Like clean-up hitters in baseball, a taste-making system can be properly judged on hits and misses, as well as whether the hits were singles or home runs. The American literary system that recognized Herman Melville as a young prodigy while largely ignoring his later work and allowing Moby-Dick to sink quietly to the bottom of the ocean where it rested for seven decades or so clearly had some holes in its swing. At the same time, it got Emerson, Poe, Hawthorne, and Mark Twain right. The version of the same system, now aided by critics like Edmund Wilson writing for a new class of national glossies and thought-leader magazines that was brought into being by new continent-spanning technologies like the railroads, telegraph lines, and radio, cast a wider net over American life, and made stars out of midlevel novelists like Ernest Hemingway. But it was hardly perfect either, as judged by the lack of any wide acclaim for the poetry of Langston Hughes.
Failing to recognize massively obvious genius is both a discrediting fault in any taste-making system and also the inevitable result of any settled standard of taste, which will always look sideways and roll its eyes at anything new. But going in the opposite direction isn’t really as clever and foolproof a strategy as it seems. In the visual arts, the post-WWII modernist critical stance of proclaiming “originality” and “innovation” to be the hallmarks of “good art” has led to an unending flood of visual art product into collectors’ markets but has failed to produce a single Courbet, or Cezanne, or Picasso. It seems that artistic genius, of the kind that produces truly original works that speak at the same time to large numbers of human beings about their predicament, isn’t so easily gamed.
Judged by these standards, the midcentury American print pyramid that included big-city newspapers and national magazines as well as publishing houses ranging all the way from New Directions and Farrar, Straus and Giroux to Random House and Alfred A. Knopf did a uniquely good job of maximizing, nurturing, and propagating available English-language literary talent in North America. In Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison wrote the 20th-century American Moby-Dick, which has remained continuously in print. James Baldwin got to be James Baldwin, Thomas Pynchon was and is Thomas Pynchon. Sylvia Plath remains a literary icon for suicidal women, and while American publishers can take little credit for the genius of Doris Lessing or Margaret Atwood, they wrote in English and were published here, too. If there are no large statues of Richard Wilbur and Robert Frost in major American cities, that’s not the way that Americans roll. Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize, which was then a big deal. Even writing essayistic reportage for glossy magazines blossomed into a kind of independent American literary art, which gave birth to lasting talents like Truman Capote, Joan Didion, and Tom Wolfe.
It is hard to see how the collapse of the mid-20th-century print pyramid under the continuing assault of digital technologies is anything other than a disaster for American literary culture, even as people pretend that it is not. The new machines have destroyed the economic rationale for newspapers and magazines while atomizing once-carefully-cultivated audiences of readers and breaking their bonds with the publications to which they once subscribed. They enforce modes of reading that while subjecting readers to constant and increasingly palpable forms of machine surveillance, which are externalized on social media, and which readers are encouraged to internalize. They aim to stamp out the kinds of human communion and imaginative play that literary taste-makers and the space of the printed page itself once encouraged, and which are now seen as politically suspect, i.e., a brake on the reader’s consumption of ads.
The result is that while Americans spend more of their days “reading” than even before, the quality of what they consume on their iPhones bears close to zero relation to a page of a Saul Bellow novel or even a decently reported newspaper article in The New York Times.
Are the slapdash, semiliterate, mob-oriented, and conspiratorially minded habits enforced by the social mediocracy more democratic than those cultivated by their predecessors? Sure. But democracy has never been a reliable standard for quality in any art. The claim that Twitter is more open to “different points of view” and is more “diverse” than the publisher’s list at Alfred A. Knopf circa 1973 is also true, but again so what?
A more honest defense of the new system is that different kinds of people, with different talents, get to be stars. In other words, representation—like everything else—is about power. I personally have no problem with people who hold that point of view, aside from finding them depressing. The people I feel bad for are the writers. Who will take care of them, and teach them, and feed them, now that they have been turned out of doors?
In an attempt to find some answers to those questions, I sat down with my friend Jeff Weiss, the best hip-hop critic in America and a person whose ears are naturally tuned to the way things sound, and to the internal logic and development of the arts.
David Samuels: Tell me about your friendship with Herbert Gold, who wrote Fathers and must now be somewhere in his mid-90s.
Jeff Weiss: Over a dozen years ago, this editor invited me to his birthday party at Canter’s Deli. I only went because he was giving me freelance work and I was cycling through the obscure fringes of journalism. I’m sitting across the table from a red-haired guy and a bowl of dill pickles and whining about the arrogant LA douchebags surrounding us. So this guy deadpans, “Well, aren’t you one of those LA douchebags?” And I looked at him and said, “Well yeah, but at least I’m aware of it.”
The guy’s name was Ethan Gold, and he tells me that he is a songwriter and his dad is a writer. Naturally, I asked who his father is, and he replies, “Herbert Gold.”
I knew that Gold was Jack Kerouac’s nemesis, and I was a huge Kerouac fan. Kerouac was a literary gateway drug for me, because I grew up in a house where neither of my parents read books, and I went on to play college baseball. So when I discovered Kerouac, who was a sentimental and depressive writer who quit his college football team to go on the road and do drugs, a lightbulb went off.
So Kerouac ironically led me to his rival Herbert Gold with some help from Ethan, to whom I eventually displayed enough low-level brain activity for him to risk taking me to lunch with his dad. I’d never met a real writer before and asked a bunch of naïve and moronic questions about all the 20th-century literary titans whose lives I wanted to know every detail about. Herb had been on the literary review at Columbia with Allen Ginsberg, and of course, I’m asking him if it’s true that Ginsberg could spontaneously hallucinate epic poems that didn’t need a single revision. He was like “uh, no.”
But his stories were surreal: near fistfights with Norman Mailer on the balcony at George Plimpton’s house, Nabokov coaching Gold through an audition to replace him at Cornell after he blew up and quit in the wake of Lolita (“you must haff one martini before, but not a drop more!”); judging literary prizes with an 80-year-old Henry Miller, who ditched most of the conference to play ping pong, and then showed up at the awards banquet to grab the breasts of the young actress sitting next to him.
Getting to know Herbert Gold offered access to his unreal vaults of wisdom; he’s an immensely kind and generous person. He’s like the grandfather I always hoped for who always insists on offering me cookies and tea and taking me out for terrible Szechuan Chinese every time I visit. I love A Walk on the West Side, his collection of nonfiction about California. My favorite of his books might be his memoir, Still Alive!, which is a rumination on aging. He wrote it in 2010 and it has a cover photo of a toe-tagged foot.
Getting to know Herbert Gold really helped me to understand that so many great writers don’t get canonized. I mean Nabokov listed Gold as one of his favorite American writers, but he’s rarely read today by readers under 60. And I think the ancillary mission of any writer is to help champion those artists, past or present, who may be overlooked and slighted.
You and I met first a decade ago in LA in the press room after the Grammys. What struck me from the beginning about you, in addition to the fact that you were the best hip-hop writer on the West Coast, was that words and music were all mixed together in the same channel for you—while for a lot of people, those are two different channels. You weren’t really a music writer. You were a writer who wrote musically about different subjects, including music.
I didn’t even know music criticism existed, which I guess was a harbinger to now when it basically barely does. Of course, I read The Source religiously when I was a kid, and sometimes Vibe, and had a Rolling Stone subscription, but it didn’t occur to me that these were professional music writers. It was just like, “Oh, I guess I need to buy this Outkast album because it got 4.5 Mics.”
I am addicted to Passion of the Weiss, which started as your blog covering LA hip hop where you bring all your receptivity, and generosity, and minutely detailed attention to the West Coast hip-hop scene. What struck me as a reader was how you were always hearing the actual music, not getting off on whether an artist or a song was hot or trying to sell some so-called narrative or take.
POW started as like this really misanthropic clearinghouse for my ideas about Los Angeles at the height of the Bush era, but it quickly morphed into a rap-centered blog because I was dissatisfied with the way that hip hop was being written about. The least interesting thoughts about rap or any art really come from people who think it exists as a simple binary: underground versus mainstream, East versus West or South, art-rap versus ignorant street shit.
Rap is like wine: there is good rap and bad rap. That’s it. I was an LA kid who loved Biggie and 2Pac, Mobb Deep and Snoop. It didn’t make sense that you had to choose one side and along with it an entire ideology. When All Eyez on Me dropped, I was obsessed. But Biggie? No one ever rapped words better. I interviewed Lil Wayne a few years back, which involves a weird tangent that we don’t have time for, but basically I asked him, who was the greatest ever. And he looked at me with disgust, and he’s like “Biggie. Obviously.”
In terms of LA culture, the most interesting music and art has always bubbled up from the underground. Whether it’s the Ferus Gallery or Toddy Tee’s “Batterram,” which was the first big LA gangsta rap hit, and a street rap phenomenon sold at Compton swap meets. The N.W.A. and the Posse record was a grassroots enterprise, which got them enough money to start Ruthless Records, the first great West Coast indie rap label. Death Row was obviously supported by Solar Records and then Interscope, but it was a black-owned independent label that employed a ton of people and it defined an entire generation without compromising its vision.
But it goes back to these dualities. Death Row became this avatar for the dark side of the streets, and of course, there is some truth to that. But Snoop is an absolute genius. 2Pac was the son of a Black Panther revolutionary who studied drama and poetry at a Baltimore arts school.
In LA, it was Freestyle Fellowship. But even then, the granola-eating rappers thing was only half-true. Self Jupiter went to jail for armed robbery in the prime of his career.
As the man said, it’s like this and like that.
Passion is the right word for how you throw yourself into things, which is the opposite of the frigid, shallow, censorious, frightened, and deeply conformist cultural pose that social media is pushing on everybody these days. I love that you aren’t afraid like that.
You know, at the time that hip hop was first being heard, New York City was still the home of print magazines, which meant that everyone was on the lookout for “new culture,” which in turn meant you could take the subway up to the Latin Quarter and you could get paid. And people from uptown took the subway downtown, and they got paid, too. The flip side of which was that, if you wanted to get paid either way, you had to actually go somewhere outside your comfort zone.
Now the New York City that Michael Bloomberg built is nothing like that. It’s a Disneyland ghost town of $7.50 cupcake shops for data workers and their Tinder dates. But LA is still much more spread out, and more segregated, racially and economically. Nobody rubs shoulders with anybody, because nobody gets out of their cars.
I find that the Passion of the Weiss embodies all those contradictions. It is written with this intense Talmudic attention, in hyper-active, blown-out prose, but at the same time it is situated in this place where everybody lives in their own bubble.
But what was the reaction that you got in LA, from artists like Drakeo and 03 Greedo to the idea of this white Jewish kid who is obsessively chronicling all this stuff, in a way that’s very passionate and informed—but who is from a totally different bubble, the white bubble, even though you are tall and can dunk?
Well, at least I could dunk. I last did it about 10 months ago.
I think LA is more aloof than the traditional Hollywood myth allows for. LA is cool in a “no one gives a fuck” way because no matter how “on” you think you are, you will inevitably be humbled by some YouTube celebrity who has 42 million subscribers and is being chased through the Beverly Center. Not to mention Brad Pitt.
In New York, there’s this symbiotic bond between the media and the subjects they cover. Public Enemy made Harry Allen their minister of Information. Lou Reed and Lester Bangs were like Frost-Nixon. Rappers will shout you out for being in a newspaper or magazine, as some aspirational-type idea. LA’s never really had that. Well, at least until 03 Greedo basically shouted out every article my friends and I had ever written about him on “Fortnite.”
So my perspective, or at least my sense of self, was forged as an outsider. And I think that’s an important lens, because hip hop began as an outsider art form.
I didn’t study writing. I first started covering rap for the LA Weekly and the LA Times in 2007, and there was a dead zone for LA rap up until about 2009, where people would still shrug their shoulders and be like, “OK, I guess it’s The Game still.” All the sudden, 2009 hits, and you see these fledgling movements, which at first they were called hipster rap and then a few years later crops in a different form—jerkin’. Of course, the face of the underground was Blu, a really talented young rapper—
Yeah, yeah, he was awesome. His issues were what, personal issues?
First, label issues then mental health issues. He was really the first great hope of Los Angeles of the new generation. There was Blu, and then there was The Knux, who I was really high on, and still are one of the most gifted groups that I’d ever seen. It all ended up with Kendrick Lamar becoming what people expected Blu to become, if Blu was more like Nas but actually from Compton and co-signed by Dr. Dre, or something.
Tell me about the young Kendrick Lamar.
I randomly met Kendrick in 2009. The LA Times sent me an email one morning and asked, “Do you want to go to a Mack 10 video shoot in Malibu? Rick Ross and Lil Wayne will be there.” Lil Wayne hadn’t yet gone to jail so this was still peak Wayne—Tha Carter III had come out maybe a month or two before.
So I go to this video shoot, and it’s like a gross overcast Tuesday in Malibu and there are girls in bikinis sullenly attempting to play jai alai. Someone has been hired to push an ice cream cart around but it’s freezing cold and the whole thing is hilarious— like everyone is dressed for the wrong party. They might as well have been wearing tuxedos to the beach.
Rick Ross has this blunt holder, a personal blunt holder—that’s the guy’s job—and he’s just emotionlessly passing tree trunk-sized blunts to Ross. Wayne pulls up out of an Escalade limo with four girls and his pants sagging down to his knees. And I’m like, “what the fuck am I doing here?” because no one in their right mind wants to talk to me. So I start talking to these two girls who could care less, as this high-priced, late-period forgotten Mack 10 songs plays on an infinite sadness loop.
Then my friend Richie Abbott, an all-time LA great with tattoos of both Vin Scully and Chick Hearn, motions to me and says, “Oh that’s K-Dot over there, he’s got next from Compton.” So he introduces me to Kendrick really briefly, though Kendrick would definitely not remember it. But he was basically anonymous then. No one is talking to him much.
He was really short and Yoda-like, even then. And in this thirsty world, you’d figure that a basically unknown rapper would have at least a passing interest in trying to ingratiate himself to an LA Times reporter, but he did not give a fuck. And you have to respect that. Usually you meet a rapper and you get an IG DM within 10 minutes with a Soundcloud link and a “let’s build fam.”
Kendrick could’ve cared less. Then he starts talking to the two girls I’d been talking to, like, “Yeah I’m going to hang out with Wayne later, you know.” He wasn’t exactly dripping with style, and the girls had to be a half a foot taller. But that didn’t seem to perturb him in the least. So I was like, this guy has something.
I went home that night and listened to a song called “Kurupted,” which was this really great Kurupt tribute. He also dropped a mixtape that year called C4, essentially a Lil Wayne homage.
2009 was also the year the Jerkin’ movement breaks through, and that was the first sense that the old archetypes of ’64 Chevys and size 64 creased khakis were on their way out. All of a sudden, teenagers are wearing fluorescent colors and skinny jeans, and making post-Hyphy meets Cool Kids minimalist 808s bangers and they’re going viral on MySpace and YouTube. I wanted to write my own Pump House Gang. So I spent months with these kids and really got to know them and ultimately that movement wound up producing YG and Ty Dolla Sign, Cam & China, who were in this group called the Pink Dollaz, and even Drakeo and the Stinc Team, who were initially jerkin’ dancers in a crew called Action Figure$. And then, Odd Future came in—
Sorry, but I’m going to have to keep rambling.
At this point, I’m blogging daily for the LA Times, and writing longer features for LA Weekly and occasionally the Times too. And I was supposed to do a big LA Weekly story on Odd Future, but I wound up doing a really early piece on them for the NME and then a bigger in-depth Sunday LA Times calendar cover story before they played Coachella—which was their first big coronation moment.
I’d been at the Low End Theory for their first LA show, and everyone was there—a million A&Rs [talent scouts], and all the major artists from the broader Low End Theory constellation. And the first Odd Future show was good, but it wasn’t exactly mind-blowing either. Tyler hopped out with a ski mask on in this dingy, sweaty club, and was just up there on stage, screaming and growling. From the first seconds, it was obvious that he had it. But the moment he ceded the stage to the rest of the crew, the energy completely dipped. It wasn’t Wu-Tang in ’94, you know.
Obviously, they were special but they were extremely young and still really raw. Of course, then they go to New York the very next week and it’s like, “OUR PROBLEMATIC MESSIAHS HAVE ARRIVED!”
So that’s New York versus LA.
Earl Sweatshirt wasn’t there in New York.
He was in Samoa at this point.
Earl was the one who first caught my ear, not Tyler.
Earl is clearly the best writer and rapper of the group and one of the best of his generation. He’s the son of a poet and a legal scholar so he has that hermetic gnostic sensibility. But with Igor, Tyler really took it to a different level and finally realized the sea-foam funk and treehouse jazz symphonies that had always existed in the back of his brain. And of course, Frank Ocean.
But again, it goes back to this notion of interconnectivity that we were talking about earlier. Take the first Earl project, there’s a song called “Stapleton.” The producer for that song is this guy BeatBoy, who a half-decade later went on to produce hits for 03 Greedo and Shoreline Mafia—one of the most recent rap waves from LA.
So geography and regionalism is definitely a factor in everything. But it really wasn’t until the last two years when this last wave of nervous rap came up in LA, which you know changed the region’s sound—you know that Drakeo is currently incarcerated, right?
Yes. You should write about his case for Tablet.
Sure, I will.
When Greedo and Drakeo came out, it really felt like LA really had two organic street rap phenomena for the first time since the early part of the decade when Nipsey and YG first blew up—and it wasn’t being propelled by internet media. With Greedo—I don’t want to say I discovered him, because he already had a lot of fans in Watts and South Central—but when I first saw his “Mafia Business,” it had maybe 70,000 views and he got signed maybe a few months after I started screaming about him.
Good music finds an audience, which was always the magic of the music business. You can try to engineer a sound and have your street teams plaster the walls with his or her posters and whatever, but in the end — if it sucks, it sucks.
Watching a song or an artist happen is really such an education about art. It’s what poets must have felt, back when anyone actually gave a shit about poetry.
That’s one reason why I like Drakeo. When I first met him, I asked “Did you always want to rap?” He was like, “No, I just like started rapping one day because I didn’t want to go to jail anymore.” But he’s brilliant.
I once asked Greedo who the smartest person he ever met was and he immediately said Drakeo.
Everybody imagines there’s an algorithm by which they can make the magic happen, but the result of that process is by definition derivative. It’s more or less warmed-over garbage.
Sometimes the industry does plan ahead. Post Malone is sort of a prototypical industry plant. He had 400 Twitter followers, and was managed by a few friends of mine who happened to be very well-connected to some of the most important people in the industry. Somehow, this walking face tattoo gets FKi to produce for him—a guy who had made hits for Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller. He makes a beat for Post Malone, which becomes “White Iverson.”
Within days, Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa retweet this song from this producer, and it goes viral immediately. Then Complex is like, you’re our new Croc-loafered King, and then it just mushrooms into the all-encompassing but highly profitable primordial nacho cheese swamp that is Post Malone, Inc.
I’ve heard a rumor that you were recently mistaken for Post Malone at a club in LA.
My lawyer says I can’t talk about that. It’s an open case.
Do you recall a moment when anyone said anything like “Hey, you can’t write about this world because you’re white, or you’re Jewish,” or whatever?
I’ve never heard it from any artist. I’d like to hope that people, who at least who have read my work, know that I deeply care about the music and the culture, and it’s a defining part of my being, not just some idle fixation.
I also grew up reading The Source and going to shows where I was one of the only white kids. There was a certain code of ethics and conduct you were expected to adhere to because you knew you were allowed to be a part of the culture, but that was an invitation that could be rescinded at any time. You had to treat it with respect, and you had to have knowledge and you had to have hopefully some empathy for the situations that people could be in, and how they got there.
I think it’s pretty similar to artists that are doing hip hop who are white. OK, you can do it—but like, with Eminem, when push came to shove, he would always confront the kind of orthodoxy or the racist elements in the broader non hip-hop world.
As a white writer in the hip-hop world you have to be cognizant of that expectation, which I think is a fair one.
I always have two different emotional reactions to that. The first one is, yes, people absolutely have an obligation to know the history and the communities behind the music they love in order to understand it, and also to understand that music is a means by which people make money to feed their families.
But then there’s another level where, as a writer, I’m like, “Whatever I see and feel and think and hear is mine.”
A writer can write about anything.
And also, what if you turn the more extreme forms of that cultural appropriation talk around? I mean, “the novel is a white European art form.” What does that even mean? As Faulkner said, writing is theft. Steal whatever you can get away with.
Although, given that the Jews wrote the Bible, which in turn is the source of probably at least half the literature in Western history, maybe we should reconsider and embrace this cultural appropriation shit and make everyone pay us royalties on the Bible, including the Jesus and Mary parts, of course.
Which brings me back again to Kanye West.
I think it really comes down to the idea that if you’re going to write about something, do it well and with respect.
I don’t want to listen to Kanye’s politics. I don’t want to listen to John Legend’s politics, either.
Killer Mike’s political thoughts are interesting, even though I disagree with them 20% of the time.
I’m down with Killer Mike’s politics, but he’s no Kanye West or even Bushwick Bill. I’d rather listen to Garth Brooks sing “Callin’ Baton Rouge.”
You know I lived in Baton Rouge once for two months, right? Actually, you were the reason why I went to Baton Rouge. I remember emailing you and I was like I think I’m going to go to Baton Rouge to write about the murder trial of this rapper named Lil Boosie, but no one really wants to pay for me to go. And you were like, “That story sounds pretty interesting. None of these people know shit anyway, so why don’t you ignore them all and go down there and find something new?”
That was a great story.
I’m still trying to work on telling the story in full—ideally in book form, but no one is handing out book deals to write about Baton Rouge rap. Whereas you can get a six-figure deal for the 14th book on Dr. Dre.
But 2012 was really formative for me because it helped me really understand how fucked up the criminal justice system is—not to mention the state of the modern south. During the mid to late 2000s, Boosie was basically the closest thing that the South had to a 2Pac, with Wayne as the Biggie. He’s raw and funny and joyful but also could be just vicious to his enemies. He got arrested in his late 20s for ordering a hit on his baby mother’s brother, and the state sent him to death row at the Angola Prison.
First, he faced the death penalty, but then they reduced it to life imprisonment. He was accused of having a 16-year-old hit man who he allegedly assigned to commit several other murders, but this was the one that the DA had decided they could potentially convict him on. They had a taped jailhouse confession from the hit man.
A confession from a hit man is like the gold standard for evidence in American murder cases. Because professional killers, you know—they’re trustworthy.
So, I decided to go down there. And it was a culture shock of the highest level. I showed up the day before the voir dire process started, and I had one source named Courtney Hustle. Someone said if you’re going to do anything, you need to start with Courtney Hustle. Courtney Hustle used to work with Trill, Boosie’s label, and she was a very kind and generous southern woman.
I showed up at her hair salon slash clothing boutique that I think was called “Tryst.” And immediately, she was like, “Honey, you ever have boudin balls?” And I was like, what is that? And she was like, “We’re getting some boudin balls!”
So I got boudin balls, and then I got taken to a DJ who was the most well-connected DJ in Baton Rouge at the time, and he kind of connected me to the whole scene. And I realized it was an entire world that I knew nothing about.
The ghosts of slavery are deafening down there down the point of where when they brought in the teenaged hit man, Marlo Mike, in actual chains, and you could hear the chains rattling about 10 seconds before he walked into the courtroom. The whole thing was really wild; there were allegations of racism in the trial, a guy made a threat to the DA online on Twitter and got sentenced to a decent amount of time in jail. You know, just like “fuck the DA, I’m gonna get him when I’m outside.”
Lil Boosie was acquitted. But he still had pending charges because he tried to smuggle in ecstasy and codeine into jail because he assumed he’d spend the rest of his life there. That meant he had to spend an extra 18 months in prison.
I wrote letters with him when he was locked up and we actually published one of them in a different form at Spin, and that sent him to solitary confinement. He was in Angola the whole time and they wouldn’t allow him to contact anyone. They just make up their own rules, because there are no rules for jail. The wardens do whatever they want. That story for me was very formative.
Meek Mill’s case was very interesting to me. Like, here’s an artist whose life was being controlled since he was a teenager by some wacky judge, based on her whims about what kind of violation the results of his failure to obey any of her orders might constitute. So then it becomes, “I think you should go back to jail for two years. You don’t look like you’ve grown.” It’s the Mitch McConnell meets Hillary Clinton Mommy-Nanny State.
Yeah, like you were riding a dirt bike, which I have declared to be a sign of gang activity.
That’s what I’ve been seeing in LA, most recently with Drakeo and 03 Greedo. The latter had a felony conviction at 19. And you know, you’re 19 years old, you have face tattoos, you have a child, you have a felony conviction, and you come from the Jordan Downs project in Watts, where the median income is maybe $30,000 a year. So what are you gonna do if you’re Greedo?
The same thing happened with Drakeo, who is my favorite rapper alive. They’re both folk heroes in LA. He’s 26 years old and before these conspiracy charges, he’d only had a bullshit felony conviction for possession of prescription pills with attempt to sell. But if he’d had been a rich white kid I guarantee it would’ve gotten immediately scrubbed from his record and he would’ve just had to do some community service. But they tag you a gang member in LA if you’re a person of color from the wrong neighborhood and all of a sudden, a minor charge carries massive gang enhancements which will have you locked up for your entire life.
Greedo got busted for 400 grams of meth which is obviously illegal but the drug war is fundamentally racist. From what I was told, the traffic stop that got him in trouble was completely due to racial profiling. At first, they were trying to throw 300 years at him for having meth and a gun. Think about that: 300 years. He didn’t kill anyone, he didn’t rob anyone, he just had meth and a gun. Then the gun charge got dropped and he still got 20 years in a Texas prison.
So to go back to the cultural appropriation thing, these are things that white people should understand if they’re going to understand hip hop. And if I can help tell that story in any way, the story about race-based economic and legal disparities in American life and how it shapes people’s heads and their lives and outcomes, then that I think I’m doing some good.
Are you a white person?
Well, apparently I’m now a “nationality.” Which turned out fantastic the last time that the Jews were classified that way.
Obviously, I have benefited from white privilege. But also, whiteness is a construct. Jews weren’t considered “white” in America until 50 years ago. I mean, Italians weren’t considered white in America until 100 years ago. My ancestors were gassed to death in Europe, as I’m sure yours were. I’ve lived with anti-Semitism in my own life growing up here. Like other forms of racism, it’s real and its sinister.
I mean, it’s hard to think of yourself as a regular Taylor Swift-loving, whole milk-guzzling white guy, when you’re playing high school baseball in LA and the other school is writing hook-nosed Jew cartoons in the dugout along with swastikas and that’s a normal thing to encounter, you know what I mean?
For Jews, it all boils down to the relative ease and accompanying discomfort of passing for something that you are not.
Yeah. I mean if whiteness is a construct, you can theoretically benefit from the privilege of it, even if you are not white. A cop when they pull me over will antagonize me because I have long hair and I’m a loud-mouthed idiot. But they’re probably not going to search my car in the same way that they would if I was a person with black skin.
What I find toxic is the attempt to turn all those historical and social and psychological complexities into some simple all-encompassing binary by people who are often just wildly ignorant. So how about I don’t define you, and you don’t define me.
My fundamental conception of myself is feeling like an outsider. That’s an obvious interpretation of the history of the Jewish people. I’m very secular and on a bad day, I’m an atheist, on a good day I’m agnostic. But you know, I do feel a connection to the tradition element of it. I think at a certain point you get older and you realize that your heritage is your heritage and that these are things that are rooted in you.
There is a genetic trauma in the Jewish people. I think maybe that’s partially why I’ve connected a lot to black American culture because I think on some level, they also carry a certain genetic trauma.
I mean literally Jewish history is just like a football being punted from one place and then oh occasionally here’s a Cossack. And you’re like “fuck not the Cossacks again!” And you’re like, you know, now it’s the Nazis! That does something to you, which at least explains Curb Your Enthusiasm.
As a child, I grew up in an environment in Brooklyn where African Americans were my neighbors and my parents’ colleagues. I was the first American in my family, and I loved the music that black Americans listened to and played, because it was such good music. I thought of it as American music. I also liked the way they stretched the language when they talked, which was a lot more interesting than the way people talked on Mr. Ed and Hawaii 5-0. The first person who told me that I could or should be a writer was an African-American writer.
So, I guess I personally saw African Americans almost as the ur-Americans, along with the Puritans. Each of those two groups seemed to me to embody some part of the American experience and aesthetics that was part of this new inheritance that didn’t actually include me or where I came from.
I do think that historically some Jews including my father came to this country and saw the discrimination and oppression of African Americans and said “Oh my god, these are people just like us, they are the Jews of America” while other Jews accepted slavery or Jim Crow and didn’t really give a fuck. But for most Jewish immigrants to the north in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the parallels seemed pretty clear.
Whereas for black people in America, certainly by the time I was a kid in New York in the 1970s, their context was America. Very few black Americans had ever been to Africa. Even fewer had been to Russia or Poland. They experienced Jews as white-skinned people, or the people of the Bible, or maybe the guy at the furniture store.
I also think that the intimacy that many American Jews authentically feel with the African American historical experience is a thing that the educated black professional classes often seem baffled by or turned off by, while Jews often counter with this sense of entitlement in the brotherhood of the oppressed. I guess that I am not inclined to emotionally invest in that dynamic. It seems anti-human.
I think it’s worth noting that there were in fact a disproportionate amount of Jewish liquor store owners in a lot of the neighborhoods in LA, and that cuts both ways too.
My grandmother’s closest male friend is a Holocaust survivor, I think he was at Buchenwald. And he was a liquor store owner in South Central, and he’s a very charitable, liberal man who also gave back a lot to that community. So yes, he was a liquor store owner, and yes, he made money doing it. But actually, he wasn’t an exploitative blood-sucking monster. And also, he was in Buchenwald. But to be fair, you are selling poison to a community you don’t live in.
So, I guess that’s the main thing, right? We all settle on these narratives that are convenient for us. But reality is always much more complicated.
The other exploit of yours that I’ve been following lately with a mixture of joy and sadness is your crusade against the new ownership of the LA Weekly, which for me was always like the CliffsNotes for LA, the way the Village Voice used to be in New York. Your campaign against the destruction of the LA Weekly was the first shot in what increasingly feels like a national movement by exploited journalists.
The LA Weekly was the 40-year-old bastion of cultural coverage and progressive voices for Los Angeles. In the last decade since it got bought by Voice Media Group, it was less about like political screeds and more about thoughtful reported coverage, and some very intense hyperlocal coverage. I was the music columnist for 6 years and I was a writer for them for 10, and won multiple awards for them, been in the best music writer anthology twice, and they named my blog the best music blog in 2013, and so on.
We understood that it was for sale. But in our naiveté we didn’t think that meant the end. Then Semanal Media purchased the paper.
The net income of the LA Weekly when they purchased it was what?
I was told they purchased the paper for $1.3 million. And it had a $700,000 net income. So this was a profitable paper. And yeah, revenues were dwindling. But they were still substantial. This was a company that was grossing over $5 million a year.
They purchased the paper in secret, and they didn’t introduce themselves to anybody for months. It was revealed ultimately that the guy who purchased it, Brian Calle, was the former vice president of the Claremont Institute, which is California’s foremost rightwing thinktank. The New York Review of Books called them “Trump’s Brains.” They published the Flight 93 essay, which had the general thesis that, this country’s in crisis and Donald Trump is the only man who can crash the cockpit to save us.”
Calle had been previously the head of op-eds for the Southern California News Group, which also conveniently owns the most American local newspapers through Digital First Media, which is owned by a hedge fund billionaire in New York named Randall Smith, who doesn’t care about journalism. He’s a vulture capitalist. Brian Calle was kind of their West Coast hit man, in terms of publishing these hard right-wing editorials.
So, their concept theoretically was, we’re going to instill our ideology and we’re also going to fire everybody. They fired everyone without even doing exit interviews. They fired nearly everyone.
I resigned publicly, which became a viral thing and kicked this all off, along with April Wolfe—a wonderful film critic and now screenwriter—and a couple dozen other people. And there was no content for a week, while they gave interviews to the LA Times saying that LA is not a cultural capital on par with New York or San Francisco. It was pretty evident they’d never read the newspaper.
They had never owned media outlets. They were just bozos that thought that they could come in and run a multi-media news organization.
What I particularly admire about what you guys did was how you started targeting their advertisers and stripping them of whatever credibility they thought they had purchased. Because so much of what I’ve seen with newspapers, and especially magazines, is that no one ever stops them. Instead, the remaining quality people collaborate with the people who are making the place worse.
There’s a phrase I have for it—spending down the typeface. You have a typeface with 40 or 80 or 100 years of quality work behind it, which makes all the articles in the paper or the magazine seem even smarter and better-written than they are, and then you publish crap until the typeface finally melts.
They bought an aesthetic and a brand and they thought they could do whatever they want with it, and just fool people into thinking they were still reading the LA Weekly.
I mean, Bernie was radicalized when the Dodgers left Brooklyn. Because he was just like, you can’t do that, you can’t take the team!
And that’s kind of how I felt about the LA Weekly. Actually, you don’t own the LA Weekly. If you want to call it the Brian Calle Libertarian Gazette, you can own that. The LA Weekly belongs to the city of LA.
So, in addition to sinking the fake LA Weekly, you’ve also started a cool new print magazine, which is the kind of thing that people do before they overdose on coke, if coke is still a thing that exists in LA.
Who even knows anymore? The CBD gummies leave everyone so serene.
The idea for the magazine was “by locals, for locals.” The title is the LAnd.
Somehow we made a 120-page magazine covering everything from an LAPD conspiracy to take down a leader of the local Black Lives Matter movement to Pioneer Chicken, an old regional fried chicken chain that is down to its last two locations. Obviously, there was a ton of rap stuff, but also an interview with Amde Hamilton of the Watts Prophets and stories about Korean hair salons. We sold our own ads and did it completely independently and no one died, I think. Our second issue is coming out in the spring.
Media was always a weird kind of alchemy between creative people and business-minded people who valued the product. Then a new generation of businessmen with roots in digital machine-based culture come in and they’re like, why doesn’t this work better as a business? Why not publish shorter articles, written by robots? Then the whole thing tanks.
Whether it was the Sulzbergers or the Grahams or the Chandlers, those old newspaper families had deep roots and vested interests in the cities where they owned newspapers. But of the men who bought the LA Weekly, only one actually lived in LA. The rest were from Orange County. It took us months and a lawsuit to finally figure out who actually owned the paper.
They tried to do food events based on the goodwill that the LA Weekly had accrued for the previous half-century. And we would just call up restaurants politely and try to explain to them that what they were participating in wasn’t the same thing anymore. It’s a Potemkin Village publication. About 90% of the advertisers from when they purchased it have pulled out.
Social media can be toxic and cause people to have low level post-traumatic stress disorder. But conversely, it allows you to marshal public sentiment quickly and effectively in situations like this. And there were a lot of gifted and talented people involved. It was almost the entire staff, along with a lot of concerned people who had read the LA Weekly.
Maybe it goes back to the rap thing, where I really believe that almost all interesting rap is regional. I mean that’s why I love ’90s New York rap because it was just like, “Oh, Brooklyn is different than Queens, which is different from Staten Island, which is different than Manhattan, which is different than Harlem, and Bed-Stuy is still going to be different than East New York.”
Vernacular is local.
Totally. Wu-Tang was my favorite because I was like, “Ah, you created an entire cosmology.”
Staten Island is an island separated from another island. So they had to create their own mythology from scratch.
It’s like, “You have to take a ferry there?” I think it’s still very weird for non-New York people to grasp. So if you want to understand it, you should probably go out to Staten Island on the ferry, you know what I mean? Although that Hulu doc was pretty good.
It all goes back to the writing. We talked at the beginning about Jack Kerouac versus Philip Roth. But at the heart of it, there’s no difference between what Jack Kerouac was doing and what Philip Roth was doing. They’re just offering thinly veiled versions of themselves. Roth was doing it more artfully, but still.
I remember talking once with Philip Roth about American Pastoral.
Which is maybe the best book ever written.
I was interested in those incredible Balzacian scenes in the Newark glove factory. So, I asked him, you know, the reporter talking to the famous novelist, “Man, those scenes were so incredible, how did you come up with those?” And he kind of looked at me and he was like, “Well, I went to a glove factory. And I sat there off and on for three months and then I figured that I had seen enough to describe the process of making gloves.”
That’s why I miss Tom Wolfe. He was right when he said that writers need to get out in the world and see stuff, even though it’s so much easier to hire like the kid for $35,000 a year to blog 35 times daily about who’s big on Twitter.
Opinions are less interesting to me than the facts. I want the evidence first and then I want to listen to your opinions. Show me your homework.
Reality is inconvenient for everybody these days. The sharpies and operatives on the right and the left who call themselves “the media” prefer to live in this fake gamified space where they can run up high scores while masturbating to this endless cascade of symbols which have become detached from any actual social meaning. Meanwhile, life goes on.
I just want more empathy.
Empathy for Nazis, Jeff?
Maybe not for Nazis. But empathy, yes.
David Samuels has written cover stories for Harper’s, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic and other magazines. He is Tablet’s Literary Editor.