Vibe’s Editor-in-Chief breaks down the current landscape of media and what keeps him going…
By LaToya Cross
Call Datwon Thomas a mentor, and he may cringe a little. Sure, it sounds crazy to say due to his proven history as a prominent voice in the land of hip-hop and culture journalism – but there’s a reason behind his delayed embrace when it comes to the term: He’s not about that pedestal lifestyle.
“‘That’s my mentor.’ That shit sounds like you’re on top of the mountain, stroking your beard and wrapping your scarf around, before you say something. You know what I’m saying,” he analyzes with a boisterous laugh. “The mentor label is a serious thing to me and I try not to embrace it as such. I just try to embrace it as, hey, here’s some advice. I don’t know how you’re going to use it, but this is what I think. It might not work for them or it might not be the thing that they’re looking for, you just hope that the efforts in responding to whatever inquiry they have, was noble enough on your part that they get something out of it.”
Rarely spotted without a fresh embroidered fitted hat, fly kicks, an energetic but smooth bop to his stroll, and his ears plugged into the classics or emerging currents, the Brooklyn-native carries an aura that’s fitting for a scribe christened with the tag “Champion of the Underground Sound” during the days he ran point as Editor-in-Chief (EIC) of Respect.
Today, Thomas, one of the most saluted journalist, holds court as the EIC of Vibe and has navigated the growing pains and successes of the media industry from intern to innovator for over 20 years.
Marrying his love for music with that of sharp visuals and a good story has been a dream come true. His pen game is raw and intelligent, just flip through a few throwback issues of XXL. His forward-thinking sensibilities created KING, a men’s lifestyle magazine that curated barbershop talk in print format. And he has strong perspective matched with impeccable vision. Most recently, Thomas, also a husband and father, led his content team in recreating the iconic Tupac Vibe covers with All Eyez On Me star, Demetrius Shipp Jr. and then enlisted longtime Vibe contributor and personal friend, Kevin Powell to pen an incredible interview with the emerging actor that was laced with one awe-dropping historic note after another.
In retrospect, it was the summer of ‘96 when Thomas stepped foot into the Vibe Magazine headquarters as an intern.
“I just looked around and felt like I made it just by being in the office. I ain’t even do nothing yet,” he reflects. But, in actuality it was just a taste of the work that this hungry and determined kid from New York would deliver for years to come.
With the ever-shifting landscape of media and urgency to create timely content, #blkcreatives caught up with Datwon Thomas to talk shop about his journey as a staple in hip-hop journalism, the allure of magazines and what’s lacking in today’s coverage and conversation. Plus, find out a few lessons he learned from Sean “Puffy” Combs.
Your movement and imprint in the industry is greatly respected by a lot of people who are passionate about not only the music but the way stories are told. With Vibe, specifically, you have an extensive history. What is it about that platform that has kept you dedicated to the brand?
Datwon Thomas: My love affair with Vibe is so crazy. I’m glad you asked that question. This is my third go around with Vibe. Growing up, I loved The Source, Ebony, Essence, GQ. I loved the fanzines, Black Beat, all that. It was something about Vibe that hit me so hard when it came out when I was in high school. My love affair was starting to grow with the written word. My love affair with music was always there. So putting those two together the way Vibe did, I always looked at them as the pinnacle of being able to talk about mainstream white entertainment and the dopest stuff that was happening in black entertainment. They’re making the people who are making music superstars. I wanted to shine that light on people. Like yo, this person is dope. This is where the spotlight needs to be. By doing that, you kind of take this personal oath of being honest, being fearless and being true to what’s dope at the end of the day. I feel like Vibe always did that. Like unequivocally, it was a high standard in their photos. It was a high standard in their fashion. It was a high standard for everything that was connected to the culture and I wanted to be a part of that and I made sure that I was.
Touching on the music, for a minute. What attracts you to certain artists?
Datwon Thomas: A realness factor. I think the honesty within their craft and that goes beyond just music. When I see a visual artist, there’s something about the way that their production or their creation flows and it hits me. One of my favorite visual artists that’s a painter and he’s just a ultimate creator, is David Choe. He’s just a free spirited, just incredible talent man. He has a couple of brush strokes and you know exactly what it is. I love that about artists that are true to themselves. That’s what I listen for in music, like a Kendrick. Royce da 5’9 is like one of my favorite MCs ever. Just for the fact that he’s able to take real life situations and real emotions and pack them into rap form that speaks to me directly. I always tell him, ‘Damn, I feel like you just be rapping for me.’
One of the things that really shows in your writing is the embedded history and conversational flow but it’s done, creatively. What is your take on the integrity of the writer , today, when it comes to reporting beyond the surface and diving in deeper to core issues while maintaining creativity?
Datwon Thomas: Oh man…you’re hitting with the good ones. It’s like everything you said kind of goes into that graph where it shows the three circles. Then they all connect and in the middle is the sweet spot – [the ability] to have integrity and be creative but still make it the right amount of words so people don’t get bored. That sweet spot is what we all try to reach as content producers. If we want to use things that are a little more recent, you would say Kendrick Lamar’s latest album (DAMN.) hits that sweet spot. It’s creative and it has integrity and then it’s the right length. I think in today’s journalistic market those things aren’t always in the forefront for the people that make it. What I mean by that is that journalists are not thinking about creativity. They’re not trying to make sure that facts are there. They’re not trying to make sure that the person reading it is getting the full experience of what they’re talking about. In this day and age, it seems to me it’s just like yo, let’s get it out there. Get it up. Get it in front of the people. We’ll figure it out afterwards.
True. That’s the tough part. Because what drew us to the magazines and content early on was that intimacy felt within the writing. In terms of content and coverage, in your opinion, what’s missing?
Datwon Thomas: Oh man, this is going to be something right here. I feel it. I think the thing that’s missing is the respect for black leadership. I think a lot of times, some of the negative aspects of what’s going on, on the digital scale kind of goes over into the other aspects of coverage. Let me say it right. I want to get it right. It’s like, artists that we cover will always, especially from black entertainment, it seems they will always value mainstream coverage more than black publications and brands of content creation and cover-ism. It seems like when that happens, they’re all down for you to rap with them when they’re on the come up, but then when they get big, it’s like, “I need my Vogue look. I need this and that look.” If they don’t get those, then they’re not content, and it’s not enough to have the people that supported them early on, to show them love again. It’s, “I did that already, or I’ve done that enough,” but when you look at mainstream white America, they’ll do the same person over and over again. They don’t have that hangup. In all actuality, when we look for equality within the game, they always know that they are the pinnacle for us being looked at in entertainment circles as the one. I can’t front, even as a member of the media, I’m at Billboard right now. I’m editor and chief of Vibe, but at the same time, I’ve worked with Billboard (*Editors note: In December 2016 Billboard-THR acquired Vibe) and when you think of Billboard, you don’t necessarily think black. You want people to be able to feel like, ” I’ve got Vibe and I’ve got Billboard,” and they feel the accomplishment of getting those two brands, or brands like that is the win, rather than, I got this white brand and I got this black brand and one is better than the other. You know what I’m saying?
Definitely. That’s actually a conversation I’ve had with some friends. How would you evaluate the business-end of the media industry?
Datwon Thomas: The business of media right now is all about consolidation and brands coming together, because it’s so hard to fight as a single unit now. I don’t even mean fight as a media outlet to get the story. It’s like fight as a media outlet to stay alive in business and get money. Advertisers are continuously looking at the next big brand that has the eyes, ears and hearts of the people. Maybe not even the hearts. They’re like, oh yeah, CNN, y’all dope but right now Mashable got it. We’re gonna go over there to Mashable. We’re going to give all those millions over to them. So we’ll spend a little money to get the longer money from this advertiser. Now when that happens, you lose the individuality of what Mashable stands for and what CNN stands for. Because Mashable would have to be under CNN hypothetically, CNN is gonna be like okay now you got to report and work by our rules.
And then that becomes a tight slope on the reporter’s end as well…
Datwon Thomas: I think on the reporting side, it’s getting harder to break stories because if I’m entertainer X or [say] Trump. [He’s] showing you that he doesn’t need the media outlet. They need him. He’s going straight to Twitter and he’s saying whatever craziness he feels like spewing for that 15 minutes. We have these things that are out of our control on the media side that we wish we could control but things progress faster than what we can deal with. That’s a big difference. Back in the day, he would have had to go through the proper channels and go through New York Times and all that stuff. So news is becoming a lot more scarce. We’re missing the attention to detail and the attention to make sure something’s right or said with the right amount of grace.
Let’s talk about the importance of building genuine relationships in business. Puffy has been quite an instrumental influence in your career. What is it about him that keeps you pressing forward and being innovative?
Datwon Thomas: His uniqueness in being able to scout talent and shaping it. I love that about Puff, the fact that time and time again, he’s taken these diamonds in the rough and found ways to make them shine way more than anybody would expect. Then he did it to himself. He’s that as well. By taking that ideology and being able to take that internally and bring it out on others, I always thought that, that was a great thing he was able to do. Of course, he’s had his ups and downs, who doesn’t? But being in this game at that level and what he has to do, he’s been amazing in his travels. I’ve taken that and I look to that as inspiration. You never know what your travels are until you start to actually put some action behind your dreams, or the things that you want to do [in order to] build up. That’s how I feel. I feel like I came in [the music game] to gain knowledge on producing. I was making beats and stuff while I was in high school and I always thought I was going to be the next Pete Rock or the next Premier because those were my guys that I loved and still do to this day. Then, my natural ability seems to be the writing aspect and being able to see talent, in that way.
In this industry, we have so many relationships and receive an abundance of asks, that it can become overwhelming. You have such a level of love in this game. How do you maneuver that space?
Datwon Thomas: I think what people have seen is a reflection of someone that’s constantly trying to do their best. Sometimes it’s hard for me to accept the accolades or like the love that I get. As I get older, it humbles me to a whole other level. But you know, like , if you did something that they weren’t feeling, they ain’t going to rock with you anymore. So what it does is sometimes it’ll create a bubble of trying to be perfect. You build people up to where they start to tiptoe. I felt the tiptoe sometimes within my industry and being a journalist. Sometimes you gotta do the things that aren’t as popular and not be in the cool club as much. Some of the artists, you’re cool with them one day and they don’t mess with you the next. This label will deal with you and then they won’t call you for the big thing. Then when those things or stories happen that I am called for, I’m grateful. I persevere. Then I’m like, see the hard work shows. Issa ebb and flow. I try my hardest to be straight up with people when they ask for things. I think that’s the one aspect of where I’m at now in my career. If you’re really good at your job, especially in something like this where you’re kind of like a beacon of light for people to get their information out a little brighter or different than what they can do, that’s a little harder. If you’re a request filler everyday, it can wear on your spirit. I’ve realized now that I need to have that separation sometimes from what I do and how I need to feed myself. So that way I can be at my best self.
Word. It’s almost impossible to have just one hustle and you’ve shown your ambitious spirit early on in your career. With Twnty-Two, which marries your love for hip-hop with that of fashion, what’s the breakdown of the business?
Datwon Thomas: It’s a beautiful thing, man. Everybody knows me for wearing hats. When we created Twnty-Two, it’s myself, my cousin, her boyfriend, and we added my partner’s really good friend Dion, that’s my bro right there. It came at the perfect moment. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do career wise, which brand I was going to go to as far as content and stuff. It gave me something to concentrate on, on the entrepreneurial side, but a lot more serious. When I first did it, I was having fun with it, people were buying it. We were making a little bit of money, it was super cool, but I didn’t have a team with me to help push it. That’s the one thing that I think a lot of people in this day in age, they’ll be like, “Me, I’m able, da da da.” If you don’t have a loyal team, it’s really hard to do things. Everybody looks at Jay and Puff and all of them and they think it’s just them, but they’ve got a whole cast to be able to do this and make the money that they make. Me getting the team has just helped make my dream work. To be able to now see what spawned from Twnty-Two, which is Famous Nobody$ , Christian Vasquez’s brand. He has the store up in the Bronx and Twnty-Two is part of the store as well. We all, as a team, work together. That brand came out of the Twnty-Two brand and is now its own standalone thing. It’s amazing to see what can happen from things like that. You start one thing and then something else even bigger can come from that.
There comes a time when the initial vision becomes too small and creatives are stuck trying to figure out the next move or strategizing on how to level up. How did you go about constructing and expanding your path?
Datwon Thomas: I feel like I’ve done that in my career and I’m not done. There’s still things that I want to accomplish. What’s funny is that once I got into the game, I was like, “God man, it would be so nice to do a cover story.” I got my cover story, then I started to get a bunch of them, then it was like, “Oh man, it would be dope to be editor-in-chief.” Then I started doing that. Then it’s like, “Oh man, it would be dope to be an executive producer.” Now I’m working on that. I want to produce these mammoth content plays and I’ve done it in certain areas, but now those are my dreams. Every time you accomplish one, you’ve got to dream bigger. I wasn’t dreaming big enough when I was younger, just wanting a cover story or write a review in a music magazine. That wasn’t the dream. That wasn’t it because once I did that, I was like, “Now what?” I was like, “Oh shit, now I’ve got to dream bigger.” I think sometimes people are scared of their dreams, as much as you love them, you’re scared of them. The whole thing is to try to conquer that fear and act on what it takes to make your dreams happen.
Keep up with Datwon Thomas on the socials: IG: @DatwonThomas | Twitter: @Daydog.