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'Is this what it had to be?'

From the outside, <em>The Source</em> in the 1990s was the gold standard in hip-hop. But from the inside, Kim Osorio discovered it was something more grimy: an entrenched boys' club that normalized sexism.
Amanda Howell Whitehurst for NPR
From the outside, The Source in the 1990s was the gold standard in hip-hop. But from the inside, Kim Osorio discovered it was something more grimy: an entrenched boys' club that normalized sexism.

This story was adapted from Episode 5 of Louder Than A Riot, Season 2. To hear more about Kim Osorio and her sexual harassment trial against The Source, stream the full episode or subscribe to the Louder Than A Riot podcast.

The Source was a hip-hop monument.

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While the current media landscape makes it hard to imagine a single publication — printed or otherwise — holding sway over an entire culture, for more than a decade, no rapper, label, show or network, was bigger than The Source.

Starting out in 1988 as a newsletter out of a college dorm room, hip-hop's longest-running periodical built its following by writing about rap with respect, and an air of prestige. By the turn of the century, the name had weight of its own to throw around. Between the late 1990s and early 2000s, it helped launch the careers of The Notorious B.I.G, Jay-Z, Nas, Lil' Kim, Foxy Brown and more. It shipped regional sounds across the country to a national readership and the viewers of its very own, sometimes-televised awards show. For rap nerds, there was a high that came from the pages: the smooth artifice of the ads, the bluntness of the op-eds, the iconic cover stories and the reviews section that made "5 mics in The Source" one of the most coveted cosigns. The power held by The Source represented one of those rare occasions in rap when the pen is just as mighty as the tongue.

That's how Kim Osorio felt about the magazine in the years before she worked there.

A Bronx native with confidence, writing chops and a deep love of hip-hop music to offer, Osorio entered The Source's offices as an employee for the first time in 2000, ready to step into her dream job. Between 2000 and 2002, Osorio landed interviews and cover stories with the likes of Jay-Z, Wu-Tang Clan, Snoop Dogg, Trick Daddy, Trina and more. But as she worked her way up the masthead, becoming the magazine's first woman editor-in-chief by 2002, she saw the gloss and prestige of the pages fade fast. What Osorio and many other women dealt with behind the scenes was a standard far from gold — and when she called out those dangerous double standards with a lawsuit, she realized just how grimy things could get.

In the spring of 2005, Osorio sued The Source magazine, along with its co-owners, Dave Mays and Raymond 'Benzino' Scott, for gender discrimination, sexual harassment and hostile work environment, retaliation, defamation. The lawsuit and trial that followed was a moment where those in hip-hop who leverage their power were put on notice. It was a moment where Kim Osorio was breaking one of hip-hop's unwritten rules. This was a piece of hip-hop history steeped in misogynoir that Louder Than A Riot found essential to reexamine. But as we attempted to tell the story, the actions of one person in it ironically reinforced one of hip-hop's most rigid rules, the same rule Osorio attempted to combat with that suit almost 20 years ago: If you see something, say nothing.

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Business As Usual

From the outside, The Source in the 1990s was the most important publication in hip-hop: bold, divisive and influential. But internally, it was something less glamorous and cutting edge: an entrenched boys' club culture that normalized sexism. Men on staff would slap women's butts, buy inappropriate "gifts" for them and tack pornographic images to their cubicles.

Aliya King Neil, a former staffer who worked alongside Osorio, says that working around this culture was an unavoidable part of her routine, dictating how she moved. "Backpack, baggy shorts, baggy pants, Timbs. I can't look like a guy obviously, but I'm trying to be tomboyish," Neil remembers. "It's as deep as rounded shoulders when I'm not a rounded shoulders person. [...] So I give off this aura of, non-threatening, still cute, and dressed down and quiet. Just be quiet."

The boys' club also required women in the office to share information on the low.

"They were telling me, 'OK, do this, do that. Try to catch him in the hall,'" Neil says of one male staffer in another department whom she found too handsy. "My first step was to make sure that I left the door open when I came in. My second step was to take a buddy. My third thing was, 'Hey, I gotta go to dude's in two minutes. If you don't see me coming back to my office, come get me.' "

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Kim Osorio with <em>The Source</em>'s Boo Rosario, <em>King</em>'s Datwon Thomas and Kanye West in 2003.
Johnny Nunez / WireImage
Kim Osorio with The Source's Boo Rosario, King's Datwon Thomas and Kanye West in 2003.

Osorio became the magazine's editor-in-chief in 2002, but even then, she wasn't immune. According to many women who worked at The Source, the toxicity flowed top down from the magazine's co-owners, Raymond "Benzino" Scott and Dave Mays. Scott was an active aggressor, Mays passively let it all happen. He said nothing.

"Dave was also almost at Benzino's mercy," said Khary Turner, a former freelancer for The Source, when describing Scott. "It seemed like Dave was almost in an unenviable position. He was the guy who had to carry out Benzino's will, as it related to The Source, at least."

The power Benzino wielded over Dave editorially mirrored his office behavior.

"He could be erratic. He could be combative," remembers Turner of Benzino. "Reputation wise, he was a street cat, you know, he was hard and he had a large crew. And Benzino was not, he wasn't a code switcher. In hip-hop, as an artist, it was appropriate. But in The Source, it wasn't always appropriate."

As the lawsuit would later spell out in detail, Osorio alleges that Scott would regularly abuse his power — snapping womens underwear, touching staffers inappropriately, making lewd comments — while Mays let it rock.

After Osorio was promoted, Scott's behavior toward her changed. Osorio testified that Scott repeatedly asked her about her sex life and that he volunteered information about his. Osorio also wrote about Scott's badgering in her book, Straight from the Source: An Expose from the Former Editor in Chief of the Hip-Hop Bible: "It's not that I was ashamed to tell Ray whom I had been with. It was that I knew exactly what he wanted to know and more importantly, I knew that he would use it against me."

According to court transcripts and Osorio's book, one night as she and Scott were leaving The Source offices, he made a move on her. She testified that he propositioned her in the elevator and asked her to take a trip to Atlantic City with him. "We would be the king and queen of The Source," he told her. That same night, Scott called her at home repeatedly, even though she'd never given him her number.

After Osorio dodged him that night, Scott and Mays spread gossip that Osorio was sleeping with rappers, calling her credibility into question because of it. "I wasn't surprised that both Ray and Dave had been talking about me behind my back," Osorio wrote. "I have spoken to former male editors of the magazine who were never asked the same questions. So why was my situation so different? Why the f*** are they so obsessed with my sex life?"

Feeling uncomfortable, Osorio went to an attorney, who advised her to file a complaint with the HR department. Osorio built up the courage to email an official complaint in February 2005. "Once you hit send, it's no coming back. She knew it," said Osorio's friend, Tia Bowman, who helped her carefully word her complaint and was on the phone with her when Osorio hit send. After two weeks of radio silence, Osorio got an angry phone call from the two men, ordering her to retract her complaint. When she refused, they unceremoniously fired her.

All Falls Down

In April 2005, Osorio filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, then sued The Source and its leadership. As news of the lawsuit spread through the industry, Osorio's peers had mixed reactions. Some fellow writers started a petition to show public support for Osorio; others covered the trial with snickering vulturism. Even those who were close to her questioned why she would take the risk.

"As sad as it is, my first thought was, 'Whatever happened, was it that deep that you now wanna go through a whole thing?" Neil remembers. "I want to make it clear that I'm talking about my 25-year-old self, and I'm 50. ... There is not a single woman in this industry who can say, 'I never had to deal with any of this stuff, and if I did, I always did X, Y and Z.' No, you didn't. You had to deal with it, and you didn't always do something about it. So my thought was, 'Is this what it had to be?' "

The consequences of going public were not subtle. Scott gave interviews disparaging Osorio's name in the months that followed, calling her a 'slut' and 'incompetent.' In a statement to denying the claims, Mays attempted to discredit her as promiscuous: "It is a fact that Ms. Osorio had sexual relations with a number of high profile rap artists during her employment as editor-in-chief."

The trial began in New York's Southern District Courthouse in Manhattan in October 2006. Because of the high profile name-dropping in the suit, The New York Post ran headlines that read "'Source' Of Sex Harass" and paparazzi greeted Osorio at the steps of the courthouse the first morning.

Louder reviewed hundreds of pages of court transcripts, which reveal witnesses corroborating Osorio's story. The head of human resources at The Source, Julie Als, ignored multiple complaints, and even referred to her own dynamic with Scott as being like 'Ike and Tina Turner.' At one point, Als herself testified that she never investigated a sexual harassment claim during her time at The Source; she had little training and received none while she worked at the magazine.

A previous sexual harassment allegation, filed to the EEOC by photographer Janene Outlaw in 1997, before Als' tenure, pointed to an established pattern of behavior on Scott's part. Outlaw, who worked at the magazine just under a year, testified that Scott gave her lingerie on Valentine's Day, hit on her in her hotel room during a work trip to Boston and implied it would benefit her to hook up with him. Though investigators stopped short of saying Scott harassed Outlaw, they wrote a memo insisting he refrain from sexual relationships with any employees, even if consensual.

Osorio's lawyer, Kenneth Thompson, pointed to the elevator incident as the final straw following ongoing misconduct. In their defense, The Source's lawyers weaponized the perception of hip-hop in order to shift complicity onto Osorio. In a particularly pointed moment, they drew a comparison between the song "P**** (Real Good)," which Osorio had written about, and a comment Scott had made in front of Osorio and another woman at the magazine, saying that the singer Ashanti had a "fat p****." One lawyer said of Osorio, "She chose to work in hip-hop. The Source is not Martha Stewart Living."

Flipping the script on the complainant in this way is a legal tactic, common in sexual harassment cases, known as DARVO: Deny the accusations, Attack the victim, Reverse the Victim and Offender. During his testimony, Mays rationalized the environment of The Source, suggesting the workplace culture reflected the audience: "We had to understand that we were serving a 65 to 80 percent male readership." The lawyers for Scott and Mays used some of their closing arguments to claim that Osorio wasn't fired for the complaint but for other reasons: "Her inability to manage the job. Her insubordinate reaction to constructive criticism. Her poor leadership. Her failure to meet deadlines on a consistent basis, and her repeated failure to follow the directions that she received from Dave and Ray on the editorial content of the magazine."

In his closing remarks, Thompson argued that no one deserves to be harassed at work, no matter the workplace. "Because she worked at The Source magazine, they think that she gave up her rights as a person, as a woman? And if you believe that, then you have to agree that the female editor-in-chief of Victoria's Secret shouldn't be able to object to any vulgar comment, to any sexual propositions in the workplace, because she puts out a catalog every year with women who are scantily clad wearing underwear." He closed his summation with an appeal to posterity: "The eyes of a hip-hop music industry are upon you. You have a great opportunity here ... to impose standards on that industry, and standards on other parts of the music industry. You have a chance to teach them something about dignity. You have a chance to teach them something about respect."

After a trial that took about two and a half weeks, the jury reached a verdict on Oct 23, 2006. Six men and two women found that Osorio's firing was indeed retaliation for the HR email, and that Scott had defamed her in interviews after she'd been fired. However, the claims of working in a hostile environment and being the victim of sexual harassment and gender discrimination were dismissed. During reporting for this story, legal experts told Louder that the official standard for proving harassment — the severe or pervasive standard — was so high, it meant a certain level of workplace sexual harassment was effectively legal in New York State at the time (and continues to be on a federal level).

In spite of the multi-million dollar judgment in her favor, amounting to one of the largest judgements in the history of the state of New York, the dismissal of those latter claims meant what Osorio had endured was likely to continue in the culture without repercussion. As Neil puts it, "I don't think anything changed. All the things that happened to her in that suit happened the next day, and the day after that. Maybe now it's a little bit better, but that suit — I think [it] put people on notice, but I don't know if it changed behavior."

My Time Now

Nearly two decades after Osorio's case, the practice of calling attention to sexually inappropriate behavior in professional circles has a name. But the Me Too movement, which infiltrated almost every major industry in 2017, actually dates back to 2006 — the same year as The Source trial — when activist Tarana Burke coined the phrase. And from Burke's perspective, even after a worldwide reckoning, hip-hop's most powerful have remained largely unchallenged.

"I've heard stories for years," Burke says. "I have friends who dated rappers or people in the industry and were horribly mistreated. None of that came forward. And I think it's because they didn't see space for Black women or women of color. They didn't see an opening in our community, quite frankly."

Burke envisioned "Me Too" as a tool of solidarity, a way for the young Black women she'd seen survive sexual abuse to take back some agency. Though the phrase would come to be more widely associated with a handful of white celebrities, Burke says she's less disturbed by how her words were co-opted, and more by the missed opportunity Osorio's lawsuit represents — a moment when hip-hop could have been ahead of the curve on a major shift in society.

"I think people need to recognize that winning the court case is not the thing, stepping forward is the thing." Burke says. "You had this sister, who was seeped in the most deeply masculine, sexist, macho, male-driven thing that there is in entertainment and culture, have the wherewithal to step forward and say, 'Nah, I'm not standing for this.' [This] is a predecessor to, and a catalyst for, the cultural moment that we saw happen in 2017."

In hip-hop media's current ecosystem, The Source doesn't hold nearly as much power as it did two decades ago. In its wake, other publications have come into prominence, some of which have engendered the same dangerous behavior. Staffers past and present of Complex Media, The Fader and OkayAfrica have publicly aired out men in positions of power for sexual harassment, coercion, racism and gender-based discrimination. But when asked to go on record for this story about the current state of harassment in music media today, ultimately, none of the former employees of those companies would speak — due to ongoing settlement negotiations and, in some cases, restrictive non-disclosure agreements. Organizations such as New York's Sexual Harassment Working Group are actively challenging the the legal legitimacy of silencing survivors with a campaign to overturn NDAs as part of settlement agreements, but progress is slow.

Kim Osorio initially agreed to be interviewed for this story. Louder Than A Riot reached out to both Raymond Scott and Dave Mays for comment; both declined. More precisely, Scott asked, "Is there a check involved?" and refused to talk otherwise. Mays on the other hand, responded via his lawyer, informing Louder that he had sent Osorio a cease and desist letter, threatening to sue her if her statements in this podcast breached her settlement agreement with him.

Whether a claim is legitimate or not, just the threat of filing a lawsuit can intimidate someone. Ultimately, after receiving the cease and desist letter, Osorio requested to have all of her interviews for this episode pulled, a request Louder respected. Even with Osorio's courage to speak out about the toxicity in hip-hop in 2005 and a continued fight in the space since, the cost of speaking out this time proved to be too high, which means the rule of "see something, say nothing" has never been more true. Misogynoir is always there to show that it's safer to keep quiet.

"If we really loved hip-hop, like accountability is a part of love," Burke said. "If we really loved hip-hop, then we would hold ourselves accountable. We would hold it accountable. Those two things can happen at the same time. We don't have to tear hip-hop down and hold it accountable. That's how you actually build it up."

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Sidney Madden
Sidney Madden is a reporter and editor for NPR Music. As someone who always gravitated towards the artforms of music, prose and dance to communicate, Madden entered the world of music journalism as a means to authentically marry her passions and platform marginalized voices who do the same.
Sam Leeds