Faces of NPR: Rodney Carmichael
Faces Of NPR showcases the people behind NPR--from the voices you hear every day on the radio to the ones who work outside of the recording studio. You'll find out about what they do and what they're inspired by on the daily. This week, we feature Rodney Carmichael, Host of Louder Than a Riot and The Formula which airs today!
Name: Rodney Carmichael
Twitter Handle: @Rodneyology
Job Title: Co-host, Louder Than A Riot / Host, The Formula
Where you're from: Decatur, GA.
What was your draw to hip-hop?
My draw to it was like a lot of people who grew in the hip-hop generation. It was life. It was like water. I grew up outside of Atlanta, in Decatur, Georgia, and I guess my initial way of hearing it was on an AM station, WIGO, that played rap. I remember the impression that Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five made on me with "The Message." It was just a world. I'm not from the Bronx — not that we didn't have that kind of stuff going on in Decatur — but it didn't look the same way, you know what I mean.
I grew up passing tapes around with my friends and getting to go to the record store every now and then to buy a Whodini record or something like that. I was just definitely a fan of the music — the music and the culture.
Did you know Louder Than a Riot would make this great of an impact?
Well, first off, with the Mac Phipps case, we're not the first to tell his story. Just like so many injustices in this country, it often takes a lot of people telling and retelling someone's story of injustice for people to start paying attention. He has not been exonerated for the crimes he was convicted of. Even though Louisiana granted him clemency after he served 21 years, there's still an injustice if you believe that he is innocent — as he and all his supporters have declared from day one and a lot of the evidence, or lack thereof, seems to uphold. So I'm glad that we were able to elevate his story and I hoped that was something we would be able to do. More than anything, we all just hoped we would be able to show how these injustices are not just things artists are rapping about, but things that are affecting us. The music, in a lot of ways, is born out of the kind of injustice that disproportionately affects our communities. It's no new revelation that the criminal justice system is biased when it comes to Black and brown folks. But I think it's good that people were able to hear a podcast that tried to dig deeper into a lot of the reasons why that is.
Did you expect Louder Than a Riot to be an award winning show?
It's funny because there are awards that you apply to, and we applied to some, but the International Music Journalism Awards was one that we didn't apply to. It felt pretty good to get an award we didn't even know we were being considered for. That made up for the ones that we applied for and didn't get.
How did you think Louder Than a Riot would sit with NPR's current audience?
Honestly, we didn't prioritize that audience. I was a fan of NPR for almost 20 years before I started working at NPR, and I know a whole lot of other Black folks who listen to NPR and who are hip-hop heads and who are just Black people living and moving and operating in the world. That's a slice of NPR's audience that gets discounted too much. We were really trying to create something that spoke to and for and about them primarily. The last thing we wanted to do was prioritize an audience who this content is not even about — even though everybody plays a role in criminal and social injustice whether it's passive or active.
Because we had such a racially diverse team, we got a sense of how the stories would play to a range of listeners within our own team. But the funny thing is hip-hop is the most consumed genre in this country right now. And it's not because rap artists are out here trying to figure out how they can cross over to white America. White America likes hip-hop, because it is what it is — it's gritty and it speaks to and comes out of a specific environment. A lot of people in podcasting still don't understand that you don't have to cater to the "dominant" audience in order for your product to be received by them. When you're a platinum selling artist, the majority of your fanbase is white buyers and listeners. America crossed over to hip-hop, hip-hop didn't cross over to America. So we definitely were not worried about trying to figure out how to cross over to white audiences. Hip-hop has the biggest audience in the world.
Black/hip-hop culture appears all over the world, Italy, Hong Kong, etc. How do you feel about this? People love the music, but do you love the people? Do you feel like this is appropriation or appreciation?
So much of American pop culture and American music is rooted in Black music and Black culture. Every popular genre in existence grew out of us. That's why it was important for us to do a podcast like Louder Than A Riot, because we understand that everybody consuming the music does not always make those connections to the culture or understand how the music they know so well is being shaped by really egregious policies and practices in this country. The music really is a gateway drug for a lot of the people outside the culture. But everybody doesn't always understand why the music expresses so much pain or emphasizes criminality. We wanted to try to make those connections a lot broader and a lot deeper, and hopefully people got some of that through the season. In that sense, we were thinking about NPR's traditional audience.
While hip-hop does amplify the cultural significance, there is also an emphasis on crime, drugs, misogyny. How do you think all of these can live in the same world and still be progressive?
It's true that rap is not always a progressive or positive force. And what you're speaking of really highlights how broad we believe Louder Than A Riot has the potential to be. This is not a series that is limited to dissecting the criminal justice system. It can talk about all of those things, from the injustices impacting hip-hop communities to the injustices flourishing within them. I think we'll surprise people in season two.
Who do you think The Formula will appeal to and why is this conversation important?
This is season two of The Formula. In season one, we focused on sampling and talked to some legendary producers. This year we're focusing on another essential element of hip-hop: collaboration. We're going behind the scenes a little bit, trying to uncover some of the magic and talk about how it's made. Collaboration happens in every genre, but there's something unique about how it happens in rap. Maybe it goes all the way back to the cypher and the DJ and the MC in the park. It's just a formula we really wanted to try to decipher and dissect in this season. We tried to pick pairings that have a deep body of work, too.
We wanted to really get into how these relationships work. What makes these odd couple pairings, as they sometimes are, become the thing that gifts us with the music we love. Season one was really about the technical aspect of producers making music. This season is really about the human element and how two creators come together and meld their creativity into one. This is biology, this is chemistry.
Do you think there's a common consciousness that all of these producers and artists have in order to create magic?
I think it's connected to a really traditional element of Black music that goes all the way back to Africa: call-and-response. Collaboration, especially in the way that it happens in Black music and hip-hop in particular, is very much a call-and-response type of relationship. The artist is responding to the producer's spark or musical idea and the producer is responding to the artist's voice or lyrics. They're inspiring each other, and I think you have to really be open to receiving that inspiration. It takes a lot of trust.
What do you think the future of hip-hop looks like?
I was having a conversation with some of our team about this recently. I asked the question: "Does hip-hop still scare America?" Because, to me, that's always been the litmus test for whether or not the music is still as vital as it was from day one.
Do you think hip-hop still scares America?
Well, I do. And part of that was kind of confirmed by the answers when I asked Sidney Madden and LaTesha Harris that question. If you look at certain artists in the past couple of years — specifically artists that are challenging hypermasculinity or prescribed gender roles — artists ranging from Lil Nas X to Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, these are all the artists that are not only doing something that America might find threatening, but that certain conventions of hip-hop are being threatened by and that's a really interesting place to be. After more than four decades, rap is being threatened from the inside. People who were once relegated to the margins are now becoming the real driving force of change and dominance in the culture. And that's refreshing to me. So I would hope that five years from now, the kind of conversations that we're having about artists like those that I just named are a whole lot different and hopefully they're more of the norm than they have been for the 40 years preceding.
Who do you think is the best out right now?
I really like one of the duos that we feature in The Formula this season: Westside Gunn and one of the producers he works with named Conductor Williams. Gunn just put out a double album (HWH8) and the soundscapes that he created with the network of producers he works with, including Conductor Williams, is just so rich and hypnotic. He's created a sound for his city, Buffalo, New York, over the last decade. That's another thing that makes this genre and this culture so much different than any other — geography and sound are synonymous in hip-hop. Every artist is expected to rep their hood and their city. That really doesn't exist in the same way in the rest of the popular music landscape. So yeah, I love Westside Gunn and what he's been doing with his production crew, The Heartbreakers.
So we all have this story of a time music has saved us or woke us up or, you know, just music has been pivotal in our lives. Do you want to share that moment?
The year that De La Soul's album Buhloone Mindstate came out was a year in which West Coast gangsta rap was running everything. I was actually living on the West Coast at the time, and, being a Black teenager from the South who came of age with hip-hop, I could see how my life ran parallel to the dominant music out at the time. And when this Buhloone Mindstate album came out and contradicted a lot of what was really popular in rap at the time, it really woke me up to a part of myself I hadn't been in touch with after a really wild year of living on the West Coast.
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