A Conversation with Hip-Hop Editor Carl Lamarre

A Conversation with Hip-Hop Editor Carl Lamarre

For many, 2020 was a year that they would rather forget. The COVID-19 pandemic left thousands of people out of work, fighting to find meaning in their lives while spending extended periods of time away from their loved ones. The music and journalism worlds were hit especially hard: artists and DJs who usually make a living on the road lost their primary source of income, while journalistic outlets implemented layoffs, if not being shut down altogether, further debilitating an industry that has already suffered hard financial blows in recent years.

Still, there have been people who were able to persevere and adapt in their crafts –– and as usual, hip-hop was amongst the leaders in making the most out of less. Take journalist Carl Lamarre: the hip-hop editor for Billboard had already spent years interviewing both major and indie names in hip-hop, whether at the magazine’s midtown Manhattan office or on the red carpet of award shows like the Grammys. But when the pandemic had people quarantined inside, he never missed a step: he instead began to connect with artists on Zoom, nabbing equally candid interviews from home at just as prolific a pace as the office. In the past 16 months, he’s landed a Billboard cover story with Cardi B, spoken to Grammy nominees like Freddie Gibbs and Lil Baby, and started a new interview series called Beyond The Beat with AudioMack. Plus, he achieved a lifelong dream: he bravely released a rap album, Shut Up And Write, despite concern about how it would look to people who think he should stay in one lane. In a December interview with Master & Dynamic, Carl Lamarre speaks about adjusting his work to adjust to the pandemic, why journalists still matter in hip-hop, and following your pursuits despite what other people may think.

So tell me about your path to getting to Billboard. When did you first get into journalism covering hip-hop?
I first broke into hip-hop journalism when I was 19. I was coming out of my freshman year at Howard University. I was focused on sports media. I had written for my college newspaper, The Hilltop. But I was so in love with the blog era: sites like NahRight, HipHopGame, BallerStatus. A friend of mine had told me that VIBE was looking for interns. I applied towards the latter part of April, and I didn’t hear back until maybe like the start of June. I went in for an internship interview that Friday, and I got it the same day. I was the last intern. From there on, my passion and love for hip hop journalism increased exponentially. I was the worst intern ever, but the knowledge and experience that I gained just from meeting other polished writers, you know, like Sean Fennessy, like Rob Kenner, Danyel Smith, Keith Murphy, a bunch of legends over there really helped kick me into high gear about this being something that I wanted to do. 

So from there on, I ended up picking up some publications like BallerStatus and HipHopGame, and VIBE gave me a chance after my internship and allowed me to do some interviews. From there on out, I just came to be the consistent go-to freelancer at XXL, Complex, Myspace, Dime magazine, Green Label. I started freelancing for Billboard 2016, and then I started full-time July 2017.

Covering hip-hop is interesting, especially when you’re covering for a place like Billboard, because hip-hop has so many cultural nuances that a lot of these publications just don’t understand. How do you strike the balance between capturing the cultural nuance to make your coverage authentic, while still being able to speak to an audience that may not get it?
That’s the beauty of having somebody like one of us in the building. I appreciate Billboard for giving me the creative opportunity and space to give the readers my thoughts on the genre and allowing me to pick writers that I feel are essential to the culture that could actually speak their truths about what the culture represents. So just having that creative space and freedom, that has been huge in allowing me to cultivate our identity. But trying to balance the two is tough, because when you see Billboard, it’s a numbers game. We’re the charts, so everybody thinks our coverage is just primarily on people that are charting. Where I come in, I try to make sure, with The First Beat, my weekly column on Friday, I always try to make sure there’s an artist that may not be necessarily on the charts, but that should be on your radar. I always try to make sure I give new artists that kind of platform. And through various activations we have, whether it’s through social media, whether it’s through one of our 20 Question franchises, I always try to make sure we strike that balance. You have new artists coming up that might not be touching the charts, like a BLXST, like a Flo Milli. They might not be there yet, but it’s people that should be on our watch. I always gotta make sure to strike that balance to give people both sides of the spectrum.

With the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd, social issues have been at the forefront in the news in a lot of ways every day. How do you think hip hop has done with addressing those things this year?
I think hip-hop has done a great job. I’ve seen plenty of artists use their platform in the right ways, encouraging people to protest. And for those people who fear being outside because of the pandemic, providing them different websites to where they can donate to help out the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery. I think hip-hop has been super proactive in that regard. I think we should continue to try to maintain that stance, not just when one tragedy happens. If we consistently keep that same energy every day, I think we will really evolve into a powerful genre outside of the music. People love hip-hop, not just because of what we can bring musically, but the cultural impact that we have is so incredible that if we can actually show the positive what we can do as a unit, the genre is going to be here for decades to come. I’m including R&B in the mix too. Usher did an op ed for The Washington Post explaining why Juneteenth should be considered a national holiday. Same thing with Teyana Taylor, her choosing Juneteenth to drop the album. A lot of artists may not be active in the protesting, but they contributed in a variety of voices to persuade people and to have the right message and the mindset about what’s going on. Educating them on police brutality. We know what Killer Mike has done, Jeezy is another one who’s been active, T.I. has been active. But there’s always more that can be done. But I think with how everything happened, the tragedies that came about, I think hip-hop did the best that they could as far as trying to shed light on what needed to be done and adjust. So I think it was admirable. I think people also fail to realize that as an artist, it’s tough to just put out a body of work quickly because this is a lot to process on a human level. Now, imagine trying to articulate that musically so people can bang it out. Some people like Wale can bang out a four to five-track EP. For other people, it takes time to process that on a human level and then transfer that to the pen into the studio. It might not boil down to a record, but Megan Thee Stallion, look how impactful her performance was on Saturday Night Love that saluted Breonna Taylor to shed light on that situation. It’s all about how you use your platform and how you’re able to present it.

COVID-19 has also made a lot of changes in the music industry, and in journalism as well. Who are some artists or camps that you think have been adjusting to COVID in the most creative ways? Artists can’t tour, some artists are recording differently because they aren’t seeing their collaborators. What artists do you think are doing the most interesting job of adapting so far?
One person that comes to mind off rip, and he started this at the beginning of quarantine, is Guapdad 4000. I thought that what he was doing with Rona Raps was really dope. He would pretty much collaborate with his rap buddies, whether it’s Curren$y, Reason, or Bryson Tiller. He would hit them up and do random freestyles. You would see them grabbing their phone and doing a freestyle through Zoom or to a YouTube beat, that shows the power of collaboration and the power of social media. And in journalism, we’ve been using the power of video with Zoom interviews. I like what Lupe and Royce had been able to do with this podcast. People have more time on their hands, so it’s all about showing different skill sets. Lupe is built for podcasts, it was really just a matter of time and getting the right platform to talk his shit. Royce is equally eloquent, he just needed the right platform and partner to get his shit going. So I think those two and what they’ve been able to do so far has been really dope as well. Erykah Badu has been killing it too, shout out to her.  I think we would be remiss in not mentioning Swizz and Tim, what they’ve been able to do with Verzuz they’ve been the heartbeat of this whole thing with what hip hop has been able to do during this pandemic.

If an artist were to ask you what they should be doing to adapt and stay on listeners’ minds, what would you advise?
I think one way would be like collaborating. Being open-minded as far as trying to take somebody else’s fan base in the process. I’ll bring up Guapdad again, what he was doing with the Rona Raps. People that listen to Bryson Tiller might not have known who Guapdad was, but bringing different artists every week and doing freestyles was not only growing his fan base, but he was taking little bits and pieces of other people’s fan bases and making them listen to his music. So I think the power of collaboration is big at this time. Don’t shy away from doing anything like that. And don’t shy away from doing something that might be outside the box. There’s no such thing as a dumb idea right now. I see a lot of artists also doing online performances, Zoom performances, Zoom listening sessions. Grab your closest friends, your closest media people that you’re cool with. We might not be outside right now, but get a good 10 to 15 esteemed people that you bang with, get on Zoom, and try to get some traction that way. Technology is so different versus the 2000s, there’s no reason you can’t be out here still trying to dominate, whether we’re inside or outside right now.

I saw something that said people were actually streaming less music at the start of quarantine. Do you think that people are actually listening to music less?
That’s a scary thing that you know what it is to hear. I don’t know if people are listening less because of the pandemic, or if it’s because of the influx of music. There’s so much music that comes out, it’s so hard to listen to everybody, realistically. On one Friday you had Meek Mill, DaBaby, Megan Thee Stallion, Saint JhN. All of them dropped, and I’m not even naming the lower tier people. You don’t have that luxury of time (to listen to all of them). Even though we’ve had a pandemic, you’re probably doing more than you need to to survive to make sure you’re good, to make sure your bills are paid. So you could only listen to X amount of music. People’s time is kind of truncated in that sense, just because people have to worry about what’s going on in real time with their families, trying to make ends meet, they don’t have the luxury of listening to as much music as they used to. It’s a lot to keep up with.

We spoke about the changes in music, but what kind of changes in journalism have you had to adapt to?
No more in-person interviews, so having to rely on video interviews as a form of communication. Chopping it up with these artists when we’re out and about with a dope backdrop, we don’t have that anymore. [begins to joke] “I was talking to DaBaby on a Thursday morning, his toothbrush fell out of his bathroom.” [laughs] I like it, because it forces you to be more creative. I enjoy doing video interviews over phoners, because at least you got to see the person’s facial reaction. So you know that if you’re asking a shitty question, you’re going to see it in real time. They’ve got no choice but to look dead at you. Listening parties have been reduced to Zoom and Twitch sessions. It’s all about adaptability and being willing to adapt. A lot of OG journalists may be struggling because of that willingness to adapt. It really comes down to our ability and willingness to just sit down with the top and just roll with it, because we don’t know how long this is going to be for.

Talk about the difference in difficulty, and the advantages and disadvantages that come from doing.
I mean, I think it just comes down as corny and clichéd as may be, I think it just comes down to overall energy when you meet somebody. It’s different in person versus just on the phone or just on the computer. I think for an artist, if you don’t have that energy in person, it’s going to show quicker than on Zoom. I haven’t had any difficulty. For instance, for the Cardi B cover, she hates Zoom interviews. She said a bunch of times prior to our interview, “I prefer doing in-person interviews, because it’s a vibe when you’re able to get that in person interaction.” But I think it comes down to us as journalists to make that interviewee feel as comfortable as possible when it comes down to energy, whether, you know, you bring that energy in person or you bring that energy via Zoom or Skype. That energy has to stay the same throughout, and I think the artist will be able to detect that. Once they see the line of questioning, they see the flow of the interview, the fluidity and the energy is there, you will still get that same popping fire interview online as you would in person. I think a lot of my interviews I have done over quarantine have been debatably better than some people I’ve interviewed in person. Sometimes it’s not even just me, it’s just how the person is feeling that day. Sometimes it’s outside variables you can’t control, but as long as your line of questioning and your energy as a journalist is there, shouldn’t even matter what the scenario is.

A lot of people questioned the role that journalism even has now in music. Because artists have social media, so they can speak to fans on their own instead of getting us to interview them. And fans are determining the songs that are hot by streaming them, not us by covering. What role do we play?
The job of the critic is very much limited versus back in the day, because the accessibility fans and artists both have. But I still think it comes down to credibility. Artists still do care about a Billboard, about a Rolling Stone, about getting their namesake on a certain article. If Rolling Stone or Pitchfork gives your artists a fire review, I guarantee the artist is still going to post it. I guarantee that it’s still going to mean something to their self esteem. I think artists, believe it or not, appreciate it even more just off the strength that there aren’t as many publications anymore, and so that love is limited. It means a lot knowing that your fans fuck with you, but you know that a sacred group of revered journalists who have done X amount of work, who have the proper credentials to talk, if they give you that green light, that should still be something. If that wasn’t the case, artists wouldn’t post, “yo, I just got a new feature on Forbes. I just got a new feature on Billboard. I just got a new feature on VIBE.” What we say still matters and influences the culture. 

So tell me about your decision to make an album when you were already this far into your career as a journalist.
I started Shut Up And Write in 2018. I had already been a year-plus over at Billboard. At that time, a lot of people didn’t know that I used to rap or write lyrics. So it would be a hobby of mine, just to freestyle every now and then. I would just keep the voice notes to myself, or send them to a few people. After a while, after sending some voice notes to my friends, I ended up sending them to some rapper homies I was cool with, one of them being Stalley. Me and Stalley had developed a relationship to where I trusted him enough. I sent him, Sylvan LaCue some stuff, Gerald Walker. They were very cool with the idea of me rapping. They were like, “why not take it to that next level?” So voice notes became actual records. One record became two, two became four. Next thing you know, I had recorded five records in 2018 at Stalley’s house. He was very supportive. Then life just took over for me, and I was still very shook. I was very scared of putting out some kind of body of work, because I didn’t know how people would take it. I felt like I had to put in work on the journalistic side. “Who the fuck are you to put out a project when you aren’t shit yet as a journalist?” I thought I was at a certain tier, but I didn’t feel established enough to drop this project. So I sat on it for a little bit, and then quarantine came, and I just woke up one day and I’m like, “I’ve always been the type to finish what I start. I’ve been sitting on this project for almost two years. I need to finish it. You’re in quarantine, you have an excessive amount of time.” And so I ended up going back to the booth, and next thing you know, I had ten tracks. So now, it’s just a matter of the rollout: how do you present to people that you rap? 

I was finally comfortable in this space. I’ve gotten to a formidable place in my career as a journalist, now I gotta take this mask off and show that this is what I can do. Shout out to my team, we call ourselves the Federal Reserve. My boys Raphael, Alex and Mark helped me cook up the storyline. I started off with a freestyle over the Nas “Ultra Black” beat.  The reaction based on that was going to determine how people rocked with me as a rapper. I had a shit ton of comments, everybody loved it. I started getting some love and support from people throughout the whole process: Reason, Royce 5’9”, Kevin Liles showed me love. It was just the nod of approval I needed to know that I’m going in the right direction. 

When you first told me about the idea of you making an album, I remember thinking that other journalists would have an issue with it because of how it would look. What’s interesting to me is that when you were just talking about the people who respected you doing it, you were more moved by what other rappers were saying than what journalists were saying. 
You know why I don’t care about what a journalist thinks? I’m 31 years old, I’ve been doing this since I was 19. If you look at my resumé, my byline speaks for itself. If you’re going to tell me my journalistic credibility is shot, look at all my interviews, look at the stories that I broke, investigative stories. I’ve reported stories with artists that I know, and I played it unbiased as hell.  So I’ve always been that type of guy. This is why the title means so much to me, to the point I had to get it tatted. We shouldn’t be limited to doing multiple endeavors. If we want to pursue other hobbies, why can’t we? Because one journalist might say, “your shit’s trash?” All right cool, it’s not for you, I respect it. But somebody else is going to fuck with it.

Shut Up And Write initially supposed to be called The Atlanta Sessions, just off of the fact that I recorded the bulk of my project in Atlanta. But Shut Up And Write came from the popular Fox News phrase from the commentator who told LeBron and all the basketball players to just “shut up and dribble,” focus on basketball when they were speaking on police brutality and things affecting the community. When I was talking to Mark about the project he had mentioned, “cats in our field aren’t going to want to see or hear you rap. Shut up and write, do your job.” But why should I just focus on my 9 to 5? Why can’t I have other aspirations, hobbies and passions, especially if I have an undying love for it?

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