kris ex, Part 1
Photo credit: Dimplez
This first episode of the rest of our podcast’s life isn’t a straight ahead interview with a musician. Instead we asked music writer kris ex to come in and talk about the value of music journalism, especially its usefulness to musicians, and we kind of loosely centered our discussion on Kendrick’s album.
kris was published for the first time in June of 1994, in the literary magazine African Voices and in the inaugural issue of Ego Trip. Since then he’s written for Billboard, Rolling Stone, Vibe, One Nut, Hip-Hop Connection, the LA Times, Complex, The Fader, Pitchfork, Mass Appeal and elsewhere. In 1996 he published a piece about Tribe in The Source, which will come up in this episode!
kris also co-wrote 50 Cent’s memoir, which was published in 2005, blogged for XXL in the mid-2000s and edited the first four issues of Respect, a magazine devoted to hip-hop photography.
We recorded in early May, and talked for so long that we’re running this interview in two parts.
ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD: What up, kris?
KRIS EX: What's going on?
ALI: How you feeling?
KRIS EX: A little nervous.
ALI: Why are you nervous?
KRIS EX: Because I don't talk much — I write. So, big difference.
ALI: OK, I can understand that.
KRIS EX: Well, if no one's recording, I feel OK talking.
ALI: I respect that.
FRANNIE KELLEY: So yeah, we almost always talk to musicians — sometimes behind-the-scenes people — but what we're doing is participating in the media when we do that. And we want to interrogate what the media is, what the music media is, what music journalism is. But especially because of the dynamic that Ali and I have, musician and journalist, we thought putting a journalist in this seat —
KRIS EX: Would have him outnumbered for a change.
FRANNIE: Well I mean, we have a lot of private conversations about this stuff, and the goal of our show is to have these private conversations in public. And maybe a lot of the stuff that you and I talk about offline, in our role as editor, writer, whatever, we would never actually publish.
KRIS EX: Right.
FRANNIE: It informs the work that we do so much. And Ali has thoughts about the work that we do.
KRIS EX: He has thoughts?
FRANNIE: I mean, generally speaking. And I thought that we could use the Kendrick album to talk through some of this stuff.
KRIS EX: Sure. I think what's the most fascinating thing about the Kendrick album is that it does lead to so many different conversations.
KRIS EX: I wrote a piece that was published for Mass Appeal where we talk about who the greatest of all time is, and one of the things about Kendrick is that he creates a level of dialogue and monologue and debate and argument that no other MC does. Like, Drake could sell 50 million records in a week, but he doesn't generate the same type of critical analysis and think pieces that Kendrick does.
KRIS EX: So it's kind of interesting that even this is being pegged to the release of his album.
FRANNIE: Mm-hmm. Well, yeah. And then there's the added layer that Microphone Check can bring is that Ali had a song on untitled. and has had interaction with Kendrick in that way. I've interviewed him, done pieces on him, that kind of stuff.
I thought we could start by talking about the top of “DNA.” So that's when he samples the clip from some show on Fox, Geraldo Rivera's involved, the girl is like, "I just don't like it, it doesn't turn me on." She clearly has no idea what she's talking about. They're talking about Kendrick at the Grammys.
ALI: BET Awards.
FRANNIE: Oh, I'm sorry, yeah. Right, when he's on top of the cop car.
KRIS EX: On top of the cop car, yes.
FRANNIE: This way that Kendrick has entered into the conversation is that people who have no idea what the fuck is going on feel qualified to talk about it to millions of people. Kendrick is saying something really, really specific that's being consumed by people utterly removed from what he's talking about. What did you think about when you heard that? Do you take any sort of indictments of the media by musicians personally?
KRIS EX: Never. Never.
FRANNIE: OK, cause you don't consider yourself part of the media in that way?
KRIS EX: Yes, but also because I feel — I guess it's almost like when a woman listens to a rap record, and the rap record is talking about bitches and hoes and she like, "Oh, they're not talking to me"?
FRANNIE: Yeah, I feel that.
KRIS EX: That's kind of how I feel. I've had very few problems with artists. One of the artists I've had problems with peripherally is in this room. But I've never really gotten into anything because I feel that people — I don't consider myself part of the media, I consider myself part of hip-hop that is working within the media. And I think that most people see that, and that comes across in the way I write, the way I carry myself and the things that I do and the things that I don't do.
So when there's an indictment of the media, when Method Man said "F a rap critic, they talk about it while I live it," I was like, "He's not talking about me. I know he's not talking about me because I'm living the same things he's living."
I thought it was funny when I heard it. I didn't realize upon the first listen because he had chopped it up, he chopped it up a bit and I didn't realize that it was actually Geraldo, cause I had forgot about that cause it was just so silly —
FRANNIE: The one where he said that hip-hop has done more damage to a generation than racism.
KRIS EX: Yeah. I thought it was masterful the way Kendrick used it, cause he goes on this bar and then he's like tearing up bars and then Geraldo comes in and says it, but it's like Geraldo is saying that — it seems like he's bigging up the verse that Kendrick just tore through everyone. So I thought that was funny.
It was so weird, because of the way Kendrick chopped it up — you know, one of the things with rap skits is whenever they do news segments, they do them really badly. It's like, no news person really sounds or talks like this. And it almost sounded like that because I was like, "This sounds like an actual news person but no news person would be stupid enough to say this." And then when it kept coming back through the album, and you started reading online, then I was like, "OK, that's where it's from."
KRIS EX: But I never feel that conversations about the media are directed at us. I think a lot of that is based on race and class and socioeconomic status. And I'm not where Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly or any of those people are. So, they're not referring to me, I don't feel.
KRIS EX: Or even Don Lemon, you know.
FRANNIE: Right. From your point of view, Ali, is it possible for certain people who write to pull themselves out of that indictment? Or, have you at times with Tribe, or with any of all your work, felt that the media as an idea was a hindrance to what you were trying to do?
ALI: Not necessarily feeling that the media was a hindrance, but part of the promotion package that you're made to feel obligated to make part of promoting your art. And so you try to go through those outlets to do that very thing — to talk about what it is that you have recorded. My thinking as a 46-year-old is way different than a 19-year-old artist. So, there's two things: that, and also the time is different in how music is promoted.
And so, I think that there is still a — I guess this is what — you're very funny Frannie. This is the whole purpose of this conversation. And I may be skipping ahead a little bit, but I think that the media in that regard and that relationship to promoting hip-hop music, I won't speak on any other genre, is not really that important, I think. And on a broader spectrum, I don't really think the media is that important.
ALI: And it's funny that Kendrick addressed and unrolled them kind of commenting on a performance in the way that he did. It's almost like he's giving them a station, a platform. But at the same time, he's not. And I think sometimes you have to address the ignorance of some people. Not necessarily say that they don't matter, but just to highlight certain aspects of what the media is. It is, at least in America, pushes the agenda of corporations. Pushes the agenda of politicians and things that really don't have anything to do with the feeling of what the people really want.
FRANNIE: Yeah, it's largely about enforcing a power structure that already exists.
ALI: Yeah, so in terms of you asking me that question, where I am now, I think there's a value for certain people to, in the media, to deliver conversation, ideas, curiosity, anecdotes maybe. But in terms of just promoting the music, I don't think about it anymore.
KRIS EX: Do you feel it's actually the job of the journalists, the music industry critics, to promote the music?
ALI: That's a good question. I think that depends on the ambition of the journalist and the goal of the journalist, really. Is the journalist a person speaking on hip-hop or the culture of something that's happening? Are they doing it because it's passion, it's their voice, it's their life, as well? I definitely think that there's an importance to it.
If it's someone who's just following a trend or paying a bill, or just placing themselves in using that art form as a means to bring a highlight, focus to their — whatever it is. So that they can get some advertising or something else — then, not really.
KRIS EX: Yeah, it's very interesting, because I used to feel — for the first part of my career, I felt that we're on the side of the artist as journalists. Not necessarily on the side of the labels or the industry, but on the side of the artists. And trying to shepherd their messages to the people that care about it.
And as time goes on, as I got older, I started to feel that we're actually here to check the artists and to give them pushback and feedback. And that's something that's gone away in maybe the past five or 10 years.
Where the response that Kendrick made to Geraldo was specifically because Geraldo critiqued him, and whether he admits it or not, that critique changes how he recorded this album. It changes everything that he does moving forward.
So you kind of take on this great responsibility that when, if an artist comes out and a artist makes a record and the record is full of misogyny and it's calling women this and that and you just say, "Hey, this is the greatest record ever," you're basically giving that artist a pass to continue doing that. But then when you say, "Hey, this is a great record but these things need to be addressed," the artist reads that. If enough people say it, sooner or later it gets back to the artist. And whether they push back against it and say, "I'm gonna drop even more b-words," or if they say, "You know what, this is not cool," it creates this dialogue between the artist and the media.
But it has to be media that, like you said, cares about the culture. It can't be about getting clicks, or getting ads, or "I really actually want to be a talking head on a TV show.” “I really want to be head of programming for a streaming service, so I'm doing all of this stuff to get my name out there to do this other stuff.” It has to be, “I care about this. This is the end goal. How do I care about this music? How do I care about this art? And how do I make a conversation that's going to make better art?"
Because what happens with the media, especially with music criticism — we're like the police. We only show up when it's too late. By the time we show up, the body's on the ground, your house has been robbed, someone snatched your purse, and all we can do is respond to that thing.
But in a sense, we're speaking to the people who actually commit these acts, so it's like we're giving you an opportunity on your next go-round to say, “Hey, this is what I can do better. This is how I can make — if they're saying I didn't have enough club songs, I didn't have enough songs for the women.”
Whatever kind of feedback we give, is supposed to be about making the art better for the people. Not for us, and not even necessarily for the artist. But to serve the people who are clicking on our sites or buying our magazines and streaming or picking up the CDs or whatever it is. It's about making sure things are best for them.
ALI: I think that your position as wanting to challenge the artist from a critiquing perspective, that's a tricky place for an artist, as I'm sure — you both know that. I think back to when you're making your first record, like, that's the furthest thing from your mind when you're creating. Obviously you're hoping that people will receive the record in a good way, but from it being critiqued to the degree that you will then go back on your next venture and bring all of that conversation with you into the studio, I don't know.
Obviously Kendrick, we're talking about it, so he is an example of one who did that. And many other people have been criticized and spoken about it on a following record. I like to think of it as outside noise that may be necessary or may not be necessary to your inner voice as a creative person in trying to put together your art, by your experience. And obviously you're experiencing someone having a say or something about a body of work that you went in and put time into, so, yes, that will affect you.
I don't know, I guess I'm just in a different state now. Probably from maturity or just realizing that what really matters is what's inside my head. However people receive it, be it someone that's a journalist or someone that's taken more of a critic position. Me, I'm just like, "I don't care."
KRIS EX: You're also not a rapper.
ALI: Good point.
FRANNIE: Very good point.
KRIS EX: The best rappers, my favorite rappers, all consistently do that. If you look at Jay Z, every album Jay Z's talking about, whether it's the NBA fining him, whether it's something about Martha Stewart or "Magazines say I'm shallow, I never learned to swim," these rappers are always responding to that conversation. Even Drake in his own way does that, Pusha T does it. Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, these are people that respond to —
FRANNIE: Let me poke one hole in this, though. Because everything they're responding to is like, super mainstream network news commentary. It's like, gossip reporter shit.
KRIS EX: Right.
FRANNIE: People will talk back to The Shade Room. I don't know that people are gonna refer to like, “I got a 7.3 at Pitchfork and it pissed me off.” So I think that there is a difference in the availability of the type of high-brow traditional music journalism, music criticism that you're doing.
I think you're totally right when you say that your audience for that work, or the best receptors of that work, are people who listen to music. Not necessarily the people who make it. It's the people who listen to the work and they put pressure en masse on the musician. You know what I mean? There's a way that you can weight or steer their opinion of the work. I'm not sure we have any evidence that you using the word kyriarchy to talk about the way that Kendrick perceives the world — like, Kendrick responds to Geraldo being a fucking dick. I don't know that he has responded to any of the very excellent think pieces about his misogyny. He persists, in that regard.
KRIS EX: I think these guys always do. I don't think Kendrick's had an opportunity to yet, with this record. Cause I think it didn't come out until this record was done.
FRANNIE: It was in everything about "Keisha."
KRIS EX: Right.
FRANNIE: This has been going on for a while.
KRIS EX: But he stopped that.
FRANNIE: He apologized to her family, you mean?
KRIS EX: I don't know if he apologized to her family. I mean, he apologized on "Sing About Me."
So I think, firstly, these rappers do care. They used to care more back in the days, that's why Outkast was like — Big Boi was like, "I gotta talk to The Source about my other half a mic." People were very big on if you didn't get a five-mic rating in The Source or if you got something below like a 3.5, people paid attention to that. And I think that what continues to happen with the mainstream media, especially as, when you talk about the more pop-culture new shows, all of their interns are reading us. Their interns, their assistants and their writers are reading us and that's how this stuff funnels back up to them, for them to even know who Kendrick Lamar is, is because some intern at Fox was watching the BET Awards the night before.
So they still get their ideas from us, they still get their cues from us and I can tell. There have been a couple of times when I've written something or I've read something else that someone wrote, and then the next week it's on a larger platform and you're like, "That's the same exact story, in the same format." It's like, there's no way that you didn't get that idea from us.
So us pushing that agenda still somehow gets back to the artist. Do they respond to us? They respond to us in a different way than they would respond to, of course, Geraldo, or whoever's on Fox. But I think that they still do pay very much attention. Or at least that's the hope.
And if they don't pay attention, then at least we are speaking to their listeners. And I'm always very shocked. Shea Serrano, like, tweeted something I wrote in a Nelly piece. And I'm like, “I don't even remember writing it. I haven't spoken to Nelly since 2006 or something.” But it's like, the things that people grab onto and hold onto. Like, I meet people that will say something that I wrote about 10 or 15 years ago and you just realize that so many things influence people.
The same way that these artists' music influence people. I'm sure Ali runs into someone that says, "20 years ago, this song changed my life." Or, "This song made me take a certain path." And you're like, "Wow." So, you just kind of continue to put it out there.
It's like, where's your heart? Do you believe in this? Am I trying to tear anyone down, to tear them down? Am I trying to make myself more important? Am I trying to get a job? Am I trying to get more money? Am I trying to get people to — to get more followers? If your intentions are, I really want music to be better, I want people to be better, I want our culture to be better, then you're not gonna have a problem.
And it also plays very much into the idea of race and who is in the community. Because if you're not in the community, it doesn't matter to you. Because you don't feel like Kendrick is talking about your mom, or your sister. And even if he is, his world doesn't necessarily affect your world. So it gets very interesting when you have people who are sort of outside of the community critiquing these things, talking about these things.
And it puts us sometimes in a weird position because we — I'mma talk bad about my brothers all I want. You can't say nothing about my brothers. That's just the end of it. So it's sort of like, just because you see me whooping on my brother, don't come in here and try to whoop on him because we both gon' turn around and whoop your ass together.
So, a lot of times we have people who are not in the community speaking about our communities and not only do they not care about what's being said, they're missing the most important parts of what's being said. They don't realize why certain things are important. They may not even realize how important it is for Kendrick — or how powerful it was for him to talk about his depression when he made "u."
We don't know how many people that helped in the black community, because we don't come from communities where we talk about depression in those ways. We don't talk about our own self hate, we don't talk about our own confusion. So, to us, that's important. We haven't heard that in a long time. We've had maybe Scarface or a few people, but we don't hear that enough.
So we do need to be more careful of what we say, but we also know that when we say — and when I say "we" I mean the writers who consider themselves to be not part of the hip-hop community but part of the black community — because there's a vast difference where the people who listen to Drake and go to Coachella consider themselves part of hip-hop. Like, just because you listen to Drake that doesn't make you hip-hop.
And I think we see it more and more now where people who you think are part of the culture are kind of playing themselves by saying something on social media, and then you're like, "Wow. Then you really don't get us." Just because you sleep with black men doesn't mean that you get us type of thing. So.
FRANNIE: Right, so the problems mirror each other. So like, the problems that hip-hop has had in moving into the mainstream — making a lot more money, making corporations a ton of money, having your words go to tens of millions more people, and having opportunities that you didn't have when your audience was smaller — it changes the content, it changes the delivery. And ultimately, I think, it poisons the music and the culture, going mainstream in that way.
But it's the same thing with the writing. It's the same thing when people try to speak to everybody instead of, you know, have one person they're trying to convince in their mind or only write for themselves. The confusion over how you imagine your audience and how much you care about how they receive what you're giving them, it's all conflated. So who do you imagine your audience is?
KRIS EX: I have no idea. I try to hope that the smartest people on Black Twitter are my audience. That's sort of the unseen audience that, even though I don't know who's going to the outlets or the platforms that I'm writing for, in my mind I think about these really sharp people who are making some really great jokes and great insight in 140 characters, and also the ones who are kind of going crazy the night an album comes out and making the GIFs with their heads blowing up and all of these different things, and calling a record a classic two hours after it came out.
I try to talk to them, to let the smartest ones of them know that, I guess, in a sense, they're not alone. And that there's someone out there trying to have the same conversations that they're having. Because a lot of times they're having these conversations because they feel alone. That's why they're on Twitter.
But I also let the ones who are like getting overly excited to be like, "Take that excitement, take that passion and let's think about these things critically. Let's think about what it really means to have conversation and to have a dialogue about not just art, but life." How are you using language? How are you parsing the world if you're saying that this thing that just came out is the best thing ever? Like, are you comparing it to the records that came out two years ago? Are you comparing it to the records that came out 20 years ago? Understand that you're in a continuum of art, of the world, of — you know, people eat a plate of food and it's like, "This is the best thing I've ever had." Is it really the best thing you've ever had?
KRIS EX: How do you challenge yourself to express how good this food tastes without leaning on this lazy rhetoric of, “This is the best thing I've ever had.” How can you express that in a way that's more genuine and respectful to the chef that put that food together? But also respectful to the chefs of every other great meal you've had. How do you challenge yourself to express yourself better?
FRANNIE: But also, how do you challenge yourself to have a difference experience? There's so much of putting certain artists on a pedestal and being just ready to accept it. But who are you really in relation to this work? You don't have to do that.
KRIS EX: Right, and also what happens is when you kind of just throw everyone up there, you mistake who the really great ones are.
KRIS EX: Like, who's really coming back out and putting out an album — whether it's their first album in two years, their first album in six years, their first album in 20 years — is this a great album just because this person's coming back and I missed this person? Or is this a great album because it's a great album?
FRANNIE: Or also because you're like, caught up in the surprise of the moment or the excitement of everybody around you and that amplification. Is it — are you happy because it's popular?
KRIS EX: Right. And one of the critiques I hear a lot that people are bringing up: "No one was listening to To Pimp A Butterfly two weeks after it came out." And I don't know who those people are, but To Pimp A Butterfly I listened to more than good kid, m.A.A.d. city. I listened to more than any record since it came out. And I was listening to it up until "HUMBLE." came out, to the point where I was like, "Oh wow, he's back out again." I'm still listening to the old one because I got that much enjoyment out of it.
FRANNIE: It did go quick.
KRIS EX: I've been listening to To Pimp A Butterfly so much I still haven't fully had a listening experience with untitled. unmastered. where I'm like, I know every song — I know the sequencing, I know what song comes next, I know every drop, I know every verse — I haven't gotten to that point with it. And I think that part of appreciating music is understanding that there's this rush, of there's a very new record that you love. And then sometimes it's like, "Oh, this record is so good, I'm gonna have to put it away until I have space to let it fill up my life.”
FRANNIE: Oh yeah, for sure.
KRIS EX: Like, I still haven't listened to the new Sampha record. I still haven't listened the way I want to to the last Tribe record. I listened to it because I had to review it, and I loved it. And I would hear different songs out, but then I said, "You know what? I need like, a cleaning weekend with this record." I need to be like, doing my floors and the windows open and getting into this record, listening to it over and over again. But I can still, that doesn't take away from my initial reaction to it. It just means that I understand that I want to spend time with this record, and it's valuable enough for me to spend time with.
ALI: I think you just stating that just touches upon something else that has been missing, I think, for you guys — and I say you guys as journalists. The fact that you could spend maybe a month with a record or maybe even longer, depending on the lead-up campaign, back 15, 20, 25 years ago. To be able to understand the depths or the shallows of the record to write about it from spending time with it versus, "It's up." And you gotta beat everybody else to the punch to say something, which seems to be an unfortunate casualty to the time that we're in, the way music is released, that you don't get that opportunity to really sit with it.
FRANNIE: Well, yeah, I mean, you were defending the timeliness of your Kendrick review on Facebook for a while.
KRIS EX: I'll say that when you watch Top Chef — I watch Top Chef, and they don't eat the whole plate of food. And they don't know how the food makes them feel when they digest it. They take a spoonful and they say, "Hey, I've had a spoonful of this" —
FRANNIE: "And I'm a expert" —
KRIS EX: "I've tried everything on this plate and I can tell you how it feels after one spoonful." Then when the chefs leave and then they're eating it at the table, more ideas come into play. But they understand that, I have trained myself, you know, I've been doing this for over 20 years so it's like, I know what to say about a record that I've heard once. I know how to say it in a way that's going to stand the test of time.
And it goes back to what I was saying earlier before: I know I have to be respectful to every other piece of work that not only this artist has created, but every artist that's ever created music. So I can't just say, "This is the best album ever," because it's 12 o'clock at night and it just came in and I'm getting these feelings. I have to kind of measure how I feel about things.
But I do think there's an art to that particular format. The problem is, they're making everybody do that. Like, you have people who — you know, Timbaland is like, "Hey, I go in the studio, it takes me 15 minutes to make a beat." And then Young Thug is like, "Yeah, I'm just gonna go in there, freestyle some stuff off the top of my head and that's a song." And it might actually be a hit. But that doesn't mean that everyone else can do that.
KRIS EX: Some people are gonna be like, "I actually need to work on this, I have to figure out my drums for three weeks. I'm trying different drums." Other people can be like, "I tried four different verses, I delivered them different ways, it takes time." But that doesn't mean that one is better than the other. It's just like, one person's built for something, and the other one's not. Now if you try to take someone who spends a lot of time doing music and tell them, "You got seven days to make an album," it's probably not gonna work. And if you take the people who do three songs in a night and tell them, "You have four months to do an album," you're probably gonna get 600 songs and not able to figure out how to make an album out of it. So you have to allow people to be who they are, and you can't push people against their natures and their strengths.
And I still stand by anything that I've ever written in one night. Like, I've done a couple of things. I wouldn't say a lot, maybe five or six things in one night. And I still stand by — I read everything else that came out a week later; I'm like, "That's still not better than mine. You still didn't touch on half of the things."
I think that format is problematic. But I don't think that the problem is inherently the format as much as it is people who cannot keep up with that pace. I couldn't do daily news stories. I can't do a quick think piece. I can't be like, Shea Moisture had that thing and people are writing think pieces about it, and some of them are so great. And I'm like, "I can't do a think piece like that in 24 hours. Or 12 hours." I could do an album review in three hours. But I can't do a think piece in 12 hours and I know that about myself so I wouldn't necessarily challenge myself to do something that I can't.
FRANNIE: Right. Yes. I don't disagree that you can do it, I don't disagree that the main problem is that, not only can other people not do it, they don't have an editor to help them even approximate it.
KRIS EX: Right.
FRANNIE: Because they won't pay the editor overtime to do it at night. Like the editor is not going to do as much — anyway. Even if somebody basically freestyled an album, even if they work super fast, even if it really was six solid days in the studio — the amount of work and heart that the musician has put into the album, when compared to the amount of work, preparation and heart that the writer has put into the review, the musician's input dwarfs the writer's.
KRIS EX: I don't know if you can say that. Because I think that —
FRANNIE: But the musician is gonna put out one album, maybe in two years. How many pieces are you gonna write?
KRIS EX: Right. I would say I think that's with all art forms — whether you're talking about movie reviews, anything, if you're talking about sports commentators. But I also think that no one — I forgot who it was, but there's a quote going around that someone says, "Hey, how much do you want for this graphic design?" And the person's like, "I'm gonna charge you like $5,000 for the design." And the person turns around and gives it to them in 10 minutes and it's like, "Why did I pay you $5,000 for 10 minutes of work?" And the person's like, "No, you paid me for the 20 years that I got to the point where I could do that in 10 minutes. That's what you paid $5,000 for." So I think that, if an artist spends six weeks in the studio, that artist spent their lifetime getting to the point where they could make an album in six days or six weeks. Timbaland put in his 10,000 hours to be able to make that beat in 15 minutes, and turn around and sell it for $300,000.
FRANNIE: OK well, two things: The critic is responding. The critic is nothing without the musician's work.
KRIS EX: Right.
FRANNIE: So, the dependency makes the relationship, I think, fraught.
KRIS EX: Yes.
FRANNIE: The other thing is, when you start talking about value, most people read your work for free, right? Mass Appeal's gonna pay you, but it doesn't cost me a dime.
KRIS EX: Right.
FRANNIE: But also, I would like to talk about how you choose who you write for — is it the editor, is it other writers, is it the audience, is it the design — whatever. But you've told me that you are kind of prioritizing writing on Facebook right now, which is totally free for everybody, except Facebook is making money off you writing and me reading. So how do you reconcile putting yourself in that position?
KRIS EX: I do it specifically because of what you said, where when I write for certain places — like, I have a problem when I was writing for Pitchfork, when I'm writing for Mass Appeal, or any place that doesn't have comments, and I don't know who the audience is, I just feel like I'm kind of shooting blind. But when I'm on Facebook, you get feedback from people. It kind of inverses that relationship of — I am someone that — I do feel that the critiques are necessary.
And I get very upset when a comment is like, "Oh, this is great!" I'm like, "That's not helping me." Telling me that this is great doesn't help me as much as saying, "I like this because of this." Or, “You should have —” And even — there's always someone with a smart comment that says what you could have done better, and I take that to heart. I say, “OK.” Or there's always a person that's like, "What about this?” Or, “What about that?" All of those things, always, I carry that. I've always done that. From my first piece ever, every single critique I get back from someone, I carry it with me, forever. Every edit that I've ever gotten — if an editor tells me something once, I'm never gonna make that same mistake ever again. It becomes part of how I approach things.
So I do want to write for places where I think I'm speaking to people who care about the music in the same way that I do. And I want to write for places that can actually give me feedback to make me a better writer. A big part of the reason why I don't write as much as I used to is because I don't have editors that are making me better. There are times when I've stopped writing for six months, for nine months, just because if I feel I'm smarter than my editors, if I feel like my editors aren't challenging me or making me a better writer, then I'm actually helping them out more than they're helping me out.
Ijeoma Oluo did a piece for the Seattle Stranger recently on Rachel Dolezal and that piece went crazy. I believe it shut the website down for a while and everyone had such great responses to it. And the next day on Twitter, she kind of laid certain things out and one of the things she said was, "You have this white woman who is pretending to be black. And she's been doing this for like two years."
FRANNIE: I thought it was like 10?
KRIS EX: I mean two years since she's been discovered or whatever. And she said in two years, we've had all of these conversations about her. And she said the only reason that this one is resonating with people is because it's the first time that she has been confronted by a black author who had a black editor.
KRIS EX: And I'm like, "Wow." And I'm thinking back, and I can't remember the last time I actually had a black editor. I cannot tell you the last time my editor was black. And that's not to say — I've had really great white editors. Some of my favorite editors that I've had have been white. They've made me so much better and more responsible. But then you think about, what is it like when you have someone who cares about this culture on a community level? How is that going to affect the way your piece comes out? How is that going to affect what they let you slide with? How is that going to affect how they challenge you?
It's almost the same as, I guess, having a black A&R, a black executive producer, as opposed to, like GZA said, the rock star with the mountain climber or whatever. It does change the entire nature of the conversation you bring to the table.
And I think that's the missing key, because we're here talking about corporations and power, and part of the key is putting people in positions of power. Not just saying, "Oh, we have black athletes.” “Oh, now we have black coaches." It's like, do you have black people in the office? Do you have black people on your board? Now that we have black directors, is the whole team black? Is your director of photography black? Is the writing staff black? Are the people greenlighting these projects black? Because until you get all of those things — and not even black, I'm only saying black because I'm black — but any marginalized, disenfranchised group. Do you have women in there? Do you have queers in there? Do you have other people of color? Do you have these people actually shepherding these projects and helping make these projects better? Because the only way any of this stuff happens is if these people are in power and not just kind of in front of the camera and the face of things.
ALI: Big statement.
FRANNIE: So you brought up Drake first, which I always appreciate.
KRIS EX: Yeah, how could you not.
FRANNIE: And so this happened more around To Pimp A Butterfly dropped shortly after If You're Reading This when people kind of divided themselves into Drake camp or Kendrick camp. It happened like, the little kids in my building would like, ask everybody that walked by, "Drake or Kendrick?” “Drake or Kendrick?" And they were all Drake. This doesn't seem to have happened this time. But what do you make of that sort of general divide? Cause I think you kind of feel it, too. I feel like it comes from them. Like, they have had conflict expressed, you know, if not openly, at least on publicly available music.
KRIS EX: Yeah, I think it's — it's not a constructed thing. I think it's one of the — it's really the great divide of hip-hop's soul, in a sense. Because in Drake you have someone who is from Toronto, half-Jewish, raised by a white mother. Kind of not telling his story as a biracial child, but telling his story as a black person by using the n-word, even though he was raised by his mom and has this reverence for his dad. He was obviously — like, dude, half of your family is not supposed to say the n-word. So it's sort of like, how do you have that kind of conversation — how do you bring that conversation to the world? And he doesn't.
I think that's one of the reasons why he's so successful, because he takes the slang, and the hardship of hip-hop, and he's like, "Started from the bottom," and "MFers never loved us," and all these different things, which are like — that means a very different thing if you go into Black America and you say, "What does that mean?" They're gonna say, "Oh, where do you want to start? Do you want to start with the Transatlantic Slave Trade? You want to start with Jim Crow? Or do you want to start with the cops beating us up? That's who never loved us. What does it mean to start from the bottom? You want to take it to the slave ship? You want to take it to trying to work my way up at my job?" That's what those terms mean to us.
And again, white people have, since N.W.A and later on with Death Row, definitely gravitated to this specific hardship story of Black America, of ghetto, crime, all these different things that were being spoken about in the music. But had this cognitive dissonance with it, because they can't really — like, "I don't know what a G-pack is."
FRANNIE: They don't trust it.
KRIS EX: Yeah, it doesn't translate for them because they can't have those genuine experiences of —
FRANNIE: Well, and they don't want to believe that it's true.
KRIS EX: Yeah, it's a fantasy for them. But Drake kind of took that language and made it like, "Yeah, my uncle didn't bring the car back, that was a real big deal." "This girl broke my heart once." And it kind of becomes where all of these emotional — it has the same facade and the same timbre as The Struggle. But it doesn't have any of the unease —
FRANNIE: Or the stakes. Or the risk.
KRIS EX: Yes, and because of his upbringing, he just knows how to speak. He knows how to walk that line very well, because that was his life: learning how to walk that line. He didn't have any choice.
FRANNIE: It's performative.
KRIS EX: So — yeah. People gravitate towards that. And with Kendrick, it's like, mulitgenerational gangbanging and uncles in jail, Dad was a gangbanger. Raised by this surrogate dad gangbanger. Mom is obviously lit, she's right there with it. So, it's sort of like those two things are very — those are two opposite realities of the people who live the life of a hip-hop fan.
The people who are actually either in this stuff, coming from this stuff, adjacent to this stuff, who are actually the good kid in the mad city. Who may not necessarily be part of that culture, but are extremely adjacent to it. Who may not necessarily be selling the drugs, but know what the drug sellers look like. Who may not be shooting the guns, but know what the gun shots sound like. Who may not know where the bodies are buried, but heard the whispers about who did it. So it's like — that's a very real proximity to that. And then there are people that kind of want it in a very TV show way. And that's who I think Drake speaks to.
FRANNIE: OK, but in my building — my building was like half Section 8. And these little kids, they went Drake 100% of the time.
KRIS EX: Because they maybe want to escape that. It might be like, do you actually want to be reminded of this hardship? Also, Drake just has great pop sensibility. He makes really great, accessible music. I think one of the reasons why it's not coming out this time, why the rift isn't coming out as strong, is because Drake had the whole Meek Mill thing where he kind of proved himself to be a "victorious rapper in a battle."
FRANNIE: Let's put a pin in that and come on back to it.
KRIS EX: Yeah, but then he also turned around and made two albums that were very largely pop music. People aren't necessarily looking at them as if they're in the same category anymore because Drake specifically has veered away from — I don't think anyone's comparing Nicki Minaj to Young MA, you know.
FRANNIE: Yeah, Young M.A. But also, DAMN. outsold More Life.
KRIS EX: Right.
FRANNIE: So, this is a question for me: it's interesting to me the way that people want to root for somebody. And I think that people buy things now as like, they don't have to. It's like giving somebody —
KRIS EX: It's voting, yeah.
FRANNIE: It's voting, yes. Exactly. And it seems to me that — I didn't write about To Pimp A Butterfly, I felt very, very conflicted about it. It seemed to me the way that they were marketing that album, was to a — they were aiming for respectability in the way that the album was written about. You know, performing it at the Kennedy Center with a orchestra, and it was made, I think, to be kind of fancy in this way that DAMN. is not. But DAMN. is outselling To Pimp A Butterfly. I think it certainly will. I think it is already.
KRIS EX: Yeah, I think that's just the nature of his momentum building. Because going back to that idea of, are you paying someone for what they did in five minutes or are you paying them for everything that led up to them being able to do that?
FRANNIE: Oh, you mean it's like when people win the Grammy for the album prior?
KRIS EX: Right, or the album afterwards.
FRANNIE: That's what I meant.
KRIS EX: Yeah, he should have gotten — he's getting all this because of all those people who discovered him through To Pimp A Butterfly, now they know about him. And his profile has been raised to the point where they're like, "OK, we have to take it seriously." It's also his third major album, fourth if you consider untitled. — well, Section.80 wasn't on a major label. But he's had the machine behind him to the point where the machine has gotten his market saturation to a point where he can come out and do 600,000. "HUMBLE." is his first #1. Is it his best song? Is it gonna be more memorable than "Swimming Pools?" I don't know. But it's becoming a bigger charter because they've laid all the groundwork to have people who understand and know who he is at this point.
I do think the last record was — I don't know how much that was a marketing thing or how much that was just Kendrick being around those guys and thinking, "Hey, this is really cool for me to do."
FRANNIE: Which guys?
KRIS EX: Just him being around the whole West Coast Get Down collective and Terrace and kind of being influenced by that. I think that if he didn't do that album, we probably would have lost him as a rapper.
Before I even heard good kid, M.A.A.D. city, and I listened to his progression on the mixtapes, I said, "We'll be lucky if we get three albums out of this guy before he goes Andre 3000 on us." He was so good before he released Section.80 that you could tell he was getting bored with rapping. And he started doing different things and he started fluctuating his voice and he stopped caring about syntax and he stopped caring about flow to the point where he just sometimes was even scatting and, was he rhyming backwards, he's doing all these different things because he was bored. And if he didn't have the challenge of like, "I'm trying to make this jazzy album," he probably would have done his Love Below and that would have been the end for him. That's how I really think about it.
FRANNIE: I hadn't thought about that.
We worked on a piece at NPR about Kendrick's "Control" verse, which was a thinly veiled shot at Drake. And then about the ghostwriting accusations, Meek Mill situation. Given what you know, the stories you've heard — I think you posted on Facebook one time talking about stuff using only people's given names.
KRIS EX: I do that a lot, yeah.
FRANNIE: Uh huh. How much, when you write reviews of certain artists' work, do you consider the fact that even though it's presented as autobiographical and it will be received that way, that it's either somebody else's story, or that it wasn't written by this person specifically? How do you judge?
KRIS EX: So you're talking about the ghostwriting stuff, basically?
FRANNIE: I mean, I think that you have access to more information than your readers do.
KRIS EX: I also just have more access to music, I think. Some of it is just knowing someone, like, you can tell who you're texting with sometimes? Like, this is how this person texts.
FRANNIE: Yeah, totally.
KRIS EX: That's where the discrepancy comes in. Because when you have someone like, Kendrick who uses a million different flows, you have someone like Jay Z who uses a million different flows, Lil Wayne uses a million different flows, Pusha T uses maybe three flows. But you always know that these are the people speaking. There's never a question in your mind as to like, "Is this coming from this person?" When you listen to If You're Reading This It's Too Late, I think the first thing that struck me was, wow. I'm driving around town, bumping a Drake album. Like, I'm really liking this Drake album. I was talking to different Drake fans and they were like, "I don't like this one. This is my least favorite Drake record." I was like, "This is the first Drake record that I actually like as a Drake album." So when the ghostwriting rumors came out, I was like, "OK, there it is. That's why I liked it." Because it wasn't him. So I think that's what I trust moreso than any information, is just kind of like, listening to people to the point where you're like, "He didn't write that." Or sometimes when —
FRANNIE: OK, but did you write it about that album?
KRIS EX: About which album? If You're Reading?
KRIS EX: A little bit. I actually wrote about it in tandem with To Pimp A Butterfly, at one point. But I think we know when people are doing what they're doing and what works for us and what doesn't. I think that's what you have to trust, moreso than the information that you're hearing.
I remember back when T.I. was writing for everybody. I was like, that's T.I. And then there was a point where there was a Lil Romeo song that was obviously T.I., kind of took a shot at Lil Bow Wow, and then there was a Lil Bow Wow song that was obviously T.I., kind of took a shot at Lil Romeo. So it's sort of like, is this guy dissing himself? You could hear — like, there are people that are really that good at mimicking other people's styles, and it's like, when someone isn't good at mimicking someone's style, then they're doing someone else's style, you can hear it in their vernacular, you just pick up on it. It's like, "That is obviously someone else."
Now, how much does that play into my enjoyment of the music? Are you telling me that it's you? Or are you just saying that I'm here as performer, as a voice box? And I think one of my biggest beefs with the whole Drake songwriting thing was not with Drake himself, but was with all of the "media" — especially a lot of people on the radio, and podcasts, were just kind of coming out like, "Oh, it doesn't matter." It's like, since when? If it didn't matter, he wouldn't have gotten upset. We wouldn't have been talking about it. It does matter. And even to say it doesn't matter, you should be explaining why it doesn't matter and explain why he never directly addressed it.
Like, so many people caped for him for so long, that he got away with not addressing it. And if that's what you are, that's what you are, but don't say that you are doing this thing and you're not. And when you hear Quentin Miller's stuff, it's like, "Yeah, there's a reason why Drake is who he is. He delivered it better." Like, you hear Quentin Miller's raps and it's like, "Oh, it's cool. The bars are there." But you're not compelled to listen to Quentin Miller rap the way you're compelled to listen to Drake rap. His inflections —
FRANNIE: For sure. It's like when they leak Beyonce demos, and you know exactly why it sold — because she sang it.
KRIS EX: Exactly.
FRANNIE: Kind of a follow-up question: When The Life Of Pablo dropped, we had a bunch of long ass lunches.
KRIS EX: Right.
KRIS EX: And I was right. I was right. It took a little longer than I expected, but I told you that man is heading for a break.
FRANNIE: I will not back down. I don't know, still, what the value is for us saying that that is what was happening, A. B., how do you incorporate what we were just talking about with regard to ghostwriting and helping and collaboration, and all the people that have their hands on a Kanye album, knowing that that is true?
KRIS EX: Well, I think that when it comes to — sometimes, the feedback that you're giving a person is not always feedback. Sometimes it's just, I'm not going to enable you to self destruct. And I think that there was a lot of feeding into the Kanye situation, which was what scared me about his — the responsibility that you have to Kanye sometimes is like, not feed into his eccentricities, and to kind of feed into his art and to allow his art to be the best art that it can be without getting caught up in who he is.
And sometimes when you talk about his collaborators, they have to ask themselves that same question: “Are we feeding into his art? Do we know that this is something that's not going to be helpful for this person in the long run? But it may get me credit on a Grammy-winning record so I'm just gonna allow this to go and happen?"
And this isn't new. We have stories and stories of musicians— Nina Simone, Lauryn Hill, Kurt Cobain — all these different artists spinning out and no one around them is saying, "Let's help this person."
And I think it becomes even more when you do have someone like a Kanye who isn't — Kanye isn't J. Cole. J. Cole is somewhere in North Carolina making music in his bedroom, then taking it out and sharing it with his trusted circle of people. Kanye is someone who is feeding off of a lot different energies. So when he is making this music and everyone is giving their input, it becomes this situation where I almost have to look at you as a responsible party for not helping this person — for allowing this person to get to that point.
Because we know Kanye is a perfect example of like — you could take six Kanye rhymes and be like, these six verses were not written by the same person. It's impossible. Some of them are so bad, and some of them are so good. This isn't the same person writing this. So that creates a very disjointed experience for me.
I think it works well on something like Twisted Fantasy, where you had so many guest vocalists and so many different musical choices that there kind of was no theme to it. The theme was grandiosity. The theme was, this is almost a psychological break in musical form, from the way it starts out to everything about it, was like, “I'm breaking away from everything that I'm supposed to be doing.” And that's thrilling and great to listen to, but when it comes back to the Yeezus record, that didn't sound like a great, disjointed mess that was a disjointed mess on purpose. It sounded like a pastiche of different people and that part doesn't work for me.
And when you have so many people around you, and there's no one checking you, that makes the art not the best it could be. Like, you need people who can challenge you and pull you in against your worst influences and I don't know if he has that, musically speaking.
FRANNIE: Are you listening to this as a musician yourself or as a journalist?
ALI: As a fly on the wall.
FRANNIE: I mean, are you thinking about other people thinking about or evaluating your work in this way, or —
ALI: No, I think I'm just listening. I can't even say I'm listening as an artist. I guess part of me is listening as an artist. But I'm just listening as a person. I have not owned the "journalist" moniker —
FRANNIE: No, you have not.
ALI: No, because I'm not a journalist. I don't write about these things that we talk about.
FRANNIE: Yeah, but you enabled this conversation to happen. You take the time to make this conversation happen. You want this to exist.
ALI: I do that as an artist, because at some point I realize that the artist's story that extends beyond the art piece — there's more to that story of an artist that isn't always brought out in its best light by journalists.
ALI: I sit in this chair as an artist. But journalist? I don't know. I haven't gone to school for journalism.
FRANNIE: I didn't — did you?
KRIS EX: Nope.
ALI: I don't know what it takes to be a journalist. I just know that I'd like for the culture, for the art form to be represented properly. As being an artist, I felt that —
FRANNIE: I mean, we met because I, a journalist, made a mistake.
ALI: Yeah, but it was an honest mistake. Example given.
But there is definitely a difference in one who is passionate about music, as a writer. And as you spoke about earlier, just being from the culture. So you don't identify yourself as the "media," right? It makes me feel really happy for the art that there are representatives out there who live it, who are from the culture.
Speaking with you, kris, and just hearing a lot of what you have to say is comforting. Whereas being in a room with certain other people, I have felt a difference. Most recently with the LA Times write-up on Tribe's record. And I don't remember the journalist's name. He seemed like he was a fan by his words and his mannerisms. But I don't think he wholly represented the interview. So, that bothered me.
As an artist speaking, you're gonna come face-to-face with people who have those influential or high-profile media organizations, who are supposed to be speaking about your art and still drop the ball. And that's not comforting.
KRIS EX: I have no issues with being wrong. If everything I said tonight was wrong, and someone comes out and says, "Yo, you got everything wrong," I'm fine with that. What I have a problem with is lazy thinking and lazy analysis. So it's like, if we're wrong about something, at least let us be wrong at a high level. And what it seems like you're describing, there is someone who didn't embrace it with passion, or didn't have the passion for —
FRANNIE: Who wasn't up to the task.
KRIS EX: Right.
ALI: I don't even know if he realized that. I try not to be judgmental on people in my older age. I don't know how that's gonna come off to people, but I try to — I have looked through my eyes at life with some sort of a balance. What I mean by that is that he could have very well truly been a fan and really excited about writing about this record. But I just know what I witnessed in the room and what he wrote about me specifically, saying that I didn't say much, which was true, however the thing that I did say, the one and only thing I said, was very profound.
FRANNIE: I believe that.
ALI: And completely omitted. I'm just happy I have this opportunity to tilt things differently with what we do here at Microphone Check. Not as as journalist, but just as an artist who lives it.
KRIS EX: That's kind of almost the same story that we had.
FRANNIE: Please do tell it.
ALI: 20 years ago? 21 years ago?
KRIS EX: I don't even remember. Which album was it?
ALI: Beats, Rhymes, and Life.
KRIS EX: Yeah, it was Beats, Rhymes, and Life.
ALI: Was that for The Source?
KRIS EX: No, it was for Hip-Hop Connection. It was in the U.K. Or was it for The Source?
ALI: I feel like it was an American magazine.
KRIS EX: I think I might have been double-dipping with that one, to be honest. And this is the thing. It's funny because when I go back in, when I watch the documentary, it's like, "Oh my God." Everything makes so much more sense now. Cause the realization of the friction in the group, and the people going different ways wasn't apparent.
But we were doing an interview at Jive and they're all in the room and Tip and Ali are like, very attentive and participating in the whole interview. And Phife and Consequence, as soon as they came in — I think they may have came in a little late — they immediately grabbed this magazine. And through the whole interview, they're like, reading this magazine. And I'm like, "Do you want to take part in this interview?" They're like, "Yeah, we're taking part in the interview." Go back to the magazine. I'm like, wow. In the piece, I was just like, "Basically, these dudes ignored me." The thing was, I was trying to be — I'm always trying to experiment with language and stick different terms together that may not necessarily belong. So I referred to Consequence as a third banana MC. It was sort of like the second banana —
FRANNIE: I get it.
KRIS EX: Yeah. They obviously didn't. It was like, "Are you calling me a banana?" And I think later, afterwards, the publicist told me that Phife had just came from a flight and I didn't know what his health issues were — I just didn't know what it was. And this is where the game of telephone came into play, because the publicist called me and the publicist was like, "They're upset." And I'm like, "OK." I'm, like, sitting in my room, high. And this is a publicist I had a relationship and we were speaking with, and she was like, "They want to see you and they want to talk to you." And it's sort of like, I think, being from the culture, this whole thing about how Drake talks, when someone says they want to talk to you, I'm like, "Whoa." That's like a different language, or whatever. It kind of came out like a veiled threat. And I just got on some Brooklyn-Queens crap, like, "We ain't scared of those Queens dudes." Or whatever. And somehow that got back to them.
FRANNIE: You're an idiot.
KRIS EX: Who, me?
KRIS EX: Yeah, I mean, I was young. But it was sort of like, if I were to have that conversation with you, I don't expect you to run back and tell Ali. I don't expect you to run back and tell them that. Also, I didn't expect you to be calling with a thinly veiled threat. Like, "They're very upset, they're not happy, they want to talk to you."
ALI: It was just a fact. That wasn't a threat. It was just like, we wanted to understand. I feel like it was The Source magazine. I could be wrong, someone will definitely fact-check that and correct us, or correct me. But especially that time period, there was a lot happening. So for us to pull together that record and to feel, or see words that were seemingly heavy, harsh at times, just wanted to understand, what did we do? Why was it articulated in that way? It was just really wanting to have a conversation. Yeah, we definitely were upset but not on some out-of-control —
KRIS EX: I mean, I would say that's the first time a publicist, probably the only time a publicist has ever called and said — so that was very strange, cause I had a reputation for a very long time, and still do, for not liking music, being a very harsh critic. And I've written some very harsh reviews. No one's ever reached out and been like, "We have a problem with this." So that in itself was an alarm.
And it's weird because I even told her — I remember telling her after the interview, I was like, "Yo, what's up with — like, he didn't participate in the interview." I felt that was a disrespect to me, cause it's like, going back to — this was actually the time when I felt that it was part of my job to help promote music. So, I'm trying to help you out. And you're not even paying attention to me. You're not even participating. You're not even offering the excuse of, "I'm sick, I'm having a hard day." You're like, reading a magazine throughout the whole interview. Again, it's like, if the publicist had even told me there's some stuff going on, that's what it is — I told her afterwards, "That was mad disrespectful and they're gonna read about it." Because it also puts me in a position, just like you said, when there's no quotes from you in the LA Times piece, it kind of looks like, is this dude doing his job? Did he not —
KRIS EX: So I'm like, I have to explain why there are no Phife quotes in this piece. Because my editor is gonna look at me, the audience is gonna look at me like, "Where is Phife? Why did Phife not participate?" So I'm like, "Phife chose not to participate." Probably didn't do it in the most tactful way ever.
ALI: I mean, that was 20-something years ago. So, to talk about it now is kind of funny.
FRANNIE: I think it's illustrative of the way readers assume that what they have on the page is what happened. But there's so many other things that happen which determine what words get on there in what order.
ALI: You're right and it was through — I think maybe, it was so long ago, I don't even remember how they did the sequence of events — but there was one album that we felt the journalist was completely misrepresenting what was happening in the room. And from that point we —
FRANNIE: Not kris, a different journalist.
ALI: I was gonna use the word "demanded," but it wasn't "demanded." We just stipulated that if we were gonna do any interviews, that it would be a straight Q&A. And it would be written as such. And we started bringing recorders into the room.
FRANNIE: And I gotta say, from a journalist's perspective, I don't understand why all musicians don't do that.
KRIS EX: Yeah, I don't understand it either.
ALI: I mean, when you're 19, we don't know that. You just come in to talk about the — whatever it is, your record, right? So you don't think, "I have to go back like a court reporter and be like, 'What was said here?'"
FRANNIE: But it happens to me all the time.
ALI: You don't think like that.
KRIS EX: I've been interviewed a few times, not a lot. But whenever I've been interviewed — especially if I'm being interviewed by a good journalist — I wind up saying things that I've never said before, and never said after. And I'm always like, "Can I get a copy of that? Cause like, I just dropped some bars on myself that I want."
And I think especially in this age of hyper self-promotion, it's like, why would you not want a recording of your own interviews? Even if to just put out for yourself. You would want it because you're probably gonna say something that came out of that situation, being asked those questions, that would make a good interlude or make a good intro for your record.
One thing I always tell to people is, when you read an interview, if I do a 2,000-word piece, 3,000-word piece with an artist, usually we're speaking anywhere from an hour to two hours. These days, it's more like a half hour. But straight conversation. And I transcribe these things and it's like, "Oh, I just transcribed like, 50,000 words." Out of that, we boil it down to 3,000. And I tell people, if you take an interview and you read the quotes out loud, you're lucky if you get a minute of conversation, from taking all the quotes and reading them out loud. And that's from an hour's worth of conversation.
So you're never getting the full picture. It's impossible to get the full picture. You try to present, what's the story here? What's the best story that I can piece out of this? Often when you're talking to an artist, if it's a fascinating artist, yeah, we're talking about this and we're talking about that — there's so many different narratives going on. And you can't fit them all into one story. You can't fit necessarily this person's childhood, their musicianship, their politics and all of this into it, in a way that would make them happy. That goes back to, you should record.
ALI: Well, yeah. After that, that's — again, I don't remember which record it was, but that's what we started doing. I don't think I've really done it since cause I haven't really thought about it. I try not to do interviews, actually. But in addition to that, I think certain stories, in trying to find the 3,000 words out of the 50,000, and wanting to make a good story, I think sometimes an interview may be slanted based off of what is chosen out of that, and that in lies the problem, I think. Or the frustration, sometimes, and specifically with the LA Times thing.
FRANNIE: And it can have real, actual repercussions for your business and personal life. Like, all of your relationships.
ALI: It can, absolutely.
FRANNIE: Not saying it did this time. But these are the stakes.
ALI: Absolutely. So, it's such a challenging place to be because you do understand the importance of doing the interviews to promote the record, but then when you have those stakes that, based on how the interview goes, it can heighten the end result of what is to come of that record and how it sells, or it can put you in a deficit. So how do you both respond to that?
The thing with Tribe got a little crazy with you. But when people come back and say, "This is what you wrote, this is how I thought the interview went," or "This is what I know, thought that I said," how do you address those things?
KRIS EX: I haven't had many of those experiences.
FRANNIE: Me either.
KRIS EX: I've never really been in any situation where — back to our situation, it didn't happen between us. It happened because there was someone in between relaying the messages.
KRIS EX: So if it wasn't — I remember once, a very long time ago, when Fat Joe had just — I think this was when he released Jealous Ones Envy. I had written a review on this Fat Joe record for, I think it was One Nut, like a little local publication that, if you weren't in the journalism or music industry game, you didn't know about. I go to sit down and Fat Joe is there, and Fat Joe is a really nice guy, like the guy he is. So he's like, "Did you hear the record? What did you think?" I was like, "Yeah, I liked it." He was like, "Did you like it or you're just saying that?" I was like, "No no, I reviewed it. I gave it a good review." And he was like, "What magazine did you review it for?" I was like, "One Nut." He was like, "One Nut, hold on, hold on. I know this one, I know this one." And then he was like, "You said ..." And there was one line that was basically something he could have done better. He like, almost repeated the line verbatim. And he was just like, "I'm OK with that. That's good, that's good." And I was just like, wow.
When something like that happens very early on, you start to realize that people are paying attention, and you start to be a little bit more careful about how you place things. So, I've never really had anyone come and say — you know, I've had people ask, but there's been a lot of genuine curiosity. Like, “Why did you do this?” “Not like I got a beef with it, but why did you do this or why did you leave this out?” Just running into people. But it's always been like, "I like what you put in, but I wanted this in there, too." And I'm like, "It's not your magazine, we can't make a whole magazine about you." And people get that.
ALI: See, that was a tough guy response right there. No wonder you were nervous walking in here. I'm just joking. It's Brooklyn to Brooklyn.
KRIS EX: Right.
ALI: That's fair. What about you, Frannie?
FRANNIE: I've never had anything direct like that, but I do think about it a lot.
ALI: What do you mean you think about it? You think about being in that position? When you say you think about it, meaning as you're writing something? I don't know what that means.
FRANNIE: I think about how the person that I assume is reading the piece, or listening to it, how they're gonna interpret what I say. Because you could write something in one way for The Source, or for NPR, and it will mean completely different things to those two readers. So in a way, it determines what I write. Either how you want an artist to be perceived by another person, or how you don't want them to be. I thought about that at NPR all the time. Which stereotypes were gonna come into play for these people, at which moment. And how to fight them or cancel them or be like, "Fuck you for thinking that."
It's weird. We're in this really weird position where you're reviewing something — I don't do very much of that — but when you're doing that, you're almost always mostly being positive. You're mostly giving shine. So the choice becomes who you don't write about, who you don't talk about. And that can sometimes feel kind of serious. To not put something in front of, when I'm doing radio stuff, 13 million people.
I don't know, I've written things that I've — a publicist called NPR one time, yeah. For sure. But they didn't tell me about it until after. It didn't affect the piece at all. I think it did have a long-term effect on me. But the opposite one they had intended.
KRIS EX: So what about you? Have you ever — how do you feel, say, if you put out a body of work and someone just writes negatively about it? Cause obviously you're not gonna put it out unless you think it's good. Unless there's some huge contractual obligation over your head. You're proud of this, you put it out. I mean, you guy haven't gotten a lot of bad reviews.
KRIS EX: But if you do — let's say if someone says the Luke Cage soundtrack sounded derivative and unoriginal. How would you respond to that? Or how does that type of —
ALI: I wouldn't, at this stage. Since you chose that as the example — mostly because I think that the executive producers and the people who hired me were really happy and satisfied. So if there was that sort of a critique on it, I think I'd be like, "Cool, that's how you feel about it." It wouldn't really affect the way that I go back into the next anything that I do.
I've spent a lot of hours listening to music because I love music. And a lot of hours learning how to play what's in my head or other music to forget it. But my relationship with music is just my relationship with music. Even though I take a position of, "I'm gonna record this and then put it out and hope that people hear it —" You want people to like what you do. No one goes through all of that not to have people receive it in a positive way. I think I'm just more at the freer stage of my life, to know that, if I'm going to record, there is a purpose. And I think the purpose is vested in something very sincere and truthful and honest. And so, if I close up a project and feel that this is good, this is that communication of what I was feeling, and I'm putting it out there, then I'm cool. I did what my intention was.
And however it's received, if it's received positively, great, thank you. If not, of course that's gonna hurt a little bit, but I don't think that I would make any changes in anything that anyone would offer or say. I wouldn't carry it into the next project. Because to me, my relationship with music and my relationship with recording is really about my personal experience in life. And so unless that person who's writing about it was there — like if I'm telling a story about something — if that person wasn't in the room when that experience was unfolding, then it's like you don't know. You're grabbing it, you're receiving it, it's your perception as a listener and what your relationship is with the music as a listener, that's you and your experience and — cool. So that's where I am with that. Not just in music, but just in life.
And I feel like, I would like to think that we started talking about Kendrick, and I would like to think that at some point he's going to be at that place. Even using that Fox television sample. My take on it is he's addressing them because they have a huge platform. And I don't know any rapper that's in the top that doesn't beat their chest. So, you gonna do that. But I feel he kind of exposed them for what they are and it's kind of like their words are meaningless.
We’re gonna close out part one of our interview with kris ex right there — come back next week for Part 2, in which we discuss secrets, lies and freelancing. Follow us @frannieandali in the usual social media places and we’ll keep you posted.