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[whitespace] Alan Light Spin Doctor: Alan Light gives good commentary.

Licensed to Edit

Alan Light co-founded 'Vibe' and kept 'Spin' a 'Britney-free zone.' Now he's starting his own magazine.

By Todd Inoue

ALAN LIGHT grew up understanding the importance of both literary criticism and gangsta rap. His mother was a dance reviewer for the local Cincinnati newspaper, and he did his senior thesis on the Beastie Boys album Licensed to Ill.

"It was incredibly ripe material," Light says. "Thank God the American studies department at Yale University agreed with me."

While he was in college, Light fact-checked at Rolling Stone before becoming a staff writer and helping to beef up the magazine's anemic hip-hop coverage. In 1993, he became the founding music editor of Vibe magazine before being promoted to editor in chief. In 1999, he took over the editor in chief's job at the alternative diary Spin. Light has also shown a flair for punditry, explaining the importance of Eminem and other pop stars on CNN, VH1 and The O'Reilly Factor.

In March 2002, Light amicably resigned from Spin in order to start a new, as-yet-untitled music magazine with former Spin publisher John Rollins. On April 23, Light delivers the keynote speech at San Jose State University's annual Magazine Day.

Why start another rock magazine?

I feel there's space in the marketplace. When I left Rolling Stone to work on the Vibe launch, I started looking around at what I was interested in [and] what my friends were talking about, and I saw there wasn't anything that was speaking to them. Nine or 10 years ago, that meant Vibe. And now this means something we want to do ourselves.

Obviously, it's a difficult time in the economy, but every other person says it's a good time because everybody with a half-assed idea isn't out there trying to chase down money. Even if someone came down and handed us a check tomorrow, we couldn't launch until toward the end of the year at the absolute quickest. If there's any sense that things are going to get any better at all, you need to lay your bet down now.

Your time at Spin coincided with the appearance of mainstream artists on the cover: Incubus, Matchbox 20, Sugar Ray, Creed. How did you take the criticism?

I think that Spin historically covered mainstream artists--it's just a different mainstream. I've done it long enough; certainly going through the launch of Vibe you let criticism bounce off you. A lot of it is clearing your head and listening to what people want from your magazine. I'm not going to apologize for doing a Limp Bizkit cover that sold really well when Rolling Stone hasn't done a Limp Bizkit cover. I think it was done in the spirit of feeling our way through, because it's hard. Spin's not a big magazine company; we don't have a lot of research, marketing or weapons to go to. All we could do is try to gauge what it was that people wanted the magazine to be and do the best version of the magazine.

How tempting was it to chase movie stars or teen acts?

We stayed away from it. The only nonmusic cover I did was Jimmy Fallon, which just came out (March 2002). There was temptation to chase the bubblegum stuff, the teen stuff, and I think it was important not to do that. I think it was important to retain Spin as a safe space away from the stuff that kids were getting assaulted with everywhere they looked. Keeping Spin a Britney-free zone was a serious mission of mine.

But you can make the argument that a lot of the rap-rock acts that Spin has featured skewed toward the teen audience as well.

I think it's accurate to say that, but they're still a rock band, [while] Jessica Simpson is not. That's not a musical judgment, but an audience judgment and attitude judgment. It made sense for Spin to cover those acts; that was the state of rock & roll at the time.

What cover subject were you most excited about that nobody picked up?

It was an experiment, but I was disappointed when Outkast died for us. That was one I really wanted to see go. It would have opened up other possibilities if we had gotten a really strong response to that. Stankonia was the record we were most excited about. Nobody had come at them from a non-hip-hop magazine angle. The audience was there. I don't know--timing, cover image, maybe people wanted to read about Outkast in Vibe or in the Source and not a rock magazine--that was disappointing.

What hip-hop group set it off for you?

I guess Run-D.M.C. I remember hearing "Rappers Delight," "The Breaks," "The Message"--I had the 12-inchers of most of those. The first Run-D.M.C. album was the first sense that a body of work--more than one single at a time--could sustain a whole album and still be great. That was an amazing thing when it happened, when there was a sense there could be an album that could hold up.

I didn't believe in anybody in the same way that I believed in Public Enemy. Those records were incredibly important and got me more involved than the stuff before then. I was lucky, in terms of my age, to catch the classic 1987-'89 years and hear the stuff that was coming out. Whether it was Three Feet High and Rising, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back or Paid in Full, you were in the middle of a revolutionary moment [while it was] happening. It felt like every month there was something else you had never heard before. That time was exciting.

How has your time at Spin and Vibe prepared you for the new venture?

Going through an actual launch at Vibe, I didn't have to go through getting financial backing. We started from zero, and I had to learn everything on the fly. I was almost 27 when I took over as EIC. I was completely ill-prepared to do it. We made it work. Just learning about actual magazine construction, managing a staff, dealing with the music industry--my time at Spin was about grappling with questions [like] what does it mean to put a magazine together and try to decipher an audience? It's hard to take over a magazine that was 14 years old when I came in unless you're going to burn it to the ground and start over.

When do you have time to listen to music?

In between everything else is the answer. I've had a house in upstate New York for the past five years that's a good place to be on the weekend. [I] just try to slow it down and catch up on stuff as it builds up and focus on it.

Do you have a house dedicated to records like Biz Markie?

It's rapidly becoming that way. I'm going to have to make decisions about that really soon. My wife was a music writer for years so we have all her stuff, including much more of her vinyl than mine. It takes on a life of its own.

Alan Light delivers the keynote address at San Jose State University's Magazine Day on Tuesday (April 23) at 1pm at the Loma Prieta Room inside the Student Union Ballroom. The speech is free and open to the public. (408.514.2602, ext. 3582)

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From the April 18-24, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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