Too Close To Home: The Pressure Of Critiquing Local Hip-Hop

For months I’ve been faced with a creative block. It has felt like an eternity. As a creative I’m constantly switched on. A million ideas flick through my brain every day and I lust to get them out and actually produce something. It rarely happens. I often overload myself with plans and more often than not burn out through overworking. When I first started writing about music, critiquing underground hip-hop mixtapes, it was easy. I was just a teenager posting my thoughts on my favourite artists’ releases not really expecting anybody to read.


Of course, that didn’t exactly go as planned. No readers quickly turned into hundreds. Hundreds of readers soon turned to thousands. Now it’s back to hundreds. A result of overworking and burning out too much losing a once loyal audience. The freedom of thinking nobody could possibly care about my opinion is lost. I’m obviously grateful that people place importance into my words, but it’s come at a cost. A cost I was too naive to expect.


When people value your opinion, there’s also pressure to live up to their expectations. Initially I nonchalantly stated this wouldn’t change anything. It didn’t matter when Trev Rich’s fans sent abuse on Twitter misunderstanding a joke between myself and the Denver rapper. At that point, I was just an avi and a username. Whilst I’ve always used my real name and photos of myself (the egotist in me would never let me do otherwise), it wasn’t like any of these artists I was writing about, or their fans, would ever be in the North East of England. Right? Sort of.


It’s true the likes of Trev Rich and that random Twitter fan will likely never meet me in person (although I would like to experience ‘Dear Ma’ performed live one day), but as my writing focus shifted to artists from my hometown, the pressure increased even more.


When I first discovered rappers from the North East of England in late 2013, I had been writing for less than a year. I’d been getting paid for various pieces for other platforms but had yet monetized TheRootMusic. I was still relatively young, and still absolutely naive. Its no surprise that even with a year passed at the end of 2014, when I compiled a ‘best of 2014’ list, a number of the locals laughed at me.


This was new ground. I was so used to respect from internationally acclaimed artists for my opinion, that it was a shock to the system when local MC’s wrote me off as a clueless clown. Something which has stuck with me since. It wasn’t bad enough I cluelessly tried to arrange a cypher between the artists I genuinely thought were the only rappers from my region, I also made a laughing stock of myself by genuinely thinking they were the only rappers from my region when there was so much more to offer.


(Jister, Leddie, Smoggy, Paull, Kema Kay, MistaBreeze and Baron Von Alias might not remember that too much about the cypher that never was, but I’m mortified even thinking back on it now.)


Following a much needed education thanks to a few of the above names and others including Silvar Laidlow and Hash Rotten Hippo, I soon became entrenched in local hip-hop. It’s fair to say I am still very much a divisive figure. I’ve made more enemies than I have friends, and received more diss tracks than I’ve received shoutouts on wax, but I have earned a certain level of respect. A standing within the local culture and community which allows me to have a relatively loud voice. Outsiders looking in come to me for the inside scoop, and insiders come to for exposure to the outsiders. It’s a rewarding position within the SceNE (as insiders call it, probably to the bemusement of outsiders but it’s an important signal of unity that is impossible to describe in words.)


Despite how rewarding it can be, the pressure is enormous. Disappointing rappers no longer simply results in Twitter abuse but the threat of actual real life harm. This is hip-hop and a certain level of masculine bravado is expected, but I’m not much of a fighter. I hate conflict even online. So far nothing serious has happened physically, but my mental health continues to deteriorate and I do wonder if part of that, is because of my relationship with local rap artists.


Even opening this google doc page, I was supposed to write a review of Rick Fury’s ‘Lego Scarface’ album. I’ve been meaning to write the review of Fury’s latest release for months now. It was the first thing on my to-do list before this creative block crept up and overshadowed my life. It’s not that I expect Rick Fury to call me out with a long winded Facebook status if I write a negative review. Mostly because the review I will eventually write will be mostly positive – but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a part of me now feared a backlash from fans if I even inserted a ‘but it was a little too long for me’ in there.


As a critic, I’m expected to be able to take criticism. I like to think I can, but only when it’s done in a respectful manner. I also like to think my reviews are always written with respect – or at least that is the intention. Sometimes intentions are misread.

In the same time I was supposed to be writing the ‘Lego Scarface’ review, I published my thoughts on Max Gavins’ ‘1994.’ The backlash to that was staggering. In truth, even reading back now, I don’t understand what made fans of Max angry at the ‘1994’ review but whatever it was even made me lose contact with someone I considered a close friend in terms of industry standards. With that, the pressure increased even more so. There were no physical threats, but for me, losing a friend is way worse.


I honestly wouldn’t wish being a rap critic for local hip-hop in the North East of England on my worst enemy. It can be a beautiful experience at times when your name is shouted out followed by cheers in Independent, or an up-and-coming rapper approaches you at ObSceNE making a point of introducing themselves to “the writer.” But it can also be a whirlpool of pressure where even when you swim, you’ll soon tire out and sink.


I’m hoping that even getting this far in writing this post is a signal of the creative block passing, I even applied for a job today which will probably increase pressure even further if I’m successful. This is my apology to artists (and fans thereof) that I’ve promised reviews to, and an apology in advance that I might not please everyone of you with my opinion.


I built my entire personal brand off of being honest, and I don’t want that to stop now because I’ve found a passion perhaps literally a little too close to home. The reviews are coming, the pressure is everlasting and the fear of backlash also present, I just hope that through the breakdowns and burnouts, I’ve not scared away too many readers and followers of TheRootMusic.


I hope you’ve also seen the work – because my only aim with TheRootMusic is to work to provide a service to artists who deserve more exposure and to likeminded music lovers (of which I am first and foremost) who deserve an honest opinion on music, and not one pressured into pretending to love everything everyone ever release.
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