The story you’re about to read is true – only the names have been changed to protect the not so innocent. This is what the daily life of a hip-hop reporter is like when dealing with disgruntled artists.
Dating back to before the launch of RapReviews.com in the late 1990’s, I was a fan of MC Subterranean. I first got exposed to his music through online broadcasts of The Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito Show via WKCR’s website, at a time when internet radio was still in its infancy, and immediately started picking up any Subterranean singles that dropped via online stores like Sandbox Automatic. I continued to follow Subterranean’s work even as he went through some hard times, including a jail bid over some various BS in his life, and throughout the 2000’s I admired his persistence as an artist. Subterranean remained uncompromising when it came to his music, preferring to release it on his own label rather than let anybody have control over his artistic vision.
As an independent freelance writer myself I felt we were on the same wavelength, to the point where I actually chose NOT to review his albums, feeling I might have an extra bias in favor of an artist who I felt had been overlooked and not gotten his due due to his rugged independence. In hindsight that was unhelpful given it made it even more difficult for a do-it-yourself artist to get exposure, because even though I was a fan of Subterranean the other writers on the RapReviews staff seemed uninterested in his music. I couldn’t find somebody who wanted to write about him, and he continued to churn out music at an accelerating rate, at which point I had to just let it slide and say “We can’t cover everybody. There are too many records coming out. As much as I like Subterranean this just isn’t going to happen.” I continued to support S and buy his projects on and offline regardless.
A few months back a fellow fan of Subterranean hit me up and asked the obvious question – why hadn’t we covered Sub’s work in greater depth on the site? I outlined the reasons above and he (correctly) called me out on avoiding writing about Sub due to my belief I was too heavily biased in Sub’s favor. He challenged me to overcome this obstacle and review Subterranean’s latest EP, telling me that it wouldn’t take long to get through and that it would be well received by RR’s readership. I took on the challenge and found I was able to overcome my own mental block, noting that I enjoyed Sub’s latest project and the audio landscape provided by his producer Mad Energy. The fan wrote me back and challenged me again: “You did a really good job with the first EP, so you should review the sequel. He works with Mad Energy again and I really think they’re something special together. They could be the new Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth. Let me know what you think.”
At this point I probably should have declined or tried to get one of the other staffers to step in, but I let the good reception of the first review cloud my judgment and decided to do the second EP too. Unfortunately I felt that the fan who wrote me was wrong about Mad Energy as a producer. I enjoyed his work on the first EP, but by the second it seemed to me that he had run out of ideas. The biggest change from one EP to the next was the movie he took snippets of dialogue from, and while the beats didn’t necessarily detract from Subterranean’s flow, they didn’t really enhance it either. I made a note of all of this in my review, saying that as somebody who had followed Sub for the last 15 years, this EP wouldn’t change my opinion of him as an artist – but it just wasn’t up to my expectations.
To my surprise I received an e-mail out of the blue from Mad Energy. He was relatively polite, although I got the clear message from reading between the lines that he took the review personally. He said that I was “out of pocket” for criticizing the music, that he and Subterranean had a good partnership going, and that Subterranean wouldn’t be pleased with the review. At times it seems a critic’s job is to offend people who are fans of an artist, and though I accept that role and take the lumps, this one struck me hard because I had no desire to offend Sub. Even though I said nothing negative about his lyricism or ability in the review, Mad’s feedback made me reconsider my work. I had written it late at night after a second or third cup of coffee, and maybe I was too tired to make the point I wanted to correctly. I offered to rewrite the paragraph that offended Mad Energy the most, and reposted the review.
Far from resolving the issue to everyone’s satisfaction, Mad Energy got back to me again, saying that the new paragraph “was actually worse” and that he realized now he was “dealing with a cat on a whole different wavelength.” A few hours later I got a tweet from Subterranean saying “Steve we have some things we need to discuss.” It seemed Mad Energy had made good on his promise to let Sub know about the review, and if Mad Energy was in his ear to that degree, I doubt that anything complimentary I had to say about his wordplay or vocals in the review got through. Nevertheless I offered Sub a personal apology, saying that I felt I made some mistakes in the review, and that I had tried in good faith to correct them. I took out the paragraph about Mad Energy altogether and reposted the review AGAIN. I offered to discuss it further if this didn’t resolve the issue, possibly even removing the review if necessary, but only as an absolutely last resort.
I’ve always considered removing a review the “nuclear option” as a writer and editor. Once an artist asks us to remove a review (at times with thinly veiled threats) we’re through covering their music. The nickel’s worth of ad revenue the site generates isn’t worth the headaches created by an artist who thinks everything they create is a masterpiece and allows no dissenting opinion. If you don’t want to be criticized, don’t sell your art. Once you offer it to the public you’re assenting to the public and the critic’s opinion of it, whether they like it or not. If an artist can take criticism constructively and make something better the next time it’s to the benefit of all involved. If an artist doesn’t like the criticism, they should have the self-confidence to say “I made the art I wanted to make so even if it’s not well-received it’s still my truth as I see it.”
The aftermath: Subterranean never responded to my apology, but also didn’t ask me to take down the review. I haven’t heard from Mad Energy again so as far as I know he’s finally been appeased – but why he’d take one review so seriously while at the same time telling me “the EP’s sold out everywhere so clearly we’re doing something right” is mystifying. If that’s the case what difference does my opinion make, and why does he need to feel I’m “out of pocket” for criticizing his production? Living well is the best revenge. If you sell a million records and everybody says you’re terrible, you still (hopefully) got paid, and that money buys a lot of salve to rub on a bruised ego.
I don’t know how I feel about Subterranean any more, but I’m going to avoid reviewing any records he does with Mad Energy from this point on, so if that’s the only producer he wants to work with it’s likely the last review he gets. Even if he tries to partner with other people I’m going to default to my original position that someone else on staff should review Sub’s music. It’s a shame I insulted Sub accidentally or otherwise, but as a self-made business man and entrepreneur I still respect his rap and his hustle. The bottom line is that nobody should ever expect “universal acclaim” – if 99 out of 100 people like your music there’s always going to be 1 person that doesn’t. When you succeed to that high of a degree, taking the one who doesn’t like it personally is a distraction, and that energy could be better spent making more art instead.