John Ruskin conducted his first ever interview in 1985 at Hillside Secondary School in West Vancouver, BC, Canada. He was just a student in his early teens interviewing Art Bergmann and Tom from the Vancouver band Poisoned, hometown legends. He is what I imagined Cameron Crowe looked like in high school, a music nerd that carried an aura of uncool. John’s interview only lasted 3 minutes, the low-fi VHS video shows most of the conversation is dominated by the very enthused young man. Unbeknownst then, this interview was the beginning of a career in journalism that has lasted 30 years.
Three long decades of going above and beyond, being adored, being hated, all while being himself. Before his career got started, John changed his name. It’s a name that I find to fit his off-kilter personality perfectly, something both peculiar and memorable, much like himself. In 1986, John Ruskin officially became known as Nardwuar the Human Serviette. The legend begins...
When I first discovered Nardwuar, I knew nothing of his past. A few years ago, I saw a discussion on my Twitter timeline about this unorthodox man who was conducting these unorthodox yet incredible interviews. The praise he was receiving came with a disclaimer, that he was a bit strange. Strange I can deal with, it’s the mundane that I find sickening. A few seconds after pressing play, it didn’t take long to conclude that Nardwuar isn’t your typical journalist and doesn’t look like the guy you expect to be active in rap journalism. The cool that’s associated with rappers and hip-hop isn’t represented by the clothes he wears or the way he speaks, he’s more Napoleon Dynamite than Terrence J. He might be more Napoleon Dynamite than Jon Heder. It’s hard to imagine this nerdy man dressed like he lost a fight with an 80’s thrift store conducts the best interviews. That’s the beauty of Nardwuar, he is the one you don’t expect. I don’t remember which interview I watched first but that's all it took to have me hooked, I couldn’t stop.
His approach is bizarre, the way he holds the microphone too close to their mouths is awkward, his ending catch phrase that is followed by the weird statue stance are all reasons why I can see him being deemed stranger than strange but the reaction he receives during the interviews as he unveils these little surprises is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I watched as artists were completely dazed and dumbfounded by his extensive knowledge and meticulous research. They seem more impressed by him than vice-versa, completely enamored by the relics he has procured.
Pharrell's reactions during his first interview with Nardwuar are priceless. You can tell his shock is genuine. He didn’t arrive to the interview expecting a journalist to ask him about the Chuck Norris Karate School he attended as a child or to unearth rare vinyl and memorabilia that would leave him speechless. It’s the nostalgia, being taken down Memory Lane not only breaks the ice but can show a different side of an artist. A very human side. We see Pharrell go from astounded and surprised to embarrassed, the interview is a roller coaster that doesn't slow down until it's over. Pharrell praises him again and again, impressed that this man has successfully dug so deep and knows so much. What’s amazing about this interview is what happens afterward. Pharrell is so amazed that when Nardwuar asks if he could assist in getting him an interview with Jay Z, Pharrell calls him personally. Jay claims that P called him 10 times just to recommend that Jay be interviewed by this amazing journalist. Jay agreed, but unfortunately the story of how he got Jay’s interview is better than the actual exchange. Jay didn’t know what to expect and Nard seemed a bit out of his element, still, a moment in history where impressive work unlocked a staircase to the throne. This also eventually lead to Nardwuar landing a job with Skateboard P's i Am Other creative collective.
In his first interview with Pharrell, Nardwuar unveils how he acquired such an odd alias. It’s a rare moment, one that doesn’t happen often in his interviews, where he gives a piece of his history. History is at the foundation of all his interviews and also a huge part of his life. He graduated from the University of British Columbia with a bachelor’s degree in history and was raised by a mother who teaches high school history and is a heralded historian. His appreciation of history is what allows him to approach journalism with a passion for the facts, watching his interviews are miniature history lessons. His first, big hip-hop interview was Snoop Dogg in 2000, around the time the movie Bones was being released. Even though the Dogfather would attempt to steal the Redd Foxx doll that was used during the interview, the two would do seven interviews throughout the following 15 years. In their second interview, two years later, Snoop stole Richard Pryor and Blowfly records from the Human Serviette. They joke about it during their next encounter. Eventually, Snoop really finds respect for the journalist and the two have grown pretty fond of each other.
It’s interesting, Nardwuar credits Snoop as being a figure that showed him how much hip-hop loves history. Discovering hip-hop’s connection to old records and old things showed him that he could enter and connect with the artist on that level. In 2001, he started interviewing hip-hop and R&B acts regularly. If you watch his early interviews with Ice Cube and Busta Rhymes you see it wasn’t the smoothest transition.
Bridging the old with the new is what makes his interview with Questlove so incredible. Everything he pulls from his magic bag sends Quest completely in a state of losing it. It’s funny, Quest admits that he wanted to keep his cool throughout the interview, he was prepared for Michael Jackson to be pulled out and he wouldn’t be fazed. It’s a long conversation, one that last about 46 minutes. My favorite part is how Quest explains how one of my favorite episodes of The Cosby Show, the one with Steve Wonder, led him to ask his parents for a sampler. Quest also acknowledges that Nardwuar reps Vancouver heavily. In every interview you notice that he always draws a connection between the interviewee and Vancouver/Canada, shedding a bit of light on his country’s history even if it’s a bit of a reach. The entire episode is worth watching, Quest is hilarious and gives a lot of insight on music and Philadelphia, arguably the best Nardwuar interview thus far. Brother Ali is another interview that is full of gems (find out what happens when Prince hears his music), he also took one of the records he received from Nardwuar, sampled it, and made a record dedicated and named after the journalist. I think Nardwuar is at his best when face to face with some of the industry's more seasoned veterans. Not to knock new cats like Kendrick, Ab-Soul, and ScHoolboy Q, the TDE trio all have excellent interviews, but the rich history that you get when witnessing a Bun B or a Wu-Tang video, it's hard to compete.
Nardwuar is the man to see in Vancouver now, the same way you see Drake in Toronto. Nardwuar is also notorious for his multiple interviews during SXSW, he kicks it into overdrive for the Austin music festival. It’s impressive that he can juggle so many interviews at once. Big K.R.I.T delivers an incredible interview, before the end of the first minute Krizzle is inviting Nard back to Mississippi to chill. Curren$y is another great South By interview, the two have multiple interviews together. Waka Flocka’s interview didn’t occur in SXSW, but he spent his entire interview cheesing from ear to ear as if he discovered that Santa Claus has been hiding in Vancouver. He’s blown away, so blown that Nard receives a Brick Squad chain from Woo The Kid.
Nardwuar never breaks, no matter what occurs he continues to execute the interview like a journalist on a mission. He’s almost like a robot, even when praised, Nardwuar's focus is the next question, setting up for the next surprise. I've never seen anyone so immune to discouragement and compliments. Throughout the years he’s come across some interviewees that didn’t seem very impressed by his colorful approach. His interview with Nas is one that is extremely awkward, especially once he reveals that he can’t keep the gifts. It’s definitely a moment that was expected to be great but got ruined toward the end. Wale’s interview also gets a bit weird, the back and forth is a bit turbulent but overall I see that he is a fan of what Nardwuar does. I think most hip-hop artists that he's crossed paths with both embrace and respect his craft. Especially artists on the come up that are familiar with his YouTube channel. He is slowly becoming the journalist that you want to be interviewed by. It's an honor. Part of Wale’s problem was that he had huge expectations for his interview before artists didn’t know what to expect. It’s a testament to how far he has come—such a long way since his first interview with Snoop—but when the element of surprise has been lost it adds more pressure.
Nardwuar has accomplished a lot in the last 30 years. What I’m most impressed by, is that he has stayed true to himself. The same young man that interviewed Poisoned has never stopped doing it his way. That’s inspiring. The kind of journalist we will look back upon and appreciate all that he has done. Hopefully, he makes it another 30, there’s still much to learn. There's only one way to end this article…
Doot doola doot doo... doot doo!
By Yoh, aka Yohdwuar The Moist Towelette, Aka @Yoh31.
Photo Credit: Instagram