Rapping out battle lines

Times Staff Writer

In two decades as a rapper, Ray "Benzino" Scott has remained a minor player -- he can claim no gold records, no hit video on MTV or BET -- which makes it all the more fascinating that he is the most aggressive provocateur in an ugly war that pits rap's biggest star, Eminem, against the genre's most successful journal, the Source magazine.

This week, Scott released an album that includes a track, titled "Lift Up Your Skirt," which portrays Eminem as a cultural carpetbagger, a white artist undermining a black art form. That attack escalates considerably in the February issue of the Source in a five-page interview with Scott and an accompanying cartoon poster that depicts Scott holding a gory trophy: the decapitated head of Eminem. At the top of the cover, Eminem and Scott are shown in facing photos with a challenging caption: "Step into the arena."

Issues of race, street credibility and success have often roiled the rap community, especially when white superstar rapper Eminem has been considered, but how did a fairly anonymous Boston rhymer become the most prominent voice in the matter? Especially now, in 2003, when many of the most acclaimed black rappers have repeatedly embraced Eminem as a talent whose urban background overrides many questions of color?

Part of the answer appears to be the curious relationship between Scott and the Source, a relationship that has given Scott a consistent presence in the publication, considered the Rolling Stone of hip-hop. Through the years, Scott has been reviewed, interviewed and even framed in a poster with his son, despite a recording career that has bounced him to six music labels and been largely ignored beyond the pages of the magazine.

On two occasions, in 1994 and 1999, the coverage given to Scott has led directly to the resignations of the magazine's senior editors and some staffers. At the time they protested that Scott, a longtime friend of the Source's publisher, David Mays, was getting behind-the-scenes career support at the cost of journalistic ethics. (A spokeswoman for the Source said Mays was not available for comment.)

Now Scott's relation to the magazine is official. The February issue identifies him in the masthead as "co-founder and visionary." The title does not jibe with the oft-told history of the magazine's being launched in 1988 as a one-page newsletter by then-Harvard student Mays. (In addition, Scott's new album, on Elektra Records, comes with a special offer: three free issues of the Source.)

The perception that Scott is using the magazine -- and the Eminem attacks -- to stir interest in his career is spreading in the hip-hop world, and Web sites are already brimming with rumors, criticism and petitions calling for boycotts of the Source or Scott's resignation.

"It's ridiculous," Scott said of the notion that he uses the Source as a personal propaganda machine. "If anything, the Source has hurt my career."

That is disputed by Selwyn Seyfu Hinds, former editor in chief who quit in 1999. He said he quit because a review of Scott's music was tweaked to make it more favorable.

"The Source has given preferential treatment to Benzino over the years and he has a great deal of influence, and that's the reason I'm not there anymore," Hinds said. "Now, the agenda of Benzino and the magazine has become mixed and indistinguishable. Once it was done behind the scenes, now it's becoming a very transparent thing. That may put the Source in a danger zone as far as its credibility."

To Scott himself, the only issue of creditability that bears discussion is the matter of Eminem and his impact on hip-hop, music that sprang up some 20 years ago in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods in New York.

"There is a double standard in the highest degree," said Scott, who believes that Eminem's success is a disgrace because it is driven by a white-dominated industry and white-dominated audience who want a "blue-eyed, blond" performer.

"They are scared of the real thing," Scott said, "and we [black artists] can't get our songs on the radio. Our music is too real."

And what of race issues evoked by the success and power of Mays, a white businessman? Scott said Mays is part of authentic hip-hop culture and Eminem is not.

"This not a race thing," Scott said. "I'm talking about Eminem and what he does to hip-hop, what he stands for morally, and what he doesn't stand for.... We can't talk about our pain, we have to do songs that fit on the radio. And he can get away with anything. Nobody else is selling. He isn't the best rapper, but he's the only one selling."

"The Eminem Show" was the best-selling U.S. album in 2002 and is nominated for a best-album Grammy. The rapper also starred in a semi-autobiographical film, "8 Mile," about a kid from an impoverished white community who finds his defining art and friendships in urban black culture. Like that character, Eminem withstood withering attacks early in his career but, with the imprimatur of his mentor, Dr. Dre, and wide praise for his skills, Eminem has been widely accepted in the rap world. Eminem has also himself acknowledged the vagaries of race and success in songs such as "White America."

Against that backdrop, observers are scratching their heads at the February issue. Among them is Steve Stoute, vice president of Interscope Records and executive producer of "8 Mile," who was (along with Interscope chairman Jimmy Iovine) named No. 1 last month on the Source's annual list of industry power players.

"It's important because of what the magazine has stood for has been the most pure vision on hip-hop and lifestyle that exists, and when you walk around with that badge, it's a thing that is watched keenly by all," Stoute said. "I think people are concerned. What are they doing? What's going on? This thing with Eminem is raising a lot of eyebrows."

Eminem weighed in by saying: "Let them do what they do. Karma will come to them. Me, myself, you won't see me in that magazine willingly.... It's kind of sad. Because it's the magazine I grew up on loving when I was younger. It was like the Bible of hip-hop."

He was less wistful in a rebuttal rap lyric he fired at Scott that suggested the publisher of the Source had a gun to his head when the magazine publicized Scott's rap project, the Made Men: "Ray's got AK's to Dave May's head/every issue there's an 8-page Made Men spread." To many eyes, it was Eminem's musical discussion of Scott's role at the Source in recent months that prompted the addition of Scott to the masthead.

"Made Men" is also the name of Scott's film that, under the banner of the Source Films, was intended to push the magazine into film production with major theatrical release. The magazine gave the project a steady drumbeat of advertising for months, but its 1999 release date has come and gone quietly. The movie was just one of many projects that the Source has powered for Scott.In the late 1980s, Mays was a Harvard student with a passion for hip-hop and host of a radio show called "Street Beat" on campus radio station WHRB. By 1988, rap was a potent subculture but did not have a written forum, so Mays launched the Source, a one-page newsletter. By the second issue, fellow Harvard student Jonathan Shecter was the editor in chief, a title he held until 1994. Shecter left in protest along with most of the staff after Mays jammed a last-minute feature on a Scott rap project into the magazine.

Shecter declined last week to revisit the controversy or comment on Scott's current role at the magazine, but when asked if Scott could in any way be described as a co-founder of the Source, he gave a succinct answer: "No."

Scott was a Boston rapper who met Mays through the radio show. They were fast friends and then roommates. Mays became the manager for Scott's rap group, the Almighty RSO, in the late 1980s, an act that built a Boston reputation as a street-tough group. Two members were murdered in the late 1980s and one of its songs, "One in the Chamba," created a local controversy when the Boston Police's Patrolman Assn. protested it as a call to violence on officers.

In interviews with a dozen music industry insiders and former and current staffers at the Source, Scott is described as a forceful personality who has wrangled a career out of his friendship with Mays, along with considerable funds for recording music, making videos and living the life of a recording star.

Several also said part of Scott's early role at the Source was as a "sergeant of arms" of sorts, whose friends could shield the magazine's leadership when hard-edged rappers disagreed with coverage. Scott says he joined Mays as a formal business partner in the Source in 1995, although that was not acknowledged in the magazine until the last few months. Scott did not detail his investments, but sources close to the magazine say Scott did not put money in and instead earned the partnership as a charismatic consultant.

Regardless, it is Mays who is hailed by all as the one who built the Source into a notable success story. The circulation stands about 500,000, but independent audits say its "pass-around" readership is many times that and skews to the youth audience coveted by advertisers. The magazine reigns in hip-hop, although upstarts such as XXL are making inroads.

Unlike many other music communities, in rap there is no friction between the call of art and the embrace of commerce: As so many rap lyrics point out, cash and fame are the name of the game. It's not unusual, then, for a rapper to also be a record label executive, a clothing line entrepreneur, a manager to other artists and a producer.

The Source acknowledges the blur of it all in a publisher's credo that informs readers that some writers may also be working for the promotion departments of record labels but pledges to "strictly police the integrity of our editorial content."

That credo may be candid, but Scott's role through the years is "very bizarre" and raises "all kinds of ethical issues and questions of credibility," said Jeffrey L. Seglin, a professor at Emerson College in Boston, an ethics expert and veteran of magazine publishing.

Seglin said he wonders if the abrupt appearance of Scott in the magazine's masthead will salve any wounds to the Source's credibility. "It seems like they are trying to erase everything that has happened with this before," he said. "But you have to wonder if the readers will wonder who else they have relationships with and what else they are not revealing. This would seem to call into question everything."

Others have no problem with Scott's crossover roles. Rapper Busta Rhymes said this week, "Benzino is a businessman and he's got business to do. I applaud him for finding different ways to get things done. It's all about getting out there and getting attention, and he does that."

Rhymes, whose recent work has sagged in sales, was one of the black rappers whom Scott has cited as a victim of Eminem's inappropriate dominance. Rhymes, though, is not ready to side with Scott on the matter. "I have nothing but respect for Eminem, as an artist and as a businessman. All of this stuff, well, it is what it is."

Contradicting the view of outside observers, Scott says the Source has hurt his career. He says the staff walkouts led to him being "blacklisted by journalists" outside the magazine and prevented him from getting his due as a performer. Still, there have been moments when the Source has visited largess on Scott.

Scott's music has repeatedly appeared on the magazine's CD collections of hip-hop hits, and he given a coveted performer slot at the Source's televised music awards show in 2000. A year earlier his group, the Made Men, was nominated for the show's video of the year award for "Is It You (Deja Vu)," a video that records show was played only twice on MTV. By comparison, the winner in the category, a video by Rhymes and Janet Jackson, was played 400 times on the channel that year.

Jeremy Miller, the chief operating officer of the Source, said the magazine remains an independent voice, although he concedes it would have been wise for the magazine to publicly acknowledge Scott's role sooner. He says the February issue and its aggressive stance are not the handiwork of Scott as much as a reflection of a relatively new, youthful staff and their view of a crisis in hip-hop with its flagging music sales and corporate and government pressures on the music.

Miller points out that the interview with Scott in the magazine's February issue also addresses directly the rapper's friendship with Mays and his role through the years. Last year, too, the magazine reviewed a Scott release without giving it a traditional numeric grade (on a scale of one to 5 microphones), a policy Miller said shows the magazine gives serious ethical consideration to its coverage of one of its own.

In his decade-long recording career, Scott has sold about 265,000 albums spread out over five releases. On Scott's new album, "The Redemption," Mays is credited as executive producer. Scott is hopeful that he will achieve his longtime goal of a gold record, awarded to artists who top 500,000 in sales. Although the single "Rock the Party" has been a club success, the early reports on "The Redemption" are tepid.

"It's selling better than his last album but its still not much," said Violet Brown, the urban music buyer for the Wherehouse chain. "It's going to take people a while to figure who [Scott] is. But he has gotten his name out there with all this. A lot of people think it ludicrous but, good or bad, he's got his name out there."

A review in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday suggests that, artistically, Scott has not bridged the gap between him and Eminem. Writes reviewer Soren Baker: "That someone with such average skills

Scott says he will continue to "speak for the streets" in his music and at the magazine. He says the tumult about his role is unwarranted. The only thing that has changed is his title

"I didn't want to be out there before," Scott said. "Journalism in hip-hop were just disgusting to me.... Journalism is about agenda and setting people against each other. I don't need all of that. I wanted to stay in the back."

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Also contributing to this story is Times staff writer Chuck Philips.

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