I’m Todd L. Burns, and welcome to Music Journalism Insider, a newsletter about music journalism. I highlight some of the best stuff I hear, read, and watch every week; publish news about the industry; and interview writers, scholars, and editors about their work. My goal is to share knowledge, celebrate great work, and expand the idea of what music journalism is—and where it happens. Questions, comments, concerns? You can reach me anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you’re not already subscribed to the newsletter, you can do so at musicjournalisminsider.com.
Today in this final newsletter of the year: Interviews with Complex’s Shawn Setaro; Billboard’s Heran Mamo; and Rap Portraits’s Holland Gallagher. Plus! A tribute to bell hooks, a dive into music journalism TikTok, and much more. But first…
Shawn Setaro is a writer/reporter for Complex’s podcasts. He’s the author of the new book Complex Presents Dummy Boy: Tekashi 6ix9ine and The Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods, based on the enormous amount of reporting that Shawn did around the Tekashi court case. Shawn poured a lot of that effort into a podcast and articles at the time, but there was also quite a bit left on the table. In this excerpt from our interview, Shawn explains what the book is all about.
This is the definitive tale of the most interesting and important hip-hop/crime story of Trump’s America. It follows Daniel “Tekashi 6ix9ine” Hernandez from his troubled childhood to his early cult stardom to his fateful decision to align with a street gang in hopes of rap stardom, to his even more fateful decision to betray them when things go wrong. You may think you know this story but trust me, it’s even weirder and more outrageous than you can imagine. And it really tells us a lot about social media, the attention economy, and how we live today.
How did you come to this subject for a book? What made the topic so interesting to you?
I had been reporting on every single aspect of this case for Complex, and had interviewed scores of people around Tekashi for the podcast, so I knew I was in a unique position to tell the full story. If someone was going to write a book about this, it was going to be me. As for what made it so interesting, there were several things. First, I was figuring out the story as I was reporting it—getting deeper and deeper into the dynamics behind the outrageous things Tekashi was doing. Also, Tekashi himself cooperating opened up a fascinating window into the relationship between rappers and street gangs.
From Shawn Setaro:
I am constantly inspired and blown away by the work of the Sunrise Movement. The climate crisis is arguably the defining issue of our time, and Sunrise over and over again leads campaigns to demand serious change—the kind of change we need to avoid ecocide. They organize for what’s necessary, not just what some pollster says is practical.
Every year, Complex publishes an article titled, “The Best Rapper Alive, Every Year Since 1979.” Who was the rapper they deemed best in 1979?
It’s hard to overstate the importance of bell hooks in the landscape of intellectual thought over the past few decades. What many don’t realize is just how much writing hooks did on music over the years. Here are just a few places to start:
Heran Mamo is a staff writer at Billboard. She took on that role in December 2020 and has quickly made a name for herself. Her work primarily consists of news articles, but she also writes feature stories, hosts video interviews, and participates in panels for Billboard’s digital events. In this excerpt from our interview, Heran describes how her approach has changed over the past few years.
I’ve been trying to be more organic with my interviews in terms of preparing questions. In journalism school, I would conduct so much research on the subject I was writing about that I would write kind of convoluted questions that made me sound smart but wouldn’t ensure a good flow of conversation. Sometimes not being so meticulously prepared and just seeing where the interview takes you makes for the best quotes for the story and best relationship with whoever’s in front of you. TL;DR: Just vibe.
If you had to point folks to one piece of yours, what would it be and why?
My recent cover story with The Weeknd because it’s literally been my DREAM to do this for almost 10 years and it feels like I’ve spent this last decade working up to this very moment. I’ve been listening to The Weeknd ever since I found out he was also Ethiopian, and I’ve bore witness to the Starboy take flight ever since. All I’ve ever wanted to do was write about my favorite artists and uplift my people by sharing their stories, and this was the perfect culmination of both. I mean, an Ethiopian has the No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 Song of All Time and another Ethiopian gets to write about it?! Our parents could have never dreamt this would happen.
As DJ Shoulders shovels a double McDonald’s Filet O’ Fish in his mouth while driving and listening to “Eye Of The Tiger,” he finds space between bites to shout with glee, “This is my song, man!” Your Spinal Tap senses should have already started tingling, but whether eating fried fish or exercising throughout a gig, Shoulders’ affect is never anything but earnest. “It just so happens to be aerobics music I’m very into,” he says, and Shoulders’ performances indeed reflect an unholy combination of Richard Simmons energy and sartorial singularity. Also known as DJ LeDeuce, AKA Adam Gruel, Shoulders wears bright orange jumpsuits, a wig, and substantial padding to live up to his name. His antics and insights were captured in an eponymous documentary short directed by Jennifer Kienzler and released in 2006; the doc resurfaced in 2020 with the untimely closure of Chicago watering hole and dance party magnet Danny’s Tavern, where Shoulders was a frequent provocateur.
“He really knows his own secrets” is perhaps the most diplomatic description offered of what exactly it is Shoulders does. It’s a kind of shock art for complacent dancers and especially other DJs, who he chastises for misbehavior like smoking cigarettes while playing: “You’re not waiting for a fucking bus.” He can start a set and knock over a glass while climbing a ceiling beam before the first record’s bassline drops. He scratches records by humping the turntable. He tries and fails to do clapping push-ups, somersaults mid-mix in his apartment with enough force to knock a bike off the wall, and otherwise gyrates and glitches. Somewhere in the chaos, he actually plays records, with party tunes like Vanity 6’s “Nasty Girl” peeking through. “Last call, last song, does not exist with Shoulders,” says a bartender, but he’s nonetheless AWOL, with Chicago Reader listing only three gigs since 2003. Whenever he does surface, just try to stay out of the splash zone. As he says himself: “You come into some lame-ass place… DJ Shoulders is here, have no fear.”
In October, Ian Sickles, an English graduate student at University of Massachusetts - Boston, got in touch with me. His digital writing course included an assignment that he wanted to complete by writing an article for this newsletter. After a bit of talking about what form the article could take, we decided it would be fun for Ian to dive into the world of music journalism TikTok and see what it was all about. (Ian hasn’t used TikTok much, so he was eager to explore it.) Here’s what he had to say:
It’s no secret that the future of music journalism is unclear. Two things we do know, however: Social media has become instrumental in every aspect of the landscape, and TikTok is one of the hottest social media platforms around right now. But what sort of music journalism is happening on TikTok? Well, I’ll be honest, my Twitter feed is perfect. I’ve been able to cultivate my timeline in a way where I’m always getting updates on my favorite writers and publications, while also discovering endless new music. If I stopped following new people on Twitter today, I still feel confident I’d be able to gather all the music news and commentary I care about. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was the same on TikTok.
Holland Gallagher is the co-creator of Rap Portraits alongside Yoh Phillips. Holland handles the directorial duties on the films that Rap Portraits produces, lending the series a distinctive visual style that has made it one of the most exciting new video developments in music journalism from the past year. In this excerpt from our interview, Holland explains what Rap Portraits is all about.
The idea of Rap Portraits is to capture rap history in the moment. The style of Yoh and I as people lends a tone to the work we do, which is, in a word, intimate, but also thoughtful, and almost philosophical. Originally it was just going to be a documentary series (so far we’ve got a documentary with Mavi, EarthGang, Pell, Chris Patrick, JID, and Kari Faux) but it’s grown.
Yoh quit working at DJBooth when they merged with Audiomack in favor of independence and so his writing now comes out in our newsletter and lives on the site. We do a smaller, conversation based video series called “In the Viewfinder” to keep up with (and get to meet) new people we’re interested in and Phonte recently came up with this series called Big Homie Tips where people across creative disciplines on the other side of their career offer advice.
From Holland Gallagher:
Intersectional Environmentalist is a “climate justice community and resource hub centering BIPOC and historically under-amplified voices in the environmental space.” We have to consider the spaces we occupy. That’s physical space as well as your social space and IE is an organization that bridges those ideas in their activism. And they have a great website.
This is the last newsletter of 2021. It’s been another very long year! But from one nerd to another, thanks for spending some of it with me. The nerd below doesn’t have a choice about spending time with me, but you do! So I truly appreciate it. I’ll be back on January 10th.
Thanks for reading! In case you’ve missed them, I’ve published a number of special features in the newsletter, including articles about music journalism history, what music journalism will be like in 2221, and much more. You can check out all of that here.
I also do a recurring column in the newsletter called Notes On Process. The premise is simple: I share a Google Doc with a music journalist where we go into depth on one of their pieces. It hopefully provides an insight into how music writers do their work. You can check out all editions of Notes On Process, including the latest one with Danyel Smith, here.
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Thanks for reading! Full disclosure: My day job is at uDiscover Music, a branded content online magazine owned by Universal Music. This newsletter is not affiliated or sponsored in any way by Universal, and any links that relate to the work of my department will be clearly marked. Feel free to reach out to me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter, it’s @JournalismMusic. Until next time…