What The Source Taught Me

The Source magazine published its first issue 30 years ago, in August 1988. Most of its editors were black and they were deliberate about creating content about hip-hop for black readers.That magazine changed music journalism. And it turned me into a philosopher.

As the only child of a strict, black, Baptist mother, I was not allowed to listen to music that she believed was not made for the purposes of “lifting up the name of Jesus.” To her, the songs of Prince and Motown would inevitably lead me down the path to lasciviousness. (Yes, she used words like that.)

But during one formative summer, between sixth and seventh grade, my cousin introduced me to The Source. The magazine changed my life.

The magazine was my only portal into the world of hip-hop. It taught me that the genre was more than just “thug” music, as pastors had admonished during church. It was a culture worthy of writing about. Chuck D of Public Enemy called hip-hop CNN for black people. That’s true of some of the music, but I found a number of artists to be more philosophers than documentarians.

Years later, as a philosophy student, I would learn that they were practicing an intellectual tradition that the philosopher Lewis Gordon calls black existentialism — a field of inquiry emerging from the black experience that examines “philosophical questions premised upon concerns of freedom, anguish, responsibility, embodied agency, sociality and liberation.” Seeing their work through this lens, rappers were reporting the news of the streets, and standouts like the Notorious B.I.G., Rakim, KRS One and 2Pac were interpreting their surroundings while commenting on the moral and psychological complexity of being black in the shadow of American democracy.

I transformed into a philosophical thinker as I read artists discussing their work and recounting the experiences that gave birth to their art. I began to see how many rappers were not simply glorifying their participation in the underground economy of hustling and drug dealing; rather, they were asking hard questions about why, for many black people, that was the only path to actualizing the American dream. Those questions challenged me, but my intellectual development by way of The Source did not end there. The magazine’s album reviews turned me into a music snob.

As a kid, I was attracted to anything with catchy rhymes spoken over a fun beat. However, as I got older, The Source taught me that not all music was created equal. A mediocre rapper can merely rhyme over a beat and entertain those within earshot; but a great M.C. uses lyrical content and flow to create a sonic atmosphere that transforms the listener.

The Source argued that commercial success should not be the only standard by which we judge black music. Instead, we must pay attention to how the community for which it was made receives the artists and their work. This allowed readers to stop obsessively seeking white validation for black art.

The impassioned arguments in the magazine about who was the best rapper and which albums deserved a coveted five-mic rating helped me develop as a black critical thinker. The magazine taught me that merely having an opinion about music was not enough. One had to think about black art with an appreciation of history and an eye for originality.

Aesthetic judgments mattered when The Source made them. My friends and family vigorously argued over the magazine’s album reviews. I’ll never forget when, in my senior year of high school in 1998, I saw lifelong friends come to blows over the rating of OutKast’s “Aquemini.” And now, 30 years after The Source’s first publication, it’s estimated that only 45 albums have received a five-mic rating. Some were given the rating during their initial release. Others had to wait for their impact to convince editors they were worthy of the honor.

For better and for worse, the editors of The Source were the protectors of hip-hop culture, the ones who told us what was worthy of classic status. Sometimes they got it wrong. Jay-Z’s “Reasonable Doubt” and Scarface’s “The Diary” deserved five mics and were given only four in their initial reviews. But more often than not, the editors were right.

In the wake of the magazine’s declining influence, and amid the democratizing power of social media, we have entered an “all-new hip-hop is the greatest hip-hop ever” milieu. I long for when we had an established black institution, beloved by artists and fans, that was serious about the preservation and aesthetic interpretation of black culture.

Black art is as popular as it has ever been. I wish only that we had more places like The Source to help us properly interpret it.

Let my mother tell it, The Source turned me into a heathen who listened to worldly music, but I still don’t think she appreciates how it turned me into a philosopher, too.

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