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Kelefa Sanneh of the New Yorker comes thru talkin’ hardcore punk, rap’s “hand-to-hand” era, the magic of WARRING MUSICAL TRIBES — and vibey rare artifacts from his archives

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If you came up to us and said, “Wow, Blackbird Spyplane, you are undisputed masters of the sletter game, by the way, who is yr favorite music writer of all time??” our answer, without hesitation, would be today’s GOATLY guest — Kelefa Sanneh.

At the New Yorker, where K’s a staff writer, he’s published fantastic features on The Safdie Brothers, Katt Williams and Bruichladdich whisky, among other unbeatable topics (links to all below) — BUT we first started reading his s**t when he was a pop critic at the New York Times, flaunting SURPRISING & OMNIVOROUS tastes while getting off these breezily elegant turns of phrase and casually brilliant insights along the way, partner!

(SpyTrivia tidbit — K’s 2007 NYT review of an early concert by Blackbird SpyFriends Vampire Weekend was the first thing I ever read about them!)

So when we heard K was about to drop his first book — a history of post-‘60s pop music (and musical tribalism) called Major Labels, OUT TODAY — we knew we had to hit him on the SpyPhone to talk about Mach 3+ matters such as booking leftist hardcore-punk shows as a H*rvard undergrad; interning at The Source in 1997; “the power of insularity”; and some cherished vibey artifacts from the Sanneh Archives…


Blackbird Spyplane: You’ve written great pieces about all kinds of s**t, but since I first knew you as a brilliant pop critic, it’s always a special treat to see you writing about music again... I’m up to the hip-hop chapter and this book’s amazing. Did you always know yr first book was going to be about MONSTER CHUNES ?

Kelefa Sanneh: “I had no master plan. But what I realized at the New Yorker was that I was still paying a lot of attention to music even in years where I wasn’t writing about it — I still loved it, that never went away. So I decided it might be a fun thing to delve back into, because I had a theory — an idea of what had happened to music in the years since the Beatles — and I realized that there was an opportunity to share my theory…”

Blackbird Spyplane: Drop the theory, king!

Kelefa Sanneh: “Well, there’s this conventional wisdom that in the ‘60s, with the Beatles, everything came together, everyone was on the same page — and then, starting in the ‘70s, everything got weird, music got more fragmented and more obscure, and it came to a point where everyone seemed to be off in their own little worlds. So when I was in high school in the ‘90s it was very tribal — you had punks over here, country fans over there, goths, ravers, hip-hop kids. There was this big, increasingly complicated menu of choices of what you could listen to, and for some people that was heaven, and for others it was hell: Too confusing, too annoying.

“So I wanted to tell a story about how things got that way, and what I found in writing these 7 chapters about 7 quote-unquote major genres is there’s actually a pendulum thing: In all genres you have moments that swing away from the mainstream, and you have moments of coming together. Like, at the end of the ‘70s it seemed like disco was eating everything — the Rolling Stones went disco, R&B went disco, the Bee Gees were huge, and it made sense to say, ‘Maybe music is disco now. We all came together.’

“We might be living through a moment like that now, actually, in the Lil Nas X era. What genre is he? Maybe all of them! But of course that tends to generate its own backlash and things swing the other way, and genres splinter off into their own universes again…”

Blackbird Spyplane: At least since the iPod shuffle came out, critics and musicians have been telling us that genre boundaries have become fluid verging on obsolete. But in the book you make the case for “the very human—and perhaps very American—tendency to draw boundaries, and heighten differences, and to define ourselves as much by what we hate as what we love.”

Kelefa Sanneh: “You’ll see some people voice frustration with the idea of genres — ‘Why can’t we just listen to music? Why do we have these rules?’ They’re suspicious of the ways genres throw up boundaries and enforce orthodoxies. But I wanted to speak up in defense of genres, because genres are also communities — each one is a community of musicians, a community of listeners, and it’s been about virtual communities, too, long before the internet, because you’d be listening to a record while imagining all the other people listening to it, or listening to a certain radio station and knowing you were part of the community of all the other people listening. Communities are important, and they rely on inclusion and exclusion.

“When I was lucky enough to get this job writing about music for the Times, I learned that I was never going to be an expert compared to real experts. Someone who does nothing but listen to death metal every day for decades has ideas about guitar tones that I have no idea about. So that job gave me an appreciation for specialists who go deep into a genre, where they know the tradition forwards and backwards and hear things that a dabbler won’t ever hear — and that they wouldn’t hear if they were listening to everything.”

Blackbird Spyplane: After this many years, are you still capable of straight-up HATING something?

Kelefa Sanneh: “The longer I worked as a professional critic, the less inclined I was to say, ‘This is terrible,’ and I wonder if that was because of going to concerts and being in the physical presence of people being made actively happy by music: It’s one thing to be at home, saying, ‘This is no good,’ and another thing to be at a concert seeing people experience joy and say, ‘They’re wrong to enjoy this.’ So as a critic I found myself getting more interested in the question of, ‘If I don’t respond to this, what life would I have had to live in order to respond to it? Can I hear what people are hearing?’ And the joy is that you spend a lot of time listening to music you don’t think you’re going to like, and sometimes you find a thing you like way more than you were expecting.

“But I don’t think that visceral feeling of dislike ever completely goes away. And I’m not sure we would trust a listener who said they liked everything. To like everything means to literally have no taste.”

Blackbird Spyplane: I asked you to choose some rare & cherished possessions that connect to the book — the first thing you sent over is this very vibey flyer you made for a hardcore show you put on as a YOUNG ERUDITE PUNK in the ‘90s at H*rvard…

Kelefa Sanneh: “I love this first and foremost because I drew such a terrible map for how to get to the venue — I’m not sure it helped anyone get from the T station to the concert. But it was a great show, and I was excited to be involved in a Dropdead performance. They’re this great band from Rhode Island — very political, furious lyrics about animal rights, songs that last like a minute and a half — and they’re a good example of the musical power of insularity. There were maybe 100 kids at this show, tops, but they’re all fired up, feeling something that a lot of listeners are rediscovering now, which is the sense that the music you listen to reflects something about who you are. The musicians believe what you believe, you’re all in it together… That’s an upside to insularity. It’s a different kind of thrill from the thrill of hearing something on the radio that’s really popular and having your mind blown.

“So, again, when people talk about, ‘I listen to everything, what’s a genre, we should come together and break down boundaries,’ I think, Yeah, that’s pretty cool, but then you don’t get things like this show and this flyer and this world — you only get those things when musical and cultural barriers exist.”

Blackbird Spyplane: Speaking of getting yr mind blown by popular stuff, one thing I loved in yr book is that while you were putting on Dropdead shows you were also starting to hear Aaliyah and Timbaland on the radio and flipping out…

Kelefa Sanneh: “That came a little later, but yeah, with a producer like Timbaland, his power was not only to inspire this first reaction in you, where you go, ‘He’s a genius, this doesn’t sound like anything else in R&B’ — but to inspire a secondary realization where then you go, ‘Oh wow, R&B is full of geniuses, even the ones making quote-unquote normal R&B, and Timbaland helps me hear something in the genre that I hadn’t been able to hear before.’

“There’s also this punk-rock thing where, once you’re part of this community that prides itself on defiance and rebellion and skepticism of musical rules, that can lead you into loving a band like Dropdead or it could lead you back out, because if you follow that reasoning to its logical conclusion you wonder, What’s being excluded from this community? What’s out there that we’re not hearing?

“For me, after a while of being part of the punk scene in Boston, the local R&B station, JAM’N 94.5, started to seem alien and exciting in a way that punk didn’t. That points to something unstable about ‘the punk-rock identity’ — this sense that, if you’re doing it right, you’re always looking for something new and different.”

Blackbird Spyplane: Looking at the flyer, I see there was discounted admission if you donated a can of food. It’s cool in hardcore that a kindvibed communitarian impulse often gets mixed in with hyper-aggressive, deliberately off-putting energy…

Kelefa Sanneh: “That’s something that emerged in the early years of punk — the Sex Pistols were messing with everyone, saying, ‘I’m an anarchist,’ but then you get bands like the Clash and Crass who tried to turn that impulse into a coherent leftist philosophy, and years after that you get hardcore, which I describe as anti-antisocial — the hardcore spirit is a little more ‘Let’s build our own community and write songs discussing what’s happening in our community.’

“And those things are both appealing: Mindless violence is appealing, and mindful fundraisers are appealing, too.”

Blackbird Spyplane: The other thing you sent over is this BEAUTIFULLY AGED bootleg Wu-Tang tee. What’s up with this gem?

Kelefa Sanneh: “I bought this somewhere on the streets of New York City in summer 1997. It’s when Wu-Wear was happening, so I went to the Wu-Wear store on Staten Island but I was disappointed to not find anything I could pull off — a lot of the clothes had more of a snowboarder vibe than was compatible with my wardrobe.”

Blackbird Spyplane: Peace to Raekwon the JORTS & SNOW BEACH GOD. I think he might have been the muse for the Wu-Wear aesthetic early on, and yeah if I recall correctly the store didn’t sell straightforward merch like this tee…

Kelefa Sanneh: “It’s a funny thing about t-shirts — as a kid in high school I had the valuation exactly backwards: at the dawn of the ‘90s I’d have said my CDs, which were the most expensive thing I owned, were the most valuable, then records, then tapes, then t-shirts. And now that’s pretty much inverted. If I’d kept some of my Dead Kennedys shirts in good condition they’d be worth a lot more now than my Minutemen CDs…”

Blackbird Spyplane: I actually remember going into the Wu-Wear store a bunch as a kid and knowing which member of the crew was visiting on any given day by which color Range Rover was double-parked outside — like, if it was a red Range Rover, that was ODB’s, if it was gray that was RZA’s, black was Method Man…

Kelefa Sanneh: “I love that. It’s hard today to remember how mysterious Wu-Tang was. I’m old enough that I remember the first time I ever used the Internet — I went to OHHLA.com to look up Wu-Tang lyrics! Because their albums weren’t packaged with lyrics, and I needed to know what they were talking about. You hear those records now and they sound great, but a lot of us then were hearing them without a lot of context.

“That was part of the draw for me — having these mysterious and audacious worlds to explore, whether it was Wu-Tang or OutKast or 8Ball and MJG or Juvenile.”

Blackbird Spyplane: Do you still wear this?

Kelefa Sanneh: “I do occasionally. It’s got some holes. Should I not?”

Blackbird Spyplane: Oh you absolutely should. When it comes to rocking a jawn vs. stocking a jawn we are firmly pro-rock. I also like that this tee is a street-vendor bootleg — that actually feels more “authentic” than like, an officially licensed version that got sold at Urb*n O*tfitters after Wu-Tang Forever went 4x platinum…

Kelefa Sanneh: “Yeah back then hip-hop was really this hand-to-hand culture — you had street teams, guerilla marketing, you’d walk around seeing posters and flyers stapled onto telephone poles. There was something nice about that and, yeah, getting a bootleg shirt felt right. I was interning at The Source that summer, and it really felt like a privilege to be in New York — it was the summer of New York hip-hop: the summer Puffy takes over, the summer of Jay-Z vying for Biggie’s crown. It felt like everything was happening right there, and this shirt reminds me of that.”

Blackbird Spyplane: Having grown up deeply loving Wu-Tang I feel like I’m hardwired to love Griselda… Do you f**k with them?

Kelefa Sanneh: “You know, sometimes it’s hard for me to get that excited by music that seems too obviously retro, though sometimes I fear that my suspicion of retro is its own form of nostalgia for a time when things were less retro. So maybe it’s me who’s retro? But yeah, these days I’m more likely to be listening to NBA Youngboy or Kodak Black or something like that — and if I’m listening to something more ‘old fashioned’ it might be Mozzy.

“I enjoy Griselda but it hasn’t transported me yet. And I say ‘yet’ because that’s the way I think about music now — I haven’t had the experience of being thrilled by it, but maybe I will.”

Kelefa Sanneh’s Major Labels is out today, and you can cop it here. His New Yorker pieces are collected here.

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