Silent Treatment: The Endangered State Of The Hip Hop Interview
As today's Hip Hop superstars are not frequently speaking to the outlets that most cover them, who is to blame as the access is losing ground?
"Rhyme on the interlude / Nah on the interview." - Large Professor, "The Entrance"
Next Tuesday, Drake will release his sophomore studio album, Take Care. Like our peers, HipHopDX has been covering the release since it was announced exactly a year ago. Like most Hip Hop artists, particularly the most popular, we never stop covering Drake - his tours, his creative direction, his audio, video, and sometimes his tweets. Despite two separate attempts - including one at the request of Game's guest-editing this site in August, DX tried to secure a Drake interview. Once we were denied, and another time we were just ignored. Freedom of choice is a beautiful thing, but within lies a bigger question. Less than three years into his career, is it becoming conventional for artists to control their media? And if so, who is to blame?
The other day, I did a casual count and came to realize I have well over 350 Hip Hop interviews in the can. The "can" is really a shelf of Maxell cassette tapes stored in my mother's attic 307 miles away from me in Pittsburgh, which are added to anytime I journey home. These tapes date back to 2001 and 2002, and I'm proud that I am part of a class in Hip Hop journalism where the interview was more than a Reply Tweet or a flip-cam jammed in somebody's face on a Vh1 Hip Hop Honors red carpet. Still, the generation of writers before me, whom I hold in the highest regard, probably felt similarly about people like me who sat by the phone for hours upon hours and played the publicist game in hopes of getting the big fish on the line.
That's what this piece is about - the big ones.
"Lunches, brunches, interviews by the pool." - Notorious B.I.G., "Juicy"
In my early days as a writer, it was all a game, both with my peers and with the rappers. If you interviewed Obie Trice, you'd want to do such an amazing job that when Eminem hopefully read it, he actually might consider talking to you when he was ready. There were a lot of Quans on the way to Nas, and a lot of E. Nesses before you got anywhere near Diddy. Today, the whole game has changed. The best way, it seems, for me to get a Dr. Dre interview is to start frequenting Malibu steakhouse valet areas with a recorder and maybe an odd piece of memorabilia to spark a conversation. Even then, I wouldn't bet the ranch that Andre will give me more than three minutes till the kitted-Rover rounded the bend and he disappeared. A lot of rappers and label employees have blogs. Weed carriers and label folks who are supposed to secure media for actual press sometimes try to leapfrog legitimate journalists in getting an interview too. This leads to a lot of self-referential questions, and safe content. While Hip Hop is not dead, the state of the Hip Hop interview certainly might be.
The Hip Hop Rage Against The Media Machine
With the advent of Twitter, most writers' first question, "What's going on?" is irrelevant. We, the fans, are given that answer constantly - sometimes even during sex or drunk-driving, thanks to Diddy and Bow Wow. Album details are now released in a formulaic assembly line. First the title, then the release date, then the guests, then the cover art - and then, if it's actually a conversation piece, a full tracklisting with producers, so bootleggers have a compass for the week before planned release. The labels themselves love this formula, and squeaky-voiced marketing "execs" sell the actual brass on the idea that a project will get four or five times the promotional impressions, without a single ad dollar being spent and keeping the artist totally sanitized from the dirty press. If top outlets express interest, exceptions may be made, if proper print real estate is allocated (covers or added value in social media), and they demonstrate a laymen's knowledge of the subject, avoiding anything too controversial. The only interviews that still appear essential to big artists/execs are with radio personalities, who outside of a "what do you like about [insert city here?]" will be mostly used for drops, on an artist that's lucky if they even make 10pm mix-show.
Think I'm joking? I'm not.
I've watched it come to this. Lil Wayne used to do interviews with online media through Tha Carter II. Especially later on, they were edgy and outspoken, and essential to get the naysayers ready for Dr. Carter's emcee transplant. After that whole mixtape deejay/Foundation magazine fiasco in 2008, Wayne only wants to talk to MTV and Rolling Stone, and seemingly ESPN/Sports Illustrated - as many times as possible on the subject of everything but the music. If he does go to the Hip Hop community, count on Karen Civil, Wayne's devoted affiliate to get that score. From my vantage point, Karen's earned her place on Weezy's circle, but that doesn't replace access for the rest of us. Eminem knows how rare his interviews are - he granted one to a middle school student recently, a gesture that made my mouth drop. However, Em interviews are magazine sales spikes, and a gift not afforded to just anybody, including, to my astonishment, the website owned by Em's manager, Paul Rosenberg. I was convinced that whatever chance DX stood of an interview with Em was D.O.A. the day RapRadar.com launched. However, nothing really changed. My chances are still dead, so are almost everybody else's. Magazines have that market cornered.
Why Dr. Dre, Eminem And Kanye West Influenced Rappers To Avoid Press
Dr. Dre, Eminem and Jay-Z made it cool to be selective about the press. It appears they don't seem to even want to talk to The Source, even post-Benzino, a magazine that was integral to all three of their careers (at least in the '90s and before). I recall Dre's last Source cover, if not mistaken, the same August, 1999 issue Big L's "Day One" was the "Hip-Hop Quotable." Those interviews were exciting because they were the state of the union. In a slower moving world, that was the artist's annual chance to speak about their last project and their next, provide a tour of their surroundings, and see wherever else the conversation could go. Nowadays, E-40 has dropped four albums in less than a year, and seems to do a single press day on the lead-up, and maybe a few more if there's much to talk about after the album(s) are out.
However, most rappers are not Dr. Dre, Eminem, Lil Wayne, Jay-Z or even Kanye West. Even Drake, who just two years ago was a mixtape sensation (and deservingly won 2009's HipHopDX Award for "Mixtape of the Year" for So Far Gone). I'm sorry, but no matter what the sales figures say, they have not earned those stripes. To hear "Drake is not doing press" throughout 2011 is simply outrageous. Drake is doing press. He just doesn't want any from traditional Hip Hop media, especially online. Instead, the singer-rapper and his management appear to be after GQ, Esquire and the big homies at Complex. However, the platinum break-out star of 2009 seems to feel no obligation or desire to talk to the outlets who cover him the other 11 months a year. It's not just Drake. J. Cole, who went from sending me personalized autographed records at Christmas, 2009 was unreachable at the time Cole World released. Kid Cudi was equally evasive on his sophomore campaign. Is it our fault?
"Look, I gotta give my own interview / Since niggas that do my interviews focus on the miniscule" - Joe Budden, "Move On"
When contemporary interviews aren't wack, they're often forced to be salicious. Days after the information was revealed that Rick Ross had worked as a correctional officer, DJ Vlad tried to get a comment. Reports indicate that he got a lot more than that, and a settlement happened. Last year, I recall trying to get Fat Joe, a 20 year affiliate, to provide me insight on what happened with Guru leaving Gang Starr, and the Terror Squad head immediately assumed I was digging for gossip regarding his relationship with Solar. I wasn't. The most talked about Wayne interview may go down as the one he walked away from. Even Game and MTVHive got into it over Lil B. These are the interviews we remember and often talk to our fellow Hip Hop fans about. They may not be the best, but the artists are constantly on guard, and things often get interesting.
Why Rappers Want To Avoid Interviews
I applaud the artists in Hip Hop who make it hard to earn to speak to them from jump. Jay Electronica for instance, dodges interviews with a Rick Rubin-like skill. That makes me admire the man more, at a time when many of his peers are seeking coverage, looking for interest. Most of what we have with Jay are his lyrics, and some erradic musings on Twitter to boot. I've been chasing Madlib for a decade. To my knowledge, outside of a foreign film documentary, Madlib has done two interviews. The Likwit Crew alum is too busy making Beat Konducta albums and shopping tracks to Jay-Z & Kanye West, Thom Yorke and Blu than to talk about it. That effect honestly makes me listen closer to his music, as its one of the only ways Madlib will ever communicate with me most likely. Funny enough, my fellow DX editor, Omar Burgess, a Los Angeles native, tells the story of crossing paths with a friendly and outgoing Madlib on a couple of occasions. He's not cocky, he's just not interested.
But my frustrations are mainstream. Madlib and Jay Electronica are rare exceptions.
For Watch The Throne Jay-Z and Kanye West refused - what seemed to be - all press. They wanted the attention on the music alone. I think that's great for Hip Hop, and both of those artists have a right, after 10 years of experience to do that. But just as Jay made other rappers throw away their jerseys and stop putting rims on the car, I sincerely hope that he (and 'Ye) don't make their vast sea of followers abandon the Hip Hop interview. With Decoded, Jay-Z was giving the kind of transparency in interviews to pop culture interviewers that devoted Rap journalists had salivated for years. Perhaps they earned it by asking thoughtful, probing and original questions with respect. Perhaps it seemed like a safer bet to Jay, knowing that Howard Stern wasn't going to dig into relationships with Dame Dash, DeHaven or Jaz-O. In any event, as the Hip Hop media evolves, it would be nice to carry on tradition properly. I constantly field requests about new artists seeking press at online Hip Hop - I first crossed paths with Lupe Fiasco, Big Sean and Wiz Khalifa at a time when they were all seeking pre-debut-album interviews. In these difficult times, it is very difficult to entertain the constant requests of "cover more new artists," when they often emerge to not need or want that coverage later on.
I applaud mainstream rappers who have bucked this trend. 50 Cent, Nas, Game, Wale, Nicki Minaj, Wiz, Royce Da 5'9 and a handful of others have impressed me this year, with their accessability. That's the world I grew up in, and that same freedom of choice should never go away, but nor should the insightful, informative Hip Hop interview. In the words of one of my favorite emcees, "It's step your game up time."
For whatever it's worth, I wanted to close this piece with my (remaining) Hip Hop Interview Bucket List (in no particular order):
1. Dr. Dre
3. De La Soul
4. DJ Kool Herc
5. Suge Knight
6. Will Smith
7. Rick Rubin
8. King Tee
10. Kanye West
Jake Paine is HipHopDX's Editor-in-Chief. He is a Pittsburgh native and longtime Philadelphia resident. In his 10 years working in the industry, he has contributed to XXL, The Source, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Forbes.com and other publications. Follow him on Twitter (@Citizen__Paine)