By Demarcus Robinson (@DocIsChief)
Q & A number four in the Top 10 Series features Craig Seymour (@CraigsPopLife) explaining his long love of hip-hop, his career as a pop culture writer and how he feels about new music. I don’t remember when I started following Seymour, but I know him because he’s one of my former journalism professors. Outside of the classroom he’s either at a concert, photographing things, listening to music or writing. He’s lived a pretty interesting life in my eyes, and I wanted to give others a look into that.
My questions will be in bold, and his responses will be in plain text. This is a longer Q & A, and I conducted this one over the phone so I have audio. Feel free to listen to the audio here. (Sorry for my sniffles, I didn’t think I would use the audio).
How would you describe your tweet style?
Originally it was more, I wish I could say organized. I think I’ve been on Twitter about four years now, and when I first started Twitter it was around the time my memoir came out. So initially I was kind of thinking about Twitter as an extension of my memoir. I felt like a lot of people who initially followed me on Twitter were fans of my memoir, so of course in the memoir I talk a lot about my life and I just felt like Twitter was an extension of that…kind of updating people on what my life is like now and what’s going on in my life now. So I think that’s kind of how it started, and then by extension included in my life is all the stuff I’m listening to, the stuff I like, the stuff I’m creating, whether it be writing or whether it be photography and stuff like that. So I think that’s probably the closest thing to a Twitter philosophy that I have.
What impact does Twitter have on your professional ambitions as well as your personal time?
I think it’s two ways… I think Twitter is still the best way of getting to people who wouldn’t normally know who you are. Twitter is such a great way of connecting to people around the world that you would have not been able to reach beforehand so it’s indispensable for that reason. I think professionally that’s the way it is because it allows you to connect to people. And I do this all the time, like I might follow someone because they might like a certain type of music I like or something like that, and then by doing that I find out that they’ve written something or they’ve done other stuff and I check out their stuff. I feel like a lot of organic, professional connections are made through Twitter. And then personally, Twitter is great because I think it’s hard for us to find people in our lives…it’s hard to find people in your day to day life that maybe like all of the stuff that you like or are into all of the stuff. Usually you have stuff that you talk about with certain friends and stuff you might not talk about with those friends because they might not be into that. But Twitter almost surely, no matter what you like, you can generally find somebody else out there that likes that thing, so it’s just so nice to be able to connect with people based on mutual likes.
You tend to fall outside of the target age demographic for a lot of new hip-hop, but you’re as plugged into new music as any 20-something or teenager I know. How and why do you stay so up to date?
Well to me it’s not even a choice. I was born in 1968, so I was 11 when “Rappers Delight” came out, you know, the first big hip-hop hit and I bought that. The first time I heard that on the radio I went to the record store and bought it. So it’s like I feel like I’ve been loving brand new hip-hop ever since I was 11 years old, and I just still love brand new hip-hop, it’s just never stopped. I just always want to know what’s the next thing. It’s harder for me to understand why people aren’t into stuff than it is for me to kind of understand why I’m still into it. It’s like…If I’ve always loved the music I want to see the music evolve and grow, and I want to watch that evolution. I never felt the impulse to stop and I’ve never felt like any one period is better than the other, perhaps because I’ve been there from the beginning so I know in any given period in hip-hip there’s going to be good stuff and there’s going to be bad stuff. For me it’s always about trying to find what I like about what’s current.
Staying with keeping current, what are your feelings on hip-hop heads who say they can’t keep up or they refuse to embrace anything new?
Well in a way I get people who say they can’t keep up, because there’s a lot of stuff out there. I think what I think is so great about this period is what other people find exhausting. I think it’s great that there’s just hip-hop everywhere and good stuff. So it’s like the underground stuff, the major label stuff, somebody is always coming out with something, the real albums, the mixtapes, I just can’t get enough. I’m on the blogs, I spend hours on the music blogs every day and Twitter finding out new stuff, I mean I live for that and I just listen to music non-stop. To me, I’m always more likely to play a new song than I am to play an old song, which I think is different from a lot of people. But I can understand…I mean I remember back in, not even talking about back in the 80s, but back in the 90s there wasn’t a new hip-hop album every week, there might be one or two each month or something. So you could really get with that particular CD and just listen to it over and over, and you knew all the lyrics and it was really very easy for you to connect with it because that was all there is, that was all that was out there…where now there a couple of new mixtapes each day so you really have to work to keep up, but for me it’s worth it.
What artists are the most interesting to you right now and why?
Wow, well, see that’s even a really hard question to answer. Are we talking about people that are underground or are we talking about people that have already been signed? I guess I would put it in two levels. I think if you’re talking about the real underground cats, the people who haven’t put out full-length major label albums…I think for me one of my favorite people is Joey Badass. I listen to “1999” all the time, and I listen to “Rejects”. And then of course A$AP Rocky and that whole movement, I love that. And then if you’re talking about mid-range people that aren’t quite superstars I’m super excited about Pusha-T’s solo career, he’s just one of my favorite people. I always loved the Clipse, but I just think there’s an energy about Pusha-T right now that’s just crazy to me. I think Big Sean is coming into his own…I wasn’t necessarily that big of a fan of the first album, it’s just the G.O.O.D Music stuff and with the “Detroit” mixtape I’m really excited to see what he’s going to do. I love a big personality and a great voice. ..I really love Rick Ross and the whole MMG movement. I just went to see 2 Chainz. Hip-hop is all about having big personalities, so I still mess with people like that. That’s probably the range of stuff I’m into right now.
That gives me a new question. People I interact with on Twitter and even people I know in real life, they can’t stand Big Sean, Mac Miller or some of those guys. I know you’re into especially Mac Miller, so what is it about him that you like and how do you respond to people who say he’s terrible and you shouldn’t enjoy him?
The first thing is I really don’t understand what the criticism is…if we’re talking Mac Miller specifically. I see somebody that I can respect on multiple levels. First and foremost, even if he wasn’t talented I feel like I have to respect the hustle, because I saw him coming up with the YouTube videos then dropping the mixtapes, and kind of evolving over time to the point where he released that album and went number one independently. I just feel like real recognize real, you have to respect somebody’ hustle. Also, not even the hustle but what that means for hip-hop music, what it means for somebody to be able to do it that independently, that’s good for the music. So if you love hip-hop culture you have to respect that hustle. Just like back in the day when people were down on Puffy and that whole shiny suit movement, people had to still embrace the hustle and what that was doing to hip-hop music, and how that was expanding it to brand new audiences. So I think first and foremost if you love hip-hop culture you do have to recognize people that are doing things to expand the opportunity of the music. And I think Mac Miller really represents the vanguard of that. Other than that I see a kid not only with skill, but also with deep respect for the music and the history of the music. My favorite record by him is probably the one he did over the Premier beat, that “Face the Facts”. That’s some old Gang Starr thing, and how old was he when Premier was first putting out beats and he has respect for that. That’s why I like him.
You have an interesting writing career from magazines to newspapers to books. Can you give a quick rundown of your writing career?
Just kind of starting with the writing career but connected with what you were talking about with why I’m so passionate with keeping up with music, because to me it all starts with the music. I started writing reviews of music, so it feels like I owe my whole creative life to music. So that’s why music is still so important to me. To answer your question more specifically, I started out writing music reviews and things like that for newspapers and places like the Washington Post, and then I kind of moved into magazines where I was writing for places like Spin and Entertainment Weekly, and I was an editor at Vibe for a while. Then I took it back to newspapers for a little bit where I was a music critic at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and the exciting thing about that is that I was in Atlanta when Atlanta was really, really hot. Kind of in the early 2000s when Outkast was really becoming mainstream, so it was an exciting time. But at a certain point I made a decision that I didn’t want to be known as the writer at a magazine or the writer at a newspaper. I really just wanted to be known as a writer in my own right, and kind of represent my own stuff, not be a representative of some magazine or newspaper but just be a representative of me. So that’s when I decided to take it into the book route, and first I wrote a biography of Luther Vandross because I had interviewed him several times. Then I ultimately wrote a memoir about some of my experiences when I worked in a strip club when I was in grad school (All I Could Bare: My Life in the Strip Clubs of Gay Washington D.C.)
What led to you becoming a journalism professor?
That was kind of random. It was really a random thing I fell into. I never really planned to be a professor and I don’t know how much longer I will be a professor, but it’s something that I kind of fell into sort of as a way that I wouldn’t be so dependent on freelance work so that I kind of had a steady check so I could really devote myself to my book without having to hustle to get the bills paid. And the great part about teaching, I guess….I do like talking about craft and talking about writing, and I do like meeting students. I wouldn’t have met you if I hadn’t taught. But there’s just a deep part of me that kind of hates being part of an institution, so that’s the part of me that always wants to kind of stake out on my own and try to do something completely independent.
You have a very active nightlife. Does it ever shock your students to know you have so much fun on a regular basis?
Well I don’t know that people know or care. I don’t think people are checking for my nightlife activity, which of course is something they could do if they followed me on Twitter, but again I don’t think most people care. But the thing about me again, kind of related to hip-hop, is that I started going to clubs when I was 13 years old. So my mother – this was in the days when they weren’t obsessed about all ages shows – so literally she would drop me off at a club, I would go see a show, and then meet her outside on the curb afterwards. So that’s just been something that I’ve been doing all my life. It’s something that I just continue to do. I never reached that period where I was like “oh I feel like staying in” or “oh I don’t feel like going out”. I’m still always like, where’s the party, where’s the next concert, who’s coming to town, who’s doing a club show…that’s just a core part of who I am.
You used to party in Toronto on weekends when you were still in Buffalo. How does nightlife in Toronto compare to Chicago?
Chicago is just such a great city to see, to hear live music. Chicago has a great nightlife scene, just historically it has a great nightlife scene, like with DJs. So many great acts come through Chicago on their way to making it big. And Chicago has so many small venues that nurture up and coming talent. So Chicago I feel like is the best music city I’ve ever lived in, and I’ve lived in New York and everything like that. The thing about New York is when you go to see an act in New York, like an up and coming act… a lot of the crowd is going to be industry, whether it’s media, whether it’s record company people. But Chicago you just have people that really love the music and just try to keep up on the cutting edge of what’s going on in music. And you can have sold out shows by acts that maybe have one YoutTube video or just a couple of tracks on Sound
BlastCloud, and it’s just really exciting to see an act like that. But it’s also really exciting to be a part of people who so passionately love music…love new music rather. I think lots of people like music, right, I think most people if you ask them if they liked music they’ll say yes. But most people really don’t like new music. Most people really like the music that they’re familiar with, or music that sounds like music they’re familiar with. Most people really don’t like the experience of hearing something that’s completely outside of their comfort zone. But I feel like Chicago has a lot of people that really are into hearing kind of experimental new music and embracing that.
Going off of that, what are your thoughts on Chicago’s music movement right now?
Like the Chief Keef stuff?
Yeah, Chief Keef and other things. There are different sounds coming out, like Chance The Rapper or people like that coming out. So what are your thoughts on it all?
I mean honestly I haven’t, I don’t know for what reason, but I haven’t really connected that much to a lot of the new Chicago people. It’s not like I dislike them or anything like that… The Chicago people, even though I know they’re really hot nationally now haven’t really come up on my radar that much. So it’s just another thing that I just have to, you know, I probably just have to listen to it more or I’m probably waiting for that one person to come out that really speaks on my wavelength, but so far I’m at kind of a wait and see. When you played me Chance, I liked some of his stuff but I’m not playing it non-stop.
Well maybe it’ll be Rockie Fresh for you, because I do know that you like Rick Ross a lot.
I do like the single, what’s it called….”You A Lie”. I do like that song. It’s one of those things that I liked the song, but when I saw the video I really started liking it. So again, it just evolves over time.
I watched your Vlog on Tracy Morgan’s comments on if he had a gay son during his comedy set, and you forgave him to show your gay pride. Did that cause you to have backlash from friends that are gay or people you didn’t even know within the gay community?
Not so much. I think I’m always a little bit to the left of whatever the mainstream political thing is. I just think my thinking is a little skewed on things like that. That’s the same reason I can listen to hip-hip and listen to stuff that is not something I believe in, in terms of it might be sexist, it might be homophobic or whatever, but I can still appreciate the music. So I just feel like I’m different about stuff like that.
What were your thoughts on the Frank Ocean letter and the reactions that came from it?
The things that came to my mind, of course, are different than most. I mean first of all it always annoyed me when people were calling him a gay rapper, because how many songs has Frank Ocean ever rapped? He’s part of Odd Future, but he’s not a rapper, he does kind of alternative R&B. So first of all that misconception irks me. The second thing, is it a reason to like somebody… to like somebody’s music more because they’re gay than if they weren’t? All of that was kind of weird to me too. I loved “Nostalgia Ultra” and that was one of my most played albums of last year, and now all these people are jumping on the bandwagon just because he’s gay. And it’s like, well, what about the music? But of course within the context of hip-hop and R&B it was courageous for him to come out like that. I think that was a bold move, and I think it really speaks to sort of the alternative sensibility of a lot of the young hip-hop generation which I relate to. People are doing things very differently. In the past if you were signed to a major label and let’s say you wanted to come out gay, they’d be like “Oh hell no!”, because there all these corporate dollars at stake. It’s just that the new generation of hip-hop artists just have such an independent spirit, and I think Frank Ocean’s expression is another part of that as much as Mac Miller’s independent route. It’s like people are just committed to doing things really differently, and because they’re doing things differently and they’re doing things independently they don’t have to fit into other people’s cookie cutter molds anymore. They can stand out, and go out on a limb and kind of do their own thing.
What were your thoughts on “Channel Orange” as an album?
Well…. I mean…. Okay, so I loved “Pyramids”, I loved that a lot when it came out. I certainly liked “Channel Orange” when it first came out, and I listened to it a lot. But it didn’t have the staying power to me that “Nostalgia Ultra” did. It’s just a simple thing that I didn’t listen to it as much. I even saw Frank Ocean in concert in August, and I mean…I just love “Nostalgia Ultra”, it’s just something about the tracks on that and everything, whereas I just didn’t connect with “Channel Orange” as much. People get mad at me for saying that, but it’s just one of those things.
“Baby Face Killa” dropped yesterday. What are your thoughts on that so far, even though it hasn’t been 24 hours yet?
That’s the hot thing about hip-hop nowadays. If something comes out and you’re really on it you listen to it right then. I remember when the A$AP mixtape came out, and I was almost screaming at my computer to download when it wouldn’t connect, because you want to know what the music is like right now. But I like him, and I appreciate him. Again, it’s one of those things where I think I’m more getting into him even though I’m not 100 percent. But like I was telling you yesterday, I love that “Seventeen” record, and not just because of Jeezy. I just like the whole vibe of it. And that “Tell a Friend” I really like too. I played it again today, and had it on while I was shaving and stuff. Again, that’s what I love, and I don’t find the new music overwhelming because I’m constantly playing music, and I want to hear something new and what’s going on.
As a critic how can people learn to develop their criticism so it’s clear and useful?
I think right now criticism is completely changed. Nobody waits to hear what a critic thinks about something before they listen to it, it’s like if Freddie Gibbs comes out you’re just going to download it, and you don’t give a shit what somebody thinks about it first. You’re going to experience it for yourself. I think the way to make a critical mark now is to kind of do a combo of memoir/criticism. Because now I think as a critic you try to make the reader understand how you experience a record. Because that’s unique, that’s something you experience that’s not going to be the same experience they have. So I think the reader starts to connect with you, and they start to become interested in the music that you listen to because they’re interested in who you are and they way that you experience things. I think that’s the way to make a mark now. The whole thing where people argue back and forth about who’s the best for this reason or who’s the best for that reason, like who cares? There’s no definitive way to solve any of those arguments, but if you say “I like this song because it means this to me, and it evokes these feelings for me, it makes me think about these aspects of my life, it makes me feel great to be alive…”, that’s something that is interesting because we always can relate to other people’s experiences, and I think just as human beings we’re always interested in how other people experience things. So that to me is kind of where criticism should be going, because otherwise you don’t really need someone to tell you to listen to a song because you can just listen to the song.
How can people learn to accept criticism of their own writing or whatever they’re doing?
I think you always have to be open to hearing somebody’s opinion about what you can improve in your writing. But the criteria I think for all of that is first you have to feel that the person has some experience in what they’re talking about, and b that they have some kind of investment to you, that they’re not just being dismissive. Because otherwise if someone is just being dismissive then I don’t think there’s any point in hearing that criticism. I think you always have to be aware of where the criticism is coming from. But the other thing you really have to do to make a career in this business, which I’v done, you really have to have your own vision of what you want to accomplish, and rather than necessarily always listening to every kind of critical thing that people might have to say, kind of find those people that you feel have done what you want to do and try get criticism from them, or read their stuff and compare your stuff to that. The truth of the matter is if you have a vision most people aren’t going to be able to see that vision when you start out. So a lot of people can say a lot of dismissive things to you because they don’t see that vision, and I think that discourages a lot of people. So I feel like you really have to have a vision of what your work is and where you want to go with your work, and stay hard and fast to that. Of course stay open to listening to what other people say, but if it doesn’t feel like what they’re saying is going to move you closer to where you want to be then just dismiss it.
Would you be down for a part two at some point?
Oh yeah, most definitely
Stay tuned for the remaining 6, and feel free to comment or share.