The Cipher is the critically acclaimed hip-hop podcast formerly known as Outside the Lines With Rap Genius.
It was created by host Shawn Setaro while he was Editor-in-Chief of Genius.com. Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and expect to hear from your favorite rappers and producers as well as authors, poets, scholars and industry power players.
Shawn is a noted writer and cultural historian. He has written for The Atlantic, The Source, Vibe, Esquire, GQ, and more. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Rap Genius.
He has been a speaker at Columbia, The New School, and the Schomburg Center for Black Culture, and has been quoted as a hip-hop expert in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Daily News, The Dallas Observer, and The Chicago Tribune.
1) So you’ve done pretty major things in your career – written for Forbes and The Atlantic, podcast host, former Editor-in-Chief of RapGenius, speaker at Columbia, and plenty more. Talk to me about your background and come up in the industry.
I spent years in the music industry on the musician side, playing guitar and bass in a bunch of different bands, touring, and doing session work. I also had some experience as a music journalist in college and just afterwards, writing profiles and reviews. While both those things provided valuable background, they didn’t really directly lead to the more recent things you mentioned.
Aside from the founders of the website and their real-life friends, I was the first person to become a dedicated user of Rap Genius. I got very involved and, as it grew, I became EIC and did most of the Rap Genius-branded writing for outside outlets. So if The Atlantic or Vibe or The Source wanted to run something from Rap Genius, I was usually the one doing it.
After I left, I already had a relationship with some people at Forbes, so becoming a columnist there was a natural choice. And I kept the podcast going, which continually leads to cool opportunities.
2) The Cipher was started while you were still at Rap Genius – what made you want to launch a podcast?
I wish I could take credit for it, but it wasn’t my idea. I had gotten in contact with Jean Grae back in 2012 and had her over to the Rap Genius office – ostensibly to do stuff for the site, but mostly because I was a big fan and wanted to meet her. The original idea was to ask a bunch of questions about her songs and cut up the answers into individual annotations on the site.
But once it was over, my partner suggested that I take the entire conversation and turn it into a podcast. I thought about it, and realized she was totally right. That started the ball rolling.
3) You’ve had some pretty big names on the podcast so far – Scarface, Murs, Prince Paul, No Malice, DJ Quik, the list goes on. How do you typically line up an interview? Does the artist reach out to you or vice versa?
There are many different ways I connect with guests. Sometimes publicists or label people who I know will reach out to me and suggest people. Other times I’ll bug them incessantly about an artist until they give in. Sometimes it’s through a personal connection. Sometimes a guest who has been on the show will suggest someone else they know. Other times I’ll reach out to people directly, either in person or over social media. Every situation is a little bit different.
4) Do you find it easier as The Cipher gets bigger to book in artists for interviews?
Yes. Even in just the past few months, I have noticed an uptick in name recognition that makes booking easier.
5) What has been your top 5 favourite moments on the podcast?
Wow. I hardly know where to start. Rather than saying these are my absolute favorite, let me just name five unforgettable moments.
— Hanging out with the 45 King at his house in New Jersey – phone booth, subway turnstile, and other odd artifacts inclusive. I even got to look at the movie script he was writing after we were finished.
— Johnny Rotten. The whole experience was a whirlwind. He is still every bit the outsized personality you would expect. He kicked our photographer out of the room, complained about the heat, and insisted heatedly that I was wrong on points that he turned out to be mistaken on. And looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.
— Spending a long afternoon with Abiodun Oyewole of The Last Poets, and listening to his stories about the last half-century or so of black arts and history.
— Sitting down with Big Daddy Kane, and having him a. call out Marley Marl for stealing production credit and b. saying that I asked him something he’s never been asked before.
— When Sean Price came by to record his episode, he spent about two hours breaking down lyrics, telling stories, shooting goofy videos, and basically keeping the whole room in hysterics. Then, all of a sudden, in what I would later come to find out was typical P fashion, he just said, “I’m tired,” got up, and left.
6) After observing and documenting the hip-hop culture for all these years, what do you think of the music today and where it’s headed?
One of my main concerns is what the Internet is doing to regional styles. Until pretty recently, hip-hop in Memphis was drastically different than in New Orleans or San Francisco or Newark. In the same way that corporate monoculture is making every city look the same – the same restaurants, attractions, etc. – I wonder if hip-hop will largely sound the same throughout the country.
7) Who are some of your favourite hip-hop artists right now?
If we’re limiting the answer to new-ish artists, I love the Save Money and Pro Era crews. Pretty much anyone affiliated with either of those camps is worth hearing, in my view. I have a soft spot for New Orleans, so Curren$y and Kidd Kidd are both in rotation. Freddie Gibbs is fantastic. Skyzoo consistently impresses me.
8) 2015 has been a pretty awesome year for hip-hop. We’ve had amazing albums from Kendrick, A$AP Rocky, Dr. Dre, Chance The Rapper, Lupe Fiasco and plenty more to come before the end of the year. Any particular projects that you’ve really enjoyed?
I love many of the projects you’ve mentioned above, especially Kendrick’s and Dre’s. In addition to those, I would mention Jean Grae’s iSweatergawd and Gangsta Boo’s Candy, Diamonds & Pills. Also, I got a chance to hear an advance copy of YC the Cynic’s upcoming album. It is incredible – smart, timely, and very powerful.
9) Ok last question – top 5 rappers dead or alive and why?
This question! At the risk of sounding like a cop-out, here are a few caveats. One – this entire list is subject to change. If you ask me later today, it may be a different list than right now. For example, depending on when you catch me, Z-Ro, Pharoahe Monch, Black Thought, and/or Jean Grae are likely to be swapped out for any of the people listed below. Two – these are not the people I necessarily think are “the best” (whatever that means) or the most influential. Instead, they are the five who, for whatever combination of reasons, resonate with me the most.
In no particular order:
KRS-One: In addition to his insane catalog, he’s the best live emcee I’ve ever seen.
Boots Riley (The Coup): He’s a world-class rhymer and storyteller. He’s not afraid to be funny. And he manages to get across important political points in ways that are entertaining and musical.
Jay Z: In addition to spelling his first name correctly (“Shawn” with an “h”), I love Jay’s consistency of vision. Every verse he does, even if it’s a freestyle or a guest appearance no one but completists will hear, becomes a part of his larger story. His flow is out of this world. Also, he buries gems so deeply that sometimes they can take years to find – at least for me!
Eminem: Em’s run from 1999 until 2004 or so is matched only by Jay’s from ’96-03 for me. Even now, for all the problems I have with his recent output, Eminem can still make my jaw drop in surprise and admiration more than just about anyone else.
The Notorious B.I.G.: Almost every rapper is good at something. Big, though, was good at everything. It’s insane to me that he could do basically every type of song from radio singles to involved crime narratives, and be incredible at all of them.
I have to add a special shout-out to the other members (besides KRS) of what I call the Mount Rushmore of hip-hop: Kool G. Rap, Rakim, and Big Daddy Kane.