Rolling Stone, Vibe and Spin all have plenty of sex, drugs and, well, rock ‘n’ roll — not to mention enough glitz and glamor (read: bling) to rival the crown jewels. Now, enter Alan Light ’88: Nothing about his eager face or dark head of curly hair indicate that he knows a thing about the ‘hood. So how did this white boy from Cincinnati (and Yale grad) become one of the nation’s foremost hip-hop scholars? According to the expert, the opportunities are bound to present themselves; it just depends whether you can handle it.
After graduating from Yale, Light went on to become a notable music journalist and rock critic, writing for such publications as Rolling Stone and The New York Times and editing Vibe and Spin.
“I’ve never wanted to do anything but this, ever, and that’s either really great or really pathetic,” Light quips.
Light grew up in an artistically oriented household, his father a jazz aficionado and his mother a dance critic. This upbringing fostered a critical approach to the arts where, after seeing any show, it was expected that he would discuss and write about it in detail. While at Yale, Light was an American Studies major with a concentration in pop music; he wrote his senior thesis on The Beastie Boys’ “Licensed to Ill.” As he got older, Light’s childhood education in arts writing and his love for music melded into an ideal occupation: music criticism.
“It was the only thing I ever believed in, the only thing that I ever really felt that kind of passion about,” Light said.
Outside of the AmStud department, Light found many outlets on campus where he could express his passion for rock criticism. He had a weekly column in the News and often rigged his academic assignments, writing Flannery O’Connor papers on Bruce Springsteen instead.
His big break happened not too far from Yale’s campus: In 1990, Bob Dylan was scheduled to perform at Toad’s Place. A self-pronounced psychotic Dylan fan, Light weaseled his way into the show despite the artist’s request that no press be admitted. The show turned into a four-hour set during which Dylan took requests from the audience and performed songs he hadn’t touched in 30 years. Upon Light’s return to New York, Jann Wener, the editor of Rolling Stone, was so impressed by his story that he soon promoted the then-fact checker to a writing position, and the rest, as is too often said, is history.
After four years at Rolling Stone, Light was offered the opportunity to become editor of the struggling Vibe magazine after Quincy Jones passed up the offer. It was hard for him to make the move, especially considering he had written four cover stories for Rolling Stone in six months, but Vibe’s proposition was “just too exciting not to do.” At the age of 27 (and after never having run anything in his life) Light transformed Vibe from a struggling circulation of 200,000 to a prosperous 600,000, making it the second largest music magazine in the country.
From Vibe, Light moved to Spin in 1999, where he edited the alternative music magazine for three years. He never knew what to do with Spin, he said, feeling as though it was defined by what it wasn’t. While generally perceived as an alt-rock publication, the magazine’s motto was simply that it covered “all the music that rocks.” Every month, Light himself wondered if he was putting together and releasing the “right” magazine.
At the end of the day, whether he is writing or editing, the music itself is of supreme importance for Light. The first albums he remembers buying were Elton John’s and Ray Charles’ greatest hits when he was eight years old, and his favorite album is Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.” And when it comes to the genre he is perhaps most associated with, Light professes a love for an older era: His favorite hip-hop album is Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.”
“I’m bored by [newer hip-hop], but I always am very careful because I’m 40 years old and it ain’t about me anymore,” Light said. “There are times, especially in pop music, when you have to pull back and realize the music isn’t being made for you anymore.”
This struggle to stay current is even more important as waves of writers join the market each year. And this semester at Yale, Light has done his part to strengthen his future competition, playing the role of lecturer to the students in his Berkeley college seminar, “Writing about the Performing Arts.” And his advice for the prospective critic?
“Always keep writing,” Light said. “I don’t know how else to do it. You must keep writing and sooner or later you will get your lucky break. The question then becomes whether or not you’re ready for it.”