“I love the word practice. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? You practice. How do you get to the Carnegie Hall of your soul, of your life, how do you get to the concert hall where you make best music inside yourself? You practice. How do you practice? You change your behavior. Every day. It’s very difficult, and you constantly are falling down and you have to constantly try to change it again.”— Mandy Patinkin on Charlie Rose last night.
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.
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.
“Also, I am curious as to whether the idea of Jay “bringing the ‘high society’ to the block and vice versa” is compatible given that such circles are historically predicated on white norms and exclusion. That world will accept a handful of black people and then will initiate operation: white flight over to some other shit as soon as they feel uncomfortable. Not trying to kill dreams or anything of a racially inclusive, democratized upper crust, but its evils are kind of the way they are by design, not incident.”—Soul Khan, in this thread on Jay-Z
What does the 995 mean (in your username)? I apologize if you've already answered this.
It is the frequency of the radio station where my career in hip-hop/media began way back in 1989, and where my show the Underground Railroad still airs Friday nights at 10PM (right after Chuck D’s show!).
Also just as an addendum. This is the actual history of hip-hop:
Sha Rock, Lady Pink, Barbara 62, Eva 62, Sylvia Robinson, Sequence, Shante, Salt, Pepa, Latifah, Lyte, Antoinette, Yo-Yo, Lady B, Wendy Day, Akiba Solomon, Joan Morgan, dream hampton, Rosa Clemente, Jazzy Joyce, Monica Lynch, Minya Oh, Invincible, Nikki D, MC Trouble, Monie Love, Paula Perry, Too Fly, Queen Andrea, Eternia, Sophia Chang, Sara Kana, Young Gattas, Dekay, Ms. Fit, Bonnie Godiva, Chayna Ashley, Jaz the Rapper, the entire Queen Of The Ring battle league, the entire Bars & Bra Straps battle league, Dee Barnes, Beverly Bond, DJ Chela, Kuttin Kandi, Pri the Honey Dark, Helixx, Big Tara, La Bruja, Ana “Rokafella” Garcia, the Crunk Feminist Collective. Martha Cooper, Christie Z-Pabon, Lady of Rage, Queen Mother Rage, Linque, Da Brat, Angie Martinez, Leshaun AKA Almond Joy, Shorty No Mas, Vinia Mojica, Hurricane G, Rah Digga, Lady Luck, Lady Sovereign, Cristina Veran, Pam the Funkstress, The Conscious Daughters, Psalm One, Lynne D Johnson, Kim Osorio, Pebblee Poo, The Real Roxanne, Danyel Smith, Mela Machinko, Jean Grae, Ladybug Mecca, DJ Mecca from the Dirty Dozen, Sha-Key aka Hanifah Walidah, Kim, Foxy, Nicki, Apani B Fly, Tiye Phoenix, Narubi Selah, Desdamona, Dessa, Boss, Missy, Finesse & Synquis, Michie Mee, Sister Souljah, Mystic, Remy Ma, Martha Diaz, Bahamadia, Rapsody, Boog Brown, Erykah, Estelle, Lauryn.
“Growing up in New Jersey, Bruce Springsteen was so important to me, because listening to him you didn’t feel like a loser. You felt like a character in an epic poem about losers.”—Jon Stewart, talking to the crowd before tonight’s taping.
“One American critic was so angry she chased me to the exit to inform me, ‘This film is a call to racial violence!’ I thought not. I thought it was a call to empathy, which of all human qualities is the one this past century seemed most to need.”—Roger Ebert on Do The Right Thing.
Freddie DeBoer is a blogger that I’ve read off and on for a long time. He’s a great writer, but his output is erratic. On his better days he does really sharp, thoughtful work, on other days he indulges in semi-coherent ad hominem freakouts.
This week he featured me in one of the latter, with a post that included lots of snickering about my silly hip-hop name, specious appeals to authority (in which his logic, if followed to its conclusion, discredits the majority of his own work), an absurd misrepresentation of my (non)interaction with Radley Balko, and then a bunch of railing against positions that I’ve never held or espoused.
This was doubly frustratng because I’m actually sympathetic to some of his critiques of the practices that he imagines I support. Or at least I think I am, but I’d have to see those faint whispers of cogency fleshed out in a more lucid setting, to know for sure.
So I hope he revisits those threads on one of his better days. And I hope we cross paths again under other circumstances, because as pointed out below our work is actually pretty similar in some ways, and I think he’d find we see eye-to-eye on far more than he’d imagined. Well, a bit more, anyway.
I wish I had time to respond in more detail but this social ladder’s not going to climb itself, so for now here’s a post from Alan Pyke that covers a lot of what I’d have said.
I’m accustomed to disagreeing with Freddie DeBoer, but I’m unused to seeing him employ lousy logic and self-defeating arguments. So it was surprising to see him do so poorly on the subject of privilege — the subject of some of his best and most personal writing — in a post about the debate over jokes and offense-taking that followed the Oscars:
People of the world, I implore you: what is privilege checking doing for anyone? Is anyone in the world going to materially benefit from someone in some grad seminar checking their privilege? Has all the privilege checking in every cultural studies class in the history of creation ever put clothes on someone’s back or food in their belly? Ever stopped a single cop from beating a black man senseless? Don’t mistake your purification rituals for progress, please.
This is a worthwhile set of questions, in a vacuum. If it never goes beyond a classroom exercise, privilege-checking becomes self-serving. At its most conspicuous and vapid it can be a vehicle for social positioning and alienation rather than, y’know, good things. (Such as making economically-disadvantaged white people realize they are still privileged, and using mass awareness of the bad-hand-at-a-good-table reality of social capital and skin color to shift public attitudes towards the systems of oppression and privilege-protection Freddie so rightly assails.) This is why privilege-checking isn’t and shouldn’t be a constant apologia or a hair-shirted gnash-toothed exercise in look-at-me posturing. White people who run around flashing their awareness of privilege like a credential of their Good Guy status are not helping anything, save themselves. And when they turn their awareness of privilege into a cudgel in interactions with less-aware (or less-overtly-signalling) white folk, they prove Freddie’s point. In a vacuum, this is provocative and potentially enlightening stuff.
However, he didn’t ask those questions in a vacuum. And the context transforms the above-quoted into a foolish wholesale renouncing of the public, interactive, instructive privilege-checking that a lot of people use the internet to pursue. Here’s how Freddie’s piece starts:
When I saw, in this Atlantic Wire piece, that Internet personality “Jay Smooth” was lecturing Radley Balko on his attitude towards people of color, I laughed out loud. It’s like God decided, “I’m going to create the perfect possible example of cultural liberalism’s preference for feelings over material conditions.”Jay Smooth makes videos on the Internet. So he’s got that going for him. Radley Balko, meanwhile, has gotten actual black people out of actual jail. He has worked tirelessly against police abuse and corruption, the drug war, and mass incarceration, and specifically the mass incarceration of young black men.
He goes on to extend his slap at Ill Doctrine’s Smooth into a familiar indictment of social media as a dead end that saps social liberal energy in a meaningless game of who’s-the-coolest — in this case, by encouraging folks to the kind of showy, vapid privilege-checking discussed above.
Right out of the box, you’ve got Freddie declaring that only material accomplishments have value, and that in any given interaction, the person with the fewer material accomplishments has no standing to critique the actions of the person with more of them. We should ignore or discount those whose contribution to a better world is in improving and expanding the running conversation about how to achieve a better world. You could probably take that as a cue to ignore Freddie himself (or me!) and be done with it, but then you’d miss the real cockery:
If you’re a white person who thinks that “Jay Smooth” has the right to lecture Radley Balko about race in America, you care more about your social positioning than about the material conditions of the nonwhite people you claim to be speaking for. Period.
Let’s count ways in which this is convenient, obfuscatory horseshit:
“I think Eve would agree with me that if she’d only been allowed to just shoot that snake in the face, we’d still be living in Paradise. But then again, in Paradise there’d be no need for guns, and what a pointless existence that would be! How do we resolve this paradox? I need a bigger gun so I can shoot this philosophical conundrum in the face.”— Gun Appreciation Day chairman Larry Ward
“In the serious play of questions and answers, in the work of reciprocal elucidation, the rights of each person are in some sense immanent in the discussion. They depend only on the dialogue situation. The person asking the questions is merely exercising the right that has been given him: to remain unconvinced, to perceive a contradiction, to require more information, to emphasize different postulates, to point out faulty reasoning, and so on. As for the person answering the questions, he too exercises a right that does not go beyond the discussion itself; by the logic of his own discourse, he is tied to what he has said earlier, and by the acceptance of dialogue he is tied to the questioning of other. Questions and answers depend on a game—a game that is at once pleasant and difficult—in which each of the two partners takes pains to use only the rights given him by the other and by the accepted form of dialogue.
The polemicist , on the other hand, proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question. On principle, he possesses rights authorizing him to wage war and making that struggle a just undertaking; the person he confronts is not a partner in search for the truth but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong, who is armful, and whose very existence constitutes a threat. For him, then the game consists not of recognizing this person as a subject having the right to speak but of abolishing him as interlocutor, from any possible dialogue; and his final objective will be not to come as close as possible to a difficult truth but to bring about the triumph of the just cause he has been manifestly upholding from the beginning. The polemicist relies on a legitimacy that his adversary is by definition denied.”— foucault.info/foucault/interview.html
Saw your poster for The Last Black Panther and wondered if you'd seen The Last Samurai and realized that Tom Cruise was not the titular character in that film, but rather Ken Watanabe's character was instead.
I have seen the film, and my understanding is the title was referencing the plural form of “Samurai,” in reference to the whole clan. But your reading or mine would both equally illustrate how silly/misleading/inaccurate the movie’s framing and promotion was, in its continuation of the “present white character as central to POC stories” Hollywood tradition..