Writer and podcast host Charles Holmes is a self-proclaimed hip-hop nerd. At a young age, he was constantly reading the profiles of his favorite artists, in need of more intel. He noticed something peculiar during those early years in how the stories were being told.
“Why [does] what I’m reading about my favorite artists seem a little bit off, like there’s something missing?” Holmes recalls. “And I realized, once I got into the industry and started looking back, I was like, so much of the documentation of hip-hop has not been in Black people’s hands.”
Noticing this dearth, he set a personal mission for himself.
“I want to give Black men and women a little bit of nuance to their stories.”
He appears to not have abandoned this mission. Holmes is a writer for The Ringer, a sports and pop culture website and podcast network founded by sports writer Bill Simmons and acquired by Spotify for $200 million last year. He previously worked as a staff writer for Rolling Stone, and his bylines have also appeared in Complex, Billboard and MTV News.
Last August, he had a piece published in Rolling Stone about the rapper Juvenile making furniture, which filled me with joy, titled “Juvenile’s 400 Degrees of Fine Furniture.” When I found this out, I was on that site for about 30 minutes trying to convince myself that I needed one of Juvi’s lamps. Imagine the bragging rights this would allow: “Don’t touch that lamp, it might burn you. It’s 400 degrees.” I am, and want to be, a guy who says those things.
Also, how is this not of larger interest? An iconic rapper, who made my generation “back that ass up” just because he told us to, is selling furniture. And it doesn’t look like trash. If NPR can tell me at the crack of dawn about a guy who makes mustard in his garage in Williamsburg, why not wax poetic about a member of Cash Money making lamps? I’m okay with stories like the Juvenile one, because the varied angles of coverage on a particular figure provides us more info to be able to make our own proper determination of that individual.
Holmes’ latest endeavor involves viewing music and the music creation process through a microscopic lens. Accompanied by comedian and BuzzFeed writer Grace Spelman, he hosts Spotify original podcast “The Ringer Music Show.”
“I wanted to create a show that I didn’t see in the marketplace,” Holmes says. “I think generally in music journalism, it’s always been about criticism first. It’s always been like, ‘What is our review of this album? What is our review of the song? Who is the hottest artist now and why?’ I love that, and our podcast does some of that. But what I’ve become more interested in recently is reporting. Let me tell [you] a story.”
Their first episode was “The Secret History of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” which explored the stormy world that was the creation of Kanye West’s fifth studio album. In the episode, he’s joined by collaborators on that album who provide a deep aperture into a world that I just didn’t have access to. When “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” came out in 2010, I listened to it and enjoyed it. That was it. I certainly didn’t know all that went into it. Also, my mind didn’t connect the dots about that moment in time for West’s career, which Holmes dove deeply into.
When West interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, I didn’t watch it just because I couldn’t. I didn’t see what good it was going to do me. I was hip to the backlash from viewers, but what I wasn’t hip to was the backlash he received in his personal community. Malik Yusef, Chicago musician, poet and collaborator on West’s first eight studio albums, was featured on the episode.
“You can’t provide these optics for America,” is what Malik said he told Kanye.
President Obama had been sworn in nine months prior. Part of the country was in celebration and the other part was really struggling with seeing a Black man in office. Many were intuitive regarding the reappearance of brazen racism in America, and they felt Kanye’s moment was ammunition.
Malik followed, “Also, you didn’t need to protect Beyoncé. Beyoncé has a mama, a daddy, a powerful husband who’s probably the King of America, a label, management. She’s fine.”
See? This is interesting. West is an enigmatic, polarizing and captivating figure and artist. And for all of his idiosyncrasies, many Black people are protective of Kanye. In 2021, some may be too exhausted at this point, but the support remained throughout those years because he was one of ours. Just like any disenfranchised group, we rooted for our own.
I remember how sad I was for him when his mother, Donda West, died. I remember thinking, “Lord, who’s going to help this boy now?” Not in a condescending sense, either. It was clear, mighty clear, the influence of Kanye’s mother on him. To be at that height and lose the most stabilizing voice in his life, not to mention that she was his heart, that was the first time I worried for a figure who was far greater than me.
This brings me back to something insightful Holmes says to me.
“I think what needs to change, in my opinion, is giving these kids more support.”
What does that mean?
“It’s no secret,” he continues. “We’ve lost so many hip-hop stars, whether it’s Pop Smoke, Juice Wrld or Mac Miller – all of these kids.”
Kanye West isn’t a kid. He’s 43 years old. But for some reason, after his mother passed, I’ve felt like he’s America’s child. As we’ve continued to watch him, I’m not sure his age really matters, because the true takeaway is that these artists are thrust into tough situations that would cause the average human to crack. In West’s case, to digest public scorn and scrutiny and be your most creative at the same time. To learn the intimate details of this journey and how it was manifested for “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” is striking.
“The Ringer Music Show” uses time to its advantage. One of Holmes’ mentors compared musicians to athletes, which resonated with him.
“If you ask a basketball player how they do something, their explanation isn’t great because they’re like, ‘I just do it,’” Holmes says. “It’s innate for them. But what you get 10 years, 15 years, 20 years [into your career], the fact is these artists have spent time with it. They’re not emotionally attached to it. They’ve gone on to do other things. They’ve grown as humans.”
This is crucial to any good story: The ability to sit back, reflect and really comment on what the f–k happened so many years ago. I have a suspicion that this show will unravel some musical puzzles that have baffled pop culture for years.
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