Thursday, September 19, 2013

Ghetto Talk — I Was Interviewed by Italian Magazine DATSHIT


Mattia Salvia: I often read Rap Genius' blog, I think it's awesome. The articles are always interesting and well written. What I like the most is trying to figure out what do americans think about their rappers, how artists I listen to 24 hours a day are seen in their nation, and to compare my impressions with theirs, who sure know them better than me–even for the fact they live in the same nation, they share the same cultural context, they watch the same tv shows. 

One of the most interesting writers on RG's blog is Zach Schwartz, a very nice guy from Cleveland, Ohio. Because me and Zach are basically doing the same thing, but he on a larger scale, I decided to contact him to talk about the thing that connect us: writing about rap music as a serious thing. So we had this little conversation that I thought was the perfect start of the new seasons of my column Ghetto Talk. Thank you Zach!

MS: First of all, is this particular form of music journalism (I'm thinking about RG's blog, but also about the famous NYT's article about French Montana and the meaning of "fanute" or the interview Zadie Smith did with Jay-Z last year) something new in the US? Or is this the standard way to write about music in general and rap music in particular? I find quite interesting the fact that here in Italy it just doesn't exist.

Zach Schwartz: I would say that this particular form of rap journalism—meaning in-depth pieces on hip-hop culture—is new in the US. This goes along with the progression of rap music in general. I mean, rap music used to not even be considered music. Someone like Jay-Z wouldn’t be considered a “role model.” Now we are in a time where rap music is finally treated as a legitimate artform and Jay-Z is on the cover of Time.

This is similar to the way rock music used to be treated in the United States. Rock n’ roll used to not be treated seriously, but as it gained momentum and become one of the predominating cultural forces in the United States, a need for cultural journalists, for people to document it, arose. Hence the start of publications like Rolling Stone. Nowadays, with hip-hop as our generation’s rock n’ roll, publications like the Rap Genius blog and Complex Magazine arise to address its huge social presence.

This type of music journalism arises when a genre gains force. People already write this way about established genres like rock n’ roll. Rap is at an all-time high in terms of cultural acceptance, and is only growing, so I envision this type of music journalism about rap proliferating not only in the United States, but eventually around the world.

MS: But, I think, the fact that rap is something so easy to do is a game-changing element. Even here, where people are now discovering that rap music exists, we have thousands of 14 to 16 years old kids putting their tracks on youtube (fun fact: among them you can find three different versions of "Empire State Of Mind" for Milan, Rome and Naples). 

This makes rap music something way more pervasive. I mean: talking/writing about rock was just talking about music and the way music influenced culture, but talking about rap is talking about pretty much everything—every aspect of life: from music to literature, from politics to business (as you did with your piece about how selling records is just like selling crack).

ZS: That’s sweet that those kids in Europe are taking a Jay-Z song and making it their own—that’s the essence of hip-hop. Borrowing, taking from tradition, and making it your own. 

The game is always evolving, always changing, whether it is the music or the writing that follows it. Rock n’ Roll and its cultural documentation blew down barriers and showed how music could be its own culture—rap music continues that progression, but it shows how music can be its own lifestyle. People live, breathe hip-hop. It’s about so much more than the music: hip-hop is a way of thinking, of doing, of acting. The fact that it’s so easy to do only multiplies its influence.

Rap is startlingly honest. It’s about anything you want it to be: sex, drugs, struggle, how much we hate the police. Even look at somebody like Action Bronson—he raps about being a chef. And so the writing is also liberated, not restricted to talking solely about the music. Hip-hop is about borrowing, taking from tradition, and making it your own, so when we write about rap music, we start with the music, but then we make the piece our own. It becomes not only about hip-hop music, but the hip-hop lifestyle, and even life itself. So while rap cultural journalism is based on the cultural journalism that came before, it’s also a new thing, uniquely related to the honesty and the accessibility and the freedom that is hip-hop.

MS: You think that this new style of journalism so influenced by hip hop culture is going to be something hip hop itself? That one day we'll see writers dissing one another in their articles or read self-referential and ego-tripping pieces on the NYT?

I mean: you think that writing will be just like rapping in another form and writers just like rappers using articles instead of songs? That would be something redefining the writer's role and essence—like, a post-modern end of literature.

ZS: I don’t think it will mirror it exactly, but hip-hop will definitely and already does have an influence on the writing that covers it. Case in point would be when rap blogger Andrew Nosnitsky of Cocaine Blunts and Brian Miller of Rap Radar “beefed” over their opinions on Chief Keef last year. Wilbert Cooper of Vice Magazine employed a gonzo journalism approach when he interviewed Gucci Mane and Flocka, keeping up with their drug intake all night.

I think that anything influenced by hip-hop will have its touch. For example, Rap Genius isn’t a typical startup. The founders act like rappers instead of traditional entrepreneurs: they flaunt expensive clothes, use hip-hop lingo, and “beef” with perceived competitors like Facebook and Complex. Contemporary American alt-lit authors like Jordan Castro and Steve Roggenbuck that are heavily influenced by rap (Jordan by Gucci Mane, Steve by Lil B) act and talk like rappers, Jordan labeling his short stories with names like “Back To The Trap House” and Steve Roggenbuck stylistically borrowing from Lil B by using words like “rare” and employing intentional misspellings.

I think hip-hop is quickly becoming the attitude of young America, or at least one of its primary influencers. We think of generations in terms of their music—we associate the 20s with blues, the 60s with rock, the 70s with disco. The early 21st century is undoubtedly pop and hip-hop. Maybe, it will get even more hip-hop, and we’ll see the trends that rappers set—the emphasis on struggle, hard work, aggressiveness—manifesting themselves in almost everything our culture produces. And I think, that if rap writers truly understand the culture they are covering, they will naturally blur the lines between rapper and writer more than has ever been done before.

Zach Schwartz has written for Rap Genius, Thought Catalog, and Medium, and has his own site at

Follow Zach on Twitter: @zach_two_times

Follow Mattia on Twitter: @mttslv

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