People With Passion: David Drake, music writer

People With Passion: David Drake, music writer
David Drake.

A People With Passion series

Chicago journalism

January 18, 2012: David Drake

In the 23rd installment of Jack M Silverstein’s Chicago journalism interview series, music writer David Drake of Pitchfork, Fader, the Tribune, and his blog discusses his life as a working freelance writer, and describes the process of how he created the connections required for such a career.

I’m thinking now backwards, because I’ve never really thought consciously about making those connections. This is something that just took a while but eventually it happened. I think there’s a couple of advantages I have. Number one, I’m writing about rap music, which is in critical terms very poorly covered. I think a very narrow slice of what hip-hop is currently being made is actually being covered by magazines. If you have any kind of knowledge whatsoever, if you take your time trying to understand the actual scope, then you immediately stand out.

I feel like for a long time I had all of these ideas about this stuff like, “I can’t believe these guys aren’t that good at this. They’re not covering this the way they should be.” But I could only make my impact felt once in a while because I had a day job. It kept me from writing regularly, and that really was the biggest key for me.

In 2008, Gucci Mane was the hottest rising street rapper, and my friend who teaches in the high schools on the southside was talking about how all of her students were like, “Gucci Mane’s better than Jeezy.” I was listening to these tapes, and I was like, “These are amazing.” There was literally zero internet notice beyond facebook comments and youtube comments about it.

Funny, that’s where I heard also, was from my students.

Yeah, they know man. Pulse of the detention hall. (Laughs.) And basically my friend and I were like, “Okay, we’re going to listen to all of these tracks, and we’ll just make a list of them.” We came up with 30 tracks that we thought were his best ones from the year, and we posted them on this site. I’d done this hip-hop blog on and off, fairly regularly since about 2004, We posted these 30 songs, and we wrote 30 blurbs to go with them. And it got linked all over the place.

When Vibe Magazine wrote their first piece on Gucci’s reemergence in 2008, they emailed me to get quotes for it, because I was basically the first critic, internet-level person to write seriously about his new stuff when he had his comeback thing. And it became this big thing. I posted on that site maybe five times the entire year, and that was one of them, and Vibe ended up listing us as one of the 50 best rap blogs, which is hilarious because we barely ever updated. (Laughs.) But it was solely off of that.

I felt like I had something to contribute. I felt like I was just paying better attention to rap music than a lot of critics that write about it. They’re paying attention to what other critics are talking about. It’s a very myopic world.

I just tried to write about stuff that in some way felt unique or necessary or important in some way. The fact that I think that hip-hop is so poorly covered makes it a lot easier for me to stand out, because a lot of times people treat it like it’s not possible for them to understand it. They think, like, that they don’t have the ‘authority’ to write about it. And that’s a mistake. That’s almost like other-izing people because you’re not black or you’re not young or you’re not whatever. You might think that what you’re doing is respectful, “Oh, I can’t comment on your…” Really what you’re doing is treating them as if they’re different, as if someone else doesn’t have the same emotions and feelings that you might have when you listen to it.

Right after that was when I started writing for Pitchfork. I’d been bothering Scott Plagenhoef, who is the former editor-in-chief there. I just kept emailing him for a while, like, “You guys aren’t covering hip-hop well. Let me do it.” and I just kept emailing him, and at some point I guess he just relented.

How often would you email him?

I think I’d emailed him three or four times.

So this wasn’t like Shawshank, writing the warden once a week or whatever.

No, no, (laughs), It wasn’t quite that bad. But I had to follow up and everything. And I knew he was listening to me, too, because I’d run into him at Sonotheque. He was DJing with Mark Richardson, who has a Pitchfork DJ thing there. He was like, “What have you been listening to lately?” And I told him – it was a Statik Selektah CD or something, and a month or two later, Tom Breihan wrote a review of the CD, and he didn’t like it. (Laughs.) He gave it a negative review. And I was like, “Oh, this guy is listening to what I said. They’re actually covering it.” So I figured that he must be listening to me to some degree.

Eventually he had me do a trial – they have you do a review or two and see how it works out, and eventually I got on. This would have been right in the wake of that being covered all over the place, so maybe that sort of tipped him over the edge. I think that was one of the immediate results of that piece.

Jack M Silverstein is an oral historian working in Chicago. His non-fiction novella Our President about Barack Obama’s inauguration is available at Amazon. Say hey on Twitter @ReadJack.

Enjoy this interview? Click here for the full version, as David discusses the present state of music writing, and goes into more detail on the life of a freelance writer.

Check back every Wednesday at Eye on Chi for more of Jack M Silverstein’s People with Passion interviews with Chicago journalists. Coming next Wednesday, February 22: Jim DeRogatis, Sound Opinions/WBEZ.


(NOTE: The dates below refer to the date of the interview. The order is the date they were run.)

December 29, 2011: Tran Ha, RedEye

December 24, 2011: Sam Smith,

December 20, 2011: Ben Joravsky, Chicago Reader

December 9, 2011: Chuck Swirsky, Chicago Bulls play-by-play announcer

December 14, 2011: Sarah Spain, ESPN personality

December 6, 2011: Jon Greenberg, ESPN Chicago, columnist

October 21, 2011: William Lee, Chicago Tribune breaking news crime reporter

November 4, 2011: Elaine Coorens, Our Urban Times founder

November 4, 2011: Andrew Barber, Fake Shore Drive founder

October 21, 2011: Jane Hirt, Chicago Tribune, managing editor

September 19, 2011: Andrew Huff, Gapers Block founder

September 21, 2011: Chris Cascarano, Chicago News Cooperative, video producer

September 30, 2011: Christie Hefner, Playboy, former CEO

September 15, 2011: Alden Loury, Chicago Reporter, publisher

August 17, 2011: Steve Chapman, Chicago Tribune, editorial board and columnist

September 13, 2011: Kimbriell Kelly, Chicago Reporter, editor

August 26, 2011: Chuck Sudo, Chicagoist, editor

August 17, 2011: Clayton Hauck, photographer

August 18, 2011: Rick Telander, Chicago Sun-Times, sports columnist

August 15, 2011: Mick Dumke, Chicago Reader, investigative reporter

December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz (re-edited August 15, 2011)

August 10, 2011: Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune, columnist

August 4, 2011: Rick Kogan, Chicago Tribune, columnist


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  • Here is a pedagogical strategy that requires students to pay close attention to language at the level of the sentence, learn from their own work, consult available resources about grammar and style, and online proofreading engage in a conversation with me (and themselves) about the details of their writing and of standard edited academic prose.

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