And Finally Artist News Beef Of The Week

CMU Beef Of The Week #119: NPR intern vs the world wide web

By | Published on Friday 20 July 2012


Just imagine; you’re an inexperienced (and, most likely, unpaid) 20-something intern placed at NPR Music. Your editor asks you to write a piece about Public Enemy’s ‘It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back’ for the US site’s recurring ‘So You’ve Never Heard…?’ series, the premise of which is that a classic LP is reviewed by an “unimaginably young” NPR amateur.

You seize the opportunity to have your writing published and – in the words of real-life NPR martyr and self-professed “hip hop novice” Austin Cooper – “hunker down” at your laptop, “pull ‘It Takes a Nation’ up on Spotify” and put on your headphones.

This was, of course, not a hypothetical scenario, but one that played out last weekend, for the most part to the outright outrage of almost everyone who read Cooper’s less-than-favourable critique of Public Enemy’s 1988 record. I say ‘less than favourable’, Austin’s thoughts on the “frankly cartoonish” funk guitars in ‘Don’t Believe The Hype’, Chuck D’s less-than-legendary flow (“… comes across like a caricature”) and the “bizarre, jolting juxtaposition of bludgeoning, Metallica-style guitar riffs and Flavor Flav’s ebullient rhymes” in ‘Show Em’, read more severely than that.

Still, no amount of Cooper’s undaunted and somewhat wide-eyed brand of honesty can have warranted the digital backlash that occurred in response to the piece. While sample comments ranged from the disquieting (“we must find this child and kill him”), to the patronising (“It’s time to leave the nest, Austin, and stop sitting there with your beak agape simply accepting whatever Spotify regurgitates down your throat”), the prevailing tone was one of anger. Yes, a lot of people felt genuinely angry and took personal offense at the fact that young Austin should prefer Drake, Rick Ross or even Clams Casino to a 24 year-old album he’d never heard before.

Cue The Roots’ Questlove, who posted his own more instructional (albeit, still a touch patronising) reply to Austin’s NPR essay on the article’s comments thread. It begins: “Austin. I’m sure this entire response thread is brow beating you to no end. So I’m taking a different approach. I too had a hard time swallowing records that were deemed ‘classic’ just because some adult told me so. I find It’s best to take in music when you have the proper context”.

He continues: “Take Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’ for instance, an acclaimed record that was hard for an inner city hip hop fan to swallow without a back-story. So I spent an entire weekend reading every story about this album so that I could have a better grasp on what the times were like and that helped me understand (and eventually agree) why this is Springsteen’s magnum opus”.

And in conclusion: “I mean no one here is expecting you to be the next Lester Bangs or Rob Christgau but I do expect this generation (born some 20 years after me), with its advantages in technology, to put real effort into the information it processes. There is no question ‘Nation’ is one of THE greatest recordings ever. Your job is to find out why”.

So, that’s nice and considerate. As is exposing young music writers at the beginning of their careers to almost universal derision in a bid to ‘troll’ for page views, NPR.