History of a hipster
Interview with John Leland

By Joe Estes

Though I'm in my fifties now, I always thought the '80s were great. Sure there was plenty of cheese but there was also this incredible energy from disco, garage, rap, and post-punk, and it was all to be shaken and stirred like a fine martini. In the '80s the 12-inch single ruled, even more than it did in the '70s, as everyone from Bob Dylan to Don Henley was getting in on the act. One could spend a small fortune keeping up with this stuff and one needed a guide. For me that guide was John Leland of Spin magazine, where he wrote the singles column. John wasn't beholden to any music formula; he just wrote about those individuals and bands that appealed to him and they usually appealed to me too. He would also write the occasional piece on Run-D.M.C. or Doug E. Fresh or why television was hurting music. His opinions were always sharp and frequently laced with a wit I wished I had.

John has a new book coming out on hipness that I encourage everyone to read [note: Hip: The History is now out--ed.]. I've had the pleasure to read the preface and it is truly wonderful. And I wish John loads of money so that one day we can have a collection of his articles and single columns that he did for Spin. Those articles constitute one of the finest set of critical commentaries on the '80s, and the fact that they aren't available is a shame. But enough of my babbling, the following is an e-mail interview that John and I had over several months. I hope you enjoy it.

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Joe:   Could you supply some basic biographical information, like where you were born, where you went to college, how old you are, what some of your early influences were, etc.?

John:   I was born in NYC and lived in suburban New Jersey from age three until I left for Columbia College in New York in 1977. At that time, the college couldn't be too selective, because the neighborhood scared away a lot of students and faculty, so the friends I made there tended to be very smart, independent and low achievers. Those remain the characters I like most. I always thought of my childhood as sheltered, but I learned recently that four of the kids I hung out with died as a result of drug or alcohol excesses. It's made me realize what a damaging period the 1970s were, even for those of us who thought we were just playing at living dangerously. I'd say those kids were a big early influence on me, as well as a high school math teacher who pushed us never to be satisfied with simple answers to problems, but to look for subtlety and ambiguity and beauty, even in a discipline that can be dry, like math.

I recently turned 45.

Joe:   How did you come to work with Spin magazine?

John:   I was writing travel brochures for a tour operator when I learned Guccione was starting the magazine. I sent him a letter asking to write a column on 12-inch singles, which I felt were an unexplored terrain, or indie music. They liked the singles idea.

Joe:   In addition to the singles column, did you have any other duties at Spin?

John:   My first full-time job there was editing the front of magazine, which was then called "Flash." I succeeded James Truman in this job. By the time I left in '89 I was essentially the music editor. And I always wrote for the magazine. For a long time I was the only writer who had a byline in every issue.

Joe:   Were you writing for other magazines during your tenure at Spin, and if so what was the nature of your work?

John:   I wrote freelance music pieces for a number of magazines, especially before I went to work full-time.

Joe:   What years did you work at Spin?

John:   I started writing with the first issue and started the singles column with the second. I can't remember when I went on staff, and I left in 1989 to work for Newsday.

Joe:   Since leaving Spin have you continued to review music, and if not, why not?

John:   I wrote mainly about music until 1993, when I became the editor of the lifestyle section of Newsweek. I've written sporadically about music ever since, which has suited me well. I'm more comfortable being an amateur these days.

Joe:   How many 12-inch singles would you say you own? And do you still listen to any of them?

John:   I've never counted my 12-inches, but I suppose there are a couple thousand of them. During a spell when I was moving around a lot I dumped most of my record collection into storage, then moved it all to a friend's house in upstate New York, where it's been for the last few years. I love to throw things on the turntable when I'm up there (and even though CDs are very good now, my ears still like the sound of vinyl, pops and all). But the masses of 12-inches are now something like Orwell's 1984: a document of a future that never quite materialized the way the music said it would. And they're way too big for my apartment. On the other hand, I feel somewhat duty-bound to them, because there aren't many collections like that in the world. The accidents, ambitions, bad taste, good taste and voraciousness that went into that collection must add up to something meaningful. Just don't ask me what. So I preserve them on blind faith.

Joe:   I was surprised when looking over your reviews as to how many genres you covered, everything from rap to indie to dance to post-punk. What would you characterize as your principal listening tastes during your tenure at Spin?

John:   I think what was exciting in that period was that even as the genre barriers were going up, and people like us in the music press were working to define them, the interesting musicians either mixed genres or played with ambiguities. Some of this had to do with age, I think. The rappers back then were formed by a time when there was no hip hop. Ditto the punks, indie-rockers, etc. The idea of being a punk or a b-boy and just listening to punk or hip hop just seemed too parochial to me. I suppose my tastes then could be call pre-iPod. (And until I buy one for myself, I'll stick to that label.)

Joe:   I remember a rumor at one point that there was a confrontation between you and Chuck D. Would you care to comment?

John:   Chuck didn't like a review I wrote of PE's first album in the Village Voice, and he told the English press that he went to a Spin party looking to mess with me. He later told me he went looking to talk to me. This was before rappers took their beefs with writers physically, and I didn't think then and don't think now that this was ever close to real confrontation, except in the hip-hop tradition of battling with words. Chuck also said that parts of "Bring the Noise" are about me. And bless him for saying that.

Joe:   When I went to the Hall of Fame back in the '80s they had a video suggesting that country music and the blues merged and became rock 'n' roll. But that doesn't seem to be particularly true. I remember when I heard Harry Smith's Anthology of Folk Music for the first time I couldn't identify which artists were white and which were black and these recordings were from the '20s. What would be a more accurate picture of how rock (and I guess for the argument we could say Elvis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry) began?

John:   None of the stories are quite true, but they're not quite false, either. I think the material exuberance and nuclear jitters that followed WWII needed expression, and the natural outlets for the time were rhythm, sex, mass production and racial curiosity, which came together in a combination of blues, hillbilly, jazz and rhythm and blues, with the studied nonconformity of the Beats and beboppers thrown in for the good measure. Rock and roll was the effect, these other styles were the tools or materials, but I think it's the cause that counts.

Joe:   What projects have you been working on lately?

John:   I'm a reporter at the New York Times, and just finished writing a book about the history of hip--not hip-hop, but the idea of hip as an American obsession. It's called Hip: The History. It's out October 1.

Joe:   How do you define hip, and when and how did this obsession with hipness come about?

John:   At the risk of scaring people off, I'll admit I take hip quite seriously, as something more than the smirk of the cool kids in the school cafeteria. To a great extent it's a book about race and pop culture, and about a paradox that seems to shape so much of America: Even as the nation's history has been defined by racial division and antipathy, in our pop culture, which we invent to tell stories about ourselves, we are at our best wildly hybrid. I question the popular assumption that what we call black culture and white culture are really separate.

There's no point in thinking about American culture without Louis Armstrong and Mark Twain, and there is no point in think about either without black and white influences. We tend to tell the story about race in America in terms of hideous injustice, but there has always been a second narrative, one of curiosity and emulation. As the cultural historian Ann Douglas has written, "Blacks imitating and fooling whites, whites imitating and stealing from blacks, blacks reappropriating and transforming what has been stolen, whites making yet another foray on blacks, and on and on: this is American popular culture." It is also the heat of hip.

I begin with the first encounter of Africans and Europeans on American soil, the former bringing the Wolof word 'hepi' or 'hipi', meaning 'to see' or 'to open one's eyes,' source of our own 'hip,' and follow the legacy of outsider enlightenment up to contemporary scenes like Williamsburg or Silver Lake.

Much of the book is about music and literature, and a lot is on a recurring character I call, somewhat facetiously, the white boy who stole the blues. But my favorite chapter is on cartoons.

Joe:   Did this idea of hipness have any currency in the singles that you picked to review or in your own writing style?

John:   In the book I argue that hip at its worst is as bad as any other orthodoxy, so I hope I wasn't tethered to any formula of hipness. But my tastes do run toward impurity and contradiction, which probably shapes both my book and my old music criticism.

Joe:   Speaking of style, what music critics if any have been an influence either on your writing or your philosophy of music criticism either negatively or positively?

John:   I always thought Nelson George wrote about hip-hop better than anybody, so far above the rest of us that I didn't even bother to hate on him when he did something I couldn't. Greg Tate, RJ Smith, Joan Morgan, Daisann Maclaine, Rob Sheffield, Byron Coley, Sasha Jenkins, Cheo Coker, Simon Reynolds, and Tom Carson were the most fun to read. As much as I revered the critics who came before me, like Bangs, Christgau, Marcus, Marsh, etc., I felt more fraternity and competitiveness with the folks who came up when I did.

Joe:   How have your musical tastes differed since leaving Spin in 1989?

John:   They've gotten worse. I keep looking for sounds I haven't heard before, but my habits are much different. Since I stopped listening professionally, I no longer put the same premium on the shelf date of a given CD. As a result (and partly out of laziness), I'm more comfortable with the past than I used to be, and less fluent in the present.

Joe:   The '80s seem such a fecund period of rock/pop/electro/funk experimentation; do you feel that the general quality of music has fallen off during the 90's and beyond? Or am I just a moldy fig not keeping pace with the times?

John:   I try to resist golden ageism of any variety. In the '80s we were sure we were living through the worst period in music history, and that the past was better.

Joe:   Speaking solely in musical terms, what was (were) the '80s greatest musical achievement(s), especially as it related to 12-inch culture? And what are (were) the major disappointment(s)?

John:   I think the biggest musical accomplishment of any decade is its disappearance. And for this we should always be grateful. The 12-inch culture I wrote about in the '80s seemed an advance front for the next mainstream (or if not the mainstream, the stuff that everyday hip folks might slap on a mix tape); now there's less crossover between club and pop music. 12-inches promoted the idea that songs could be infinitely taken apart and reassembled, and anything could be added or taken away. Songs were excuses for creativity, not endpoints. I loved this idea. It meant that the fun lay in exploding the banal pop forms, not enshrining them. Mashups take this to the next stage. Things like classic rock, the penchant for reverent cover versions (often done for movie soundtracks or ads), or Rod Stewart's standards albums take the opposite position that songs are enduring, special. It makes songs safe places, sure to be around next year, but not as much fun.

The big surprise to me is that videos, while still essential as promotional tools, have made so little cultural difference, and that what footprint they've left has been on advertising more than music.

Joe:   Outside of music writing, what authors have excited you (from any era)?

John:   These days it takes all my free time just to delete my penis-enlargement spam and keep up with all the blogs declaring that blogs have replaced print. When I do have time for tree-based media, I'm reminded anew how much I admire/envy the work of Malcolm Gladwell, William Finnegan, and Luke Menand, who floor me (and make me feel very small) each time out. Those are the guys whose journalism I wish I could write.

Beyond that, I'm happy to plug a few of the books that knocked me out while I was researching my own book. Some were new to me, others rediscoveries. All influenced my thought processes. I list them here in no particular order, and leave out a whole mess of books that provided valuable information, in favor of these that infected the way I think:

  • Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty
  • Luc Sante, Low Life
  • Ann Marlowe, How To Stop Time: Heroin From A to Z
  • Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World
  • George W.S. Trow, Within the Context of no Context (I reread this every few years)
  • Randolph Bourne, The Radical Will
  • Jackson Lears, Fables of Abundance
  • Ralph Ellison, Collected Essays
  • Shelly Fisher Fishkin, Was Huck Black?
  • Eugene Taylor, Shadow Culture: Psychology and Spirituality in America
  • Herbert Melville, The Confidence-Man (what a delight to re-read this)
  • David Levering Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue
  • Barbara Ehrenreich, The Hearts Of Men: American Dreams And The Flight From Commitment
  • Mike Davis, City of Quartz
  • Robert Polito, Savage Art: A Biography of Jim Thompson
  • Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class
  • Jefferey Melnick, A Right To Sing The Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song
  • Jim Fricke and Charlie Ahearn, Yes Yes Y'all: The Experience Music Project Oral History Of Hip-Hop's First Decade
  • Naomi Klein, No Logo
  • John Atlee Kouwenhoven, The Beer Can By The Highway: Essays On What's American About America

    If you haven't read Hyde, Kouwenhoven, Marlowe, or Fisher Fishkin, go ahead and dig'em. When I finally had a chance to read for pleasure again I read the recent translation of Anna Karenina, Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude, and a collection of Andre Dubus stories--none of which need my endorsement.

    Joe:   During your tenure at Spin the content of much rap seemed to move from a more novelty and/or afrocentric-positive vibe to a more gangster misogynistic vibe. I always felt that this move came about due to the influence of west coast rappers like NWA, but I have friends who think the move was driven more by corporate concerns. What is your take on this switch in rap music, and how vital, as opposed to how commercial, is rap today?

    John:   One thing I liked about hip-hop was that it was never afraid to be mercenary. From the beginning, cats rhymed "get funky" with "make money." Any DJ who threw a party was an entrepreneur; any MC who rocked the mic wanted fame (at first local, later city-wide, now global) and fortune (or at least a fat rope). I preferred that to earnest indie bands who wanted to have it both ways, trying to be big and small at the same time. MCs are still flipping language and rhythms I haven't heard before.

    The change that strikes me is in the audience. Hip-hop fans used to have impeccable taste--the records that were hits were better than the also-rans, which is not true of rock, jazz (Kenny G), or even opera (dare I say Three Tenors?). Now the top hip-hop records are often unambitious or unsurprising sex/gansta/bling stuff, and the magazines just seem to congratulate whatever sells. There's good underground stuff that I'll hear on a mix tape or radio mix or online, so I feel like it's out there, just harder to find. If I drove a car I think I could tell you more.

    Joe:   What constitutes hip in todays fragmented pop culture? Can hip survive when there is little center, and fringe phenomenon are so greedily exploited by commercial interests?

    John:   This is a big topic of the book. I'm of two minds. The book's thesis is that hip emerges originally as an awareness that bridges binary polarities: black & white mainstream & margins, insider & outsider, conformist & rebel, etc. The binaries no longer shape our lives. We're much more complicated ethnically, and the forces that once lined up against hip behavior--church, capital, parents, role models--now all want to see themselves as hip. When cruise lines use Iggy to sell vacations, you know we've crossed a line.

    That said, the essence of hip--the awareness, and the ability to master multiple perspective at once--is as valuable as it ever was. Now that hipsters have access to the market, they need autonomy as well. Hip remains a control of information.

    Joe:   What are your feelings about the multinational takeover of most entertainment into three or four major conglomerates? Can independent music labels survive? What is the future of the Internet in offering music to the masses? Do you feel that 12-inch culture will continue or will it eventually go the way of the 45?

    John:   My admittedly flawed understanding is that it was the consolidation of distribution rather than sales that fucked the indies. It made it harder to get out there if you didn't have a national hit. We're now undergoing a revolution in distribution thanks to the Internet, and I'd be lying if I said I had a clue about how it will shake out. I hope for something anarchic, interactive, low-budget, uncompromising, and totally new.

    Joe:   Let's discuss your book in more detail as it sounds really interesting. When did you first begin being interested in "hipness." Can you describe the genesis of the book?

    John:   I started in the Spring of 2002, but really this is what I've been writing about for decades. My agent, Paul Bresnick, came up with the idea for a history of hip, and at first I was wary. It reeked of the cool kids in the cafeteria, as written by the kid who never got to sit with them. But I figured it was a chance to learn a little and read a lot about some people and scenes that have interested me, so I began to poke around. As I learned more, especially about the West African roots of the word hip, I began to see hip as a story we create about ourselves to get around the official racial narratives that we have thrust on us. In this sense, I saw hip as ahead of--and in some cases a remedy to--the limited views of race that infuse government, school, church and the workplace. It seemed very central to who we think we are as Americans. And so, important.

    Joe:   And why is a book about hipness important now? What do you hope to achieve in releasing this book?

    John:   At the risk of being presumptuous, I hope to get people to think about this thing that touches so many parts of our lives, but which we rarely question.

    Joe:   And on a different note is the bohemian attitudes prevalent during so much of the previous century in Greenwich village; was that a hip phenomenon or is there a difference between hip and bohemian? Were Jack Reed, Max Eastman, Emma Goldman, Margaret Sagnier hip or were their social and political activism rather unhip? What's the difference between bohemian and hip, if there is a difference?

    John:   In the book I talk about six hip convergences. The first is the 1850s, when Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau and Melville laid down hip's formal rudiments: individualism, rebellion, vernacular knowledge, Orientalism, sensualism and civil disobedience. The second hip convergence is the period you mention: the Village bohemians, plus the Harlem Renaissance, Lost Generation and rise of jazz. The Village bohemians were a prototype of the counterculture, from which all others took their form. They were enlightened, intoxicated, willfully scruffy, and a subject of great interest for uptown voyeurs--the first to trade on themselves as images. In a word, hip.

    The other convergences are: the bebop and Beat movements of the '40s and '50s; the DIY explosion of the 1970s (hip hop, punk, 'zines, indie films); the cyber arrival; and our current period, in which everyone is alternative. I call this post-hip.

    Joe:   Can you comment on the importance of the "Trickster" in black culture. Could you comment on how it relates to hipness?

    John:   Tricksters understand chaos as order. Societies create them to break the rules that hold these societies in place, preventing them from evolving. It was a Yoruba trickster (not the Euro Christian devil) who met Tommy Johnson and Robert Johnson at the crossroads and taught them to play the guitar. PT Barnum, Mark Twain, Richard Pryor, Muhammad Ali, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Terry Southern and Richard Hell are all tricksters. And hip would not be the same without them.

    Joe:   What is the role of minstrelsy in hipness?

    John:   Minstrelsy and the blues emerged in the 19th century as black and white Americans, still developing identities as Americans, created ways of looking at each other and the often absurd circumstances created by their lives together. Minstrelsy allowed whites (and often blacks) to "try on" being black, to explore emotions that were not acceptable in daily life: racial curiosity, admiration, envy and sexual fetishizing or projection.

    Joe:   And John, now that we've talked about hip could you name some important hipsters in history so that the reading public has a greater grasp of who is and isn't hip?

    John:   10 Hipsters I'd Like to hang out with, or at least meet:

  • Stacy Peralta
  • Sofia Coppola
  • Missy Elliot
  • Wiley Wiggins
  • Everlast
  • Justin Theroux
  • Monica Lynch
  • Stefan Sagmeister
  • DJ Dangermouse
  • Fab 5 Freddy

    Joe:   Who and what is hip today? (I think a great many films coming out of Asia are pretty hip--in some ways they're going through a phase that we went through in the '70s--this is particularly true of the movies from Korea--Old Boy, Save Green Planet, Memories of a Murder--and Japan--Miike films, A Snake in June, and others--or maybe I'm just sick of the dreck from Hollywood which particularly sucks in election years.

    John:   I concern myself with hip in its fundamental sense, the Wolof (West African) hepi or hipi, meaning "to see" or "to open one's eyes," so I think of it as a term of enlightenment or awareness, cultivated (and co-opted, otherwise we wouldn't have the word) under the gaze of a potentially hostile Other. Hip cuts through the hostility and reinforces it. So I'm less concerned with What's Hip Now than with what's always been hip: being able to play not just your game but the other guy's (or other race's/sex's/culture's) as well, and play it with style and intelligence. To be unhip is to be parochial, limited by the accident of one's birth.

    Joe:   As a reporter for the New York Times, what kind of assignments do you get?

    John:   These days I'm writing about religion and retirement. I don't think I've ever been happier.

    Joe:   How are cartoons hip? (You mentioned in an earlier post that this was your favorite chapter.)

    John:   Cartoons, like minstrelsy and the blues, bend the rules of race and ethnicity that hold us apart, and allow knowledge and awareness to pass back and forth. They are, by their nature, against nature: rebellious, unruly and self-invented--as we should all be, even if we should not all behave like Betty Boop, who was described by one of her creators as a sex kitten with a "cast iron hymen."

    Joe:   One thing I like about your writing style is its humor. Are there any funny anecdotes about your tenure at Spin that you would like to share?

    John:   Wish I could remember those years. As I recall some of them were fun.

    Joe:   I take it you principally talk about writers and musicians in your book, but could you elaborate on movies for a moment? I assume the French new wave was quite hip and the many of the trail-blazing films made in the '70s were hip. But is Bergman hip? Or is he too dour and self absorbed to be hip? Is there some sort of litmus test for determining hipness?

    John:   The New Yorker recently ran a photo of Berman sipping coffee on the set, and I think wearing a beret. Who knew he was such a hipster? I take the French New Wave as modeled on American noir movies of the previous decade, which were modeled on Eastern European expressionism. Which is how hip works: it forces us across cultural boundaries, giving us the chance to learn something as we go.

    Joe:   Is hipness rather like pornography? One can't really describe it but they know it when they see it...

    John:   And like porn, we all agree that the same people or things are hip. And we all imagine ourselves on the team.

    Joe:   Do you have a publication date for your book yet? And who will be publishing the book?

    John:   The book is out Oct. 5 on Ecco, which is an imprint of HarperCollins. Which means it's a little indie and a little corporate...But really it's all corporate. And my friend Donna Ranieri found the hippest photos, which run throughout.

    (Check out Hip: the History, the official website, including a timeline of hip, and another interview with John.)