#Dabeeside Exclusive with @JohnGotty TSS
What’s up good people!? It’s your boy Trav Dave coming through with some more great heat for your viewing pleasure. I’m super excited about this one because I had submitted so work to this guy a while back and he told me I needed to do some work on my end. He laced me with some gems and I took it as an opportunity to learn and grow. I never take constructive criticism as hate but more so as an OG giving me some game to help me better my craft. With that said I finally got to interview the OG and pay my respect at the same damn time. One time for the creator of The Smoking Section blog and StillCrew.com – John Gotty.
Q. You were one of the few who was early on the hip hop blog scene. What were the inspiration behind starting and the naming of your blog “The Smoking Section”?
A: TSS was more or less a way to share new music, good songs, etc. with a small set of friends. It became a daily thing where I’d pick a song, write a few random sentences about it or whatever was on my mind and hit send. One day, a homie was like “you should start a blog.” I had zero idea what a blog was so he had to explain it. On a whim, I asked my little homie who helped me with web design to help set one up. We opened up shop on Blogger and ran from there.
The name actually came from the imagery I always associated with New York jazz clubs from the days of Miles, Coltrane, Monk and other greats. Just a hazy cloud in a dimly lit room with tables of men and women immersed in watching and listening to artists having these sessions on stage. You know, just caught up in music and the moment. I think I was really into reading about those guys and how the scene, which spoke to me. Can’t say that I knew that we were caught in our own musical moment in time with the web taking over, but that’s how it worked out.
Q. What is the hip hop culture like in Nashville, TN? I’m sure Young Buck isn’t the only rapper from there.
A. Nashville’s got it’s on thing going with rap where things hit these spurts where we’re almost ready to eclipse the mark Buck left. There are a lot of artists here with a lot of talent and they just need a spotlight to shine and give them light. Alocodaman, Mike Floss, Stan, BlackSon, Tim Gent, Petty, Lil Bre and a handful of others are bubbling, ready to make noise and the cool thing is they all sound completely different from each other. You can’t sleep on Starlito because he’s been holding it down independently for years and he has an ear for talent, plucking really talented, street-edged dudes and putting them on his projects to share his spotlight.
As a city, there are a lot of people here who love hip-hop and want to support the many different facets of it. It’s something different groups like Lovenoise, Boom Bap, 2LsonaCloud, Creatives Day and others plus a lot of DJs have been working for a while now. Recently, we got together with a lot of movers on the scene to help create a thing called Elevate Nashville (https://www.instagram.com/elev8nashville/) bring together some of these different creators — from artists and producers to photogs and media types — to create a solidified push in helping grow things. The musicians, who all knew each other but had never worked together, went into the studio, laid brand new tracks and then rehearsed with a live band, another new element for most, over the course of several months. The culminating event was powerful and it created a lot of energy and showed people how there can be power in numbers. Everyone always cites Atlanta as that one city where people in the industry work together to push each other forward. There can only be one Atlanta but there are applicable lessons that can be pulled from that example and used to help your city’s scene grow into a self-sustaining one. It’s not an overnight process but a long-term one that’s refreshing to see grow from nothing and begin to take shape into something everyone can point towards within the city and outsiders can look to as a focal point as well
Q. How did you go from being a high school English Lit teacher to one of the biggest bloggers in the game?
A. Hard work, man (laughs). With TSS, things happened where a lot of talented writers came through our e-offices are helped create a small force that propelled everything forward. It’s like one would leave the stable to go deeper into media and entertainment and someone else would come in to help fill the void. We were sort of outsiders in that most of us didn’t reside in major media hubs so we didn’t necessarily have those chummy connections to labels, artists, etc. We had to rely on our writing and voices to really build up our credibility and make people take notice.
I get a lot of credit because I was the figurehead but I always shift the credit to the others. What we established was the result of a group effort where everybody worked together to strengthen each other’s work and challenged each other to step their game up, sharpen their critical eye, be innovative and what have you. That’s kind of what we were notorious for — you had to be able to write and your statements had to be well thought out, able to withstand critique internally. If whatever you thought, whatever you wrote could stand up internally, we knew when we published, readers wouldn’t always have to agree, but they would say ‘Okay, I see your point and respect it.’ It never made the work bulletproof however it did help it stand up strong.
Q. You are definitely an OG in the sneaker culture. Nowadays, it seems like everybody is just out to re-sell sneakers and act like hype beast. When did the game change and do you think it is getting worse or better?
A. The introduction of Nike SB and people paying insane prices are the point I always reference in terms of a shift occurring. Cats were paying hundreds and hundreds for some of those early models and colorways, which started drawing attention from outside the usual sneaker circles. Money flowing like water will do that. And all the attention also brought out non-collector/lover types who started to realize shoes were just another way of expressing yourself, accentuating your cool and such.
I’m an old fogey but I’m not one who bashes what’s going on now. Honestly, it’s cool to see people enthusiastic about footwear. And brands are constantly evolving with the technology, the materials, the marketing and such to keep things interesting. As much as I love old models, the new stuff is what keeps me into kicks. I buy newer models all the time because I want to see how new stuff works. Boost, Primeknit, Flyknit, Lunar, etc. Boost is definitely the best new tech we’ve seen in maybe the last decade and it feels amazing on-foot. As long as the interest is there, the industry keeps working to keep it engaged and innovation keeps happening. That’s what keeps me involved to this day.
Q. You are known for your no bullshit approach on your blog by being straight up about your feelings of projects or songs. Have you ever had a beef with an artist because of your brutally honest outlooks? And if so who?
A. Nah man, we aren’t bullying anyone with words (laughs). I think there were maybe a couple of times where artists got mad or misconstrued what was said. Personally, I’m not big on dealing with artists directly or being buddy-buddy with them because it screws up your objectivity. How am I going to bash my “friend” and their work? Or how tense is it going to get when I publish something on Wednesday and run into the artist on Friday at some industry event where everyone’s schmoozing? Chances are I’m going to hold back on my criticism so I don’t have to box this dude in the street or, at the least, hope that doesn’t box us out on an interview down the line or some exclusive or whatever. So that’s part of why we built our thing on expressing our opinions in well-organized pieces that connected with readers and fans versus trying to score premieres and such. At the end of the day, artists are fans too so a lot of times they’ll come up and say how they read this or that and you’re like “oh shit, you really do read our stuff.” [laughs]
Usually, though, when things go sideways, you can send messages through channels, hop on the phone if needed and get things sorted out before things get out of hand or anyone gets too out of control and starts lashing out publicly or worse. That’s why when artists go at each other over silly stuff, I know they could squash it easy if they wanted to because everybody’s connected by a few degrees of separation.
But above all that, I’m not a big proponent of bashing an artist’s work. If I don’t like it, I’m not going to spend hundreds of words trying to eviscerate them. The thing about the internet is it’s easy to be negative. The place is filled with negative articles, negative comments and such. Instead, my approach is “write what you like.” Don’t waste time on crap. Spread the word about the good pieces of work, the good ideas and help them catch on.
Q. Let’s talk about “The Smoking Section” for a minute. You have mentored a lot of people who started at TSS and have to go one to be successful. Can you talk about a few of them and your feelings on them moving up in the game?
A: Are you really asking me to pick my favorite kid?
Again, it wasn’t a Gotty thing. We made us together. And when I look around, we helped a lot of people get into doors through writing about music and topics close to heart. I’m humble as fuck and I’m never the best about really saying “hey, look at us” like you have to nowadays. Yet, I can look at someone like David Dennis who’s a professor at Morehouse and still publish phenomenal work on a regular basis. Someone like TC, who was instrumental in helping guide the ship, landing in an EIC role of his own. We’ve got guys like Ryan Joseph, Devin Chanda and a host of others who’ve gone on to work with larger publishers in key roles or someone like LC Weber Davis who cracked the door for us when her work landed in Best Music Writing and she went on to public radio, which was a passion of hers from day one. Guys like Beware are just as accomplished and unique as artists as they are as writers. Trackstar’s touring the globe and popping up on TV as a DJ for Run The Jewels. Lola Plaku has always had a crazy eye and ear for talent and she parlayed that into becoming who she is today. There are behind-the-scenes types like Paola Mendoza and Dimplez who helped shape who we were visually with their eyes and have gone on to kill it in their lane professionally. My homie Delenda Joseph was helping guide things from damn near day one. I don’t want to leave anyone off or for any of that to sound like bragging. It’s more of a pride thing because it’s awesome as hell to see people doing their thing and knowing their stories.
By far, though, I think most everyone will agree that Justin Tinsley is the one we all root for the most. We’ve placed a lot of people in larger media outlets or helped push them into good places in their professional lives. But, Tins was a guy who kept asking to write initially but we kept telling him “no” and giving him tips on how to get stronger. He kept submitting his work before finally it was a point where we needed someone and he was persistent (laugh). So it was like “fuck it, c’mon man.”
He had his personal and professional ups and downs just like most people. Got his degrees, worked jobs he didn’t like to make ends meet and probably had his down days. But homie never gave up, never stopped pouring his heart into his written work — because he’s one extremely talented writer who’s able to put ideas into words on a level that most people just can’t. Anybody who knows the guy knows he loves music and sports so to see his work running on The Undefeated regularly and catching him popping up on ESPN when I cut on the TV…that last part almost brings me to tears sometimes because I just don’t see my brother up there on the screen. I see a guy who, if most people faced the odds, they would’ve folded and gave up on their dream. He didn’t.
Q. I recently interviewed Nation from Nahright.com, I asked him this question and I wanted to get your take on it. Do you think Apple Music, Tidal, and Spotify killed blogs?
A: Nah, I think shit like traffic/clicks/shitty lists drove blogs into the ground and social media nailed the casket shut. For most. Some sites were able to evolve, some weren’t. For a while there, we all thrived off piracy but that came to an end. You had to shift and find other ways to keep people coming back, which we used writing as our calling card. Social media came through and gave people their own little platforms where they could share their thoughts with the world. I really don’t get too wrapped up in it because social media doesn’t keep a good track record of who really knows their stuff. A lot of times it’s about who’s posting the most and drowning others out.
Q. To piggyback off the last question do you think blogs kill the radio star?
A: I think blogs and the net opened the door for a lot more artists to enter radio, festivals, get deals and all the good things we associate with getting on in music. Labels, radio and such lost touch or they had really high hurdles that artists had to overcome in order to get attention when what most needed was just to be heard. If you have good music, people will listen and tell their friends, who’ll tell their friends and eventually you have a fanbase. Like that, you don’t necessarily need a label or radio to help you build a following. Just make dope music and not be an asshole and you can let people do the work of spreading your music for you.
Q. Do you feel that TSS ever got the props or recognition it deserved?
A: To be honest, I don’t know but I don’t concern myself with it either to keep it 100. I really don’t think about what I did yesterday or the days before that. My memory isn’t the greatest and that might be to my advantage. I’m always trying to figure out what’s next, what’s ahead and how to be part of that conversation.
It doesn’t kick in until situations like when you ask me to think about the staff and where they are. Every now and then, someone will hit me up or we’ll meet in person for the first time and they’ll talk about how they read us through their high school or even middle school years and how we helped shape their listening tastes, what kind of kicks they liked, their perception of artists and athletes. Things like that. It kind of throws me off because you sometimes don’t realize how much weight your words hold.
Q. How did you manage to get on music festival early, before hip-hop was really on those bills?
A: I think it started with Aaron Berkowitz, a talented booking agent and manager, and Matt Sonzala, who used to work with SXSW for years and ran his own blog at one point, reaching out to me and Eskay about putting together a showcase. At the time, I didn’t know what SXSW was and, that first year, I can definitely tell you there wasn’t a whole lot of rap shit going either (laughs). But those were kind of amazing times when you think about it because we had a who’s who of artists at the time – J. Cole, Cudi, B.o.B, Kendrick, Curren$y, K.R.I.T., The Cool Kids, Blu, Charles Hamilton, Wiz, Mac Miller and a ton of others – who would come through and perform sets for free. It was a time when everyone was really just trying shit and figuring it out. Nobody was thinking about where we’d all be five, ten years later. We were working in the moment.
From there, other festival organizers took notice and doors kept opening up or we kept linking up with really solid people who were focused on creating cool experiences. Fadia Kader, Mike Walbert and the folks with A3C were big supporters in our vision and we fucked with theirs so we worked together. A lot of people would say “oh, it was just luck” but that’s a bs answer. The truth is we worked really hard to establish ourselves, tried to carry ourselves respectfully and really pushed hard for artists, music, and ideas that we believed in. It all paid off and we’ve been able to do some good things along the way, which I’m very proud of.
Q. I wouldn’t be a John Gotty fan if I didn’t ask about Mya Mondays. Have you ever met her and does she know you have a day for her?
A: (Laughs) I wasn’t expecting this one at all. Wish I had some sort of concrete answer but I think it evolved from me posting her on my Tumblr for years then Instagram coming along and, me being me, I didn’t want to do MJ Mondays or Throwback Thursdays. I had to do something different so I started throwing up pics of her because why the hell not. She’s beautiful as hell and easy on the eyes, which makes for a wonderful visual experience. I was doing it sort of unconsciously and it started growing, then one of my homegirls told me I looked like a creepy stalker, which wasn’t my intent at all (laughs). I did it for smiles and likes. So I had to flip it a bit to make that clear by adding in little gems and jewels, positive thoughts and shit to shift the focus away from it being just about Mya. Again, it plays into the idea of trying to put positive energy into the web and into the world as a whole instead of more crap and negativity. People took to it.
I don’t know if Mya knows but her camp does so I’m guessing she’s either stumbled across it or they hipped her to it. I mean, I’m married so I don’t really want honey like that. She’s on my list though so my wife might not kill me if Mya slides in my DMs. We’ll cross that bridge if and when we come to it (laughs). For now, Mya Mondays are more about getting people in a good mood for the week ahead. Purely innocent intentions.
Q. Final questions, What would you have done differently with TSS and what do you want your legacy to be in the digital game?
A. Differently? I don’t know if I can pinpoint anything specific. A lot of times, readers would be like “Yo, why did you guys stop posting Loosies and Stray Shots?” without realizing we were having to answer to lawyers and cease and desist letters to the point where it was getting way too hectic as labels were cracking down. Or “why did y’all stop posting The Cooler and Nightcap?” Well, that was because Google was penalizing us in search because some of the content was “risqué,” or advertisers were confused about what the hell kind of show we were running (laughs). We, like everyone else, had to evolve and change with the times or get left behind in one way or another.
As far as legacies go, that’s still being written. I’ve been working online in some capacity since 2001 or so because I ran a sneaker site with a couple of homies way before shoes became a thing. I love how the net makes it so you’re in touch with people from across the globe and you find these like-minded types that make you realize that there are more people like you in the world. You feel less alone or weird in that way, you know? Because a lot of us were always the outsiders in socials circles. Not in an awkward way, but in how we viewed life’s possibilities. I’ve always thought very big and broad. Like I could shape my destiny and help people because I was lucky enough to encounter people like that as I was growing up.
The legacy of TSS will always be our words and how they helped shape and document the culture. You may not see it or know it, but we’re still doing it because we’ve got former crew members working in so many different outlets and in schools and colleges to ones working closely with Jay-Z and other large artists. Not bad for a bunch of fringe players who weren’t from NYC, LA, ATL, etc. and had to work their way into the game. Almost un-fucking-fathomable but very proud because these are all smart people who deserve the opportunities their work has afforded them.
I want to thank you for taking time out of your day to do this interview with me. You are one of the most, well-respected people in the industry and thank you for being an inspiration to me and others. Please tell the people how they can find you online?
Right now, many members of the crew use StillCrew.com as a home base to publish from outside of their respective commitments. I’ll be adding to that conversation more in the coming weeks and months. I have a few things brewing at the moment, which keeps me moving in a lot of different directions and places. To keep it simple, the easiest and quickest way to catch me would be Twitter (@JohnGotty), Instagram (@JGotty) and my personal site, JohnGotty.com.
-special shout to Marshall from TSS-