New York Times: DUB Magazine Feature | Print |

nytlogoOn a forthcoming cover, the actors Owen Wilson, Ben Stiller and Snoop Dogg preen in their ''Starsky & Hutch'' best, while for a previous issue the basketball player Kobe Bryant posed sitting on the bumper of his canary-yellow Lamborghini Murciélago. Then there's the rapper Lil' Kim, who modeled for her cover in a minidress zipped down to her navel, her Mercedes-Benz G500 peeking through in the background.

The magazine in question isn't Rolling Stone, People or even Maxim. It's Dub, a niche car magazine with a tiny paid circulation that has nevertheless become the bible of the urban automotive subculture devoted to 20-inch-plus spinners -- the outrageously flashy oversize wheels that pop up in nearly every MTV rap video -- and the hip-hop attitude they connote.

 ''If you're in Dub magazine, you're the man,'' said Isaac Austin, a former N.B.A. player. ''It means that you've got style, you've got personality and, obviously, you've got some dough.''

In the four years since Dub began publishing in Los Angeles, what might be called the Dub lifestyle of eye-popping jewelry, ear-splitting hip-hop and, of course, traffic-stopping cars customized to the hilt, has moved from the streets of East Los Angeles to the boardrooms of Hollywood, Madison Avenue and even the Big Three automakers. What Slam is to basketball or Playboy was to a certain type of 1970's man, Dub is to drivers who like their cars loud, flashy and tricked out with clunky chrome wheels.

''Back in the 1990's, if you had chrome rims on your car, you were either a thug or a drug dealer,'' said Myles Kovacs, 30, Dub's editor. Nowadays, custom wheels are showing up on TV, in General Motors showrooms and at suburban grocery stores. ''They have become socially acceptable,'' he added.

''By creating Dub,'' Mr. Kovacs said, flashing his ring with a two-carat diamond, ''we created a brand for the lifestyle.''

For makers of car parts and accessories, that lifestyle also means big money. ''Dub magazine has come to symbolize this new youth market,'' said Christopher J. Kersting, chief executive and president of the Specialty Equipment Market Association, a trade group for auto accessory makers. The group said that sales of custom wheels alone rose to $3.3 billion last year, a 66 percent gain from 1996. ''They're not just black urban kids, but also white suburban kids. It's everybody.''

THE magazine was founded in 1999 by Mr. Kovacs; Herman Flores, the magazine's director of publication; and Haythem Haddad, its creative director. It took its name from street slang for 20 -- as in a double-dime bag of marijuana -- because when it was founded most oversize wheels were 20 inches in diameter. The three partners had previously put out a party magazine called Insider, and with the money and connections they'd made, they set out to create what they call ''the original automotive lifestyle magazine.''

From their offices in the City of Industry, just west of Los Angeles, they tapped into an emerging trend: the hip-hopification of car culture that many first glimpsed on ''MTV Cribs.'' It is a counterculture that took on new currency as a breed of self-made millionaires came on the scene in the mid- to late 1990's. ''If your Bentley is customized with 24 rims, you know the guy sitting in the back isn't just Donald Trump,'' said Avon Bellamy, who owns Real Wheelz, an auto customization shop in Baltimore. ''Otherwise, you're just another C.E.O.''

Street credibility is the magazine's subtext. Flip through Dub, and you'll find admiring profiles of celebrities and their richer-than-thou, but down-to-earth lifestyles. The story on Mr. Bryant's cars, for instance, waxed rapturously about how much time he had granted Dub's editors and photographers but made no mention of the charges of sexual assault that are pending against him.

''It's not hard for us to get celebrities; we're a positive magazine,'' Mr. Kovacs said. Take Lil' Kim, who posed with her Mercedes ''hooked up'' with 23-inch rims, four televisions and speakers monogrammed with ''Queen B'' logos. (This was before her recent indictment on charges of lying to a federal grand jury.) ''Not only am I a fan, I am the first female to grace the cover,'' she said. ''It has some of the hottest whips on the planet,'' she added, using the current East Coast slang for car.

Does the magazine glorify the thug life? ''It's not so much about selling the gangster lifestyle, it's about showing the reality of their lives,'' said Mr. Kovacs.

Mixed in with the laudatory celebrity profiles are bite-size reviews of hot cars and the shiniest new wheels and gizmos, from Sony PlayStation 2 systems to DVD surround-sound theaters (yes, for driving). Advertisers include Budweiser and Adidas, but lean heavily toward specialty wheel makers, with names like Giovanna and Blingz.

The formula seems to be working. According to Mr. Kovacs, the monthly magazine has been profitable since its second year and, he said, it made a $380,000 profit last year on revenue of $4 million. That despite a print run of only 150,000 magazines and just 23,000 paid subscribers -- mostly young men who can't afford the $15,000 spinners advertised, not to mention a $350,000 Bentley. By contrast, Motor Trend , also a monthly, has a paid circulation of 1,263,030, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Carmakers, however, see different numbers. ''Motor Trend doesn't set the trend,'' said B. J. Birtwell, the youth marketing manager for DaimlerChrysler Motors. ''Dub defines what's cool. Look at the Escalade. First, it was just a rapper and athlete's car, but then it became mainstream. Now it's the soccer mom who's sick of the minivan. Not only does she want an Escalade, she wants them on 20's or 22's.'' (Escalades come standard with 17-inch wheels, while most American passenger cars sit on wheels as small as 14 inches.)

Sharon Holt, 60, a homemaker from Yorba Linda, Calif., agreed. ''They give the car a little bit more oomph and personality,'' she said of the 20-inch rims on her white Escalade. ''We take it to the shopping mall.''

For Chrysler's newly introduced 300C, which looks like a cross of a PT Cruiser and a Bentley, Mr. Birtwell enlisted Dub to generate buzz. The editors, he said, worked their connections and placed the $33,000 car, customized with bigger wheels, into the rapper 50 Cent's video, ''Poppin Them Thangs.'' For Chrysler, it was a four-minute, subliminal commercial. ''Once we build a respect for our car on the streets, that trickles into the mainstream and translates into sales,'' Mr. Birtwell said.

The magazine is not only influencing auto marketing but is having an impact on manufacturing as well. Last fall, G.M. became the first big carmaker to cross the 20-inch wheel threshold by unveiling its own line of dub-size rims. In a measure of their post-gansta status, the wheels are offered with standard warranty and new-car financing.

And while customization remains a small segment of the auto industry, its cultural influence continues to grow. Vehicular celebrities are also proliferating on TV. ''Ride With Funkmaster Flex'' on Spike TV features ride-a-longs with the likes of Mariah Carey. ''MTV Cribs'' produces a special car edition called, ''Whips, Rides & Dubs.'' And ''Pimp My Ride,'' also on MTV, transports makeover mania, à la ''Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,'' into the car mechanics' garage.

''Dub has enabled us to do a show like 'Pimp My Ride,' '' said Xzibit, the rapper and host of the show, who recently showed off his Mercedes-Benz S500 with the interior done up in Louis Vuitton leather at the International Auto Salon, a Los Angeles car show devoted to the youthful tuner market.

One morning earlier this month, Mr. Kovacs gave a tour of his miniempire. The stockroom at Dub's dorm-like headquarters, in a suburban office park, was filled with the magazine's own line of rims, sold under the Twenty Inches Strong label. On a conference table were Dub City toy S.U.V.'s -- a kind of Barbie car for hip-hop fans -- that are selling briskly at Wal-Mart. On the wall were posters for the Dub Superseries, a six-city tour this summer that will feature celebrity cars and hip-hop acts, including Ice-T and the Black Eyed Peas.

''We want to be the Playboy of licensing,'' said Mr. Kovacs, who was wearing a Dub baseball cap and several large diamonds. ''We're a licensing and marketing company that just happens to publish a magazine.''

He has big plans for 2004. A videogame is in the works with Rockstar Games, maker of ''Grand Theft Auto.'' And later this year, Dub plans to bring out a cheaper line of car accessories under the name Dropstars, which will include everything from floor mats to car wax. ''Not everyone has a Bentley,'' Mr. Kovacs said, ''but everyone can make their car look like one.''

A third item was unveiled at an editorial meeting: a heavy chrome medallion of the type worn by hip-hop artists who want to look like Olympic medalists. A shiny spinner wheel, nearly three inches in diameter, hung from a thick chain. Mr. Kovacs inspected the prototype carefully, then sent it back to be reworked. ''It has to be bigger,'' he said, laughing. ''It's not blingy enough.'' - Denny Lee April 23, 2004


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