The newsletter collects some of the best stuff I hear, read, and watch every week; highlights news about the industry; and features interviews with writers, scholars, and editors about their work. My goal is to share knowledge, celebrate great work, and expand the idea of what music journalism is—and where it happens.
I first pursued music journalism as a career path in the early 1990s, and though I've strayed, I still feel related to it at least tangentially. What follows are Todd's questions and my answers.
Todd L. Burns: How did you get to where you are today, professionally?
Roy Christopher: My path to this point started with making zines. My friends and I started making photo-copied magazines in high school. We wrote about BMX, skateboarding, and the music we liked. I grew up with an artist mom, so I always thought I’d be an artist. I was an art major for the first three years of undergrad. When we started making zines, the page layouts were the first thing I got really into, but eventually the writing drew me in. If we wanted something covered, we had to write about it.
Other than teaching myself to write, the main thing I picked up there was the fan’s impetus to spread the word. I’m more of a fan than a critic. The reason I do what I do is foremost because I want to tell people about something cool I found.
Writing for zines eventually lead to writing for magazines and then websites. I spent the first half of the 1990s working in record stores and making zines and the second half working at magazines and making websites. I went back to graduate school around the turn of the millennium and got a couple of degrees in communication. Now I write books that combine all of the above. Dan Hancox at The Guardian described my 2019 book, Dead Precedents: How Hip-Hop Defines the Future, as “written with the passion of a zine-publishing fan and the acuity of an academic.” That’s the kind of compliment you hope for, and it comes from pursuing a certain kind of goal.
Did you have any mentors along the way? What did they teach you?
Well, my main trio of heroes and mentors is the Master Cluster: Andy Jenkins, Spike Jonze, and Mark Lewman (l to r above). Not only did they run the magazines I wanted to be a part of (e.g., Freestylin’, Homeboy, Dirt, Grand Royal, etc.), but when I started making zines, theirs were the high watermark. I’ve stayed in touch with them over the years, and they’ve taught me many, many things, but the main one is that you don’t need permission to do something great. Anything is possible.
Other mentors include Douglas Rushkoff, Mark Dery, Dave Allen, Steven Shaviro, Paul Levinson, and Howard Rheingold. There’s no paying back what those guys have taught me over the past twenty years. More recently, Ytasha L. Womack, Tiffany E. Barber, Gary J. Shipley, Drew Burk, Leo Hollis, Charles Yu, Tim Maughan, Peter Relic, and Matt Schulte have all been big helps with writing, editing, publishing, and support.
Walk me through a typical day-to-day for you right now.
On most days, I get up early, make coffee, and get right to it. “It” is usually writing of some kind. I keep several projects going at the same time so that if one stalls or I get stuck, I can work on something else.
If I’m heavy into a book project, I will write until lunch, take a short nap, then edit in the evenings. I never planned my days this way. It’s just a routine I fell into while writing my dissertation, and it recurs every time I take on a large writing project.
It’s not all work though. I do still ride bikes and skateboard, so I often get out in the evenings to do those. I go to bed at least an hour before I intend to go to sleep every night. Though I read whenever I have time, before bed is my daily, dedicated reading time.
How do you organize your work?
I try to do as much organizing in analog forms as possible. I use notebooks and whiteboards as much as I use computers. No matter the size, I find computer screens claustrophobic. I also try every writing and organizing technique that seems useful, all in the pursuit of different perspectives, rather than just organization.
Where do you see music journalism headed?
Like all forms of journalism, media, and culture, I see it splintering even further. Every genre has its own publication. Almost every subgenre has one as well. It will keep splitting into smaller and smaller niches. The long tail is the media environment now.
What’s one tip that you’d give a music journalist starting out right now?
The piece of advice that I got early on that I always pass on is to give the publication and the people something they can’t get anywhere else. Hone your skills as well as your focus. Become unignorable and irreplaceable.
What’s your favorite part of all this?
Two things: Being in the flow of creative output and connecting with other people. Those were the great things about making zines and working in record stores, and they’ve continued to be the great things about writing about music.
What was the best track / video or film / book you’ve consumed in the past 12 months?
It’s difficult to pick just one thing, which is a good sign for the state of things. I could make a long list, but the one thing I keep coming back to is Crestone directed by Marnie Ellen Hertzler. Ostensibly making a documentary about Soundcloud rappers who move to the desert to grow marijuana, make music for the internet, and start a commune, Hertzler manages to capture a mix of both pre-apocalyptic dread and post-apocalyptic glee. The cast of characters—most of whom Hertzler went to high school with—and the setting—as desolate and demanding as Tatooine or Arrakis—make Crestone a mesmerizing study of people out of place, a whole subculture uprooted and relocated on the edge of the end of everything.
If you had to point folks to one piece of yours, what would it be and why?
I think “In Praise of Pulling Back,” which is an updated version of something I wrote on my website a while back, is a good example of my work. It’s about how creative constraints can be a boon not a burden. It typifies the things I find important, but it’s also full of great examples and bits of advice.
Anything you want to plug?
In the last few years, I have finished several projects that are all coming to the end of the publication process. If you’ll indulge me, here’s an annotated list:
Dead Precedents: How Hip-Hop Defines the Future (Repeater Books): Emerging alongside cyberpunk in the 1980s, the hallmarks of hip-hop—the use of new technologies, sampling, the cutting and splicing of language and sound—would come to define the culture of the new millennium. Taking in the ground-breaking work of DJs and emcees, alongside science-fiction writers like Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, as well as graffiti and DIY culture, Dead Precedents is a counter-cultural history of the twenty-first century, showcasing hip-hop’s role in the creation of the world we now live in.
Abandoned Accounts (First Cut Poetry): My first collection of poems, about which Bristol Noir says, “Perfectly balanced prose. With the subtext, gravitas, and confidence of a master wordsmith. It’s a joy to read.”
Fender the Fall (Alien Buddha Press): “You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Until You Get It Back.” In this sci-fi novella, a lovelorn physics graduate student goes back in time to return the journal of his high-school crush in order to save his marriage and her life. The plan doesn’t go as planned.
Follow for Now, Vol. 2: More Interviews with Friends and Heroes (punctum books): The follow up to my 2007 collection, Volume 2 picks up and pushes beyond the first volume with a more diverse set of interviewees and interviews. The intent of the first collection was to bring together voices from across disciplines, to cross-pollinate ideas. At the time, social media wasn’t crisscrossing all of the lines and categories held a bit more sway. Volume 2 aims not only to pick up where Follow for Now left off but also to tighten its approach with deeper subjects and more timely interviews.
Boogie Down Predictions: Hip-Hop, Time, and Afrofuturism (Strange Attractor Press): Through essays by some of hip-hop’s most interesting thinkers, theorists, journalists, writers, emcees, and DJs, Boogie Down Predictions embarks on a quest to understand the connections between time, representation, and identity within hip-hop culture and what that means for the culture at large. Introduced by Ytasha L. Womack, author of Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, this book explores these temporalities, possible pasts, and further futures from a diverse, multilayered, interdisciplinary perspective.
Escape Philosophy: Journeys Beyond the Human Body (punctum books): The physical body has often been seen as a prison, as something to be escaped by any means necessary: technology, mechanization, drugs and sensory deprivation, alien abduction, Rapture, or even death and extinction. Taking in horror movies and science fiction stories, extreme metal, AI and cybernetics, Escape Philosophy is an exploration of the ways that human beings have sought to make this escape, to transcend the limits of the human body, to find a way out. Cover by Matthew Revert. Title design by Roy Christopher.
The Medium Picture (no publisher yet): The ever-evolving ways that we interact with each other, our world, and our selves through technology is a topic as worn as the devices we clutch and carry every day. How did we get here? Drawing from the disciplines of media ecology and media archaeology, as well as bringing fresh perspectives from subcultures of music and skateboarding, this book illuminates aspects of technological mediation that have been overlooked along the way. "Brilliant, pathbreaking, palpable insights... Worthy of McLuhan," says Paul Levinson, author of New New Media. With a Foreword by Andrew McLuhan, The Medium Picture shows how immersion in unmoored technologies of connectivity finds us in a world of pure media and redefines who we are, how we are, and what we will be.
Many thanks to Todd and Music Journalism Insider for the time and attention.
Snag one of the books listed above for yourself or someone you know who might like it. They make great gifts! I've done my best to ensure that they're all quite good.
Hey, it's my birthday in a couple of days!
Hope you're well,