Legendary hip-hop blogger Byron Crawford has built his reputation over the years with his controversial posts, feuds with rappers like Bun B and Lupe Fiasco and epic articles for Medium.
As a former XXL columnist and published author, Byron has certainly earned the wrath of the hip-hop industry but no-one can deny that his writing is always hilarious, thought-provoking and extremely insightful.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Byron recently and he talked extensively on a number of topics including, XXL shutting down their print magazine, rap’s golden age, Nas, the term “culture vulture,” publishing on Medium and what’s next in store for him. Enjoy!
1) As a former blogger for XXL, how do you feel about the publication recently announcing that they’ll be shutting down their print operations?
Well, word on the street is that they’re gonna try to put out at least a few issues next year. They had been on a bimonthly schedule, then they went out of business, and then it was announced that they might not be done with the print version after all.
Something similar happened with King magazine after it went out of business in the late ’00s/early ’10s. Every now and again you’d see a new issue on newsstands, but without any real articles, just pictures of cellulite-ridden video hoes. Some would argue that was an improvement!
Also, lest we forget, magazines like Vibe and Spin went through a few zombie incarnations before going out of business once and for all. It definitely seems like that’s the destiny: sputtering to some sad, final ending in the next few years.
The thing is, it’s in the best interest of the few people still working there in an administrative capacity — the editor-in-chief and the other top editorial positions — to drag this out as long as they possibly can. Because once this really is over, that’s it. Where else can they go?
There aren’t any more print hip-hop publications, and I can’t imagine a more mainstream publication, say, a GQ, would want anything to do with someone from XXL.
2) How was your time at XXL? Do you miss it?
For having been with XXL as long as I was (a full five years) I don’t have a very strong recollection of that time. I mostly remember the time when I first began, which encompassed my legendary beef with Bun B, and the time when I left, in the immediate wake of a controversy having to do with something I wrote about Odd Future, which may or may not be the reason why I was let go.
The time in between was kind of a blur of me pissing people off, having my work censored, phoning it in on the reg, and occasionally coming up with something I was really proud of.
I probably stuck around there longer than I should have, but I was in the same position the kids who are there now are in: What was I gonna do once I left? If I had it to do over again, I would have spent more time focusing on putting myself in a position where I could more easily transition to the work I’m doing now.
I probably could have been writing books as far back as ’07 or ’08, and I would have had a much larger platform from which to promote them. The only thing I really miss about working there is the check.
3) I read NaS Lost: A Tribute to The Little Homey and thought it was a really interesting read. In this book you said Nas has the “ability to make the best rap music possible, and he just doesn’t, ever” – can you break this line down in more detail?
Yeah, I think Nas realized early on that he would have to compromise his sound if he ever wanted to make any money, he did, and he hasn’t looked back ever since.
Not every single thing he’s done since Illmatic has been terrible, but I think most people would agree that he has a pretty low batting average. That commercial rap sound just doesn’t suit him.
To a certain degree, I think he realizes this, and that’s why nothing on his past few releases has been quite as egregious as some of the worst stuff on I Am and Nastradamus. Also, I think Nas is at his best when he’s got someone with him in the studio to help mold and shape his ideas and steer him away from his worst instincts.
4) You’ve said the mid-90s era rap was maybe the best time ever for the genre. What do you think it was about that era that made it so great?
Honestly, at least part of it was that I was a teenager at the time. But I don’t think anyone would argue that the two decades that have passed since have been the best time ever for rap music. Literally, I’ve never heard someone try to argue that the ’00s or the ’10s were hip-hop’s true golden age.
The only other valid contender is the 1980s, and it’s true that I tend to give the ’80s short shrift, just because the ’90s was more my era in terms of buying, listening to and learning about music.
I was around in the ’80s, but I was a young kid. Hip-hop really took off creatively in the late ’80s, from about 1987. I’d argue that it peaked, at least lyrically, with the likes of Biggie, Nas, Jay-Z, Mobb Deep and Wu-Tang. Arguably, the production may have started falling off before then, with all of the sampling lawsuits.
5) Over the past couple years, the term “cultural tourist” or “culture vulture” has become more prevalent in writings about hip-hop music. How do you define those terms and what are your thoughts on it?
Damon Dash is the true authority on who and what is a culture vulture. Personally, I’d define it as, from a business perspective, someone who doesn’t have any interest in hip-hop other than how they can exploit it for their own personal financial gain, who hence looks for ways to rip people off and is not concerned with making any kind of significant investment in artist development.
From a fan perspective, it’s someone who’s into rap music just because they’re amused by black pathological behavior, who tries to argue that the worst possible rap music is actually good, and who may have honestly convinced themselves that their motives are pure, which is why they attempt to argue their point so vociferously and get so upset when they’re called on their bullshit.
6) You’ve recently published some epic, longform pieces on Medium. What is it about Medium that makes it an appealing platform?
Medium is probably the best blog software there ever was. Not that that’s saying a whole lot, when most blog software was written back in the early ’00s and hasn’t changed significantly since then, but still. The quality of the presentation is as high as anything put out by a mainstream media organization — a blog post by some random kid can look as good, if not better, than anything in the New York Times right now.
It’s also easier to use than most blogging software. Which seems counter intuitive: you’d think shittier blogging software would be easier to use, but no. With Medium, you just type in the text and it does the rest for you. You don’t have to sweat knowing HTML or wondering if your article will look different once it’s actually published.
7) Why not publish those on your own website and potentially make some money off advertising revenue? I’d imagine the Dame Dash and Dr. Dre articles would have pulled in major numbers.
When you’re dealing with the worst advertisers possible, as I am, you don’t get paid any extra to do big numbers. If you run a hot a post that somehow doubles traffic for the month, your check is still the same amount as it was the month before. Any increase is viewed as some aberration that must have been a mistake, but any decrease is viewed as you fucking up, and does in fact result in a decrease in pay.
The whole thing is a scam, really.
But the real reason to publish on Medium, at least for me, is that it’s basically impossible for something on my site to go viral. People won’t link to it, because they have a problem with the content, even people involved in way more fucked up shit than I am, and you can’t read it in most schools, offices and even some entire countries.
Medium is an opportunity to expose my work to people who would never check my blog. I don’t make any money from writing there (though some people do), but I link to my books and my newsletter, and at least a few people click through.
8) Which 3 current rappers would you replace in these lyrics: “Argue all day about who’s the best MCs, Biggie, Jay-Z or Nas?”
I’m at a loss for why you would need to replace any of those guys. Biggie has been dead for upwards of 20 years now, but he was dead even when the song that quote is from came out. I don’t think there’s anyone who’s come along subsequently who’s made a case for belonging in that echelon, and I’d be interested to see who someone who’s more into current rap music than I am, i.e. almost anyone, would pick.
When Kendrick Lamar declared himself the king of New York, I think he was comparing himself more to the washed up, 2K13-era Jay-Z. To his credit, he was correct. He really is better than the Jay-Z of today. But here’s the thing: most people who ever rapped are better than the Jay-Z of today.
In conclusion, everyone knows the best rap group out right now is Run the Jewels. There’s a lot of other people who have the talent who just haven’t been able to put it together as well as they have. Mr. MFN eXquire, for example. He was maybe as talented as anyone to come along in the past five years or so, but his career is obviously over. Similarly, Jay Electronica signed to Roc Nation and hasn’t done shit ever since. eXquire’s entire career began and ended in the time since “Exhibit C” came out.
9) You’ve gone from a blogger to a published author – what’s next for Byron Crawford? Any ideas for new books?
The future in the short term definitely does involve more books. In the long run, I’m not sure what I’m gonna do. You reach a point at which you’ve published five books in two years, and you realize that, if you continue at that pace, you will have released roughly six gozillion books over the course of your lifetime, even if you die relatively young.
It’s one of the main reasons why I’ve been focusing more on writing articles for Medium. Having said that, I did start working on another book the other day, only about two months after I published Kanye West Superstar, and I’m making pretty decent progress — I just plain don’t have shit else to do, and I was getting kinda annoyed with Medium once I figured out the politics behind what gets promoted on that site and what doesn’t, who gets paid, so on and so forth.
I’ve got another 10,000-plus-word piece that I’m gonna sit on for a few weeks. As is the case with writing books, there’s no point in writing an article like that every two weeks, even though I probably could. I imagine it’s gonna ruffle a few feathers in the online hip-hop community if/when I do drop it. When I started writing books, my plan was to give it five years and then reevaluate.
I was hoping to be able to make a decent living just from writing books by then, and some part of me thought maybe I’d reach that point long before then. Now I’m realizing that making that kind of money even after five years would be a miracle. If a job opportunity that didn’t involve rap music were to come along, I’d have no choice but to seriously consider and hence maybe have to give this shit up. Fortunately for the Internets, that might be the least likely thing to ever happen.