Phat Matt of Elemental Magazine: Keep it Gully

Anybody’s who has ever picked up an issue of Elemental remembers the comics. “Aight” uses a recurring character who whips pristine Cadillacs, guzzles 40’s, bumps Steady B, and always gets the girl and the gusto. The character is drawn by “Phat Matt” Wright, creator and Publisher of Elemental magazine. As this feature affirms, the cars, the brew, and the music is non-fiction.

The Decatur born publication has since moved to Brooklyn, and reminds y’all. With a circulation in the six-figures, Elemental has a wide audience, and an expanding editorial side. TI featured the magazine in a video, as its layouts have been more recently involved with America’s Next Top Model. In a discussion with AllHipHop.com, Phat Matt gives us a history lesson, reflects on some of the expansion and changes in the mag, and why he’s forever diggin’ in the crates.

AllHipHop.com: Tell me about the Elemental you started compared to the

Elemental readers see now. When did the circulation really start to boost?

Phat Matt: In 1998, I was working for Creative Loafing in Atlanta – that city’s version of the Village Voice. I was the editor of their gritty nightlife weekly, making what to me, was a ridiculous amount of money. Though they had me writing everything from city council stories to music interviews, my heart had always been in Hip-Hop. I could be constantly pitching Hip-Hop pieces to the Music Editor, but being a very mainstream weekly, there just wasn’t space or motivation on the part of the paper. I remembered the Music Editor saying to me around 1996, “Some day you’ll have your own magazine, Matt.” I laughed both inside and out loud. “Never,” I told her. But in November of 1998, I decided to take this stupid-big paycheck and put it to positive use, and the first gloriously pitiful issue of Elemental Magazine hit the streets of Atlanta. It was free, and covered only local Hip-Hop. It was terribly designed and printed on grey newsprint. The reception was impressive, and the first run of 3,000 magazines jumped immediately to 10,000.

Circulation started to really take off as the magazine approached the one-year mark. Tower Records had seen the magazine, and contacted me to carry it in all of their – then, 3,000 stores. They told me the only thing I would have to do is put a price on it. So we went with $3.95 and started shipping to Tower. Also in ’99 my brother Adam took over business operations, so we could actually make some money. Since then, it has grown steadily, with a few major jumps in circ along the way. Now we print 113,000 every run and it’s available everywhere. Last year Wal-Mart added Elemental Magazine to their list of stocked titles — this still baffles me.

AllHipHop.com: Tell me about the transition from Georgia to Brooklyn…

Phat Matt: There was definitely a transition from the “dirty” to the “rotten.” But it was an easy move for us on all fronts. My mother is from the Bronx – Parkchester, and even though we were growing up in the South, my brother and I had 50% of a New York state of mind, thanks to her. Plus, we were making frequent trips to New York for business so the ropes were not new to us.

AllHipHop.com: What was the motivation, and what was the indication that the timing was right?

Phat Matt: The decision to move our operation to New York was purely financial. In Atlanta, we had access to any artists we needed to get in touch with and had writers and photographers all over the country. What we didn’t have was the right ZIP code. Entertainment is a clique-ish business, and running a Hip-Hop magazine that wasn’t in New York didn’t carry enough weight with potential advertisers. Around 80% of our ad clients are in New York. Not to say there weren’t companies that saw the quality and reach of Elemental when we were based in Atlanta, but the instant jump in revenue we saw the year we moved was proof that you need to be in the right place to do your thing, and we needed to be in New York.

AllHipHop.com: What ties does the magazine still maintain in the South? How important is that to you?

Phat Matt: Elemental was born in Decatur. We still rep the Dec to this day. East side ATL has flavor that’s completely unique. The rides you see and the people you come in contact with you won’t find anyplace else on earth. Decatur can be rough as hell, but you never feel like you want to leave the place. We do maintain some ties in Atlanta. Top Cat from Mass Comm is my man for life, bless his new daughter Marley! Real heads like Dres the Beatnik, H20 [of group, Y’all So Stupid], and one of Decatur’s illest producers, Applejac, Chrisco all have my personal cell number. Business wise, sure there are plenty of important ties to keep. Phife is down there, Diamond D is down there, Binkis Recs, Purple City crew is down there. There are countless business contacts to keep up. Our roots are very important to us and Elemental wouldn’t be what it is if it wasn’t for Decatur, and a Caprice rolling down Columbia Drive bumping that Ghetto Mafia — “Fool I got Yay, straight from the Dec on the grind er’day…” On the other side of the coin, do we owe Atlanta anything? Nah. Atlanta is a city of haters. I don’t know about now, but back in the ’90s MCs wouldn’t even go to a show to support other underground crews. Every show was empty. If they couldn’t get in free, they wouldn’t cough up five dollars to support. Seeing an act perform in bum-f**k North Carolina, would be twice as live as seeing them in Atlanta with nobody coming out. The same thing was true with our relationship. There would be nobody-ass crews that we put on with a 2-page article when nobody was checking for them, and the first thing they do when they get interviewed on the radio is shout out one of the magazines that they couldn’t get in if they gave up a month of paychecks. Sorry, ATL, but it’s the truth.

AllHipHop.com: Throughout the magazine, there has always been a lot of outstanding design. Brooklyn landscapes, classic two-ton cars, 40 ounce reviews, urban anecdotes, and very old-school comics. This attitude, tone, and swagger gets lost in a lot of magazines. How have you kept that in while still keeping the stories – first?

Phat Matt: I don’t want to try to act like Elemental is full of a bunch of thugs, or that we’re all hard as hell, because we’re not. But the core of Elemental’s crew is from the street, and we don’t have any choice but to stay street. Before Elemental I wasn’t pushing a Benz or a Range Rover. I had a Jetta with some rims on it. So if we’re making a magazine, we’re making it for real heads on real streets, doing real s**t, eating real food. All these fake ass busters with $50,000 of fake jewelry on standing next to a $100,000 automobile — that doesn’t mean jack to a street head. But that funny cat that kicked it with you on the corner saying ignorant s**t all day that had you bent over laughing, that’s some real s**t. A Coupe DeVille lifted on Truz and Vogues is some real s**t. Drinking a cheap 40 [ounce] fast enough to beat the heat, that’s some real s**t. And it’s the only s**t we know, so we put it on paper.

AllHipHop.com: In each issue, the magazine is self-quoted as “answering to nobody – except Freddie Foxxx” – is there a story here? Or, you just respectfully shook like the rest of us?

Phat Matt: Mostly, just shook like the rest. I remember an industry event in 1998 that Bumpy Knucks performed at. The club was full of straight-up industry d*ckheads. He took the stage and started the first song, but half the crowd was too busy trying to politic to turn around and see the show. Freddie stopped the song, and walked straight out into the crowd with the mic and said, “All you mothaf**kas out here need to shut the f**k up, and show some respect before I throw you the f**k out this room.” He was saying it right into peoples’ faces as he walked through the crowd glaring at folks. S**t was mad funny. Ask Vinnie Paz, [of Jedi Mind Tricks fame] he was there pouring a 40 ounce on his head.

AllHipHop.com: How impactful was it for the magazine that TI made a big cameo of his cover-story in his video? At its inception, TI and Styles never seemed like “Elemental” artists… how have you brought in commercial stars of today without compromising your foundation?

Phat Matt: The video thing was fun, but I don’t see it having any impact directly. We decided to put T.I. on the cover based on his history in the city and his ability to rap … But that was before he revealed this media-ready major-label style that we now know him for. Had I known that he was headed that way, I would probably not have put him on the cover. We approach major acts from a different angle than most media, and they know that when they’re talking to Elemental, they’re talking to an audience of real rap muhf**kas, real heads, so it goes down much differently. Most magazines don’t interview GZA all day long riding with him in his Navigator, while he makes a bunch of stops. Or when Styles P announced he would do no press to support his album because of label beef, he came to Elemental so that real heads would know where he stands, and what was going on.

AllHipHop.com: When Ego Trip moved on, did that worry you? Or did it create more of a need for a magazine like Elemental?

Phat Matt: Ego Trip stopped printing as a magazine the same year we launched. Ego Trip and Stress were both huge inspirations to Elemental. It worried me when I saw the doors close, but I knew there was still a hole to fill in this market, so we kept at it no matter who fell off – Blaze, Rap Pages, Rap Sheet — there have been so many that we saw come and go. We just keep grinding and it seems to be working.

AllHipHop.com: The magazine made a large staff switch a year and a half ago. How did you handle that transition?

Phat Matt: I feel I should touch on the current state of things here at Elemental. The so-called staff shake-up turned out to be one of the best things to happen that year. I felt like the magazine was in a rut, churning out excellent interviews and such but not exactly growing. We searched long and hard for a new Editor, and finally ended up going with Michael Cusenza, who at the time was over at Tablist magazine. It was one of the best decisions we ever made as a company. Mike has brought new energy, new flavor and new drive to the table. The changes he’s made to Elemental’s content in his first year here have been impressive, and trust me there’s more to come.

AllHipHop.com: Just as some readers have criticized XXL of fancying G-Unit/Interscope artists… some have said that Elemental “worships” crews like D.I.T.C. or MF Doom. How do you react to this? In general, how responsible do you feel for providing an outlet for yesterday’s great stars.

Phat Matt: I’ll go on record and say that D.I.T.C. as a crew has produced some of the most important people in that era of Hip-Hop, and they are also one of the most slept on crews in terms of the mass market. Everybody knows the detailed history of Wu-Tang, but nobody had ever tackled the rich history of the Diggin’ In The Crates crew, and we wanted to make sure the story became part of the public record. Worship is a strong word. Finesse and Diamond are friends of ours, so our relationship is more solid than the term implies.

AllHipHop.com: If a reader walked into Elemental offices, how is it different from what they might expect of a Hip-Hop publication?

Phat Matt: Ha! Well, I don’t really know what people generally expect, but I’m sure they aren’t expecting what they find. I’m a compulsive collector of all kinds of things — vinyl, cassette singles, boom boxes, f**ked up Hip-Hop toys, ’80s electronics — so there’s always plenty to look at and play with up in the spot. Let’s just say we keep things gully.

AllHipHop.com: Tell me a little bit about your “celebrity” contributors. From Chuck D and Don Magic Juan to Shock G, Logic, and J-Zone,…there’s always

columns and comics from names we know.

Phat Matt: Celebrities, whether large or small, often have a lot more to their personalities than what the public knows them for. When we work with them on a column or special feature, it’s fun and really gives a chance to see what else is going on in their heads. Louis Logic is mad funny – check his new album coming this spring from Fat Beats [Records], and Shock G’s sense of humor is ridiculous.

AllHipHop.com: What’s your favorite read ever in the magazine?

Phat Matt: There have been some incredible stories in Elemental, but I have to say that the GZA story or the Gang Starr story were probably my all time favorite Hip-Hop pieces.

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