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Beloved hip-hop magazine Wax Poetics gets revived – Columbia Journalism Review

In the Nineties, during the Golden Age of hip-hop, hip-hop heads and record collectors Andre Torres and Brian DiGenti moved to New York. Not seeing coverage of the scene that excited them, they created a music magazine, one that would be for fellow fans—DiGenti was so obsessed with hip-hop samples that he printed the entire Rap Sample FAQ database and carried it with him to record stores. Wax Poetics was soon celebrated for its coverage of music icons—Prince, Marva Whitney, MF Doom, Erykah Badu, Bobbito, and many others—but within fifteen years, the magazine’s print publication would lapse. On Wednesday, Wax Poetics was relaunched.

“Andre’s big push was that this magazine would take hip-hop seriously, almost academically,” DiGenti, now the editor of Wax Poetics Vol. 2, says. “When we launched, hip-hop wasn’t taken seriously as an art form. It was a commercial juggernaut.” Some independent music magazines, including XLR8R, Big Daddy, Stress, and Ego Trip, covered hip-hop with nuance and humor, but at that time mainstream publications such as Rolling Stone and Billboard generally relegated the genre to sidebars and album reviews. 

WP stood out by showcasing hip-hop’s lineage, often in longform, with the intellectual vigor usually reserved for jazz writing. Issue one gave Wax Poetics immediate credibility: it included a profile of legendary producer David Axelrod, interviews with turntablists DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist, a story on Madlib, and a track listing for Ultimate Breaks and Beats, a notoriously hush-hush compilation. “I really strongly felt if we printed [the tracks from Ultimate Breaks], then people will never throw out this magazine,” Andrew Mason, a former contributing editor, says.

Courtesy of Wax Poetics

In its first few issues, Wax Poetics printed interviews with hip-hop greats like Louie Vega, Pete Rock, DJ Premiere, The Last Poets, and Prince Paul. As the magazine grew, coverage evolved to include features and Q&As with creators in a variety of genres whose aural trails led to hip-hop: Chicago singer-guitarist Syl Johnson, reggae maverick Jimmy Cliff, boogaloo trombonist and composer Johnny Colon, obscure session players/dance music pioneers Rinder and Lewis, and Blue Note producers the Mizell Brothers. Always, there was a sense of history and legacy. “There were not that many magazines that gave the connection between hip-hop and soul and jazz any love,” Mason notes. 

Working in this niche was a blessing and a curse, DiGenti says. “In those early days, we were under a microscope. A lot of these [collectors] are very, very, very critical. So you put out a magazine of something that they’ve loved for so long, and they criticized every little part.” But the editors’ dedication showed; in the days before All Music and Discogs, DiGenti recalls visiting UC San Diego’s music library to look up dates of obscure James Brown releases for publication. 

Wax Poetics used its tastemaking status to give a platform to emerging artists as well. The magazine published reviews of groups such as The Budos Band, Tuxedo, and Doug Shorts, who were unlikely to make it onto the pages of mainstream publications. (This sensibility—championing the underground—was emulated by media behemoths such as Vice and Red Bull Music Academy.) It was also a place where music journalists could stretch beyond a column inch. Allen Thayer didn’t consider himself an active writer when he first picked up WP in 2001, but he eventually contributed to dozens of issues on everything from Brazilian funk to modern boogie. David Ma began writing for WP in 2005. The magazine was meant to be “read years or even decades later,” Ma says. “I’d be an avid reader even if I wasn’t a staff writer.” 

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Themed issues of the magazine contextualized genres and drew parallels between a range of artists, though this inventiveness sometimes stretched beyond readers’ tastes. For issue 30, Torres and DiGenti styled WP as a rock magazine, with Black punk group Bad Brains on the front cover and Elvis on the back. The experimental issue highlighted the Black heroes of a genre long deemed too mainstream and too white, but readers were turned off. People didn’t care about rock even if it did have Black roots. The issue was Wax Poetics’ worst selling.

Courtesy of Wax Poetics

A large part of WP’s appeal was its design, which tapped into the desire of collectors to possess something physical and pretty; Wax Poetics looked great lined up on a shelf alongside prized LPs. WP employed celebrated hip-hop photog B+ as a contributing photo editor and emphasized artful graphic design. The magazine looked as cool as it read. “The printed magazine was so beautiful; so many of my friends and colleagues were so into having the physical copy,” Todd Simon, a trumpet player who worked with Madlib, Ethio Cali, and Daptone Records, says. “Other magazines at that time might write a review of a record I put out, but to get it covered in Wax Poetics was status.”

Despite its status, by the mid-2000s WP became vulnerable to the same issues plaguing every print publication. Advertisers left and readership dropped off, forcing the independent magazine to find other revenue streams. Between 2010 and 2015, Torres and DiGenti attempted to finance and sell the magazine, even pitching a TV docuseries to Amazon. The owners diversified WP‘s offerings by selling clothes and starting a record label. Yet in 2017, WP stopped its subscriptions and newsstand distribution, mostly putting the magazine to bed. DiGenti kept the website going and published two additional print issues. But even in the absence of a regular publishing schedule, readers’ respect for Wax Poetics remained. 

Four years later, Wax Poetics has new owners: Alex Bruh and David Holt, British marketers and brand consultants. Holt, a longtime Wax Poetics reader who helped publish the magazine’s last issues, has faith that WP can be financially viable again while keeping to the editorial mission of the original magazine. “Clickbait journalism is disappearing and there seems to be space for longform journalism again,” Holt says. “There are enough music platforms out there that talk about the biggest artists, review the latest festivals, review the latest albums. Wax Poetics has always been about filling in those gaps, and I think without it there was that glaring hole.”

Wax Poetics Vol. 2 launched with weekly longform stories on its website, which also houses more than 200 archival articles. A big feature will be a revival of the Re:Discovery column, which offers thoughtful dives into classic albums rather than reviews of new releases. Vol. 2 has already released a dance-themed digital magazine, and plans to publish the first of two yearly print editions in March. Marvin Gaye will grace the cover of issue one—the realization of a longtime goal for the original WP editors. Down the line, Holt also plans to launch a video series and a podcast.

Courtesy of Wax Poetics

The magazine has other, editorial, problems to address, not least its failure to include women artists and writers. The majority of WP‘s original contributors were men; the few women who did write for the magazine often wrote about male artists. The new Wax Poetics must also broaden its late-thirties readership to include a younger audience. Yet WP’s original emphasis on design and discovery was prescient for today’s media landscape. WP’s collector audience is willing to spend on a good-looking product, and printing just two issues a year will make Vol. 2 that much more exclusive. 

Issue 22 of the original Wax Poetics, published in spring 2007 with a cover featuring funk diva Betty Davis and Bay Area rap legend Too Short, included an editor’s note by Torres that serves as a reminder of Wax Poetics’ dedication to illuminating the lesser-known corners of music—a service that remains as much in demand as ever. 

“Artists that weren’t super stars in their day… are the norm in this industry,” Torres wrote. “We’re going to keep on pushin’ like Short, while celebrating those like Betty. Because after all these years, we still love the hustle—our way.”

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Jessica Lipsky is a Brooklyn-based journalist who covers culture, music, and media, with a focus on subculture. Her work has appeared in NPR, Newsweek, Billboard, Vice, The Recording Academy, LA Weekly, and other publications. She is the author of a forthcoming book on Daptone Records and revival soul (Jawbone Press, 2021).

TOP IMAGE: Wax Poetics archive issues, from the author’s personal collection.

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