In late August, I wrote a brain-in-gear essay called “Between Rap & a Hard Place,” essentially a self-dissection into how easy it’ll be to make my mark in the film coverage world, having been so immersed in the ‘hip-hop journalism’ sect for nearly six years now. It was to be a feature guest blog on a renown journalist’s own WordPress realm, a now-dead but once-fruitful place where young journalists (whether practicing or aspiring) could learn and casual visitors could be entertained. I was quite honored to be given the go-head for a guest blog, and I took it seriously. Then, the vet writer took a blogging hiatus, and then promptly killed the site to concentrate on a book. Can’t blame her, at all.
Still, I put some work into the guest blog, so I don’t want it to die in the oblivion of Yahoo email. Thus, I’m posting it here, the raw, unedited (and I stress “unedited”) essay that I sent in on August 27. Some of the references are now a bit dated, understandably.
Full essay, after the jump:
Between Rap and a Hard Place
By Matt Barone
April 6 may have fallen on a Monday this year, but that didn’t matter. It was time to drink. Normally I’m opposed to alcoholic intake during the work week, but my save-the-Hennessy-for-the-weekend philosophy was meaningless—April 6 began my first official week of post-KING-Magazine (R.I.P.) unemployment. The six-pack of Coronas that I treated like Capri Suns weren’t guzzled in depression, though; it was a one-man celebration.
April 6 is a personal holiday. The day that everything changed. On April 6, 2007, my eyes opened wider than Malcolm Macdowell’s in A Clockwork Orange—no experimental brain-numbing (why I’d choose such a strange analogy will make sense shortly). That day, what began as a trip to the Regal Cinemas theater in Union Square transformed into a life-changing event. Seriously.
April 6 forever became “Grindhouse Day.”
At that point, I was in my fourth year as part of KING’s “Royal Court,” holding down Music Editor duties. The “Music Editor” title didn’t exist on the KING masthead prior the day I was given it, but my bosses at the time—Jermaine Hall and Datwon Thomas—felt that it fit. I was the young guy on staff who knew every random album’s release date, the title of way-too-many Album Track Number Seven examples on obscure rap records from the mid-90s and other trivia that my parents deem just that—trivial.
Since my grammar school days, I’d always wanted to be a Music Editor, specifically for a hip-hop publication. I was the 13-year-old suburban kid who used to blow up the phonelines of the nearest bookstore on a monthly basis, asking like fiend for a fix, “Has the new issue of The Source come in yet?!” Tuesdays were the days when I’d force my mother to drive me to The Wiz (nobody beat it) after school so I could buy whatever new rap cassette hit shelves.
Alongside straight-A-filled report cards, baseball and basketball tournaments, and my family, hip-hop was it.
Up until April 6, 2007, though, I’d forgotten one big thing—I’m a lifelong cinephile. A must-see-new-movies-on- Friday-opening-nights kind of guy. The one within my circle of friends who always has the latest, weirdest and greatest DVDs. Who recommends foreign films with the vigor of Quentin Tarantino.
So it’s no wonder that one of the men responsible for my April 6, 2007 awakening was Mr. Tarantino.
I first heard about Grindhouse—Tarantino’s exploitation throwback double feature conceived alongside fellow fan of low-budget sleaze Robert Rodriguez—in the middle of ’06. The news was music to my horror-obsessed ears. When April 6, 2007 was announced as the release date, I immediately marked my calendar, and once that week began I promptly told my KING authorities that I’d be taking a personal day that Friday. They were under the impression that I wasn’t feeling well; the truth was, I would’ve sat at my desk in cold sweats, awaiting an after-work showtime, if I would’ve clocked in that day. I wouldn’t say that I played hooky, but I absolutely called out just to catch a Grindhouse matinee. The film was everything that I hoped for, and more. “More” meaning, it was a three-and-half-hour wake-up call. Essentially, Tarantino and Rodriguez screaming at me, “You’re a movie guy, dammit! Why the hell are you only covering hip-hop?”
I saw Grindhouse again that same night. And then three more times over the course of the next week. Sensory overload. Everything I love about cinema but had never allowed myself to exercise outside of my own head. My inner dialogue grew more and more agitated. Look at your resume, you fool! Why is it all ‘urban’ coverage? Where in Orson Welles’s name is all the Hollywood love?”
I’ve spent the two-and-a-half professional years since that fateful afternoon intentionally covering mostly, if not only, movie-related material. I’ve interviewed Hollywood heavyweights such as Ellen Page, Don Cheadle, Guy Ritchie, Guillermo Del Toro and Zack Snyder. Worked my way into Maxim on a Hollywood-focused front. I even single-handedly launched a film section in KING called “The Reel,” where I was able to sneak in pieces about The Bourne Supremacy and Clive Owen into a magazine known (unfairly, I should disclose) as an “urban T&A” book. And I was damn proud of myself.
Pride, though, can only stretch so far when confined. Restricted. Suffocated by a stigma inherent to a resume that’s pinned under an “urban journalism” pillow. Pride, for me, is routinely pummeled by self-questioning and frustration every time I flip through the pages of Entertainment Weekly. When I read some writer’s boring, by-the-numbers Anne Hathaway profile and think to myself, “That was duller than a press release… If only I had a shot at that.” Pride that disintegrates at a daily clip as I visit my long list of film blogs and movie news sites, where bloggers get to attend film festivals such as Cannes, Tribeca and Sundance, and review independent and foreign films that I’d snuff a grandmother to see. Films that I write about in my own private notebook/journal and read back to myself, thinking, “This isn’t perfect, but it’s sure as hell livelier than what that ‘esteemed’ blogger wrote.”
I open Details and see a three-page Mila Kunis profile and feel a symphony of mini-hammers pounding in my brain. Defeat starts to set in, but then I think of somebody like Cheo Hodari Coker—a writing hero of mine, being that he graduated from historic Vibe cover-stories to being a frequent Premiere contributor. Then, I’m extremely motivated. He’s proof that what I’m aiming to accomplish can be done. Hell, he’s even written a book (Unbelievable: The Life, Death, and Afterlife of the Notorious B.I.G.) and a feature film screenplay (Notorious)—two achievements that are high on my bucket list. Though, mine would be of the strange fiction variety, some new-age Twilight Zone stuff. But that’s beside the point.
Admittedly, I’m always the first person to crucify a Matt Barone byline. I cringe at most of my old stories and frequently nitpick about recent ones. But I also know that I’m talented enough to succeed in this industry, and I’m damn certain that I’m knowledgeable enough of cinema to one day transition full-time into a “go-to movie writer” role, somewhere. Anywhere. Whether print or online (preferably print, but it’s a whole new world).
The question I can’t seem to find an answer to, though, is this: How in the hell do I go about making that happen?
Your vice may not be film, but, still, fellow “urban journalists,” can you relate?
It’s such a mystery to me, one I’m actively trying to solve. I attend at least one advance press movie screening a week, networking as much as possible. What I’ve noticed, though, is that, while these screenings are the closest I come to being in my dreamlike element, I’m always in the minority demographic-wise. Sitting on both of my sides are gentleman and women in their 40-plus years of age, chatting amongst themselves about the latest independent films that they’ve seen and have been itching to debate. Films that I’m also aware of and could ably engage in fiery back-and-forth about with these elders. But films that I’m stuck thinking about in a solo capacity, when I’m editing stories on rappers and new hip-hop trends.
Disclaimer: Let’s make one fact Miami-beach-water clear—I love hip-hop. Always have, always will. And I’m endlessly grateful for the career opportunities that I’ve had and will continue to have within the culture. Sometimes, I even wonder, “Am I worthy of the position I’m in?” This isn’t coming from a “I’m tired and jaded toward hip-hop now and I want to move on to mainstream pastures” standpoint; it’s more, “I love film and know as much about it as most of those who cover it on a full-time basis—why should I lock myself into being only a ‘hip-hop journalist’? Why can’t I do both?”
So many of my peers and colleagues can relate to me here, I’ve come to realize. I’ve talked to several who share a similar desire to break free of the hip-hop walls and show the mainstream world what they have. Some yearn to write for Wired, others have killer investigative ideas for Details. None, unfortunately, can seem to catch an editor’s attention. And these are all skilled and professionally-on-point individuals. Gifted writers and editors who’ve entered this game through the youth-welcoming hip-hop door, but are now as confused and unsure as I am.
As I see it, hip-hop is more youth-driven today than ever before. Personally, I don’t want to be 40-years-old (that’s 13 years away, but still) and analyzing the significance of that future time’s Drake. I do however, believe that I’d be rather content writing about films and other less-niche subject matter when I’m 40 and older. So why wait until I’m 39 to make that shift? Why not balance the two lanes starting now?
In an effort to start now, I’m going back to my pre-experienced-editor days, oddly enough. I recently started reviewing films for Critics Notebook, a cool upstart movie site. The fella who runs Critics Notebook quickly responded to my emailed “Interested in contributing to your site” inquisition. He saw something in my writing samples, I guess, and when he reached out to pick my brain, he realized that my words turn into Tommy-gun bullet spray once I start discussing cinema. He’s actually said to me that I remind him of Quentin Tarantino, in the way I become some sort of Ritalin-needing livewire when I’m pondering the merits of modern-day French horror films.
The catch with this new writing gig, however, is that it’s totally pro bono. Zero dollars circulated. Yet, frankly, I don’t care. To me, the chance I’m given by the site is worth its proverbial weight in gold. It’s an outlet where I can develop my film-covering chops, and I’m treating it the same way Roger Ebert must’ve treated his first job. Even if I continue contributing to the site for free for another five years, I’ll be happier than a kitty in litter over the next half-decade. Because it’s the one place where I feel like I’m more than just a “hip-hop journalist,” and that’s something special.
That new “Forever” song, featuring Drake, Lil Wayne, Kanye West and Eminem? Yeah, I downloaded it the second it leaked. Listened to it thoroughly. Think it’s top-quality. But the thing that’s most curious to me is that the impact of “Forever” is equal to the excitement I’m feeling over the new trailer for filmmaker TI West’s insane-looking The House of the Devil, an independent throwback to satanic ‘80s horror complete with a poster that’s straight out of the “old-school Italian splatterfest” universe (eye candy to my Lucio Fulci-loving self). In the same outlook, no album release date pushback will fill me as much anger and soul-crushing disappointment as the recently-announced October-to-February delay of Martin Scorcese’s Shutter Island, my current cinematic Holy Grail.
I see colleagues leaving the office with their iPods geared up, and I can’t blame them. There’s not much better than a solo train ride to the soundtrack of your favorite album. Then I look down at my hands, and see my copy of Walter Kirn’s novel Up in the Air (which I’m reading in preparation of November’s film adaptation, starring George Clooney).
And then I’m left to wonder, “How many more days until April 6?”