In recent months, I’ve heard a frequent question: “How can I get started in writing about music?”
This question is usually a red herring. Often, the person who asks it really wants to know: how can I achieve the same level of success as you (seem to) have?
There are many reasons why some writers become successful, and others don’t. Not all of those reason have to do with good writing. Many writers achieve infamy through hot-take social media posts, gathering followers and then prominent assignments based on that following. One could charitably argue that these social media antics are merely a form of workshopping. Indeed, by the time those prestige gigs roll in, some of them grow into very fine writers. Others, unfortunately, remain better at spewing eye-catching social media rants than actual stories.
Then there are writers who are good at networking. They hang out at the right concerts, go to the right house parties, befriend the right people…etc. Both strategies are necessary to gathering an audience for your work.
I admit that I entered the industry during the early stages of Web 2.0, when Internet-focused magazines had just begun. Discussion surrounding the issues of the day centered on chat rooms, message boards, and comment sections in published stories. Landing cover bylines in print magazines were the prize, not a byline on a heavily-trafficked website. By the time social media emerged as a dominant force, my career was somewhat established, so I didn’t have to hustle for retweets. Even now, my low follower count indicates that Twitter isn’t a focus for me; my Facebook account is private, and my Instagram account is dormant. Or maybe people just don’t consider my thoughts that important. Who knows?
I believe it’s important to discuss ways to bring your work to a wider audience. However, I also believe that having a successful career is the end result, not the starting point.
At times, music journalism and criticism can be one of the lowest forms of writing in the profession — for many reasons that I may cite at a later date. But at its best, it can be as thought-provoking, informative, and inspiring as any other type of non-fiction prose. These qualities are achieved through practice, not gamesmanship.
During the next several months, I will share my experience, opinions, and expertise on the craft of writing about music. Please keep in mind that I am hardly a brand name. Yes, I have supported myself from writing for nearly 20 years. But I haven’t won any major awards, and I haven’t published books at major publishing houses. I’m not someone an editor at a major magazine calls for a hot cover story. I’m not what I like to call an “ivory tower critic,” an author whose name carries a kind of institutional significance. I just like to write, and I sometimes get paid to do it.
Hopefully my thoughts on this subject will be of some use.
“Negro Americans are not predisposed to follow people. They really aren’t. That’s why there’s always a certain element of chaos in the Negro world, because, see I think from slavery forward we just didn’t like to listen…No! So, somebody telling you over and over you gotta do this? You know, ‘I’m not doing that! Just cause you said that?’
You say, ‘Yes, but it’s right.’
‘I don’t care. So what if it’s right? I ain’t doing it anyway. Why I am I not doing it? For the same reason that Dostoyevsky said I’m not going to do it: so I can tell you that I exist. So I’m just gonna mess your stuff up, right?'”
— Stanley Crouch on Duke Ellington’s big band, Jazz ep. 7, “Dedicated to Chaos”
Dwight “Heavy D” Myers, who passed away November 8 from a heart attack at the age of 44, was part of hip-hop’s original “New School,” a wave of artists that brought the genre its first real critical attention. Before the “New School,” most music fans casually dismissed rappers as single-driven electro artists and black music novelties. Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, NWA, Public Enemy and others forced the world to accept them on their terms instead of the rockist criteria used to judge Run-DMC, LL Cool J and Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five. With the “New School” emergence, hip-hop grew from a fad to a generational force to be reckoned with.
(Note: This was originally written as part of Rhapsody’s “Source Material” series, which explored the influences behind a classic album. The influences listed are titles that are available in the service.)
The dust has yet to settle on the indie-rap renaissance of the late 90s, with critics and fans fiercely divided on which albums constitute classics. One title they agree on is MF Doom’s 1999 masterwork Operation: Doomsday.
Daniel Dumile has not been photographed in public without his metal mask for over a decade. He launched his career as Zev Love X, one-third of the Long Island rap trio KMD, a group he shared with his brother, DJ and producer Subroc. In 1991 KMD issued its memorable debut, Mr. Hood, and were quickly lumped with the quirky post-D.A.I.S.Y. Age of groups like Leaders of the New School and Black Sheep. However, KMD’s second album, Black Bastards, was much harder-edged, reflecting the hip-hop world’s rising interest in gangster-ism. The album’s sardonic tone, and particularly its controversial art depicting a Sambo-like cartoon being hung from a noose, led to Elektra dropping KMD from its roster. Just before Black Bastards was shelved in
19931994, Subroc was killed in a hit-and-run accident. (Black Bastards finally got an official release in 2001.)
Dumile retreated from the spotlight for a few years before issuing several 12-inches on Fondle ‘Em Records as Metal Face Doom, starting with 1997’s “Dead Bent,” and then Doomsday in the fall of 1999. While most of the era’s major acts like Company Flow and Jurassic 5 approximated grimy boom bap, MF Doom culled from adult contemporary chestnuts such as Atlantic Starr’s “Always” and James Ingram’s “One Hundred Ways.” These quiet storm ballads, bits of which he looped then sped and slowed-down, contrasted with the fervent mic-trading of Doom and his crew (whom were later known as the Monsta Island Czars). Cumulatively, they create a tone of sadness and loss.
Sisters With Voices. Total. Destiny’s Child. You didn’t need a lyric sheet to understand the legion of R&B girl groups who dominated urban pop music in the 1990s. It was plain to hear, from the coquettishly sexual lyrics to their sassy, irreverent tones and lovely multi-part harmonies. Sadly, music critics often gave them cursory attention while devoting their time to untangling rap music that often required a degree in regional slang to understand. And between the breakup of Destiny’s Child and the emergence (and quick dissolution) of Danity Kane, the R&B girl group phenomenon seems like it’s over. Perhaps there can only be one diva in today’s gladiatorial fame Matrix, leaving little room for sisterhood.