anniversary this month, still has a long way to go in capturing the audience, rapport and depth Rolling Stone developed in its early life. Urb appears once every two months in the form of 100 chaotic pages, often behind schedule and often filled with spelling and punctuation errors. The design is geometric and modern--and it can be confusing. And coverage is so enmeshed in the scene that the language can sometimes seem exclusive. (“Once released, the drum beat and break is scrawled in the grooves as time’s signature with a b.p.m. font. . . .”)
It’s also a much different world today than the glory days of Wenner’s journal, when rock was omnipresent. Rock has been crushed into a hundred tiny pieces by the hammer of marketing and the pick of progress. Ask a kid what he listens to and he’ll probably answer alternative, hip-hop, trip-hop, grind-core, exotica, jungle. . . .
But while other zines are happy to feast on these cultural crumbs, Roker has struggled to illuminate youth culture’s common roots while trying to present a vision of unity for the future.
The tribes of post-rock America--particularly hip-hoppers and techno ravers--were born in the inner city, he constantly reminds readers. Roker wants the mostly white ravers who enjoy electronic dance music to know that their culture evolved out of hip-hop (indeed, techno evolved from early-'80s electro rap--break-dancing music). “I’m lucky,” he says. “I see both sides. I’m a secret champion for blacks among my white friends and whites among my black friends.”
And he wants rap aficionados to know that techno is the future of their scene (avant-garde artists such as DJ Shadow and DJ Krush are already launching into space with “abstract hip-hop.”) “All music can coexist,” he says. “But electronic music is the future, if only by default.
“It’s a digital world.”
When last year I traveled into the South Bronx, I was looking for some answers. I thought the man to give them to me was [legendary rapper] Afrika Bambaataa. He, of all people, could help illustrate some of the parallels that I believed existed between hip-hop and dance music culture. I wanted him to support my argument that these self exiled tribes existed only in the polluted ocean of prejudices. . . . He did. . . . For five years I have been of the mind that we are one. We are a tribe squeezed out of the street, one that has taken root across the globe in a multitude of forms.
--Roker, writing in Urb, January 1996
At North Hollywood and Fairfax high schools, young Roker was on edge, but he mellowed out. He was lanky, bespectacled and bookish: Kids called him weird. When he shoplifted, he stole art books. And when workers at an art supply shop asked him who bombed their roof with stylish graffiti, he ‘fessed up. That got him a clerk’s job there and kept him close to the tools of his passion.
“I became quite an asset to the store,” he says, “because I could spot the graffiti artists who were coming in to steal in a second.”
His junior high school years were less stable. Growing up in the Miracle Mile section of L.A. that is the Gaza Strip of gangland, Roker had taken to tagging, shoplifting and getting stoned with his crew, KGB--"Kids Gone Bad.”
“We were very destructive,” Roker says over pasta and lemonade at a cozy Melrose trattoria one rainy evening. “We broke windows for no reason. We flirted with disaster. We’d go into West Hollywood . . . and shoot people with BB guns.”
Parents were just not a presence, he says. One friend’s mom sold cocaine out of her house while the boy stole marijuana for her. “We were fueled by energy and ignorance,” Roker says.
Roker’s mother, a schoolteacher, was more liberal than lax. “She always encouraged me to break the rules,” he says. She’s a product of the ‘60s, a pseudo-hippie who left his abusive father in the Bahamas when Roker was a baby and moved to New Orleans. Roker was her only child. They moved to L.A. when he was 12. Roker never saw his father again; he died in a car accident in 1987.
Though he attended junior college, Roker’s knowledge of commercial art was mostly self-taught. He quickly took to Apple Macintosh computers and began creating record store ads and club fliers that were bubbly, cartoonish and space-inspired. He danced at all-night warehouse parties called raves and realized that this was part of a pop explosion phenomenon begging for ink of its own.
The story of Urb is by now an underground legend, as told in the reference guide, “alt.culture: An A-to-Z Guide to the ‘90s” (HarperPerennial, 1995):
“Urb--Los Angeles ‘urban alternative’ magazine founded in December 1990 for $3,000 by Bahamas-born Raymond Leon Roker (b. 1968). Urb’s initial focus was hip-hop and dance music, and its 3,000 first issue print run was distributed for free by hand by the publishers on L.A.'s Melrose Avenue. As rave came to dominate the city, Urb became the central focus for that culture, with detailed (if often raw) reports on club life, and swirling, computer-generated ads for club events. In 1994 the magazine began nationwide distribution. . . .”
Urb became the primary media outlet not only for beat-heavy music but for a Warholian aesthetic found in fliers and rave fashion that was both infantile and irreverent. Fliers and T-shirts mocked commercial icons and mottoes: “Trips are for kids!” said one T-shirt, mimicking the design of Trix cereal.
Raves and Roker have changed since those days. Where Urb used to run nightclub ads, its pages are now filled with slick come-ons from major record companies and fashion labels. Its readership hovers around the age of 21, is majority white and more than one-third female.
Meanwhile, the underground has moved above-ground--into legitimate weekly clubs where the music is more popular than ever. L.A. even has a commercial dance music radio station, Groove Radio (103.1 FM). Roker still gets around, though he’s likely to be spotted clubbing with a dance music star such as England’s Goldie at his side.
Nightlife for Roker, however, more often involves his Macintosh. It’s another rainy night a few days later, and he’s busy cutting and pasting on deadline. He moves his mouse like a club deejay slicing from record to record (he calls his graphic design “digital deejaying.”)
His old wood frame window overlooks the historic intersection of Hollywood and Vine. It’s clear Roker has more affinity with Hollywood, the community, than with Hollywood, the industry, which gets virtually zero ink in his magazine.
A bald cholito who works for Roker part time strolls up and picks up a package of pages he is supposed to take for delivery to Urb’s printer. “When I get home and take my first couple bong hits,” the cholito offers, “I start trippin’ and I forget whether I have the right slip in the right package.”
Roker rolls his eyes.
Tom Wolfe took journalism to an artistic level by employing literary techniques. Hunter S. Thompson took it to the ground floor by delving into stories like a journalistic mosh pit diver. Urb puts the pens and note pads in the hands of the subjects themselves--a postmodern, participatory journalism that is now the hallmark of many Web sites. It began as an unwitting technique: Urb needed free editorial copy wherever it could find it and so solicited everyday ravers, hip-hop fans and fashion buffs to write about their scenes.
“We don’t fly a banner of, ‘Hey, we’ve captured the underground scene, read all about it!’ ” Roker says. “We never wanted to take that outside perspective. We wanted to take it as it comes--speak to the readers on the level.”
It’s a modest style that has produced scoop after scoop. Roker’s judgment has been ahead of the curve on such phenomena as G.H.B., the so-called date rape drug; crystal methamphetamine or speed; the rise of many music artists; and the emergence of music genres such as electronic ambient.
Many Urbanites have graduated to good things: Bentley, Urb’s first editor to speak of, co-founded a dance music label, Quango, and hosts dance music shows on KCRW-FM (89.9) and KROQ-FM (106.7). Contributor Darren Ressler is behind the U.S. edition of England’s Mixmag. Michelle Lolli, Roker’s longtime girlfriend who became the Michael Musto of L.A. clubs with her down-and-dirty reports--has gone on to do publicity for dance music labels.
The tone of Urb is maintained by Roker’s front-of-the-book “Diatribes,” which are thoughtful columns about the direction of the music. He has been successful in creating a sense that Urb is the town hall of American techno. Techno star Moby recently chose the magazine to announce that he is bowing out of the dance scene. “Your enthusiasm amazes me,” he wrote in the November issue, “especially in a scene that produces so many jaded burnouts like me.”
Urb is run with a full-time editor, a full-time business manager (M. Cactus Raazi, who moonlights as a nightclub doorman), a design assistant and a handful of clerical types. Writers come and go faster than the dance music record of the week. Most work for free. The ones who don’t often leave complaining that they were not paid what or when they were promised.
“Raymond sort of sets himself up as a person who is altruistic and cares about the scene, but . . . he owes me money!” says one ex-writer. Roker’s design assistant walked out after an argument with Roker recently--right in the middle of production for the January issue.
“We’ve had our differences,” says Urb Editor Roberts, who has been Roker’s second in command for four years. He describes Roker as both laid-back and a perfectionist.
“His vision is one that’s severely preoccupied with keeping it real,” says former editor Bentley. “He never plays the game with the music industry. Urb is thus seen as a renegade within the industry.”
“It’s definitely been a year of learning how people need to be taken care of,” Roker says.
It’s been a tough year, he says, because the magazine switched printers and distributors, causing financial heartache. These days, Urb is in debt to its printer, although that is not unusual in this business. Roker admits that business gets him down sometimes. He gets tired of living Urb. He fantasizes about a normal, 9-to-5 life. “I am getting exhausted over constantly trying to raise enough money to print,” he says.
“But at the end of the day, I’m still doing what I want to do . . . knowing what’s going on in the dance scene, having a room full of computers and crates full of records.
“If I left I would feel like I allowed the scene to go off in the direction of all other music forms in this country--segregate itself, dilute itself, prostitute itself.”
He has a dream. He explains it this way:
My vision is so idealistic, it’s poetic. I get into the dance scene and I see things in society work themselves out. I see gangsters not fighting. I see white kids, black kids, brown kids having a good time. All because of the power of music.