2014, The Year I Became an Artist Again


When I was 18 I wanted to be an artist. Or more honestly, I didn't know what I wanted to be. Being something never really occurred to me, which felt like something an artist would think. Or not think. I didn't know. All I knew is that I wanted to be on the road with the ghost of Jack Keroauc and bend my life in the direction of whatever lay before me. So before my graduation cap had even hit the ground I was crossing the country to California with only a duffel bag to my name, determined to have every single experience a human could. I spent mornings waking up in dusty Greyhound stations outside Reno, afternoons in tattoo shops listening to death metal and evenings at Black Star shows. I bar-tended and had my mind blown open by Voodoo and Labor Days and somehow emerged from San Francisco's foggy density eight years later with a degree in poetry. 

When I was 26 I wanted to make money. The only thing I've ever really been able to do well is write, but starving artists die, so I tracked down the steadiest writing job I could find, journalism, and settled down. My settlement didn't last long. Within a year the newspaper industry was crumbling like...a house made out of newspaper...and so I pivoted into the world of the tech start-up. I could make it out of any dive bar in the country, but now I was also learning what it was like to sit in a room of venture capitalists, negotiating to close a $10 million Series A round. Dreams of internet riches swam though my head. And even when I quit that job to join DJBooth, I considered it a perfect halfway point. On one hand I could stay connected to the music I loved, write about how Love vs. Money was a modern R&B classic and how American Gangster was low key JAY Z' best album, and have my other hand in the gleaming world of internet technology that would surely make me rich someday. 

Someday has not yet come. 

Now I'm 32-years-old and I want to be an artist. I don't regret those years spent earning an informal business degree in the tech and music industry, they're what at least allow me to keep my daughter well stocked in Dora the Explorer backpacks and health insurance. But some inner magnet in my soul keeps pulling me towards art, and it's getting harder and harder to dismiss it as a mere impulse, a side gig. Some days, when I'm feeling brave enough to look at how much money I have don't have in my IRA, I fantasize about that steady, high-paying job with benefits, but really, what else am I going to do? Like Lehman Brothers is hiring someone whose job skills include breaking up rapper fights and making Rick Ross man tittie jokes. Truthfully, that ship to anything resembling a mainstream American life set sail years ago, and I can barely even see it anymore from the shore.

So 2014 was the year I (re)embraced being an artist, tried to dredge up that 18-year-old Nathan who only cared about doing the most awesome thing from the murky depths of adult responsibility. I was going to make great things, things I cared about, and I was going to push every other writer at DJBooth to do the same. We weren't going to do slideshows anymore. We weren't going to chase trending topics. If we weren't as excited as Killer Mike on the intro of "Jeopardy" about what we were writing, it wasn't worth doing. Letting Lucas spend two days working on naming every single person on "Notes to Self" was insane and awesome, so we did it. Charlie wanted to eulogize his mother, so we did it. Writing about how Kendrick's "Sing About Me" makes me cry felt terrifying, but making art can be terrifying, so I did it.

When I interviewed artists this year, as narcissistic as it might seem, I tried to speak to them as brethren. We were all in this thing together, trying to make something that makes someone feel something, even if it's just to forget about their more important problems for a moment. How could you be surrounded by raw creativity like ScHoolboy Q and Kendrick and FKA twigs and Mick Jenkins and dilute all of that art down into a list? How could we churn out another predictable think piece? If we wanted artists to make music that pushed boundaries, how could we not push at our own boundaries? 

When I was 18, I was going to be someone, but I didn't know who. And while I never forgot who I was, somewhere along the way I stopped being truly, completely myself, because I thought that maybe I could find a safe, comfortable place in the world. But the truth is that I never belonged anywhere stable, anywhere safe. So 2014 was the year I began to unapologetically think of myself as an artist again, and even if I spend my life toiling away on some corner of the internet, writing about the music that moves me even when no one else cares, even if those riches never find their way into my bank account, I'm going to be an artist.

It's really all I want to do. It's really all I can do. 

[Nathan S. is the managing editor of The DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. He also occasionally talks in podcast form. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]



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