Exclusive: Controversial Blaze Editor Jesse Washington Defends Himself

Hip-hop journalist allegedly has had run-ins with two rappers in recent months, but he remains devoted to job and music he covers.

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

intensity.

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

trouble.

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

Blaze.

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

happen."

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

temple.

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

allegedly was

angry -- so angry, Washington alleges, that he brought a gun along for the

meeting.

"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 --

and

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

Angelettie.

"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

exposure."

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

difficult.

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

hip-hop journalism.

"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."