Pound for Pound

As I made my way to the head office of Pound magazine, located surprisingly in the basement of a very regular family house in a very regular residential neighbourhood, all my worries about the interview I was about to conduct melted away. My only concern then was the large dog waiting by the front door.

He didn’t seem vicious, but he was large, barking incessantly and staring right at me. My mind was straining to devise a plan that would allow me to ring the doorbell without opening the gate that separated my tender body from the dog. Finally the barking led to some suspicion from inside the house and I was led within its walls to meet the magazine’s publisher, Rodrigo Bascuñán, and senior editor Chris Pearce.

Both men have been with Pound from the get-go when the magazine was just an idea. That was over three years ago. The two had shared the dream of creating a hip-hop culture magazine for some time and finally acted on that dream in 1998. It became clear early on that it would be a learning process.

“The first year was just building industry links and learning the industry because no one had any publishing background,” says Bascuñán. “The biggest block was money – it’s actually not that hard to put a publication out. Getting money was hard because we were young.”

The creators of Pound put together a prototype of their magazine to show to potential advertisers, but no one really wanted to solicit advertisers for cash. Bascuñán says it took him about two years to get accustomed to thinking about the business end of operating Pound. Now he makes sales calls every day.

Bascuñán and Pearce, among others, finally started showing their prototype around and worked with contacts they had developed over time to get Pound off the ground. Design and layout were things that had to be learned on the fly, and it was a challenge initially to project an air of professionalism. The latter half of the first year was especially difficult because Pound had been a magazine-in-waiting for so long. The Pound crew persevered with pure determination. Says Bascuñán: “We didn’t want to be seen as quitters – as guys who always talked about what they were going to do but never did anything or followed through.”

The spirit of perseverance still exists, according to Pearce. “I’ve seen these guys, [Associate Producer] Mike [Evans] and Rodrigo, go through so much in trying to carry this on and, you know, there’s so many let downs. And then you’ll get something to totally rejuvenate you and re-inspire the motivation.”

It was decided early on that the magazine would be a free publication. Not only is starting a paid magazine a difficult task, but also, according to Bascuñán, “the difference of image in the advertising world [between paid mags and free ones] isn’t that big.” For Pound’s first issue the producers sent out 40,000 copies. By comparison, hip-hop publication, Source, sells about 25,000 copies in Canada. One major advantage of being free is that the magazine doesn’t have to fight against all other publications on the rack for a buyer’s attention. That means the publishers have the privilege of considering riskier cover photos and topics.

Only now has Pound broken onto the newsstands. They sent 1,000 copies of their most current issue to Chapters and Indigo with a cover price of $5.

Unlike money, getting content was never a problem for Pound. Pearce explains that there are loads of talented people who are only too willing to write for the publication. Sometimes the team has to use discretion when it comes time to print, especially considering the sometimes-controversial world of hip-hop attitude. “There’s been a few instances where rappers have said things about other rappers and we haven’t printed it because we don’t want to be part of that,” says Bascuñán, adding, “there’s so many more worthy things to print.”

“It contributes to the self-destructiveness of the culture,” says Pearce of rappers airing their beefs with other rappers. “We’ve always tried to distance ourselves from that because [the culture is] something we feel passionate about.”

Aside from interviewing some of the dopest rappers ever—Ghostface, Redman, Masta Ace and Swollen Members are among those who have graced covers—the staff always tries to keep political and humourous elements in Pound. The magazine’s Babylon System section has tackled such political issues as fucked-up elections, the war on drugs and the International Criminal Court. On the lighter side, Pound for Pound pits celebrities (and sometimes cereals) in made-up rap battles. Try Elton John vs. Madonna in the Diva Division (“Old limp-wrist dissin’ a diva named Evita, fo’ shizzle / Cuts so sharp, you best retaliate with yo’ pointiest nipples” Dec ‘01/Jan ‘02) or Ben Affleck serving Chris Judd in the Battle of the J. Lo Lovers (“Tonight I’m tumblin’ off the wagon to slay a dragon / Braggin’ how he can win his lass back / How much yappin’ you gonna be flappin’ when I split you like Lo’s ass crack?” Sept/Oct ‘02). Brilliant.

Pearce and Bascuñán are very aware of the differences between the hip-hop scenes in Canada and the States. Compared to our neighbour, Canada lacks “the cohesiveness or the focal point that represents Canada really well, and we don’t promote ourselves very well,” says Bascuñán, noting that the Canadian scene is also quite small by comparison. He adds: “Toronto’s relevant – Canada not as much.” Contributing to Toronto’s elevated status is the fact that a lot of artists are recording albums or pieces of albums in the city.

Americans are generally “oblivious” when it comes to Canada, says Bascuñán. “They’ll have some obscure reference, like ‘I like John Candy’ or something like that, but there’s not a lot of awareness.” Some Americans are noticing Canadian rappers, though. For instance, look at Nas’ new album and note the presence of TO’s Saukrates, or check out Nelly Furtado on albums by Jurassic 5 and the Roots. “Good things are happening,” says Pearce.

So who is the most interesting person to interview in the rap game? Bascuñán maintains that Mos Def was “so intelligent. He subtly schooled me.” B. Real of Cypress Hill surprised Pearce most. “He comes off on record like he’s way the fuck out there, but talking to him – he’s really one of the most down-to-earth people I’ve actually interviewed.”

Both Pearce and Bascuñán agree that, underneath all the hype and image, the rappers that they get to meet and interview are pretty regular people. Thought that might be hard to believe when you look at Ghostface on the cover of the Dec. 2001 issue where he’s photographed kissing a gold-cast falcon that’s attached to his arm…As for Pound’s future, the producers want to build popularity in the US. They’ve made some headway by getting the magazine in Barnes & Noble stores in New York.

They are also considering throwing together a book based on the Babylon System section of the magazine, which would allow for more detail in the discussion of world politics. It may become an avenue for bringing academic information to people who might not seek it out or be exposed to it otherwise. It could also bring the Pound perspective to those who wouldn’t pick up the magazine.

All in all, the magazine will be used to build relationships, share ideas and create movements. Perhaps it can act as a catalyst for the development of a more solid hip-hop community in Canada.

If you can’t find yourself a free copy or if you’re just too lazy to look, head over to Chapters and grab a copy. You won’t be disappointed.