What’s the Marcus J Moore story? When did you begin writing and why did you choose music criticism?
I’ve been a writer since kindergarten. As a five-year-old, I’d scribble random musings on the walls at home (my mom didn’t like that too much). By fourth-grade, I wrote rhymes and short stories; some of them were surprisingly good (at least I thought so!) By the time I got to Suitland High School, I knew I wanted to write professionally, but didn’t know in what capacity. Enter Carol Kilby, my 11th-grade English teacher. She made me Editor-in-chief of my senior class yearbook, which included page layouts, ordering additional space, etc. She also enrolled my friend Brooke Garner and I in the NABJ Urban Journalism Workshop at Howard University. That’s when I knew I wanted to write for newspapers.
After a brief stint with The Prince George’s Sentinel, I began working for The Gazette newspapers in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. During my six-year tenure with the paper, I covered crime, politics, development, business, and education. By 2010, though, I had grown tired of covering schools and the daily newspaper grind in general. I felt like I wrote the same stories every week: in-fighting between the Montgomery County School Board and County Council, budget cuts, curriculum changes, etc.
I’ve always wanted to be a music journalist, but always thought I needed a job with Rolling Stone or something. In 2009, I attended this album release party in Virginia, where I reunited with my high school friend Teisha Marie. She told me, “You know, I have this album out, but no one to review it.” I bought it to support, played it on the way home and was impressed with what I heard. I had written a column about Okayplayer for The Root and still had the OKP contacts. I pitched Teisha’s album for review, wrote it up, and submitted. They liked what they read so much that they asked me to join the team. OKP and Sound-Savvy were the first publications to give me a shot. I’m very thankful for that.
You write for several publications. What are they?
I write for MTV Hive, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Washington City Paper, and Drowned in Sound (a wildly popular music site based in London; pretty much the UK version of Pitchfork). I also write occasionally for Beats Per Minute and Okayplayer. I’ve also written for Paste and Prefix magazines, AOL Spinner, and Potholes In My Blog. In 2008, I conducted a live chat on The Washington Post’s website about Okayplayer’s relevance in the current Internet landscape.
You also do the annual WKYS Top Ten List. You’re generally the one making the most succinct observations. Have you agreed with all the results?
Not at all. For the life of me, I’m still trying to figure out how Oddisee tied for 10th on last year’s list. That doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. Here, we have a musician who tours the world with his art, and can make music for any type of listener, and he’s the 10th-best rapper in D.C.? That’s insane. The list, as well intentioned as it is, is merely a popularity contest in which the rappers encourage their fans to vote for them. My problem also stems from the word “hot.” Why are we compiling lists with the city’s “hottest” rappers on them? My job as a “gatekeeper” is to tell the world about the city’s best MCs, not the “hot” ones. Flames burn out; greatness lasts much longer. In turn, the rappers with sustainable talent will represent our city much longer than the “hot” ones. “Hot” rappers tend to get stale much quicker.
Your MTV Hive article, The Five Best Underground Rappers in Washington, DC Right Now, stirred it up a little bit. What kind of responses did you get?
The only shade I got was from a local reader who always complains when I don’t mention the rappers with whom she’s affiliated. That’s cool, though, because I expected it. Other than that, the reaction was mostly positive — at least publicly [Laughs]. Surely, there were folks wondering why certain rappers didn’t make the cut, but even their arguments were clear-headed and thoughtful. There weren’t any heated exchanges or anything like that. As a writer, there’s always someone who disagrees with your work, and that’s okay. Writing is such an isolated art that you’re happy when anyone takes an interest in your words. In hindsight, I’ve found that the article — coupled with the other work I do — has transitioned me from “Marcus Moore, local writer” to “Marcus Moore, important guy.” I’m truly honored, though I’m still getting used to it [Laughs].
If we threw some other names in the mix; Shy Glizzy, Young Sir, G’Town Wayne, Young Moe, and Black Cobain… which of them, on skill alone, has the best chance of cracking the list?
I’d have to say Black Cobain. Not only does he have the Wale connection, he’s the best lyricist out of the bunch. I’m a “lyrics” guy, and have been called a “backpack writer,” whatever that means. Still, there’s no denying that the guy can rhyme, even if he sounds too much like Wale for my taste. I applaud his talent and the moves he’s making, though.
It seems to us that Hip Hop is still trying to find its own voice in DC, that artists haven’t experienced that national breakout because too much of what they are doing lacks uniqueness. Is that a fair assessment?
That’s a very fair assessment. Too many young rappers want to emulate the people who’ve already got on; they dress and rap like Wale, and wonder why no one takes them seriously. We need more young rappers to provide the alternative, to create art that’s dynamic and different, not just the same cookie-cutter nonsense that’s so popular now. The rap game is a rat race, so when they see someone earning money rhyming a certain way, they feel the need to reinvent the wheel instead of making music with staying power. We need artists to provide the alternative, and stop trying to fit in with the crowd. If everyone else is creating what you’re creating, why should anyone pay attention to you? What makes you stand out? Now that Fat Trel is beginning to make national strides, the field is wide open for someone to take the crown. I just hope the next rapper does something unique. They can’t always pop bottles and sell drugs. D.C. is the political capital of the world, and we have an election in our backyard — arguably the most important one ever — that could change the face of the nation. Gentrification is changing the outlook of D.C., and there’s an inexplicable tension that permeates formerly black areas of the city. So there’s certainly a lot to discuss. We need a social commentator now more than ever.
What advice would you give, or have you given, to young artists trying to get to that next level?
Be humble and work hard. All too often these days, younger rappers want instant gratification — like, they’ve been rapping for 10 minutes and don’t understand why they aren’t “on” yet. It takes years to get noticed, even if you’re really good. Create art that has a lasting impact on listeners, and don’t try to create music for the radio. It’s no secret that WKYS and WPGC won’t play a lot of local rap; however, Ill Street Grooves does (as long as the music is good).
We’re living in beautiful times: you don’t really need the radio to be successful. Push it to prominent local blogs, local writers and journalists, and push it to your dedicated audience. In turn, they’ll push it elsewhere and create a ground swell through which you can build a long-standing fan base. Again, too many young rappers are focused on being “hot,” and craft microwave music that won’t last long beyond initial consumption. Music, more than other art forms, has this unique way of always finding the right ears. Listeners aren’t dumb and they can tell when something is genuine or not. If your music is heartfelt and there’s an honest passion behind it, you will be successful. Surely there will be some impatient moments, and you’ll think about quitting several times, but you’ve gotta put that energy into the music and create something from the soul. Rap music desperately needs some authentic soul.
What are two or three of the best mixtapes you’ve heard this year from DC Hip Hop artists?
I really like X.O.’s new mixtape, The Color Grey. It’s a 12-song set of focused real talk, something that young and old listeners can digest. I’ve always liked X.O.’s music, but I felt sometimes that he rapped just for the sake of rapping. He went in on this one, though: He’s criticizing the media, chastising the government, and voicing the despair in his community. Also, the beats mesh well with X.O.’s flow. I also liked Beef & Broccoli, the mixtape from Silver Spring MC Awthentik and Violet Says 5 front man Ethan Spalding. I admire the laid-back vibe on this one: the rappers have a natural bond and they’re simply having fun here. It’s like Southern crunk with an East Coast edge, it’s very lyrical, though they don’t beat you up with metaphors and syllables.
What’s your favorite DC venue for live music experiences, both acoustically and ambience?
Acoustically, the sound system at U Street Music Hall is stellar. That’s a great place to go for a bombastic live experience. I like the Fillmore because of its space; you never feel too close to the next person, and the hall is big enough to pack in a lot of people. The Howard Theater is just swanky; the interior is awesome and the sound system is impressive. I go to Bohemian Caverns when I feel like laying low. With all the music I cover — locally, nationally and internationally — I go there to chill in the cave and catch some great jazz.
What’s up next for Marcus J Moore? Television? A book? You’ve already put your stamp on DC music criticism. Where would you like your career to go from here?A book is definitely on the front burner, though I haven’t quite narrowed the premise. I’ve been kicking around some ideas for it, just need to write an outline and plan the book’s direction. I’d also like to teach at the high school or university level, maybe a digital writing workshop or a hip-hop politics course. I know for sure that I’d definitely love to teach. From here, I’d like to cover music for The New York Times or Rolling Stone, if they’d have me [laughs], though I’m truly blessed to be where I am. I’ve seen a lot of great shows and forged relationships with some great people, based solely on my ability to write. In the meantime, I’m trying to get better with each article. I want to be one of the all-time greats. A lofty goal, I know.