Fwiw, I read this story at the Pitchfork Festival a few weeks back. When I wrote it I thought “I’ll probably post this on tumblr later” so here it is.
In the mid-to-late1990s I lived in San Francisco and the internet was very new. It was already clear that it was going to be a big deal, but we didn’t yet understand how big a deal it would be or which direction it would go. I had a new music obsession during this time which was the Bay Area hip-hop scene, specifically the scratch DJ scene centered around a collective called The Invisibl Skratch Pikilz. Because technology was changing so rapidly, and we were all dreaming of what our lives would be like in the digital future, I became fascinated with the idea of a musical movement that involved people manipulating mechanical devices (a turntable, mixer, vinyl LPs) with the body. It felt both old and new, human and machine.
I lived on Geary Street in San Francisco, on the edge of the Tenderloin. There was a club in my neighborhood called Deco and every Tuesday they would have an open turntable night in this tiny room in the basement that was lit by a single red bulb. Ten or 25 or 40 people would squeeze into this space and DJs including people in the Skratch Piklz would stop by and jam.
My friend Josh and I were enamored of what was happening both in the Skratch DJ scene and in the wider world of Bay Area hip-hop, including music being made by DJ Shadow, Blackalisious, Latyryx, Kool Keith (he seemed Bay-area at the time), and the Automator, all of which overlapped with the Skratch scene. So we decided to start something like an online magazine to document it. We used this space to make something. My friend was a great designer, so the site looked beautiful, like a real thing.
I was writing about music for the first time in my life. I wrote about shows. We did an email events lists that I pulled together with things going on in town that looked interesting. Though I had listened to music and read about it for many years, I had never known or even spoken to any music writers. I was just feeling around in the dark.
One day out of the blue I got an email from a guy named Adam. He edited a magazine called Tokion that I knew. It was a beautiful glossy magazine about music and style and culture. They had offices in L.A. and Tokyo and every article was published in English and Japanese. And Adam contacted me because he’d come across our website—who knows how, an Excite or Alta Vista search— and wanted to know if I wanted to write a feature about the Bay Area hip-hop scene.
This was my introduction to the power of the internet to make rank amateurs look like something approximating a professional. Though I was deeply interested in the hip-hop scene in San Francisco, it was something I had explored myself, privately, and in a small way, for something like six months. I had no deeper knowledge, had never read an article about it, had no idea where to start. I had never written a feature for a magazine. I had never interviewed anybody. I had no contacts and no idea how to record an interview.
I emailed Adam back and said yes.
So the first thing I needed to do in order to write the definitive article about the Bay Area hip-hop scene was to learn something about the Bay Area hip-hop scene. The next time I went to Deco, I worked up the courage to approach Shortkutt from the Invisibl Skratch Piklz and ask if I could interview him. I was terrified, certain that the fact that I was an utter fraud was obvious. He wrote his number down on a piece a paper.
Shortly after I got an email from the editor saying that he was going to fly up from Los Angeles and a photographer would be flying in from New York. They wanted me to use my contacts to assist in setting up photo shoots, and they wanted to meet with me about the piece.
This was bad news for me because I had nurtured this fantasy that maybe I could somehow figure this thing out in private, not have my ignorance exposed to anyone else. But of course I said “Great!” and we made plans to meet for lunch on Market Street.
At that time, I was working as a temp in a law office. So I had to sneak out that day to meet them for lunch, and the lunch ran very long, like two hours. I didn’t dare tell these guys that I was a temp, though maybe it was obvious from my khaki pants and blue button-down Oxford and penny loafers. I figured real writers didn’t have to work as temps in law offices. So as long as the lunch ran, I acted like I had plenty of time to meet with them. I was sure I’d get fired when I got back to the office, but I didn’t.
During our meeting, the photographer told me that he the day before he had shot Air in Central Park for SPIN. Hearing that was more terror. This was obviously a super pro who would wonder how he ever got roped into an assignment with a loser like me. I’ve keep out for his name ever since and he’s a famous and respected photographer, and every time I see his name I think “That’s the guy who shot my first piece.”
During our lunch I told them about this place Deco, said we should go and he’d shoot there. They asked me to arrange that with the club. I said you got it. I then realized that I had no idea how to do this. So I called the club the next day and talked to a manager and old them what was going on and that we wanted to shoot during this open turntable night and would that be OK? He said it was OK.
By the time of that lunch I had interviewed Shortkutt, if you can call our awkward conversation an interview. And I had asked Shortkutt for some other people I might speak to. He gave me contact information for a guy named Dave who started a very influential Bay Area magazine called Bomb Hip-Hop. I interviewed him and he gave me the contact number for Peanut Butter Wolf, a DJ who then and now owns a label called Stones Throw. I talked to a DJ I admired very much named Quest and another one from the Piklz camp named DJ Disk. We talked and I recorded our conversations and I figured I’d listen to them and somehow write something that made sense.
The night we went to Deco, there was a line out front, which was unusual. And while we were waiting in line the photographer had all his equipment and cameras and lenses and tripods, and we got to the door and the doorman had no idea who I was and was not at all sure about this photo business. It was the classic “Who did you talk to?” situation and no one could find anyone who approved this. But somehow after much wrangling we got in.
Down in the basement, I was amazed by the photographer’s willingness to do anything to get the shot. He didn’t care who he made mad or who he asked to move, he was utterly focused. He was setting up a tripod on a crowded club floor and anyone who didn’t like it could eat it. Meanwhile I talked to Adam about the piece. He told me that he had originally thought to approach Jeff Chang to write this piece, but he felt that Chang was a little over-exposed on this subject.
If you know anything about music writing, you know that Jeff Chang is one of the most important, perhaps THE most important, writers and critics in the history of hip-hop. This is some years before he wrote his canonical book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, but even then he was very well known as a writer around the Bay. So when Adam the editor told me this, I thought to myself, “You really fucked this one up, dude. You should have called Chang.” Because I knew there was no way I could do anything a tenth as good as what he might do, no matter what this guy had read on our little webzine.
The photographer and the editor went home, and it was time to write the piece. I couldn’t shake my conviction that I was supremely unqualified and in way over my head. I had never worked with an editor, I didn’t know the process, and there was no community of writers online whose conversations I might listen in on. My fear, I was sure, was making me write much worse. It was like a back spasm or something. I typed up all the way to the deadline, like the minute it was due. And when I hit “send” on that email, I was sure I’d made a fool of myself. All I got from the editor was a “Thanks” and then, a couple of months later, I got my contributors copies of the issue.
There was my story. My writing had been translated into Japanese and the photographs looked beautiful. But I was too afraid to read that piece. I put it on the shelf and never looked at it, because I didn’t want to confirm my worst suspicious about my hack-dom.
A few years later, I was having a drink with a writer who has written a lot for Pitchfork and many other places since, and I told him an abbreviated version of this story. And he told me he read the piece in Tokion the month it came out, and he remembered thinking it was pretty good. I have chosen to take his word for it.