Baltimore Music Critic Al Shipley Is Not a “Recommendations Engine”

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Photo by Jennifer German-Shipley.
Photo by Jennifer German-Shipley.

You might not recognize Al Shipley on sight, but if you follow Baltimore music, you can’t help but come across his byline on a regular basis. When he’s not explaining the aesthetic and social context of Baltimore club music to outsiders in national media outlets or reviewing records for City Paper, he’s covering an impressive amount of local hip hop, R&B, and club releases at his blog, Government Names.

His reviews are free of verbal exhibitionism and schadenfreude, but they’re not overly diplomatic either. He is a reviewer who has made peace with his own tastes, and he delivers his well-informed — though unvarnished — opinion. Very occasionally, this has got him into trouble with artists or their fans, but critiquing without kid gloves constantly engaged ultimately makes for a more mature scene. And Baltimore is better for having Shipley’s straight-talking reviews starting many of our conversations about local music.

Recently, I spoke with Shipley about music criticism in the age of internet comments, the decline of regionalism, and the advantage of a “granular” approach.

You’ve been reviewing and blogging since sometime before the rise of Web 2.0 — where functionally anonymous opinions abound. Do you see that changing the role of the music critic?

I think the expanded availability of opinions may not have changed the role of music criticism as much as the expanded availability of the music itself. It used to be that, to an extent, you had to take the critic’s word for it — I used to read every review in an issue of Spin or Rolling Stone or Alternative Press, but there was no easy way to hear the overwhelming majority of the albums reviewed without buying them. Now, pretty much any record you read about, you can stream or at least sample a couple songs off of it pretty easily. Critics used to derive some of their authority from the fact that they were getting all these promos and hearing all this stuff you didn’t hear. But now everybody with an internet connection is on a more level playing field, at least as a listener. You still have to prove yourself as a writer, though, whether you have an impressive publication behind you or just a blog.

I would like to think that this means that the role of critics as a “recommendations engine” is being reduced by everyone’s increased ability to find music on their own, although I don’t know if that is happening yet, or if it will. Scores and grades still matter an awful lot to people, unfortunately. But I think we’re getting closer to having a healthy exchange of ideas between critics and readers, or between critics and bloggers, or even critics and artists. Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr have made it a lot easier to create a dialogue with your writing, to get it in front of people and provoke a response, which is great. Things feel much more connected and alive compared to five to 10 years ago, when sometimes you were just waiting for googlers to stumble on what you wrote. A lot of my peers have seemed so dispirited about the state of music criticism specifically in the last year, about recent developments and trends, where I’ve felt a lot of excitement and potential.

Do you see music getting less regional as time goes on?

I think it already has. Look at hip hop, one of the last great bastions of regionalism — all of the big stars to have emerged in the last few years are less tied, in sound or identity, to where they’re from than the New York MCs and Southern rappers that preceded them. They’re from Toronto or Pittsburgh, but they could’ve come from anywhere. I think people will realize, over time, though, how geography still shapes music and how physical communities can bring about things that online communities cannot. Baltimore demonstrates that to me on a daily basis.

You said in an NPR interview that you “think it’s better to maybe have some tunnel vision but be passionate about what you’re writing about and have areas of expertise than to be chasing the zeitgeist and ending up with boring opinions about the same thing everyone else is covering.” How did you land on R&B, hip hop, and Baltimore club? Are there other genres close to your heart that you tend to exclude from coverage for the sake of your “tunnel vision?”

When I said that, I was actually thinking less in terms of what genres I do or don’t listen to than what records and artists I check out within those genres. Genres like hip hop or indie rock are incredibly fertile and varied and constantly changing, but it’s very easy now to figure out what’s got buzz at the moment and just respond to that, instead of making an effort to find new stuff, or follow your passion down unexpected rabbit holes. What I was decrying was the tendency for most music critics to just crowd around the same 1 percent of new music, giving thumbs up and thumbs down, when there’s a lot more to explore.

I never necessarily meant to make hip hop or R&B my niche as a writer — I still don’t think it is, but I came up at a time when writing about nothing but indie rock was still considered acceptable so any divergence from that can make you stand out. Writing about Baltimore club was exciting and fulfilling because so few people were doing it on any consistent or detailed level — they might get excited about it for a few months, write their one piece and move on. So I’ve tried to demonstrate what good can come of looking at something like that on a granular level for years and years, what you don’t get from a brief, surface-level engagement with a scene like that.

Sometimes deliberately carving out a niche as a writer, not just a listener, can be rewarding too. When I started writing album reviews on a steady basis around 2005, I started buying more R&B albums because a) it was less competitive to pitch an R&B album than a hip-hop album, in terms of other writers wanting to cover the same thing and b) I had loved so many R&B singles without digging into their parent albums. So R&B became more and more important to me as a music fan over those last seven or eight years, and in 2012, when a lot of critics just kind of suddenly got into Frank Ocean and decided the genre was worth their attention, I was kind of like, “Where have y’all been?” But better late than never, I guess.

You make yourself pretty easy to contact — you announce your email address right at the top of Government Names — twice. Have you ever gotten flak from artists you’ve reviewed? Are you comfortable in a world where monologue so easily turns into conversation?

Making myself easy to contact has caused more problems with artists who wanted to be written about than artists who I have written about. Last week I decided that I will no longer respond to Gchat and Facebook chat messages from people I don’t know. The last time I was polite enough to respond, but not so polite as to sugarcoat my response, the guy posted the whole conversation in public to try and put me on blast. It’s not worth it, if people like that are out there.

When I started out, I prided myself on being able to respond to every e-mail, and to listen to virtually every record from Baltimore that I was sent. That was a long time ago, though, and fatherhood and a lot of other things have made that kind of generosity with my time impossible, which I can’t apologize for. Truth is, I was way too generous back then, and I’m still more generous than most critics.

Actually, being nice enough to listen to unknown artists but not nice enough to pretend they’re good when they’re not is probably a root and running theme of my work in local music. I got a reputation among readers of Government Names for being a tough critic, but that was because I was reviewing at one point 50 to 100 mixtapes a year, and they couldn’t all be good. One review in particular seemed to get a huge reaction: I didn’t really mean to, but people acted like I murdered the guy. I ran into him later on, and he was surprisingly nice, shook my hand, seemed to take my review as advice rather than an insult. It’s much more common, however, for an artist who react negatively even if the overall review is positive, if there’s one sentence that bugs them or inadvertently contains a factual error.

I have occasionally run afoul of artists with negative reviews — the most memorable example was when a local rapper scored a very small amount of fame dissing Nicki Minaj, and I pointed out that her music had no real virtue to anyone who wasn’t chomping at the bit to take Minaj down a peg — and I say that as someone who dislikes Minaj’s music more often than not. That rapper’s Twitter cult left comments and harassed me for a few days and it was all lots of fun for me. Nearly three years later, I’m still doing my thing and she’s, I guess, still “working” on a second mixtape.

How old is your son? Is he beginning to have musical tastes of his own?

He’s three now, so he retains songs pretty well, but mostly just the ones he hears over and over at daycare — he’ll just break into “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star” or “Old McDonald Had a Farm” sometimes — but I don’t think I’ve inundated him with enough music myself to measure his preference. He really likes the “Bob The Builder” theme song; that’s one we sing together a lot. One time he really seemed to respond well to jazz, so I’ve been meaning to expose him to more of that, but I listen to jazz pretty rarely. For a while he liked singing along with “Werewolves of London,” but then he decided he’d had enough of that — “no more ‘awoooo.'” Maybe he felt like we were just playing it to make him perform, which we were, so fair enough.

Listen to Al Shipley’s band Western Blot’s debut single at bandcamp. Keep an eye out for his full-length book on Baltimore club, Tough Breaks, tentatively scheduled for a 2014 release.

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