Ozone publisher Julia Beverly is the unlikeliest of rap moguls

Why does everyone seem to have a problem with the magazine empresario?

Julia Beverly has sleepy brown eyes and shoulder-length, straight brown hair. Today, over lunch at the Red Lobster by Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, she wears a pink T-shirt and jeans and speaks in short, clipped sentences. She seems oddly shy for someone atop an expanding hip-hop empire, one largely responsible for bringing coverage of Southern rap to the mainstream.

A 28-year-old white woman in an industry composed largely of black men, she’s the unlikeliest of rap moguls, and has seen her name recklessly slandered by people who believe she has no business doing what she does. But the founder, editor and publisher of Ozone magazine also finds herself an outsider in the world of journalism, where she has succeeded largely by tearing up the playbook — and disregarding traditional rules of ethics.

She admits that some of what she does is unorthodox — like charging rappers to be on Ozone’s cover — but believes her actions are less a conflict of interest than a way to stay solvent in a declining industry. “I don’t even know what a typical business model is,” she says. “I’ve never worked at another magazine. But I think a lot of times people get caught up in the idea that, ‘This is the way things are supposed to be done.’”

The daughter of nondenominational Christian missionaries, Beverly traveled extensively with her family as a child, before they settled in Orlando, Fla., when she was in middle school. She started out as a rock ‘n’ roll fan but transitioned to rap after sitting next to a guy in high school art class who would play OutKast for hours at a time. She dropped out of the University of Central Florida and eventually quit an IT network administrator job, instead pursuing a career as a photographer. She worked at a local urban music magazine called Orlando Source — which also sold its cover — before launching Ozone (like, “Orlando-zone”) when she was only 20. Her goal was to get a job at another magazine, and the photo-heavy early Ozone issues were to serve as her portfolio.

Though she wasn’t fully up to speed on her hip-hop history, the subject fascinated her. “I always liked the energy,” she says. As Southern rap began to take off, she saw a place in the market for a magazine devoted to the subgenre, which was largely overlooked by New York-based publications like The Source and XXL.

Over the years, Beverly has done everything from writing the copy and taking the pictures to spearheading the layout and selling the ads. Ozone and Beverly relocated to Atlanta in 2007, and nowadays, the magazine operates out of a Midtown office near the city’s rap industry epicenter. It boasts eight full-time employees and a stable of freelancers, and about three years ago took on a dedicated West Coast editor. “I just felt like we’d taken over the South, and I wanted to expand our reach,” she says. “It seems like the West Coast has had similar struggles, with the East Coast not recognizing their music.”

She counts among her fans some of rap’s biggest names, like Houston MC Scarface. “I really respect what she does,” he says. “Ozone has always told our side of the story. There was a whole market down here that was making noise, and you only heard about some of it. Now, thanks to Ozone, you hear about all of it.”

Last month, Ozone celebrated its eighth anniversary, and it remains tremendously influential. Beverly notes that she published Young Jeezy’s first interview, and T-Pain’s first photo shoot. But she and her brand have found great success by expanding beyond magazine publishing. Ozone has hosted three award shows, and regularly sponsors parties and showcases. Beverly, meanwhile, has launched a booking agency and sold verses for such rappers as Lil Boosie (whom she has profiled in Ozone).

She’s now gathering footage for a documentary-style TV show, which will follow her as she travels around the globe with artists, including Paul Wall and Flo Rida, with whom she recently visited Afghanistan and South Korea, respectively. “It’s still in development, but we have several major networks interested,” she says.

Earlier this year, she booked Slim Thug in Alaska to do an Ozone party, filmed him there for her TV show, photographed him for Ozone’s print edition and website, and scouted local artists for future issues. It’s a vertical integration model that would make Fortune 500 CEOs jealous; at this point, it’s impossible to separate Beverly’s Ozone work from her side hustles. In an era when music magazines like Rolling Stone and Spin are cutting staff and Blender has shut its doors, Ozone’s expansion has been breathtakingly swift and efficient.

But there have been snags. At the 2008 Ozone Awards in Houston, rapper Trae punched Mike Jones in the face before the proceedings even got underway; in a recent Ozone interview, Trae tells Beverly that Jones, “got real arrogant with the mouth.” She says the awards show is currently on hiatus, noting that it is time-consuming, expensive, and that “a lot of people just don’t know how to act” at these kinds of events.

In 2009, Oakland, Calif., rapper Mistah F.A.B. made waves with a callous Twitter message that accused Beverly of performing sex acts with rappers in exchange for interviews and concerts. Beverly angrily denies the allegations. “It’s completely a lie,” she says. “False, irresponsible and pointless.” She describes him as a longtime “platonic” friend before the incident, and contends that the remark was likely prompted by her refusal of his sexual advances. She adds that she considered suing him for defamation of character, but didn’t want to give him more publicity.

She also saw her name dragged through the mud during a conflict with Atlanta artist manager Debra Antney and local booking agent Johnnie Cabbell, whom she accused of overcharging her for an OJ da Juiceman show. Antney — who until recently also represented Gucci Mane and Nicki Minaj — fired back by disparaging Beverly in the press and making an issue of her race. On an Internet radio show, Antney called her a “predator,” adding: “In the black community, when they see a pink person, they think they know what they’re doing.”

But Scarface counters: “It don’t matter what she is, she could be an alien. As long as she’s giving the actual factual, giving motherfuckers credit where there needs to be credit, you can’t do nothing but respect it.”

Less publicized, but nonetheless controversial, is Beverly’s “pay for play” editorial policy at Ozone. For around $10,000 each issue, she sells the magazine’s cover; a small ad in the publication title’s “O” is also for sale, and she says that editorial content is sometimes influenced by who buys ads inside the book. All of this is done without informing her readers.

She defends the practice as no different than radio payola, and asserts that other hip-hop publications sell their covers indirectly. “Let’s say a rap magazine says, ‘If your clothing line pays for the back cover ad, we’ll put you on the cover,’” she says. “I don’t see what we’re doing as any different, or unethical.”

Yet Joe Saltzman, a professor of journalism at USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, notes that payola is unethical and illegal, and argues that Ozone’s practices are a clear breach of journalistic ethics. “Of course there is a conflict of interest here,” he writes in an e-mail. “The editorial and advertising are intertwined and this is bad journalism. Her principal obligation to her readers would be honesty. She should include in each issue a statement explaining that the cover of the magazine is for sale. Every time she runs a profile of a rapper who is part of her booking agency, there should be a disclaimer explaining that fact.” He agrees, however, that Ozone’s blurring of ad/editorial lines is common in this era of new media reporting and social networking.

As for Beverly, she believes the old way of doing things would only hold her back. “I’ve been a hustler since I got into this,” she says. “I don’t really care what anyone else says. Let them start their own magazine. If they want to give the cover away, we can see how long they last.”

Indeed, it’s somewhat ironic that Beverly has caught flak both from the journalism world for not conforming to the establishment, and from the rap world for being part of the establishment. As frustrating as it can be, Beverly relishes her outsider role and believes her fish-out-of-water image works to her advantage. “It’s always a good thing to be underestimated,” she says, “so I just sort of play off of that.”