A one-on-one interview with Brian Nagata, the man behind RapZines
For us hip-hop superfans that came of age long before the internet and streaming era, we had to get our fix in other ways. Years before blogs and social media, we got our info from the scant TV programs that focused on the culture – Yo! MTV Raps; Urban Xpressions; Rap City – but most of our knowledge and insight came from publications.
The Source was the bible, but there were others. Only in these magazines could we get a regular diet of in-depth features, reviews, and previews of everything happening in and around the music.
No one appreciates that fact more than Brian Nagata, the founder, owner, and operator of Rapzines.
Nagata almost certainly has the largest collection of hip-hop magazines in the world, one he estimates contains a mind-boggling 4,000 issues. He knows better than most how collecting can easily become an obsession.
So many hip-hop conversations revolved around the content of the magazines. We all had our Sources and Vibes and XXLs, our Blazes and Rap Pages, and some of us even had a Murder Dog or Stress, but this man has all of those, as well as racks and racks of titles I’ve never even knew existed. And unlike myself and so many of my fellow hip-hop heads, he never purged his collection at any point in the past.
Nagata is the godfather of the rap magazine world and the go-to resource whenever accuracy and historical hip-hop artifacts are needed, such as when production teams behind Straight Outta Compton and other films go to him.
Though it may seem like everything is online, there are tons of things that only exist in tangible form. The public seems to be realizing – and appreciating this – as in recent years interest and sales in vinyl, cassettes, and even physical books have increased significantly.
People realize there is something about actually holding an item. It somehow gives it more weight and gravitas. As a result, interest in Nagata and his collection has risen as well.
It would be easy to assume that someone with such a large and sought after trove would be standoffish or, at the very least, weary of novices and copycats bugging him and picking his brain. The truth is completely opposite.
Nagata is always very friendly and generous with his time and knowledge, happy to share his experience and offer advice to anyone that asks. I can attest to that personally. I’ve been a fan – and in awe – of Nagata’s collection for years and one day, on a whim, I reached out to him. He could not have been cooler. We’ve developed a friendship (online) and he’s been supportive as well as helpful. For example, I used to keep my mags in sleeves in three-ring binders, but I’ve since seen the light and now keep them in bags with boards backing each one stood up on shelves.
I wanted to learn more about his history and process, but also about his approach to collecting and if he could offer any insight to the rest of us that don’t have the world’s greatest rap magazine collection.
Below is my interview (edited lightly for clarity) with the man behind RapZines, Brian Nagata.
Christopher Pierznik: Please introduce yourself.
Brian Nagata: My name is Brian Nagata, I am the owner of Rapzines.com and I am from Salinas, CA. Salinas is in the Central Coast, two hours south of San Francisco and 6 hours north of L.A. I lived most of my life here with smaller stints in San Jose and Tokyo. My mother worked at a flower nursey in Salinas and my father left Japan and landed at the same job. When I was 5, my parents got divorced and I didn’t see my dad until I was a teenager. After that I went and worked and lived in Japan for the summers.
CP: While you’re known, as your moniker suggests, for your hip-hop magazines, your collection also includes many other things, like cassettes and stickers. Can you give us an idea of what your entire collection consists of?
BN: I focus on the magazines because I have a passion for them, but as a lover of the hip-hop culture, I have always cherished other items that I obtained even if they were not magazines. Growing up, I had tapes and, later, CDs, posters on my walls, vinyl, and anything else I could find. I have a modest collection of toys consisting mostly of figures of some of my favorite artists like Outkast and Public Enemy. My cassette tapes probably [number] in the hundred or two hundreds. My vinyl collection consists of about 500 records. As for the records and tapes, I only keep ones that I will listen to, [I’m] not a completist or anything of that sort. I have a massive collection of CDs which dwarfs my magazine collection – I have never gotten rid of one since I started buying them at my local shop. I have a few big piles of stickers that I find here and there, I just haven’t worked up the courage to place any on my stuff. It’s a battle between the fan in me and the collector. I love collecting flyers and ads also – I have fond memories of going up to San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland to the record stores and taking handfuls of free flyers and postcard-type flyers. I also have a ton of binders that I have been working on where I have salvaged messed up duplicate magazines and preserving the album ads. I don’t believe I will ever be able to finish that until I retire. I have a nice collection of newspapers that usually pertain to the death of artists like Tupac, Biggie, Jam Master Jay, Proof, Nipsey, and such. And, of course, the magazines.
CP: Most serious hip-hop fans know who you are – I’ve been hearing and reading about you and your collection for years. How long have you been collecting?
BN: I’ve been collecting hip-hop magazines for over thirty years and, probably without knowing, collecting other hip-hop-related stuff like cassette tapes since around when Public Enemy dropped Yo! Bum Rush The Show. [Author note: that album dropped on February 10, 1987.]
CP: When did it become serious? By that I mean, at point did you begin saving and preserving your collection (bagging and boarding your magazines), and when did you first set up your website?
BN: I was lucky enough to watch my older brother get into collecting comics when I was young. We grew up pretty poor, but we always found a way to get to the comic shop on my mom’s payday. That was our treat for the week. I watched him meticulously be careful with the spines and keep them bagged and boarded. As I got older, I used that same carefulness when I got into collecting basketball cards. I guess I felt if there is something you cherish, you need to take care of it, it’s not like we could have been careless and just go get more stuff. That carried over to the magazines when I was a teenager. I had a normal room with posters and pictures covering everything from the walls to the ceiling. In one corner of my room, I had a used library magazine rack that me and my mom found at a garage sale. I placed all my magazines on that rack and it was part of the room. Everyone knew not to touch them, it was only for them to see from a distance. In the late ‘90s, my collection started getting overwhelming, so I had to find a better way than to have them in stacks. We moved a lot, so it was causing some ripped covers and also those huge early Vibe issues are so flimsy that I had to figure something out. That’s when I realized I would have to start using bags and boards if I really wanted to keep them in good condition. One thing about my magazine collection that I take the most pride in is that there are some issues that are rare, but when you do come around to seeing one, they usually look their age. I have some issues from the early ‘90s that look like they are fresh off the stand. I would carefully read them and then place them in a bag and board. Always had at least a 100 pack [of bags and boards] waiting.
My website was put up about 10-12 years ago. If you ever look at it, you can kind of date the website by its look and feel. It carries so many subpages that I didn’t dare try and move it over…until now. The program and web host is no longer going to continue, so as of this writing, it is being moved over to a new hosting site as we speak.
I made my website for me to help keep track of what issues I had, but also wanted to share them with others. I had been hoarding these all to myself and thought that maybe there was someone out there that would also take some joy in it.
CP: It’s definitely worked out. I remember browsing your site years ago and marveling at it. Over on Instagram, you’ve shared some photos and videos of your library, and as someone who has a nice home office/library, but one that I’m often forced to share with Christmas boxes and children’s clothes, I must say I’m jealous. Can you elaborate where and how you have everything set up and stored?
BN: At times it has been broken up. I would leave boxes of magazines that I purchased in my mom’s garage to relieve some of the space in my own apartment back in the day. As a matter of fact, a few years ago, I found a package at my mom’s that I forgot about and inside there was a very rare One Nut Magazine with Da Lench Mob on the cover. I was incredible psyched by this.
I have now fully consolidated my entire collection at my home now. I do have about a fourth of the area with boxes that have nothing to do with hip hop. What I have been doing is placing them behind the shelves so that they are out of site and sit behind large bookshelves and vinyl cubicles.
I still have a lot to do. It’s a growing collection that hasn’t stopped, so I’m always looking to make more room. Within the last few years, I have figured to let go of any magazines that are duplicates. I have been trading, and even selling some on my website. Honestly, I would rather trade for other magazines than sell them.
It is always a shifting motion because the magazines are in order first by standard sized magazines, oversized, and mini magazines. Then they are placed in alphabetical order by titles, and then in numerical order or date.
CP: As someone that adores organization, I love that. Speaking of which, do you catalog your collection? For example, I use spreadsheets to keep track of all my books and magazines, etc. Do you do something like that? The RapZines Dewey Decimal System?
BN: Yes, I use a spreadsheet with my secret rows like “rarity” and “price range.” I have about 6 tabs in alphabetical order along with not only my issues, but issues that are out there that I don’t own. I used to use my memory to keep track, but over the years I’ve gotten mixed up a few times [laughs]. It also helps me zero in on a certain title if I’m looking to complete it.
CP: I’ve written in the past how The Source really was the Bible in the ‘90s and while I have managed to put together a decent collection, I kick myself for not saving all of my old issues from back then. I imagine you hear that from a lot of people.
BN: That is the number one thing I hear when someone speaks to me about these magazines and I always give the same reply: “Don’t feel bad, everyone says that” [laughs]. On a serious note, that is why sometimes I feel like I have a weight on my shoulders for having this collection. It’s important that I preserve these, not just for me, but for us.
CP: Yes, it’s for the culture. I feel like we’re so appreciative of the culture that we all work to preserve and defend it. Is there anything you’ve gotten rid of that you later regretted?
BN: The only things I’ve gotten rid of that I really regret was, at one time when I was consolidating them and trading, I didn’t find any reason to keep variant covers. For example, I had Mobb Deep and I think Snoop on the same cover. [Author note: The December 1996 issue of The Source featured Snoop Doggy Dogg on the cover, but there was a limited edition New York cover that had Mobb Deep on the cover.] I kept the Snoop and thought, same info inside, who cares?. Well, I had to find another copy on the secondary market to get it back. Now I am still searching for variant cover issues that I once owned.
Another thing I wish I would have kept was all my concert shirts and just regular hip-hop shirts. Now that they are hot, I can’t get myself to pay that type of cash for them. The one shirt I want back that I loved the most was a black shirt with the P.E. logo in grey. I’m sure once it was faded, I donated it.
CP: That Mobb Deep issue is on my wish list – it’s a rare gem. Let’s switch gears a bit. In a documentary called The Booksellers, which is about the rare book trade but also about the mentality of collectors, there’s a quote I want to share with you: “Collecting is about the hunt. It’s not about the object. You look for twenty years and then you find it! You have your orgasm, and you put it on the shelf and never look at it again.” What does it feel like when you get your hands on something you’ve been hunting for a while?
BN: First off, when they pan through those hip-hop magazines, guess who’s magazines those are? Yes, those are mine. The two people on that documentary, Arthur Fournier and Syreeta Gates, are two of only a handful of people outside of my family that have seen my collection in full. That is a whole other story, but they are good friends of mine now.
I get a rush when I find a gem like that. I am usually a mellow person, so even on my video unboxings, I’m not playing to the camera by jumping up and down, but my heart and brain are going crazy. I’ve recently found some issues like that where I’ve been looking for twenty-plus years and it’s just an adrenaline rush mixed with a warm tingle throughout my body. It’s an amazing high.
CP: What is the most prized item you own?
BN: I don’t know if I have a prized item like that in my magazine collection, but [I cherish] ones that spark a fond memory of how I obtained it or is just an incredible issue due to the artist cover and stories inside.
A few that I have framed include a Tupac BRE Industry magazine where he is palming his head with his hands with a black background – just an incredible cover. I love it because of that, but also it is a very rare issue, and also I had to jump through hoops to obtain it. I purchased a box of Death Row magazines from the auction when they went bankrupt. Who knows, some of these might have been touched by Pac, or Snoop, or Dr. Dre. That is one that comes to mind.
I have other rare and expensive issues, but again, it really is about the hunt and journey.
CP: What one or two things are most people wrong or mistaken about when it comes to this – either your collection specifically or collecting in general?
BN: I think everyone thinks I own every hip-hop magazine. Impossible. There are so many titles out there besides the big five [major publications] that it would take me a lifetime and still not be able to do. Some rare issues are no longer in existence or are not going to see the light of day on the open market. I just recently obtained a magazine that I got from the publisher who said that it is probably the only one in existence because he only pressed up a few and most were thrown away.
Second, people think you must have a bunch of money to collect. Growing up poor and on a budget, I learned to hustle, be honest, and be creative when it came to collecting. I see some people on Instagram who I feel must have a ton of disposable income and just pay whatever for what they want. I’m the opposite, I stay disciplined and patient. If not, I would be living in a cardboard box. I see issues sometimes that I don’t have but they are asking for too much – I pass on those most of the time. I think it’s important to note this only because I see a bunch of young collectors and have heard their stories and [their] bumps in the road trying to collect.
CP: Speaking of costs, I’ve often thought that people try to cheap out on things like this, either not investing in the proper materials, not putting effort into shelving, and things like that. Would you agree with that?
BN: For me, like I said, I cherish these so I’m going to treat them with the respect. It can get costly, but in the long run it really is worth it. One time, I had a fire extinguisher go off; another time, very cheap shelving broke and all my magazines avalanched. Both times not one magazine was damaged.
It also really helps when you are constantly organizing and handling them. Being efficient it key.
CP: What would you say is the most important thing in maintaining and preserving a collection?
BN: I think you should enjoy what you are collecting and find happiness in it. If that is the case, you will make sure that they are taken care of. Oh, and stay away from the sunlight.
CP: Sunlight and dampness are killers. Without giving away any of your secrets, what is the best place to find old or rare items? Is it eBay?
BN: I think it goes back to what I said, you have to get creative. The first instinct is to go to eBay, but that’s also everyone else’s [first] instinct. Also, old and rare issues are becoming increasingly harder to find on sites like eBay. 15 years ago, you would have been amazed by the magazines and price I would pay for rare issues.
CP: I think I speak for everyone when I say I wish I had known that. Finally, any advice or information for novice or aspiring collectors out there?
BN: This is something I found to be really key: always be honest and respectful to others. If you take the approach that it’s kill-or-be-killed, you won’t last. If that’s the attitude, what’s your point in collecting these? I would also say, don’t be lazy. If you can’t afford collecting, you better go out there and make some more money. Don’t go broke collecting. Refer to my other answer: be patient and disciplined.
I get really inspired when I see younger collectors out there. Some information I would give them is my Instagram handle [IG: Rapzines]. I’m always willing to spit free game to them. I’ve done it before and I’ll continue to do it.
Christopher Pierznik is the worst-selling author of nine books. Check out more of his writing at Medium. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter. Please feel free to get in touch at CPierznik99@gmail.com.