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 email@example.com. And if you’re not already subscribed to the newsletter, you can do so at musicjournalisminsider.com.
Today in the newsletter: Interviews with Houston rap historian Lance Scott Walker, dance music journalist Sophie Bress, and Chicago jazz and experimental music expert Paul Steinbeck. Plus! Reading recommendations, a documentary about London psychedelia, and more! But first…
Lance Scott Walker is one of the most foremost historians of Houston hip-hop. His latest book DJ Screw: A Life in Slow Revolution, which will quickly establish itself as the authoritative text on the wildly influential figure. The DJ Screw book follows his essential tome Houston Rap Tapes: An Oral History of Bayou City Hip-Hop. Lance often employs oral histories in his work, but this new book took on a slightly more experimental approach in how it’s organized. In this excerpt from our interview, Lance explains.
The quotes drive the story, so I built a library of interviews from which to draw, cross referencing anecdotes between different interviewees. I always intended for the manuscript to be built around oral histories, but I knew from my first book that the form has limits. I wanted to fill in some of the story that happened around the anecdotes, and move the history along without the constraints of using quotes just from my own interviews for one—but also using those from the work of other writers—and also to fill out the framework of the story along as it supports the recollections of the people quoted.
I didn’t know if UT Press was going to go for my idea, because it’s a little wacky. I had never seen a book formatted like this one. There are variations of oral histories with narrative components, but not put together like this—back and forth between the written narrative and the oral history components like we’re passing the mic around. And that was exactly the idea! Through the chapters, the story becomes a reflection of Screw’s method of passing the mic and letting everyone express themselves. I worked on it for years before I showed it to them, formatting different arrangements and different font combinations until I got to a place where I thought I had something that would really sing, that would really read well. And after the editors over there saw it, they thought it worked, and gave me the green light.
Once everything got turned over to the book designer, he followed the formatting structure I came up with (bold sans serif for the names of the speakers, quotes always in quotation marks, and quoted at length, but separated from the overall narrative, flowing back and forth) and just took the type design to another level. It’s a super complex book. Within the 10 chapters, there are 76 individual sections in the book, with lots of breaks within for the oral history text. The readability is so important when the format is something unorthodox like this, and they really nailed it. I can’t say enough good things about the designer, manuscript editor and copy editor who worked with me on it. I had a very complete idea of what I wanted the book to look like and how I wanted it to work. They saw that, and made it better than I had envisioned.
Read the full interview with Lance here.
From Lance Scott Walker:
I feel it’s important to put money back into the community I write about, so as a catchall I donate to the Houston Food Bank because that benefits a wide swath of a city that is prone to natural disasters and flooding. More specifically, I like to give to the S.H.A.P.E. Center in Houston’s Third Ward, Pacifica Radio (KPFT), and to various toy drives and community fundraisers connected to the different local rap communities about which I’ve written. I also support the individual artists by purchasing their new releases and of course I buy plenty of CDs from Screwed Up Records & Tapes, which is run by DJ Screw’s cousin Big Bubb and remains the headquarters of his legacy to this day.
Check out all of the causes highlighted by folks I’ve interviewed.
Sophie Bress is a freelance journalist, writing about dance and music with a focus on social justice. In the past, she’s written about fitness, the outdoors, and much more. “With my work, I aim to place the art forms I cover in context with other events that are going on culturally,” she says. In this excerpt from our interview, Sophie explains how she organizes her work.
I use Monday.com to lay out all my articles and the tasks/interviews that need to be completed for each piece. I try to stay away from daily to-do lists because I get obsessive and they stress me out, but everything is either on Monday.com or on my phone (or both).
What would you like to see more of in music journalism right now?
There’s been a lot more focus on diversity of all sorts in dance music journalism, specifically, as the community learns how important it is to understand and respect the genre’s roots in communities of color. I also appreciate work that highlights women in music, and not just during Women’s History Month. As journalists, we should be looking for female sources (and LGBTQ sources, and sources of color) all the time, not just when there’s a handy news peg. Also, I just love any work that challenges accepted norms and pushes the community to think differently and be better.
What would you like to see less of in music journalism right now?
Unpaid labor. This is huge for me. I understand that journalism is not where the money is, but if you want to have a publication, you should be able to offer your writers compensation. It’s incredibly difficult to get more voices into music journalism when the field doesn’t pay writers who are just starting out.
Read the full interview with Sophie here.
What music publication named “Artists on YouTube and MySpace” their artist of the year in 2006?
Stuff You Gotta Watch celebrates music journalism in video form. This week’s column is by Ana Leorne.
San Francisco may have had its Summer of Love, but London’s Alexandra Palace also witnessed a “gathering of the tribes” in spring 1967. Mixing music, art, and performance, its electrifying energy epitomized what the psychedelic underground was all about: the 14-Hour Technicolor Dream.
Forty years later, Stephen Gammond put together A Technicolor Dream in an attempt at making sense of that giant freeform happening. The documentary tells the story of the fascinating event, originally envisioned as a fund-raiser for underground paper International Times. It somehow evolved into a gigantic concert whose organic production seemed to be in tune with the overall vibe among both the audience and the performers. “I remember it was great to be young and good-looking and play music—and that’s about all I remember,” Soft Machine’s Kevin Ayers confesses.
Frequently marketed as a Pink Floyd documentary due to the band having received headline billing (and with an increasingly erratic Syd Barrett still part of the line-up), A Technicolor Dream is an exciting audiovisual testimony of the absolute peak of British psychedelia, documenting the event that marked the turning point between the utopian “before” and the tainted “after.” As the establishment began its inevitable appropriation of the movement, euphoria would soon begin to wither—and by 1969, as Barry Miles puts it so himself, “everybody had to crash and go to bed.”
Mike Powell is my favorite music writer, and I feel incredibly lucky to have had the chance to work with him over the years, starting at Stylus Magazine. His talent was immediately apparent, so I offered him a column of profiles in 2007 that we ended up calling Hi! These are five great moments from Hi!
Marnie Stern has a Morkie named Fig. A Morkie is a cross between a Yorkshire Terrier and a Maltese. “My little Morkie Morkie Morkie,” Marnie says, in that low-pulse mantric way Danny said “REDRUM” in The Shining, before tossing off an incredible sigh that suggests were I to love this Morkie, Fig, any more than I already do, I would surely expire.
Ros has cupcake frosting on his face.
“You have cupcake frosting on your face.”
He smiles and cocks his head. “That’s okay.”
It is! It took me a minute to realize.
In the late 1860s, Richard Wagner finished a big fat opera cycle about a dwarf who got some gold out of a river and made a ring that could rule the world, and all these mythical beings fought over the dwarf’s ring, but it was pretty much moot because elaborately conceived performances about dwarf rings don’t just pay for themselves you know, and they have to be done properly or what’s the point.
He’s anal, but also curious like first grade. He posts videos on YouTube—of his friends listening to Steely Dan ringtones, of a helicopter landing on his road. “I recently tried biscuits—the American biscuits, those large discs you might have with a breakfast—and they were very nice. Crumbly, and a bit hard, and you cut them open and put a little jam in the middle, right?”
I am happy that [Ian Williams] is on the beach drinking beer because listening to him play [guitar], you get a creeping feeling that he hasn’t smiled since farting as an infant—the kind of guy who registers his deepest appreciation for a joke by squinting really hard.
Paul Steinbeck is a musician, author, and professor at Washington University in St. Louis. He’s also the author of the new book Sound Experiments: The Music of the AACM, a study of the exceptional Chicago jazz and experimental music organization. As Paul puts it, “When I was in college at the University of Chicago, I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to become a musician or an academic. For a while, I prepared myself to pursue both careers, studying all day and practicing, rehearsing, and gigging every night. Eventually I discovered that my training as a performer and composer would help me conduct original research about the music I was most passionate about.” In this excerpt from our interview, Paul explains what the book is all about.
Founded on Chicago’s South Side in 1965 and still thriving today, the AACM is the most influential collective organization in jazz and experimental music. Sound Experiments offers a sonic history of the organization, examining ten compositions, improvisations, and recordings by AACM members. Analyses of these pieces illustrate how AACM composers and performers advanced the organization’s signature musical practices, from extended forms and multi-instrumentalism to experimental approaches to notation, conducting, and technology. Sound Experiments also reveals the historical connections that link these pieces to the collective’s earliest innovations, and to subsequent work by AACM members whose explorations reached the frontiers of contemporary music.
How did you come to this subject for a book? What made the topic so interesting to you?
My previous book, Message to Our Folks, was a history of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the AACM’s flagship group. After I published Message to Our Folks, I wanted to tackle a broader topic, so I chose ten other AACM musicians/bands and started thinking about what their most exemplary pieces had in common—and what made each work unique. In one or two cases, there was an audible connection to the Art Ensemble’s music, but ultimately each piece in Sound Experiments proved to be highly distinct, which shows the incredible diversity of the work produced by AACM members since the 1960s.
Read the full interview with Paul here.
From Paul Steinbeck:
I would encourage readers to support Starfish International, a non-profit organization that promotes girls’ education in the Gambia, West Africa. To learn more about the organization, including ways to donate or volunteer, click here.
Check out all of the causes highlighted by folks I’ve interviewed.
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.
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SPIN named “Artists on YouTube and MySpace” their artist of the year in 2006.
Thanks for reading! I make playlists from time to time. Check them out if you’re interested! And, 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.
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