Here is my personal favorite of his essays from that era.
Last weekend, we met up at his shop, Park Blvd Records and Tapes, and talked for a couple hours about absolutely everything, here meaning music and the internet.
I’ve gathered that you were pretty dissatisfied with the reality of music writing as work, rather than simply writing about music. It seems like the job is pretty divorced from simply being someone that’s knowledgeable and opinionated and wants to articulate that.
Professional music writer is a really abstract concept to me, because I feel like I never fully… was one. I always had side hustles or whatever - it boggles the mind when I see people who are, like, seemingly this is their full-time job. Even when I was doing hella cover stories and whatnot, I still had to find another way to get money. But I don’t think I produce quickly enough, and I think that’s where what you’re talking about comes in. A lot of people are in this 24/7 content grind where it’s Travis Scott dropped, YG dropped and that’s their entire livelihood. In order to make it work as a full-time music journalist at this point, I think that’s how you have to approach it. Not to instantly jump in with Anthony Fantano, but I saw an interview with that dude where he’s like yeah, I don’t have very much time to go back and listen to old music, there’s so much I have to stay up on. I think that’s a problem, and not necessarily to single that dude out but it’s people like him where you start to see it in the works. To me, the whole point of writing about music is learning about music, and learning about music is a bilateral experience, you know what I mean? You need to be going backwards and forwards.
Somebody tweeted an excerpt of a review of the new Travis Scott, and they reviewed the song where it was blatantly jacking Goodie Mob’s Cell Therapy. But they were like and then Travis said ‘who’s that creeping through my window?’ like he’d invented it himself. They just had no context for it. First of all, that seems not fun, but you’re also not doing a service to your audience at that point. It just becomes kind of pointless, just filling in a void because you need a reaction to Travis Scott. It’s like what’s the essential information about that song? Well, it’s a Goodie Mob remake.
I hadn’t really thought about the collapse of expertise as people get too squeezed to work on anything but immediate reaction.
Yeah, and I wouldn’t even say expertise. Like to me, it’s just learning. I feel like expertise is something that’s just been projected onto critics. The whole reason I started my blog was to document a learning experience and bring people along with that. At a certain point, you get visible enough or you’re writing for Pitchfork or whatever and people are like oh, you think you’re the expert. Well, no, nobody else was writing about this and I wanted to put it into the world.
Did you ever have Combat Jack or somebody come at you in a post?
Combat Jack? No, Combat Jack was cool.
I was just thinking of the one he did on Tom Breihan, I think on Dallas Penn’s blog. I was way too young at the time to be seeing or hearing anything outside of the music itself, but it’s cool to go back and see that sort of thing, which is totally essential context.
[laughs] I’ll have to go look for that. That sort of thing, I get. I go back and forth, because on one hand I understand why someone like Combat Jack would be protective of the culture. He’s someone who, rest in peace, I think genuinely was. He wasn’t trying to capitalize off anything - I’m sure he read a bad Tom Breihan review and was like it’s time to go in. And probably, Tom deserved it, you know what I mean? Like straight up. That dynamic, for me, is weird to deal with. And honestly one of the reasons I don’t write right now is that there’s just so many white dudes. Coming back to what I was saying, a lot of the reason I starting blogging about this shit was that nobody was doing it. When I started blogging, you couldn’t read about E-40’s Mr. Flamboyant on the internet. I mean maybe you would find, like, a Siccness message board post or something. Largely, nobody was covering it.
I started in 2003. Discogs was probably cataloging some guy’s personal techno records. Wikipedia might’ve just started. There was no YouTube. For me, it was essential to just acknowledge the existence of this shit. And then very quickly, a lot of careerist white dudes came into to mix, and that’s why you got that push and pull with someone like Combat Jack. I understand it, because I felt the same way - although obviously my perspective is very different than Combat Jack’s - but it does seem like who are you? Who are you to be the rap critic at the Village Voice. You’re a dude from Maryland who seems to be into… punk rock? What’s your background? I got into it with some of those guys sometimes too, you know. In retrospect, I wish we’d spent less time infighting and more time building something where music nerds could still own what’s happening on the internet as opposed to, like, VC assholes and vloggers and shit. Combat was probably the closest to doing that. But we’re on an island right now - ten years ago, we probably still had some pull in the music discourse, but now it’s just… we’re not. The internet’s not even a literate space anymore.
You have to be careful, too, where there is still some pull - if you’re at the New York Times or something, you’re gonna be framing it basically unilaterally for an entirely new audience.
I disagree with Caramanica a lot, but he does good work - he’s one of the last people in the position that I’m talking about, where he still has a platform. Sometimes with that shit, maybe people should just leave it alone. For years I was like hip-hop’s the great American music, and it should be acknowledged as such, but, you know, maybe Kodak Black doesn’t need to be in The New Yorker. I guess he’ll make money? In a lot of ways, you’re just priming casual listeners for something that’s just not for casual listeners. I may be going far off-topic with your question, but it just seems like let music be for people that listen to music, not some weird cultural I discovered this interesting rapper from Florida. I feel like that’s a lot of what happens now when something snowballs. Like Playboi Carti becomes the Soundcloud rapper and suddenly everyone’s hey, you know this guy Playboi Carti? Yeah, you know who else is good? Uno the Activist. But there’s no internal cultural core, you know what I mean? It feels like getting a New Yorker profile or an NPR premier, that’s so much bigger than the DJBooth article or whatever. Who’s reading it? Who’s writing it? I think those are all very legit concerns, and reading The Source growing up was something that brought me closer not just to the artists but to the culture itself. They used to put Malcolm X on the cover and shit. You’d learn other things, not just be a dude on an island saying I have a favorite Soundcloud rapper now. There’s such a distance in it. It took me years to realize this - I just assumed I’d been doing this super-nerdy rap writing for people who read Ego Trip, but then I started to realize that there’s this whole economy of people in a boardroom at Vice or whatever being like I know who Chamillionaire is [laughs]. Now we’re at the fucking death-end of it where everything’s just a weird, capitalized… I’m almost scared to write about a rapper I like now, because I feel like you throw it in the air and they’ll sign a deal with Kit Kat and start to suck.
It’s accelerated so much where even your enthusiasm is an advertisement. Even professionally, I’d meet with somebody at a label or something and it took me forever to realize that they really are vultures, dude. They’d sit you down and ask who you were listening to and you’d be all psyched to tell them, and then a week later you’d see oh, blah blah blah signed with whoever. And you’d realized that you got fucking fleeced because you’re a fan of this stuff and you’re not thinking as, like, ninja A&R like oh, I’m listening to this guy that I’m managing. And maybe it’s good, maybe the culture needs people like that. God, I’m saying the culture a lot. I’m like fuckin’ Ebro in here. But you know what I mean? It just got suffocating. Everything’s a commodity. It’s even trickled down to listeners now, where so much of the experience is being like oh, I was up on Valee before he became hot. I can tell you what I’m listening to right now, I don’t know what the next big thing is. That’s not the critic’s job, that’s not the listener’s job.
It does bother me how people seem to skip simply saying hey, I’m excited about this or that newer rapper and go straight for cultural or actual capital.
I think every level - listener, to critic, to PR or whoever - they’re all putting their chips on certain artists. And then when they start to suck, they can’t even admit it. We can’t even have a real conversation about music because you’re so invested in supporting whoever. I saw that early on, when like Nah Right or 2 Dope Boyz - my whole thing when I was doing blogs was that I was posted songs I liked. Once all the more industrialized blogs starting coming into the picture, guys would hit me - let’s say about Freddie Gibbs - and I’d get an email like you posted his last two records, why not this third one? I’m just not that psyched about it, I don’t know what to tell you. But once those guys decided they were gonna cover, like, Charles Hamilton, you were gonna get all Charles Hamilton content from here on out. Sometimes I just don’t think that’s fair to anybody - it’s not fair to the audience, it’s not fair to the artist. I think there should be a curatorial angle to it.
There’s the baseball cards element to it, and then there’s this obsession with potential. I can’t think of another artform where people are so fascinated by the pre-viable stages.
It mirrors sports, I think. It’s the same thing, with like oh, this rookie… in three seasons, 03 Greedo is gonna be LeBron James. There’s a capitalist angle to that, in that a lot of the publications double as marketing firms or booking agencies. The whole thing is that you’re the ones who gave Kanye his first cover, so then you’re booking Kanye for every Kia Sports event at South by Southwest. I think critics and fans kinda pick up on that, but it’s shitty. It shouldn’t be our responsibility at all, we don’t get a piece of it. If Kanye becomes Kanye, it doesn’t matter. At that point, everybody’s saying that. I don’t know. I just wish people would listen to music and share songs they like.
To answer your original question, it’s just depressing to me. I don’t know how to navigate that world anymore. I was on the music internet since I was twelve, so there was probably fifteen years of me meeting people and just being enthusiastic about shit - Oh, you like these weird Rap-A-Lot tapes? I don’t know anybody in my real life who does this, we’re friends now! I made lifelong friends in that like 2003-2006 blog wave, and now it’s hard to deal with the motives of people in that world. Are you excited about this obscure thing, or are you climbing the ladder? Or maybe you’re not climbing the ladder, you’re doing some weird echo of climbing the ladder for… Twitter… bragging rights? It’s not even a professional thing? That shit’s fucked.
Hip-hop on the whole is in a really bad place spiritually right now. Obviously it’s always been very much a genre for capitalism, but the way people engage it now… I always use the example of Grand Puba wearing Tommy Hilfiger, where the whole thing was that black kids weren’t supposed to wear Tommy Hilfiger and so he was like fuck that, I’m going head-to-toe Tommy Hilfiger. Or like the Lo-Life stuff, where they decided they were just gonna jack all the Polo. They literally would just go into the shop and walk out with a rack of Polo. It was capitalist, but antagonistically so. But now, if hip-hop engages with fashion, it’s like I wanna sit next to Anna Wintour. It should be like fuck Anna Wintour!
And also, I’m old. So much of what I’m saying is colored by the lens of I’m a thirty-five-year-old man right now. Sometimes I wonder why I even have opinions about, like, the new Travis Scott record right now. It’s almost embarrassing to care. Like I think about when I was fifteen, and if some dude who was thirty-five was like I don’t like Outkast I’d be like fuck you dawg, how do you even know who Outkast is? I don’t think anybody over thirty even knew any of the music I listened to. Maybe the senior editor at The Source or something.
Totally, I even struggle with that. I can’t imagine a human who would, or should, care what I have to say about Thouxanbanfauni.
Exactly. And I think that’s cool - in some ways, it should be inaccessible to olds. It’s just not for me anymore. And really, that’s the way it should be. At the same time, other people my age who came up in the same channels didn’t get that memo, and they’re out here ranting about how Ugly God is destroying music or something. And then I feel like I need to go to bat, right? Somebody needs to say something. I think the thing that saddens me is how singular it feels like it’s becoming, with the exception of a few… really, just Kendrick. Certain people are elevated to be the geniuses of the artform, but where are the Show & A.G., people who would be deep but not in a weird oh, he’s the genius rapper. Everything’s either ignorant, over-the-top Rolling Loud music or it’s - when it was Thug and Future, there’s real depth to that music. Maybe I’m just missing it, but you listen to Uzi Vert or whatever and, maybe that’s not a great example. There’s depth to Uzi Vert. I think that a lot of it’s a function of getting older, but it’s also a function of how music’s consumed, and who’s controlling these channels. All this fucking new Juggalo shit would’ve gotten no traction twenty years ago. Imagine what Insane Clown Posse’s streaming numbers would’ve looked like in 1997. And would The Source just be like oh, we gotta put Twiztid on the cover. You can acknowledge, like, this is some shit for gutter white kids in Iowa. It is rap music, it has its values, but we don’t have to make it the center of the conversation.
I will say that my longtime dream has been to read a long piece about that part of Tennessee/Arkansas/Kentucky white youth culture for whom Slipknot and Three 6 Mafia were the end-all, be-all of music.
I didn’t even know that was a thing.
I was forever running into people from around there playing video games online and shit who just worshipped both of them.
I guess that makes sense, there’s a similar energy.
Yeah, and somewhere like Arkansas is geographically close to Memphis and probably culturally close to Iowa, although I do hate when people talk about places they haven’t been like that.
Where are you from originally?
Where in Virginia?
I lived in DC for like a decade.
Oh yeah! I think I knew that. When you were talking about being unable to let go of big claims you made about some artist early on, I wanted to say that I think Virginia’s entire high school population experienced that with Wale from like 2008-2013.
[laughs] I wanna go on the record to say that I was very much tentative about Wale. DC was not - ah, man, I’m gonna get angry tweets from him if I start talking about Wale. It’ll be on some obscure blog and he’ll still find it. My sense of DC is that they got onboard once he started getting popular. There was a real tentativeness. I remember Tabi Bonney was the dude - I was working at a record store at the time, and he was the guy where people would come in asking when the record was coming out. Wale… I guess he had Dig Dug. On the other hand, I think the cool thing that Wale did was that him getting that push made the DC scene viable. A whole generation of rappers, of all dispositions, came up underneath that. I was covering all that shit when it was happening, there was no… nothing. There wasn’t a scene, there was guys I thought were making good records doing open mic shit uptown, but nobody really cared outside other rappers. So good on Wale, I don’t mean to totally be a downer.
Is it any different running a shop? I could imagine it being more fulfilling, but also as basically the same pile of issues just viewed from a slightly different angle.
It’s different, but similar. It’s not the same thing - obviously no one comes to a record store trying to bet on Valee as the next big thing, but in a way it’s also more literally a commodity market. People want to buy this underground thing for $25 and then in a year it’ll be worth $60 because he’s so popular or whatever. It’s a literal representation of that in some ways, which I hate, which I’ve always wanted to push back against with the shop. When we opened the store we were so idealistic, like nah, this isn’t a $25 record, we’re selling it for $12. But then within a week all these dealers had come in and bought like $2000 of records for $1200 and we were all out of records. The strategy was not viable. Literally, within two weeks, all our records were gone.
I don’t know, it’s different in good and bad ways. People only care about the biggest things, particularly in hip-hop. There’s no middle class; it’s true on the internet too, but you see it really vividly in the shop where I’ll sell forty copies of a Kendrick record before I sell one copy of, you know, an Oddisee record. The J.I.D. album. Everybody’s buying the same shit, because they’re the end of the assembly line. If the dudes on the internet who are predicting greatness are the beginning of it, then at the end of it you get the guys who go to the record store like who’s the great rapper? Particularly with younger people, they all end up having the same record collection because they want to buy the great records. As opposed to… having taste, having life experiences. I have a bunch of go-go tapes because I lived in DC for a long time, that’s my life. There’s an autobiographical element to my collection. I think a lot of people getting into record collecting now, in part because the stores are all the same, are like well, I have Kendrick, I have N.E.R.D., I have the great things. But then I know we still have punk stores that stock hella records that I don’t recognize. And seem to sell them, too. I think there’s maybe a little more open-mindedness. With rap, I can’t tell you how many guys come in week in, week out to ask if I’ve gotten 36 Chambers yet. And then they just leave. Like, do you want to maybe get a Shyheim tape? There’s other paths to explore.
I do shudder to think of a physical manifestation of the digital rap economy.
It’s very depressing. The store is doing well, but I don’t know. There are really cool records that have been sitting there for three years at a reasonable price, and that personally hurts me. Everytime I look at them it’s like man, nobody bought this Gangsta Pat album yet? Again, I don’t know why people are buying records. For me, it was more of an exploratory thing, but I think more now people walk into a record store and they have their favorites in their head. I notice it a lot with rap too, I think a lot of it is tied up in that mythological, persona-driven thing. It almost never happens that I’m playing a rap record in the store and somebody comes in and they’re like wow, that’s great - I’ll buy it. That happens all the time with funk records and electronic records, people buying right off the turntable. Never happens with rap - it just sounds like rap until people get a sense of that artist’s identity, what it means to be a fan of that artist. And I think that’s cool; the psychology of the genre is so fascinating. But as a shop owner, it’s sort of frustrating to not be able to get people to care.
It’s cool that there can be a learning curve, or that the genre has so much depth, but it sucks to see that function as a quote-unquote barrier to entry as it collides with people feeling like they only need to know a little bit about rap.
And to be fair, I do think people get overwhelmed. But to me, it’s just such a genre of sound as well as identity. You should be able to drop the needle on a record and be like -
[a car passes, from which Cardi B’s Be Careful is audible]
just be like oh shit, that Cardi B record’s super tight! You don’t have to know who Cardi B is, she’s telling an interesting story and it bangs. It gets kind of boring, because of that. And I’m bad at business too, because I’ll suddenly decide to build a noise rap section and order these deep fucking, like, B L A C K I E records that sit for six months and then get sold on Discogs. But it’s the same everywhere - I think a lot of my hope for the store was that I was feeling the same way with the internet, and thought that if I did it in real life it would be different. And maybe it’s always been that way, like I worked in record stores growing up and hung out around them and might be looking at them through rose-tinted lenses. In my mind, Other Music was the hub for the most experimental music. I used to go up there and buy, like, Farmers Manual and shit, and then when they closed they posted their best sellers and it was all Belle and Sebastian. And it was probably the exact same thing, where two dudes in the store were really excited about weird shit, probably losing money on stocking those records, but in my head it was totally something. People appreciate it in our store, but it’s just a minority approaching music with that deep diver mentality.
I had the same question about the radio show - I only ever had one in college, but I really enjoyed just pushing the music outwards and never having to know too much about how, where, or if it was received. Or you’d only ever get calls from lunatics or people with that same sort of curiosity asking for an ID.
I did college radio - Cocaine Blunts actually started as me posting playlists from my college radio show, which was also Cocaine Blunts and Hip-Hop Tapes, and it’s kind of cool that Red Bull just says to go do what you want. When I started, I was a little self-conscious about it basically being college radio again, but that’s good! When I pitched, I was very clear that it wasn’t gonna be a podcast, that I was gonna play a bunch of records and back-announce them if I had to. And that’s it! I mean if you listen to the show sometimes I’ll be like that’s tight, but that’s the extent of opinion or anything. The nice thing about radio is that in that form the personality doesn’t eclipse the music. The music’s central to it, and I think a lot of what’s happening now with podcasts, or like Morning Zoo or Breakfast Club - all those guys wanna be bigger stars than the people they talk to.
This is probably just my bubble, but I always forget that those shows have massive audiences.
They’re huge! That’s what I was talking about before - that’s who’s defining the conversation around music right now. It’s not us, and by us I mean nerds. Combat Jack was the only dude who was a nerd in that whole circle.
Meek Mill was on The Breakfast Club talking about the music his son listens to. He was like my son just wants to listen to Tay-K, and everyone at the table was just like who’s Tay-K? Your job is to be interested in music - they probably know who Adam22 is, but they don’t know who Tay-K is. That’s a problem, you know? I think we’ve gotten to a point… I don’t know, is Charlamagne Tha God more famous than Tay-K?
So many of the street records that end up blowing via the internet seem to remain absolutely huge among that audience but barely ever percolate upwards into, you know, the critical or media class or whatever.
It percolates upwards when money gets behind it. And then whoever the Breakfast Club’s Atlantic contact is, they’re like alright, we’re workin’ the Tay-K record and then all of a sudden it’s a thing. And that’s the problem with it - these people become mouthpieces of the industry, they’re not coming from it with their hearts. It’s not about music, it’s about whatever the thing we’re all selling right now is.
So yeah, the radio show is just me playing songs that I like. Which shouldn’t seem revolutionary, but nobody else does it. Especially on a level where I’m playing old shit and new shit. Actually, you know where it happens is fucking KDAY. You ever been to LA and listened to KDAY? It’s so tight. You’ll just turn on the radio in the middle of the afternoon and they’ll be playing like a Luniz song from a soundtrack. It’s such a deep genre - presently and historically, there’s so much music. I was so happy that we do have an old school station here, but it’s like oh cool, you guys are just playing 2Pac ‘I Get Around’ three times instead of playing Cardi B three times an hour. It just seems like so much of the genre is neglected.
That’s cool to hear. It can be really disheartening how difficult it is to gin up interest into something you’re into but, like, passively so. There’s this whole arms race of breathless description.
Definitely, and I see that with the shop too. Really, the only way I sell records is by being like this is the album of the year. But if I’m like hey, this is really good, or even worse it’s cool, it’s pretty good - you might be into it, nothing. It’s to the point where I don’t stock very many things that I’m not enthusiastic about. Just because if somebody comes in asking what I think about the new Yo Gotti I’ll be like well, it’s Yo Gotti. I’m not a huge Yo Gotti fan, but if you are you might get different mileage out of it. But nobody approaches music like that, it’s why do I want this?
People are absolutely obsessed with canons, maybe by definition.
Yeah, it’s a problem man. It’s very frustrating, because in all my work I’ve always tried to push back against that. And all I was doing was creating an alternate canon. Now it’s like E-40 and Witchdoctor instead of Nas and Wu-Tang. Or whatever, E-40 and DJ Screw. But again, I think most people just consume music passively. It’s just something different to me. I guess I’m sensitive about it because it means a lot to me. The fun thing growing up with rap when it was still - I mean it was obviously popular to the extent that fucking Hammer was popular - but you’d meet somebody who knew who Common was and suddenly you’re on the same page. You had to have a certain level of investment. But now I meet these people, and it might as well be pop music to them. They wanna hear “T.R.O.Y. at the 90s hip-hop night. I don’t begrudge anybody that, but… I don’t know.
I think one of the big issues with the internet is the narrowing of collective cultural tastes or understanding. Like at this point somebody like Common has a universally agreed-upon best song, best album, etc.
Right, you could learn something from them. My friend Jordan, who I did the radio show with, is how I got into Bay Area music. He’s from out here, and when I met him he was like oh, yeah, I like Common - what do you know about Andre Nickatina? And for me, it was what the fuck is Andre Nickatina? You’d have different life experiences that you would bring to the table, and you could learn from each other.
Ricky Rawls was talking on Twitter about the problem with the Wikipedia era being that in like a year you can learn enough about anything to mistake yourself for an expert. And sure, you can fall into it and get into it just like anyone else, but the whole media landscape is shifting to supply content for people who are looking for a quick survey of things. It just zooms out on the spectrum of opinions that exist about something.
Yeah, you can tell pretty quickly whether or not somebody learned about rap music on the internet. I feel like I’m veering into High Fidelity asshole record clerk territory when I say that, but it’s true. It does have a flattening effect - like we were talking about with records, so much of my life is, like, hearing Nas on a basketball court and having no idea who it was. One of the nice things about being in the Bay Area is that there still is that effect. I mean, SOB x RBE is the biggest shit out here, but even older stuff you can still walk around and hear Mac Dre album cuts and shit. That’s the reason the store works here, and I don’t think it would work anywhere else. I still can sell a bunch of RBL Posse records. Not just to nostalgic people, but to people who are going back because they grew up on Mac Dre or whatever. If I put this store in Brooklyn I don’t think I could sell Smif-N-Wessun records the way I sell RBL Posse records.
What brought you out to Oakland initially?
That’s a good question. I don’t really know. I had been living in DC and was getting priced out, so I decided to go someplace more expensive. No, I think I had it in my head that I was gonna go live in New York for a while, but I was looking at apartments and it was all, like, deep triple Bushwick $1000 a month for a closet. And I figured if I was gonna be paying a lot to live, at least let me live on a lake. Let me go some place where it’s sunny. So I came out here, really on a whim. I did it on The FADER’s tab, they sent me to LA to cover a Lil B concert and I just told them to route me back to Oakland instead of sending me home. I didn’t tell anybody I was moving or anything. I got a two-week sublet in Berkeley and just went from there. I needed a change. And I always loved Bay Area music. I didn’t do nearly as much journalism as I would’ve liked to because I kind of melted down. I still might like to do that, go find Calvin T or whatever.
It’s cool to see so many of the Oakland-based writers or artists that I keep up with fully immersed in trying to document, if not preserve, its past. It’s effective in driving home how little people who aren’t from here know about it, which seems important.
Yeah, I feel that. That’s one of the things that I realized when I got here, that it’s very insular. I mean, I still don’t know anything about Oakland and I’ve been living here for seven years. It’s its own beast. Even just on a musical level, I say oh yeah, I know E-40 and people come in like you know Pizo the Beat Fixer? I don’t, actually. And it’s a weird time to be coming to Oakland and making proclamations about it. Like when I first moved out here, you’d talk to people from San Francisco and they’d be like man, you live in Oakland? You’re gonna get shot! That’s not true dude, don’t be a fucking asshole. And now all of a sudden those same people are like oh, I found this cute coffee shop in Oakland in like fucking Fruitvale. That factor is really real out here. I try to navigate respectfully in light of all that - the whole shop is kind of how do you build something that first and foremost caters to people that are from Oakland. That was another thing that I was feeling when I was looking at other record shops, like they could open up a shop on Dangerous Dame’s block and they wouldn’t have any idea who he was if you asked. You try to accommodate that, but then the flip side is you’re still running a gentrifying-ass business in a gentrifying-ass city.
I think I saw you call record stores one of the four horsemen of gentrification.
Yeah, totally. The shop came together really quickly, to the point where I didn’t think that much about it. There’s this weird dynamic, where our neighborhood’s semi-gentrified residentially but not really commercially, so we become this trojan horses where white ladies come in like I’m so happy you’re here! and you ask if they listen to records and they say no, but it’s great for the neighborhood. What exactly are you saying? I’m helping your property value rise? It doesn’t matter if I’m playing SOB x RBE, it’s still a cute little record store. Then the flip side of that is that if I don’t do it it’s just going to be a hipster tattoo parlor. At least there’s a gasp of somebody trying to do it.
The shop’s inventory is basically a completely different selection than what I see seemingly anywhere else - are people’s collections in Oakland that deep, or do people know to come to y’all first, or what?
I think what it boils down to is this - as far as I can tell, there's not a lot of financial incentive in running a specialized or heavily curated record store at this point, at least not in America. It's a lot easier and safer to stock the same fifty titles that are booming at Urban Outfitters and just chill out. The few shops that do still dig into any specific genre or niche with the same intensity that we do rap, it's usually only because a couple people who work there are excited about that music, and probably just barely breaking even stocking it. I think rap is an especially tough genre, and dance too, because there is so much unsellable chaff to push through while the handful of sellable titles are super sellable and will pretty much move as soon as they hit the floor. Like we were talking about, there's no middle. So part of the reason our shop seems better stocked than the other places is because I know how to differentiate the less popular or less valuable rap records that are great and just kinda slept on from the ones that are genuinely worthless, and I make sure the bins are full of the former so that shit looks better even at times when we are light on, like, OG Mobb Deep records. And the reality is that most record store bros don't even like these genres very much, or they have a very superficial Kendrick, Biggie, Run the Jewels interest in them, so there’s really no incentive for them to learn that shit.
I saw SOB x RBE in Denver about a year ago and it was like Beatlemania. All four members have their dedicated section of the fanbase, people there exclusively to see them or high-five them or whatever.
That’s so tight. I still haven’t seen them perform, but they’ll do three nights in a row at decently-sized venues in SF and shit. They’re the biggest shit out here right now, they’re great. When I was in Denver, I was surprised at how much Bay Area music I was seeing in shops and hearing. I feel like they’re in the continuum of like Detroit/Kansas City/Denver/Seattle/Portland, like Bay extended. I assume that distribution plays a part in a lot of that, like when I lived in DC Rap-A-Lot was the biggest shit. I remember when I interviewed J Prince he said that DC was a bigger market for them than Houston at that point. They just kind of clicked and continued to market shit there.
I think that certain distributors and certain labels conscientiously went into some smaller markets and tried to thrive. That’s what’s cool about music back then - you could still do that. I guess there’s some - like Ugly God is really big out here. Now, though, it’s more about certain sensibilities connecting. Ugly God’s big because of kids that grew up on Lil B, who isn’t giving them the same thing anymore. Same with Lil Ugly Mane, where it’s not uncommon to meet kids who are into punk and metal and rap out here. There’s always been an overlap with that shit, but I don’t think there’s a marketing arm that could’ve made that happen. I see it with the shop - we don’t have any fucking communication with these labels, there’s no regional push for anything. Maybe at radio; Ella Mai broke out here, apparently. Big Von broke her, the KMEL DJ.
I don’t think that crossover’s too uncommon now, especially with people like JPEGMAFIA crossing over. Part of it has to be that thrash and rap were both kind of breaking out here at the same time in the 80s, right?
I imagine it was divided at the time, but I mean I know some fifty year old ex-skaters who were definitely listening to Too $hort and that stuff. The big underground music in America is like house and dance stuff, based on what I see in the shop, and that’s what skaters are buying. When I was getting into deep underground hip-hop growing up, the only other kids listening to it were skaters. Like, you guys know Hieroglyphics? Why? Oh, it was on the blah blah blah VHS.
And then if you’re getting off on the sheer quantity of information there is to know about a release and its recording, Discogs techno shit has gotta blow everything else out of the water.
Right, and that colors it too. If that’s your home base the way that certain record stores were my home base, Discogs is a techno site at its core. That’s a really good point, that’s interesting. But I think also, it’s not commodifiable in a way - I mean I’m sure somebody’s working on it, I was just talking to my friend about how we’re 18 months away from some Galcher Lustwerk biter having a crossover hit with a Bhad Bhabie feature. I probably just invented it by saying it. Even with the Yaeji shit, that was a huge thing. It’d be nice for America to have good electronic music for once, we have such a shitty legacy. I was trying to explain to my friend in Germany what blog house was the other day and she was like this isn’t fuckin’ house [laughs].
Looking at Moodymann records on Discogs and seeing strictly European releases after like 1997 reminded me of all the boom-bap dudes who have to do the late-career Euro touring thing in order to draw anybody.
And there’s no distribution network either, half the time I have to import Detroit records from fucking Germany. But that’s always been the case, I feel like with that music there was a three-year window where it was really big in the Midwest, and then instantly all those dudes went to the UK to get money.
It’s crazy that there was a moment of overlap between underground scenes and the ability to get massively paid doing music. Ostensibly rap is a genre you can get rich on, but I’m not sure how much of that ends up in the underground.
I mean I’m sure that Bones makes money. Before it was the most popular music in America, I think that was one of the last true underground rap scenes. Say what you will, it all happened organically… but again, a lot of it’s Juggalo 2.0. Which was also a great American underground rap scene.
That’s a good point, it's just always been so hard for me to map that Team SESH stuff or whatever onto any sense of real-life impact. I have no doubt that the Bones megafans exist, I just never see them.
I think some of that is more orchestrated - what happened with XXX and those guys is that they were part of the next wave but ended up divorced from the punk politics of their predecessors. For them, it was just you know what, we will sign with Atlantic. But that whole first wave, Denzel Curry even, seemed to be fine just making weird underground music. I don’t love that music, so I didn’t cover it too closely, but I remember being like this is happening, wondering why Bones wasn’t on the cover of FADER. Like if I ran a culture magazine… but maybe they were actively rejecting that, I don’t know.
Do you have particular ideas, journalism-wise, that you’d like to eventually return to? Or is that time past?
I don’t have the energy right now. I’m the type of person where I put 1000% of myself into whatever I’m working on, and it’s very difficult to do that with a record store and then go home and hit the pavement doing some reporting. The times that I’ve tried to do that, even just criticism, I end up destroying myself, being up ‘til seven in the morning then having to go on a record buy at 10am. I’m old, when I was younger I could swing that shit. That’s why people are always like why do you delete your tweets? I delete my tweets because I have to sleep. I have to end the fucking avalanche of me ranting, otherwise I’ll be there ‘til seven in the morning doing it. I gotta figure out something, because I would like to. There’s not enough of me to go around.
I do like the blurbs in the shop newsletter.
That’s kinda the thing what we were talking about earlier. When it’s fun I can do that, but I was gonna do one last week and I was just sitting there not enjoying it. I’m the boss of my business, why am I gonna beat myself up? Like I was doing what I was doing before, which is owing some fucking FADER editor 300 words on whatever. If I have a free afternoon, and I have the drive to do it, I do that shit.
I’m honest to a fault, and that’s not good salesmanship. I feel like the goals of doing writing and good journalism are antithetical to running a business, because so much of sales is building myths and telling people that oh, this is a great and collectible classic album. I don’t have that in me. For years I thought that these press blurbs were such a waste of breath, but when you actually have to sell something they need to be that. That exact pitch of wasted breath. Another great record from RP Boo! You can’t be like well, it’s not as great as the last one because then people want the last one and you’re sold out. But I do want to go on record and say that the RP Boo is better than the last one, that shit’s sick. But those emails only work when I’m genuinely excited about them; when it becomes a chore, people who have been reading me for a long time can recognize when I don’t give a shit about it.
Totally, I think that enthusiasm comes through. That’s why it’s such a bummer that music writing has shifted in such a way that no one can be passionate about as many things as they need to write about to make a living.
The most positive reaction I can have to music journalism now is like yeah, that’s good. They didn’t fuck it up. That enthusiasm is gone, in the sense that somebody really needs to tell you about something, they’re excited and they want to share it. That’s what always drew me to music writing, but it has nothing to do with what you see on these websites. It’s somebody who probably agreed to review a record before they even heard it, then had to file it by 9am the next day so they could start working on the next thing.
That was a huge fear for me, a situation where I had to project this totally false magnitude of interest in Mac Miller so that I could eat.
I got really spoiled because my contract with XXL was just file two things a week, as long or short as you want. I asked if there was any other direction, but that was it. That’s really how you learn to write, too. I wish that could be my job. That was the Gawker model, too, and I think that’s the reason that the only people doing good journalism now are Gawker graduates.
You have to care to write, it’s not like fucking building treehouses. You can’t just phone it in. We’re at a time where the value of writing is in question, but the entire business model of these companies is to churn out this writing that objectively has no purpose. Don’t you want to make a case for this? There’s so many smart people, and then they’d get a job at Complex and get fucking trapped summarizing a Drake Instagram post or something. Or maybe they love Drake Instagram posts. But you’re absolutely doing it right.
I don’t know if you have any idea either, but why is video such a huge thing? Is that a real consumer preference?
No idea, dude! I can’t deal with it. First of all, I gotta turn off my music. Like if I’m staring at a screen, the only reason I’m doing it is to keep my eyes occupied while I’m listening to music. But secondly, I don’t want to think at somebody else’s pace. It’s really hard for me, the same thing with podcasts. If I put that shit on, if I need to watch a forty-minute Breakfast Club interview, I just fall asleep. I just can’t pay attention to it. And especially with me, where usually when I’m doing that it’s because I’m writing an article, and if you’re writing an article about Meek Mill you probably just read eighteen Meek Mill interviews. And it’s all the same - the nice thing about reading is that you can skip the stuff you already know, and you can skim it and get to the things that make each of those interviews unique.
I would be really curious - I mean, somebody must be listening. I think it’s a lot of people - I told a friend that I couldn’t listen to podcasts and they said it’s because I don’t commute. I think it’s a lot of people working desk jobs, and they’re filling out a spreadsheet in one window and have, like, an Anthony Fantano review in the other. But yeah I feel you, I don’t think it’s a great format for… thought. None of it’s scripted. And again, you’re really playing up that whole cult of personality.
That was a great thing about the old blog era, people fucking challenged you, and they were right sometimes. I learned so much from that. That XXL gig I got from an argument that I had with kris ex. I think it was also about the Clipse, it was probably very similar to that Combat Jack. It was like a week of us going back, and it ended with him calling me like you wanna come blog for us?
It was a community where, like - it’s just the internet is different, man. I saw a tweet recently, you know the whole No Jumper thing with that one dude? Somebody posted something that Adam said where it was like oh yeah he helped for a little while but it didn’t make an impact. Bro, nobody was thinking about making an impact. We were just sharing music with our friends. Even in the Tumblr era, nobody was like well, what’s my business angle, what’s my clout? It’s very depressing. My therapist says I’m grieving over the internet [laughs]. But it’s true dude, it was such a positive space for smart people and it’s just been overrun by narcissists and fucking snake oil salesmen.
It’s always funny to hear people with the nah, I’m not a Pitchfork drone… I actually exclusively read this other guy.
Pitchfork was what we were pushing against, in a way. Again, it all comes back to music doesn’t matter as much to most people, and it’s just a thing they thrown on based on some recommendation. This is the thing, I’m listening to it now. That’s the nice thing about the shop - I haven’t learned this yet, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t have to know any of this shit. Even something like XXX, I was like do I stock this, do I not? But either way it doesn’t matter. If someone comes in and asks if we have it, I can tell them we sold out. I don’t have to be engaged at all if I don’t want to be. And that’s a luxury, even if I haven’t learned - my instinct is still oh no, everybody on Twitter’s talking about the Travis Scott album! I have to go listen to it and be angry. Well, actually, no - I don’t have to think about Travis Scott ever again, and that’s a huge freedom. But I’m trained, I’m like one of those soldiers who comes home from war and is digging foxholes in their backyard. I’m just so trained for combat internet music beat, but it really doesn’t matter.
I think the healthiest choice I’ve made in last few months was basically ignoring all of the various G.O.O.D. Music releases.
And that’s a great example, too. They did physicals on the Kanye but the other ones are only through the website, so even if I wanted to stock them in my shop it would just get to a point where I’m angry that I can’t get a record that I don’t like. It’s like the Nas record sucks, but I should have it here.
I wish I could help people to care less. Just have personal interests and have them be yours. That’s something I’ve learned a lot in the last few years especially, like I don’t even wanna share music. It’s terrible to say, but it’s so nice to just have something where my relationship is between me and the record, and I don’t have to worry about the meta-conversation. More and more as I get older, the things that I like about what I like a lot connect with almost nobody anyway. You’re not convincing anybody, and it’s such a noisy landscape that’s it’s very rare that… like that new Laurel Halo record is fucking awesome, and the people who are going to listen to it are all my friends already. I’m not gonna convert somebody who’s asking about the new Travis Scott by being like nah, did you hear the new Laurel Halo?
I definitely do still have that compulsion where I love something and immediately attempt to propagate my specific reaction, which is a total fool’s errand.
It totally is, and I learned that with the shop too. The market’s the market, you can’t push against the tides of the ocean. If you know people with sympathetic tastes, then for sure, but as far as going beyond that bubble it just doesn’t work. You’re just at the mercy of it. Either that, or you just tap out.
On a semi-related note, I was wondering what, if anything, you think music criticism has left to offer. Of maybe what you’d hope to achieve if you returned to it.
I mean, I guess it’s a question of what sort of criticism you’re doing. Like we were saying before, you need to be introducing a new idea or new information, and that’s something that I don’t see in music criticism. Most of it is either regurgitating a press release or analyzing the record through an existing template. Like, this is the feminist reading of the City Girls album. I guess that has value, but best-case scenario you’re learning about feminism, which has value but doesn’t teach you anything about the record. That’s almost unfair to the City Girls album because that shit’s way more interesting. Obviously a good critic would be able to do both, but that’s rare. But I think it has value to the individual that’s trying to learn about it if you do it right, it’s just that all of the forces in the economy right now are pushing against doing it right.
Like I think it’s cool that Pitchfork is doing those Sunday Review things. That’s basically the only music writing I read at this point. Even then they’re hit-or-miss, but at least there’s a platform that offers the ability to do that. People don’t have any fucking time anymore. How many rushed Travis Scott reviews do you think came out in the past twenty-four hours? For a while, I was doing it, and I was just so wrong. I wrote the 808s and Heartbreak review for NPR in probably a week turnaround. They did two reviews, Oliver Wang did the positive and I wrote the negative.
That’s a crew.
[laughs] And then a month later I was going through some shit with a girl, in Mexico listening to that album like no, this is awesome! I wanna go back and revise it, it totally makes sense now! And you know ten years from now some guy’s gonna read it at my funeral and everybody’s gonna say oh, he said he hated that 808s and Heartbreak. I did for a minute, but it’s art man! It evolves, and you evolve with it. You can change your mind, that’s what it’s there for.
I hope I wasn’t too negative about everything. You know what’s dope? It’s dope that people are still doing it. I just wish there was a better… I wish there was an outlet that would let young people have a platform and have access, but do nothing else to them. It could be good really easily. It probably would mean making less money, but nobody’s making any fucking money. All these businesses are failing anyway, you know? We’re just delaying the inevitable. The inevitable pivot to video. You might as well give somebody a check. I think the reality of it is that everybody involved needs to recognize that there’s no money in it, that we can just do shit to connect with the smallest circle of people and take pride in it.