The print industry may still be figuring out how to contend with the speed and convenience of the internet, but there's plenty of freedom there. It has allowed publications to play with format, to create fantastically designed products that don't need to compete with the internet because they're running on a different track entirely. Enter HRDCVR, the new "book shaped magazine" from writer/editors (and husband and wife) Danyel Smith and Elliott Wilson. Both Smith and Wilson are veterans of the industry: Smith edited Vibe for a number of years and Wilson helped to create the seminal Ego Trip before moving on to edit both The Source and XXL, as well as his website Rap Radar. Both are, in their own ways, magazine and music lifers, and HRDCVR is the latest iteration of that. We spoke to them about their ideas and goals for the publication.
How did you come up with HRDCVR?
Danyel: Elliott and I have been talking about wanting to work together on something. We never could figure out exactly what. When I decided to apply for the Stanford scholarship, I knew I wanted to do something to serve a multicultural audience, and more importantly was created by teams reflecting that audience. I was thinking about doing some kind of weird teaching platform about how to manage these multicultural teams, because it’s something I’ve done a lot of in my life, but then I was taking this great class at Stanford and a lot of the kids in the class were product design graduate students, and they were asking me, "So what are you doing with your fellowship?" I was explaining to them something that didn’t really sound like something, and they said, "That sounds wack, why don’t you make something?" These are kids that are figuring out how to build a better thermometer, so they’re like, why don’t you build something? I loved this class. It was a history of design schools, and I was influenced by them a lot. Obviously Elliot and I influence each other all the time [as well]. Elliott doesn’t believe in anything until something has a title. We started taking about what HRDCVR could be before it had a name, and he just wasn’t into it. Finally, I said, "I thought of a name: HRDCVR. He said, "I can tell by the way you’re saying it that we’re going to do it."
Elliott: I definitely like a brand name. when I came up with Rap Radar—it may sound weird or generic at first but then when you start saying names of brands, it starts to become a reality. We definitely feel like the whole energy—the specialness of when a magazine comes out—is lacking across the board. There’s a lack of spirit or enthusiasm. You go to newsstands and you’re not as inspired as you once were, or go to bookstores and you’re not inspired. Let’s join forces, let’s work together for the first time creating an editorial vision, and let’s build that super magazine—literally a hardcover—so it has that same quality of a book, where it’s something you want to have on your coffee table, something you want to have possession of, something you’re going to want to Instagram and show your friends. Let’s create a movement behind it.
Why do you think the excitement of picking up a new magazine isn't there for you anymore?
Danyel: There’s a lot of people at magazines still doing good work. I just think there used to be a lot more of it. I feel like what’s missing now, and frankly what has been missing almost since forever, is what multicultural teams bring to the magazine experience. It hasn’t really been seen a lot in the history of this country. I don’t want to get too Kumbaya with it, but I do like the idea of people of all races—ALL, not just of color, not just white—just everybody... to see all of that reflected, beautifully designed, beautifully written about with wisdom and grace all in the same place—I think all of that has been missing since before the recent downturn and changes in publishing.
Elliott: We’re very active in digital. I have Rap Radar, she has a Tumblr with over 100,000 followers. We live, breathe, and eat off social media. We’re in the conversation. We know what’s going on. But we feel like there’s still a place for the print medium if it’s done in an innovative way. That costs money, and a lot of people don’t want to put money into it because it’s easier to put money into the digital space. We understand that the audience still wants things of quality. They want to possess things, and feel part of a movement. It’s the right time to launch HRDCVR in this landscape.
Danyel: I want to know what the millennials are brining to paper. I would love to see that. I would love for millennials to see what their name looks like printed as a byline in ink on paper. I would love to see the kind of story ideas they have, what kind of new ways of telling stories they’re bringing to an editorial meeting and to the pages of HRDCVR. I would love to see the topics that come up. Let’s talk about how things can be expressed differently, how they can be designed differently, how they can be reported differently. I would like to see that over the course of my career. If there’s anything I’m responding to, it’s that. I also think the quote unquote new generation is being talked at, not to. The so called new normal, the new everyone, as I like to call them. How the demographics are changing. How the new demographic got Obama elected—all these things. I feel like all these things are so often written about the people behind the graph bars, these human beings. They’re not being written to. They’re not writing because they don’t have positions at the news companies, media companies, publications.
I’m not saying that people of color aren’t doing great work right now, because they are. At HRDCVR, we reject the niche and we reject the mainstream. We are about the multi-stream. We’re trying to squeeze as much in there as we can. Sometimes we’re like should we be more focused? Should we be a sports book? Should we be a music book? Should we be all that? We’re starting out big, if we have to narrow down later, okay fine. [Right now] we want to be a potluck where everyone is there.
Elliott: And speaking of the millennials, there’s a lot of talent and voice out there but they’re not learning. We learn from the new generation and they learn from us, and there should be that exchange where we’re helping to develop writers and make them better. Everyone can benefit from a great editor.
Danyel: Wouldn’t it be great for people to go through an edit? Wouldn’t that be amazing? Maybe they’ll hate it and never want to do it again, but why not go through it? Why not see what your writing would be like if you went through an edit? Maybe you’ll take that skill somewhere else and just turn the party out at the next job interview that you go through. Also, we are very serious about paying people. No, we’re not going to be able to pay everyone that’s amazing their rate. The more I think about the younger writers—all these people are out there doing good work, but they’re not out there in the larger culture as much as they could be. We’re going to have these people at HRDCVR.
So you really feel like there's a lack of editing in the magazine world.
Elliott: You can have a horrible editing experience in the time of your career, but at the end of the day if you find a good editor, It’s going to bring the best out of you. You need somebody to look at your writing with fresh eyes and with some insight to help you find your voice and develop your voice better. It’s different now. People come in and rewrite content. I’m not saying I’ve never done that, [but] you learn how to be a better editor as you get more experienced, and you realize that your job is to develop that voice and represent that point of view that is trying to be expressed. It’s the only way you get better. It’s like going to the gym. You have to work out as you get older. You have to stay in shape. You don’t want to do it some days, but you’ll be better off for it, you’ll live a better life.
Danyel: One of the best things that was ever said to me about writing was like this: I turn in something and the editor hands it back to me and says, "Your lede is in your conclusion, and you need to write a conclusion, so do that and get back to me and then we’ll go over it line-by-line." That sounded so terrible to me. Like I was such a failure and hadn’t written the right piece, or done a good job, or disappointed an editor I respected. He was just like, "What are you talking about? This is the fun part. You’ve written it. We’re about to make this the most amazing piece ever. You’ve given me 3000 words of clay, so let’s get started. Let’s cut out 700 words and make it super tight. Let’s move to the bottom to the top and write a new bottom after we see exactly what you’re trying to say. And let’s make it as clear as we possibly can." Then I started seeing what a piece could become. It can’t always be a first draft. That’s not what we’re going to be publishing. things are going to be edited and they’re going to be great. We’re not trying to make you change your mind about your thesis, we’re trying to bring it to light.
This is the first time you guys have collaborated professionally, right? How's that going?
Elliott: Danyel’s probably the first real editor I ever had. She was running the review section at Vibe in the mid-'90s. She taught me about kickers—the end line of a review...what’s the final little oomph? What’s your walk off strut? What’s your drop the mic moment? I remember, I came to her office and she had a thesaurus and a dictionary—that’s how old school it was. I was like, Okay, you have this book, I’m going to get this book. Me and my partner Sasha Jenkins—we started a magazine called Ego Trip—we’d sit at her desk and we were so excited to be up at Vibe magazine—if you had a thesaurus then we needed a thesaurus. Danyel taught me a lot about reviews and how to structure reviews and be more effective. I had a lot of voice but less structure. Kinda like the blog culture. I had a lot of what I wanted to say. I was strong in my opinion and what I thought was good or bad, there was no in-between. I learned a lot—and then of course we had a falling out. I thought I deserved more work from her.
Danyel: You’re telling this story again?
Elliott: I acted a fool and then I ended up not being welcome at Vibe anymore and then I got a job at The Source magazine.
Danyel: Oh you are exaggerating.
Elliott: At The Source, we competed against Vibe. Fast forward: Danyel goes in and out of the business as she tends to do, I’m at XXL [magazine] for several years, we hook up. We get married.
Danyel: I don’t know if "hook up" is the appropriate word.
Elliott: We got together. Around the time of our one year anniversary, she gets the offer to go back to Vibe. I was like, "Well this is crazy, we’re going to compete against each other."
Danyel: It was tough.
Elliott: There was a time when I ran XXL and she ran Vibe and we were still a married couple and we still competed. She beat me to all these covers and hopefully I would beat her sometimes. Now we’re at the point, career-wise where I have no ties with any other magazine, and she doesn’t have ties with any other magazine. My pedigree is more of a pure hip-hop head on the surface, and on the surface Danyel is a little more sophisticated, knows more about politics, and the culture overall.
There are times when Danyel is at the forefront and I need to support her, and times when I’m at the forefront and she needs to support me. We do a good job for each other with that. It doesn’t take away each other’s strengths. That’s how we approach our marriage and that’s how we’ll approach the magazine and doing business together.
Danyel: It’s fun. Me and Elliott argue anyway, so why not argue about something incredible? Why argue about the trash or taking the dishes out of the dishwasher when you could argue about, do you like this design? Re-read this and tell me what you think. We need to film another ID video for the campaign. How come you didn’t write that idea down i told you about? Now we don’t know where it is. Let’s argue about that great stuff. Let’s argue about music. Let’s argue about politics. Let’s argue about real stuff. We might as well do HRDCVR. Let’s do something together. Elliott's a pretty fantastic guy. I’m happy to be in business with him, even if I wasn’t married to him.
You mentioned on your Kickstarter page that you wanted to have writers write outside of their comfort zones.
Danyel: Yes! Elliott, you know how much you love to talk about how rock writers should come in and write about hip-hop and the black and Latin and Asian writers should write about rock.
Elliott: We’ve always fought against that. We were editors at quote unquote urban magazines. You come up in the '90s and a rock critic can write about Cam’ron but you can’t write about PJ Harvey. We’re not trying to limit writers. We want writers to get the most out of their experience writing for HRDCVR. They can write about things they may not be able to write about for other publications.
Danyel: There’s a lot of places too where women at mainstream publications are writing about things their bosses think they ought to write about, instead of things they’re passionate about. This is your opportunity to pitch and be considered for what you think you can do instead of what others think you can do. These narrow things that people think you can write about—if you’re the Asian person on staff and then it’s Chinese new year, and someone is like, "seems like a good story…" maybe that person isn’t even into that. Those kinds of things are played out, and they’ve been played out forever. It still goes on. It’s not changing really. I see these new media companies being enlarged and I look at mastheads and make sense of it on Twitter and other places—I don’t see the new everyone reflected. I don’t know how new your media is, except for the platform really. Elliott and I want something different. Everyone’s included. Not in every issue—now I’m talking about it like it’s an ongoing project—Overall, it’ll be for everyone.
A lot of niche publications do amazing, passionate and excellent work. There’s a place for those publications, and I love those publications, but HRDCVR wants to do something different. It wants to see the new everyone in the same place. It’s never existed. For years, magazines like TIME, Newsweek, they would say, "we serve everyone. We serve the mainstream." No matter how many times they said it, it just wasn’t true. it still isn’t true. We’re a magazine for everyone.