George Pitts: Notes On Vibe Magazine
In what was an unprecedented week of devastating losses to our culture, including the deaths of Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, and the great visionary choreographer Pina Bausch, it was also the week that Vibe magazine folded. The close of Vibe is obviously an event of great personal impact for me, as its first Photography Director, and I've received enough notices from well-wishers to understand that the magazine meant a lot of things to a diverse community of readers.
Working at Vibe changed my own life for the better, and enabled editors including myself to engage in an international discourse with a wide, disparate range of readers: the core fan base of Hip-Hop generation readers, popular music lovers, style and culture mavens, hipsters of all stripes, photography connoisseurs, serious musicologists, black culture militants, and scholars of all kinds. No doubt there are reader bases that I'm forgetting, but this random listing only confirms for me, the broad appeal that Vibe was able to sustain for 16 years. Vibe was a magazine that one was as likely to find in a dentist's office as in the stunning New York abode of a figure like Madonna. Once Vibe found a central readership, we endeavored to serve not only the hungers of urban culture, but to honor the legacy of taste purveyed by our forebears, which opened the book up to appreciations of figures as varied as: Toni Morrison, Sonny Rollins, Kraftwerk, Malcolm X, Bob Marley, Nina Simone, David Bowie, John Coltrane, Bell Hooks, Robert De Niro, Betty Davis, Vanessa Del Rio, Cornell West, Portishead, Frank Sinatra, Radiohead, Quentin Tarantino, Sly Stone, and dubmaster Lee "Scratch" Perry, to name just a few of the figures that cultural perception may have perceived as odd for Vibe. For it was often in the eclectic mix of inclusiveness bringing together the ethnic yearnings of minority cultures, and the world-class achievements of stellar artists actively engaged in cultural crossover works of artistry, that Vibe excelled in reconciling its mission of information, and connecting the dots between art forms, culture fusions, and audacious work done under the influence of multicultural imperatives.
Such imperatives probably go some way in explaining Vibe's value for a diversity of consumers, who depended on the magazine for this rich mix of culturally divergent yet wholly appropriate range of contributors to what ultimately enlarged the reach, attitude, and regional breadth of Hip Hop music. For one could track the influence of Hip Hop in mediums that were not technically identified with its primary audience. And so the immersion with beats could be detected and enjoyed in the music of a Bjork, or a Massive Attack, just as Jazz cues could be discerned in the work of A Tribe Called Quest, or in how 70s Funk was sampled by countless rap musicians. This cultural cross-pollination resisted assumptions of too specifically defined demographics, racial boundaries, and selective age groups, and fostered, at least philosophically, the notion that every good idea was fair game for transmutation by a creative sensibility who practiced Hip Hop science.
Although my observations just scratch the surface of the media affect of Vibe, they do acknowledge that there was a larger mission at work than was apparent, one that enabled individuals of wildly disparate backgrounds and tastes to co-exist on a collaborative project that realized portions of their respective editorial agendas all in the same publication. Vibe's covers, sometimes an outrage to certain readers: too urban, too sexy, too inclusive of R & B, too topical, were the distillation of a wide-ranging forum of conversations, impassioned arguments, and canny business instincts. Whether it was the twisted wit of styling superstar group TLC in fireman's garb, the daring of a near nude Toni Braxton, or the wholly reverent and sober memorials to slain giants such as Biggie Smalls, or Tupac Shakur, our editors endeavored to serve the community in bold configurations of text and photography.
And so, in parting, and because this appreciation is appearing in a Design context, I'd like to also draw attention to the visual creatives who contributed to Vibe in Art Direction, Design, Photography, and Fashion, over the years:
Lee Ellen Fanning
Michaela Angela Davis
Leslie dela Vega
And lastly, to some of the Photographers, Illustrators, and Fashion Stylists who appeared in Vibe, often for the first time in their Editorial careers, who are too many to name in a comprehensive summary:
Geoffroy De Boismenu
Erin Patrice O'Brien
Judith Joy Ross
Ellen von Unwerth
Lyle Ashton Harris
Michelangelo Di Battista
Mary Ellen Mark
F. Scott Schafer
Thanks to all the named and unnamed talents who graced our pages with your talent, enthusiasm, ingenuity, and high spirits!!
A gallery of some of Vibe's memorable covers: