posted: 02-11-2004
interview : tadah
Okay, please state your name, game and team.
Oliver Wang. Basketball. Lakers (Magic Johnson dynasty).
Let's first talk about your book "Classic Material", can you please give us a quick synopsis.
It's an album guide to hip-hop's 80 or so most important albums, written by 20+ of the best hip-hop writers I could recruit. Rather than focusing on short blurbs, the book is built on essays, giving the writers more breadth and depth to really talk about these albums.
Were the writers assigned to the record, or did they pick the records? What pretty much also asks: who decided what's going to be 'classic material'?
It went both ways - sometimes, I approached the writer with the assignment. With the senior editorial staff, I wanted them to pick the albums they wanted to write on. As for the second question, the book's introduction pretty much covers that - I don't have anything new to add except to say that of course, it's a subjective process and me and the editorial core developed our list through consensus. I know not everybody's going to agree with it but frankly, I doubt anyone could have come up with a list that would have met with 100% approval from everyone.
Do you think that book is more for the people that have the albums, or that don't have 'em?
Both. Obviously, any album guide is going to double as a consumer aid for those looking to buy new albums but I also wanted this book to help spark ideas and conversations with people who were familiar with these LPs. I know, just in writing and editing the book, it really made me go back to the albums of my teen years (I'm 31 now) and think about just what about them hit me so hard. I think the best essays in this book don't only capture the moment of when an album emerges but also what it means for us now - stuff like Hua Hsu's essay on Nas' "Illmatic" or Ernest Hardy on the Pharcyde. These are albums that are timeless in one sense but it's also important to think about where/when they came out.
Are there more 'classic' albums for a second book?
I'd wait at least 5-10 years before embarking on a 'real' update. Considering the book came out in 2003 though, there wouldn't be too many new candidates yet. I think Missy's "Under Construction" would have been viable - definitely Outkast's "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below." People have suggested 50 Cent's album but personally, I'm not certain about that. Few people thought his album was a classic even though no one denies that 50 Cent was the artist of 2003 (fuck a Grammy).
Now, as you say, the book consists of reviews: a reviewer is often under fire, like that critics became critics, because they are not good enough as musicians. So are you a failed rapper?
Ha - hell no. I love hearing lyrics but I've never had the compulsion to write my own. I had a hard enough time trying to figure out rhymes in middle school poetry classes.
So what do you say to people that like to repeat Bumpy Knuckles little quote: "if you can't do what I do, then fuck you…"?
I find it funny that rappers - who are some of the most critical people out there, seem incapable of accepting criticism. So much of hip-hop is about braggadocio and shutting down the next guy yet it's almost heretical if the tables are reversed.
At the same time, everyone with a website can be a critic now. What's your opinion on that?
I'm not mad at that - my first 'venue' for writing on music was back around 1993: internet newsgroups. This was before the WWW even existed (yeah, kind of hard to believe isn't it, that 10 years ago, websites weren't even around? Crazy.) That was a valuable forum for me because I felt like I could write/say anything whereas if I had been writing for a paper-based publication, I probably would have been a lot more worried about what I wrote about. I never thought of posting to a newsgroup as "criticism". It was more like sharing an opinion with a bunch of other people who also liked hip-hop. In retrospect, I realize that, in fact, I was acting like a critic regardless if I was aware of it or not. But I think it's good if people use websites for criticism. Certainly many, if not most, aren't really worth reading but one could easily say that about print magazines too. The biggest problem is how to filter out all that information to find the good stuff. In that respect, the WWW and the hip-hop record industry are quite similar: both create a problem of too much garbage that ends up suffocating what good material is out there.
So what gives you the right to be a critic?
It's not for me to say. Nor would I dictate who should be allowed to be a critic or not. I'm not a big fan of borders and artificial walls - music rarely respects boundaries that are imposed on it - I think that's a valuable lesson to apply to culture in general, including who gets to speak on it.
More in general, what makes a good critic?
There's no easy way to answer that because you'd have to also ask, 'good' to whom? The average consumer usually just wants to know - "Is this CD worth my $14.99?" They want to know if an album is 3 mics or 5 and that rating, ultimately, is what's most important to them. I respect that - after all, as a consumer too, that's kind of what I want to know. When I read movie reviews in Entertainment Weekly for example, I think I subconsciously read the rating first, then if a movie gets an 'A'or something, I'll actually read the review. If a movie gets a 'C' I'm probably not even inclined to read the review because who wants to read about a mediocre movie?
However, as a writer, there are things I do look for in reading other people's writing. Are they clear with their language? Are they efficient with their writing? Do they rely on slang too much? Are they saying something insightful or challenging the reader to think? Some of the worst reviews to me are the ones that end up shouting 'this is dope!' or 'this is wack!' but never actually explain or show why.
Most of all though, a good critic is someone who shows a love for music. Even if they hate the album in question, I want to know that music moves them and that they're passionate enough about hip-hop itself to be willing to spend time reviewing an album they may not necessarily like.
How much is an opinion on a record always just a matter of taste, rather than an actual universally valid 'good vs. bad'?
I don't believe in the idea of a universally valid good vs. bad. Artists get redeemed all the time - yesterday's trash can become tomorrow's gold - I mean, hip-hop has proven that just through the art of sampling, right? Opinions about albums are always a matter of taste at its heart but that doesn't make those opinions any less valid or compelling to hear/read. The best any writer can hope for is to speak something that is true to them and hope that readers - even if they disagree about the opinion - can appreciate that the writer was aspiring to say something that was real to them. Ultimately, I think readers need to make up their own mind about an album or artist. Just because I think De La Soul was incredible doesn't mean that others have to as well. BUT, if I write about De La, then I better be sure I can do it in a way that reflects how I really feel or think about them. At the end of the day, if I can do that, then I'm happy with my writing even if no one else is. I won't say that all writing is personal - after all, many of us (myself included) have written as labor before: book reports for class, maybe a short article to make some cash, etc. In today's lingo: many writers are hired to provide content. I respect that aspect of people's professions but I know that I never got into writing to make a buck (shit, if I was chasing the money, I would have listened to my parents and gone into law). I wrote because, on some basic level, I felt like I needed to. And for me, the best writers I know are all people who write because they need to, for themselves, and not because they're merely making a living at it. I think the writers who last the longest in the game - the ones who build more than a portfolio, more than a career, but a legacy are the ones who wrote out of personal compulsion and were lucky enough to find an audience. I had this conversation with my friend Jazzbo (Joseph Patel) once and he pointed something to the effect of: "we're writing for history but the irony is that ultimately, it's not in our power to determine whether history will have us or not."
So a review is not to say if a record is good or bad?
That may be what the reader/consumer wants and I can appreciate that. Most glossy magazines are built around the 'good or bad?' review and I can appreciate that too. But personally, I don't read music reviews to know if an album is good or bad - I can listen to it myself and make that judgment myself. What I want to know is what does this writer have to say about the album - that, to me at least, is far more interesting than how many mics they give it.
Do you ever read reviews on a record before you write your review on it?
Sometimes - it helps to know what others have said to get your own thoughts going but sometimes, it's best to start with a blank sheet - it really depends. In general, I try not to read too many other reviews but most times, this isn't an issue anyways - at the point I'm reviewing an album, often times, it hasn't been reviewed yet anyways.
We obviously want to hear some dirt. So give us some examples of stuff you were told from artists or label folks in response to your writing. Names are welcome.
Sorry, what dirt is out in the public record is already out there and I don't want to create more tension with situations that are private and should stay that way. In any case, none of it is very sexy - I mean, you already know about who's dissed me on record and that's about as exciting as it's been. I've also been blacklisted by a few artists, sometimes for things I've written, sometimes for not having done anything at all - it's all rather crazy and just unfortunate. Most artists are not that sensitive - they realize the kind of business they're in, but a few have very thin skins and that creates a lot of headaches for everyone around them - not just music journalists but everyone: their publicists, their A&R, label reps, promoters.
The other thing is - no one likes 'negative' press, no one likes to be criticized but I think it's a valuable part of how art is made. I don't want the power to make/break an artist but I'd hope that what I write is at least taken as seriously as I take the music I'm writing about. I know some critics who've been thanked by artists who've they reviewed for giving them constructive feedback. I'd sure love to get that more than being slammed on record, but eh, maybe one day. It was cool though - David Axelrod called me after I wrote a piece on his new album (this was back in 2001 I think) in the LA Weekly and he was very gracious and appreciative and he said that he had been taught, by his mentors, that you should always thank the writer if you ever got good press. That meant something to me, to get that call, and while I certainly didn't praise his album because I wanted his praise, I was still appreciative of his gesture.
In the February issue of the Urb you write:
"Believe me, it ain't prettier on this side of the desk either. Working as hip-hop writers and editors can be a shitty job; it's not for the money, fame or game (since there is none) but like artists, we slave at this because we believe in what we do and that is this: we give shine to artists otherwise left in the dark. That's not a brag, that's reality: flip through any mainstream glossy and see if they cover who we do." (read the whole editorial here)
You really hit it with that. Is there anything else you want to add about the 'glamorous' life of a reviewer?
There are definitely upsides - you get into shows free, you get tons of free shit, you can brag to your boys that, "yo, I got the new [fill in the album] joint!" And you get paid to think about music that you would have thought about for free.
Here's the downside to being in 'the know' though. You lose that giddy anticipation that comes with waiting for a release day to come. You'd think getting advances would be even better but really, I miss the days when record stores would put a hot album on sale at Midnight on Monday evening/Tuesday morning. Once you start getting advances, it becomes harder to remember how to be just a fan and critics who forget how to be fans are a sad lot indeed.
What was the record you struggled the most to write about?
I can't pinpoint one album where I had 'the most' trouble but it was initially hard for me to write the LL Cool J entry for "Classic Material." I did it because the original writer couldn't do it and I was facing a deadline so I just jumped in and did it myself. I originally didn't think I'd have much to say about LL at all - I mean, I still remember when "Radio" dropped and I always liked "Mama Said Knock You Out", even parts of "16 Shots to the Dome" but I had never really made LL a prime focus of my attention. In writing the piece though, I challenged myself to really think about why LL has been so important in hip-hop and in doing so, I think I gained a much better appreciation for him than I might have otherwise. He was tough to write about initially but once I got rolling, it became very easy. People tend to forget but LL really is one of the greatest icons hip-hop has ever known and while he may not be as relevant today as say, 50 Cent, I'm not willing to ever count him out. He has continually surprised people throughout his career.
What's easier to write a good or a bad review? Or about a record you like, don't like or are indifferent about?
It's never easy to write about an album you're indifferent about because there's just so little investment in saying anything. I mean, it might be easier insofar as you don't care about what you say since you don't care about the album but I've never written good criticism about an album/artist that I was indifferent about. On the flipside, with a really good album, you'll challenge yourself to treat the album with the kind of attention and care you think it deserves and that can be tough. In general though, a great album will inspire a rush of words, at least in my experience. That's part of what makes it great. Like, when I heard Jay-Z's "The Blueprint," I knew exactly what I wanted to say about it.
I think it's a lot easier to write a bad review than a good one though. The challenge of writing a review about an album you like is to avoid empty clichés and platitudes. Every fiber in your body may scream out, 'this album is dope'but you can't write that. After all, the reader has no idea what 'dope' means to you. You have to struggle through language to be articulate. Whereas, if you don't like an album, it's a lot easier to point out what goes wrong - I think we're used to criticizing things. Finding ways of saying praise is much tougher. This is a lesson that applies to many other things besides music journalism.
Do you write a review different when you know the artist will read it?
I honestly don't really think about it. One time, DJ Premier confronted me (mildly) about a Source review I wrote about Snoop's last album (where Primo produced two tracks). He wasn't angry but he wanted to call me out for writing "Batman and Robin" was mad corny. Well, I did think it then. I still think so today. And I'm actually glad I said what I said because it's how I honestly felt and I was glad that Primo was willing to talk to me about it even if we had disagreed. I wasn't about to pull my punch just because Primo - who I have a lot of respect and admiration for - didn't like it.
In the end, I rarely think about who's going to read my review except for myself. I am, by far, my own worst and best critic. If I'm dishonest to myself just to please someone, I'm never going to like what I write. Then I'm just shilling.
You mentioned it before, so let me ask you this: Does a review make or break a record?
All by itself? No. But a review can be a catalyst. Music history is filled with examples of moments where one single decision began a chain reaction that created icons or destroyed artists. In general though, I don't think 99% of reviews have the power to make or break an album. There are so many factors that go into how successful an artist can be - the review is just one small part of that. Frankly, these days? Radio is probably the most important force in that respect but even then, they're not omnipotent either since many artists can bust wide open with no radio play. This all said, I can't remember any recent review that really was a lynchpin to an artist's success or failure. I don't think any writer would want that responsibility unless they're some kind of meglomaniac and that isn't me or most of the writers I know.
Let me quickly go back to the book again: Amongst the most recent record in the book, there's Cannibal Ox' "The Cold Vein" and Quannum's "Soleside's Greatest Bumps". Both of these are on independent records, while the older records were on major labels. So are the new classics more likely to come out on independent records?
It's so hard to say. I think those albums you mentioned came out at a particular point in the independent label revolution but right now, in 2004, the indies aren't necessarily in the same position as they were even five years ago. Hip-hop is changing so fast right now - it's hard to say where the new classics will come from but I'd like to think both indies and majors have an equal shot at it. I think the majors have been unfairly maligned and indies unreasonably promoted. This whole 'fake/real' dichotomy is fake itself. Most indies are just major labels with tiny budgets but their dreams are just as big and they're willingness to compromise in order to make that happen is true on both sides of the line. There's a common joke that an indie artist is just a rapper without a major label deal. I don't think that applies to every indie rapper but you listen to enough "underground" hip-hop and you start believing it yourself.
I like Atmosphere a lot and I'll always be a big Quannum and Stonesthrow fan but I was looking at Hiphopsite.Com's top 20 list of indie albums for 2003 and I only agreed with a quarter of that list. Hell, I had only heard half the albums on that list. Then again, I only agreed with four out of their top 10 major label albums so maybe I'm just out of touch with Hiphopsite (laughs). What up Pizzo! I still got love for you though! Seriously though, I don't think the indies are in any better position to turn out the new classics than the majors. Shit is tough on both sides of that line (if it even truly exists). I think it's always been like that though whether 2004, 1994 or 1984.
How do you see the current state or rap music?
I'm mostly optimistic. It was worse a few years back, around the turn of the decade/century, but really, I'm excited by a lot of artists coming out in the next quarter or two: Kanye West, Ghostface, MOP, the Clipse, etc. I don't know what changed…maybe nothing did, maybe I just stopped being so cynical and learned to appreciate what good music is out there. I mean, I don't think hip-hop will ever be as incredible to me now as it was back in 1992 when it felt like every new album was a revelation. But it doesn't bother me if there are a lot of bad albums out there so long as there are good ones I can get excited by.
Finally, we always talked about reviews, but you must also do other type of writing, right? And what can you tell us about that?
I like writing features but with my dissertation looming right now, I haven't had much time to pitch them (let alone write them). I keep a portfolio of almost all my published writing online: o-dub.com/ontherun.html. I also maintain a blog where I do a lot of day-to-day writing - very off the cuff but it's also where I develop ideas that turn into bigger stories down the line at times: o-dub.com/weblog/
Okay, let's wrap this up with some final comment, last words, shout outs?
Thanks to Urban Smarts and tadah for giving me this forum to yap in. And if people haven't checked out "Classic Material" yet (o-dub.com/classic) please try to. Yeah, I'm plugging my book but it's a good book and I think hip-hop fans will get something out of it.
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