Interview: Hip-Hop Journalist Kim Osorio, Ex-Editor-in-Chief of The Source

Jan 21, 2009 at 2:00 pm
(Article by Kristy Wendt)

For those yearning for behind-the-scenes fodder on the battles, beefs, and trysts of hip-hop's high profilers, Kimberly Osorio's memoir Straight From the Source will make you feel like you're looking through their hotel room keyholes; you'll get a tantalizing glimpse, and not much more. Those curious about the media's propagation of conflict in hip-hop will get an eyeful, though. Osorio was terminated as editor-in-chief of The Source when she complained about sexual harassment and gender discrimination; the company's refusal to investigate the matter resulted in a 7.5 million dollar lawsuit that turned out favorably for Kim.

While true that Osorio oversaw The Source's highest-selling issues as editor-in-chief, and that she endured gender discrimination from owner Ray Benzino, she was also openly unscrupulous with her sources. While the inside scoop makes it hard to root for Kim, one can hope that her victory in court and/or her memoir may improve the conditions of other hip-hop journalists and artists by bringing the issues to light. Kim Osorio will address "New Politics: Hip Hop, Gender & Race," during the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration at Maryville University at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 22 in the University Auditorium.

What has life been like for you since the publication of your memoir? You're still a hip-hop journalist; has your confession of romantic relationships with sources affected your credibility?
Ultimately, I like to believe that the story speaks for itself, that my story is a presentation of things as they were; I didn't write a memoir for the purpose of blaming individuals, and during interviews for my blog, or for BET, I'm held to the same professional standards that I always have been as far as what goes on the record and what stays off. Not everything made it into my book; it's just my opportunity to tell my story -- a story that the people I work closely with, including my sources, know anyway.

Do you feel like the lack of integrity so prevalent at The Source during your time there was specific to the music industry, or to the hip-hop music industry, or just The Source?
I don't feel like the lack of integrity was specific to the hip-hop music industry, and I think that what was going on at The Source was extreme.

Is it? Are you telling me that the same kind of hustle behind the scenes at The Source isn't happening at XXL right now?
[Laughs] I can't speak for XXL obviously, but at the time that I worked for The Source, the level of the hustle was unique, as was the world we lived in. Hip hop was incestuous; writers, rappers, and editors all lived in the same small world, and our personal lives weren't separate from the music or the culture of the music. I don't feel like I compromised my integrity because I understood the agendas of those involved, including those of the musicians, as well as The Source owners.

Right, it was Ray Benzino's agenda as a music producer that ultimately interfered with The Source's credibility.
Ray Benzino played the race card, using a white rapper (Eminem) as the core of a battle that shouldn't have existed. This was not an artistic hip-hop battle; Ray Benzino was not respected as an artist, but as the owner of a high-profile hip-hop magazine. And the issue was personal to Eminem because The Source provided his first real publicity; that's why he got involved. No one cared about Benzino the musician. And that's (the battle between Benzino and Eminem) where The Source lost credibility with its readership.

Musicians have a longstanding history of courting the attention of music editors, and in your book, there are several examples of how self-promotion interfered with source credibility. Is unbiased reporting even possible for a music editor?
At the core of any good hip-hop writer or editor is passion for the culture, and our love of the music. And in this industry, the personalities are strong. But that doesn't necessarily affect or impair our perception of the music.

You actually make a point to distinguish rappers from artists in Straight from the Source, citing Andre 3000 as an example of an artist. What's the difference?
It's something that, as a music editor, I learned to have an eye for when artists presented their work to us in studio. Andre 3000 is an incredible lyricist, obviously, but he's also not concerned with critical opinion. Today, there are those that jump on the T-pain bandwagon, and others, like Kanye West who are always looking ahead, creating something unlike anyone else. I think 50 Cent had that kind of charisma originally, bringing back gangsta rap from the mid-nighties in a new way. Real artistic endeavors shine in hip-hop.

Has the culture you describe in Straight of "rappers with beef" engaging in "battle raps" been a positive artistic influence? Or do you think the culture it promotes has been to the industry's detriment?
First you have to differentiate between "beef" and "battle." I think "beef" describes a real, underlying issue stemming from a personal problem, the kind of thing that happened in the nineties between Tupac and Biggie; these things don't necessarily make it on the record or become a battle. But I'd say that 50% of battles nowadays, like the JZ and Nas battle I wrote about, or Kanye and 50 Cent's album sale battle in 2007, are publicity stunts, and that the consequences of Tupac and Biggie's "beef" prompted that change. That's not to say that "beef" can't develop in the process of battling on record, or that it can't get personal.

It's apparent in your expose that you were in many ways empowered by your sex as an editor-in-chief, that it in fact afforded you insight via a network of other women in the business and intimacy with your sources that your superiors didn't have. And yet you describe a pervasive feeling of powerlessness ...
Unfortunately, the treatment of women in the workplace is not afforded the same protection as other Constitutionally-protected rights, like race. If a black man shows up for an interview in a primarily white industry, and an industry leader sneers, "What have we here? A Harlem Globetrotter? There's no taboo about a lawsuit resulting from that situation. But when Ray Benzino refers to my network as the "Witches of Eastwick," I didn't realize the gravity of it. The red flags weren't raised for me until they began asking questions about my sex life.

But you weren't awarded anything in your case for gender discrimination -- the court ruled in your favor for retaliation and defamation.
That's right, and that's an important point. I sent an email to the company that I felt I had been discriminated against, and rather than investigate the situation, or work with human resources to address it, they fired me. That's the retaliation part of the lawsuit. The owners also publicly accused me of trying to extort money from the company after my termination, and that's defamation.

And wasn't the inquisition into your sex life fair from your employer's standpoint since it was your sources you were sleeping with? Doesn't that affect the credibility of everyone involved?
I don't think it's an issue of integrity, but a matter of the way the business operated. My credibility only came into question by the owners after-the-fact, and I've only met one journalist who swears up and down that it is possible to maintain impersonal relationships with sources in this industry; these relationships were personal. My job was personal, but I made a point to choose my career with The Source over my relationships with sources, and my loyalty was not to the artists, but to The Source. Relationships happen, and they happen more often than not in this business.

Barbara Walters wrote her memoir detailing her affair with a married man, but she doesn't face the same kind of scrutiny; hip hop music editors are viewed under a different light and their relationships are more subject to judgement.

That said, I enjoy the people I work for now as a journalist for BET and as a freelancer; my comfort is a priority for me now in a way that it wasn't before.