Dazed Founder Jefferson Hack, a Lifetime of Breaking New Grounds
Straight from issue five, Jefferson Hack talks changing media, political engagement and getting to know your audience.
Jefferson Hack seems to like avoiding questions. It’s not that he does it on purpose – rather his genuine excitement for storytelling gets in the way. Walking through 25 years of Dazed covers, explaining hologram technologies and the like, he interweaves answers to questions asked ten minutes prior. One thing is clear: if there would be a physical embodiment of the saying “to have your fingers in every pie,” chances are it’s Jefferson. He co-founded the magazine in the early 90s, and has steadily grown it into what today is Dazed Media: an independent publishing house that includes the titles Dazed, AnOther, Another Man, Hunger and Nowness, while it simultaneously runs a creative consultancy studio and helps other publications with their distribution.
Dazed’s first issue was created together with photographer Rankin, graphic designer Ian Taylor, Katie Grand and “a couple of other people around.” As Jefferson explains, it included a manifesto, which in condensed form simply states: “When you have a voice, you have a responsibility.” In the past two decades, the platform has had an immeasurable impact on culture as we know it, bringing non-mainstream topics out in the open through promoting diversity in body image, racial identity and LGBT. The editor’s responsibility remains, and perhaps it has evolved into a different function and meaning in the 21st century: a time of ‘extreme propaganda’, as Jefferson calls it. “Celebrities don’t represent what we think,” he fires, as we sit on Pierre Jeanneret chairs at the end of his open-plan office at 180 Strand. The lashing out is towards the masses, and more positively, it’s about the way youth is starting to think differently. “These TV shows are crap, the representation of identity and culture is banal and stereotypical, this media tells lies, this is unethical, this company that is manufacturing these garments are exploiting workers – fuck that. It’s all starting to happen. Just now in small niche ways that are yet to have a mainstream change.” Mass media is value-less, in Jefferson’s opinion, and sells dreams and a reality that for most people is confusing. “That’s why we called it Dazed and Confused.”
Having so much history of independent magazine-making housed in the building they recently moved to, what Jefferson wants to do today is walk us through “the greatest hits” – an apt way of phrasing it, considering the magazine found its roots in the music scene.
It’s interesting how the graphic design used to be so different, whereas now magazines look very similar. A little bit of font change here and there, but nobody goes for something that’s very far off.
We started in the early 90s, where a lot of type was digitally influenced. Neville Brody and Tomato, those kinds of designers were really at the height. It was the time of rave, acid house, the summer of love. A lot of the design comes from that club culture as well. It has this link to record sleeve design from that time. House music, club flyers.
“THE GOAL WAS TO CREATE THE KIND OF PARTY THAT NEVER ENDED.”
Did you have a specific goal when you started Dazed? Or was it more about having fun and experimenting?
The goal was to create the kind of party that never ended. When you were being social, you were making and doing something together. The magazine was almost like a newsletter for that group mindset. It was almost like a National Geographic analogy: the magazine is the magazine of the society, and the society is about this whole bigger exploration of the actual world around it. We felt like this small group of people that were in a collective, who wanted to always explore the boundaries of art, fashion, photography, music, performance. The magazine was this occasional output from it.
There was a year between issue one and two. There was then probably another six months between two and three. To be honest, I never thought we were going to get a second issue out. It was one of the biggest lessons I learned, because we couldn’t afford to do it. We spent money on issue one and no money was coming back. What we did for issue one… We slipped the magazine inside this rotating wire-framed display unit from the newsagent. I remember going in and putting a bunch of copies in there and sitting in the cafe across the road all afternoon, waiting to see if some people would come along to take it out and buy it. It was so mad. “That person! Maybe that person?! Look! Somebody’s picking it up – they’re interested! Oh no! They put it back!”
I still have a picture of the person who bought the first copy of 1 Granary.
So you know the same feeling. I think you’re just excited about it, but you wonder if anybody else gets it. And it’s an experiment, isn’t it, when you first start putting things out publicly. You wonder what kind of people it is going to connect with. I think that the initial buzz of publishing is really about getting to know your audience. It’s a faceless audience, isn’t it? It’s not like doing a gig or a music performance, where you can see the crowd.
Issue two was really difficult. There was no money. No advertisers wanted to come on board because we were too new and we didn’t know anyone. We had no contacts, neither me nor Rankin, nor all the other people around us. We weren’t working for anybody in the industry. Nobody knew who we were, so it was very difficult to leverage contacts to get any money. I said to Rankin: “Let’s not worry about publishing another issue, let’s create a living magazine format, so that the magazine can exist without actually being printed.”
We did a project where we went to eight or nine different nightclubs. We set up a black backdrop and did a shoot just documenting club kids at that time in London. I think it was called Blow Up or something like that. It was us on the road, and we pulled these kids in. Rankin did the pictures – he got amazing portraits of these kids, and I was just picking the ones with the best style.
When we had the pictures, we took them to Wrangler and they would support an exhibition with it. And through that exhibition, we could publish the second issue. We just went and did it. What I learned really early on was the idea of not waiting for other people’s permission, and not being tied to a format. If we couldn’t get an advertiser: let’s just go and start the energy. Touring the clubs and taking the pictures, that costs nothing. We didn’t even print the images, we just had it in contact sheets. We shared an apartment – Rankin’s place in Peckham – but there was no bathroom, toilet or kitchen. The kitchen was the darkroom, the bathroom had all the chemicals in it… You walked into this black kitchen that smelled of chemicals, and every surface was an instrument for developing the film. It was really difficult to wash and eat, but we got a lot of work done. That idea has stayed with me and is part of the ethos of Dazed, right up until now. Not waiting for permission from someone to let you publish; to let you do your thing.
“WHAT I LEARNED REALLY EARLY ON WAS THE IDEA OF NOT WAITING FOR OTHER PEOPLE’S PERMISSION.”
It is more relevant to not just have a print publication, but a whole world around it.
For me, magazines have always been about community. It’s about identifying your community of people and then your community of thought. It establishes a principle for a magazine. The word magazine is an ancient Greek word for ‘container’, and it was used as a military term for ‘storage’. I think of this idea of a storage of knowledge, which is a magazine. But it can be a shop, a club, it can be in print, it can be people, or a city. A magazine can be in any format. It can be on a screen, in an individual, in a group. That’s how I’ve always thought about it. It’s very fluid like that. As long as that container of knowledge is something that is accessible, and you’ve got that ability to step into it as an audience, then the format is valid in whatever shape it comes. I think that now, obviously that’s much more common knowledge and accepted wisdom. That wasn’t really how people were thinking; they were really tied to a format. “It has to be print, and if it’s not in print then it’s not a magazine, it’s something else.”
I think that a lot of things change here, but I don’t get out much. I kind of feel a little bit like Willy Wonka in the Chocolate Factory. We have this mad idea factory here, there’s loads of really smart people, and we invent all this crazy stuff, and most of it never goes out of this building. The amount of R&D that we do… There are a lot of ideas that we have developed for different kinds of formats, magazines, types of media channels, apps, web projects, and never launched. We have just done them because we think they’re cool or interesting. I love that only really about 30% or 40% of what we dream up ever gets out into the public domain.
This was the McQueen issue. [Holds up a copy.] We had an editor, Mark Sanders, and he had read a story about an art group who were doing real-live kidnappings. So he arranged for himself to be kidnapped in real life and documented the story. You don’t know when they’re going to come and kidnap you, where they will take you. It feels very real. He really enjoyed that. There’s some amazing stories in here, with the first McQueen and Givenchy collection. This story is brilliant, Grace Jones photographed by Juergen Teller. It was the first time she had met Philip Treacy. He went to do the styling for the shoot with Juergen, and now they’ve had this incredible relationship through her career since then.
All the magazines out there that are playing it safe – do you reckon they do so because of advertising? Or perhaps because whatever you do, you get a crazy backlash on social media? I can imagine that if you’d have this cover now [The cover of issue 46, which was entitled ‘Fashion-Able’, features a female, who appears topless, and wears tracksuit pants under which her prosthetic legs appear.], a lot of people would see it the wrong way.
People were being really supportive. There was no backlash at all, and I was really surprised by that. This was issue 46, so we had published 45 issues before, and that’s quite a few years. This is 1998. We were already seven years into existing. We caused controversy all the time. Before this, one of the things that had happened was that Bill Clinton claimed that Dazed was responsible for heroin chic.
I was walking down the cobblestones one morning to get to the office, and there was a group of people outside. They had these big TV cameras on their shoulders, and there was a truck with a satellite dish on it. I was wondering who had died in this street, what murder or big story had broken. I walked in and put the key into the door, and all the reporters rushed to me, put the microphones into my face, and asked if I had anything to say. “Please make a comment.” I didn’t get it. And they said: “President Clinton mentioned Dazed and Confused as being responsible for heroin chic and corrupting the morals of the nation’s youth – do you have anything in response?” We were brandished in the media as being responsible for influencing… We were kind of accused of everything. Every kind of taboo to do with anorexia, drug taking, sexual exploitation, was thrown at us. We were the reason why. Magazines like us were responsible for all that shit. Of course it’s bullshit. It’s society’s way of scapegoating itself. It doesn’t want to look at the real issues that are behind those issues. It doesn’t want to look at its own responsibilities. Of course what we were doing as a magazine was holding up a mirror to our times, and showing things for what they were. We worked with photographers like Corinne Day who were expressing these things in a very real form.
When we were working on issue 46, there were a couple of things happening. It was quite difficult to get the trust of the individuals involved. Katy England and Nick Knight spent a lot of time working with each of the people; with different charity groups. I would say there was probably ten months of preparation, meetings of discussing the project, to become aware of how those different individuals felt about their body representation, and what that meant politically, socially, or emotionally for them. The different layers that were attached to it… Katy particularly went very deep into that. Then, when it came to the shooting, the aesthetic and the making of the clothes for the individuals with different designers involved, Lee [McQueen, who was the issue’s guest editor] very quickly said: “I want to give every person their own designer.” Hussein Chalayan, Roland Mouret, Philip Treacy were all working with a specific individual. When the cover came out, we just thought that we were going to be hated, because they’d been hating on us for a long time. When they didn’t, I was really amazed, actually.
“THE HEROIN CHIC TIME FOR DAZED WAS GREAT, IT WAS A BADGE OF REBELLION TO HAVE A COPY.”
What happened is that it got an incredible amount of coverage. Not on social media because at the time it didn’t exist, but all the newspapers picked it up. We were on page two or three. The story went global. The heroin chic time for Dazed was really great, because every kid in England knew who we were and felt it was kind of a badge of rebellion to have a copy. We sold out from all the newsagents incredibly quickly. When this came out, it was our growing up moment, in a way. We went from being the number three magazine to being the number two. I think this issue got so much press and was so talked about and got coverage in all the other media, that the sales went to the next level and it felt we had ‘arrived’. Even though we had been publishing for seven years, it was like having a hit single.
For me personally, this issue is one of the most memorable, that’s why I’m wondering why you don’t do stuff like this now.
We’ve done a lot. We are thinking of ideas constantly, but you don’t want to repeat yourself. I think it’s quite classic at the moment that people find something and they repeat it. One of the things we did after this, which was also very successful, is when Terry Richardson photographed models giving blood. They were lying down in a hospital, having their blood taken out, there were tubes, totally glammed up. That shoot was quite shocking, but also had a very strong message. It was interesting because the British Blood Society or medical society asked if they could have the rights to the images, to put them up in all the hospitals. Doctors were encouraging people to give blood. It’s funny how things can go from being in a fashion context to then being in a broader social context.
Why did you step away from editing Dazed?
I really felt like Dazed was about speeding up. It was about zooming in, being ahead of everyone, covering artists first. It was twelve issues a year, and was about a quick reaction to what was happening in culture. I wanted to work in a different frequency and do something that was twice a year, where I could step back a little bit and go more in-depth. I think it was that time where at Dazed a lot of the stories were between 8-12 pages long. Photographers really wanted to tell a longer narrative and make more of a statement with photography. I wanted to do more in-depth articles with designers and have different cultural influences going on; things I couldn’t talk about in Dazed, like jellyfish. In this format we could do stories that were 24-25 pages long. We could do 3,000 or 5,000 word articles. Have a literary section.
You can hardly find this kind of work in 2017 – like these early issues of AnOther.
The only difference I can say between then and now is just time. There were fewer brands and commercial jobs. The cost of living was less. People just had more time. What would happen is that they’d invest time in shooting, and spend more time prepping and thinking about them. This shoot was probably a week long. Each day a different set-up. That never happens anymore. You try and do 60 pages in two days.
Agencies also seem to put limitations on publications – with regards to whom you should be working with, for example.
There’s a lot more control of talent at all levels. Breaking out of that makes it interesting. I think you can’t say it was better then and isn’t as good now. To make good images now you have to fight for that time, to reclaim it. Not play by the industry’s rules but hack the system and make your own rules within it. There are great magazines out there. I love Buffalo, Modern Matter, 032c, Re-Edition. There’s plenty of interesting people making platforms for great fashion photography and doing great edits, publishing great images.
I think in the past, it was also very concentrated. When you think about it, there weren’t so many magazines, so we were also quite lucky. We had the pick of everybody. Talent didn’t have as many places to go to. There were a few different publishers, but it’s nowhere near what it is today.
I am very positive about the fashion industry – but when talking to you, I try to pick something negative to provoke a response. But you’re so enthusiastic about everything.
Right now, young people are questioning things more than ever. Much more than my generation, and I think that’s absolutely brilliant. It’s about questioning and being an agent for change. I think that will produce interesting views, formats and types of media. I was really lucky because I met amazing people who helped guide me along my journey. Malcolm McLaren was one of the people who really influenced me. I remember interviewing him in 1995 and he said: “The culture doesn’t want what’s authentic. Mainstream culture wants what’s easily commodified, what’s easy to make money out of. It doesn’t want to be authentic.” He said that we are living in a karaoke culture. Society doesn’t want chaos, failure, the unpredictable and the messy. That’s not what people want to buy into.
In 1995, he said to me that humans will become more like machines. Less failure, less authentic, more about perfection. He said: “The machines are taking over, Jefferson.” And that was in 1995. He was so ahead of his game and so visionary. I love that. I didn’t understand everything he was talking about, but I felt the emotion he was talking about, and he was really always one step ahead and always challenging the status quo. He said to me: “It’s better to be a flamboyant failure than a benign success.” I thought that was fantastic. Who wants to be a boring successful person? I thought that even though financially he wasn’t successful in society’s terms, I would always see him as somebody who successfully found a position for himself to be that agent provocateur, that agent of change. A lot of the designers, artists, filmmakers, musicians I am interested in now, they owe a huge debt to him particularly. I think he is a massively underrated force for change in culture. I was really lucky to meet him and certain people like him. They gave me confidence and made me aware that it is possible to keep going. Not caring about what other people think of you, the press, whether you’re getting validation or not. It’s important how we feel about what we’re doing. If it feels right, it’s right. But we also overthink things. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make money.
WHO WANTS TO BE A BORING SUCCESSFUL PERSON?
Sometimes change can be really obvious. Like doing a bi-annual format and changing frequencies. There are other things which are less obvious, where you don’t even know change is happening. But it happens by a process of putting one foot in front of the other. Not giving up and sticking to your beliefs, with a group of other people who are inspired by similar beliefs. Your group, in a way, starts changing things in the industry, and there is no manifesto for that, or a clear construct, but it happens. Those silent forces of change are more interesting to me than the obvious ones, where you set goals and ambitions. We have always been very much about positive storytelling, and that includes a network of contributors that have been loyal to us and we to them. What goes on behind the scenes, that ability to support each other as a network and provide a platform through a system of production. Regular contact allows people to be a part of the extended Dazed family. That’s really important to me, always.
Things come out in different ways, like exhibitions or events, or us supporting other people’s projects. Many magazines come from people who started at Dazed and produced their own publications, and that’s wonderful as well. I think I’ve also always been conscious as a publisher and editor that you have a responsibility. You are influencing the mind of the reader. That’s a power, and you can use it and manipulate that power for good or for bad. By supporting a lot of new talent, it sends that message out that if you believe in yourself, you too can achieve your dream and find your voice. We’ve very consciously done that right from the beginning. But then it’s also about promoting diversity in body image, racial identity, LGBT – having those conversations in photography, but also in interviews and other forms of dialogue. You know, subverting taboos, but with a message of what I would call ‘punk-positivism’. Punk in the sense that we are interested in an idea of unprofessionalism: you don’t have to be ‘somebody’ to do this. You don’t have to come from a place with authority. That point of view of punk, and the idea of creating with what’s around you. It doesn’t have to be expensive. It can be found material – but then applying that in a positive way, so there is a purpose to it beyond a look. In many respects, the kind of nihilism of something like a rock’n’roll, punk or hardcore aesthetic, is often about looking the part without having much to say. We wanted to avoid all those traps, stereotypes and clichés, and imbue what we do with a sense of positivism.
What are your main concerns for the future when you think about Dazed Media?
I want to show you a little bit how we develop the R&D projects that may or may never come out. This is something we just produced internally as a proposal. It’s called AnOther World, and is about how we create the world around us; either externally or internally, through architecture, design, psychology. It’s about places and spaces, travel, art, fashion. It’s really an exploration. We wanted to do it as an annual. I think the idea is that the annual is the new bi-annual. Experience the history of now. The idea is just to do one fucking brilliant issue a year and make it mind-blowing. The coffee table is the new newsstand. If I see a magazine at a newsstand, it probably means nobody is reading it. If I see a magazine on the coffee table of somebody’s house and I like their taste, I’m immediately interested, because it means they like that magazine enough to display it. It means that they identify with that magazine enough to have it as part of their world. It’s not something you’re just reading for guilty pleasure on the beach, and then throwing it away. It’s something they’re really proud to keep, reference and conserve. That’s my audience with this new publication I’m developing. For me, the ultimate place for this to live is on the coffee table, not the newsstand. I’m doing a limited edition straight to consumer. A little bit of distribution through some boutiques and art bookstores, but as much direct as possible.
Did you ever consider selling Dazed the way i-D did with VICE?
No, never. Nobody has ever asked us. I’m quite isolated from those conversations. I’m less interested in the business side – I’m much more interested in the creative side. But obviously, I’ve had to learn over the years how to protect the creative side by understanding the business that I’m in, and understanding how to make sure that I can be sustainable and grow as a publishing company. There is a key rule of discussions that I’ve had about selling bits of what we have, or creating different kinds of companies around what we have. The most important question that I always have is: can I have creative control?
If I have creative control, then I’m interested in having the conversation. But what happens is that as soon as you go in with that – a lot of the time when people want to buy into you, buy a part of you, want to do a project with you, usually they get scared and the conversation doesn’t go further. But in one or two instances it works, like with Nowness where we’ve got an amazing relationship with Modern Media, a Chinese publisher, and I find the business aspects of that really interesting. And to a degree, stimulating. But all of it is done with the full knowledge that I have creative control. Then I’m happy to have all of those conversations, but we don’t have many of them. That means I’m happy. It might mean we’re growing slower, or we might have to struggle more than other publishers, but it still means we’re completely independent. As a result, me having creative control means that all the editors on different projects have full creative control, because that’s part of the ethos.
It’s quite reassuring when you see companies like the Conde Nast e-commerce platform style.com crash. There was a time when you looked at the business world, and it seemed that if you didn’t have hundreds of millions to invest in a company, you wouldn’t succeed. But time showed those that start slowly, have an idea and build a solid platform actually get further.
Yeah, and you know, we have a lot more fun. We’re a lot happier, because there’s a lot less compromise. We can really do what the fuck we want. All of this [points at magazines around] is an example of that.