About a week after meeting and interviewing Matthew Trammell, he sent a text message. “Das Racist is the most important group in hip-hop right now,” it said. “Feel free to mention that I texted this to you a week after the interview.”
To Trammell (NYU ’13), the most important group in hip-hop is a parable for today’s socio-economic and political matrix. The artists we revere and the music they make are teeming with meaning that Trammell is eager to mine. In his freshman year at NYU, Trammell founded The Interludes, a blog he co-writes with Sam Rosen, to “give hip-hop back its intellectual value, its artistic merit, and its social relevance.”
His insightful essays on hip-hop’s current cast of characters, from Drake to Pac Div, have led the 21-year-old music writer to the pages of Wax Poetics and Rolling Stone. He’s been to public school in New York City (“a prison”), a private boarding school in Massachusetts (“Yeah, one of those”) and has interviewed artists like Theophilus London and Tyler, the Creator. Obviously, Local had to sit him down and pick his brain about everything from the current hip-hop climate to growing up in Flatbush to moving beyond being an intern.
How did you get started?
I started my blog freshman year of college, The Interludes, and it was really because I didn’t have any other outlet. I was reading a bunch of blogs—the whole hip-hop blogosphere or whatever—and there was no one, from what I could see, that was really writing about it in a way that I wanted to read about it.
What do you mean?
Basically, the discussion of hip-hop in general online was really sort of one-dimensional. Your standard rap blog was like, picture, link, where you can get it, this is an artist you should care about, blah blah whatever. Writing, and analytical writing, has always been kind of my shit. I just felt that there was a lot more to digest about the music that was coming out, you know what I mean? You can catch something about other genres that are really engaging and connected to sociological or political trends. There wasn’t a lot of that happening [in hip-hop]. It could have been that I was just looking in the wrong places, but that was my outlook on it.
When I made The Interludes, I wanted it to be less about “Get new music here” and more about, like, “think about the shit that you’ve been listening to in a different way. Make different connections and give it a different resonance and a different weight.” And people reacted to it well. A lot of the initial response was like, “No one’s going to want to read like, 1500 words on the internet,” because the internet is all about faster.
People like to say things like that.
Exactly. So that was a bump to overcome, but once I figured that out and started working with my partner, Sam Rosen, people really started responding to it.
How and why did you decide to focus on hip-hop?
I was born and raised in Flatbush, Brooklyn, so that was pretty much my only musical context, you know what I’m saying, as far as like, where I was an the people that I was around. Both my parents were always really into music, so I grew up in the house with like, Hot 97 on all time. That was pretty much all I really knew. It wasn’t like, “I’m a fan of hip-hop,” that’s just what music was.
Writing was always my thing, but I never really wanted to try to pursue stuff in the music industry, because I had a real pessimistic view of it, I guess. I was always kind of like, “There’s millions of kids that are like, ‘I want to write about music.’” It was sort of a way of copping out. Early freshman year of college I was like, “Alright, I’m clearly not going to enjoy anything else besides music. It’s obviously all I care about so I gotta try something.
So how did you start writing for Wax Poetics?
Basically, I tried to submit a piece to them through the straight online firstname.lastname@example.org, and [the Editor-In-Chief Andre Torres] was like, “Yeah, I’ve seen your stuff before, why don’t you come in for a meeting.” I wish the stories were more interesting than that.
You know how it is. You feel like you have to intern forever, and that every day you’re going to wake up and there’s going to be some connection that just does everything for you, and that one day you’ll intern for the right person and that’ll be it. I did a bunch of internships, and it was all great—the network I have now is sort of an extension of the work I’d been doing for people and still am doing for people, but I’ve learned the hard way that there’s a lot more than interning. You just gotta go for shit. Nine times out of ten it’s going to be on your own sweat and brow.
At a place like NYU, you never feel like you’re doing enough. We’re so like, one foot on campus, one foot out the door in the industry that we’re trying to go into, so you really feel like you have to do everything and more.
How did you start writing for Rolling Stone?
It was actually through NYU, really. I’m in Steinhardt, but I was taking classes in the Clive Davis department. I took this class, Artists and Audiences, with Robert Christgau. He’s like, the fucking Michael Jordan of rock criticism, you know what I mean—he’s the greatest ever. He’s also like, brilliant and crazy—everything you would expect from him, that’s who he is. He took a liking to my stuff, I guess, so I hit him up like, “Yo, I’m trying to find some cool things to do over the summer.” I was trying to end up at the [Village] Voice or something like that, you know what I mean? He sent my clips out to a few people at RS and they were like, “Well, summer internships are all filled up but we kind of like his stuff, like, you can start writing album reviews.” So they just started giving me assignments. It was really nuts. Big Sean in Rolling Stone was my first published piece, I believe.
How old were you?
I was like, 20. It was last year.
Who are some of the artists you’re interested in right now?
As far as hip-hop, Kendrick Lamar is the most interesting dude. Hip-hop is in a really weird space right now. I feel like, for the first time, there are a lot of really divided, yet self-sufficient audiences that are absorbing hip-hop in different ways. You know, Mac Miller is serving a completely different audience than like, Tech N9ne. Obviously, the internet has helped to foster that, so in a way, it’s been hard for one artist to capture the whole zeitgeist, like This is the sound of hip-hop right now. At least in my opinion, [Kendrick Lamar's] Section.80, that’s the album that I would hope that hip-hop right now would produce: a really smart, contemplative album about what it’s like to be a twenty-something in this time, in this political climate, in this socio-economic climate, you know what I mean? A really genuine, earnest reflection of that. So that really excited me.
Do you just like, have these thoughts? They just occur to you?
I spend like, all day thinking about this shit. You know what I’m saying? All music nerds sit there and think about this shit all the time. So of course there’s that. But I definitely think I like to come at shit from a pretty wide lens. I mean, I’ve had pretty unique life experiences–being born and raised in Flatbush, then going to this ridiculous high school, then going to college here, back in the city, and having all these different scopes of different cultures and classes and races and things like that. I try to bring that wide lens to anything that I’m thinking about.
I’ve always sort of had a passion for writing. My mother’s a writer, so I probably inherited that from her. Ever since I was little, I would be writing poems and write like school newspaper shit, and then just continued on. I always knew that it was going to be writing—like, I’m going to be writing in some capacity always, whether it’s about music or not.
What are some memorable interviews?
This probably was like, a semi-catalyst to things for me, but I got to interview Tyler, the Creator right before everything happened. It was the first time that he had come out to New York, so it was maybe October 2010. It was for Madbury Club. It was pre-“Yonkers”, pre-Goblin, pre-XL, all of that. He and I got to sit down and really kick it. It’s crazy to have that sort of one-on-one with someone before they break, and to have that connection with them, you know what I mean? Because even now, things that we talk about—-he was like, “Yeah, I hope this happens”—seeing that come to fruition was just amazing.
Photos by Isaac Green.