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Written by: Robbie Ettelson
Stress went deeper than just the musical side of hip-hop and covered topics that others were afraid to touch, in addition to some creative coups such as the flexi-single of Blackstarr’s debut single and the Bobby Digital comic/CD combo. Founder and graffiti veteran KET breaks down the history of the mag and discusses his struggle against the City of New York after they tried to lock him up for ten years on vandalism charges.
Robbie: What was your main motivation to put Stress together?
KET: The hip-hop magazines that existed at the time didn’t represent hip-hop culture. I felt that they were basically ‘rap’ magazines and they were written from the perspective of outsiders, and there wasn’t anybody doing it that came from within the culture itself. So when I kinda discovered this I decided to do it myself.
Stress was a lot more community-minded and covered political issues that The Source and RapPages didn’t really bother to deal with.
Right. I see hip-hop like that; I don’t see hip-hop just as an industry. I felt that magazines like The Source and RapPages really just covered the ‘industry’ of rap. It came from a very elitist place, like if you’re from a major label you get covered, but if you are dealing with police brutality? ‘We don’t really want to talk about that’, or if you’re a famous graffiti writer or B-Boy you don’t really have any place. We were coming from a place where hip-hop is a culture started in the streets by people of color, and we wanted to represent the things that hip-hop culture experiences and deals with. And we deal with things like police brutality and incarceration and love and marginalization and whatever the case might be. We wanted to paint the bigger picture and communicate more things to our audience. We felt – as young men and women doing the magazine – that we had an important tool of communication and we felt very responsible in the type of media that we put out. We wanted to be able to educate and inform, and do it in a way that was positive and uplifting. To do that I think it takes more than just talking about you’re favorite rapper and a record review.
That must have also presented challenges as far as selling ad space. Was it a tough sell?
It was a tough sale because the industry was used to magazines like The Source that were basically regurgitating press releases for the new rapper that was coming out whatever month, so they had a lot more pages to dedicate to contemporary music than we did. We had less pages for music because we were dealing with everything under the sun. We’re dealing with a lot more social issues and features that were non-musical, so we didn’t get as much support as a Source or a RapPages. And also because we were seen as a stronger political voice and it didn’t necessarily sit good with some advertisers. But for the time that we existed we were able to secure major advertisers and build a decent business.
Stress also broke a lot of new artists like Eminem and Thirstin Howl III, didn’t you?
The good thing about us being an independent magazine, we weren’t stuck on the politics of the record labels. We were looking for artists that were pioneering or interesting and visionary and doing cool things. We put Jay-Z on the cover for the first time – his message really resonated with us and we felt that it was gonna be big. It was early, it was 1996, and nobody had ever done that before. Same thing with Eminem and Ghostface and the Beatnuts and Mos Def. People that we felt were gonna important to the culture.
You had that Rawkus cover with the 7″ flexidisc. Was that a logistical nightmare?
That was interesting, it was a lot of work. We felt so passionate about it that we would try some crazy things even though maybe we’d lose money. The ability to put out the Blackstarr single with Rawkus through our magazine like that was an incredible opportunity for us, and we were very excited to do it. One issue we did a cartoon with the RZA and we released a CD with the RZA’s record on the cover of the magazine. We put him on the cover as a robot. We wouldn’t sleep and would work all day and work all night because that was what we were about.
What was the story with Spin using you Eminem cover?
That was from the same photo shoot. Our photographer then was this guy named Jus Ske – who’s now a big DJ – and he did the photography. But you know what? We would never sign contracts with our photographers, it wasn’t that like kind of a deal with us. When Spin saw the cover the approached him about it and he resold the images to them, The funny thing is they picked the exact same image and they ran it exactly the same way, so it was a little bit strange. But we were used to having our concepts and our ideas and our staff ripped off, so it wasn’t so bizarre.
Did you have a friendly rivalry with other mags like On The Go?
On The Go, ego trip and Stress were all out around the same time, so we all felt that we were rivals – Vibe magazine as well. We were all trying to outdo each other and sometimes we would talk shit about each other. I’m known to have a big mouth so I used to say a lot of stuff about The Source and I got pissed-off at ego trip once or twice. But for the most part – with the exception of The Source – it was all friendly rivalry.
The magazine game’s falling on hard times these days – there’s so much free stuff online. What are your thoughts on that?
I think it’s a very hard time to be involved in the magazine business. The magazine business has always been a difficult business – the cost of paper and printing are very high and are getting higher every day. And advertising is very tough to acquire – especially with this new media market that we’re dealing with. The magazines I see lasting for a long time are ones that are associated with larger publishing companies that are able to benefit from better relationships with printers and advertisers because their buying in bulk, whereas the smaller independents are always gonna struggle and come and go because they just don’t have the scale to really be able to benefit and to save. It’s unfortunate because there’s always a lot of great ideas and creativity coming out of the independents, but it’s these bigger companies that are gonna be able to really dominate and do it, because they just have the money to do it. It’s just the way it is. Magazines are traditionally vanity things. They’re created by people that are very rich and that want to be cool and do something like a magazine which is considered cool and sexy. So the ones that you see out there kinda have that in mind and are done by the very wealthy, and they succeed. When you’re a self-start up and you’re trying to do it on the indy tip, like a Mass Appeal, you can last for a few years because you work really, really hard and you don’t pay anybody any money and you cut crazy deals, but eventually you can’t do it anymore, because you realize that you’re running a real business and you’re losing money. It’s tough, man.
How does something like Marc Ecko’s Complex magazine fall into that ‘vanity project’ category? Because I know that you were involved with that.
That absolutely falls into that category. Marc Ecko has a lot of money and he can afford to launch a magazine. He wanted to do something that talked to his customers that was about fashion. He’s a fashion guy and he wanted to support the fashion business. That magazine is total vanity – it’s totally supporting the kind of fashion culture that he’s involved with. That’s exactly what that is. He could’ve started a hip-hop magazine too, right? But he didn’t. He could’ve saved ego trip or On The Go, maybe, or Stress, but instead Complex was born because it suited more to his business interests. And that’s normally how magazines are born.
Were you also involved with his Getting Up game?
Yeah. Marc and I are very cool – he was one of my advertisers when I started Stress. We basically started Stress and Ecko at the same time and became friends and business colleges, growing our companies together. So when Stress was going out of business and I decided to shut it down, they asked me to help them start a new magazine, and I came in as a creative guy to put together Complex and work and develop that for them. I did that for a few years until it got to be established, and then I left because my job was done. Then they asked me to help them develop the graffiti video game, so I worked on that a couple of years and put that together from the very beginning to the very end. I was kinda the lead person on those two projects, and they worked out well.
You were also involved in the Ecko Block Party. Was that the start of your problems with the State of New York?
Maybe…for some reason I became targeted in New York. I think my involvement with the Block Party was some of it, I think the fact that I’ve been involved in a lot of commercial projects was another part of it, I think the fact that I’ve been an active writer in the city for twenty years has a lot to do with it. So I think it was a combination of all those things that got them to come after me very hard. I think the lawsuits that Ecko made happen and then not being able to get him, maybe getting me – knowing that I worked with him – seemed like a good idea for them.
Are you still dealing with that situation?
I’m still dealing with it simply because I have to pay fines now. I decided to stop the case because it was getting to be too expensive and too crazy. So I’ve been found guilty on three counts and I have to pay fines and I have to do community service and I have to do three years probation.
But that’s a better outcome than the serious jail time they were trying to throw at you.
It is a way better outcome than sitting in prison for ten years, that’s for sure. It’s just unfortunate that the city feels like it needs to target artists in such an incredible manner and destroy their livelihood and their lives. What I went through was a really terrible ordeal. It was a year and a half of dealing with the stuff, and it cost a lot of money. I had to create fundraisers and these things to help raise money to pay for lawyers. It was very difficult and very tough. I’m grateful that I didn’t go to prison, but they shouldn’t have been at my house, arresting me, anyway.
Are you ever planning on doing an autobiography?
I am working on something. I kept meticulous notes when I was in jail. I kept a journal during my case and I also have all the court records – all the bullshit the cops wrote, all the ways that the cops lie in court to get people busted. I have all those materials but I want to pay my fines before I put something out in case they throw me in jail for writing a book. I think that a lot of the things that I experienced, other people are experiencing, and all the paperwork that we submitted to the courts I would like to release into the public, so that next time someone gets into a case they can just look at my book and tell their lawyers, ‘Look, this is what you gotta say. This is how you gotta do it.’ I’m gonna make public all the court transcripts, all the motions and all those things that were filed – I mean I have motions that cost $15,000 for the lawyers to do – so why not make that public so that if you get busted there’s a reference point for your lawyers to go back in and say, ‘OK, here’s some ideas’.
That’s a good idea, man.
You gotta help people out, man. People are trying to put young people in prison, and there aren’t enough of us working with young people to keep them outta jail, so I feel like at least my experience should at least help someone else out.
For more on KET’s legal battle against the State of New York, go here.
Video from 2007 detailing the details of the case against KET:
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