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It’s a Mixtape Shook-Up World

mixtapecoverIt’s a Mixtape Shook-Up World

How three street-smart guys with no publishing experience, no money and no distribution launched a high-gloss magazine that’s actually making it.

PHILADELPHIA WEEKLY (JULY 16, 2008)
BY KATE KILPATRICK // PHOTOS BY MICHAEL PERSICO

The story of the mixtape magazine begins with a bag of pork rinds—cheese-flavored pork rinds.

On a hot July afternoon the three founders of the magazine sit around their publishing headquarters, a first-floor apartment that looks out onto the corner of Broad and Dickinson.

The seventh issue of Foundation, their quarterly magazine, just came back from the printer and today they’ll be preparing for the next issue.

Chris Malo and Brian “B. Mack” Mack—32 and 31, respectively—occupy the room’s two desks. The third partner, Rob Haney, 26, sporting black-framed glasses, a fitted T-shirt and jeans, is perched on the windowsill. An orange-and-white cat tiptoes across the vinyl-tiled floor.

“Brian has a lot of crazy ideas all the time,” says Haney, ticking off a shortlist of his friend’s past get-rich-quick schemes, which includes prepaid insurance for taxi drivers and the infamous cheese-flavored pork rinds.

Four years ago, laid off from his computer job and with his unemployment about to run out, Mack registered for school to extend his unemployment benefits and buy himself time while he scrambled for a new plan.

He considered selling mixtapes, a world he’d been familiar with since his teenage years in Willow Grove collecting compilations by DJs like Tony Touch, DJ Clue and Kid Capri. But he was living with a girlfriend who had a child, and because of potential legal issues over rights to the music on the tapes, he didn’t want the house to get raided.

So he dreamt up a new idea—a magazine devoted exclusively to the artists, DJs and culture surrounding the underground world of hip-hop mixtapes.

For unsigned artists, mixtapes are an affordable way of releasing music independently and building the buzz needed to catch the attention of an A&R rep. 50 Cent was an underground mixtape legend for years before he got signed by Eminem’s Interscope Records and released Get Rich or Die Tryin’ in 2003—becoming a national celebrity overnight with his hit single “In da Club.”

For artists already signed to major labels, mixtapes are a way of “feeding the streets”—keeping their buzz going during the long breaks between official album releases. On mixtapes artists can record rawer material that a major label may not feel comfortable cosigning, or test certain tracks to see if they’re hits.

But the relationship between artists, mixtape DJs and record labels can be tricky. Labels need mixtape DJs to build their artists’ street buzz, so they often arrange the recording sessions or leak prerecorded tracks. Yet mixtapes breach copyright laws, and are technically illegal. Last year DJ Drama—official DJ for Atlanta rapper T.I., and creator of the renowned Gangsta Grillz mixtape series that helped launch the careers of Young Jeezy and Lil Wayne—was arrested on federal racketeering charges after law enforcement officials raided his studio and confiscated more than 80,000 mixtape CDs.

Given the importance of the mixtape market, Mack assumed a mixtape magazine already existed.

He stayed up all night surfing the Internet. There was a page or two in the back of The Source or XXL devoted to mixtapes, but nothing that truly represented the role mixtapes play in marketing and promoting hip-hop on the street.

By morning Mack was ready to enlist his friends.

“I approached Chris specifically because of his passion for rap music,” he says. “And I asked Rob specifically because—literally—he’s a genius.”

For Malo, a lifelong rap fan from upstate New York who moved to Philadelphia “on a whim” 10 years ago, the realities of the proposition were blinding.

“My original position in the company was staff hater,” he jokes. “None of us had ever worked for a magazine before. We didn’t know a single DJ, artist, manager, publicist or label. We had no type of industry connections. And we had no money.”

To prove to Malo they could do it, Mack emailed DJ Vlad, whose The Notorious B.I.G.: Rap Phenomenon mixtape Malo had been listening to. He told DJ Vlad about the magazine startup, offered his phone number and asked him to get in touch. Ten minutes later the phone rang.

Mack went back to Malo and told him the magazine’s first interview would be DJ Vlad.

“I was like, ‘Wait, you talked to him?'” remembers Malo, saying that was when he started to take the notion of publishing a magazine seriously. “Not that I thought all access would be that easy, but I thought, ‘Maybe we’ve got something.'”

A year and a half later the DJ Vlad interview actually took place.


covertrunk_1

Car talk: Rob Haney(from left), Brian Mack and Chris Malo are grateful to Lil Wayne for losing his temper. Now people know how hard they work.

If Malo is the heart of the magazine and Mack the cojones, Haney is the brains.

Calm, quiet and reticent by nature, Haney defies the boastful hip-hop stereotype. He jumps into whatever role he’s given—including photography and graphic design, which he taught himself practically overnight.

At the time of the magazine’s inception, Haney was working for an extermination company doing home inspections for termite damage. It was about then that he enrolled in the School of Communications at Temple to study sound engineering and philosophy.

“I’ve been into music my whole life—all different kinds,” he says. “My mom worked in a music school so I played lots of instruments. When we started the magazine I was playing banjo in a band. I knew I wanted to work in music in some capacity. The magazine has been the perfect avenue for that.”

Although he used to favor conscious “backpack” rappers like Common and Talib Kweli, Haney’s come to fully embrace the hardcore “gatpacker” rap scene.

“Now you can catch him singing Jadakiss lines, or Papoose,” says Mack.

In January 2005 Malo, Mack and Haney began lugging their books and laptops to Cosí at Second and Lombard to hatch their plan.

But as with all of Mack’s other gimmicks, Haney expected it was only a matter of time before the project would dissolve and they’d go back to their regular lives.

“I didn’t take it seriously—I just showed up to humor him,” Haney confesses. “But we made some progress, figured out printing and costs, and then it got scary—seeing the amount of work involved and not knowing anything about it.”

Fourteen months after their weekly Cosí sessions began, the first issue of Foundation magazine was at the printer. Thanks to some early advertising checks written by Kool cigarettes, the three partners didn’t have to borrow money. They’d also been hitting up industry movers and shakers to build a buzz.

With a few phone calls, the trio got on the list for the 10th Annual Justo Mixtape Awards preparty in New York City.

“We’d never been to an industry event,” says Haney. “We printed out business cards and had them overnighted.”

Once in the VIP area, which they were told had been reserved for the media, Mack tried to strike up conversation with an industry type.

“Are you from the press?” he asked the stranger.

“Nah, dawg, I’m from the streets,” the man barked back.

“We didn’t know how to approach anybody or politic,” laughs Malo. “We were so clueless.”

Thus began the 24/7 mixtape magazine hustle: constant Chinatown bus rides to New York to drop off issues or appear at events; booking last-minute trips (like the one to Houston to promote the magazine at the Core DJ retreat); locating drop-off points at mom-and-pop CD shops up and down the East Coast; never-ending networking and bullshitting in order to work their way into nightclubs and VIP rooms for a moment of face time with Paul Wall or Russell Simmons.

There were personal sacrifices too: eating Ramen noodles for three months straight and sleeping on friends’ sofas. There was the loss of sleep and girlfriends.

“I feel like in order to be successful you do whatever it takes,” says Mack. “And we’ve done anything and everything.”

But despite all of the genre’s notorious beefs and battles, hip-hop proved to be a forgiving industry.

“One of the great things about rap/hip-hop is that the hustle and the grind is really respected,” says Malo. “And people saw that in us. It wasn’t just a bunch of 45-year-old guys in suits who saw the potential. They recognize we’re just as passionate about this as they are. So they do whatever they can for us. They’re real appreciative of us.”

Eventually Malo joined Haney at Temple to get a degree in journalism. Like many freshmen, he had no formal publishing experience—save one: He was the editor in chief of his own magazine.

“If you look at print media, new publications and niche markets, there’s nothing about our story that suggests we should’ve made it this far,” Malo says. “So the fact that we have, we’re doing some things right.”


coverstack“Have you ever been playing with a dog and you’re wrestling with it and it’s all licking your face and friendly … and then all of a sudden it snaps?” Malo says, describing his interview with Lil Wayne, the biggest rapper in mixtape history.

For months he’d been trying to line up interviews with both Lil Wayne and 50 Cent—”two of the people at the very tippy-top of the mixtape game,” he says—and in April calls came in from reps at both Universal (Wayne’s label) and Interscope (50’s label). Both camps wanted to arrange an interview. Both artists had upcoming albums to promote—G Unit’s Terminate on Sight (released July 1) and Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III (released June 10).

Both wanted to be on the cover.

At that point they hadn’t decided which one they should put on the cover. Knowing either interview could fall through, they scheduled both—for the same day.

Mack and a freelance writer drove up to New York to meet 50 Cent while Universal flew Malo to Atlanta to meet Lil Wayne.

“We debated whether that was a smart move journalistically,” Malo allows.

Once in Atlanta, Malo went to the recording studio to meet Wayne.

“At first,” he says, “everything was all good. He came over, introduced himself and gave me a pound.”

He gave Wayne a back issue of the magazine and the New Orleans rapper started flipping through it as the interview got started.

First topic: mixtapes.

“It made sense because we’re a mixtape magazine and his dominance in mixtapes is unparalleled,” Malo says.

But when Wayne turned a page of the magazine and saw a review of an Evil Empire release, he got heated. Empire had allegedly been paying a studio engineer within Wayne’s circle to leak him unreleased tracks, which he then put out on unauthorized mixtapes, effectively forcing Lil Wayne to record new material and delay the release of his own album.

“He started threatening this guy’s life, saying he’s going to cut his throat and set him on fire, and if he sees him in the streets he’s going to kill him,” Malo recalls, adding that the rapper was smoking weed at the time and sipping from a cup. “The whole time I’m surprised because he knows I’m recording.”

As Lil Wayne got more agitated, his tirade got worse: “All of a sudden he starts saying these really off-the-wall things, like he invented the mixtape game,” he says, “and he starts comparing himself to Alfred Nobel, who he says invented gunpowder—and it’s all this erroneous information that has no connection to anything.”

Then came the clincher:

“I’m anti-mixtape dude,” Lil Wayne ranted. “I don’t know no mixtape dudes. Fuck you if you’re a mixtape DJ … Y’all selling me out—I ain’t with that. Fuck y’all.”

Malo nervously shifted the conversation to Lil Wayne’s upcoming album. But the rapper remained unsettled.

“I don’t like this interview no more, this mixtape shit,” he said, tossing the magazine back at Malo.

Malo packed up, went to the hotel the label had arranged for him and waited for the phone to ring.

“This whole thing lasted 10 or 11 minutes, so I think his label, publicist and manager thought it was a wash because they never reached out to me after,” he says. “They never called to see if I was still doing the story.”

The 50 Cent/Lil Wayne issue hit newsstands three weeks ago. But the story of the interview broke earlier when the audio of Lil Wayne’s tirade was posted on 50 Cent’s website.

DJs and fans were outraged. Lil Wayne was accused of selling out the people who’d most helped him achieve his street fame—the mixtape DJs.

Hot 97 in New York picked up the clip and played it repeatedly. DJ Kay Slay aired it on his Sirius satellite radio show. Power 99’s Wendy Williams invited the magazine’s editor on the air. Soon the interview was being replayed at nearly every major hip-hop radio station from New York to California.

“We didn’t give it to anybody in Philly and it was playing on the radio here anyway,” says Malo.

The next day DJ Doo Wop, a legendary mixtape DJ, posted YouTube videos attacking Wayne for his about-face. Blogs like AllHipHop, SOHH, Nah Right and HipHopDX buzzed with the gossip, which also landed on the covers of Hip Hop Weekly and XXL.

The controversy grew so large that Lil Wayne was forced to respond to do damage control. On May 30 he called into longtime mixtape partner DJ Drama’s satellite radio show, claiming his remarks were blown out of proportion: “I didn’t mean to disrespect no DJ, no mixtape DJ, it was never no disrespect.”

For Foundation magazine it was the buzz they needed to get the hip-hop world’s attention.

“That whole Lil Wayne thing introduced us to a lot more people. It helped speed things,” says Mack.

With their name suddenly ringing bells throughout the industry, they quickly secured T.I. for their next cover.


“We like being in Philly,” Mack says when asked if it would be easier to run the operation from New York, where the hip-hop industry lives. “Philly is an objective view of New York. New York is the mecca of hip-hop, so they have a lot of ego about themselves.”

He says Foundation tries to support the local mixtape scene, featuring a Philly artist/DJ in each issue–including Tone Trump, DJ Omega, DJ No Frills, Diamond Kuts, Gillie the Kid, Peedi Crakk and—next issue—DJ Amir.

But they’re also sensitive to the risk of getting pigeonholed as a Philadelphia-only publication.

“The problem with Philly is there’s no record labels here—no majors—no real PR reps repping big names,” says Mack. “And the radio … the hip-hop on Power 99 and the Beat is horrible. There isn’t one DJ who’s connected to the streets in Philadelphia who has a radio spot.”

According to Mack, Foundation is the unofficial bridge to New York for Philly artists and DJs who are willing to put in the work.

“It’s the city’s responsibility to make the 90-minute trip up north instead of hanging here just trying to get on Cosmic Kev’s radio show,” he says.

Malo says that there’s a lack of professionalism in Philly hip-hop, and the work ethic is often lagging: “New York, L.A. and Down South guys realize it’s important to branch out and grow. It almost seems like Philly cats get stuck in Philly. We’ve attempted at times to bridge that gap, but for whatever reason they’re not willing to explore that route.”

Still, they agree the local scene has serious talent.

“In 2001 Jay-Z came here and snatched up like 10 rappers,” says Mack. “There are guys in this city right now in the same position, but there’s no Jay-Z to come snatch them.”


It’s near closing time at Club Plush on Eighth and Callowhill.

The crowd is sparse and it’s uncertain whether the featured guest—West Philly rapper Sandman—will still perform.

Mack is waiting out the night. He’d hoped to hand out copies of the new issue, but was hassled at the door.

The poorly attended rap event appears to be a bust.

“We’ll just show our face and wear the T-shirt,” Mack says, unfazed and unwavering in his commitment to promote the magazine whenever and wherever possible.

The improvements in the magazine—from early issues to the current G Unit cover—are unmistakable. There’s a higher page count, more circulation, better paper quality, cleaner design, more professional writing and a higher caliber of artists showcased.

In recent months the magazine has even begun paying freelance writers, and the business partners have begun carving out modest salaries for themselves.

They have plans to host their own mixtape awards ceremony, the Mixtape Honors cosponsored by RapMullet.com, for the end of the year. They hope to go bimonthly early next year.

“As much growth as we’ve experienced, we need to double that,” says Mack.

And although he hasn’t forgotten about the cheese-flavored pork rinds, he’s certain Foundation magazine has proved a worthier enterprise.

“I’m not brilliant—I’m sure other people came up with the idea but didn’t do it,” he says. “We were just the first ones to hustle and get it done.”

Kate Kilpatrick is a PW contributing editor. Comments on this story can be sent to feedback@philadelphiaweekly.com

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