Al Shipley Interview
When I started this blog, I hit up Al Shipley and told him "you just HAVE to let me interview you" lol. I don't care what anybody says, Al is Baltimore's blog king so it was only fitting that I question him..pick his brain.. plus.. I wanted to get advice from him. I've been reading "Government Names" and "Noise" for years and Al writes some of the most entertaining reviews and articles out here. His commentary and insults of people's CDs, music, and events have literally made me laugh out loud.
In a city where so many people criticize each other behind each other's back, it's so refreshing to have someone publicly speak their mind.. straight..no chaser. I've judged events with him and he's judged a couple of my events and he never fails to be politically incorrect..I think he has single-handedly stepped alot of our games up. Don't get me wrong, Al Shipley is not some terrible critic who gets joy out of hurting people's feelings....not at all (at least I don't think so :). No... really, Al Shipley is a mad cool guy, who cares enough about Baltimore's artistic community to check us when we're off..and to applaud us, when we're on our game..
Ok..so.. here's our Q & A
1. What inspired you to write the blog Government Names
Well, in 2004, the music blogosphere was still kind of in its infancy,
and blogs in general weren’t really as cool or accepted as they are
now. And at the time I was really resisting getting into that, but at
the same time it seemed like a good outlet for just talking about what
you were interested in, and there were some really good music blogs
but very few were about hip hop. So I kind of got together a few
friends and people I liked to bullshit with about rap online, and we
just wrote about whatever we were into, mainstream stuff, regional
stuff. And this was before MySpace and YouTube and labels creating all
this content for blogs, so a lot of time there’d be no pictures or
anything, just what we wrote about music. So that’s the discipline I
come from, it being more about your perspective than cut-and-pasting
links and regurgitating whatever news is being promoted that day,
which is basically what most rap blogs are about now.
In the first few months I wrote about Baltimore rap a few times and
had just been starting to scratch beneath the surface of the scene and
hear people that weren’t signed or getting played on 92Q. And so I got
deeper into that, and by the end of 2005 all the site’s other writers
kind of lost interest and dropped out, so I just took over and steered
the focus exclusively towards Baltimore music.
2. why did you name your blog “Government Names”
The simple answer is that it’s a phrase that’s just used in hip hop a
lot without sounding overtly hip hop, so I feel like it’s a good
brand, it kinda gets across what you’re going for without trying too
hard. But you can also read other things into it -- I mean I post
under my government name, there’s no alias or smokescreen with me,
which there is with a lot of rap writers/bloggers.
3. How did you become a writer with The Baltimore City Paper?
I didn’t really know anyone at the paper, although I was friends with
Tom Breihan, who was still writing for them at the time, and I guess
people around the city were starting to look at Government Names more
around 2005. And one day Bret McCabe, who was the music editor then
and is the arts editor now, kinda e-mailed me out of the blue and
asked me if I wanted to write for them. This was shortly after a
pretty in-depth post I wrote about Tim Trees, so if I had to guess
that was why. And again, I was reluctant about blogging to begin with,
and had kind of wanted to avoid being a music critic/journalist, since
I’m a musician too and it can be hard to do both (and considering how
little music I’ve played in the last few years, I was right, although
I’m starting to get back into that). But around the same time Bret
e-mailed me, I was also asked to write for Stylus Magazine, and I was
just finishing up college then, as an English major without any kind
of career plan, so it just seemed like the timing was right. And I
give Bret a lot of credit for helping me work my way up, giving me a
few short reviews, and then a full-page piece, and then a feature
interview, so I just gradually got up my confidence and my abilities.
And from there I was just off and running, and every editor I’ve
worked under there has been great and has given me a lot of
opportunities to contribute.
4. What advice would you give to a writer/journalist looking to have
their articles published in The City Paper and other magazines etc..
I would say the first thing is to know your venue -- read it
regularly, get an idea of what they cover and how they write, think of
things they could cover but don’t and see how you could fill that
niche. I’d been reading the City Paper for 10 years before I was in
it, and that’s really why I was able to jump into things fairly
quickly. The other thing is just to have a lot of writing samples,
even if they’re just stuff online or on your own blog. And that means
really treating your blog or whatever as seriously as anything you’d
get paid for, writing as well as you can and showing what you can do.
It’s a pretty tough time for just about any print publication these
days, so getting your foot in the door is harder than it was just 5
years ago when I started, but I wouldn’t discourage anyone from
trying. The world needs good, committed writers, no matter what medium
they’re writing in in the future. Sometimes people who can barely put
together a coherent e-mail ask me to help them get in CP, and I'm just
not sure what they think they're gonna do and I feel almost insulted.
But anyone that really wants to do it and is serious about it deserves
some help or advice, so I try not to be an asshole about it.
5.You have the reputation for giving some of the harshest/meanest(but most honest) reviews in the city..lol Are you as “I don’t give a fuck what anyone says/thinks about me” as you come across? Do you
sometimes fear for your life after writing one of your reviews?
I guess I really don’t give a fuck, yeah, but mainly I just think that
you can’t let fear or paranoia dictate your actions, especially in
Baltimore. You can be a nonthreatening white guy and go the places I
go, but if you let people smell fear then you’re just asking for
something bad to happen. I can’t say I’ve ever really thought I was
gonna get jumped or tracked down or something, but I guess you never
know. I’m lucky that generally when I walk into a show I have way more
friends than enemies in the room. I’ve had a few heated phone calls or
e-mails, but never a personal confrontation or anything that felt like
it would escalate. And oddly, it’s really not the most negative
reviews that elicit the most negative reactions -- it’s the people who
take one sentence the wrong way, or get really mad about one detail
being included or excluded, that are usually the most angry. I think
my best asset there is to know when to leave well enough alone, or
when to apologize or back down when I know I'm in the wrong -- I'm not
one to stick my neck out just to prove a point or boost my ego.
6. Do you think that you’re ever TOO harsh?
There are definitely times when I know I went overboard, or I was in a
bad mood and made a decent record seem worse than it is. Sometimes
I’ll spend half the review obsessing over some small thing and ranting
about it, and then that colors the reader’s perception of an otherwise
positive review. I try to balance it all out in some way, though. I’m
big on the word “but” -- every rave review still points out a flaw,
and every pan still points out a silver lining.
The thing about local music coverage is that it’s very easy to be a
cheerleader, to only be positive -- I don’t think anyone gets into
covering local music unless they have a bit of “root for the home
team” instinct in them. But the more you hear, the more you
differentiate the good from the bad, and the more you realize that you
can’t just blindly recommend stuff. If I make a shitty local record
seem better than it is, someone could hear it and be disappointed, and
maybe think that’s the best Baltimore has to offer. I’d rather
Baltimore be thought of as a place where the cream rises to the top,
and the weak shit gets called out or ignored, than a scene where
everybody holds hands and tells each other how great they are even
when the music sucks.
7. I know you’ve reviewed a bunch of cds..some great..and some
terrible… Issue out a warning to underground artists... what are the
components of a reeeeeeally bad cd that will get a terrible review
from you in the city paper
One thing I will always note is that I cover virtually everything I
hear on Government Names -- which averages over 80 CDs a year -- and
will cover a tiny fraction of that stuff, maybe 10% or so, in the City
Paper. So generally I try to reserve the best and/or most newsworthy
stuff for the paper, which means most of my CP reviews are more
positive than not. And when they’re not, it’s usually because the
record was a big deal or newsworthy in some way, and I decided to
review it before realizing how bad it was.
Obviously, with independent and underground artists, production values
are the biggest hurdle -- you can make a great-sounding record without
a lot of money these days, but most people still don’t. So on one
hand, a lot of stuff just sounds like shit right out of the gate. But
with the more professional-sounding product, there’s a lot of more
nuanced issues, mainly having to do with whether the artist has a
personality, a perspective, a sound of their own. Nobody needs another
generic indentikit rap album that sounds like everything else and apes
every trend. I’d rather hear a diamond in the rough that’s unique than
a slick, well-produced record with absolutely nothing interesting to
say. So the people that really piss me off are the ones that I feel
like are wasting my time with some boring shit I’ve heard a billion
times before, especially if I think they have a potential to be
creative and memorable and are squandering it.
8. In you’re opinion, what’s a good example of a good cd
(production/song wise).. … Which independant artists do you play on a
regular basis (and why)
In terms of assembling and structuring an album, I’m of the opinion
that less is more. Having an intro and a bunch of interludes and drops
and bonus cuts gets in the way more often than not, and unless you’re
like De La Soul and can make hilarious skits that feel like part of
the album, you’re better off not bothering. When a rap album hits you
with song after song, no bullshit, and the songs speak for themselves,
the effect is really striking, I wish more artists had the confidence
to do that. Mixtapes that are all or mostly freestyles over industry
beats bore the shit out of me, and I’ve become almost hostile towards
them over the years -- it’s pretty much a waste of breath to write
that many rhymes and then just throw them over someone else’s song. I
mean sure, if you have a crazy idea for a version of a song, or really
just wanna rap over that beat, go for it, but if you’re just too
lazy/cheap to write hooks and song structures or find original tracks,
you don’t need to be making a CD anyway. I think the last local CD I
heard that I really thought was put together well and had a strong
individual viewpoint and cohesive sound was 810’s Glass Half Full.
Since I’m always kind of struggling to keep up with new releases, the
people I play the most regularly are generally the most prolific
artists -- Skarr Akbar, Labtekwon, Mullyman, Comp, Wordsmith, Born
King, PenDragon, guys that tend to drop multiple projects every year,
year after year. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the people
who work the hardest and make the most music also have carved out
their niche really well, and have a great sense of who they are and
what their music’s about. Some people can pop their head out of the
ground every couple years with a new record and make an impression
every time, but not many. Like I will still forever jam those records
from the first two Tim Trees albums, even if it's been almost 5 years
since I interviewed him about the third album and that shit's still
9. I’m gonna ask what I heard someone say.. before.. Do you ever feel
unqualified to review hip hop music?
The thing about being a music critic that tends to rile people up is
that there is no qualification, there is no certification -- you don’t
have to pass a test or have certain records in your collection,
ultimately you just have to be able to write, and be able to say
something about the record that’s in front of you at the moment. And
that bugs me as much as anyone sometimes, because I’m a real
nuts-and-bolts person who’s studied music history and tries to learn a
lot about the actual creative process. Whereas a lot of music critics
approach it from a literary or sociological standpoint: they’re all
about what the lyrics mean, what the artist represents, more than what
the record sounds like or how it was made or whether it accomplishes
its goals. I’m a big production nerd, but I'm not obsessively into
lyrics like some heads are -- I can’t really memorize or quote back
lines to you very easily, and a lot of times I’m more focused on the
flow and the overall effect of the track than just the words. But if
you’re saying a bunch of DEEP HEARTFELT SHIT but can’t make it sound
fly or stay on beat, you should go do poetry and leave rap alone
anyway, to be honest.
So I would say, other than the obvious strikes against me -- being
white, listening to a lot of music other than hip hop, being born
after 1980 and having somewhat mainstream taste in rap -- I think I’m
as qualified as anyone. There are definitely some critics with an
encyclopedic knowledge of rap that would put mine to shame, but
generally I’m no slouch when it comes to actually knowing the ins and
outs -- I think people who only read my stuff on Gov’t Names sometimes
think I don’t hear everything from everywhere else too, or have to ask
me what else I listen to. And again, there are a lot of critics that
really half-ass it when it comes to covering rap, especially at the
bigger publications and sites, so reading them always bolsters my
confidence that I'm not punching above my own weight. There are
certain kinds of rap that I have never been especially interested in,
so when local people make that kind of music and I feel obligated to
cover it, sometimes I’m out of my depth and I know it -- I don’t
really know their influences, their artistic goals, I’m just kind of
doing guesswork. Sometimes that’s great because it’s opened me up to a
wider variety of hip hop than I’d gotten into before, but sometimes I
probably stumble and show my ignorance.
10. Based on your articles, I was expecting you to be a real wild
guy.. and I thought you were black..Now knowing you, I'd say that you
strike me as a mysterious, introverted person.. does this surprise
you..or are you wilder than you look?
Well, I think most writers are able to let out their personality a
little more in print than in person, that’s just part of what makes
them good at what they do. I try not to write anything that I wouldn’t
be comfortable saying out loud, but of course there’s always going to
be times when you amplify your opinion or your personality for effect.
Probably out in the music scene I’m more reserved, because I just like
to play the background, observe things, and not draw attention to
myself -- to be a reporter, essentially. But I can be pretty obnoxious
and extroverted around people that know me or have talked to me
one-on-one a lot, as any of them could tell you. I'm only mysterious
to the extent that I know being a public person, even to the minor
capacity that I am, leaves you open to catch a lot of shit the moment
you put any of your business out there. People can only form an
opinion on what you let them know about. So while I'm not ridiculously
private or paranoid, there's a lot of my life that I will always keep
offline and out of my writing.
11. What are you really like, when you're home chillin..no pen in hand?
Well, I have a 6-month-old son and I’m doing the stay-at-home dad
thing right now, so there’s a lot of chilling at home these days. My
inner critic will definitely come out in daily life and I’ll have
ridiculous debates about anything and everything with family and
friends, but generally I'm pretty mellow, not a lot of drama.
12. lastly.. let me ask you one of our opinionated questons.. why
not..? lol According to you, who are the top 5 MC in the scene?
(and why..1-2 line description.. or longer)
This is such a loaded question, and surprisingly tough for me,
considering that every year I write Best of Baltimore pieces and
end-of-year lists and kind of put my opinion in stone. So I’m just
gonna say who I think is doing good work at the moment or who has the
most potential to drop something crazy at any given time, as opposed
to who’s best known or ‘hottest’ or whatever. You could ask me this a
week earlier or a week later and get 5 totally different answers.
The Boy Blesst’s last album was killer and that dude just does not get
enough credit, his voice is unique and he can flow and pick good
beats, really the total package.
I was going to say Ron G. before I even looked and saw that the most
recent post on your site was “How come I don’t hear about Ron G. more
often?” You’re totally right, he’s Mania’s secret weapon and I think
people need to start figuring that out soon.
I have to mention A-Class, he mighta lost one recently but he’s won so
many times I kinda got tired of judging battles because there was no
suspense if he showed up.
Greenspan is real slick and probably puts more effort into doing a
real live show, not just throwing on a beat and rapping to it, than
almost anyone else in the city.
Los is still crazy, crazy talented, can’t ever count him out, and
every time I stop thinking of him as one of the best in the city I
hear something that reminds me.