Inside Complex Magazine
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Now, from the pages of Playboy to a different kind of men's magazine, Complex is a hip-hop mag aimed at young male readers. The fat glossy is printed with two colorful covers, and the inside is split down the middle. So one-half looks at the freshest new gear, fly tennis shoes, techie gadgets. Flip it over and find trends in culture, fashion and music. And speaking of music, the hip-hop producer Kanye West guest edits next month's issue.
Here with me now to break down Complex is the magazine's editor in chief, Noah Callahan-Bever. Noah, welcome.
Mr. NOAH CALLAHAN-BEVER (Editor in Chief, Complex): Oh, thank you.
CHIDEYA: So there's so many hip-hop and urban magazines out now like The Source, Vibe, XXL. Where does Complex fit into that world of publications?
Mr. CALLAHAN-BEVER: Well, the thing is, about Complex, I don't really think that to call it a hip-hop magazine is necessarily fair or where we belong. We're definitely more of a men's magazine that represents men who grew up in sort of the hip-hop generation, if that makes any sense. It's, you know, a multicultural take on the same sort of things that you might see covered in, like, a GQ or a Details or, you know, Esquire.
CHIDEYA: So Kanye, guest editor, did he really get up into his elbows and story assignments, photo layouts, text, text, text?
Mr. CALLAHAN-BEVER: Kanye puts the mic in micromanaging. He spent quite a bit of time with me on the phone, in the office, looking through photos, coming up with concepts. I think he did, at the end of the day, four interviews for the issue, which, you know, and…
Mr. CALLAHAN-BEVER: …most of them ran…
Mr. CALLAHAN-BEVER: …two hours at a time, pretty much. So yeah, he was definitely very, very involved. It was not just sort of a namesake type of thing.
CHIDEYA: Well, let's move on to the June-July issue, which is currently out on the stands. Rihanna on the cover, on the other side, two stars - the RZA from the Wu-Tang and also soundtracks, all that stuff and Seth Rogan from the film "Knocked Up." Now that to me was a kind of a strange pair, and you even have this inside layout with them looking into the mirror and seeing the other person. So how did those two covers represent your readers' desires and demographics?
Mr. CALLAHAN-BEVER: Well, the thing about Complex is, given the sort of multicultural aspect to it, you know, a lot of the things that we do is look at sort of the place where cultures overlap, and we sort of live in the middle of a Venn diagram that has hip-hop on one side, and skating on other side, and punk rock on another side, and sneaker culture, and all these different things.
And so with, you know, with the two covers, we always try to sort of represent everything that, you know, the magazine is about. And with the Seth Rogan-RZA cover, I mean, essentially it was - we saw "Knocked Up" and thought it was amazing, and spoke to Seth about it and he was really excited of the prospect of being on the cover.
But he was, like, you know, you guys talk to a very specific audience, like I could do, you know, Entertainment Weekly or GQ as a solo thing, like, I think that if I'm going to be in Complex, I want to do something that will really reach outside of my core fan base.
And so we started talking and, you know, he uses Wu-Tang throughout the soundtrack of "Knocked Up" and it turned out that he was just a gigantic, enormous Wu-Tang fan. He was, like, yo, I would love to do the cover with RZA, if you could make that happen. And so we put the two of them together in the room and they got all, like a, you know, house on fire.
CHIDEYA: Let's really put this in a different context, which is the magazine industry. The magazine industry has had its ups and downs. A lot of the older magazines, even the news magazines, like Time and Newsweek, had been having challenges with subscriptions. Is there a space in the market for you to be around not just today, not just tomorrow, but five years, 10 years from now?
Mr. CALLAHAN-BEVER: I mean, absolutely. I mean, if you look at our newsstand sales this year are up by about 50 percent. And I think, you know, part of it is due to the fact that you look at the books, like GQ and Esquire and Details, and it's like I'm a 28-year-old white guy that grew up in Brooklyn and none of those magazines speak to me in any sort of compelling way. And in fact, I found them largely alienating.
So I think that there's a lot of people, like myself, who, you know, were raised in less than lily-white environment and looking for an outlet that really understands, that could speak their language. And so, you know, I think we, sort of, are muscling our way in between a sort of void between the lad mags and then the sort of older sophisticated style mags.
CHIDEYA: Do you have any plans coming up to cover the elections? Because a lot of times, what has happened is that younger Americans turn not to the news directly but turn to the Rolling Stones, the Vibes, you know, the daily shows for political information. What do you have coming up on that tip if anything?
Mr. CALLAHAN-BEVER: Well, I think - to be honest, at the moment, we have a bunch of little silly things, like getting bad rappers to write bad raps about - in the voice of different presidential candidates and then to print their sixteens(ph). But that's sort of one of the things that I've put to my staff as a challenge for the next year is that we need to figure out a way to be compelling and relevant, you know, and political despite the fact that we're essentially a consumer magazine.
CHIDEYA: When you think about your audience, you have talked a lot about this multicultural generation. How would you describe them and their desires, and tell us exactly what demo you have been going for? How are they different than their parents?
Mr. CALLAHAN-BEVER: Well, I mean, essentially it's young men from about 21 - 50 percent of our readers are young men 21 to 29 with a pretty much even split of black and white - 40 percent, 40 percent and the rest of others amongst several other groups.
And, you know, I think that they are people that, like - even people that would be in, you know, if I had a big brother - in my big brother's generation, there would be some sort of expectation that when you grew up you would start reading GQ and you would wear a suit to work every day.
And I think that the people in my generation come from, you know, I would kill myself if I ever had to put on suit every day. I hope to wear my Jordans and my MX95s to work every day. And so, you know, that's basically the generation that we're trying to target.
CHIDEYA: You mean casual Fridays are every day?
Mr. CALLAHAN-BEVER: At the Complex office, they are.
CHIDEYA: All right. On that note, Noah, thanks for coming on.
Mr. CALLAHAN-BEVER: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: Noah Callahan-Bever is editor -in chief of Complex magazine. They had Kanye West as their guest editor moving ahead for their August issue, and their June-July issue has the Wu-Tang - RZA from the Wu-Tang, Seth Rogan from the film "Knocked Up." He joined me from NPR's New York studios.