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Wednesday, September 16, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Hip-Hop Marketing -- Quincy Jones, Time Warner Test Vibe Magazine, Take Aim At Untapped Suburban Black Market

Los Angeles Times

Quincy Jones made his name producing music - not magazines. But the world's best-known record producer - the man behind Michael Jackson's Thriller album - says that he's getting into the magazine business because he's fed up with rock music magazines like Rolling Stone that virtually ignore rap.

"Rolling Stone makes second-class citizens out of the people in this business who are icons," said Jones. By that he means rap stars like LL Cool J and YoYo, who have taken the hip-hop lifestyle of the streets and made it an integral part of the music and fashion of suburban America. "Rappers need a home for themselves," said Jones.

That's why Jones - with financial backing from Time Warner Inc. - founded Vibe, a publication whose "test" issue hits news stands this week. It has attracted some big advertisers like Nike and Levi Strauss, who are eager to reach 18- to 24-year-old opinion leaders. If this issue is a hit - selling at least 100,000 of the 200,000 issues printed - the magazine will begin publishing monthly next spring. If it's a flop, the first issue will also be its last.

While Vibe is the first so-called hip-hop magazine linked to a major publishing company, it is hardly the first periodical to try to tap in to this market of free-spending, predominantly black youngsters who have adopted rap not just as a musical choice, but as a way of life.

Many have compared the hip-hop generation to the rock generation of nearly three decades ago. Besides listening to rap music, those involved in hip-hop culture often wear loose-fitting clothing with angry racial messages such as: "No White Lady, I Don't Want Your Purse."

Nearly three years ago, The Source, a magazine founded by two white Harvard graduates, dubbed itself "the magazine of hip-hop music, culture and politics." While aimed at a younger audience, the year-old magazine YSB (Young Sisters & Brothers) calls itself "the voice of African-American teens." And there are at least six other smaller publications devoted to rap music.

"The black youth market has always been there, ready to be tapped," said Ken Smikle, president of the Chicago-based trade publication Target Market News. "But advertisers and media companies had to go through the learning curve. While entertainment led the way in exposing the potential of the audience, most marketers have yet to look at the purchasing power of African-American youth in areas like food, packaged goods and clothing."

It is a market with substantial buying power. Young black consumers between the ages of 15 and 24 will spend nearly $23 billion nationwide over the next year, estimates Smikle. For records and tapes alone, this group spends well in excess of $100 million annually.

That is why advertisers are buying into Vibe. Nike has a five-page ad spread in Vibe's premiere issue and Levi has a four-page promotion for its loose-fitting jeans. Swatch has placed a full-page ad, as has Gatorade, Nintendo and even two California surfwear companies - Gotcha and Body Glove - that are struggling to give beachwear an urban motif.

But some advertisers are already wondering if they did the right thing.

"There's definitely some roughness around the edges," said Scott Bedbury, Nike's ad manager, in reference to Vibe's first issue. It featured one article on violent female gang members that was laced with profanity. Said Bedbury, "It's a little more forward than even we had anticipated."

Experts say that it won't be easy going for Vibe - or for the other publications trying to tap in to the hip-hop market. For Vibe, one sticking point is whether Time Warner can assemble the kind of staff - and take enough editorial risks - to gain the trust of the young audience it is chasing.

"It will be a miracle if the corporate culture of Time Warner doesn't clash with the cultural sensitivities of Vibe's target audience," said Smikle.

Indeed, one co-founder of the magazine, Russell Simmons, backed out of the project this summer when he complained that the magazine wouldn't appeal to the real hip-hop generation.

While Vibe calls itself the Rolling Stone of rap, the editors at 25-year-old Rolling Stone doubt that Vibe will enjoy longevity. "I truly hope that Vibe is around five years from now," said Kent Brownridge, general manager of Rolling Stone. "But based purely on numerical averages, my guess is they probably won't be."

The magazine, which has amassed start-up costs of close to $1 million, was originally to be named Volume. But company lawyers were late to discover that a London-based music magazine already had that name, so at substantial expense to the publication, they rushed to change it.

At one point, Time Warner thought that it could save money by purchasing The Source, a relatively successful New York-based rap magazine that has attracted a loyal core of 65,000 readers.

Ultimately, founders of the Source backed off. "Vibe was created as a marketing vehicle," explained David Mays, publisher of The Source. "We were created because every one of us here lives the culture and the message" of rap. Indeed, no one on the Source's staff is over 26-years-old. Quincy Jones will be 60 next year.

Among younger black teens, Vibe also faces competition from the year-old YSB which also has a connection to Time Warner. The publication is owned by Black Entertainment Television, which itself is partly owned by Time Warner.

"Advertisers are just beginning to realize that they must diversify in order to reach the next generation," said Debra Lee, publisher of Washington-based YSB, which tries to show readers positive black role models.

But Vibe will need white readers, too. "If Vibe doesn't catch on with the white audience, it won't make it," said Carol Smith, Vibe's acting publisher, who six years ago was a founder of Parenting magazine. "Sure, Vibe's about black artists - but everyone is influenced by this music. My nephew, who is 18 and very Jewish, is a rap `DJ' on weekends at bar mitzvahs."

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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