Last month, as part of North By Northeast’s (NXNE) interactive conference, New York’s freelance gawd Ernest Baker and NOISEY’s features editor Drew Millard, who travelled (fled) to Canada off the cusps of his Troy Ave article that blew up the Internet, were in Toronto to drop some gems on How To Make It As A Music Writer. The congregation anxious to sit in on the sermon was comprised of already successful Canadian music writers from Exclaim!, Boi1danet, NOISEY Canada, and of course, Urbanology Magazine, and the occasional rapper who wanted to get on the journalists’ good side. The editorial wordsmiths shared their personal journey to journalistic success, along with pitfalls and gems along the way. Without 140 characters or digital restraints, the room laughed along with/at stories and life lessons related to death threats over articles about dating white women and what it’s like to spend a day with Waka Flocka and have to write an honest piece about it. The conclusion, no good can come from either.
But like many aspiring writers, the two started at the bottom.
“I was at college and I was bad at it,” Millard shared. “I have no skills that are marketable, so I’m just going to move to New York and try and get a job at Pitchfork. As it turns out, it’s really hard to get a job at Pitchfork, because there are like five jobs there. I just got a few internships that turned into freelancing and that turned into a job.”
Baker’s starting line sat at the opposite side of the literary spectrum. “I was a business student and majored in accounting and did an internship in finance and hated my life. I realized that if I didn’t want to be suicidal and depressed, I had to do something that I enjoyed. I started a blog (Newborn Rodeo) and that was ’08, so early Twitter game, turned that into an internship and got a job at Complex.”
The candid conversation, moderated by VICE Canada’s Patrick McGuire left gems for anyone on any writing tier and for that matter alone, should be shared extensively, and maybe packaged in a distributed rap writing manual/Bible available online. Or a #Samantics column will do.
Alas, quotes from the editor extraordinaires on issues that every beginning, moderate or OG rap writer must deal with:
Internships aren’t the wave: Internships may be a thing of the past now that the Internet provides anyone with a platform.
Drew: Internships can be useful in terms of networking and learning how the job works, but I think at the same time, an internship is kind of an antiquated path, because you are literally asking to do something, which is write, where instead, because of Twitter and Tumblr and shit, there are all these communities that are already doing it, even if it’s just for fun and you can kind of hone your skills almost better there.
Ernest: You have to go in there and try and be a superstar from the jump and not in this obnoxious narcissistic way, but you need to just take it super seriously and work hard… But internships aren’t necessary. If your Twitter’s popping, you can do your thing.
Make relationships, online and IRL: Your network is your network, or some other cliché along those lines.
Ernest: I just got involved with the whole Twitter/online/digital thing early and got a job at Complex and years later, a few years in the game, it’s just a lot of relationships.
You have to brand yourself. You have to get known for a thing. I ended up having a vaguely faral (which is like viral, but a lot less so) internet blog that was fan fiction about rappers and because of that, people started to follow the blog. – Drew Millard
Find your voice: Give people a reason to give a shit about what you have to say.
Drew: You have to brand yourself. You have to get known for a thing. I ended up having a vaguely faral (which is like viral, but a lot less so) internet blog that was fan fiction about rappers and because of that, people started to follow the blog and then they were like, “There’s this kid, let’s let him write about non-fan fiction about rappers for us.”
Be obsessed: If you don’t care about it, then don’t write about it.
Ernest: Whatever blows your mind, try and communicate that through writing. I think the obsession and the passion is the number one thing, because I don’t think it’s necessary to get so academic and have music writing sound like it’s a science paper. Give time to your pieces, make them good, but you should generally be able to sit down and spit it all out how you feel about an album or an artist. Sometimes my writing isn’t professor level, but I think people like it emotionally. I just encourage you to be obsessed.
Pitch life-altering story ideas: No more basic.
Drew: Generally, it’s someone that I don’t know, I don’t really need them to write me a think piece on why Drake is the best, because that’s kind of weird. But if it’s an angle that nobody else has – I ran a piece by a guy that was a heroin addict in Chicago at the same time Chief Keef was rising, but that guy came to me and said, “I have a story, can I write it for you?” If you have this unique thing about you, that is going to catch an editor’s eye.
Ernest: Editors are looking for a great idea regardless so I think anyone has a shot. I think you just have to holler at some on Twitter or come across their e-mail and be persistent, aggressively, but not annoyingly. It’s not an exclusive club. People are ready to give that shot.
I’m definitely looking to start a conversation and rile people up. Absorb that and enjoy it. That means your piece made an impact. Don’t ever shy away from people being mad at you and hating what you’re saying. – Ernest Baker
Be insane: All my favourite writers are crazy.
Ernest: You always need to have your idea be some insane shit that no one else would ever do. Even if it is about Drake or Kanye or someone that everyone says something about 10 million times a day. Find that one way that twists the knob and extra few degrees and try to be outlandish. Have some ridiculous head(line) that pisses people off. That’s literally what I aim for every time and that’s also what I look for when people hit me up.
Embrace the backlash: Death threats mean you’re doing something right.
Ernest: I kind of bask in the attention, because I’m doing this to make a statement and I don’t just want gratuitous attention, but I’m definitely looking to start a conversation and rile people up. Absorb that and enjoy it. That means your piece made an impact. Don’t ever shy away from people being mad at you and hating what you’re saying; usually there’s a whole other group that loves what you do. What would you rather, an angry backlash or one favourite?
Words By. Samantha O’Connor