Jesse Washington will tell you he loves his job.
It may be hard to believe this from the editor in chief of the hip-hop
magazine Blaze, who, in just five months, has alleged he was
threatened with a gun by a hip-hop artist and then beaten by another. But
Washington said it in a tone filled with childlike exuberance and weighted
It made him sound not only certain but also convincing.
"Despite all this craziness, despite the danger that's out there, I'm still
very enthusiastic about this job," Washington said, speaking recently from the
magazine's New York offices. "It's a chance to combine two of my greatest
loves, journalism and hip-hop."
Yet, if you believe his side of it, it is this combined passion for
journalism and rap music that seems to keep getting Washington into
Last summer, Washington claimed Fugees member Wyclef Jean pulled a gun on
him out of anger over a negative album review, while just last month the
editor alleged that rap producer Deric "D-Dot" Angelettie was one of four
men who beat him because of a photo that was printed in an issue of
Washington acknowledged the attention that the alleged incidents have drawn
to him and his magazine. Yet he shot down speculation by some of his peers
that the notoriety was welcome.
"One thing I really regret is people saying I incited these incidents to
sell copies," Washington said. "I would gladly give back all the extra
copies we sold [because of the incidents] to have those two things not
Washington, 29, the son of a social worker and an artist, was born in
Brooklyn, N.Y. He credits his father's artistry with inspiring
his emphasis on visuals in Blaze and his mother's social work
with informing his communication skills. But it was his father, he said,
who helped instill his passion for music.
"My dad would put me on a bed up in his studio [as an infant] and point the
speakers at me and turn the music up loud and blast it on me," Washington
said. "I would just sit there with a smile on my face."
Surprisingly, Washington discovered the music he would later make a career
covering after his childhood home burned down when he was 8 and the
family moved from his urban Brooklyn digs to a more rural life in upstate
New York. Attending parties in the town park, Washington got a taste of the
big beats and free-styling lyrics that gave root to hip-hop.
"When I heard 'Rapper's Delight,' I knew it was on; this was me right
here," he said, referring to the groundbreaking, 1979 hip-hop hit by the
Sugarhill Gang. "From there, rap became like the soundtrack to my life.
Everywhere I went people were playing rap -- on my block, in my projects,
on the basketball court."
Though he's never been a rapper himself, Washington started DJing in
friends' dorm rooms while a student at the prestigious Yale University in
New Haven, Conn. By the time he graduated in 1992, he was working as a DJ
in clubs from Washington, D.C., to Maine.
It also was during college that Washington got a glimpse of his future.
He started with a summer internship in the sports department at the
Poughkeepsie Journal after his freshman year. "It was the first job
I ever had that I wasn't looking at the clock every half hour," Washington
said. That led
to a position in the news department, and by the time he finished college,
he'd interned with the Hartford Courant newspaper, Business
Week magazine and the New York Times, as well as the internationally
renowned news organation Associated Press.
Graduating Yale with a degree in English, Washington took a full-time job
with the AP, quickly working his way up to the position of assistant
bureau chief. From there, he made the jump to hip-hop journalism, accepting
the post of
managing editor at the urban-music magazine Vibe.
In April 1998, Vibe announced the launch of Blaze -- a
publication devoted entirely to hip-hop music and culture -- and named
Washington editor in chief. "I'm in this position here because I'm a
journalist," Washington said. "Yeah, I love hip-hop and I'm knowledgeable
about it, but primarily why I'm here is because I'm a journalist. And I
think that sets me apart from a lot of my contemporaries."
"Jesse's a consummate professional," Sheena Lester, editor in chief of the
New York-based rap magazine XXL, said. "He comes from AP; he
plays by the rules; he's not a shady guy at all."
With his hard-news background, Washington said he has developed
skills to report with speed, accuracy and persistence. "One of the things I
learned at AP is that if I feel someone's trying to hide information
from me, I take it as a challenge," he said. "And if I don't find it
through them, I'll go and find it out on my own."
In developing Blaze, Washington enlisted a staff whose resumes, he
said, "literally range from Yale to jail." Designed for a younger audience
than Vibe's, Blaze vowed to get back to the grass-roots
elements of hip-hop -- MCs, DJs, graffiti and breakdancing.
But Washington had another idea, one he said is a major reason why he
thinks Blaze should be considered a revolutionary magazine.
As an English student who spent hours critiquing literature, he alway felt
it was unfair that authors, some who have been dead for 200 years,
never could respond to student's criticisms. That realization, he said, inspired
him to provide a forum for artists to respond directly in print to reviews
published by Blaze. But the first time he put that concept into
action, Washington said he found himself with a gun pressed against his
In July, Washington held a meeting with Fugees rapper Wyclef Jean and
rapper Canibus (born Germaine Williams) to discuss a review of Canibus'
debut album, Can-I-Bus, which Wyclef produced. The review, slated to
run in the first issue of Blaze, was unfavorable, and Wyclef
angry -- so angry, Washington alleges, that he brought a gun along for the
"The Wyclef incident was a byproduct of us trying to change the game,"
Washington claimed. "Artists had never had a chance to respond to a review
before it was printed. They always just had to steam about it afterwards.
As soon as I tried to offer that opportunity, they seized upon it to try to
influence the editorial process."
The review was pulled, and Washington went public with the alleged incident
via an editorial in the premiere issue of Blaze.
Though the allegations provoked concerns for journalists' safety, the letter
prompted strong negative reactions to Washington from peers at other
hip-hop magazines, including Allen Gordon -- editor of Rap Pages --
Tracii McGregor -- lifestyle editor at the The Source.
There even were intimations that Washington provoked the situation for
publicity. Wyclef himself denied the incident on MTV and suggested that
Washington had fabricated the story to sell magazines.
"Just the fact that people would say that ... shows that they can't even
grasp real journalism," Washington said. "[If] I were to make up something
about a person as big as Wyclef, I would be immediately sued, fired and
banned from journalism forever."
In the Angelettie incident, Washington claims the hip-hop producer was
involved in the Nov. 16 attack because he was angry over a photo revealing
him to be the Madd Rapper, a hip-hop artist who has guested on albums and
whose identity has been kept from the public. Police say that Angelettie and
three other black men beat Washington with a chair at the Blaze
offices in midtown Manhattan. Angelettie, who has worked among a stable of
producers for high-profile rapper Sean "Puffy" Combs, turned himself in to
the police and pleaded innocent to assault charges.
"It was such a crazy thing, man, such a big misunderstanding on a lot of
people's parts," Washington said of the incident. "But it was never any
attempt on me to out this guy." Washington added that he might not have
approved the photo if he had understood how much the anonymity meant to
"He thought I was doing it to spite him, which is absolutely not the case,"
Washington said. "I thought we were helping him out by giving his album
Representatives of Blaze announced that its mother company, Vibe/Spin
publications, will sue in the alleged Angelettie attack.
Washington said he hasn't decided on how to deal with the issue beyond a
legal level, adding that the fierce competitiveness
and lack of solidarity in hip-hop journalism make taking a united stand
Though he's considering facial surgery to repair damage sustained in the
attack, Washington proclaims he's feeling fine and has put
the incident behind him.
He's back, he said, to making Blaze "a quality magazine" and revolutionizing
"I'm not interested in being famous," he said. "I was very happy with living
my anonymous life. I felt good because I felt like I was doing good work."