The Six Types of Interviews You Find in Hip-Hop Journalism

Drew Millard’s interview game is hotter. His secret is avoiding air-conditioned rooms at all costs. Interviews are inherently odd. They’re the closest thing a music fan can get to...
By    September 18, 2012

Drew Millard’s interview game is hotter. His secret is avoiding air-conditioned rooms at all costs.

Interviews are inherently odd. They’re the closest thing a music fan can get to discovering what a musician is “actually like.” It feels dirty not to put quotes around that phrase because the interview is often a performative conversation and little more. I’d never ask a stranger questions as personal as what I’ve asked musicians. However, there’s a symbiotic relationship between journalist and subject where you’re expected to pry, and they’re expected to open up.

Of course, they could completely bullshit you when they answer your questions, but we’re expected to take those answers at face value. With its seeming thirst for authenticity and openness, hip hop foregrounds this sense of honesty, which can lead to an interesting conundrum: if a rapper’s being totally honest in their rhymes, why even give interviews at all? It’s a question that Kanye’s tackled by simply refusing to speak with journalists, occasionally taking to Twitter if he wants to issue a public statement, but otherwise saving it for wax.

Others take a different tack. What follows is a list of the types of interviews I’ve done — from the un-publishably bad, to the conventionally proficient, to the downright bizarre.

1. The Trainwreck
Some rappers just don’t enjoy talking to journalists. That’s fine as long as you’re a Kanye-level megastar, but if you’re not, well, you’re shit outta luck. Often, people are cagey or overtly hostile to journalists—Scarface effectively shut my interview down when I asked him a question about the album he was working on. I think he was already pissed-off because he was calling me from a guitar store and seemed more interested in buying guitars than talking to some kid who didn’t exist when he started rapping.

Other times, you get hit with a special type of interview, when a rapper’s feeling a certain zest for living that often accompanies being under the influence of various mind-altering substances. I spent the better part of a week trying to get Kirko Bangz on the phone, only to get a series of one-word answers that I nearly had to wrench out of him. After seven minutes, I thanked him for his time and we got off the phone. His publicist immediately called me back and told me that Kirko had been drinking lean, which is unsurprising considering his hit song is about being too high on cough syrup to care about having a girlfriend. This interview remains unpublished, as the most insight I got out of the guy was that he thought that Pimp C was “trill.” To be fair, Pimp C was pretty trill.

2. The E-Mail Interview
These aren’t ideal for anybody. As a journalist, it’s kind of wack when a publicist turns your grand plan for an hour-long ice cream session into an impersonal round of emails. This tends to happen because publicists get a million requests for interviews whenever their client has an album coming out, and so they have to prioritize. So, you think of your ten or so best questions and send them off into the abyss. Sometimes, this actually yields well-rounded, extremely thought-out answers, ones with more depth and nuance than you’d get from just talking to somebody on the phone. This happened to me with Fat Tony, who’s one of the coolest dudes in rap and as a former journalist himself, somebody who knows how to write well and answer questions thoughtfully.

At worst, your new Internet Best Friend is going to email you a bunch of half-assed sentence fragments they wrote when they were high— Araabmuzik might be the nicest with the MPC ever to exist, but god damn he doesn’t know how the shift key works. At Double Worst, their publicist is going to respond for them. I have no way of totally knowing which email interviews were ghostwritten, but any time a rapper’s email to you reads like one of those really annoying emails the Obama campaign keeps sending asking for five dollars, you’re in hot water.

3. The Best Friend Experience
It’s important to remember that no matter how nice a rapper might be to you, they are not your friend. Your interaction is a forced one, an experience mandated by editors, publicists, labels and the promise of exposure. Having a good time together is literally in everyone’s best interest. You as a journalist get a better story, and if a rapper is nice to you, you’re more likely to view their music favorably. This is something you cannot forget under any circumstances whatsoever.

Still, I’ve had interviews with rappers where after a couple hours of conversation and some really real talk, I was like, “Welp. I guess we’re friends now.” For the record, I have become friends with approximately two people I’ve interviewed, and those people are not famous on a level where they would get recognized in a Safeway. But when a rapper drives you around the hood, takes you to meet his mom and has you help him pick out a puppy, just remember that there’s probably one thought going through both of your minds: This is gonna make for one hell of a story.

4. The Couch Session
“Interviews are like confessions,” Drake raps on the chorus of “Hell Yeah Fuckin’ Right,” and some rappers really do treat them as such. When I interviewed Lil’ Fame of M.O.P., I got the same dose of realness that we’ve come to expect from the Mash Out Posse’s records, but delivered via phone. He wished he’d gone to college. He’s proud of his son. He talked frankly about the shittiness of the music business and how he loves the music too much to leave. Sometimes, it’s just astounding to hear people you’ve grown up listening to talking like it’s just you and them, even when it’s you and them and the internet.

5. The Bizarre Ride
In the process of interviewing DJ Paul of Three 6 Mafia, I was offered a free tattoo, a free face piercing and custody of his son. We were at a Chinese restaurant in the East Village, and he was wearing a t-shirt that had his own face on it. He also bought me dinner, gave me beer and told me his thoughts on gender politics. This, my friends, is called “not giving a fuck,” and it’s beautiful.

The only thing that’s a downer about these is sometimes you get too much gold to keep in—I had to cut the gender politics thing, as well as an extended interlude where he asked me if I’d been beaten up on the subway. Fame is a complicated, often troubling concept and has a way of changing people very quickly— imagine leaving your house tomorrow, but suddenly everyone recognizes you. That’s not healthy. Miraculously, it appears that DJ Paul’s still okay, and it’s the most refreshing thing in the world.

6. The Genuinely Good Interview
The best chat I’ve ever had with a musician was with Violent J of Insane Clown Posse (extended version here), and I’m sure that I’m not the only one who would say that. Despite all the hooplah about the interview being a “performative conversation,” some people are just genuinely themselves regardless of whether there’s a recorder in their face or not. These people need to exist more, not just in the context of music, but in the context of life.

One thing that’s interesting about I.C.P. to me is that in a lot of ways, they’ve enjoyed something of a mainstream renaissance because they’re really, really great at giving interviews. There’s a certain sense of cognitive dissonance that one gets from listening to I.C.P. and then talking to them. As he’s gotten older, Violent J has developed a staunchly Midwestern sense of practicality. It’s hard to reconcile J’s down-to-earth nature with his music, but that’s the fun of doing interviews. They never turn out how you think they will. If they did, it would just be boring.

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