A few years ago, local rappers looking for publicity had to send press kits to national publications like The Source, Vibe, or Murder Dog and hope for the best. But now Melvin McNeil, the publisher of Street Masters magazine, is trying to change outsiders' opinions about the Memphis scene -- and providing a regional outlet for national stars.
McNeil began publishing Street Masters last year. The bimonthly magazine was a natural extension for the Memphis native, who founded a promotions company in 1999.
"I started out shooting a local TV show, based on a talent night we had at Precious Cargo. I hooked up with a lot of local promoters on the party scene, which led to connections with major labels like Universal and Sony," the 32-year-old explains. "We began by doing street promotions, but after 9/11, the industry started cutting back. We had to come up with another avenue to make money and promote artists, so we decided to start the magazine.
"We're the first hip-hop publication based in Tennessee," McNeil says with a smile. He oversees a staff of 10, including freelancers and interns, at the magazine and employs 10 more on his promotions team. Today, Street Masters boasts a circulation of 50,000. Magazines are distributed in cities such as Atlanta, New Orleans, and Baton Rouge and across Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, and Florida. Locally, the magazine is available at Cat's Music, Boss Ugly Bob's, and Tower Records.
McNeil was a self-taught writer when he began the magazine. "I wrote screenplays and theatrical plays as hobbies," he says. He was inspired by entrepreneurs like Russell Simmons and Master P -- "I've met both," he says proudly -- and the publications that are now his competition.
"I love Murder Dog," McNeil enthuses. "They've always focused on regional artists. They put Master P on the cover before he was a big star. The Source and Vibe are both good publications, but they tend to focus on the East and West coasts. Artists from the South were ignored.
"While we didn't want to concentrate solely on local rappers, we've managed to combine our focus," he adds, pointing to Street Masters' current issue, which features Kavious and Eightball & MJG on the cover but also includes inside articles on New Orleans star BG, Atlanta's Rasheeda, and Texas rapper Devin the Dude.
McNeil's biggest hurdle? Basing the magazine in Memphis. "Here in the Bible Belt, hip-hop is often portrayed negatively, and some people have been hesitant about advertising with us," he says. "Our best response has come from jewelry stores, car lots, and, of course, record labels. But on a national level, the music has transcended racial and social barriers. You hear it on TV commercials and see rappers like Queen Latifah on the Oscars. Rap is being courted by corporate America," he maintains, hopeful that local business owners will jump on the bandwagon.
For more information on Street Masters, go to StreetMastersMagazine.com.
Seventy miles south of Memphis, in Oxford, Mississippi, Tom Speed publishes An Honest Tune. He and four friends founded the jam-band-focused magazine in 1997. Although it's been on hiatus a few times, An Honest Tune is now published quarterly with a circulation of 10,000.
"We began when the H.O.R.D.E. tour was big. There were all these bands that never got any press," Speed explains. "We were frustrated because there wasn't any in-depth reporting on groups like Widespread Panic and Galactic. Anytime the mainstream media covered them, they'd have to mention Birkenstocks and the neo-hippie movement."
The magazine's title came from a Widespread Panic song. Speed -- then an editor of a southern Mississippi newspaper -- initially focused on the jam-band scene, then, he says, the mission shifted to "filling the void for fans of grassroots music."
That includes blues, country, jazz, and rock that might be initially overlooked by mainstream publications. "We put Galactic on the cover when they were still an unsigned band," Speed says, pointing to features on musicians such as Norah Jones, Robert Randolph, and the North Mississippi Allstars, who later rose to national prominence.
"The term 'jam band' has become so broad that it doesn't refer to a musical genre per se," he says. "It refers to the band's relationship with their fans and the fans themselves, who might like Bootsy Collins and Del McCoury, or Les Claypool and Norah Jones. These are open-minded music fans," he says, pointing to the crowd of 90,000 that attended this year's jam-band apex, the Bonnaroo Festival.
Like McNeil, Speed's biggest problem is "getting the magazine on people's radar. It's harder than it would be if we were based in New York. But we couldn't exist unless we were in this part of the country," he says emphatically. "Tons of great musicians, as well as a lot of our most solid supporters, are based in the South."