ThinkUp Insights Interview: Jay Smooth
This interview is excerpted from the ThinkUp Insights Interviews series, which asks some of the most influential and innovative people on the Internet about the future of social networking and social media. You can get the full Insights book with all of these interviews when you join ThinkUp.
Jay Smooth is that rare master of media who’s been a pioneer in two different formats. In radio, his weekly hip hop radio show, Underground Railroad has aired on WBAI for 22 years (yes, you read that right), and he was among the earliest to bring hip hop to the world of social media with his blog HipHopMusic.com and his breakout video blog Ill Doctrine.
But what distinguishes Jay’s work is not merely that it was early to these medium, it’s that he brought a deep and abiding sense of social and cultural responsibility to his work, right from the start. There’s a profound sense when we read or hear Jay’s words that we’re not just going to be entertained, but we will come out aspiring to be a bit better as people.
It’s no surprise Jay’s work is grounded in such lofty social ambitions; he sees his work online being as important as any of the face-to-face interactions we encounter in a day. According to Jay, “The biggest lie that’s ever been told is: ‘the internet is not real life.’”
When did you first realize that social networks were going to change how you live or work?
JS: When I first got online around 1996, it was Usenet groups like rec.music.hip-hop, alt.music.prince and alt.asian-movies that first showed me how the internet could help you find & join communities of like-minded people, to an extent that’d never seemed possible for me before. Later on (around 2000 or so) it was my experiences with the Okayplayer message boards, and most of all the network of friends I built on Livejournal, that really showed me the potential for building a vibrant & rewarding community through sharing your writing and personal expression.
What moment or moments stand out to you as the most meaningful ones you’ve had online?
JS: Too many to choose, but I went to a wedding last month between two of my best friends, who met each other 10+ years ago through being mutual friends of mine on Livejournal.
If you could know one thing about the people you’re connected to online, what would it be?
JS: Do they still like me? I mean, I’m pretty sure they used to like me because they clicked “like” on that thing I posted, but that was 6 whole minutes ago.
What do you wish the people you follow did more or less of online?
JS: Retweeting every time someone pays you a compliment. (Rappers, for whom joyful self-aggrandizement is a cornerstone of their art, are exempt from this rule.)
What’s the big thing that’s missing from today’s social networks?
JS: If I knew that, I’d be obliquely revealing it to you during a pitch for venture capital.
We loved Jay’s recent talk at the XOXO Festival; It’s a wonderful encapsulation of the philosophy that he’s followed in more than a decade on the social web and more than two decades on the air.
yerbalessencess asked: OMG OMG I can't believe you're on tumblr!! I've been watching your youtube channel for years now! ok what was your first encounter with hip hop? What song or artist struck your interest first?
Hard to say what my very first encounter with hip-hop was, but the first song that really captured my imagination was 8th Wonder by the Sugar Hill Gang (so this was probably 1980 or 81). I can remember pretty clearly the first time I heard it, at a schoolmate’s birthday party. Later on The Message, naturally, cemented the relationship. I can remember my father and aunt Carolyn (they were both poets), being excited about bringing the 12-inch home and all of us listening to it together and rapping along. And then Run-D.M.C.’s “Sucker MCs” and their first two albums after that, those were all pivotal moments. I think it’s hard to grasp the magnitude of Run-D.M.C.’s impact if you weren’t there at the time, but for so many people my age they turned this hip-hop house into a home. The early Village Voice coverage of the scene at that time is also a vivid memory.
Then around 86 or 87 is when I was old enough to really become a music consumer, and started putting all my allowance into what eventually became this apartment-ruining 10,000+ record collection. This was right at that moment when Run-D.M.C were still the avant garde but were about to be eclipsed by Rakim, BDP, Kane, G Rap. I was blessed to be at that stage of adolescence when your relationship with music is the most intense, right at that explosion of creativity from 87-91 or so, that for me peaked with PE’s “Nation of Millions,” the most important album of my life (that record is probably another “you had to be there” moment).
One of my favorite memories is going to the Music Factory in Times Square for the first time, in 1988. Walking around the store in amazement, feeling like I was inside Willy Wonka’s Dusty Vinyl factory. A few minutes after me, KRS-ONE walked in the door, with a teenage D-Nice following behind.
KRS walked over to that legendary wall of rap 12-inches and started holding court, giving his verdict on each record to the store’s proprietor Stanley Platzer. “This is garbage. This is wack. This is garbage. THIS IS MY SHIT! [pointing at MC Lyte’s ‘10% Dis’]” That moment gave such a vivid sense of how hip-hop was a community, that bound all of us together in our love for it and commitment to it.
Didn’t mean to go on so long but this post is bringing back a lot of memories.