4080: Underground Hiphop Magazine
On a tree-lined street in Berkeley, there is a rambling, gabled house with a wide front porch. To enter, ring the bell, which has the deep tone of another era. Inside you'll find a high-ceilinged living room with a glowing hardwood floor. A few steps further will take you to two small rooms -- perhaps at one time a storeroom and pantry. Welcome to the hiphop nation. Check your preconceived notions at the door. The old Victorian houses the offices of an underground hiphop monthly magazine called 4080; the name comes from a track by the rap group A Tribe Called Quest, and the line in question is the mocking refrain, "Industry rule 4080: Record company people are shady." This publication makes it clear from the outset that providing ink for major label rap acts isn't a priority.In just a few short years, 4080 has come from literally out of nowhere to become a player of some significance. Among the top underground hiphop magazines in the country, its pages chronicle the up-and-coming, providing a glossary to the most vibrant youth movement on the streets. From politics to graffiti, b-boy fashions to surfing the 'net, 4080 lays out the culture, sniffing out the freshest music and slamming sell-outs, taking a stand and trying to make a difference.There's a narrow field of publications covering the burgeoning rap and hiphop culture that's exploded over the last two decades. The key players are the relatively mainstream pages of Vibe (published by renowned musician/producer Quincy Jones), the New York-based Source (which had an editorial shakeup recently over accusations that stories were being planted in exchange for ad dollars), San Francisco's street-savvy Bomb, and the RapPages (funded by Hustler's Larry Flynt).And, of course, 4080. The magazine's senior director, MonGo Nikol, is a fervent believer in the importance of what's going on in this backroom office: It's about helping to shape the next level. "Arts magazines don't realize that hiphop is the predominant culture of our time. I'm in the midst of all that. It's like being in the jazz age." To say that 4080 started out modestly is an understatement. The first issue consisted of a single sheet of type that was faxed to a few dozen people. But now, 4080 has a national distribution and has started printing every issue in full-color. And after just 24 issues, it's time relocate. Publisher Lauchlan McIntyre laughs, "We outgrew this space six months ago. Even with all the remodeling we've done, we can hardly fit here."But there's no real hurry: relocating would mean giving up a certain level of down-home coziness -- the kind that comes from friends dropping in whenever, and having your mom working upstairs, just a shout away. At her sun-drenched desk, McIntyre's mother, Shelby Sampson, takes a minute to talk about her son's metamorphosis to successful publisher. "He's following family tradition; my father was one of the top graphic designers in the '60s and '70s. We thought about forming a company and calling it 3GG for Third Generation Graphics, but then we remembered that a third generation graphic means that it usually doesn't reproduce well." Mother and son laugh together comfortably.Lauchlan jumps in. The 27-year-old is direct, charming. "I don't know a thing about publishing. I don't know a thing about graphics. I didn't get into publishing -- I got into hiphop and hiphop culture. I didn't want to do a magazine -- I wanted to do a hiphop magazine."Sampson knows how unusual it is for a family to live and work together once the kids become adults. "It's gratifying to me that Lauchlan asks my opinions and respects me. We are really fortunate as parent and child to have this kind of relationship. Still, it's taken 27 years of trial and error to get to this point."But a strong base in tolerance and inclusion was key in transforming this family home into a hiphop haven. Sampson is a convincing advocate for acceptance of racial diversity."I really like hiphop culture. My mother was from Alabama, and she left the South because she couldn't stand the racial prejudice. She deliberately chose Berkeley, and chose a school for me that was out of the area, so that I would attend an integrated school." She smiles at her son affectionately. "Now all of that has born fruit in Lauchlan. Hiphop culture has genuinely found a multicultural form. The group of kids he grew up with have a real unselfconscious aspect to their friendship." MonGo Nikol, 4080's senior director, is exuberant when it comes to the publication's credibility on the street. "If you're in 4080, you are so the next level." He laughs, a bit scornful. "I mean, the Source had Naughty by Nature on the cover -- please! They're a great party band, but what do they have to say to anybody?" It's purely a rhetorical question."We put Master P. on the cover. He's out of the Fillmore and he's going to be huge, national. And Herm is a total activist -- he doesn't even rap, he just speaks on his albums and breaks down wisdom that most people don't even think about. Herm got 35 jobs for people in the community out at the Hunters Point shipyards [in San Francisco]. That's what it's all about."Which is not to say that 4080 is some sort of hiphip pollyanna. There's no ducking controversial stances. The magazine advocates free access to fire arms and a celebrates much-maligned hardcore styles like gangsta rap. In fact, the December 1994 issue found S.F. rapper Paris, the self-proclaimed "Black Panther of Rap," glowering on the magazine's cover with sledgehammer in hand; behind him was the flashing red light of a police car -- complete with smashed windshield. A typical issue might include any number of interviews and profiles of recording artists -- both signed and unsigned -- as well as rants about the unavailability of working pay-phones in the inner city and fashion layouts of the latest street garb. Sprinkled in the mix are dozens of record reviews, portraits of neighborhoods like East Palo Alto and conversations with elders like poet/writer/lecturer Ishmael Reed. The style is slang-heavy, and the writing values vibrancy over polish, but the result is a timely look at what's coming up next on the street. The current issue features a profile of San Jose's Havoc, who was a finalist a few years ago at New York's New Music Seminar in the "MC Battle for World Supremacy." But beyond the celebration and hoopla in discovering new talent, 4080's underlying message is about giving a voice to the historically voiceless."Racism is about economics," says Nikol. "And there are poor people from every [ethnic] background where I was raised. Here it's so subtle that it's frightening. They're on the sneak attack." And does his race ever work against him in the hiphop world? Perhaps surprisingly, it's not really an issue. "When people step up to me it's because I'm white. It has nothing to do with me."The multi-hued crew at 4080 doesn't have much use for typecasting by skin color. What's more important is building community. Coordinating editor Mark Sneed attributes the magazine's success to good word on the street. "It's all about credibility. We're hardcore -- not in a negative way -- but we highlight people who are really doing something beyond the music."Publisher and founder McIntyre concurs. "There's a lot of socio-economic and political issues -- like the Crime Bill, for example -- that we take a stand on that our peers don't for whatever reason. What really sets us apart is our ability to take stances on issues and stand by them and report on them. We're a positive force.""A lot of it has to do with our being independent," breaks in Nikol. "We decide here in the office what's going in the issue."Lauchlan nods, adding, "It's a competitive advantage. That's the five percent difference that makes people seek us out on the newsstand. They'll find information in our pages that they won't find anywhere else.""We've made an effort to get better with every issue," points out Sneed. "People can watch us grow. We're sort of like kids, in that we don't know things and have a certain naivete. It's not really innocence, though. But it is why we don't look as a major malt liquor company as some kind of paradigm or sacred cow. A lot of magazines do in the hiphop community, because they want to use their dollars." It's an issue that suddenly has all the staffers talking at once."But we see that it's wrong; we've been very honest in our writing," continues Sneed, before being interrupted by an excited Nikol. "We would never accept an ad from a malt liquor beer! We turn down ads regularly. People approach us and think because they have a lot of money they can do whatever they want. But we see that it affects the community negatively. Not only do we not accept their money, but we disparage them and call 'em out."There's no false modesty here. "We are the Newsweek of hiphop. We're real." Nikol stops short of sneering, but only just. "Meanwhile, the Source dresses up their rappers in boojy clothes that no one can afford." While in much of the hiphop world the emphasis is on raking in a few dollars, the staffers at 4080 keep their sites on a higher plane. "We're here because we love hiphop," continues Nikol. "The media only talks to a certain group of people, and those left out create their own message via hiphop. People don't realize how important and relevant that hiphop really is. Next to the Internet, it's the most widespreading form of communication in the world today."Some people don't have the background to understand real poverty; they look and see slums and ghettos and don't get that these are real people with lives just like you have. People don't sell drugs because it's fun. They do it to put food on the table. When rappers talk about selling drugs to get where they are, sometimes it's true, but that's the only way they could get out."And once you get out, you've got to get the word out. That's where 4080 comes in. For more information about 4080, write 2550 Shattuck Avenue, Suite 107, Berkeley, CA 94704; call (510) 644-9708.