Interview: Gavin Godfrey
Stephen Malbon wasn’t too into school as a teenager. By 17, Malbon dropped out of High School in his native, Virginia Beach, and headed for Colorado with a bit of artistic talent and little to no ambition.
Malbon found his hustle painting shop signs for local stores and later working for a snowboard shop, while spending his free time hitting the slopes with a group of older kids.
“Them being older than me made me realize that 10 years was going to go by real quick and I’m still going to be in Colorado, partying and not living up to my full potential,” Malbon says on the phone from New York City about the early turning point in his life. “I needed to go somewhere and go to school because I knew I had an artistic ability, but I didn’t know how to make money doing it.”
Fast forward a few years and Malbon channeled his energy into the FRANK Book, a pocket quarterly that highlighted the underground culture in the city of Atlanta, where he was a student at the Art Institute. The book grew from there with each “chapter,” and featured contributors like DJ Drama, Dax and RZA.
Today, FRANK151 as it’s known throughout the entire world, continues to push Malbon’s early aspirations of shedding light on those ignored in mainstream culture, but thanks to his BON agency the books spirit has also grown into a creative force that the corporate dollars can’t ignore. In this interview Malbon talks about the stories behind the inception of FRANK and the future legacy the book and brand have created.
Was putting together a book always the goal or what made you kind of set out to say now I want to introduce people to my world and the world of the people around me?
It was a layout project for a class. I had to design a magazine for credit. If you didn’t know Chris Lova Lova (Ludacris’ DJ name on Atlanta radio) and Poon Daddy there’s no fucking chance on earth you were going to get any type of acknowledgement or whatever because it was pre-internet. I didn’t really have any clue about what I was doing. I was naive. I thought I could print this thing once a month. I was trying to sell ads for clubs in Atlanta. It was a nightmare and no one wanted to give us any money at the time. But the thing is, in Philadelphia, New York, San Diego and LA area, there were these little zines that had club guides for techno, drum and bass and Hip Hop. The only way you could find concerts was either to go to a cool record store and get a flier or you could pick up that little zine and it would give you a month in advance.
I realized I had a great product, but I didn’t have a really good audience. I was only printing it and promoting it in Atlanta and there are only so many cool people in Atlanta, right? There’s heads in every market and there’s motherfuckers that love this culture and are really about it, but there’s only so many in each city.
There’s a huge demographic for cool motherfuckers, but it’s got to be more than just Atlanta or you’re going to run out of them. So that’s kind of what happened. We changed the name from “FRANK ATL” to “FRANK151.”
Yea, where does that name came from?
I lived right by the Amtrak station off of Standish Avenue. 15 Standish Avenue, Apt. 1, so that’s where you get the 151. That’s where I really started moving and then getting it cracking. MF Doom was one neighbor, and the other neighbor was Ease, Shy and DJ Lord. So, Ease and Shy AKA José Parlá and Ivan Marello. Those two dudes had just come from Savannah College of Art and Design and were fresh graffiti artists from Miami. They started teaching me to paint and so did SEVER and HENSE because I worked at a vinyl sign shop with those guys. We were making Bank of America signs and things for the drive thru. So, I started to paint and I started to try and do graffiti.
While you were doing that, what made you decide to take Frank beyond an art school project?
I don’t know dude. I sold my fucking car. I did everything I could do to keep doing it. And at some point Nike and other brands started asking, can we help do other things too? I was also promoting doing parties at clubs. So, I would put magazines around or whatever; invite all types of different people to come. And they were popping! I was making a $1,000 night at these parties, so, I was starting to make decent money and put- ting out FRANK at the same time.
So you’ve always made money from other places...
Yea, and to be honest, FRANK’s barely ever made money for 13-14 years. We have an agency, and the agency does business with other people. And we make money. But, it’s fucking hard, it’s hard publishing.
Exactly. At the beginning, you were talking about that struggle; you were doing a lot of it on your own. You were doing the artwork. You were doing the interviews, but just adding on different aliases...I basically heavily self-medicated myself for so many years that I was numb enough to be able to just fucking grind. And not realize that I was living in a shitty situation. I just kept pushing, and kept working. I’d stay up all night designing and doing layouts.
If you look at the first ten [chapters], there’s crazy typos, mistakes and missing sentences. It would be something where the font on one page is white, and the next page is black. All of a sudden, it was missing a sentence because we printed black font on black paper.
One time the Micranots, a band in Atlanta, they spelled their name, “Micranots.” I thought I spelled their name right, “Micronauts.” We printed it on the cover. They were tight! We were making mistakes left and right, but I didn’t know what I was doing. You know, I was using zip drives to lay out magazines.
They say print’s dead. And you, like you say, you don’t necessarily make money off of the Frank book but it still matters. Why do you think that still is 15 years later?
You know that song Jay-Z that says, “I will not lose?” To me, that means in America there’s only one way you can lose and that’s just to quit. And I haven’t quit. I saw something on George Harrison’s wife, and she said, “Do you want to know the secret of having a long marriage? Don’t get divorced.” I just haven’t quit. So now, I just ride the momentum and realize that sometimes, there’s a bigger path. You have good news in morning, you have bad news in the afternoon and you have fucking horrible news at night. Then it all happens again tomorrow. Who cares about that horrible news because it’s going to be some more good news in the morning. You know how some people are positive and other people are negative? If I wanted to be negative, I could find a hundred fucking things to hate on, but it doesn’t do anything good. Everyone said, “It’s a bad idea. It’s a hard investment.” But I was confident enough to say, you know, “Fuck it. I’m going to do it anyway.”
And it’s that mentality that’s kind of shaped the work with Bon and your more corporate ventures...
I’ve figured out how to make money off of doing something very similar to something that I already do and love to do, which is FRANK, but we do it for certain corporate partners who trust us, and listen to us. And if they don’t, then I don’t want to work with them. You know what I mean? Certain brands, it’s too hard to work with because they think they know everything. If you think you know everything, then why did you call me? You know some things, but you don’t know the same shit I know already. A lot of times what brands will do is hire some dickhead from some skate shop in a suburb, and give them a marketing job, and a fucking corporate credit card. And all of a sudden, they start acting like they’re the coolest motherfuckers. I’m not fucking with that guy. That motherfucker’s not as cool as he thinks he is.
Frank has helped you tap in and build connections beyond a book, whether it’s in a corporate setting or both. How do you decipher who you deal with corporately while still trying to stay in tune with what’s going on independently and keeping with the spirit of what Frank set out doing?
If I do work for corporate companies, it’s the entire network of people who have helped FRANK and built FRANK—all those people get in on the mix too. Take Toyota for instance. Toyota has supported a ton of artists in Atlanta that may not have gotten any recognition from a corporate entity – how could I not feel good about that?. One, we helped Toyota. Two, we helped a ton of talented artists with their career and helped support the artistic community as a whole. For example, we used to do these live shows for Scion; it would be a band and a rapper. For three years, we brought that shit to Atlanta for free.
Man I remember that. I saw Big Daddy Kane and Bun B...That was fun! People remember that shit. You remember it. I don’t know how you can’t remember it. I still fuck with Bun B, but I would have never been able to fuck with Bun if it had never been for Toyota’s support. I had resources to make sure he’s happy—take him for dinner, per diems and nice hotels and shit.
I think 90% of what we do is very similar to the same as we’ve always been doing and I really actually enjoy it and have fun doing it. I talk to corporations the same way I talk to you. You know what I mean? It is what it is, pretty much. Here’s what we have. Here’s our services.
Here’s what we’re offering. And if you want to do it, we’ll fucking kill it. But, if you want to micromanage it and you want to tell us what to do, and you want to pick all your homies that you think are good DJs, just go do it without us. When I go meet ad agencies I let them know, “Look we got 2% of the world and you got 98%. Ours just happens to be the coolest motherfuckers on the earth. So you have to pay a premium for those. The other 98%, you can get them with fucking Super Bowl commercials.” We do what we can to amplify that - like a shot of espresso into the process.
Frank brought so many different avenues to you and everybody involved. it’s kind of reflective of just you personally. Do you see it like that? Have you kind of grown with Frank and has your success been kind of a mirror of the book’s success?
I mean, yeah, it’s like whatever we’ve done the book on, each chapter that was something I was passionate about. I’ve gotten to travel a lot and go to the Philippines and do a book. I remember after I did the fourth edition, Dax was involved and I said, “Yo, even if you stopped doing this today, you’ve made history.” That was chapter four and now we’re past chapter 50.
How did the content and what you wanted to put in it kind of change over time?
I started to think that FRANK’s a book, not a magazine. Everyone gets magazines and then they throw them away because there’s another one that’s coming out next month. With FRANK, I made sure the content that we’re developing is timeless. We did an article about the history of the pinky ring. Shit was cool seven years ago, and it’s going to be cool seven years from now. When my 3-year-old boy, in 15 years, when he’s 18 and he’s rocking a pinky ring and he thinks he’s fucking cool, I’m going to say, “Do you know why you’re wearing that?” And he’s going to say, “Yea, because my friend wears one.” I’m going to say, “Well, go read this article already, and know what the fuck the pinky ring is for. Know what hand to wear it on. Don’t go out looking like a moron.”
Speaking of that, can you remember a chapter of a particular edition that was universally loved? Which one was the turning point?
The “New South” chapter we did with Dax that was the turning point. We made the book thicker and made it with thicker paper. The best part was we did the entire project in three weeks. I flew to Atlanta with a girlfriend, slash designated driver. She drove me and Dax around with no sleep for a week. And then I flew back to New York with Dax and stayed up another week and laid it out. And we gave it to a printer and then the printer printed it in a week. And it’s still really fucking good. It changed how we do it at that point on. We didn’t want to do Ludacris and Lil’ Jon, you know? Where Hip Hop in Atlanta started. We had Rico Wade in there and Ray Murray – real Dungeon Family shit. And we had images. We went to Mr. DJ’s [house] and we took all of the solo albums and flew them to New York and scanned them and everything. It was photos of Andre and Big Boi in front of the Martin Lawrence show. Then there’s photos of Andre smoking blunts with girls in cheap hotel rooms. You know, the shittiest hotel rooms you’ve ever seen in your life. That shit’s still good to this day. It’s not going to be corny because it’s Dungeon Family.
You travel A lot but you still have roots in Atlanta. Why is that so important for you?
I absolutely love Atlanta. There are fans of culture there and people show up. If you bring some band there to perform, motherfuckers show up in Atlanta. It could be heavy metal, rap or jazz – it doesn’t matter. People will show the fuck up in Atlanta. It’s beautiful. You know, I grew up on a farm in Virginia Beach. I like going deep into Gwinnett and going into old barns. Atlanta’s nuts, dude, more nuts than pretty much anywhere else I’ve lived.
Would you say that at the core of Frank is still to quote, “have a finger on dope shit,” or has that kind of changed? Is that different now from when you were first starting out?
I had this one dude that said, “You got to have a mission statement,” ten years ago. He said, “You know, 10 years from now this has to be the same as it is today.” So I said, “I want FRANK to influence and enhance cultures and generations.” But then that’s where he put a period. So, influence, enhance cultures and generations. But what I told him was, “...the same way that MTV did me.” You know what I mean? I lived in Virginia Beach and I was getting mixtapes from homies and I had MTV. I felt like I was just as cool as everybody else because I could see the same shit they could. Even though I lived on a little farm in a beach town, because of MTV everyone was on the same playing field and everyone could get the same stuff. So yeah, with FRANK it’s still trying to print shit that other people want to print that’s good. Do stories on cool shit and not do stories because an advertiser paid us to do it.
What’s the lasting imprint that Frank has left or will continue to leave? like you say, you’re not going to quit. But why will the book continue to last?
I had a midlife crisis two years ago and I read this article that Steve Jobs wrote. You should look it up. It’s fucking rad. It was the last candid interview he ever did before he got shell-shocked in the media. I read the whole thing, but they were asking him, “Obviously financially, you can retire because you have all this money. You never have to work again. How do you feel about that?” He said, “Well, I could retire financially, but I could never retire because of guilt.” He started talking about all the other great inventors and all of the entrepreneurs. He wanted to deliver as much as he possibly could and if he didn’t, he would just be copping out and letting down all of the amazing minds that came before him. It got me thinking fairly focused and straight forward, what needs to be done and why we’re relevant and why I don’t want to go away. Why would I want to do that? We have the power to be able to tell stories and get stuff out there. When my kids are 35 and going through the same thing I was going through two years ago, maybe they’ll read an article out of FRANK and that’ll help them get through it. I feel very honored to be doing it. I feel honored to have a network of people that we fuck with. New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, they’ve been around 100 years, so I don’t know why FRANK can’t be around a 100 years. As a matter of fact, it can and it’s going to be.•