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Jam Master Jay Is Dead
(and I can't pay my rent)
by J. Bernstein

Several months ago I obtained a job copyediting for The Source, hip-hop’s self-anointed bible. How’d I become so thugged out? On an Internet job board I discovered a listing for a copy editor. The job description was vague, mentioning "a monthly culture magazine." But with Midwestern optimism I chucked my resume into the Internet void.

Later that day, a reply:

Josh, I’m writing from The Source. We just let one of our freelance copy editors go and need someone. Now. Your qualifications stand out from the other applicants. Would you be interested in working for us?

Hip-hop hooray, I would.

So the next day, at 11 a.m., I rode the elevator to the 11th floor of a pumice-colored skyscraper and entered hip-hop’s editorial maw. As I sat there in The Source’s office (a monochromatic land of black couches, black walls, black carpet, and a black "The Source" sign backlit with red neon), I wondered, "Am I the whitest white boy in the world?"

I owned a Lauryn Hill CD and once saw The Roots play and listened to Hot 97’s blazing hip-hop and R&B when drunk in cabs, but besides the Beastie Boys few bar mitzvahed boys crack the playa-hatin’ world. So why did The Source think I rocked ace credentials?

It’s all because of Smooth.

In brief: While employed as an editor for a porn publishing company, my Jamaican boss took a stab at respectability. The plan was to launch a black men’s lifestyle magazine along Maxim’s lines. My co-worker, Noah, and I were tasked to launch the magazine. We dubbed it "Blaxim." This should’ve been a fabulous experience: a respite from porn and hundreds of thousands of dollars in capital. But Noah and I, reared in sheltered suburbs, had little knowledge of the "urban experience." The Chronic was my hip-hop zenith. Noah once owned a Public Enemy tape. We’d both seen Spike Lee joints.

Hence, Smooth was a pastiche of sweeping urban generalities run through the lad-mag blender. Sun-drenched Jamaican models, check. Tupac article, check. Story titled, "10 Discs to Make Your Sex Life Go Boom," check. Noah and I liberally sprinkled stories with slang like "dawg" and "flava." Smooth, not surprisingly, flopped. Surprisingly, The Source thought I was their copyediting answer.

So there I sat, dressed conservatively in New Balance kicks, faded blue jeans, and a black pullover waiting for my chance to copyedit hip-hop, yo. A few minutes later the head copy editor, a decidedly Irish girl named Melissa, entered the lobby and led me into hip-hop’s editorial heart. We exchanged stilted banalities ("Umm… I’m Josh," I said. "Melissa… pleased to meet, you know, you.") as we snaked through a warren of iMac-covered desks. Editors and writers did not greet me. Instead, a doo-ragged Source employee cranked the bass on a Fabolous track.

I would become very, very familiar with Fabolous and other hip-hoppers du jour. Most Source-ians had a CD player on their desktop. At any one time no less than three hip-hop anthems filled the office. Imagine Eminem, LL Cool J and the latest Cash Money all-star simultaneously assaulting eardrums like a DJ ill-versed in the art of mixing.

Melissa led me to a long, white table apace from the magazine’s machinations. Seated next to me were several other kids, Jeremy and Nathan, fact-checking. I barely situated myself before Melissa delivered The Source’s stylebook coupled with my first assignment.

"You’ll notice that we, umm, do things a little differently at The Source," Melissa began.

"We’re not concerned so much with spelling as consistency. You’ll see what I mean."

The four double-spaced pages contained copy for a year-end rap wrap-up. Brief blurbs ran the gamut from P. Diddy’s antics and Suge Knight’s endeavors to the death of Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes. Reading rap gossip was certainly fun, but copyediting it was a different matter. I was trained in the Associated Press style, which is a standard copyediting style emphasizing clarity and proper diction. With The Source, though, I spelled New Orleans "N’awlins" and hyphenated "playa-hata," which was also spelled "player-hater." When using the word "Black" in reference to race it was capitalized, but "white" remained lowercase. I could use the word "hizzouse" as long as every house reference was spelled, "hizzouse."

Ludicrous, yes, but $20/hour ludicrous is another story.

For one week I was a copyediting messiah. I brought clarity to Johnnie Cochran’s rambling quotes. I reminded a writer "cannaving" was spelled "conniving." I even made sure Nas was "reppin’" Queens, not Brooklyn. My friend Jenny urged me to go mic crazy and, in accordance with The Source’s CD rating system in which one mic = wack and five mics = dope, assign every single album five mics, but I used my power for malapropos language, not nefarious means.

And then Jam Master Jay died and things fell apart.

The Source was a maelstrom of sadness. "Shit, I just saw Jay on the plane last year," an editor lamented. "Who’d want to kill the dude? He never harmed no one," said another staffer. I was unsure of the grieving policy; hip-hop and me were hardly tight, you know. So I played stoic as sadness swirled around me, keeping my card face solid until Melissa broke the bad news.

"Josh," she said, "we’re shutting down production until we figure out what to do about the situation. So there won’t be anything to edit. You can go home. I’ll call you when I know what’s going on."

That was months ago. I’m still jobless. The police still don’t know who killed Jam Master Jay. I still don’t know how I’m going to pay my rent.










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