A Rational Conversation Election Special: Kelefa Sanneh and Alex Wagner On Transitioning From Music to Political Journalism...
A Rational Conversation is a column by editor and writer Eric Ducker. Every week he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.
In 2008 Alex Wagner and Kelefa Sanneh left their jobs in music journalism to get more involved in the political world. Wagner was the Editor-in-Chief of The Fader before she became the Executive Director of the non-profit Not On Our Watch; next, she began covering The White House for AOL‘s Politics Daily website, and now she hosts the political roundtable NOW with Alex Wagner on MSNBC every weekday. Sanneh, meanwhile, was a pop-music critic at The New York Times from 2002 to 2008, when he left to join the staff as a writer for The New Yorker. There, Sanneh has explored a variety of subjects; this year, however, he’s notably written several major features about Republican candidates and the senate race in Arizona, as well as discussing the campaign on the magazine’s website. As the presidential election is looming next week (vote, please), and is the first one that these two journalists have covered extensively in their work, Ducker met with Wagner and Sanneh to talk about their transitions from covering music to politics.
Eric Ducker: When you got into journalism, was covering politics always something you aspired to?
Kelefa Sanneh: After I graduated college I was doing both [political and music journalism] at once. During the day I was editing for this race and culture academic journal, then at night I was freelancing music articles. Then the music thing, to my surprise, became an actual job, so I switched over to that since that was what I was fully obsessed with. It was fun to be able to spend six years doing it insanely full-time – going to three or five shows a week, listening to CDs all day, every day. Then it became fun for me to do stories where, as part of the research, you would need to read some books or do something different. I don’t think I necessarily had a plan; it was more that, in 2002, I was incredibly excited to have the opportunity to spend all my time doing music, and in 2008, it was exciting to still cover some music, but to also do other stuff.
Alex Wagner: I’ve always been interested in politics, and growing up in D.C. that was a huge part of my high-school experience – whether it was protesting on the Mall or just being engaged with the issues, all while feeling at odds with what politics would entail if I chose it as a career. In college, I had an internship with the San Francisco Bay Guardian that was definitely not involving music journalism, but more about current events and news. That was interesting to me, but ultimately, when I’d just gotten out of college, I felt that culture was what I was much more interested in. First I was at Ray Gun and Bikini, then Tokion, and that set me on a path to do the cultural stuff. Inbetween stints at Tokion and The Fader, I worked for the Center for American Progress because there was always this push and pull within myself. I always felt somewhat conflicted about not devoting a part of my life to the issues. It was after I left The Fader and started working for Not On Our Watch that I felt that the two worlds were coming together: there was the Hollywood cultural side, and the human rights and foreign policy side. I started contributing to Politics Daily, and that got me into more, proper political journalism. The biggest surprise was that I always felt like it would be hard to write interesting stuff if you were writing about politics, but it turns out that it’s not hard at all. Maybe it’s a function of growing older and the insane times in which we live, but I find it really exciting.
ED: When you left The Fader and went to Not On Our Watch, did you assume you were done with journalism?
AW: No, because I knew I wasn’t going to be running a non-profit for the rest of my life. It takes a very specific skill set to do that, and I’m not denigrating people who run non-profits at all, but I knew that at some point I wanted to get back into journalism. Knowing how far I could go with being at an independent magazine, I had to figure out how to find a different path, and Not On Our Watch was a great bridge to finding that path.
ED: Kelefa, when you when you were growing up, were you similarly politically engaged?
KS: In a certain sense. That stuff was always bound up for me with culture. My father is a professor of the history of religion, and both of my parents come from Africa, so I guess that stuff was always in the air. In high school, when I got into punk and punk was all I cared about, my interest in politics was always filtered through subculture and punk politics. There’s a tension that I thought was interesting then that I still think is interesting now, which is the idea that people in a subculture listen to weird music partly because it’s weird, and partly because it’s out of step with the rest of the country, and they also often have political views that are out of step with the rest of the country. The difference between politics and music, in theory, is that with politics you want the rest of country to come around to how you feel, and you don’t necessarily want that with music. There’s an interesting tension whenever you have politics being filtered or mediated through some subcultural group, because you’re saying, “I’m not like you, I’m different from you, I believe different things than you, but I know what’s best for you.” The tension that results when culture and politics collide is always interesting, and that’s made me simultaneously interested and skeptical in the kinds of politics you find in musical subcultures. Certainly writing a lot about rap, you have to be skeptical of the role of politics in music, because you get used to writing about rappers that you love without thinking that they have the cure for what ails us; you get used to a level of cognitive dissonance. So for me, a lot of the appeal of political journalism was less from a point of advocacy and more from a point of view of, “Here is a group of people disagreeing with each other.” The interesting part to me is trying to figure out what the issues are, why they are disagreeing, and how are they coming to these viewpoints. I think if there’s a similarity [between music journalism and political journalism], it was that. When I write about music, I’m always trying to figure out the same things: Who likes this stuff? Why do they like it? Why does it resonate? And if I’m talking about politics, those are the same questions I want answered. For this issue or this candidate, who supports them, and why are they resonating?
ED: So when you came to The New Yorker, were you hired to write about culture or for politics?
KS: They were, and are, extraordinarily patient in letting me write about what I think was interesting. Before I was hired at The New Yorker, I had done a profile of Creflo Dollar, the megachurch pastor. That obviously wasn’t music, but it was culture and religion. And the first piece I wrote [for The New Yorker after I got hired was about Trinity, Obama’s old church in Chicago. I went to services there over the weekend and wrote about what was going on, and there was a little bit about black liberation theology and the history of that. It was a never cut and dry, “We want you to write about this and not about that.” It has always been a follow my nose sort of thing, and when I get obsessed with something, they tend to let me write about it. When I found myself reading political blogs all day long, that naturally led to writing about Ron Paul or Newt Gingrich or the senate race in Arizona.
ED: How hard was it to break into political journalism?
AW: [At Politics Daily] I was asked to come and cover the White House having had no experience doing proper political coverage or experience with the White House, which is by no means a traditional path.
KS: And I still haven’t broken in.
ED: Have you had issues being taken seriously by other political reporters?
AW: I always have issues being taken seriously.
KS: Writing about music, doing it everyday for six years, in theory you’re an expert. In practice, every new band or new article, you’re not starting from zero, but you don’t know as much as the band and their biggest fans. So part of what you realize is that you’ll never really be the expert the way the true experts are.
ED: But in some sense you’ve seen these stories before. You have some idea of the framework towards figuring out.
KS: But you also get a better and better sense of what you don’t know, and how big the musical world is, and how much people who really are experts really do know. I might think I’m an expert in this little thing or that little thing, but even there I don’t even really know the half of it. The flipside is that all that really means is that you have an obligation to do enough work and reading and research to write something where you don’t embarrass yourself. You don’t have any excuse whether it is your field or isn’t your field. There’s no excuse for not doing a good job. Which is just to say that for me, as someone who is not a full-time political journalist, but is someone who sometimes writes about politics, it’s just as scary as writing about that as anything else. You’ve got to do the research and hope you don’t screw it up.
AW: Institutional memory counts for a lot in politics, but at the same time, part of the reason people like the show that I do or have liked things that I’ve written is because the “weakness” can sometimes be the strength, because I’m looking at things with fresh eyes. That doesn’t mean I don’t talk to the experts, I don’t read up, and I don’t get the facts straight – but at the same time, a new perspective is important, especially in politics where you can really get fatigued and not see things to be as outrageous or perhaps compelling as they might be. If you look at the election, politics has changed a lot in the past eight years, and really in the last four years.
ED: In what ways?
AW: The media cycle is way shorter. Social media didn’t exist in 2000. Obama is not a boomer, he’s something else. I’m not sure what generation he officially belongs in, but he has a lot more in common with music journalists and people who were involved in culture in some way than seasoned White House vets. He’s not a creature of Washington, and I think he’s made a point of that; he’s been attacked for his lack of interest in the sausage making that goes on there. That administration and this election cycle and this media cycle are good for newcomers. It’s much more accessible, and it moves a lot faster.
KS: Also for me as a reader, I like reading people where you get the sense that they’re figuring something out. That can be a challenge, but it can also be an opportunity to write about whatever subject, and learn about it as you write it; hopefully the readers feel like they’re learning something, too. It can be helpful, and that’s one reason why a lot of the writers I like at The New Yorker seem to write exclusively about things that they are not necessarily experts in. If I’m reading something by Burkhard Bilger and he’s writing about some weird world he’s entering, you can figure it out with him.
ED: When it comes to readers and viewers, who are more brutal: people who disagree with your opinion about music or people who disagree with your opinion about politics?
AW: Twitter didn’t exist when I was at The Fader, but it’s real easy to find out when people disagree with you these days. The audience is also much bigger.
KS: For me, it’s a little bit of the opposite. When I wrote about music, I was issuing judgments, and for me part of the fun was this idea that you were passing severe judgments. And I say “fun” because in the world of music, unlike other worlds, nobody is taking a critic’s word as gospel, necessarily. You acknowledge that you’re not making or breaking someone’s career, but you’re issuing strong opinions. When I write about politics, I don’t tend to do that. It’s not like a concert review where you’re like, “This band is terrible” or “This band is the greatest.” I’m not going out and spending some time with a candidate to then say, “He’s awful, he’s the worst, don’t vote for him.” Not that there aren’t strong responses either way, but it’s a different kind of writing I’m doing now than what I did then. It’s funny, Alex might have a stronger point of view in politics than in music, and for me it’s kind of the opposite.
AW: Definitely. We have a conversation on the show, and there certainly are people who disagree, but my point of view is out there and upfront, which I think lends itself to more feedback.
KS: Whereas The Fader was not in the business of destroying, criticizing, or ripping apart bands.
AW: We only put stuff in there that we liked.
KS: So in that sense, our trajectories are kind of the opposite.
ED: Where do you think people are more open to having their opinions changed, politics or music?
KS: It’s pretty tribal either way. It’s one thing if you’re a metal fan and there’s this review about this weird new metal album and you decide to pick it up. At The Times, I always assumed I was writing mainly, if not overwhelmingly, for an audience that was willing to read the article, but was maybe never going to hear the music. It wasn’t a question of trying to get them into this band or trying to get people to stop listening to this band, it was more like hoping to let people know there is this corner of the musical world that exists. I never thought I was trying to change opinions.
ED: But to take two entirely hypothetical situations, let’s say a band puts out its fourth album, and its second and third had been garbage, but the new one is an interesting departure and you write an article saying, “People should pay attention to this,” or you do a story on a candidate and you want to tell people, “You might think this candidate is about this one thing, but this is actually where he is coming from.”
AW: I feel like that situation is more relevant to me. I won’t say there’s advocacy, but there’s definitely a point of view on our show and there is an argument constantly being made, whereas Kelefa isn’t really trying to persuade people one way or another.
ED: I’m not even saying “persuade,” I’m saying “educate.”
KS: If anything I’m more trying to get people to understand what the debate is and why people hold these opinions, especially because so much writing about politics operates from the assumption that people who disagree with you are stupid or evil. If anything, I’d be more likely to write something that nudges people towards, “No, there’s actually interesting and complicated reasons why people disagree.” To me, in both music and politics, it’s about trying to give people interesting ways to think about things, as opposed to actually changing their mind.
AW: I would agree with Kelefa’s initial response that both music and politics are incredibly tribal. Republicans I’ve talked to about the Democratic perspective and friends of mine who don’t like Animal Collective, they’ve both said, “It’s not for me.” That said, if you give people enough exposure to something and they think about it enough, you can always change people’s minds.
ED: Do you see any similarities between music’s hype cycle and the hype cycle of news?
AW: Herman Cain is the closest you can get to a band that everyone likes and then everyone realizes, “Maybe this is the worst band in the world.” But I think generally speaking, this is an exceptional year for that kind of stuff. It’s an election year, which is inherently more volatile.
KS: Alex, going back to what you were saying earlier about growing up in D.C. and going to marches, I get the feeling that for you, getting into political journalism maybe partly comes out of those convictions. Is that how you think about it?
KS: In a “change the world” kind of framework?
AW: No. First and foremost, it’s about education, information, and telling the story.
KS: But with a purpose.
AW: Yeah, but today [on the show] we talked about Obama and drones, and there has been a lot of discussion about whether the left has been critical enough about the President’s counter-terrorism policy. And if it was just about pushing forward a liberal agenda
KS: I don’t mean an agenda. I mean pushing forward issues that you think are important.
AW: Yeah, but that’s the same thing as writing a story about things you’re interested in. There has to be some sort of editorial choice at some point.
ED: You should have some sort of connection to your material, is what you’re saying.
AW: Or you should have some reason you think people should watch it, or listen to it, or read about it.
KS: That makes sense.
ED: Kelefa, you had a little bit experience on the last election, but this is the first one you’ve covered throughout its full course, right?
KS: Yeah, and I went to the Republican National Convention this year. But I hasten to add that The New Yorker has professional, serious, hardcore political journalists, and they kind of let me do some things here and there.
ED: Well, the presidential race is the biggest show in professional journalism. Seeing it up-close, firsthand, was it still eye opening and enlightening?
AW: It’s enthralling. In my humble opinion, the Republican Party has atrophied to the point where they started running clownish candidates. I don’t think Mitt Romney is a clown, but Herman Cain isn’t a serious politician; I don’t think Michele Bachmann is a substantive person, although she is a serious politician. What that meant when covering the race as a story was the characters were incredible. It’s exciting because there is a big choice about where we want to go as a country, and it’s going to be close. So there’s a built-in cliffhanger aspect to it.
KS: It’s funny how widely and quickly politics goes from being super unglamorous to super glamorous. In other words, you’re watching candidates, and it was not that long ago that they were in the backroom of a general store speaking to some local club. It seems like the furthest thing in the world from the centers of power. It’s amazing how, as the campaign goes on and things get whittled down, all of sudden, the candidates are a huge deal and some of the biggest people on the planet. That’s interesting to watch, the relationship between the mediagenic, glamorous parts of politics and the nerdy, totally unglamorous parts of politics. I have a different interpretation than Alex of the ideologies, so watching the Republican coalition shift slightly and figure out what its identity is has been extremely interesting to me. To be honest, in some ways as a story, that’s been more where my attention is than the President. I probably spend more time reading conservative blogs than liberal blogs, just because that’s where the interesting ideas and battles have been happening.
ED: If you stay in journalism, is politics what you want to stay covering?
AW: Kelefa has many areas he covers. Have you liked doing the political stuff?
KS: Yeah. Doing music for so long, I don’t think I ever used a business card. If you weren’t on the list at a club and you gave them your business card, they might throw it back in your face. I’ve never gotten into a music show with a business card. But with politics, people love business cards, it’s crazy. It’s amazing.
AW: It’s super-transactional in politics.
KS: [Politics] seems like something I’ll stay obsessed with, especially because I feel like I’ve just started to try to figure it out. I’m trying to learn these histories and issues to have the background you need to talk intelligently about this stuff.
ED: Do you feel that you’re as obsessed with politics as you were when you were most obsessed with music?
AW: I definitely am – more so, I think. I was always more interested in culture at large than specifically just music, and I don’t think I made a secret of that when I was at The Fader. As I said, politics has been something that’s been part of my life since I was little, and I feel like I’ve finally figured out a way to be involved with it and talk about it in a way that feels authentic, and that I’m really passionate about.
KS: It’s always fun to write about something that people care about. One of the difficulties in music is that throughout the aughts, as you saw a certain amount of splintering, it was not always clear that even super popular music was something people cared about enough to fight over. Part of the appeal of politics as a subject for many, many writers is that it’s something people care to fight over: fights are fun to write about, interesting to write about, and challenging to write about. There are things I’m obsessed with that I don’t feel the need to write about. I’m obsessed with coffee and boxing and hip-hop, and I’ve written about those things, but I don’t feel the need to write about them every year. Because of the way politics keeps changing and because so many people are paying attention to it, you can write about it year-in and year-out. Again, I’m not a political journalist, and politics is just a fraction of what I do, but as long as they let me, I’ll be happy to have some of that in the mix.
ED: Do you still listen to music at the level you once did?
ED: At an even average level?
AW: I’m sub-average at this point.
KS: I listen to it like a maniac. I maniacally listen to music.
AW: I just downloaded Roy Orbison.
KS: Where are they from?
AW: They’re a three-piece all-girl band.
KS: They’re named after Joy Orbison, of course.
ED: It’s a clever play on words.
KS: There are certain genres I listen to at different places depending on whether I’m at work or at home, but yes, I listen to music all day long, obsessively, like I always did.
AW: I don’t. I don’t have time to, in a certain way. I feel like I’m so far behind the curve, I have to go way back to the 1960s and ‘70s.
Adam Bhala Lough
Adam Bhala Lough is an acclaimed filmmaker. His cinematic efforts have appeared numerous times at Sundance, he’s been nominated for a Spirit Award for his writing, and Filmmaker Magazine named him one of the “Top 25 Independent Filmmakers To Watch.” Lough specializes in making music films that prove to be deeply candid portraits of his subjects, like his controversial 2009 documentary on Lil Wayne, The Carter, and his appropriately kaleidoscopic biopic The Upsetter: The Life and Music of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. He started his career behind the camera, however, as a hip-hop-obsessed college student making videos for one of the most innovative, enigmatic MCs to ever touch the rap game, MF DOOM. Here, he describes in intimate detail his eye-opening adventures capturing the mercurial DOOM on celluloid during the rapper’s ‘90s-era prime, at the height of the era’s underground hip-hop revolution.
In the late ‘90s, independent hip-hop had reached its plateau, and I was a self-confessed backpack-rap fanatic. I had just moved to New York City from Virginia, and religiously attended every show I could, witnessing acts as popular as Company Flow and as obscure as J-Zone at venues like Tramps. I trolled around Fatbeats, drooling over costly import vinyl I knew I’d never buy (except the Bobby Digital Japanese version, which I dropped forty bucks on); I even waited in the cold for an hour to shake hands with the aging members of De La Soul. It was in the fall of 1999, though, that I attended the most important show of my life – one that would change the path of my filmmaking career henceforth: MF DOOM at the Knitting Factory.
DOOM, born Daniel Dumile and formerly known as Zev Love X of the rap trio KMD, was performing songs from Operation: Doomsday on a bill with Atmosphere. Wearing a mask and appearing on stage for one of the first shows since his five-year sojourn after the death of his brother, fellow KMD member Subroc, DOOM‘s performance that night was magnificent. His legendary partner MF GRIMM showed up in a wheelchair to watch from the balcony. Chuck D and his new rock band, Concentration Camp, were headlining, but everyone was there to see DOOM. There was a feeling in the room that we were all witnessing something special, something unique and mysterious; in fact, after DOOM got off stage, the entire crowd left, and Chuck seemed pissed.
It was at this particular show that I met a man named “DJ Fisher” who professed to manage DOOM‘s career. DJ Fisher and I talked about the opportunity of making a music video for one of DOOM‘s songs. I told him I would do it for free because I had access to camera equipment and discounted film stock through NYU, where I was studying. He liked that idea, and responded well to my passion and positive energy. I didn’t just want to direct a video for the hell of it: I wanted to direct a video because I was so completely moved by DOOM‘s performance that night, and the mysterious aura around him. There was something incredibly bizarre about him. He didn’t follow the day’s expected rap trends, for one – he was far too individual for that. Instead, he was a thirty-something, overweight, prematurely balding, golden-age-era rapper in sweatpants and a silver WWF wrestling mask; onstage, DOOM would stalk back and forth as he spit out incredibly abstract lyrics over Sade samples – referencing Jeopardy Daily Doubles, shouting out ancient comic book characters while revealing that he wrote his masterpiece album from a prison cell (BCDC-O Section, Cell #17, up under the top bunk).
Later that night, I went back to my East Village apartment and drank a couple 40s with my homeboy Mike Konrad. I remember we blasted Operation: Doomsday so loud the upstairs neighbor came down to complain. It was a great night. Over the course of the next month or so, I wrote a couple of video treatments for DOOM, the first for a song called ‘Red & Gold,’ for which I proposed filming a beatdown in slow motion. I also wrote a treatment for ‘Hey!’ that would have featured DOOM portraying a “normal guy,” playing various characters like a janitor and a deli owner, the concept being he’s an MC who also works a 9-to-5 job. He rejected both ideas, naturally, and said instead he wanted to do a video for ’?,’ the penultimate song on Operation: Doomsday, co-starring his friend, the rapper Kurious; I was pretty excited about that option, as I’d get to work with not just one but two great artists. I suggested we do a real basic video set in a Brooklyn park, depicting DOOM and Kurious just hanging out and passing time, playing chess, sitting on benches, drinking some beers. That was the idea: keep it simple. DOOM liked that approach, and said he’d be coming up to New York in a few weeks, as he lived in Atlanta at the time.
Back then, I was living on 13th Street and 3rd Avenue in an apartment with two friends. I was paying $600 a month for a tiny 8’ x 10’ bedroom with no closet – probably the same size as the jail cell in which DOOM wrote the album. I was a film student at NYU, which was quite a scene at that particular moment in history. Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs was in my “Experimental Film” class; one of the kids from TV on the Radio worked at the edit room checkout counter. And, week after week, sitting in class next to me was Ben Rekhi, the Northern Cali-bred filmmaker who would go on to produce Bomb the System, my first feature film as a director. Ben would also go on to serve as cinematographer on both DOOM videos I would direct. He would eventually become a Hollywood producer of some renown, but at the time he was on a career path to shoot film for a living: over the summer, he had interned with the illustrious Roger Deakins, the great shooter for the Coen Brothers, among many other auteurs. Ben was very comfortable with the ARRI-S, the 16mm camera we shot both MF DOOM videos on; in fact, he moved around like a maniac with that thing on his shoulder. The ARRI-S is an old camera, originally invented for documentary work. It is not crystal sync, so you cannot shoot sync sound with it, but it shoots slow motion and has three different fixed lenses – all good attributes for shooting a low budget, documentary-style music video.
We decided to shoot the video in Sunset Park, in order to take advantage of our friend Ethan Higbee’s apartment as crew headquarters. Ethan was also in our film class, though he never showed up: he spent more time painting in Brooklyn and hanging out with a beautiful European girl who happened to be roommates with a British-Arab girl I was madly in love with. Ethan allowed us to set up in his apartment and store our equipment there. The night before the shoot, Ben and I went out to Sunset Park to scout the location; it took us so long to get out there, however, the sun had already set. As we returned home, I got a call from DOOM: he asked that I buy a liter of Jack Daniels for the shoot. I went to the liquor store and bought a bottle; that night, I drank a quarter of it with my friend Perez. I fell asleep late and nervous, and woke up very early on day one of the shoot.
Operation: Doomsday was originally released in a small quantity on Bobbito’s personal record label, Fondle ‘Em Records; when I had initially met with DOOM about the videos, that was the label with which he was associated. But a mere few weeks before we shot the videos, DOOM sold Operation: Doomsday to a small upstart label called SubVerse Records, owned by the former Company Flow MC Bigg Jus and a white dude that looked like he worked for Morgan Stanley. SubVerse had agreed to buy DOOM a new pair of boots and one outfit for the shoot – or at least that was what DOOM told me. Call time was 7:00 AM, but by the time DOOM finally picked me up in his wife’s car, it was already midday. I was freaked out that the sun was going to set on us, but DOOM made me take him to Foot Locker on 14th Street and buy him a new pair of Timbs and an outfit. I put it on my credit card, assured SubVerse would pay me back; I took DOOM‘s word for it, as there was no other alternative. SubVerse did eventually reimburse me when I delivered them the finished video, but I think they did it more out of the goodness of their hearts, not because it was in DOOM‘s contract. They saw how broke I was: at that moment, I was living off my parents and working part-time at some bullshit NYU work-study job. I could barely afford the $100 Timbs, but I wanted to make DOOM happy and get out to the location as soon as possible.
Timbs procured, we headed out to Brooklyn. While stuck in traffic, I chatted a little with DOOM‘s wife, Jasmine. She was a sweet, genuine, good-natured woman whom I remember fondly; she made me feel very secure, and helped ease some of my nervousness. I remember looking at DOOM‘s CD collection in the car; it was one of the biggest, most impressive collections of hip-hop I’ve ever seen. We finally arrived at Ethan’s apartment a good six hours past call time. Ben and Ethan were both waiting when we arrived; they would serve as my crew for the entire shoot. Kurious was there, too, and he and DOOM went to work on the Jack Daniels immediately. DOOM was drinking heavily that entire weekend. The previous time I’d hung out with him, he was drinking a Budweiser in a brown bag with a straw while conducting an interview at SubVerse Records’ office with a white reporter from some music magazine.
For the first shot, Kurious and a friend he’d brought along who claimed to be an up-and-coming MC sat on Ethan’s stoop drinking while DOOM stood in front of the camera, rapping directly into the lens while wearing his plastic “Doctor Doom” mask. This mask, meant to represent Doctor Doom of Fantastic Four fame, was actually a WWF Kane mask purchased from Toys “R” Us. Years later, DOOM would get a proper mask made, but that day the Toys “R” Us job had to do; it had actually been spray-painted silver by the famous graffiti writer KEO. KEO – aka the pioneering white rapper Lord Scotch, aka Scotch 79th aka Blake Lethem – would become a close friend of mine, and play a pivotal role in my first feature Bomb the System. There were rumors that DOOM was homeless at one point; I’m not sure as to the validity of these rumors, but what is true is that DOOM slept on KEO‘s sofa for a year or so. Those guys were inseparable, but eventually fell out over bullshit money issues (as many, many people did with the Supervillain).
As the day wore on and DOOM got progressively drunker, we moved into the park. Kurious did not want us to shoot him playing chess with DOOM: he felt it was too ‘Wu-Tang-like,’ and worried he’d be accused of biting. I thought that was ridiculous, and we shot it anyways. In retrospect, Kurious was right: it was a complete bite of a shot in Wu’s clip for “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’” – but to me that was okay because that was a video that had come out when I was thirteen years old: I was paying homage to an image from my childhood, and therefore I was allowed to steal it. By the time we got to the chess sequence, DOOM had gotten pretty drunk, and the drunker he got, the quieter and gentler he became. As the day wore on, it got colder and colder, and soon the sun was setting. Kurious, DOOM‘s wife, and our entire crew had all left, but DOOM didn’t seem to mind; every shot was okay with him, and he trusted me to make it good. Kurious came across to me as the opposite: he didn’t seem to respect me at all and sized me, Ben and Ethan up right away as a bunch of corny, film-school pothead amateurs, which probably wasn’t far from the truth. Luckily, we shot Kurious’ verse twice; in the middle of a shot, he disappeared without even saying a word to anyone. I never saw him again.
At one point late in the day, Ben and I shot DOOM rapping into the camera with the Twin Towers directly behind him, silhouetted in the twilight. Those buildings would appear in two music videos I made that year; one year later, they would fall to the ground. I would videotape their destruction from the roof of my girlfriend’s apartment in downtown Manhattan; I’ve never looked at that MiniDV tape again. After we wrapped, we reconvened at Ethan’s apartment and hung out for an hour or so with DOOM, Jasmine, and what was left of the crew. After we smoked some herb, DOOM started to head home. On his way out the door, we realized his new Timbs were missing; it turned out Kurious had walked off with them.
The next day we would shoot the second location for the video: the infamous 205 1st Avenue – a classic East Village, late ‘90s apartment. I lived there for one year in 1999, and my dynasty passed the apartment on to Ben and his clan. It had a huge terrace that was perfect for massive house parties, and an open door policy. It was the type of apartment where you could do anything you wanted: if you needed a place to shoot a scene, that was your spot – no one cared, and everyone creative was invited in. People would stop by at all hours of the day and night just to hang out and freestyle to instrumental rap beats or drink 40’s and smoke weed without hassle. Ben, Ethan and I would shoot a public-access television show called Public Sex Acts in the apartment every week, with our roommates Sebastian Demian (now Lil B’s manager) and Jesse Nicely (the former managing editor of Frank151 magazine). “Public Sex Acts” would be the launching pad for our DOOM videos – the place where they received their world premiere.
The morning of the second shoot day, I took the subway up to the Kodak store across the street from the old Madison Square Garden post office to buy more film. On the subway, I was listening to Operation: Doomsday on my Discman when I was struck by a new concept for a video for the song “Dead Bent.” This song has no chorus, consisting of only one verse rapped over a repetitive Isaac Hayes sample. My idea was to shoot a video that had no edits – just one shot, in the same way that the song was one uninterrupted verse. DOOM would spit the verse while walking from the apartment in 205 down to the deli in front, where he’d steal some fruit and run off, all the while holding a mic in his hand. Then I came up with another idea: I’d shoot the scene twice, once forwards and once backwards, and put them together in a single split screen. We shot the first side of the split screen in black and white and the other in color. There was no real reason for these choices; I just did it for the sake of experimentation – I was making these videos for my “Experimental Film” class, after all.
When I arrived at 205, Ben, Ethan and I began to set up for the day, waiting three or four hours for DOOM to show up. DJ Fisher notified me that DOOM was at a photo shoot for The Source and would get to us as soon as possible. Butterflies in my stomach, I walked down to the deli, bought a six-pack of beer, and started drinking. Eventually DOOM did show up, and I told him we had a slight change of plans. He thought my idea for the “Dead Bent” video was cool, though, and agreed to go ahead and shoot it right away.
The video begins with DOOM in the back bedroom (my old bedroom) with Jasmine. He steps out of the room in sweatpants and a bummy t-shirt, wearing the plastic DOOM mask. He walks into the living room, puts his Timbs on, moves outside onto the terrace where a million house parties popped off, then comes back inside, down the stairs to the deli, where he proceeds to take a basket and select pieces of fruit, all the while rapping to the camera. Eventually he runs down the street with the basket. During one of the takes, the deli owner, who somehow thought there was really a man in a Toys “R” Us mask holding a microphone stealing a basket of fruit, chased DOOM down the street. We shot this particular take two or three times and then shot the reverse, beginning with him putting the fruit back in its proper place, walking back upstairs, onto the terrace, taking off his Timbs and being pulled back into the bedroom by Jasmine.
When we finished shooting the “Dead Bent” video, we moved on to shoot another verse for the song ”?.” This time, we decided to create a makeshift black box by draping a black sheet on the wall in 205 and placing DOOM in front of it, rapping to the camera. As we were shooting, we realized DOOM was rapping with a razor blade in his mouth. I asked him why he was doing that, and he responded that he often kept a razor blade under his tongue. I asked him to flip it up and down inside his mouth with his tongue, which we filmed in slow motion. Somewhere in between all of this, DOOM took his mask off and placed it on the couch; naturally, Ben sat on it, almost breaking it in half. DOOM was really pissed off about this – Jesse Nicely overheard him calling us “a bunch of amateurs” and griping to Jasmine about wanting to leave.
Needless to say, we did not shoot any more footage of DOOM. He went to find Kurious and retrieve the Timbs that Kurious had “borrowed” the day before. That would be the last time I saw DOOM for months, until he did a show at S.O.B.‘s and asked me to come and meet him after the show. I did, but during the show a strange, unsettling incident occurred. At one point, he was rapping on stage with Megalon. They began arguing mid-rap, dropping the microphones by their sides and yelling into each other’s faces.; soon, it looked like they were swinging on each other. Megalon suddenly ran off stage and out the front door, with DOOM chasing after him. I ran outside, along with thirty other dudes expecting a fight, and saw DOOM running down Varick Street after Megalon. There were other people involved; all kinds of chaos ensued. The show was over; when I tried calling DOOM‘s cell phone, I wasn’t surprised when he didn’t pick up. I walked home with an unsettling feeling in my stomach. Who was the “real” Daniel Dumile, and what was really going on behind the scenes? Honestly, I didn’t want to know. As with many people I worked with over the next decade, I pretended the dark side didn’t exist, and validated it by the fact that we’re all artists, and artists are just complicated people.
I spent the next few months at the NYU editorial lab cutting the ”?” and “Dead Bent” videos. After I’d whittled the footage down to rough cuts, I sent the videos out to Atlanta so DOOM could give his feedback. I didn’t hear from him until that Christmas, when I was traveling in India, along with Ben and Jesse. Ben and I both had family in Bombay: Ben was staying in the ridiculously lavish Oberoi hotel on the waterfront, while I stayed with my aunt and uncle and two cousins in an apartment complex fifteen minutes away by foot. Every afternoon, I would walk over, passing the outdoor marketplaces steaming with Mumbai street food and a never-ending sea of beggars to check my email in the Oberoi’s upscale corporate lounge. One particular afternoon, I finally got word from DOOM. He had seen both videos. He didn’t have too much feedback, negative or positive, but he was concerned with a particular shot in the ”?” video in which the bald spot on the back of his head was visible. He wanted me to take this shot out. (I didn’t.) As well, he wanted me to change the skin color of Doctor Doom from white to black in the clip I stole from the original Fantastic Four cartoon. (I couldn’t.)
Upon returning from India, I mastered the videos on BETA SP tape, and handed two submasters over to SubVerse records; I also sent copies to DOOM, Kurious, and Bobbito. Bobbito had a private mailbox in the Mailboxes Etc. on 3rd Avenue in the East Village. DOOM had given me his address, instructing me to send copies to him, and I eagerly complied. I left an official letter with my phone number, asking Bobbito to call me after he saw the videos, but never expecting he actually would. A few weeks later I got a call: Bobbito said he saw both videos, and liked them, especially the ”?” video, especially the footage I had cut in from the original Fantastic Four cartoon. He wasn’t feeling the “Dead Bent” video as much, however, but said he had shown it to an artist friend of his, and she had responded very positively to it.
In the call, Bobbito invited me to come by his radio show the next night. I accepted his invitation, and less than 24 hours later I was on my way up to Harlem. Bobbito’s radio show had been built up so massively in my brain that I had all these visions of the station being this incredible hip-hop Mecca. On the subway ride up to Harlem, I imagined some ridiculously pimp studio with plush leather couches, a sick vocal booth with photos of all the hip-hop legends who’d passed through that place, signed and framed over every inch of wall space – a veritable shrine to hip-hop in the ‘90s. Exiting the subway, I walked a few blocks through Harlem proper until I reached a church. In the basement of the church, I traversed a long hallway into a claustrophobic back area, where the walls were lined with rows and rows of bookshelves filled to capacity with records. Everything about the place was jazz – jazz posters, jazz album covers, overweight nerdy jazz DJs milling about; there was no hip-hop to be found. I wondered if I was in the right place.
Eventually, I made it to the barebones studio where Bobbito was already on the air. Later, I realized two things: 1) Bobbito shared the room with other DJs during the day, and 2) Bobbito didn’t get paid a dime for doing his show in all twelve years of it being on the air. To this day, I’m not sure how I overlooked these two important facts, but I guess I was just a naïve kid from Virginia. The studio was small, with a half dozen mics lined up in front of a table. On the right side were some chairs and a sofa, where I sat about ten feet away from Bobbito as he and Lord Sear recorded the CM Famalam show. As I watched, I tried to be cool, tried to put on a vibe that I wasn’t a tourist and I actually fit in, which in retrospect was probably ridiculous. I was 20 years old, and my youth was a dead giveaway that I was not meant to be there. Or maybe I was?
Bobbito didn’t really speak to me until the end of the show. I finally approached him and said, “Hey, I did those DOOM videos”; he smiled, shook my hand, and that was it. Camp Lo was the guest that night. They rolled into the little room five or six deep, freestyled for a bit and talked up their new album. I watched from afar, quietly soaking in the experience. When the show ended, I slipped out unnoticed and took the train back down to the East Village. To this day, I’ve never seen Bobbito again.
Growing up in Virginia, I had been listening to Bobbito’s show for years through a series of cassette recordings of the show that my friend bought from a mail-order catalogue each month and generously passed around our high school. The week I moved to New York in 1997, the first thing I did was purchase a bunch of blank cassettes to record his show. Listening to the show in my dorm room in the Village, I wondered what unknown artist Bobbito was going to break next. Bobbito had put on so many MCs throughout the ‘90s: Biggie, Jay-Z, Nas, Big Pun, Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang Clan, DMX, Big L, Cam’ron, Pharoahe Monch and Company Flow had all gotten shine on that show when they were unsigned and relatively unknown. (There were even rumors Bob was the one who “discovered” Organized Konfusion after hearing their demo while working in Def Jam’s mailroom.) In 1998, The Source voted it “Best Hip Hop Radio Show of All-Time.” The importance of the show was not lost on me, but falling asleep that night, I couldn’t help but feel my journey uptown was pretty anti-climactic. I didn’t even get a t-shirt. Twelve years later, though, I recognize the importance of that moment: I had the honor of bearing witness to one of the most important cultural institutions in American music history, and, at the young age of 20, worked with one of the greatest rap artists in history.
Throughout the four or five months working with him, DOOM came across to me as a genius, undoubtedly brilliant, slightly nerdy, but also dodgy, capricious, and an unapologetic hustler. He smiled a lot, laughed a lot, drank a lot, and was warm and open in social situations. He’d trust you with certain details from his life, yet not trust you by a damn sight with other things. There was a dangerous side to DOOM that lingered right under the surface, which came out when he told me stories about the meaning behind songs like ‘Red & Gold’ (“Wig twisting season/Where some could get their wig twisted back within reason”) – a fact-based song about cold murder in the streets. ‘The Mic,’ meanwhile, is basically an explanation of how he ended up in prison. I’ll leave the Villain to explain that one.
We also spoke briefly about the death of DOOM‘s brother, Subroc. He brought a photo of Subroc holding a machete to the video shoot, insisting I put it in the video. At the time, I didn’t really think much of it other than it referenced another lyric in the song (“I still keep a flick of you with the machete sword in your hand/Everything is going according to plan, man”). In retrospect, however, I realize how much the photo meant to him, and how much the video must have meant to him, too. To say it meant a lot to me would be an understatement: it has been one of the highlights of my filmmaking career.
The last time I saw DOOM was at the wrap party for my first feature, Bomb the System. I never told him, but if it weren’t for him trusting me to make those two videos, I probably wouldn’t have made that film. His always-creative wordplay, prolific nature, and self-reliant, DIY approach continue to inspire me to this day.
A Rational Conversation: Jessica Hopper Parses the Hallowed Return of Godspeed You! Black Emperor...
A Rational Conversation is a column by editor and writer Eric Ducker. Every week he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.
In December of 2010, Montreal’s epic instrumental punks Godspeed You! Black Emperor reformed to play and curate All Tomorrow’s Parties’ acclaimed annual Nightmare Before Christmas event. Since then, they’ve kept up with semi-regular live dates and tours, but last week they somewhat unexpectedly released a new album, ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!, their first since 2002’s Yanqui U.X.O.; needless to say, people are stoked. The only English-language press the band did for the album was a story for the Britain’s left-leaning The Guardian. Keeping with GY!BE’s generally anti-interview policy, they only answered emailed questions, answered them as a collective, and mandated the full exchange be published. While email interviews can often go terribly wrong, GY!BE’s responses were thoughtful, occasionally hilarious, and provocative. Between their album and their attitude, it’s become clear that it’s good to have the band around again. Here, Ducker and music writer Jessica Hopper discuss the impact that Godspeed You! Black Emperor has had, and should have.
Eric Ducker: What were your thoughts/feelings towards Godspeed You! Black Emperor before October of this year?
Jessica Hopper: I have always thought of them as an important band. I saw them at this year’s Pitchfork Festival in that sort of honorary headliner spot, and their stage show was a kind of colossal “fuck you” to the audience, which I can appreciate. But it also made me wonder if they were just crabby, or totally didn’t get how what they were doing might come off. Maybe it was a bit of both. I also did not know they were still a band.
ED: I think most people weren’t quite sure if they were still a band.
JH: I have always thought they were a great example – like a Canadian Fugazi.
ED: Do you think other musicians have followed the example of what you thought was great about them?
JH: Most bands look at a Fugazi/GY!BE-type band – a band that is more than a band, a band that has a label and real community involvement and uses their influence and power for collective good – and say, “Well, that’s admirable, but how can I make a living if I only play all-ages shows?” I think No Age is a contemporary example of a band like them, even though they do stuff that Fugazi never would have done, like have their own skate shoe.
ED: So you think other bands see Fugazi or GY!BE as uncompromisers who are exceptions to the rule of how you can exist as a band, rather than a blueprint to potentially follow?
JH: Yes. Most bands’ visions extend only as far as their band and getting paid. They are not interested in, or capable of, or behooved by shaking shit up; they don’t have a grandiose vision beyond getting groupied in the van loft. The artists that aren’t totally business as usual are by and large older, so I think it’s easy to dismiss their ability to say “no” as a special circumstance. But it’s also a lot of hard work to be band like that, and being in a band is oftentimes hard enough as it is. I also think that kind of giving-a-shit is unfashionable.
ED: That’s why that Godspeed You! Black Emperor Q&A in The Guardian is interesting and compelling. You can tell whoever is answering the questions was willing to go on at length about things he or she obviously gives a shit about, but wasn’t spouting off or copy-and-pasting from an impenetrable band manifesto.
JH: [Godspeed guitarist] Efrim Menuck sent a few letters to my blog and fanzine over the years – those answers read like him to me. I really miss those sorts of things – bands that are totally uncompromising about how they conduct themselves, with a solid rationale behind their actions. Writing a 4,000-word missive about how the state of the world and music affects how you feel and the art you make – or doesn’t – is totally appropriate. I think it’s way more appropriate than people calling each other out on Tumblr or whatever constitutes being personally political in the public sphere in 2012. I guess those two things are not that different, but I found the Godspeed screed meaningfully telling about how the band orients itself. The fact that they orient themselves at all makes them an anomaly.
ED: I was looking at the comments section to the story in The Guardian and someone wrote, “To occupy the exact same political position you did 10 years ago is sad.” Do you think that’s true?
JH: I don’t think that’s sad at all; that’s called conviction. Cultural convention is different now. People think GY!BE are curmudgeonly because they have not adapted their vision to suit the times. Are they supposed to have a Twitter account or something? Focus on some more fashionable causes? It’s not like they just sprayed 3,000 words saying Free Mumia! Their whole steez has always been uncompromising. I like that, in some regards, they seem even more hardcore, which makes total sense to me as we have a fuller knowledge of just how totally sketchy and bullshit so many things are now. Thanks, Internet!
ED: It’s been interesting to read the first reviews of the new record. This notion keeps coming up of it being important because nothing out there right now is like it. In Mark Richardson’s Pitchfork review, he wrote, ”[GY!BE] feel out of step in a very necessary way.” It is good to have a band or an artist come around every few years to make you take stock of what you’ve been listening to and why.
JH: Exactly. A band like Godspeed throws everyone else into high relief. You get a better sense of the moral topography of the underground.
ED: I wonder if there would be the same reaction if this was coming from a new band, or if Godspeed’s history plays a major part in it? Would a new band that was taking this approach and was making music like this – not in terms of sound, but in terms of trying something different than their contemporaries – have an impact? Or would people laugh them off?
JH: If there was a new band doing this, people would be even more excited and there would be less eye-rolling. The thing about No Age is that how they roll has some contemporary compromises, and they make what they do accessible and attractive: they do a lot of fun shows, concept shows, and make being a fan exciting and cool. As Hua Hsu put it in his review of Lupe Fiasco the other week, “Nobody likes a scold.” The contemporary idea of a polemic or politicized band is so neutered in comparison to the 1980s and 1990s, so that when bands come in now with a big idea about how they are going to roll, we really take notice. It galvanizes people. Fucked Up might be a good recent example. The tacit feminism of everything Grimes has done to date is another. Of course the other thing is that being about nothing is also a way to be popular, like Grizzly Bear or Animal Collective. Or believing in nothing discernable beyond guitar solos and pretty album covers and dancing.
ED: Do you think there is an element of 1990s nostalgia in this recent celebration of Godspeed for both the new album and the interview? I know you’ve spoken out against ‘90s revivalism in the past, so how is this different?
JH: If Godspeed were on some grunge cash-cow trip, they wouldn’t have played a no-lights nighttime headline slot at Pitchfork; they’d be doing something to line the coffers. Lord knows, putting out record isn’t really the way to do that. I think a lot of ‘90s nostalgia is really a longing for a kind of security, a sense of things mattering – for slower culture. The fin de siècle Bush era was just such a harsh toke: a lot of bands that valued polemics and meaning in their art broke up, which helped usher us towards the cold comforts of the post- 9/11 irony age (coke, death disco, selling out, et al). Nigh a decade later, we’re coming out the other side burnt on that cynicism and longing for some realness. And so we arrive at nostalgia for the last time music felt really good, and for a lot of people who are the editors/writers/runners of indie culture, that was the ‘90s. What I am getting at is that I understand that whole trip, especially given the pace and grim dictates of music culture in 2012. But all that is pretty antithetical to Godspeed’s whole aesthetic and political perch. I think GY!BE is just a vehicle they are returning to. It’s a proven vehicle to express their noise rage.
ED: It’s funny, the big “politicized” move for the past couple of years for bands has been to try to be secretive: no interviews, no photo sessions, no videos, few live shows, obscuring biographical details. I get the point that it’s a reaction against the oversharing culture and publicity frenzies, but it also gets you out of having anything to say.
JH: Totally. I think people are eager for meaning. I just wrote about Kendrick Lamar last week, and he said it himself: part of the reason people are so psyched about him is that there is not a lot of music that has some sort of meaning. I don’t think that being secretive is an unreasonable reaction, but it is a weird pose, and a little unproductive. At the same time, I respect people going, “Bullshit, I NEED to have a band Tumblr!”
ED: Do you think all bands should have something to say?
JH: No. Most bands are dumb. (Says the critic.)
ED: Are you cool with that?
JH: Yes. But if more bands had the mettle to do things differently, we might have some more workable models and viable scenes, rather than just thinking Dave Bazan and Ted Leo and whoever are special exceptions, rather than a viable model of building a career on your principles. There is a reason that so many people from Olympia’s DIY punk scene of the early 1990s are still making music and having bands: the norm there was to reinvest in your community and make records with your hometown label, so there is still that community to support them and put out their records and go to their shows. I know that’s not, like, the coolest example, but I think there are some other cities that would be, and sound totally different, if their music communities were focused on sustaining each other – if the big, cool bands out of those scenes were acting as the good examples, so to speak, as opposed to being self focused.
ED: What do you think will have more of an impact, Godspeed’s Q&A for The Guardian or Pitchfork‘s 9.3 “Best New Music” rating?
JH: Pitchfork is the final word, more so than anything a band could say.
ED: So for you, the best-case scenario is that a young band sees the 9.3 rating, wants to learn how to get that, does research into Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and decides, “Maybe we could do that, too”?
ED: I can live with that.
JH: It’s kind of the best you ask for.
A Rational Conversation: Light in the Attic's Matt Sullivan on Making Undiscovered Music Relevant Today...
A Rational Conversation is a column by editor and writer Eric Ducker. Every week he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.
Over the past decade, the Light in the Attic label has gained beloved status among music connoisseurs for its practice of releasing gorgeous reissues of under-loved albums from the likes of Betty Davis, Gabor Szabo, Karen Dalton, Jane Birkin, and Ray Stinnett – but 2012 has proven an especially banner year for the indie imprint. The increased interest stems from the success of the label’s two Rodriguez reissues following the acclaim of this year’s Searching for Sugar Man documentary; in addition, Light in the Attic released what might be the unexpected breakout album of the moment in Donnie & Joe Emerson’s Dreamin’ Wild, an objet trouvé masterpiece of beguiling, unwittingly experimental soft rock recorded in the ‘70s by two Washington State teenage farm boys. Dreamin’ Wild garnered massive coverage beyond the expected music-blogging frontliners, appearing everywhere from major-media outlets like The New York Times and L.A. Times to tastemaker mainstays like Pitchfork. Meanwhile, Donnie & Joe Emerson’s affecting ballad “Baby” – which could have been a Bieber smash in a different era – even turned into a minor hit via a loving cover version by Ariel Pink, who claimed that ”‘Baby’ has been a staple on just about every playlist/mixtape I’ve assembled in the past 3 years. It is nothing short of sublime.”
That momentum continues to bubble. Last month, Light in the Attic held a tenth anniversary show in Los Angeles featuring Rodriguez, Michael Chapman, and Shin Joong Hyun; on October 12, 2012, they will host a show in Seattle with nearly the same lineup, but swapping a rare Donnie & Joe Emerson appearance for Hyun. Below, Ducker and Light in the Attic founder and co-owner Matt Sullivan discuss how to best make undiscovered, sometimes forgotten music from another time relevant to today’s tastes and economy.
Eric Ducker: Do you feel engaged with contemporary culture? On one hand, you’re immersed in the world of the past, but by reissuing it, you want people living in the present to engage with and purchase it. How do you keep it from just being a nostalgia thing?
Matt Sullivan: That’s one thing we really try to avoid, but it’s hard. Quite often, it’s an uphill battle: our job is to educate people why these records from the past are relevant today. There is always a collector audience, but our goal is to reach a younger audience as well as an older audience one who didn’t know about this artist for one reason or another. We always try to think of ways to engage a younger audience; that may be by having certain people write the liner notes, or having artists cover the songs. We’ve done the tribute or remix thing a few times, but I’m not always crazy about that. One of our first projects was we reissued the music of The Free Design, who were a 1960s pop group, and we did a remix cover series with everybody from Danger Mouse and Peanut Butter Wolf to Super Furry Animals and members of Stereolab and Belle & Sebastian. That did help reach a younger audience, but I don’t think it did as well as we would’ve liked. It was hard on the artists since there were no master tapes, and they had to go off the vinyl – there weren’t separated tracks and things like that. Now we’re celebrating the tenth anniversary of the label with a seven-inch series, released both physically and digitally, where the A-side is a contemporary cover of a song that we’ve reissued in the last ten years and the flipside is the original. We had Iggy Pop and this band Zig Zags who are on Mexican Summer cover a Betty Davis song, and on the other side is the Betty Davis original; Mark Lanegan is doing a Karen Dalton song, and Ariel Pink and DāM-FunK are doing a Donnie & Joe Emerson song. We’re doing those as a seven-inch series so they can kind of live on their own and not in a compilation, where they can get lost in the shuffle. Within that, it was important not just because of the ten-year mark, but because it shows why these songs are important. The people that you are listening to, these are the songs they are listening to – these are the songs that inspire them to make music.
ED: When you decide what you are going to reissue, do you consider the types of music that people are listening to now, like “If they are into that, then they should know about this”?
MS: No, not at all. We’re not that smart. That’s such a hard thing to gauge. We just put out things that we particularly like. For example, the Donnie & Joe Emerson record has done really well, but when we first heard the album, we didn’t know the backstory or anything; we just knew we wanted to reissue the record. As we were doing it, we found out that Ariel Pink was a fan, so we called him up and he did an interview with Donnie and Joe for our zine. Patrick [McCarthy], who is the project manager over here at the label, suggested that Ariel and DāM-FunK do a cover, and they were totally into the idea.
ED: With Rodriguez, you had the Fresh & Onlys as his backing band when he first started touring in support of that reissue, right?
MS: This guy Britt Govea – who’s behind the (((folkYEAH!))) Presents production company that puts on shows in San Francisco, the Bay Area, and Big Sur – was the one who suggested Fresh & Onlys when Rodriguez came to play San Francisco in 2009. Rodriguez didn’t have a backing band, and we were trying to find bands in every city, and fortunately Britt suggested Fresh & Onlys; they were a great fit, musically and personality-wise.
ED: Did it take the Searching for Sugar Man documentary to really make those Rodriguez reissues take off?
MS: Those reissues actually did really well – Cold Fact had sold 20,000 copies since our August 2008 reissue before the movie even came out. In the reissue world, that’s a really good amount of records, but Rodriguez is reaching a whole other audience from that movie: now my 81-year-old aunt in San Diego is going to see him play. I think I first heard Rodriguez in the early 2000s. We went to Detroit and met him around 2005 or 2006, but we didn’t know there was a documentary in the works; that came later. I think Rodriguez first told us about the documentary in 2007 or 2008, when we were putting together the reissues. When I met Malik Bendjelloul, the film’s director, at a show at Joe’s Pub in New York, I had no idea the documentary would be as good as it was. It’s so hard to make a good film, especially a good music doc. He sent me rough cuts of the film for years, and it turned out so spectacular.
ED: Going back a little bit, why is it important for you that the music connect with a contemporary audience in the first place?
MS: All these records are classic and timeless. These people’s careers, most of them, were failures back in the day, and they didn’t deserve that. If we just simply put them out, only heavy music fans like us would pick them up; that’s great, but the artists’ music deserves so much more than that. None of these artists made music so that some collector in his basement could just hoard it – that wasn’t the point. At least any artist we’re dealing with, they want their music to be heard by kids, and old people, and people of all ages around the world. To us, that’s important. Music should be shared.
ED: Do you listen to modern music?
MS: Yeah, but I’ll be honest: I’m 36, and as I get older, I seem to listen to less of it. Every year, the label’s gotten a little better and more successful. It grows and grows, and then my wife and I just had our first baby four months ago, so it feels like there’s less time in the day to just listen to everything that’s on my plate for the label alone. I really like contemporary music, but for me it’s so overwhelming now. There’s not a label – and there are very few websites, blogs, or magazines – that I can trust as, for lack of a better word, a brand. Back in the day, you could trust certain labels to lead you down this path to discover all these artists, and I feel like there’s not a lot of that now. The Pitchforks and the Mojos, I look at them all the time, and it’s such an overwhelming amount of information and artists: it’s great, but there’s no human in the world who can digest that amount of music. That’s fine – you don’t need to digest every single thing – but I love discovering new sounds, and I lose patience trying to find them.
ED: I understand what you’re saying about being overwhelmed by the amount of music and sounds that are out there now, but you can also look at it the other way: you’re trying go through forty or fifty years of music to find the right reissue, or the next project you want to devote so much time and energy to. That seems equally daunting.
MS: To me, it seems like there was less music then as there is now, but I see what you’re saying. It’s easier to make a record now, and that really is a wonderful thing, but because of that, there are more of them. There’s more music out there, and more film, and more art, and maybe not enough quality. Some people would argue with that. Back in the day, it was so hard to make record or a film, maybe more time went into it, more sacrifice. That’s not to say someone making a record right now isn’t sacrificing – it’s harder than ever now to make a living on it. I commend anyone who is able to do their art now and can pay their bills with it. The Internet is, of course, a huge part of our process. The person who turned us on to Donnie & Joe Emerson heard their music through someone else, who discovered it through the Web, where it ended up, more or less, from that guy Jack Fleischer, who found it in a thrift store and put it online. The Jim Sullivan record, I found that through the Waxidermy blog. Thank god for those types of people.
ED: I know you’re doing these anniversary shows in Los Angeles and Seattle, but did you ever think about taking them to a college town to see what would happen?
MS: Taking it to Tucson, Arizona as an experiment would be wonderful, but we need to win the lottery first. Logistically, it’s been so difficult just to get two shows. The average age of the performers at the Los Angeles show was like 71 or 72 years old, but there were a lot of young people there, which was nice to see.
ED: Would you like to see reissues play a larger part in the landscape of contemporary listening?
MS: Definitely. I think reissues are looked down upon, just because they are from the past, but I do believe they deserve to have a bigger impact on the world of today. It’s all about educating people: some kid who’s fourteen years old and just getting into music, why should he care about Donnie & Joe Emerson? Someone has to explain it to them, or just play them the music, and that’s not so easy when there’s so much stuff out there. People want things that are from their generation and their moment, and I understand that. There’s nothing like watching something unfold right before your eyes: you feel much more part of it than listening to or looking at something from the past. But quite often, what these albums are about – lyrically or musically – is just as relevant now as it was then. A lot of the time, what was first is frequently the best.
A Rational Conversation: NY Times Critic Jon Caramanica On What Gets Covered (And Why) In 2012's Music Journalism...
Jon Caramanica is one of the key pop-music critics for The New York Times. He’s also been on the forefront of journalists covering music that usually proves underrepresented in mainstream criticism, and often experienced in ways outside of normal album cycles. He and Ducker discussed the changing parameters of what gets covered in music journalism and how it gets covered.
Eric Ducker: For over a decade now, music writers and editors have had to be open to more channels and ways to learn about, and subsequently cover, music. Do you think the music journalism industry adapted quickly enough?
Jon Caramanica: That’s a pretty emphatic “no.” You think about the institutions that are devoted to covering pop music – the magazines, especially – and they’re glacial by nature. That’s not to say there aren’t forward-thinking writers or editors at those places; it’s more that new institutions had to be built to address the changing landscape. Doing it well also requires a distaste for complacency, and a willingness to abandon your youthful/teenage/college-age biases. That’s harder than it sounds.
ED: Who do you think suffered from that inability to adapt? If publications were doing something wrong – i.e., not adapting to the changing ways people were learning about music, and in turn not covering artists that people wanted to learn more about – there had to be consequences. Do you think because some publications didn’t adapt, those publications came to be seen as irrelevant? Did writers who didn’t adapt lose track of the plot and stop getting work? Did writers who did adapt too quickly seem too ahead of the curve and couldn’t land paying stories or get jobs? Did artists who people were talking about – but who weren’t putting out music in a way that matched with the traditional press cycles – get unfairly ignored?
JC: It should of course be said first that all of these publications, I’ve written for them, in times good and bad: Rolling Stone, XXL, Spin, and so on. I had many happy years as a freelancer, even if I couldn’t always cover the exact obscure thing I was into at the length that was satisfying to me. The side benefit of that was it forced me to think harder about a wider swath of music. I became more of a generalist because I had a lot to say, and some publications were interested only in parts of it. That helped me build my chops, and my range.
That said, you see a clear generational shift with, say, Rolling Stone, the magazine, which almost never puts rappers on its cover. But that’s because Rolling Stone‘s core audience isn’t a core pop audience – it skews older, and likely whiter, and probably wealthier. They want to be reminded of how it used to be, not how it is.
In the same way, for a couple of generations of writers – the ones steeped in 1960s and/or 1970s rock, and the ones steeped in late-1980s-into-1990s indie rock – the current landscape is maybe less hospitable to that way of thinking, at least if you’re interested in what’s newest. Spin has always been flexible, and remains so, even under challenging circumstances. They sent me to Houston to do a Houston rap story in the “Still Tippin’” glory moment, and that mattered a lot. XXL has been flexible in a different way, initially resisting Internet-driven trends, but now maybe even erring a little too far in that direction.
I don’t think artists got ignored in the shakeup, per se, but they had to look elsewhere for validation. And slowly, those new forms of validation became equally as important as the old ones, sometimes more so.
ED: Let’s get into your own approach. When did you realize that you had to pay as much attention to mixtape artists and people competing on singing competitions as you did to the stuff that publicists were sending you in the mail?
JC: I don’t know that it was a realization as much as the honest reflection of my tastes and proclivities. I’m lucky to be at a place that encourages me to chase my ears wherever they lead; often those places are just as worthy as whatever some P.R. company sends me. Probably more so. Any writer who just writes about what they’re sent in the mail is doing it wrong. One should have a healthy skepticism about what’s in your mailbox, and why it’s there. Pop isn’t one playing field, it’s a multitude, and I try to get on as many of them as is reasonable. I know what’s being over-covered, and I know even more what’s being under-covered.
ED: It’s overstated and obvious that the music industry is changing, but what I’m curious about is how long it’s going to be in flux, or if it will ever be out of flux. Part of me thinks it’s weird that everyone did their coverage of Kreayshawn before she really had anything commercially available or was ready for the amount of coverage she got, but part of me thinks that’s probably when she was most interesting to cover and that it’s for the best that her official major-label release is basically getting ignored right now (except for this new wave of people writing about how little it sold). Everyone is still trying to figure out how to learn about new music and when to tell people about new music.
JC: “Commercially available” just isn’t a relevant metric anymore, not in the era of YouTube, DatPiff, SendSpace, and so on. The only thing that matters is: can you hear/see it? And yes, Kreayshawn was interesting. (I thought less so than many others, but certainly a bit.) So people who were astute enough to notice that should have been all over that, and many of them were. That’s good criticism. Does it matter that her album’s middling? I dunno. Does it matter if, say, The System put out a bad album after “Don’t Disturb This Groove”? I don’t think it’s any different.
ED: Do reality-show competitors ever release albums after their season is over that are as compelling as when they were competing on reality shows?
JC: You’re really hung up on the reality-show thing!
ED: I’m really not. I think it’s interesting to consider them as analogous to when an Internet-hyped artist actually puts out an album. I hadn’t really thought about that before.
JC: Oh, well that’s a different thing. On TV shows, they’re characters, not singers. You buy into the narrative, you root for their plot to twist in positive ways. Their talent is part of that, but only part. Making an album is a different thing altogether. For example, I detested Haley Reinhart on “Idol.” I thought she was awkward to watch, deeply unself-confident (and not in a sympathy-endearing way), and also had trouble standing upright. But her album ended up being a smart distillation of her 1970s soul and rock predilections – it happens.
ED: You don’t think that musicians don’t become characters? Don’t you think people have bought into the narrative of Riff Raff, an ex-reality show competitor?
JC: Of course they do, now more than ever, because what is Riff Raff doing each and every day other than filming his own reality show through videos and video blogs and Twitter posts and pics with Cat Marnell? He’s certainly not telling you real things about his inner self, if it’s still there. Also, Riff Raff is way more of a character now than he ever was on “From G’s To Gents.” Peace to Fonzworth Bentley.
ED: What channels or methods to find out new music do you think writers or editors are unjustly ignoring right now?
JC: It’s less channels of access than genres or styles. Everyone knows they’re supposed to look on the Internet now. They understand mixtapes are often as relevant as albums. But they don’t want to learn about K-pop, or merengue, or dance music. (I’m not using “EDM” because, really, what is that?) BUT! If we’re going to talk about channels of access, have you heard of the radio? Not satellite radio, which I’m sure is fine for AOR deep cuts and bluegrass or whatever. I mean terrestrial radio. Switch the dials past the stations you’re comfortable with and you’ll be shocked by how much good stuff is out there. I mean, do you live in a town with a Christian pop/rock station? Get in on it. Part of why I love travel is because of rental car radio. I find all sorts of stuff there.
ED: It’s tough with the genre stuff. I’m not sure how much people “don’t want to learn” about different genres, so much as it’s a matter of limited listening time. Yes, I think it’s a music writer’s job in 2012 to be well versed in a broad range of genres and to listen a ton of music, but GOD DAMN THERE IS SO MUCH MUSIC OUT THERE. I’d rather have a writer be deeply knowledgeable about a subject than skim the surface of many. What I do think is the that music editors need to be more open minded and curious about the type of stuff they cover in their publications. And that they should cover the subjects – whether it’s pop country or merengue – with integrity.
JC: Sure, fine, dig deep. I think the answer is to dig deep on a lot of things, but yes, that takes an inordinate amount of time, and I certainly don’t always live up to my own bar. But you have to try. I think to be a true pop critic, you should listen widely, and with curiosity, and with dedication. That’s not saying I don’t appreciate someone who’s extremely knowledgeable about one thing and not others; it’s just that I don’t think that’s what this job is about.
ED: I agree.
JC: The same goes for editors, of course, but the writers are on the frontlines. The direction has to come from them. Oh, you know what else is under-covered? Major label rock. Even if most of it is terrible.
ED: That’s another issue. Covering/acknowledging the terrible. I know with the Internet space is infinite, publications are no longer limited by page counts, but how much time or energy or bandwidth should be dedicated to the terrible, or even worse, the middling?
JC: I think it’s more the presumption of terribleness in that particular case that’s the problem.
ED: Do you mean that writers and editors presume a lot of stuff is terrible without ever actually listening to it, and only acknowledge its existence as a negative counterpoint to the stuff they are into?
JC: Oh god, yes. Don’t you? It’s hard not to. How do you get excited for the umpteenth Shinedown album? It ain’t easy. A lot of writers/editors/publications have an idea of themselves and what their angle is, and if something doesn’t immediately fit in, out the window it goes. The goal is to stay forever curious, forever skeptical of your own comfort zones.
ED: When we were emailing to set this up, you said you wanted to talk discuss “what is criticism in this increasingly striated space.” That sounds interesting, but I don’t know what you mean. Please elaborate.
JC: Look at my job: I do album reviews, live show reviews, some notebooks/essays, and the occasional profile or reported criticism piece. And that’s what people think of when they think of criticism; those are the categories. But I see criticism in all sorts of places these days: in Twitter hashtags and Tumblr posts, in well-edited slideshows. Most of us grew up with the classical criticism model, be it from literary criticism or just growing up reading Christgau, but there are some people I follow on THE INTERNET who are extremely astute and they won’t ever write a record review. And bless them.
ED: Do you think they consider what they are doing criticism? Or do you think they’re just giving their opinion? And is there a difference?
JC: There’s not a difference, or at least, there shouldn’t be. I get paid to be a critic, but I still felt like I was a critic of sorts long before I caught a check for doing it.
ED: Do you want to diversify the formats in which you officially do your job? I’ve seen Twitter profiles of full-time employed critics that say something like, “The views expressed here are my own,” but isn’t that kind of true for what they write in printed pieces or on a publication’s official website. Do you think what you say on your Twitter account should be taken as just as valid criticism as what you’ve written in the newspaper that gets delivered to my house on Sunday morning?
JC: I do. I don’t just throw stuff up there lightly. I assume someone might take it seriously, so I do too. I’m more spare on Twitter for that reason, and also because the Internet is an overwhelming, overbearing blob that will seep into all your crevasses and explode you from the inside out. At the same time, I’d love to try out other types of criticism within the framework of the paper. I loved, loved, loved our Popcast, the weekly podcast the critics used to do. Hopefully we’ll be bringing that back soon. I’d like to find creative uses of video, and also social media. It’s a matter of time, as are all things.
ED: If you found a particularly insightful music critic whose dominant medium was Twitter, would you advocate the Times to hire him or her just to be an awesome Twitter user about music.
JC: That’s not the job either, at least not now. But if someone had a defined aesthetic in that medium that somehow was portable into the holes that the paper needs filled, then why not?
ED: I’m surprised it hasn’t happened yet. I guess people don’t have the money. But I like the idea of an Official Twitter Writer. It’s kind of like an Extreme Sports Editor in the 1990s.
JC: Isn’t that what Spin is doing, in a way, following the Weingarten model? Wait, I just checked. Did they stop that? A victim of the editorial changes?
ED: The last one I see is from August 2. Chris Martins gives an 8 to Ice Choir.
JC: That Ice Choir record is fire.
ED: Anywho, do you think the audience or the publications need to broaden their minds on what “official criticism” is and what form it can take?
JC: I think younger readers/thinkers are already in that place. Publications can choose to play along or choose to perhaps be decreasingly relevant. Your brand should be an umbrella that can sustain all sorts of experiments.
ED: So we’re back to risks, which I am a fan of.
JC: Right, but those are often organizational risks, not aesthetic ones. Even if, in reality, it’s the exigencies of capitalism that makes risks of any sort a turn-off.
ED: Do you think most editors are receptive to diversifying how criticism is expressed in their publication? Are they excited about it? Or do they think it’s one more headache to deal with?
JC: A thing I used to love doing was a weekly “Idol” recap done over IM with Sean Fennessey when we were at Vibe. It was way sharper than just some 400-word recap. When you’re talking about publications, you’re talking about way more than editors. You’re talking about graphic designers and photo editors. You’re talking about advertising sales people and marketing managers. You’re talking about moving a very big ship. So to get all those people on board all at once, that’s tough.
ED: You’re getting at the point that critics, and publications in general, should be versatile in how they express opinions, even if it’s only for their own survival.
JC: If I had the time, I’d be throwing out one-liners on Twitter or taking questions on Tumblr or Formspring all day. No good critic I know suffers from a lack of opinions, only a lack of outlet options.