Practice Makes Perfect On King Von’s New Album ‘Welcome To O Block’
Drill rapper King Von’s new album welcomes the listener to O Block, the South Side housing project he grew up in that the Chicago Sun-Times called “the most dangerous block in Chicago” in 2014. Like Von’s various music videos filmed on the block, the title is a succinct introduction to his perspective, but according to Von it was less an artistic choice than a practical one. “I ain’t really over-think it,” Von says on the phone from his new home in Atlanta. “You just come up with a name, and it fit perfectly.”
To Von, rapping is more sport than art, a skill that can only improve through practice. The 26-year-old born Dayvon Bennett first broke out with “Crazy Story,” a gleeful tale of a robbery released through friend Lil Durk’s label Only The Family. Von’s trademark storytelling style was inspired by his childhood in Englewood and novels he read while incarcerated, and he refined it further on mixtapes Grandson, Vol. 1 and Levon James.
Welcome To O Block feels like Von’s major league debut. Though the album was produced almost entirely by Chopsquad DJ, its sound expands beyond drill to include G-funk and sleek pop-rap. Von’s pen is sharper than ever, whether he’s flexing alongside Fivio Foreign on “I Am What I Am” or discussing relationships with Dreezy on “Mad At You.” As drill continues to proliferate and mutate in other cities, Von’s album is a potent reminder of Chicago’s influence on hip-hop.
I talked to Von over the phone from Atlanta about his work ethic, his writing process and the only rapper he’s waiting on a feature from.
Do you like performing? Were you waiting to get back out there and do shows?
I f**k with it now, at first I didn’t. Especially with a decent crowd, and people really f**k with you, they perform your s**t for you, so you just have to vibe and kick it with the people. They sing the whole s**t, so you just gotta t up with ‘em. That s**t fun as hell.
Do you meet fans who know your songs word for word?
There’s crazy fans. “I know your songs better than you, n**ga!” You don’t know man, slow the f**k down. [laughs] People be coming like that.
How did you get more comfortable doing shows?
It’s like with everything else, after you doing it a few times, you get better at it. So I got comfortable and I saw myself getting better. It’s practice.
Do you have a favorite track to play live?
Lately it’s been “All These N**gas,” that s**t with me and Durk go crazy. But I can’t even say just that, depends on where you at. Some nights it’s “Took Her To The O,” some night it’s “2 AM,” somewhere else they just love “Crazy Story.” I got options now, a variety of songs with good energy. It used to be hard when “Crazy Story” was the only one people f**k with, so I do four, five songs, they won’t even f**k with ‘em, they be vibing just waiting on “Crazy Story.” I be mad as hell! [laughs] I got a catalog now, it’s decent, getting better and better.
What makes Welcome To O Block different than Levon James?
Like I told you, it’s practice. If you’re doing something and keep doing it, you’re gonna get better results. Everything better. It is the one for real, I’ve been working hard. The songs that are already released been doing great. “All These N**gas” got 24 million [YouTube views] in two months, that s**t crazy.
How did you link up with Fivio Foreign for “I Am What I Am”?
I just DM’d him. I got the beat, I did the song, I said “I need Fivio on this, this the type of s**t he be on.” He hit me back “Yeah, for sure, I f**k with you.”
The track with Polo is great too.
I f**k with Polo, you know he from the city. He’s from a different area than I am in the city, so I met Polo when my career got to be taking off.
Talking about relationships on the Dreezy track is a new style for you. How did that come together?
I be trying to do s**t for the females. They be steady on me about that. I know about the females [rappers], but I don’t know their music. They get to be talking about us on they songs, so I don’t really be in tune with female s**t like that. So I asked around, they like “Dreezy, she good,” so I said “Let’s see how she do.” She came back and that s**t hard as hell.
I see you retweet a lot of women posting about you, and I saw that you were a model for Givenchy this past weekend. How does it feel to be known for your looks and your music?
That s**t be feeling decent. I been big on ladies, but now I got options and choices, s**t’s crazy. That s**t was Givenchy was big as hell, that shit decent, came out alright. I be talking to females but nothing serious, just entertaining everybody.
What are you doing now that this album’s done? Are you back in the studio?
It ain’t really like that. The way my work ethic is, we just working making songs and videos, then we put up lists to see how many [we got], then we just keep going. We already on the next one even before the first one’s finished. Ain’t no point in stopping or slowing down. Ain’t like no “A’ight, I’m done with this, now take a break,” you just keep going.
Have you been able to travel outside the country at all before everything got locked down?
Naw, I ain’t never been out the country. I been a felon for a minute, so there’s all types of restrictions on my movement, where I can go. I ain’t even looking for everything out here [in this country]. Wherever the money at, I’ll be. [laughs] Objects, buildings, or monuments don’t really attract me like that. I want to make sure I’m doing the right thing, taking care of the people with me, there isn’t too much that excite me no more like that.
So what do you like spending your money on?
I love cars and I love clothes, but I don’t really be going too crazy. I buy clothes a lot just because I gotta shoot videos and look nice for the shows, but it ain’t no “Ooh, I’m waking up shopping today,” I don’t give a f**k about it at all. I got a cousin that go through everything when it comes to clothes. And I love cars, I just started f**king with cars heavy, but I got other s**t to take care of before I get to just going crazy. I’m trying to make sure everybody else got at least one car before I start buying thirty of them bitches. I got my eyes on a Rolls truck and the Wraith, so those will probably be the next two cars I get.
Do you ever give any input to producers, like “I want a beat that sounds like this”?
I really only got that type of relationship with Chopsquad DJ. We looking straight for my sound. Say I write some s**t, come up with the flow and everything, and I rap it to him, and he come back with a whole beat for it. I’m just creating from scratch, and he’s amazing on that type of shit.
It’s impressive you can write a song without a beat, since so many people do the opposite and write to a certain beat.
That’s just a strategy I developed when I was in jail, because you know there ain’t no beats in jail. So I just had to go off top, start with the words, come up with a flow, then figure the beat out later. It’s time-consuming for sure. Lately it ain’t been no time, so I just hear a beat and figure it out from there.
So you’ve been freestyling more?
We call it punching in, but yeah, because I ain’t really having enough time to sit and write. It’s different but it just depends on how much effort you put into it. Writing, you got more time to sit over one word, one sentence, really perfect it. The stories can get more detailed, have more depth. If you got time, you see what I’m saying? Nobody got time nowadays. Punching in, you only got XYZ amount of hours in the studio, so you don’t wanna be in this bitch all day with one song. You gotta be a fast thinker, a fast puncher.
Is there anyone you still wanna work with?
There ain’t nobody I’m dying to get a feature with or none of that s**t. I’ll work with whoever decent, but I ain’t pressured, I ain’t dreaming about it. Lil Wayne, that’s the only motherf**ker that’s over GOATed in my eyes, since a motherf**ker grew up so hard to this s**t. But other than that, we’ll get around to it if we get around to it, if we don’t, I never care.
You’ve talked about how you’re rapping in order to make money and provide for a lot of people. Does putting out the album feel like a step up, in terms of getting paid?
Once your catalog get bigger and you come with more hits, the prices go up. You just gotta work. Once you down for the work, shit keep going up. Checks get bigger, features get bigger, the shows, everything gets bigger.
Lin-Manuel Miranda (L) and host/creator Hrishikesh Hirway (R) in “Song Exploder”
Photo: Eric Veras/Netflix
Beat By Beat: How “Song Exploder” Unlocks The Intimacy Of Music And Creativity
Most people know “Song Exploder” as the popular podcast giving die-hard music fans a deep, inside look into the sonic mechanics behind their favorite tracks. A whole new class of music-heads now knows “Song Exploder” as the new Netflix series bringing the creativity behind music to the digital screen.
Originally launched as a podcast in 2014, “Song Exploder” dissects classic and current fan-favorite songs, with guest artists breaking down each individual track and element in detail to paint an intimate audio portrait of their art. The podcast, which has accumulated more than 60 million streams and downloads over the years and has hosted guests like U2, Selena Gomez, Björk, Fleetwood Mac, Solange and many others, now breathes new life as a Netflix docuseries.
Introduced on the streaming platform at the beginning of October, “Song Exploder” adds an even deeper layer of storytelling and personal insight to the songs being deconstructed beat by beat. The show’s inaugural four-episode run features Alicia Keys (“3 Hour Drive”), Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Wait For It” from “Hamilton”), R.E.M. (“Losing My Religion”) and Ty Dolla $ign (“LA”). (Last week [Oct. 15], Netflix unveiled its next slate of guests for the show’s second season, set to debut Dec. 15: Dua Lipa, The Killers, Nine Inch Nails and Natalia Lafourcade.
Whether in visual or podcast format, the core of “Song Exploder” remains the same: “an intimate portrait of an artist telling the story of how their artistic mind worked through creating one of their songs,” host and creator Hrishikesh Hirway tells GRAMMY.com.
GRAMMY.com chatted with Hrishikesh Hirway about the human connection behind his new “Song Exploder” Netflix series and how he hopes the show will inspire others to create their own art.
You have an endless supply of songs from which to choose for any given “Song Exploder” episode, podcast and show. What needs to stand out in a song in order for you to develop it for “Song Exploder”?
The first step in the process is really identifying the artists before even getting to the song, because, frankly, I don’t know necessarily which songs might have the best stories. The most famous songs don’t necessarily have the most interesting stories, and the people who know that better than anyone are the people who made the songs.
But what I can try and determine is which artists seem really interesting and thoughtful, good storytellers, and who are also beloved by a lot of people. That’s kind of where I start. And once I can get an artist onboard to talk about a song in this way, then I start the process of trying to narrow down which song it’s going to be with them.
I feel like I don’t know what the story [of the song] is all the time. There are a lot of songs that haven’t necessarily been delved into, and frankly, I’m always interested in something like that . where the backstory [of a song] hasn’t been canonized and “Song Exploder” can be a place to tell it for the first time. So I really am relying on input from the artists . The question that I ask them, frankly, is: Which of your songs do you feel the most emotional attachment to?
Ultimately, the most interesting stories, I think, when it comes to making songs or really making any kind of art, are about people and their feelings and the things that inspire them to make something at all. Even though the show is about music, it’s also a portrait of each of these artists. In order to tell you something insightful, especially for it to be something that could be interesting to people who aren’t people who make music themselves and also aren’t necessarily even familiar with the artist or the song, it has to be something that connects to something in the human experience that feels significant.
I always try to make “Song Exploder” a show that reflected a broad range of genres and artists and backgrounds. So there’s kind of almost a guarantee that you couldn’t just get people hooked on the show based on who the artists were and what the songs were; I want everybody to watch every episode and listen to every episode of the podcast because I think that it’s a worthwhile conversation to have. I think the creative process is something that’s really fascinating in and of itself. It’s an example of how people react to their own experience, to actually decide to make something based on their ideas, what they lived through, what they love . The thing that I’m actually most interested in is that kind of emotional experience: the emotional attachment to the act of creating a piece of music.
Michael Stipe of R.E.M. in “Song Exploder” | Photo: Courtesy of Netflix/Netflix
There’s a moment in the R.E.M. episode where frontman Michael Stipe gets almost emotional listening to his own voice on the band’s classic, “Losing My Religion,” and hearing the song elements broken down and presented to him in such an intimate manner, even after so many years since the song’s release. How do you go about getting artists to open up to you and dive into their art so deeply?
I think one thing that helps is that I’m not really approaching [the interview process] head-on, certainly not right away. The questions don’t start off front and center in like an emotionally investigative way. I think I have to earn their trust first, and part of that is from talking about the mechanics of the process first. That’s the entry point in all these conversations. One of the reasons why having the [song’s] stems is important, not just in terms of letting the listeners know what’s going on in the song, but in terms of being able to facilitate that conversation with the artist.
Of all of the questions, the hardest one to answer is probably, “Why?” “Why did you decide to make the song this way? Why did you write this lyric? Why did you choose this chord progression?” That’s the hardest [question], but it’s also the one that I’m most interested in. But it’s a little easier to start off with, first of all, “What?” “What are we listening to?” And then to ask them, “OK, how did you make it? And when did you make it?” All those basic factual questions are a way to just let them and me submerge ourselves into the memories of making that song.
Once they’re there and able to relive some of the experience of it by hearing the actual evidence of the stuff that they did on that day—hearing their voice, hearing the instrument, hearing the actual track that they recorded around that time—it’s a lot easier to ask them to then dig a few layers deeper and ask what was going on in their lives and how that might’ve fed into some of those creative decisions.
You’re now juggling the show and the podcast. How do you decide what songs go on the podcast format and what goes in video format?
Well, the podcast is a lot of work for a podcast, but that means that I’m still able to turn around an episode in a few weeks, whereas the TV show takes a much longer time to put together. There are just so many more components to it, and it’s so much more work.
Part of the pitch for doing the television show is that I was trying to ask these artists to take a leap of faith, [like,] “This is something that’s going to take a while to make, so you can’t tie it to your promotional calendar, necessarily. I can’t guarantee that it’ll come out on such and such date to coincide with your single release or something like that.” It was really more like, “Would you like to participate in this thing where there’ll be this really meticulously crafted mini-documentary about this work that you did, and it’s sort of evergreen.”
That’s a different pitch than with the podcast. Although with the podcast, I say all those things, too. I say it’s evergreen and it’s always better when it’s not necessarily tied to your release schedule and more like when people have had a chance to live with the song a little bit. But one of the advantages of the podcast is it can be a little more nimble because it’s a little easier to put together.
So this is a long way of saying that a lot of times that question is answered by the artists themselves or their publicists or managers, who are looking for a very specific outcome or timing, or they have something in mind, and that could be a matter of scale. It really depends on the circumstances of the artist and what works for them.
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Fans who’ve been following the podcast for a while will find a totally different experience when they come to the show. There are two types of storytelling when I hear “Song Exploder,” the podcast, and when I watch “Song Exploder,” the docuseries. The podcast is very audio-heavy: You get to really hear all of the isolated bits and pieces of the song. The show has a lot more historical and cultural context, sort of like a mini-documentary for a song, and you also hear from a lot more voices beyond just the recording artist. Beyond the visual element, what do you gain in terms of storytelling through the show?
I think one of the things that you mentioned is absolutely key to the TV show, which is that often on the podcast, it’s just a single voice or maybe two voices together … But with the TV show, because the timeline was so different, there was a chance to stop and say, “OK, who do we really want? Who are all the voices that are involved in the creation of the song?” Maybe not just the artist, but also the collaborators that were essential to making the song.
Having that kind of breadth and depth, it isn’t always afforded to the shorter turnaround time and the scale of the podcast. But here, to really immerse the audience and give a really full picture of what the song was, having those other voices in there was really important. For [the] Alicia Keys episode [about the song “3 Hour Drive,”] we traveled to London to film with [the song’s guest vocalist and co-writer/co-producer] Sampha and the [song’s] co-writer/co-producer Jimmy Napes because we knew that they were going to only expand and flesh out the story.
I think a part of it is also a matter of craft, too. When you’re working in audio, you’re kind of only working in one dimension, which is time. You’re just relying on one sense, hearing, and you’re just basing everything on how long things take; the rhythm comes from just that one sense. But with TV, you have to also give a rhythm and complexity visually, too. You can’t just transliterate the podcast into a TV format, where it’s just one person talking, mixed with the isolated stems, because it wouldn’t work; it would get very boring very quickly. So in order to have that kind of texture and nuance, we wanted to involve all those different people and try and give a little bit bigger of a picture than maybe what comes out in the podcast.
Do you see the podcast and the show as separate entities or related in the same family? Do you need to engage with both formats to fully appreciate or understand what “Song Exploder” is trying to do?
Oh, I don’t think you have to engage with both. Of course, I would love it if people did, just because they’re both things that I’ve put a lot of work into, and you want people to enjoy the stuff that you’ve worked on. This is not a great analogy, but I think it’s sort of like reading a book or watching a movie that’s been adapted of that book. I don’t think you need to read the book to enjoy the movie, and vice versa, you don’t need to have seen the movie to have full enjoyment of the book. But maybe you’ll get something out of the experience of taking both in. Maybe it changes the way you feel about both.
This is, of course, a little bit different, because it’s not even the same story that’s being told. It’s really just taking the core concept, which is an intimate portrait of an artist telling the story of how their artistic mind worked through creating one of their songs, and taking that concept and expressing it in these two different media. So it’s much looser even than something like an adaptation of a book to a movie.
What artist or what song is your holy grail for the podcast or the show or both?
I don’t have one holy grail—I think I probably have about a thousand. Anytime I start listening to music, I start wondering about it. That’s not new since I started “Song Exploder”; it’s the other way around. That’s always been the way I listen to music. When I fall in love with a song, I want to hear it from the inside out. I want to hear what the individual tracks, what the individual stems sound like. I want to know what the ideas were that inspired all of these things that I’m falling in love with. “Song Exploder” was just a way of me being able to actually make that happen for myself. So anytime I’m listening to music and I hear something great, you could put it on the list.
Ty Dolla $ign in “Song Exploder” | Photo: Courtesy of Netflix/Netflix
What is your ultimate goal with “Song Exploder”?
I wish people would either watch the show or listen to the podcast and come away with a feeling that they want to make something themselves. Part of my aim with the show is to democratize the act of creation a little bit. I think it’s easy to look at very successful artists or very successful songs or any kind of art in any format, where it has reached a certain level of success, and think that there’s some uncrossable boundary for everyday people that keeps them from making something as great as those songs …
I think the best feeling that I always get from finishing working on an episode is something akin to that. That like, I just want to go make something, and it doesn’t just have to be music. I think that anybody who is interested in making anything at all, to get something from the show, just the idea of going from nothing but an idea and following that all the way through to a finished piece of art, I hope that might be inspiring to everyone.
Hosts of NPR’s “Louder Than A Riot”: Rodney Carmichael (L) and Sidney Madden (R)
Photo: NPR’s Christian Cody and Joshua Kissi
Rhyme & Punishment: How NPR’s “Louder Than A Riot” Podcast Traces The Interconnected Rise Of Hip-Hop And Mass Incarceration
Here’s a big theory: The dramatic surge in mass incarceration in the U.S. is intertwined with the explosive rise of hip-hop music and culture.
Here’s an even bigger theory, this one falling closer to the conspiracy sorts: Record labels, which allegedly have investments in the private prison system, purposely market criminal behavior via rap music to increase the prison population and, in turn, boost their profits.
The latter conspiracy theory has been circulating around hip-hop circles and the wider music industry for nearly a decade. In 2012, at the height of the hip-hop blog era, someone wrote an anonymous letter describing a “secret meeting” in which executives from the industrial prison complex and the music industry discussed the aforementioned symbiotic relationship. The letter exploded on the internet, sparking heated debates around the validity of the note itself as well as the underlying trigger warnings contained within it.
Whether the letter is real or not and whether that “secret meeting” ever happened, the conspiracy theory revealed a lot about the fear and paranoia surrounding the many ways the U.S. criminal justice system disproportionately impacts Black Americans and people of color, NPR Music staff writer Rodney Carmichael explains in the debut episode of “Louder Than A Riot.”
“There was just a lot of online debates about whether the meeting that was described [in the letter] was real, whether the impact that it was laying out had manifested and registered,” Carmichael tells GRAMMY.com in a recent interview. “Now, in terms of where I stand on it, I’d really rather leave that to the episode. We use the letter to reveal a lot of things … But I really want people to be able to check out the episode to get a better sense of where we stand on it, and not only us, but the culture [as well].”
Launched this week (Oct. 8), “Louder Than A Riot,” the first narrative podcast series from NPR Music, explores the wide-spanning issue of mass incarceration through the lens of hip-hop music and culture, as told by the artists, journalists, legal experts, activists and music industry executives who’ve experienced the hyperincarceration phenomenon and were directly impacted by the criminal justice system.
Each week, the limited-series podcast will dissect a different aspect of the criminal justice system—the probation and parole system in the U.S., the growing power of prosecutors and plea deals, the practice of RICO laws on street gangs—and its wider, often detrimental, effects on Black America and other communities of color.
“Louder Than A Riot” continues a long-running conversation that the hip-hop community at large has been chronicling for decades, from the reality rap and social commentary within Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s 1982 hood anthem “The Message” to The Source magazine’s “Hip-Hop Behind Bars” 2004 cover story to Kendrick Lamar’s eye-opening performance at the 2016 GRAMMYs.
“We just have to remember that hip-hop has been rapping about this stuff for 40 years,” Carmichael says. “This is not a new conversation for the culture. This is not a new conversation within the genre. Hip-hop has been being dismissed by people in power for 40 years … To me, the answer to the question, ‘What’s louder than a riot?’ It’s actually hip-hop.”
“Louder Than A Riot” co-host Sidney Madden, a reporter and editor for NPR Music, hopes the show will lead to real-life change.
“Our greatest impact would be to put something out that creates cultural conversations that can lead to cultural shifting, that can lead to societal shifting, that can be . one of those things that’s put into the world that wakes people up to things that they’ve had the luxury to be asleep on,” she tells GRAMMY.com. “My biggest aspiration for creating this body of work and presenting it to listeners is that it’s going to have people challenge themselves, complicate questions about their role in the whole thing, and start a lot more conversations that can lead to shifts in society.”
GRAMMY.com spoke to “Louder Than A Riot” co-hosts Rodney Carmichael and Sidney Madden about the show’s expansive look into the sociopolitical issues within hip-hop culture, rap’s long-running and contentious relationship with the criminal justice system and the artists and rappers continuing the conversation today.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
“Louder Than A Riot” examines a very big idea: the interconnected rise of hip-hop and mass incarceration. That’s a heavy theory that is perhaps not obvious to many everyday music listeners and hip-hop heads. Can you tell me about how you got to this theory in the first place?
Rodney Carmichael: Well, I think it’s important first to recognize the fact that this is not the first time that this intersection has been explored. [The] Source magazine did a few classic annual issues back in the early 2000s . Hip-Hop Behind Bars [in 2004] .. where they really explored what felt like was becoming a really big deal. Obviously, the criminal justice system disproportionately impacts Black America and other communities of color [like] Brown America. With hip-hop coming from those communities, it’s just a reflection of that inequality. It’s always been in the music. It’s always been something that the culture, I think, has recognized in terms of the injustice built into the systems and the systemic inequality.
I don’t necessarily think the connection is new. I think there hasn’t been enough conversation about how, in some ways, there feels like there’s this interrelated thing going on between the two of them at times. That was part of it . kind of recognizing that this has always been something that’s talked about. I think mass incarceration—we’re not the first to say it—is really one of the biggest, most pressing civil rights issues of our time. It’s gotten to a point now where it’s a bipartisan issue: criminal justice reform.
People on the right and the left, sometimes for different reasons, have coalesced around this issue and [are] realizing that a lot of the really tough-on-crime policies that were prevalent during the Drug War era and afterwards, through the ’80s and ’90s, got us to this point where we incarcerate more people [at] a higher percentage of our population than any other nation on the planet. It’s a problem, and it’s been impacting us the most, and hip-hop has been talking about it the most. So why not explore those two?
After the murders of 2Pac and Biggie in the late 90s, police began turning their attention to rappers. @TheSource’s ‘Hip-Hop Behind Bars’ in 2004 brought the issue to the front page.
“Don’t think the feds weren’t calling me” – @kimosorio1, former EIC /14 pic.twitter.com/vHBa0skxbV
— Louder Than A Riot (@LouderThanARiot) October 10, 2020
Sydney Madden: It’s funny because now it’s considered a bipartisan issue to be against mass incarceration without trying to take any responsibility as to how we got here. So many policies that were enacted in the ’80s and ’90s are really showing that boom in population, and the chickens are coming home to roost. But the whole time, way before there was any sociological study or political pundit trying to advocate for these things, hip-hop was pushing back. You can see it through the lineage of the lyrics. You see it through a lot of artists who talked about it, whether it’d be in interviews or artists that went through cases themselves, whether it be 2Pac or Shyne or Beanie Sigel, Lil Wayne, Lil’ Kim, Gucci [Mane]. I mean, even now like JT from the City Girls, Bobby Shmurda, Tay-K.
It’s so funny because I can rattle off all these names. They seem like different cases, but none of these cases happen in a vacuum. The topic does seem a little bit sprawling when you first hear about it, but that’s the thing about the podcast that we’re going to take you through. We’re going to take you through the timeline of how these numbers in America and for the population surpassed a million and ballooned to even 2 million [prisoners] now and 4.5 million people living on parole. And then, how at the same time, hip-hop became the most dominant, most consumed, most commercialized and profitable genre while it was still pushing back at all of these things at its core. [The podcast is] really about the parallel rise between two American phenomenons, and then how they connect with each other.
We take you through that timeline in the show, and then we break down real-world cases for you throughout history to give you a real proof of concept the whole way through. So it does seem a little bit overwhelming, but then every subsequent episode of the podcast is going to become more and more clear that the [criminology] in hip-hop is really a microcosm of the criminalization of Black America as a whole.
Let’s jump off that. The podcast traces a few key moments in American history that contributed to the rise in the prison population and also coincided with the rise of hip-hop. For example, the first episode dives into the War on Drugs during the Reagan era, which, as you report, affected incarceration rates. How far back and how current does the podcast travel? What are some other key moments or developments that the podcast examines?
Madden: The podcast really does start with a lot of the roots of sociopolitical critique that hip-hop has always been about. We start with “The Message” [from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five] in ’82 and Reagan’s re-imagining of the War on Drugs. Then we go through the ’90s. And then, when we start to deep-dive into cases is really at the turn of the century. Every case that we explore has a specific theme, but it also gives you the specific time marker of where hip-hop is at in the marketplace and where it’s shifting and growing into its own .
And then, we take you through a lot of cases every decade. We get really contemporary with it at the end. The final episodes, which are going to be airing after this [2020 presidential] election is over, it’s going to be very contemporary in [terms of] talking about the fight for reforms right now and the fight for abolition right now. We try to do a lot of time traveling with you, but not too much that you get whiplash.
So it’s not going to feel like a college course.
Madden: It is not. It’s not “Hip-Hop 101.” It’s not “Crime and Punishment in America.” It’s history and context and contemporary cultural takes all in one. That’s the secret sauce of it all.
Carmichael: We try to cover 30-40 years in [the first] episode. It’s probably our least narrative episode, but almost all the other episodes are going to be narrative. We’re going to be telling stories about a specific person who has been impacted by this interconnected rise, and who’s been caught in the crosshairs of the criminal justice system. It’s not going to feel academic at all. These are stories. We know that hip-hop loves stories. It’s a genre full of storytellers. So we’re trying to connect these big, broad issues and communicate them in a way that the culture eats.
Madden: Absolutely. Rooted in culture. Rooted in reality. Pretty much all the cases that we dive into, we have artists at the center of it; we have interviews with them. We have interviews with all the connected players, from people on the industry side, the people in their management camp, their marketing people, their friends growing up. A lot of rappers’ parents make appearances in this show as well as people on the law enforcement side. So you can get a full picture of not retrying an artist for a specific case, but really the larger sociopolitical umbrella that all of these things happen under.
The podcast opens with a story about an anonymously written letter that describes an imagined scene in a supposed “secret meeting” in which executives from the industrial prison complex and the music industry meet to discuss how the marketing of rap music could promote criminal behavior and in turn increase the prison population, which would ultimately boost profits for the prison system and its record label investors. There’s a whole conspiracy theory about this. When was the first time you heard about this conspiracy theory? And where does each of you stand in regard to the validity of this “secret meeting”?
Carmichael: I think I heard about it pretty much at the time that this anonymously written letter first hit the internet, which was 2012 … There was just a lot of online debates about whether the meeting that was described [in the letter] was real, whether the impact that it was laying out had manifested and registered. It was a really interesting debate that I think, in a lot of ways, captured a lot of the angst that certain generations of the culture were going through at the time. Hip-hop was evolving, and everybody didn’t necessarily like the way it had changed from the golden era to where we were at that point.
Now, in terms of where I stand on it, I’d really rather leave that to the episode. We use the letter to reveal a lot of things. But this is also an age that we’re currently in where there’s a lot of weight put into and onto conspiracy theories … Us being journalists, we wanted to make sure that we treated this conspiracy theory in the most journalistically sound way; I think we ultimately do. But I really want people to be able to check out the episode to get a better sense of where we stand on it, and not only us, but the culture [as well].
Madden: I’ll definitely echo what Rodney is saying. I want listeners to hear what our take is and the culture’s take is in the episode. But in terms of actually learning about the letter itself . I didn’t learn about it immediately . I want to say I found out about it a year or two after, but it’s because somebody was having a debate about it …
It was a bit mind-blowing, but also like, “Hmmm, I could see that. That’s right on the money.” … This is the time of Kendrick [Lamar’s] Section.80 and good kid, m.A.A.d city. This is the time of [Meek Mill’s] Dreams and Nightmares or Big K.R.I.T.’s Live From the Underground. There were so many things already happening in the music and the lyrics that legitimized this connection.
Rodney, at the end of the debut episode, you borrow a part of a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quote in which you say, “If a riot ‘is the language of the unheard’ … then rap is the definitive soundtrack.” What’s the significance of the show’s title, “Louder Than a Riot”?
Carmichael: We wanted to pick a name that spoke to this wake-up call that 2020 has become. But also, it really connected with [how], just historically, the fact that hip-hop has always been a voice for the voiceless. That quote just came to mind because it’s interesting to see now how protests and things of this nature, which have always been politicized, but in this current age are continuing to be politicized in a way .
I think the key is that as America seems, in a lot of ways, to have awakened to a lot of the inequality that was exposed this summer in terms of the George Floyd protests and the Breonna [Taylor] protests, we just have to remember that hip-hop has been rapping about this stuff for 40 years. This is not a new conversation for the culture. This is not a new conversation within the genre. Hip-hop has been being dismissed by people in power for 40 years. True, it makes a lot of money now, and it’s evolved in terms of how much it’s been accepted within mainstream America. But in terms of this politicization, it’s always been something that has been disregarded and dismissed by those in power. To me, the answer to the question, “What’s louder than a riot?” It’s actually hip-hop.
Speaking of which, “Louder Than a Riot” drops during a very critical time in American politics and culture. You have nationwide protests advocating for racial justice and denouncing police brutality. You have the major label complex and the wider music industry reanalyzing its exploitative history and relationship with Black music and Black creators, specifically. What is the significance of “Louder Than a Riot” dropping amidst all of this turmoil and ongoing demands for change? What sort of impact do you think the podcast can make amidst or contribute to this wider cultural conversation?
Madden: We’ve thought about this a lot. I think one thing that people might not know right off the bat listening [to the podcast] is that this has been something that we’ve been developing as music journalists . it’s been years leading up to this. But in earnest, we’ve been developing and reporting and researching this topic for the last two years. The fact that the drop of this show was colliding with this moment in history, it just reinforces our thesis so much more, and it gives me a renewed sense of guidance and purpose . A lot of what America is waking up to right now and is being forced to face and grapple with right now, hip-hop’s been telling y’all.
There are so many moments, whether it’s a rally cry, a protest chant or policy change—you’re going to hear the seeds of that in hip-hop the farther back you go. That’s what we’re doing with people. We’re showing you where the seeds of this whole movement came from, contextualizing it in a way that is urgent but also digestible and malleable.
I often think about who we’re making this podcast for, and so much of it is people who’ve been in tune with it, but also people who just had the luxury to enjoy hip-hop without ever feeling challenged by it. And it’s like, no—hip-hop is challenging all the things that are not great in America for Black people. Hip-hop is rebelling against that, and hip-hop is showing resilience against that …
In terms of impact, I would say everyone has a different metric of success. But I would say, our greatest impact would be to put something out that creates cultural conversations that can lead to cultural shifting, that can lead to societal shifting, that can be . one of those things that’s put into the world that wakes people up to things that they’ve had the luxury to be asleep on . My biggest aspiration for creating this body of work and presenting it to listeners is that it’s going to have people challenge themselves, complicate questions about their role in the whole thing, and start a lot more conversations that can lead to shifts in society.
Ultimately, what does the podcast set out to do or what are the questions the podcast aims to answer?
Carmichael: If you’re a hip-hop fan or especially if you come from the community that hip-hop originated in, we already understand that mass incarceration and the criminal justice system hit us harder than any other community in this country. That’s one thing to just have that general knowledge or that general understanding. But to really get into the weeds of the system and understand how it works and how it goes about disproportionately impacting us is another thing.
With each story that we’re telling, we get to focus on or highlight a different aspect of the criminal justice system that an artist is being impacted by, whether it’s the probation and parole system in this country, whether it’s the power of prosecutors and plea deals and getting into the nitty-gritty of why some 90-plus percent of criminal cases end in plea deals and don’t go to trial and how that impacts the turnout of these cases, the sentencing, et cetera, et cetera …
Each spot along the way, it’s just a really revealing, eye-opening thing to really be able to allow people to have a better understanding of how the criminal justice system works, and usually not in our favor.
Who are some rappers and artists continuing this conversation and analyzing these issues in their music?
Madden: For me, I’ve been a Kendrick fan since day one . He was like a prophet in some ways. And it’s so great because he’s getting inspired while he’s alive because he’s one of the best [artists] we got. Killer Mike is another one who’s always been on time with it, whether he was speaking in an interview or dropping so much knowledge in a single verse that it kind of makes your head spin.
From the younger generation, I think a lot of people don’t give Vince Staples enough credit because maybe he’s a bit snarky, but he gives you so much focus riddled with commentary, and he breaks it down for you in a way that never adds that, “I’m going to explain what I already said,” type of thing. Noname out of Chicago. She’s ’bout it, ’bout it a hundred percent in her lyrics and also in her intent and in her activation. Her starting the Noname Book Club as a force for learning … I think those type of actions and those types of motives are what’s going to push us forward and propel this conversation way beyond the series’ 10 episodes. Some of the people I named just now for you are actually featured in the series.
Carmichael: I just want to say: All rap is political to me. It’s interesting. You hear a lot of conversation today about the fact that hip-hop is not as political as it used to be. “Where are the Public Enemys?” and whatnot. But I’m from Atlanta, and trap, which really originated here, is one of the most political art forms that I think has emerged out of hip-hop and out of Black America. Hip-hop, I think, nowadays and rap in general and trap, to be more specific—its political point of view is more about giving you a version of reality that we as a country often are not willing to look at or not willing to deal with. It’s very much a political point of view.
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When we think of a lot of the marginalization that is happening in this country—[for example], Atlanta, for many years running, has been the income inequality capital; the gap between the haves and the have-nots is wider here than anywhere else. That’s reflected in music that is giving a voice that wouldn’t otherwise have a voice. The irony is that Atlanta is also considered the Black Mecca, and it’s considered to be a place where Black folks, especially, have more and better opportunity to succeed and achieve than anywhere else in the country.
And the truth is that both of those things are true. A lot of Black folk do not fit into that narrative here. A lot of Black folk have been historically overlooked here if they aren’t in the middle class. What could be more political than them being able to have a platform to express their woes, their frustrations, their hopes, their dreams, and all of that? I think just because it doesn’t meet the moral code that America professes to go by, it doesn’t mean anything, especially if they’ve been left out of the moral concerns of America.
Ahead of his new album, the Chicago rapper talks relentless work ethic, how prison shaped his writing process and what matters to him most during his rise to rap fame