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XXL’s Death as a Hip-Hop Magazine and Rebirth as The Freshman Class Essay

Updated August 9, 2022

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XXL’s Death as a Hip-Hop Magazine and Rebirth as The Freshman Class Essay essay

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The first time my I heard my friend talk about “The Freshman Class,” I thought he was referring to our fellow ninth-grade peers at Fossil Ridge High School. The year was 2013, when I was just beginning to listen to music that wasn’t fed to me by my parents. To me, artists like ScHoolboy Q, Trinidad Jame$, and Joey Bada$$ meant little more than a bunch of names with abnormal capitalizations and dollar signs for S’s. Once I realized my friend was referring to something that had nothing to do with our classmates, I felt shamefully out of touch. That night I went home and Googled a lot; I discovered XXL magazine for the first time, and learned that the Freshman Class is a widely anticipated and hyped up list of ten people in Hip-Hop, who the magazine believes are the most notable “up-and-comers” of the past year, with potential to be the stars of tomorrow.

At this time, I knew next to nothing about this fascinating and formerly-parentally-forbidden genre and culture referred to as modern hip-hop, let alone its up-and-comers. The Google links to XXL magazine that popped up in my search that night were some of the first exposure I received to hip-hop culture as it began to morph into Popular culture, and I couldn’t have discovered the magazine at a more pivotal moment in its lifespan. It was at this point in the publication’s life that its audience and approach were dramatically changing; the magazine that began as an alternative offering for a niche culture would morph into a pop-culture-fueled tabloid for the masses in the matter of a few more years.

Let’s start at the beginning; in 1997, XXL magazine was born under Harris Publications as a print periodical aiming to document hip-hop music as a genre and culture in monthly installments (CITE). Essentially, it provided followers of hip-hop culture with everything people now use social media and Spotify’s “discover” section for– news, announcements, reviews, music discovery, and more. Though not the first publication to do so, it offered an alternative and arguably refreshing approach to the subject matter previously dominated by The Source, XXL’s rival-to-be. When XXL first released, it went largely unnoticed, as The Source had already established itself as the one-stop shop for hip-hop culture publications with nearly a decade of accurate and established content, beginning in 1988.

The demand and importance of each originated from the same place though; prior to hip-hop journalism from places like The Source and XXL, hip-hop’s coverage in magazines was shallow at best; releases like Word Up!, Yo!, and Rap Masters contained a majority of filler material, and were really only used by consumers when they were cut up and pasted on walls for decoration. Articles were just something that ended up on the back of the pictures people taped to their walls. To put it simply: the people who bought these magazines didn’t really want to read about rapping, they just wanted to listen and dance to it. Large publications couldn’t seem to get it right either; when hip-hop was covered in places like the The New York Times or Rolling Stone, fans didn’t take it seriously; the larger publications were out of touch with hip-hop, and frankly, just didn’t understand it. Magazines like XXL embraced the counterculture hip-hop was known for, and built their product around it to generate interest and maintain authenticity. They found a way to hold their legitimacy as a publication while not straying from the candid, raw, and unpolished nature of hip-hop as a culture.

With this approach, XXL established its audience as the “true” fanbase of hip-hop music: people who wanted to know anything and everything there was to know about the culture when it was happening. In fact, this audience was the exact same as the one already reading The Source in the 90’s; and it should be no surprise, considering XXL was started by Reggie Dennis and James Bernard, both former editors at The Source (CITE). To communicate effectively with this group, the writing style and voice of XXL was totally informal and conversational– a contrast to that of the larger publications who missed the mark on hip-hop journalism. Again, not one hundred percent original, as other hip-hop and R&B publications had been using an informal voice to appear authentic for years already, but it was well-received and did come across as a more authentic expression of information, so why change it? After all, people wanted to read about Jay-Z, Eminem, and Dr. Dre in the same candid and raw fashion that their music took the tone of, not feel dissociated from it due to a formal and dry presentation.

So XXL had their voice, and they had their target audience, but how did they gain any footing in a genre of music journalism already dominated by The Source, who had nearly a decade of credible and established material underneath them? The answer is controversy. While XXL had a small following in the early 2000’s, it wasn’t until Eminem called them out in one of his lyrics on his 2000 LP that they really attracted the attention of hip-hop culture. In his song, “Marshall Mathers,” he recalls the magazine featuring a photo of his bare ass, and begins to throw shots at their difficulty to compete with The Source, saying “Okay, let me give you motherfuckers some help / Um, here, ‘XXL! XXL!’ / Now your magazine shouldn’t have so much trouble to sell / Aww, fuck it, I’ll even buy a couple myself” (CITE).

At this time, Elliott Wilson, the editor-in-chief at XXL who was formerly employed as an editor at The Source, had been known to use his “Letter From the Editor” column to call out other publications, and Eminem’s shots at the magazine caught his attention quickly. Shortly after the track’s release, XXL released an issue which featured Eminem on the cover, titled “Got Beef?”. This was pivotal, because it was unheard of to feature an artist on the cover of a magazine and not have an interview with them, let alone use the cover to actually diss an artist. This alone drove interest in XXL way up, and as the publication got more and more popular, The Source began firing back at them for stealing their format and coverage. By 2003, The Source and XXL’s beef had heated up to the point where The Source released an issue featuring a poster of Elliott Wilson’s head being crushed by a monster with a Source t-shirt on.

The caption read: “Respect the architect or get broken.” (CITE). They also took the time to fire back at Eminem, calling him “2003 Vanilla Ice,” and releasing a report on tapes from his high school days featuring racially charged lyrics aimed at his black girlfriend who had just broken up with him. This ended up backfiring on The Source when Eminem actually acknowledged the article, apologized, and explained the context behind the lyrics, garnering forgiveness from the hip-hop community.

Suddenly, The Source had nothing on Eminem, and while they spent their time taking shots at him, Interscope, and 50 Cent, he and XXL had moved past their beef. Where the Source placed their resources in attacking other artists, XXL placed theirs into continuing to provide high-quality content, winning over even more of The Source’s audience, and suddenly becoming the more legitimate and professional publication. Former XXL writer Paul Cantor said of The Source at that time: “There was just a lot going on there that had nothing to do with publishing a magazine.” This long-running feud had a lot of implications.

On one hand, the beef is what drove the audience of the magazines. Murs at HipHopDX claims he was buying every issue of both magazines in the heat of that period. The culture loved following the feuds between rappers, and when the two main rap publications began feuding, they got caught up in that too. However, many also argue it’s the reason hip-hop magazines don’t have a monthly publication placed on newsstands nationally today; getting caught up in the beef meant both publications were completely oblivious to the uprising of music blogs that had surfaced via the launch of WordPress that year. While the print publications were busy with their beef, the internet was busy trying to put them out of business.

As a result, shortly after, XXL launched their website in conjunction with their print magazine, and by 2004 were beginning to post individual articles on the web for consumption as a digital publication. At this point, they attempted to maintain their voice, but as a result of the new platform, their audience began to shift and become saturated with people who were less knowledgeable and passionate about the genre. On top of the influx of new “regular” people, a lot of their audience who was more knowledgeable and passionate left them behind in favor of music blogs that had a must faster turnover rate. If there were music blogs posting updates and new content weekly, or even daily, it simply made no sense to wait an entire month to get your hip-hop news from a magazine. For a lot of people, hip-hop blogs became the go-to for news, reviews, and, especially, music discovery. XXL had a lot of trouble keeping up with this, and many people began to worry print media was going to succumb to music blogs.

Then Elliott Wilson rebranded XXL entirely, albeit unintentionally. In 2007, right when everyone thought the magazine was finally going to die, XXL introduced the Freshman Class list, considered “the biggest thing in hip-hop journalism since the five-mic review” created by The Source (CITE HipHopDX video). The list is formatted to feature ten artists each year who have potential to be the next big stars of hip-hop. To this day, the list is seen by many as a sort of “rite of passage” for upcoming and aspiring rappers. It’s a perfect format, because even when certain artists don’t make the list, it sparks more discussion that drives more traffic to XXL, and even helps push artists who didn’t make the list that year to step their game up in order to make it the next year. To this day, XXL has credited its Freshman Class list with breaking an overwhelming number of artists, including J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Logic, Travi$ Scott, Chance the Rapper, and more.

This is a major shift in XXL’s position in hip-hop journalism. While they lost a lot of their audience to music blogs, the introduction of the Freshman Class earned the publication a much greater amount of relevancy than it had for at least four years prior. This new format made hip-hop more accessible to general audiences by giving them the ability to easily locate a few relevant up-and-comers each year. The beginning of the Freshman Class list is a pivotal moment in XXL’s lifetime, marking the point where they began to transition from a hip-hop publication to a pop-culture publication– not because they were no longer writing about hip-hop, but because hip-hop and pop culture were beginning to mesh more and more at this point in time, and by making the genre more accessible to people who knew little to nothing about it, like myself in ninth grade, XXL was opening its doors to anyone and everyone who wanted to know what was going on in pop music.

As they continued to release the list each year, more people flooded to their website, and they adopted the reverse-chronological posting format we see on nearly every social media and news-driven site to this day. They began writing short articles about anything pertaining to hip-hop as it entered pop culture– lifestyle pieces, news updates, lists, etc. The publication began to shift more toward coverage of what was happening, and less toward reflective pieces and reviews. They kept their traffic steady with their annual release of the Freshman Class, and maintained relevancy as best they could by keeping their site updated more regularly than their monthly print periodical, which was still being released.

Still, anyone could see XXL was not anything close to what it had once been. As the newscycle and their audience shifted, the whole publication did to in order to stay afloat. Then, in 2014, XXL was purchased by Townsquare Media– an action seen by many as the death of the publication. Townsquare initially announced they would be canceling print publication and moving to a digital-exclusive platform, however printing did resume after much protest from consumers. If this was not a death, then, it was a rebirth as something entirely different; XXL’s brand and significance shifted from that day forward. Regarding the change of ownership, The Village Voice’s reaction was one of mourning for the magazine. The XXL they knew, which “emerged in 1997 as a very visible alternative [publication] whose presentation felt like a refreshing new perspective on what was going on in hip-hop,” was gone. While Townsquare did not have a reputation for tarnishing the voice or style of publications, the selloff was in and of itself symbolic of XXL’s original voice and intent being lost to mainstream media.

Since their purchase, the publication has become an even more extreme version of the shallow online presence it was just after the beginning of the Freshman Class. XXL and it’s Freshman Class may as well be synonymous now; a quick Google search will turn up almost exclusively information about this year’s Freshman Class. In fact, the list has eclipsed everything the magazine once was. Finding information online about the publication before the implementation of the Freshman Class was impossible, so I was forced to seek out physical copies of the magazine when researching. And when I finally did locate an archive of some early printed versions of the magazine after some pretty thorough web searching, the closest place I could go to get my hands on one was in Harlem.

XXL’s descent into tabloidism has caused it to lose its founding identity entirely, and become a publication fueled by clicks and hype for its Freshman Class. The XXL I learned about in high school is not the XXL that Harris Publications founded in 1997, and it’s not the XXL that battled The Source and Eminem. It’s a packaging for the Freshman Class and for pop-culture news. The shift from the beginning of its lifetime to the end is polarizing, and it has touched a wide range of audiences in its lifetime, finally settling where it is now– a saturated and shallow publication riddled with clickbait, surviving off of one annual list of artists who generate hype.

XXL’s Death as a Hip-Hop Magazine and Rebirth as The Freshman Class Essay essay

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XXL’s Death as a Hip-Hop Magazine and Rebirth as The Freshman Class Essay. (2022, Aug 09). Retrieved from