Phat Magazine | Hot Stuff For Hoodlums

My good friend Mr. Warnett covered Phat Magazine tremendously well over on his blog already, but I feel it would be an injustice to miss out on an opportunity to write a little about it myself.

Drawing parallels with other magazines doesn’t really work so well for Phat: it was a unique compendium of different topics, perhaps centred around skateboarding, but progressive enough to go off on a tangent at any moment. The only other real comparison might be with Spike Jonze, Andy Jenkins and Mark Lewman’s ‘Dirt’ magazine, but that’s a topic I’ll return to at a later date.

Before Phat, there was R.a.D. (Read and Destroy) magazine. And before R.a.D. was BMX Action Bike. When skating slowly infiltrated the pages of my much-beloved issues of BMX Action Bike magazine, I was initially dismayed! How dare they cut pages of BMX only to replace it with skateboarding photos? In 1985, I was still fully immersed in riding my BMX: trying to race very occasionally for the Bexhill Burners and then learn flatground tricks by copying people such as the Curb Dogs. Skateboarding was not on my radar at all at that point, so when December 1985’s issue of BMX Action Bike came around, I was surprised to see a 16-page ‘Skate Action’ special tucked into the magazine. Today, I would kill for a replacement copy of that pullout (please get in touch if you have one), but at the time I felt slightly annoyed.

Seeing my buddy Rich on his Variflex Twisted soon changed my mind and I gradually swapped two wheels for four, as BMX Action Bike morphed into R.a.D. magazine at issue 53.

R.a.D. was a complete anomaly on the shelves of the newsagents. Whilst there were other attempts to take ownership of the UK skate demographic, editor Tim Leighton-Boyce and his editorial team were by far the most influential. Freestyle BMX magazines tried to cram skating into their pages, but fell by the wayside early on, whilst Skateboard! and the abysmal Sk8 Action slowly faded into obscurity (Skateboard! was all ready to relaunch as ‘Crack’ or something, but it never materialised: I’m not surprised, with a name like that). R.a.D. truly held the banner aloft for the UK skate scene.

Due to a variety of shenanigans (Robert Maxwell being a main culprit), R.a.D was put up for sale and despite being offered to the staff who were running things, it was sold to another party who went on to ruin the magazine. Speak to anyone today about that period of R.a.D. and they might recall how the mag halved in content overnight. Meanwhile, the original R.a.D. team went and launched their own magazine: Phat.

Phat had a loose but unique structure that made it particularly accommodating to anything that was deemed worthy of publication. A cover feature formed a major part of the content, but the other parts of the mag were broken down into three different sections that went far beyond the realms of skate-only content. In short, the magazine hooked you in with the skate stuff, which was just as good as it had been in R.a.D., and then took you somewhere completely else. Little amusing lists (ie. ‘5 Reasons Not To Be A Ragga’ or ‘5 Fashion Items We Never Want To See Again’) were peppered between UFO articles and interviews with graffiti writers and comic book artists.

30,000 went out to the newsagents, ready for a hungry audience to consume. So what happened?

It was the cover feature on issue 1 that caused irreparable damage to Phat. A feature in The Sunday Telegraph picked up on the gun culture cover feature and used it to fuel a diatribe on how the teenage gang phenomenon was being encouraged by publications such as Phat. The reality couldn’t have been further from the truth: the gun culture feature was actually a fantastic argument against guns, written by the late, great Gavin Hills who wrote some truly great articles in his time. The cover photo (well-respected UK skater Matt Stuart, holding a replica Beretta with a daisy stuck in the end of it) and the ‘teenage gangsta’ headline gave the media the perfect ammunition to cause uproar from nothing. If they’d actually taken the time to read the article, things might have been very different.

The end result: some backers pulled out, John Menzies insisted on vetting every page before stocking it and in the end WHSmith decided they wouldn’t stock the mag at all. With their monopoly on distribution, it meant there was nowhere to go with the magazine, despite a last-minute attempt to move things under the Time Out wing.

So, with a limited sales outlet and a negative media frenzy, the magazine seemed doomed. Throw into the mix that the lead designer (the extremely talented Steve Hicks) was poached to work on another magazine (Mouth 2 Mouth, based over in the US) and that sealed the magazine’s fate. That said, the fact that Tim and co. managed to get the third issue out there before the coffin was sealed is a testament to their determination. In three issues, they’d made more of an impact on my life than any other magazine has done since.

On a personal level, I’ll always be extremely grateful to Tim for giving me the chance to contribute (a small number of product and music reviews) to both R.a.D. and Phat – something that inspired me to keep writing and led to me writing for a number of other magazine titles down the line. I still find myself pulling the old copies of Phat off the shelves and reminiscing. Thank you Tim.

C21 Publishing (the publishers of Phat) were genuinely innovative. Phat was one of the first magazines to begin using the Internet (in the early CIX guise) for both internal communication and inviting outside participation. Remember, this was 1993: most of us hadn’t even sent an email at that point, let alone logged onto a website.

As early adopters of email and other forward-thinking technologies, Phat was truly practising what it preached. Part of the mission statement said it was ‘a revolutionary new magazine for those who will be 21 in the 21st Century’.

The infamous ‘first issue’ that ultimately caused the unfair media backlash, Phat was talked about in a hush-hush tone as ‘the new magazine that Tim and the guys were doing’. My friend Ray (who was working as an editorial assistant) told me what was going on, and I was excited when I finally got hold of a copy. The thing that stood out was that there was plenty to read. I found myself spending ages trying to absorb everything in Phat.

‘The fun, the facts, the fear. Your guide to gun culture’

A great feature that ran through the facts and opinions on whether guns needed to join fashion and music as a complimentary (but often visible) accessory to youth culture. The ending paragraph simply states, "Practically all this world’s problems are caused by men with guns. Life may be tough and we all might want to be cool, but shooters are strictly for losers. Because the thing about guns is: they kill people. From Moss Side to Sarajevo: from Somalia to South LA; Bang-Bang and you’re dead sucker."

The reviews section in Phat was something else altogether. Where skate magazines had kept to equipment, clothing and perhaps the occasional video review, Phat delved into anything that had interested the team that month. As a result, you’d get little insights and personal opinions about anything from hip-hop albums through to television programmes. To someone ‘not in the loop’, it may have appeared disjointed, but to us, it was all relevant. The term ‘peer to peer’ never felt so appropriate.

The cover poked fun at the media backlash from the first issue (Lewis Goodyear holding a banana in a gun-like manner). The little bar down the side of the cover let you know what was going on inside, in case you felt nervous and the lead feature – ‘The top 100 babes’ – was more Viz than FHM.

One of the funniest and bizarre female run-downs I’ve ever read. ‘Seven pages of charming chew’ had me laughing and grimacing in equal amounts: there were clearly some diverse tastes at work on this feature! Nicole (French actress, Estelle Skornik, from the Renault car adverts) sat alongside Katie Puckrick (c’mon now…) and Jessica Rabbit (yes, the cartoon character) in a lighthearted and amusing celebration of the female form. The fact I had some video footage featured in the article (a chance liaison with a girl who’d been watching me skate Fairfield halls in Croydon) only added to my excitement.

Before Geoff became globally renowned for his skating abilities after emigrating to the US, he was practically a household name in the UK. Known for balls of steel and style, his little feature in this issue of Phat was nothing short of great.

Perhaps my favourite issue of any magazine of all time. With its ‘International Info Overload’ tag line on the cover and the cover’s ‘Theft special’ feature, the boundaries were blown to smithereens on the the final issue of the magazine.

OK: it’s not a full feature, but the little interview with James Lavelle, when he was in full flow with Mo’Wax was both inspiring and encouraging. The DIY ethics that Phat promoted were instrumental in my wanting to write later on in life. A great piece that really sums up the positive and realistic angle of Phat’s journalism.

An in-depth article that looked at the facts behind the question ‘does crime pay?’. With a shoplifter interview, a section on how much prison will cost you financially and a review of ‘The Italian Job’, it was a great (and unique) piece.

My friend Ollie was the model for this feature, which was pretty cool.

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