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Blaze Burning a Controversial Path in Hip-Hop World

THE WASHINGTON POST

Weeks after the beating, Jesse Washington’s facial fractures have not healed. The iris and pupil of his left eye are cloudy, surrounded by a blotchy ring of red.

At the Lexington Avenue offices of Blaze magazine, there are other reminders of the assault. A security guard, discreet in a business suit and tie, stands in front of the receptionist’s desk.

Washington is the editor of Blaze, a new magazine of hip-hop culture. He was beaten on a Monday afternoon in November by men he was meeting with in a Blaze conference room. He identified one of them as Deric “D-Dot” Angeletti, a record producer who works with Sean “Puffy” Combs. Washington says Angeletti was angry because Blaze published a picture that identified him as the Madd Rapper, a comical, chronically aggrieved character who has appeared on various albums on Combs’ Bad Boy label.

Three days after the beating, Angeletti, whose lawyer says he’s innocent, and another man voluntarily went to a Manhattan police station for questioning. They were arrested and charged with felony assault and criminal possession of a weapon. According to a police spokesman, the weapon was a conference room chair.

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This was the second time since Blaze’s debut in August that its editor has made headlines. In the premiere issue, Washington accused rapper Wyclef Jean of pointing a gun at him. Wyclef, Washington wrote, was trying to persuade him not to run a negative review of an album he had produced. (Wyclef dismisses the accusation as a publicity stunt.)

According to the Guide to New Consumer Magazines, Blaze’s debut was the largest music and entertainment magazine launch in publishing history. For many hip-hop fans, the Washington / Wyclef dispute made it larger than life.

Blaze’s bumpy but auspicious beginning raises certain questions. Why can’t the hip-hop nation, which already has seen the slaying of two of its most popular stars, leave the violence alone? Do the music’s chroniclers do hip-hop a disservice when they write about whatever violent incidents take place within the hip-hop community?

And what’s up with this Jesse Washington guy, anyway?

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By his own admission, Washington, 29, is “super-ambitious.” A former New York assistant bureau chief for the Associated Press, he served as Vibe’s managing editor for a little more than a year before being selected to pilot Blaze, Vibe’s hip-hop offshoot. He’s a Brooklyn native who majored in English and played basketball at Yale. Intelligent, outspoken and seemingly uncompromising, he is confident of his mission. “Blaze,” he says, “is gonna change the rules of hip-hop journalism.”

His competitors at other hip-hop magazines say that Washington is a magnet for trouble because he’s taking the wrong approach.

Washington counters that the music’s artists and record labels will have to learn to understand his approach. In too much hip-hop journalism, he explains, the emphasis is on hip-hop, not on journalism. He argues that the other hip-hop magazines are not critical enough. He insists that he’s bringing the field a kind of integrity it has previously lacked.

“I don’t feel that that was a unique situation for a hip-hop journalist to receive threats,” he says. “It was unusual for us to write about it, because in the past a lot of the magazines have been reluctant to do that. It’s bad business. Why are you gonna make Sony mad at you when they spend a million dollars a year in ads?”

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A Manifesto With Attitude

Blaze’s debut issue was promising. The magazine was thick with 120 advertising pages, and the stories included a thoughtful piece on Snoop Dogg, an interesting item on jazz keyboardist and arranger Bob James’ contributions to hip-hop, and a well-executed piece on a difficult, arcane subject--a “soundclash” competition between two Jamaican mobile audio systems.

Most remarkable, though, was Washington’s “Manifesto,” which announced Blaze’s arrival as follows.

“This is as real as it gets:

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“I’m sitting in a conference room at the Hit Factory studios, sunk deep into a leather swivel chair. A 9-millimeter pistol is pointed at my chest. At the trigger end of the gun barrel stands platinum artist Wyclef, tipsy off the vodka. He’s heated because Blaze is about to give Canibus’s new LP, ‘Can-I-Bus?,’ a negative review.”

The manifesto went on to explain that Wyclef had argued that the record was not finished. “We ultimately decided to take Wyclef’s word that the album was incomplete,” Washington wrote. “But we did decide to let the readers know why we couldn’t cover one of the year’s most anticipated albums. We want you to feel our dedication to the truth, and see that threats and intimidation won’t deter us from our mission.”

Washington did not press charges against Wyclef, the Fugees rapper and guitarist who has also established a successful solo career. “I hate to get the police involved in anything,” he explains. “I don’t trust them, especially in something like that.”

Contacted through his record label, Wyclef refused to comment for this story. In August, he alluded to the allegations during an MTV appearance. “I’m here to talk about a rumor that’s spreading around town,” he said then. “There’s an editor that says Wyclef Jean pulled a gun, and personally I feel like this is so he can do publicity to sell the new magazine.”

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But Washington insists he didn’t go public with the accusations in order to hype Blaze. “Wyclef threatened us in order to get us not to run a review,” he says. “I felt that I could defeat that attempt and let people know that we’re not gonna put up with those kinds of things.”

While Washington expected the buzz that ensued, he did not anticipate what he dismissively refers to as “the Deric thing.”

Deric Angeletti is a respected producer who has done work for Bad Boy artists, including the Notorious B.I.G., the Lox and Mase. According to Washington, Angeletti had posed for a Blaze photographer because the magazine had a profile of him in development. One of those photos appeared in a column in the December / January issue, and Washington says that Angeletti was angry because the photo identified him as the Madd Rapper, information that Angeletti wanted to keep under wraps.

Just Telling the Truth or Airing Dirty Laundry?

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A meeting was arranged, says Washington, who is reluctant to get specific about what happened after Angeletti arrived accompanied by, he says, three men. “Basically, one of them just came up behind me and tipped me over in my chair,” he says. “I was on the ground and I just got kicked in the face and the head a whole bunch of times.”

Contacted through his attorneys, Angeletti declined to comment for this article. “We deny all of these charges outright,” says his lawyer, Ian Niles. ". . . Our intention is to vigorously defend this case.”

Washington says the beating was “bad enough that I didn’t let my mom see me for two weeks.”

Some in the hip-hop community feel that in pursuing the Angeletti case and directing public accusations at Wyclef, Washington is airing too much of hip-hop’s dirty laundry.

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“Blaze is trying to exploit this to get publicity, and what it’s doing is giving hip-hop more of a bad name,” says David Mays, publisher of the Source, a competing magazine.

Washington disagrees. “I don’t think it’s stigmatizing for me to discuss honestly the violence that takes place within hip-hop,” he says. “The truth isn’t gonna stigmatize anything. The truth will eventually lead to things getting better.”

But Washington also knows that for most celebrities--and particularly for hip-hop artists--there’s no such thing as bad press.

“One of the reasons why Tupac became the superstar that he did was because of what he did outside the recording studio. He was always getting into trouble. He was always in the news . . . and that built an image up around him,” Washington says.

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“Tupac was a very talented rapper, and he had an ability to make you feel him on record, which was another reason for his success. But absolutely, that stuff sold more records for Tupac. Absolutely. Wyclef sold more records because of what happened when he pulled that gun out. The Madd Rapper will probably sell more records because of this thing and what happened. People will be like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s the kid who beat down that Blaze editor.’

“In a certain way, it’s to the artist’s advantage to do ignorant things if it gets their name out there,” he says. “It makes people more aware of them.”

Washington concedes that being in the news has been to Blaze’s advantage as well.

“Negativity has fueled a lot of hip-hop’s rise,” he says. “And in this case, negativity has definitely helped Blaze out. And I regret that. I’d take back all the extra copies that we sold due to the Wyclef thing and the Deric thing to be able to say that those things hadn’t happened.

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“I’d take them all back in a second, and that’s a lot of copies.”

One Rap Song and He Was Hooked

Washington was 11 when he started learning the language of hip-hop. The first time he ever heard rap, he was in a grocery store in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., around the corner from his house.

The song was “Rapper’s Delight,” and Washington was hooked. “After that, all I wanted to hear was rap,” he says.

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He spent hours hovering by a clock radio, his tape recorder ready to roll. Now he’s got a swank stereo system at his home in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, and a so-so one in his Blaze office, where he is surrounded by photos of hip-hop stars.

After the beating last month, he says, he got supportive phone calls from “all kinds of people.” Friends, journalists, the guy who sat next to him on the bus back in third grade.

Washington says only one person from the hip-hop community called: MC Serch.

“I think there are a lot of artists and a lot of people in the music industry who probably think we got what we deserved. I’m certain of that,” Washington says. “I’m sure that there were people cheering when that happened.”

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This doesn’t make him love hip-hop any less.

“I’m part of it. I grew up with it. It’s influenced who I am, the way I look at life. Hip-hop made me realize I didn’t always have to accept authority, and that just because everyone does things one way, I can do it a different way.

“Hip-hop is part of the reason why I’m so competitive, because hip-hop is very competitive. I’m really competitive with these other magazines out here, and I wanna kick their behinds all day every day. At the same time, I see the competition in a larger sense. I don’t want to have the best hip-hop magazine. I want to have the best magazine, period.

“But I do have to say that I underestimated the capacity of people in this business to just have no sense.”

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