“A lot of beginning writers psyche themselves out thinking they can’t approach certain publications. Whatever clips you have just send it and the vast majority of times they will give you an opportunity to write for them.”
When it came time to get at some writers to finish up our Hip hop in Print Series Oliver Wang was the first person to come to mind. A prolific writer, mainly known for his reviews, Oliver’s music and cultural critiques have been published in numerous publications including Urb, The Village Voice, and The Source. Last spring he completed his first book Classic Material: The Hiphop Album Guide which reviewed over a hundred definitive albums. To get more info into the life of a freelance journalist we connected and got some great insights.
Give us a little history of the work that you’ve done.
I started writing back in 1994. The first music magazine I wrote for was Urb down in Los Angeles where a friend of mine was editing. He pretty much needed some new writers to help with the 12’ reviews. I didn’t really get off writing right away. I think part of it was I never thought about it as a career or anything more than just something fun to do on the side. Probably around 1997 or 1998 it really occurred to me that this was something I could develop a lot more [by] putting more time into improving my writing and getting into new places. The bulk of my career really took off at that point.
What were some of the things you did to improve your writing?
A lot of it was just being conscientious of the quality of my writing. When I first started to write the origin of that was really posting a lot of impromptu retro reviews just shooting the shit on a lot of internet newsgroups. Most of my friends were not hiphop fans at all so I didn’t have anyone directly in my social circle that I could talk about this with so I found this community of people online that I could go off on the new Tribe album or whatever was hitting in the early 90s. A lot of that was really off the cuff and opinionated, which is fine in a particular venue, but when you’re always used to writing like that it doesn’t always lend itself to communicate well to an audience. So I think when I got more serious about my writing I started thinking about and approaching writing as a craft that needs to be really thought out, refined, well edited and well written. I just think it’s one of those things where you never take for granted that your own writing is really good, you just always assume you have room for improvement and that’s what you really strive for.
How has dealing with various venues from a paper to Urb to Complex or XXL affected how you approach an article?
Usually the glossier the magazine the more specific voice they have that they want to communicate to their audience. When I write for all weekly like the Village Voice, L.A. Weekly or the San Francisco Bay Guardian they tend to give their writers a lot of free reign in terms of how they write and that’s part of what they’re there to do to sort of encourage new writers to develop their voice. So they don’t really come down hard in terms of whether a piece fits into their publication style. On the other end of it is a magazine like Vibe, which has a very particular editorial image and editorial voice. Their editorial process really tries to push the writers into a particular style. Those are kind of the two extremes most freelancers are going to encounter. Magazines like Blender, Rolling Stone, and Spin have a particular editorial voice of the magazine and they want the writing that appears in that magazine, at least at the reviews level, to sort of be reflective of that. I’ve seen it to a lesser extent at places like XXL and Source where they have concerns but they are not quite as hands on about the way they try to tailor pieces to fit into the editorial vision of the magazine.
What do you feel makes a good article say a feature for XXL?
I think those features serve two audiences. One is people who are familiar with the artist and they want to hear something new and interesting about the artist that they have never seen before. For example, what was interesting to me was XXL had a big Q&A with Jay-Z when he announced his retirement. It was great stuff in terms that he was very open about what he talked about and they covered a lot of range and I think XXL has done a really great job on their Q&A. Then Vibe comes out with their issue with Jay-Z on the cover one month later and I’m like what can Vibe possibly have that I haven’t seen in the XXL article. As it turned out the Vibe article had a lot of things I hadn’t read elsewhere mostly because Jay kind of penned it himself. This was the first place I read [where] he said my retirement is just temporary and I’m probably gonna take a break for two or three years and come back into it. I hadn’t seen anyone say that yet so I was pleasantly surprised because that Vibe feature managed to get something new in there that was informative to me. On the flip side a lot of people that pick up these magazines don’t necessarily follow hiphop for a living. They’re gonna want to know the background and basics and I think that a good feature is able to balance those two things and serve those two audiences.
When you’re preparing your questions how much research do you do?
I think good preparation is important. Some people like to walk into interviews with nothing prepared and just riff with it and I like the element of that. The interview that’s best is an interview where you have a conversation with someone and they don’t see you as someone interrogating them and they’re providing responses. You just want to chill with someone and hope something develops out of that. The problem is to get someone to that comfort level you can’t just walk in there and say, ‘˜Hey what’s up, what did you do today.’ It helps to come in with some prepared questions to show that you’ve done your homework and that you’re familiar with the artist. That develops a basis for rapport. A good friend of mine is a reporter for MTV News now and he interviewed Nas the other day. Nas is notoriously a hard interview. He is a tough guy to crack because he is so conscious about his self image (this is based on other people I know who have interviewed him). My friend was able to go in and establish really early on that he wasn’t just another reporter on a junket talking about, ‘˜So Nas tell me about how you got started.’ This is a guy who could name studio sessions and who was in the studio at the time and he had questions around that. That really surprised Nas and he was more comfortable going more places with that writer in terms of things he was willing to talk about. I think that could only have happened if my friend had been prepared and establish early on that he wasn’t a scrub and he knew enough about the artist and respected the artist enough to do his homework. You have to do it both ways You have to allow for conversations to mature organically but you should go in there with some level of preparation so you don’t get caught unaware.
Once you amass all your information from the interview how do you go about turning that into an interesting article?
I wish there was a science to it that way I can learn it and punch it out every time and make it easy. Every story is a little bit different and the writing process is never particularly consistent. A lot of times before I go into a story I’ll start writing it in my head in terms of what I think will be really interesting and sometimes my interview helps to reinforce that. Other times what comes up in an interview takes me into a different direction and I have to junk whatever idea I went in with and start over. In terms of advice I give other writers is once you finish the first draft (always remember whatever you write the first time is the first draft no matter how complete you think it is) take off a day or two, don’t think about and go back and read it again. When I’m on a tight deadline I’ll read it again to copyedit myself but I’ll miss a lot of things because I’m so close to it at that point. I’m not really looking at it for things that if I never seen it before I would pick up right away, small stuff like using the same adjective twice in a paragraph. I don’t like doing stuff like that because it doesn’t look good to me. I did a review of Outkast’s ‘œThe Love Below’ and I used a phrase three times in the piece. I wrote that piece relatively quickly because I had to turn it in but when I read it when it came out I couldn’t believe I didn’t catch it. I should have picked up on that but I didn’t write it ahead enough to take some time off and then come back and look at it with fresh eyes. I think it would have been so much better if I had done that. I would have caught those kind of errors and I might have had new ideas that would have improved the piece. I don’t really feel you ever reach a final draft. There are pieces I’ve written years ago and I’ll find new things to add or change even though I was happy with it at the time. You’ll always find something new.
What writers do you admire?
When I first started paying attention to bylines and who was writing I thought Nelson George’s stuff from the eighties was important. He had really insightful things to say. He wrote this essay about ‘œDe La Soul is Dead’ talking about how they made the transition from afro-centricity to ghetto-centricity. That was a really brilliant insight that I wouldn’t have thought of on my own. I’m not as big of a fan of Nelson’s writing more recently starting around the time he wrote ‘œHip Hop America.’ I didn’t feel like he had as good of a handle on hip hop anymore but that’s another story. Jeff Chang is probably one of the writers who has had the biggest influence on me as a mentor and then later as a friend with his commitment to always thinking about the political aspect of music. I’ve always respected him for that. Some other people are Josh Kun (SF Guardian), Sasha Frere-Jones (New Yorker), he just wrote about MadVillain in the New Yorker and that’s something I thought would never happen, Hua Hsu (Wire, Urb), Dave Thompkins (Wire), Jon Caramanica. I’m biased. A lot of people’s names I’m giving are friends of mine and I’m not propping them because their friends of mine I just really respect what they do. I have a lot of respect for the Ego Trip guys for what they were able to do with the magazine and then with the book. I could go on forever.
What has been your favorite project that you’ve done?
I think I’m obliged to say that it was probably putting together my book ‘Classic Material: The Hiphop Album Guide’ which came out in May of last year. It was an opportunity that literally fell into my lap. It was an acquisitions editor coming to me saying we are interested in developing a book about hiphop with you but we don’t have a particular thing in mind what do you want to do? You don’t really get those opportunities everyday. In doing the book it not only allowed me to work out some of my own thoughts about albums that have been important to me but more importantly it allowed me to recruit a lot of writers I’ve always wanted to work with.
What did you hate where you just did it cuz you got paid for it?
There are too many of those to name. There are a lot of small assignments like bit reviews that I’ve done that I’ve never really preferred. I did em because they paid well but I never derived any satisfaction from that. I never had a nightmare assignment where I hated every minute that I was working on it. The one assignment I thought was gonna be toughest was when the Source called me on a Wednesday and said we need a writer to go down to New Orleans to do a Master P cover the day after tomorrow, can you do it? Honestly, I’ve never been a big Master P fan. It was a Master P and Lil Romeo story.
On the flip side it was a cover story and not only does it pay well it’s a good career mover. I thought about it like at the very least it’s a challenge to go down and interview someone who’s music I’ve never really fucked with and who I’ve never really thought about it. It actually turned out to be an interesting experience. I’ve never been with a artist of his level of popularity within a public setting. This was Mardi Gras and Superbowl weekend. Literally when we would walk, him and Little Romeo would be mobbed by people right off the street. You always hear about it but I had never seen it before. That alone was a really amazing experience to witness. We went to one of the parades a high school band was walking by playing and you could hear them saying yo that’s Master P and Little Romeo. They broke formation to run over and get his autograph. It turned out to be an interesting piece to write about. It was right after C-Murder had been arrested on murder charges and both Silk and Master P were candid talking about it. The gist of it was I try to take care of him but he is gonna go do his own thing and this is where it’s gotten him. It wasn’t one of those this is all bullshit and we’re gonna fight this one to the nail, it was more like he done fucked up. Initially when I got the call my first impulse was fuck no I’m not gonna do this. The thing was they wanted me to finish the piece (3,000 words) within two days of coming home. But in the end I’m really glad I did it. I never really had a bad experience but I have had interviews where after the fact the person I interviewed was unhappy with it and I got black listed because of it.
That actually leads to my next question. You’ve been privileged enough to have a few emcees dis you on record. Is it surprising how much power you wield with the pen?
It’s really really insane. The first time it happened was about two years ago and it was People Under the Stairs out of L.A. I got a call from another writer at Urb and he was like I just want to make sure it’s ok that I’m reviewing the new People Under the Stairs record. I’m like why should I care and he’s like you don’t understand they dissed you on this record. I was like you got to be shitting me. I hadn’t listened to it yet and I go home and sure enough they had this thing about ‘˜I got this piece for any mark ass Twang.’ I’m like what is this about? I was able to piece it together because I have never really written on them that much and the stuff that I had written had been relatively positive and supportive. I’m not their biggest fan ever but I never went off and said fuck these dudes. Then Louis Logic drops his album and he has a song called ‘œFairweather Fan’ where he devotes a verse to why O-Dub is wack. The thing is I hadn’t written about Louis Logic at that point in about three years and he and I have always had some kind of beef. He has never liked the stuff I’ve said about him even though I’ve never dissed him. The worst I’ve said was I’m not really feeling him, but never anything where I was making it personal. Again, it had been like three years but since this was his first full length he had time to marinate on it. Then like two or three months after that, I hear Jean Grae disses me on her new EP. With Jean, I have supported her through every project she has done way starting back in the day with Natural Resources. I bigged up her like I big up nobody but when I reviewed her album for Urb I said part of it was uneven and that it could have better which a lot of people felt. No one was saying ‘œAttack of the Attacking Things’ was the Illmatic of our new generation. Then she comes at me on this verse where she basically says everybody liked the album but that dumb fuck Oliver Wang. I was like wow. I wrote about this in an editorial that was published in Urb and a similar editorial that ran on my website.
What all of these artists have in common, and this is just a theory, is that they are all very touchy about negative press and they take personal offense to it in ways mainstream artists don’t because if they are going platinum one bad review is not going to upset their day. However, when you’re an independent artist struggling to sell 20,000 copies of an album you feel like every negative piece of press is taking money out of your pocket. I don’t personally believe that but I understand that’s the mentality. So I think the independent artist is a lot more sensitive about what’s written about them. The other thing is that mainstream artists have a whole bureaucracy of handlers preventing them from spitting directly at a writer where as on the independent level there is nobody in between saying this would be really stupid for your career to do this. I laugh about it but it’s unfortunate. No one likes getting dissed. I would understand it if I went at them with the same venom that they went after me. Louis Logic I feel was legitimate because I haven’t said supportive things about him in the past and he had the most intelligent things to say in his song as a critique. The P.U.T.S was whatever. Number one it was a wack verse to begin with and number two its like I’ve given you guys so much love in magazines and other places that this is a shitty way to thank me. Jean Grae hurt because I’ve been such a big fan of hers and always supported her stuff. The reason she ended up dissing me came out this miscommunication that spiraled out of control. I realized there was no reasoning with her when we spoke about it. At least this is a different era from about ten years ago when artists would either start punching motherfuckers out or issuing death threats. At least they were gonna keep it on wax.
You mentioned your book Classic Material earlier. Do you have any plans on writing another book?
I would love to do more books and I have ideas for days. The original book I wanted to do was a guide to the Independent Hip hop 12’s that came out in the 90s. Me and Mercer at Sandbox used to write those reviews just for the hell of it. I figured that would be a cool book until I realized only four people would want that book and two of them live in Japan and one lives in Germany. I’m glad that we did the other which is more useful to a larger audience.
I would think a book of reviews in general would be a hard sell.
What surprised me is that no one has done it. There are album guides to a hundred different musical genres. I’m sure there is a rough guide to aboriginal pigmy music somewhere but no one had done a hip hop album guide. This is the biggest music genre that the world has seen in the last twenty-five years and no one has done a book that just looks at rap albums. I just felt there was a big vacuum that needed to be filled and I was blessed with the opportunity. Because of the size of it I couldn’t put together a 1000 album reviews so it’s not the end all hip hop album guide but it’s the first step in addressing that the gap is there. I hope there will be more things like that coming down the pipeline.
Last question what would you suggest for up and coming writers?
The thing about writing that really amazed when I started freelancing was that so many opportunities opened up for me simply because I asked. Most of these editors didn’t know me from Adam because I didn’t have a portfolio nor was I well published. I didn’t have connections but nine out of ten times they gave me a shot just because I asked for it. Publications always need content providers and that is a profession that has a huge amount of turnover because we’re not exactly well compensated for it. None of us do it for the money. If you do it for the money you’re insane. You do it because you want to do it and when you seek out opportunities you’ll discover people always need content. A lot of people, especially beginning writers, feel like if I’m gonna step to such and such publication I better be published more. It’s the whole I need experience to get a job but if I don’t have a job how do I get experience. A lot of beginning writers psyche themselves out thinking they can’t approach certain publications. Whatever clips you have just send it and the vast majority of times they will give you an opportunity to write for them. They are not going to give you a cover story the first time out and you’re not going to be able to step to places like Rolling Stone out of nowhere but for most other publications as long as you’re earnest and persistent in trying to get into an editor’s ear you’re going to get those opportunities. Don’t let your lack of experience stop you from trying. Had I known that early on I could have advanced my career a lot faster than I did. Places that I thought would never give me the time of day were like ok do this short album review or concert preview and if that work is good you’ll get another opportunity and just build from there. The other advice is just write as much as you can. Don’t write just to dump crap out there. Practice makes perfect and the more you write the better you’ll get. It really helps keep your mind sharp and that will help you become a better writer.