A Revolutionary Approach to Music Reviews

By Hopkinson, Natalie | American Journalism Review, December 1998 | Go to article overview

A Revolutionary Approach to Music Reviews


Hopkinson, Natalie, American Journalism Review


Blaze magazine Editor in Chief Jesse Washington prides himself on being a revolutionary. The 9 mm pistol he claims was aimed at his chest merely punctuated the point.

The trouble started when the hip hop magazine launched by the creators of Vibe introduced a new concept to journalism: publishing music reviews with an accompanying response from the artist. With the magazine's first issue in August, Blaze broke the tradition of never showing an article to its subject before it goes to print.

About three weeks before the issue hit the newsstand, as Washington tells it, he was sitting at the Hit Factory studios conference room in New York City when platinum recording artist Wyclef Jean pointed the gun at his chest. Jean was miffed because a record he had produced by rapper Canibus, titled "Can-I-Bust?," was going to get a negative review. Jean told Washington that the writer had reviewed an incomplete recording.

"He hints that there might be bloodshed if they don't get a `fair shake,'" Washington wrote in the magazine's premier issue. But Washington decided to give Jean the benefit of the doubt by not printing the review and waiting for the "complete version." "This is the price you pay for daring to be revolutionary," he wrote.

In an interview on MTV, Jean said Washington's story was just a stunt to gain publicity, adding that he never pulled a gun on the editor. Jean's spokesman would not comment further to AJR.

Aside from this alleged life-threatening reaction, Blaze's concept raises serious journalistic questions. Musicians and the general public have long complained about what they believe is the media's bias. Theoretically, printing artists' responses would be a way to give readers deeper insight into the artists' work and raise points writers may have missed.

But others say this approach may prompt pre-publication objections, as it did with the review of the Canibus album.

Washington acknowledges that Jean's rationale for stopping the review was possibly less than ingenuous. In fact, he says the final album by Canibus reflected very few changes--one additional song and a new beat in another--from the version reviewed by the writer. But if he could do it all over again, he would react the same way, Washington says, since he couldn't be positive the review copy was the final version. "Fairness is the most important thing to me," he says.

Washington, a former assistant New York bureau chief for the Associated Press and managing editor of Vibe magazine, got the idea of publishing artists' views when he was an English major at Yale in the early 1990s. It didn't make sense to him that literary critics could be interpreting what a writer meant to convey 400 years earlier. …

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