As a music fan who spent his 20s reading rap blogs in the late 2000s and early 2010s — and who wrote on them, too, and still does, in his 40s — I was EXTRA excited about ItsTheReal’s The Blog Era podcast. The 10th and final episode drops next week, and the whole season is well worth peeping for anyone interested in rap history.
As a narrative effort, I have to say the show is very lucid, followable storytelling from ItsTheReal’s Rosenthal brothers (Jeff and Eric, the podcast’s hosts and narrators) and their crack team of editors (which includes some personal friends like Timmhotep Aku and Brandon Callender). The season flows, characters are brought to life, and a messy and confusing period of music/internet history is related with clarity.
However, I also had some criticisms (East Coast bias, a lot of my favorite (and therefore important!) artists and bloggers left out, among other things), and I wanted to know what the Rosenthals thought. So I reached out to ItsTheReal to see if we could have a convo instead of me just asking questions into the thin air, as I sometimes like to do. Thanks to the guys for being game "go there," and now please enjoy this blogging about blogging. This interview was conducted on zoom and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Blog Era is on the OTHERtone network, which I believe is owned by Pharrell Williams. Did you have to pitch Pharrell directly? How did that partnership happen?
Eric: No. Jeff and I started this project in 2020 on our own as a way of doing something different. Our whole career up to that point was doing something we loved, something we were passionate about, and we didn’t want to be the last guys in the room, we didn’t want to overstay our welcome. And we had been doing a weekly podcast for the prior five years and with the pandemic, that model was not sustainable, we weren’t going to invite people over to our apartment to share the same air with COVID. We decided to do something different, something narrative, and what we thought would take two months took three years. Around year two we understood the scope, and went looking for partners. We sat down in LA with our friend Scott Vener, having some bagels for breakfast, and we told him what we were up to. And he said it sounded like a good fit for his podcast company. He and Pharrell are partners in the company. OTHERTone has been hands off when they needed to be hands off, and hands on when they needed to be hands on, and as artists we can’t ask for better partners.
Now that you can reflect, what inspires you to this day about the blog era?
Eric: I’m inspired by…through this whole process, in three years of living within 2007 to 2012, I’ve been renewed by an independent spirit, and the ethos we’ve had in our career, but hear it on an hourly basis, which is let’s subvert the gatekeepers, let’s do something we’re passionate about.
Jeff: I too am moved by the independence of it all. Setting our own schedule. The amount of time spent working reminds me of that time, and living through that, and connecting with people, and having that fuck-it spirit. It reminds me of where I was 15 years ago.
Eric: That’s artists, commenters who had day jobs but gave more to the comments section of a website than their job, and those who cheered them on who weren’t artists, who weren’t commenters, who found likeminded people on the internet.
What is a gatekeeper? Were the blogs in your podcast gatekeepers? Does rap need gatekeepers?
Jeff: Tough question. We’re living in a time now when everybody is sort of a gatekeeper. Nobody is a gatekeeper. Nobody trusts another’s taste as much as they trust their own. And idk if that’s good or bad. What is a gatekeeper? It’s something you go to to get posted. And idk if that’s a thing anymore. Maybe RapCaviar? Do we need gatekeepers? I don’t know if you can put the genie back in the bottle. How do we bring back the blog era, the answer is we don’t. How can you bring back the 1960s? I don’t think we can go back in time. But we have to do a good job building a community...
Eric: The bloggers didn’t start out as gatekeepers, but they became gatekeepers. They were who artists went to to get their cosign to be relevant and get legitimacy. Eskay, Lowkey, Mecca, Shake, Hof, Miss Info, for sure got to a place of status that you could argue Elliott Wilson had when he was at XXL, or the producers at 106 & Park had at their peak, or Ebro when he was programming director at Hot 97. And DJ Drama, and all the mixtape DJs. But the gatekeepers were the bloggers eventually.
Jeff: Sometimes people fight and claw their way to be a gatekeeper and it’s all about power, but sometimes it’s foisted upon them. People just start listening to you. There’s a duality in the blog era, old gatekeepers who climbed the ladder, and bloggers who didn’t initially think audiences were out there, and they just built. So many bloggers we didn’t talk about on the podcast were in fact influential. And artists. We don’t mention Lil B and Chief Keef, but those people who are not really appealing to the bloggers we focus on, there’s a reason those guys pop off as well.
Any attempt to write history opens itself to a million “why didn’t you include __” complaints, and it’s hard or impossible to be 100% comprehensive. But were there any blogs or music figures that you wish you included, or perhaps could be featured in a second season of the pod?
Eric: We just looked at this season, 10 episodes, a compelling, full story, and we reached out to a lot of people. Elliott Wilson did not respond. Noz turned us down. A number of artists and commenters, we wish could have been part of this. That’s not to say the story lines would have changed that much. For us, and we’re thrilled with what we got, it was super important to include someone like Henry Adaso who a lot of people don’t know. We talk about the TheRapUp.net right there with The Smoking Section and Fake Shore Drive. Wale didn’t want to do the podcast, but that doesn’t mean we couldn't get a well rounded story about his life from people who were around him.
I naively came to the pod expecting to hear about all my favorite shit and forgot, oh yeah the blog era was huge and diverse, and I experienced it through my positionality and with my own biases. So on one hand I was looking for Thizzler, Worldstar, Lil B, A$AP Yams, Prodigy, Raider Klan, Odd Future, Combat Jack, So Many Shrimp, Cocaine Blunts, Victory Light…. But on the other hand what you made is factual and truthful, and I feel your experience of history is perfectly valid. When you’re the first person to put down history, it’s like the beginning, there’s more histories to come.
Jeff: I think that we never set out to validate anybody’s taste. A lot of people you just mentioned were hugely important to me, but in trying to craft a story that was tight, it wouldn’t have worked. You need a Mickey Factz, who I might not have listened to at that time, but was influential in ways that other artists just weren’t Having Main Attrakionz in there wouldn’t have been compelling, just within this whole thing. But that being said the conversation is bigger than the podcast, and exists on twitter. A lot of people you named, and people you didn’t name, that conversation includes them. We wanted people to discover stories of the bloggers first, and the artists had to be bigger, because you need compelling arcs, and things that feed into one another. I could go on and on, but it’s this thing of a tightly contained 10 episodes, and rest assured that the conversation will be much bigger than the podcast.
Because of how you told stories on The Blog Era, you made me care about some stuff I was so-so on or even actually disliked. You kept my interest through episodes, and I even got emotionally invested. In what ways did you grow as storytellers through making the pod?
Jeff: Hugely. I think that for five years we did A Waste of Time which was our podcast, having different artists come over and tell their life story over and hour and a half. I think Eric, who has gone to film school, and is a much better judge of bigger picture than I am, this allowed him to use those muscles that he already had. For me it’s my first foray. It’s been an easy process in some ways, but also incredible difficult, agreeing on something and tearing it all down, a crash course.
Eric: We wanted to bring context to a lot of stories that people may have been settled on. If you thought about Charles Hamilton before this podcast, you might have felt a certain way, but we wanted to present him in a brand new way. By putting his journey right next to Kid Cudi’s. And being truthful all these years later. Someone like Mickey Factz, a lot of people haven’t maybe listened to him or thought about him in a while, but we wanted to give his story arc time because he went much higher, went much farther, and fell for different reasons than people remember. Even the bloggers, a lot of people were anonymous and were just names before this came out. We’re learning who people were. Understanding on a human level. Both of us grew immensely from a caring perspective as storytellers.
You said that Nahright was the sun of your rap blog universe. What drew you to Nahright?
Jeff: As a story, or as a reader from back then?
As a reader.
Jeff: NahRight shaped my taste, to some degree, but I was also extremely informed by Noz, David Drake, The Fader. Those were the people I was getting my taste from. But NahRight was hugely important for being the top blog. Artists wanted to kiss the ring. It was the place you could find everything, but I didn’t necessarily listen to everything. And he was important to ItsTheReal, as far as posting us. I loved his and Nation’s and Dre’s commentary, little that it was. But it’s a mix of it being important to my career, the conversation at large, and finding things I wouldn’t normally have listened to.
Eric: It’s impossible for me to convey this any other way. NahRight was who everyone who was a blogger aspired to be, and if you were an artist you aspired to be on that site. If you go into the wayback machine, you see everyone wanted their links to be on NahRight bc you got the most traffic. The most people went there. If you were Fake Shore Drive, Nigel D from Real Talk NY, if you were 2DopeBoyz, you wanted the approval of Eskay. If you were Wiz Khalifa, Mac Miller, you wanted to be on Nahright. If you were us, who had something to say, without any disrespect to any of the smaller blogs…if you were the Kid Mero posting in ALL CAPS and you get a link back from NahRight, your traffic spiked. It’s impossible to say what Eskay built wasn’t super influenctial. And for that reason we saw him as a sun of our universe.
Jeff: I did love his blog, even thought Eskay and I didn’t agree on the same things.
Eric: We are talking about a small subset, of a small corner of the internet.
You mention the wayback machine. How many blogs are still findable, in the podcast?
Eric: 2DopeBoyz still operates and are one of a very few.
Jeff: I would say very low amounts are still findable. Even baseline, their archives exist on archive dot org. But to enjoy them is impossible. Titles of posts, photos, suggesting a song was once there. Trying to watch videos on there, every single one I can’t watch. All the zshare links, hulkshare, all the shares, it’s all gone.
There are still people blogging in 2023. What should they do, to make durable content that could stick around? NahRight was relatively utilitarian and ephemeral, bc as you say all the links are dead. Are Q&As a format that ages better? Should bloggers today find and hyperlink mp3s? Embed video and audio? Write criticism?
Jeff: It’s less about format. Technology will always render the past very hard to get to. Big Tech. I was looking through Google press releases last night. There used to be Groups on Google. And all that shit got shut down. And all these academics are trying to get a hold of it. In a digital age, we’re reliant on Google and Apple, that’s the cross to bear. What I would suggest is it’s less about the format and all about the passion. Think about it as an artistic and creative decision.
Eric: Whatever it is, should be very personalized. That’s to me what makes the blog era special. There were zillions of blogs. It was free software to start a website. All the blogs formed an ecology of different lengths of pieces and different perspectives. The people running it are the sources of value.
Jeff: I found David Drake’s first writing on the internet, part of a group blog I don’t remember the name of. People would write long things and it was not good. People had to grow into their voices. But NahRight works because there is no real depth to it. The voice is the voice. A lot of Noz stuff doesn’t work for me now that did back then. Certain things age better not because of the format, but because people figure out their voices.
Eric: Byron Crawford’s archives don’t age well but all these people we respect and went on to do things in their own voice, were gathered in his comments section. Because of his singular and unique voice.
That’s where blogging is coolest to me, is in voice. People writing like they talk. Or people who don’t get a chance to lead conversations finally leading them. As problematic as Bryon Crawford is he was also occasionally hilarious and trenchant. But I like to give writers a shot on my blog who have a way with words, but maybe aren’t part of “the media.”
Jeff: There’s this idea that NahRight was backpacky shit, that it was all rappers who were lyrical. But it’s also Max B, Gucci, French…
It was a little East Coasty but it wasn’t blind to what was going on in Atlanta or other cities. But I do feel like this whole conversation is missing the west coast.
Jeff: There definitely is regional bias on our part, but we did include Dom Kennedy. But there’s lots more people like Pac Div, Overdoz, The Pack, who don’t get mentioned in the pod but are driving forces. It’s a blind spot but it’s represented through all these people’s stories regardless.
Eric: You could do a full series on DubCNN. A full series on Lupe Fiasco. Artists like Kidz in the Hall. Artists like B.o.B., Skyzoo, Gucci, Lil B…they all deserve their flowers. Their time. For us, it was 10 and a half hours we’re putting into the world. If we gave everyone equal time it would be a very long, overwhelming podcast.
Jeff: It would sound like reading a phone book. But the story of those guys, who were signed to labels, and went through hell, is represented by Mickey Factz.
Eric: And it’s been hugely important to us to continue the conversation on twitter, ig, or tiktok. If Jeff puts up an appreciation post for a rapper it sparks conversation that goes for days or weeks at a time. It’s an extension of the podcast.
How do you think about the blog era in relation to the mixtape era? What’s that Venn diagram like?
Jeff: I think there’s a lot of crossover. I think there’s no hard boundary on any of these things. Gucci was putting out mixtapes, but they were also DVDs, but also blog era, but also on WorldStar. It doesn’t end when DJ Drama gets raided.
Eric: The physical mixtapes do have an end there. But the idea of mixtapes switched. From park jams, to recording off the radio, to actual CD of street albums, to a body of work on DatPiff. Mixtapes evolved and moved. But the physical mixtape era ended in earnest when Drama and Cannon were pinched by the Georgia State government with the RIAA, there is this moment with Hof and his website OnSmash which had been doing similar things as DJ Drama but online, when the U.S. government in coordination with the RIAA comes down on that site. Bookends.
If I could push back, mixtapes did keep existing, Nicki, Meek, French, all put out CDRs.
Jeff: There are certain things about the early ‘60s where the ‘50s were still carrying over into those years. It’s the same with the blog era. People say the blog era is still going on. And yes, people are blogging, but those voices have moved onto twitter.
Eric: You bring up an important point which is the medium has continued, but you can still put boundaries on the time. Vinyl was the dominant way to distribute music for a period of time, and it didn’t stop completely on one date. There were websites before The Blog Era. There’s no concrete date, no zero A.D. And no date when everything ended for every blog. Meka and Shake still run a website.
Jeff: Nirvana hits big in 1991, and people say it ended hair metal. But there were hair metal hits until 1993.
Nah, I remember Nirvana being on the radio at the same time as Def Leppard’s “Two Steps Behind.” OK lastly, what artists are you most excited about in rap? Current or not current. I’m personally really passionate about New York right now, especially producers like Evilgiane, who did that new Kendrick/Keem song, and Cash Cobain, made a great album last year mixing sample drill with Jersey club. And of course Ice Spice. Are there any new acts you’re excited about, or is there any old stuff you’ve been loving lately?
Jeff: Who am I listening to? My music discovery is based on going out. And as consequence of the pandemic, and this project, and getting older, I haven’t been going out. So I’ve been listening to a lot of older stuff. The ‘90s, weird pockets of the ‘70s, Egyptian disco, things I never dug deep on. All because of streaming platforms like Tidal.
Eric: For me, Currensy. Admittedly over the last three years our heads and hearts have been in 2007-2012, but Currensy. What makes him very exciting to me, is he’s never been more popular than he is in 2023. He’s not Drake, Wiz, nor should he be. He’s himself. Puts out great music. Works with producers for full projects, which not a lot of people are doing, Harry Fraud, Jermaine Dupri…I value him and his art so much. He keeps growing. I would also like to mention our partner in this Steve Carless, who was our first friend in his business, who has managed Nipsey Hussle, Beyonce, has a label at Warner called Defiant. He works with all the NY kids now. Has a great understanding of who they are, what they represent, what they’re about, and it’s awesome to see the support that label has and how they’re moving the culture.