Today I had the amazing opportunity to interview XXL’s Editor-In-Chief Vanessa Satten and this quick-witted industry chieftain imparted invaluable knowledge and advice to our readers.
Bad Perm: Why do you think it’s important for festivals like Manifesto to continue on an ongoing basis? Furthermore why is the Women On The Move an important addition to the panels offered?
Vanessa Satten: I haven’t been to the event in Toronto yet to know, I’ve been to Women On The Move in New York but not Manifesto so I’m not totally sure what it is to say that it has to exist – I don’t mean that in a bad way but I don’t know what the whole thing is yet. As far as there being a platform for women in hip hop hop like the events that they’re throwing, the reality is is that women have a certain reputation in hip hop – if its an eye candy or if its a video hoe, and yeah, that exists – if its a pretty girl that gets a lot of attention. But the reality is there’s women in hip hop that are doing a lot of things and its not about what they look like its about what they’re actually doing to make the business move whether it be in media, whether it be at the record label, whatever have you. So I feel like it is somebody’s responsibility to highlight the women in hip hop and what they’re doing beyond the eye candy. Because they help make the hip hop world turn and if it has to be some separate thing that honors them in order for them to get their just due, then that’s what is it. But at the end of the day its not just a man’s industry and that has to be acknowledged.
BP: I know you get asked this time and time again, but woman to other women, what are the imperative traits women who are entering the hip hop publication industry need to be armed with?
VS: I mean, it depends on the circumstances, it depends on how you’re approaching it. It depends on if you’re going into a blog, if you’re going into a news source, if you’re going into a magazine. Don’t fuck the rappers. Don’t fuck the rappers, that’s number one. You want to be taken seriously in your industry then don’t sleep around with all sorts of rappers and think you’re going to get anything with that. I think that’s a huge aspect is to take your career seriously. If you’re going to do it, its a career, not just a job. You want a stepping stone, you want your work to be looked at a certain way.
Rappers are not looking for wives in hip hop. Rappers are not looking and going into an interview and thinking ‘hey, well this might be my future so-and-so.’ So if a woman sits there and thinks the rapper hitting on her is going to be the saving grace that gets her in the industry or its going to be a cool thing, you know I mean its just a one night thing and if that’s what you want to do, sometimes that can not make you look as serious about your career as you could. Everybody’s circumstances are different, I mean I’m not judging anybody but at the end of the day, you know, don’t fuck rappers. Watch what you do, there’s a whole world up there and they’re not looking to wife you. You get more out of doing your job and getting past that rather than being a groupie, you know? That’s a big part of it.
I think the other part of it is women really don’t support each other so your site sounds cool, the event sounds cool, all of that. I haven’t seen too much of women supporting each other in hip hop so there’s definitely a downside to that. It always seems like there can only be one woman in the crew, one bitch in the crew, one first lady, one whatever it is. Its not a very supportive industry for other women. I know that a lot of the situations I’ve had where I’ve felt most bothered about things probably were more woman-related than anything else. But, maybe that’s just my experience, I don’t really know. Speaking to other women they tend to have a lot of similar experiences that they tend to be down with the guys and worry about that. As whole if we supported each other more they’d probably do something but you know, I also might be talking out of my ass because I have no idea so who knows, you know?
You want to be taken seriously in your industry then don’t sleep around with all sorts of rappers and think you’re going to get anything with that.
BP: What’s the best way for an emerging publication, whether it be run by a single person or a team to move up in the ranks and gain a widespread and loyal following?
VS: That’s a little bit hard to answer because it depends on the direction of your content. It depends on the industry you’re in. I wouldn’t start a new hip hop magazine in this industry, the way that it is, the way that hip hop lives online. So it really depends on what you’re trying to do, what you’re trying to accomplish, what you’re trying to achieve with all of it. The advice would be…I really don’t know what the advice would be. It would have to be a little more specific as to what the brand was trying to do or trying to get done.
BP: I guess that’s advice in itself, like you have to know what you’re aiming towards and then go in that direction.
VS: Totally. You have to know what you’re trying to cover, what you’re trying to do, what your voice is, who your demographic is, who your audience is, who you’re making contacts with. For XXL, we’re a men’s driven magazine but we have women here. I’m a woman but we have more of a masculine audience so the voice of the magazine has to have a more masculine thing to it. Its about the hot eye candy, its not about the hot dude, because the magazine skews more masculine- that’s our voice. Because of that that’s our predominant readership. So you need to know what your voice is and who your reader is and make sure that you go after them whole-heartedly to feed them what they need if that’s the lane that you’re going in in order to have success.
BP: How does the climate of hip hop look from your perspective? Are we evolving in a positive direction?
VS: I think hip hop’s in a weird spot right now. I mean I think that you can actually have a conversation. There’s a little bit of the old person in me, definitely that how much do you become jaded at a certain point versus ‘hey this stuff isn’t as good as it used to be’ but that can be argued. If you talk to young people about it they don’t know the old stuff about how it used to be five, ten years ago. There’s a drastic difference in the way things are done now that they find one hit wonders and expect a whole bunch from them that they’re not capable of. And if you look at the landscape there’s not too many new artists that really, really, really, really blow up – they kind of stop at a certain level. So I think hip hop, because it is so mainstream and its in such a different place than it’s ever been and so, you know, crossover – that it is a little bit confused right now and its still got to find its way a little bit more than ever. I don’t think its at the best it’s ever been. I think that there’s a little bit of a stumble of trying to find out how deal in a time when with the digital way it is and with people not buying records and all of that kind of stuff, its still an uncharted territory and I think a lot of times people are very eager to get artists down with them or have a new artist just for the odd one new song that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to have a catalogue to be a big artist. You see a lot of people get a lot of stuff they don’t deserve very early on now and it seems like it affects them in a certain way that we’re not building stars to the degree that we used to. I can’t control that, I more document it. That’s just my outlook on it. The quality isn’t as there as used to be. Across the board that doesn’t mean that Kendrick’s album isn’t dope, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t stuff in there that is good and that is dope but it seems like there’s a little bit more of an emphasis on hoping you have the big dude than rather than the big dude having really good music. I think that’s just across the board in all the industries, whether it be the record label or whether it be the media industry, whatever it is, we’re still trying to figure out how this all works. I mean yeah the internet’s been with us for a minute but the technology is growing the fastest it could be. I think we’re still all trying to figure out how it all works and how we all use it and all of this. You have an artist, they can record in the basement, they can mix at this point. They’re lucky to have a cool song and they get a huge deal all of a sudden, à la Trinidad Jame$. And the reality of it is it took a lot more to get that huge deal back in the day. You had to prove more, you had more of a catalogue. So there’s a little bit of a factor where we have people who maybe are being put on a certain level that they don’t quite deserve yet because we’re missing that kind of stuff. We kind of don’t respect the old so much, the older people that invested in hip hop and when we stop respecting those people then all of a sudden they’re out the door to us and the pool gets that much smaller.
…I think hip hop, because it is so mainstream and its in such a different place than its ever been and so, you know, crossover that it is a little bit confused right now and its still got to find its way a little bit more than ever.
BP: Throughout your career what was your biggest obstacle and how did you get through it? Is there ever a time when you just have to call it quits and move onto something else?
VS: Yeah of course you have to call it quits and move onto something else, but you have to pick exactly what it is worth fighting for – you pick your battle and you hear that all the time. You pick which is worth fighting for and which you’re going to let go. I think that only comes with experience. We’re a culture that really reveres the youth right now more than ever and the problem with revering the youth is that the youth doesn’t have experience. They know what they like and they know what they want to buy but they’re not really experienced in how to get it out there and how to cover it and whatever it is. So I think I see that as a big part of picking your battles and somebody without experience might not know how to do that. That just comes with experience, how to move in a certain situation. So a lot of young people more and more, not just even having the experience then they’re not so aware of how to move in those situations – when to call it, when to fight. They have to learn and they’re lucky if they have guidance from someone who has experience to be able to give them that. But these days it isn’t like that as much as it used to be.
For me the hardest thing is I’m a white female in the hip hop world. You know, when a thing is taboo, whatever I talk about; should I say that or not? You’ve got to try to be taken seriously. You’ve got to try to act for people to accept that you know your hip hop – for them to not speak over you, for them to check you off like you don’t know what you’re talking about and you hope that you can get to the point where you do prove your value, your knowledge, your expertise. That you don’t have this hurdle anymore. I think that hurdle, just because I’m a white woman – women across the board are going to have that hurdle. Mine was the two factors – of being a female and being a white female, how much did I really know what I was talking about? But I think that your hurdle – any hurdle – you’re able to jump is how you can prove yourself. You can prove what you know, what you’re doing, what you’re talking about, then I think all that kind of stuff that’s seen as first kind of goes by the wayside. But I do think its for any woman, whether she’s Latina, whether she’s African-American, whether she’s Asian, whatever it is, its not an easy industry for women as a whole and then its whatever factors are after that.
BP: What is the legacy you want to leave behind in terms of your work at XXL and your body of work in general?
VS: I had this conversation last night. My responsibility is to keep the magazine and the website as pure as I can keep it in an industry that’s harder than ever. So that means that you can’t buy your way onto the Freshman Class, you can’t buy the cover story. You can’t pay for something. We document hip hop on an everyday basis, on a monthly basis, on a weekly basis, on a yearly basis and the job is that we’re supposed to give you what’s going on without opinion, you know, if it’s funny stuff, but its not to be swayed because you bought me something, because you gave me something, because you took me here, because you took me there or any of the staff. Our responsibility is to be as true to hip hop and as true to the integrity of the publication, of what journalism is, as possible because its harder and harder in this world to do within different blogs, with different outlets. They don’t have the same level of journalistic integrity so I feel like within an ever-changing climate and industry to keep the magazine as pure as I can keep it is my responsibility and and my legacy. Because its not really about me, its about the brand. The brand is the most important thing, nobody cares about Vanessa, nobody cares about any of the staff members, they care about XXL – XXL’s Freshmen. So at the end of the day I have to keep that brand as respected and revered as possible because we built it to a certain place, we don’t want to tarnish it and that’s the hardest part.
You can listen to Vanessa speak tomorrow at Manifesto’s So Much Things To Say: Evolution Summit. To RSVP to the Women On The Move Canada panel click here.