The Oral History of Okayplayer

The Oral History of Okayplayer

Talib Kweli: My introduction to Okayplayer was a warm family thing: Here’s all these artists, this community. It’s all warm and fuzzy. We support each other. And then when it got to be a little bit more bitter, I was confused by it.

Some people really didn’t like the creative choices surrounding [my album] Beautiful Struggle. Before they even heard the album there was a lot of negativity surrounding it. And then for me to respond so negatively when it leaked, that didn’t help me at all. That actually turned a lot of people off, because they felt like I was attacking them rather than trying to defend my art.

Dan Petruzzi: I once got a four-page fax from Kweli from a hotel room. I don’t remember what it was about. But he wrote it out, went to the business center in his hotel room, and faxed it to me. I had to type it up and post it on the forums as him.

Shawn Gee: We opened the door of direct communication to the fans, and artists learned a lot. Before that, there was always a third party between the fans and the artist. What Okayplayer did early on was open that direct communication, sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad. Some artists communicated and all was fine, but some—and I won’t place blame on the artist—but sometimes that communication turned negative when fans were being critical. A lot of times the artist would run away, or would jump off, or would react negatively. It was a gift and a curse.

Talib Kweli: I wasn’t Internet savvy at all. I am a lot more Internet savvy now than I was back then, but I was from a different generation where the way that you deal with artists, you come with a little more of a respectful tone. I just didn’t understand the language of the Internet or the culture of trolling, the culture of people just saying wild shit just so they can get hits on their blogs. I didn’t understand any of that, and to me I treated that like you would treat anybody in a face-to-face situation.

 

There was an Okayplayer member who had leaked my album or participated in the spreading of the leaking of my album. And I kinda went off on this kid in the message boards.  —Talib Kweli

 

Questlove: There’s another side to this coin which is basically you got to maintain your cool. I’ll probably go at one or two cats if they’re being really ignorant. I always had this thing where they could smell blood in the water. Maybe I got halfway through it and then decided not to read the rest, or nor read the responses. And that’s the thing that just amazed me. Because didn’t Talib put that on Kanye’s record? “Always got something to say like an Okayplayer hater.” Shit, I just found out Jill [Scott] dedicated “Hate On Me” to Okayplayer as well [Laughs.] We’re some horrible trolls aren’t we?

Shawn Gee: There was a song with Kweli, Kanye, and Common where Kweli says something about being an Okayplayer hater. You started to see how Okayplayer was impacting the artists. It began to make its way into the songs. Jill Scott had a song called “Hate on Me” and I saw a thread back when it came out where they said one of the reasons she wrote that song was because she was another one who was more of an analog person that wasn't heavy on the web, and when she got involved she received some hate. There was some negative back and forth.

Common: I knew Kweli had been through some disputes with people on Okayplayer and he expressed himself. I think freedom of expression is important. If somebody says something to you, you have to be able to say something back. So I understand where Kweli was coming from and he was fighting a specific group of people who talk shit and really have nothing good to say.

Talib Kweli: There was an Okayplayer member who had leaked my album or participated in the spreading of the leaking of my album. And I kinda went off on this kid in the message boards and that wasn’t the venue for me to be going off. I felt like everything I was saying was right but I didn’t take into consideration the context.

I’m a lot more clear on it now but back then in 2004 I was just confused. After I saw the power of that community and after I saw how passionate they were about music, I started to engage the Okayplayer boards. I started to realize part of my problem with this community is that I’m not actively participating in it. That’s why I don’t understand it. So I started to post stuff, then it all kinda came full circle a year later, two years later when I put out Liberation. A lot of Okayplayer message boarders who thought I took a wrong turn with Beautiful Struggle or thought I took a wrong turn with that letter that I wrote, started to come back into the fold. It took me two years to figure out, “Oh you guys just want free music.”

That whole anonymous-ness, that whole "I’m going to make up a name and just say the wildest shit," is just intriguing to me. But I had to realize that that’s what happens. It’s not Okayplayer. It’s the Internet. As an artist you have an ego and you’re paranoid wondering why people are talking about you or wondering why people aren’t talking about you. So sometimes as an artist you go online to stoke your own ego. There’s really nothing to gain from people lavishing praise on you or people teaming up against you.

Shawn Gee: When some artists came on, some members would say things like, “That was the worst album you ever made!” And that artist would either react in the same level of extreme description or they would sign off and not come back. if 95 percent of things are positive and 5 percent are negative, you’re goin to focus on the negative. That was the gift and curse of the artist communication. What we started to see was, there were a lot of artists who were part of the boards who did not sign on as themselves. You had a lot of lurkers. They appreciated the communication and they appreciated the medium, they just didn’t want to get thrashed by the rest of the community. They just wanted to hang out and talk shit like everyone else.

Talib Kweli: I still go on Okayplayer fairly frequently, but I don’t spend as much time on it as I used to. I just kinda go on to see that they’re abreast of what I’m doing, but I used to really spend time addressing stuff on there. I went on the message board and there were two messages about me. These were the only two there. This was like a month ago, right? One was basically saying, you know, “I hate Kweli, I hate everything he’s done since Blackstar, but you know what? This Attack the Block is pretty damn good.” That was a perfect comment from Okayplayer. And the other comment I saw was “So has the random Kweli hating stopped yet?” Which made me feel like “Yo I wasn’t that paranoid.” It was just random people [who] had it out for me. For people to ask if it had stopped yet means that it was happening.

Questlove: The Internet offers people this anonymous platform to become their own Robert Christgau or their own Lester Bangs. I can’t defend it nor condone. That doesn’t mean that I’m being noncommittal about it. I get it on both sides, which is why usually when I turn in a record I’m always thinking about, how bulletproof is this? And the bulletproof I’m talking about ain’t Pitchfork-bulletproof or Slate-bulletproof or Rolling Stone record review bulletproof. I’m normally thinking about Okayplayers first because in my head, it starts there. And if they come at you piranha-style, then I feel like the rest of the journalist community will always take cues.

But then that sort of a cultish action thing can also have a backlash. I’ll go to other websites and read about how Okayplayer is like a kind of cult, lynch mobs of the Internet, that type of thing. I’ve seen [Pitchfork’s] Tom Breihan, I think that’s what he called it, like a cult center. That’s kind of a double-edged sword.

 

THE MEET-UPS

Dan Petruzzi: My first year on the job they had the first reunion. They called it a reunion even though it was the first one. And that was in Philly and we played laser tag and Angie was very much involved in organizing it. I think we went bowling too.

Questlove: The very first reunion, I remember Angela was like dead-set against us endorsing it or really having something to do with it. Just for like legal reasons, because a lot of these people would do stuff in the name of hip-hop. But they were still underage and whatnot.

I remember that they had the very first reunion in Philadelphia and I know that she wanted us to keep our hands clean of it, but I couldn’t. I remember this being one of the first major conflicts that Angela and I had over the site. I couldn’t do that. I don’t know if I was enjoying the spotlight or whatever

I decided that I was gonna treat everybody to laser tag. What The Roots would do, pretty much our daily routine was we’d go to work around like one in the afternoon. We’d stop at ten at night. Usually me and Scratch, we’d go play pool at the pool hall. Some nights we’d all go play laser tag. That was just how we relieved stress and all that stuff. It would just be like 12, 14 of us and the place would stay open until like midnight, one in the morning. We’d all just go laser tagging.

 

The first reunion, there had to be at least 76 people. That was just amazing to me the fact that 76 people came from all parts of the U.S. to meet each other for the first time. It’s weird that a lot of those friendships, people I see now, people that are now in their late thirties, early forties, those friendships were started on the website. —Questlove

 

The first reunion, there had to be at least 76 people. That was just amazing to me the fact that 76 people came from all parts of the U.S. to meet each other for the first time. It’s weird that a lot of those friendships, people I see now, people that are now in their late thirties, early forties, those friendships were started on the website.

The night that we recorded The Roots Come Alive, there was a girl who didn’t want to miss this, I think she was 16 or 17. I don’t how she swiped her mom’s credit card to get a plane ticket. Whatever the case, the plan got foiled and her mom stopped her from leaving. She was like crying and throwing a fit. So she had written somebody at the site like, “Can somebody send signed drumsticks to my daughter? This is all she’s crying about.”

So, I sent the drumsticks and I had reached out. I inboxed her or thought I was inboxing her on the site. Like, “Okay I sent your drumsticks. Sorry you missed the show.” And she was like, “Oh that wasn’t me, that was dadada.” Then I apologized. I was like, “My bad, forgive me. I’ll talk to you later.” But soon we became friends and, like, an item.

Talib Kweli: The Okayplayer tour that I went on, that tour changed my life. Two months of touring with the Roots and Gang Starr and Slum Village and all these people, it really put me on that community and I gained all of the Roots fanbase by doing that tour. Like everyone who was fucking with Okayplayer started fucking with Reflection Eternal heavy around that time.

Questlove: When did I know it was getting big? I'll probably say the Okayplayer Tour of 2000. That felt like a moment. That's when Sean first reminded me, "Yo man, this started in your bedroom." And it was such a big moment. We were doing the encore which was "Hip-Hop" with dead prez. Slum Village was on stage, Common had come by. Erykah, she popped in. This big-ass Okayplayer sign sitting behind me, dead prez is unsuccessfully trying to light a flag on fire laughs and the whole place is jumping. I even think Chappelle was there. He witnessed it.

I'm world famous for not enjoying the moment. Like, I abhor the idea of celebrating the idea of, "We me made it! We made it!" because it's always an up-and-down moment, but that was when I realized, Okay, this is special. We have a community, we have something special here.

It’s weird that Okayplayer was the precursor to how we know the Internet now. Businesses were started with people. Babies have been made. Marriages. Groups, The Foreign Exchange. This is much more than, “Hey guys I got this new record out called Phrenology and I hope you guys support me.” It’s never been about that. As a matter of fact, I’ve stopped giving Roots updates of studio announcements because it’s not even about that anymore. If I start doing that like, “Hey guys, the new album is called Undun.” The typical reaction would be, “Psh... Motherfucker get out of here with that shit.” But it’s still like their home.

 

THE NEXT LEVEL

QuestloveNow we're in a place where we're a little bit comfortable. We've survived every promise. In '99 and 2000, 2001, it was all about the Internet boom. "I heard this cat sold his company for $10 million, what's up with that? Where's my money?" There was a lot of that. I'm actually glad it didn't happen. It would have been easy to sort of go the route of how many companies went, from being a boutique shop to a chain.

Like the deal we almost did with George Jackson. That was a major life lesson. If you go back to that whole Internet boom time, everybody was going to invest money. George Jackson, one of the producers of New Jack City was working at BET at the time, like an executive at BET, and he really liked the site and he wanted to invest in buying it immediately.

D'Angelo had probably brought us our biggest non-left-of-center audience. The urban audience, conservative to the right, closer to the UPN/CW/Tyler Perry side of things, as opposed to what we represented.

So this was like a Thursday. It's like, "Well, we made a deal. Congratulations Mr. Thompson." Just go back to those Wayne’s World dream sequences imitates dream sequence sound effect where it's like OK, now you see me in the back of the car, Flavor Flav white top hat, tuxedo on, burning $100 bills with a cigar [Laughs.] I'm just dreaming, like, "Oh my God man, this is coming true." Like, the soundtrack in my head was "Hypnotize"—that's the song. A helicopter landed on my yacht to take me away to Mexico or somewhere.

Man, oh man—the meeting was Tuesday. We were going to sign on the dotted line. In my lifetime I'm actually going to hold a check that has seven figures on it. I can't wait! And that Tuesday, George died.

 

You see me in the back of the car, Flavor Flav white top hat, tuxedo on, burning $100 bills with a cigar [Laughs.] I'm just dreaming... Like, the soundtrack in my head was 'Hypnotize.' A helicopter landed on my yacht to take me away to Mexico or somewhere. —Questlove

 

That let all the air out of the balloon. And it was just like, man, we're going back to the little train that could. This was back when production with The Roots was all I had. There was definitely some weeks where it was like, OK guys, look, I know… To work in a place with just four white walls and no windows? There are definitely some feuds that are going down.

A lot of arguments went down, a lot of non-amicable exits. We're all adults now so we've since then kissed and made up. Especially back then with the lack of technology, you would have to be there on-call almost eighteen hours a day. Wanting to post something at nine o'clock and the server goes down. I'm having a heart attack like, "Yo, what the fuck!" Then someone has to drive all the way back to Philadelphia just to fix some code. You had to be a doctor on standby. It's not easy being part of a five-man team for a job that really requires 20 people. And in an environment with no windows and less than human conditions, but my pockets couldn't afford it at the time.

Now we're definitely in a way better place. We've kind of nuanced Okayplayer from being an artist website. It's still a musician’s community, but it's open to music. I didn’t know ten years ago there would be this much attention on electronic music. Like what Skrillex is up to or what Diplo is up to, that type of thing. Whereas back then, it was specific. You could only talk about Common, Dilla—like very specific things in the hip-hop parameter. We kind of transcended that and to fine effect I believe.

I don't know if it was by force or by choice, but we stayed a boutique shop and stayed steady throughout the storm. There's been a lot of moments where it's like, "It's over for us," and then something changes at the last minute. In general, people's interest in music doesn't die. As long as we have that then we're cool.

Okayplayer's job is to be the soapbox for the unheard. I trust and expect more groups to start in the vein of Tanya Morgan and Foreign Exchange. I expect vets to grow out of it, I expect veterans to still stay there and sound like grumpy old men because they like this Premier beat better than that Premier beat. And then someone under it says, "Who's Premier?"

Common: At the end of the day I’m connected to them and connected to the movement, like we still family. If they are doing things involved with Okayplayer and I’m asked, then I’m there because it was there from the beginning, the present and the future—no matter what because that’s my family. The Roots are my family and that’s the community they established so I will always be a part of that.

Talib Kweli: I definitely had my negative experiences with one entitled Internet culture and two with my own ignorance about what that culture meant. But no matter what happened on the message board, me and the people who run Okayplayer have always had a fantastic relationship. I don’t hold them responsible for any of that nonsense that I went through. They’ve always supported me and I’m always going to support them. Okayplayer has always been there for me and that’s part of my story as an artist.

Shawn Gee: Dan Petruzzi worked his way up to the chief. He’s the one that runs the day-to-day and he made the decision based on what was happening in the business, with relationships, and access to sort of move the company from Philly to New York.

Dan Petruzzi: The industry changed, we maybe may not have even realized the ways in which it was changing, but we moved fluidly with it. Labels started building new media departments in house,, they started figuring out what new media was. CDs were still selling at the time and Napster had changed things, and affected sales at the time, but Napster got shut down, the iPod wasn’t out yet. At the time we had the ability to influence how certain record labels rolled out certain records. Because they were open to experimentation. They still are, but not as much.

Shawn Gee: As the company grew, individuals grew, Angie left the company and got a book deal. I don’t think the book deal was directly related to Okayplayer, but once she was in discussion with the publisher she pointed to some of things she was doing on Okayplayer and they saw that as a real positive. So she got a book deal which morphed into a development deal, which morphed into her moving to California, which morphed into her becoming a head writer on Scrubs.

Questlove: We've all moved to New York. I guess the name of the game is community and growth. It's interesting. It doesn't have to be about, like the seed of it starts of course with Hip-Hop and a Hip-Hop band. But it's like we all grow up. Now it's used as a means for LargeUp and OkayAfrica. Its many offsprings. It's slowly growing. I'm just glad it's there.

And it's kind of weird. I thought I had the upper hand on knowing what's going on. I use OkayAfrica, like I use my own company so I can find out what interesting music is going on. And I'm still jaw-dropped at the fact, like, “Wow, this happened and this happened and this happened” and me not having a clue. I need Okayplayer. I go in there and I click, "Oh damn, I didn't know about this person. It keeps me sharp. If it grows, it grows, but at the end of the day that's what I expect it to be. A playground for the unheard. I need it more than it needs me. That's probably the bottom line right there.

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