Name: Roy Christopher
Current release: Fender the Fall, a sci-fi novella is out on Alien Buddha Press.
Recommendations: My most comprehensive work so far is my book Dead Precedents: How Hip-Hop Defines the Future (Repeater Books, 2019), which uses the histories of cyberpunk and hip-hop to show how we ended up with this world.
In terms of other artists work, I tried to pick one you might expect from me and one maybe you wouldn’t.
First, I recommend Streetcleaner by Godflesh (Earache Records, 1989). It might seem pretty far afield, but everyone should hear how far out these sounds can go. When Streetcleaner, Birmingham, England’s Godflesh’s first full-length record, came out on November 13, 1989, I was just out of high school. In an issue of SPIN Magazine at the time, Faith No More’s Mike Patton described the record as the sound of your Walkman’s batteries running down. That was enough of an endorsement for me to seek it out. As well-versed as I was in the metal of the time, what I found was like nothing I’d ever heard. Streetcleaner plods along at the pace of some giant factory, guitars and bass pummeling to the sound of machines rumbling. The full reach of Streetcleaner’s influence is difficult to gauge, but it’s safe to say that much of what is considered metal in the twenty-first century wouldn’t exist without it. The book I’m finishing up now, Post-Self: Journeys Beyond the Human Body (Repeater Books, 2022), uses Streetcleaner as a launchpad to talk about body anxieties of every kind.
I’m also throwing in the novel Vurt by Jeff Noon (Ringpull, 1993). This is cyberpunk if it had followed Philip K. Dick more closely instead of being filtered through William Burroughs. I found Vurt via the blurbs on the back of Doug Rushkoff‘s first novel, Ecstasy Club (1997), sometime during the wild-at-heart and weird-on-top 1990s. The music of that time is woven deep in the language of Vurt. Among its pages you can hear the manic Madchester music of Happy Mondays, Stone Roses, The Charlatans, and Inspiral Carpets. Other media lurk in that other world as well. Through the looking-glass course of Vurt, one can see shades of Twin Peaks, A Clockwork Orange, Neuromancer, Snow Crash, Star Wars, Donnie Darko, and Philip K. Dick, among other things. Vurt won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1994. It’s fresh and peculiar — even now. The thing that makes it not only so poignant but also timeless is its passion. Under all of the made-up slang, vivid imagery, adjacent dimensions, drug talk, and other detritus of rave culture, there lies the urgency of a real human heart beating, the heart of a writer who cares about things. So, if you’ve yet to take the trip, your yellow feather awaits.
If you enjoxed this interview with Roy Christopher, visit his personal website for everything you ever wanted to know about him, including detailed information on all his books. He is also on Instagram and twitter.
When did you start writing about music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started making BMX and skateboarding zines in my teens. My friend Matt Bailie and I saw the first zine-review article in Freestylin' Magazine and decided we should make one ourselves. Our first issue came out the summer before we started high school.
I started writing poems and drawing comics and making fake newspapers at the age of six. Having grown up with an artist mom and always drawing, painting, or making something, I thought I’d end up an artist. Once I started making zines, my driving interest—aside from the BMX, skateboarding, and music content that inspired those zines in the first place—was originally in the layouts. Balancing words and images on the page excited me. I thought I might end up being an artist of some sort after all. In fact, I was an Art major for my first three years of undergraduate study.
In the process of making those early zines, I taught myself how to write about music. After all, no one else was going to write about the bands we wanted to feature. That’s where I figured it out.
Again, aside from BMX and skateboarding, music was our identity: hip-hop, punk rock, heavy metal—the genres that emerged during our formative years. I’d been buying my own music since the second grade, and it was always a part of how I defined myself. Writing about it was just being able to tell other people about the cool stuff I found. That was the impetus.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as a writer and the transition towards your own style?
I was a writer for years before I was a reader. That’s a problem I later remedied. In those early days, I emulated a lot of other zine-makers: Tod Swank, Alberto Kroeger, Bryan Wendzell, Greg Mobley, Todd Sines, and others, but mostly I wanted my work to have the confidence, grace, and graphic impact of Andy Jenkins. He was the editor at Freestylin’ Magazine and did a thing called “Club Homeboy” with his coworkers Mark Lewman and Spike Jonze. He also did his own zine called “Bend.” Full of fantastic photos, grainy photocopied art, and laconic reviews and stories, “Bend” was the high point of zine-making at the time, and Andy was the one responsible.
Once I became a reader, I mixed my experience writing about music with more scholarly interests. The blend of interviewing bands and reviewing records with the media theory and science books I was reading gave me a unique take on my material. I soon went back to graduate school for communication studies where I continued to mix all of my interests. For one example, my Ph.D. dissertation was on figurative language use in rap lyrics. For another, Dead Precedents: How Hip-Hop Defines the Future (Repeater Books, 2019), is a mix of cyberpunk, hip-hop, and Afrofuturism.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your work?
Well, as I mentioned above, I’ve always identified as a music fan, so that’s always an influence. People, especially writers, talk a lot about “imposter syndrome,” and I feel that, but if you’re ever going to write something, you have to get past that. At some point, you have to believe in what you’re doing, and that requires believing in yourself. If you don’t find your footing somehow, it’s never going to happen.
What were your main challenges as a writer when starting out and how have they changed over time?
When I first realized that this is what I wanted to do, I didn’t know how to make it happen. I could see people doing it, but I didn’t know how to get there. It took a long time of doing it to see the path. And that’s just it, isn’t it? There are lots of other factors of course, but in a big way, the work is the path. You just have to do it.
Once I was writing regularly, getting published was the hurdle. Somewhere in the last few decades, publishing has expanded to include so many new possibilities. If you have something written that you believe in, you can find a way to get it out there.
After that, getting people to read the work is the last challenge. Whether it’s just to get feedback on something in-progress or trying to find an audience for finished work, just getting people to pay attention to something is a big challenge.
How do you see the role of music journalism in the creative process? Should it amplify public taste, distinguish the good from the bad, inform, promote artists, or, as Howard Mandel put it, “illuminate, educate and entertain” readers?
I have always approached music journalism as a music fan, so I’m usually just trying to spread the word about something I like. The review policy at one of my zines was “enjoy or ignore.” Beyond that, I do think criticism should be creative. I mean, if you’re writing about something you think is amazing and inspiring, your writing about it shouldn’t be boring.
Whom do you feel your obligation to – the artists, the readers, the publication you're writing for?
I hope to serve the readers first. I believe if I do that faithfully, the rest will closely follow.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives, writers and possibly even the artists you're interviewing or working with for a piece?
My approach to collaboration comes from those early zine days, and usually involves answering the question, “Who do I know who can do this better than I can?” I’ve been doing it this way with my last few book projects. As a result, I‘ve been working with more and more photographers, illustrators, and designers, as well as other writers: For my recent sci-fi novella (Fender the Fall for Alien Buddha Press), I hired Matthew Revert to design the cover and Mike Corrao to do the page layouts; I put together another edited collection (Boogie Down Predictions: Hip-Hop, Time, and Afrofuturism for Strange Attractor), which required working with two dozen writers and several artists and photographers; I compiled another interview anthology (Follow for Now, Vol. 2: More Interviews with Friends and Heroes for punctum books), which includes 37 interviews, a few interviewers other than me, and a portrait of every interviewee by either Laura Persat, Josh Row, Eleanor Purcell, or myself; and I’ve written a new nonfiction book (Post-Self: Journeys Beyond the Human Body for Repeater Books) that has lots of images inside. It’s mostly about serving the project, but if I am a fan of someone’s work and can get in touch with them about working together, I will do so.
In addition, I recently returned to zine-making. Some friends of mine and I are putting together a music zine called “Discontents” that includes artwork by Tae Won Yu, Zak Sally, Patrick David Barber, Craig Gates, and myself; pieces about Ceremony, Hsi-Lin Chang a.k.a. DJ Still, Unwound; Tony Rice, Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown, and Crestone director Marnie Ellen Hertzler; and words by Peter Relic, Spike Jonze, Andy Jenkins, Cynthia Connolly, Greg Pratt, Fatboi Shariff, Timothy Baker, and myself. This has been one of my most collaborative projects. We’re hoping to be wrapping it up soon.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I try to have a set schedule. I tend to get up early, make coffee, and get right to work. Writing is so many things. At some point it’s just you and the page, but there are so many other aspects to the work: reading, research, writing, editing, rewriting … What I do on any particular day depends on where I am in the process, but I try everything: outlining, mind-mapping, lists, diagrams, drawings … There are lots of activities that feel like procrastination but that are also helpful to the process. I work in notebooks and on whiteboards almost as much as I do computers.
Music is a constant part of the work. Whether it’s the subject matter, the inspiration, the soundtrack, or just background sounds, music is always on. I prefer a consistent vibe when I’m writing, whether it’s Cliff Martinez or Brian Eno, Waka Flocka Flame or Darkthrone. I listened to a lot of Godflesh while writing Post-Self because their music is a big part of that book.
Can you talk about a breakthrough piece in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
My book Dead Precedents is certainly my biggest breakthrough so far. That idea started as a blog post about Blade Runner, implanted memories, and sampling—the seeds of my mixing cyberpunk, hip-hop, and Afrofuturism together. It became an essay for a graduate class on Hauntology (“Floating Signifiers: The Haunting of Hip-hop by the Ghosts of Emcees Passed”), then a piece for Mark Amerika’s Remix the Book website (“Use Your Allusion: Culture in the Age of Digital Remix”), then a chapter in the Routledge Companion to Remix Studies (“The End of an Aura: Nostalgia, Memory, and the Haunting of Hip-Hop”; Routledge, 2015), and finally the book, Dead Precedents: How Hip-Hop Defines the Future (Repeater Books, 2019). It wasn’t one big moment, it just grew and evolved until it found that final form.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
It probably sounds corny but feeling positive, like the work is worthwhile. There’s also that spark of inspiration that’s usually an exciting mix of both confidence and fear: the feeling that you’re fully capable of doing something mixed with the possibility that you might fail. It has to feel possible while also feeling risky.
Distractions abound. I suffer the same ones as anyone: social media, hunger, laundry. Turn off the ones you can, and deal with the rest as needed.
Doing the work every day is imperative. Sure, inspiration hits at odd and inopportune times, but working every day is the only way to get things done.
My definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and getting different results. Though working consistently is key, you have to switch up the routine every once in a while, try different approaches and venues.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
A lot of the current discourse around music isn’t even about music. The divisive aspects are the ones that do the damage. There exists a very unfortunate variety of elitism.
There’s no universal music, but there are things in this life that are ineffable. Music expresses some of them. Music also unites, and that’s how it heals. The harshest most aggressive music still brings people together and makes its fans all feel less alone.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
First of all, I don’t think this is for me to decide, but I think one has to start with the intentions of the appropriation. Creativity should be the guide, but no one should profit off the work of another.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
Seeing and hearing are the king and queen of our senses, and they’re hard to beat as a team. The right sounds coupled with the right visuals transcend each other into something else. Even if one is slightly off, they’re better together.
I keep thinking about this Red Cross commercial from way back that showed natural disasters—hurricanes, tornadoes, floods—just decimating buildings and homes. The montage of destruction was set to “Material Girl” by Madonna. It doesn’t sound like it would work, but it’s a very powerful video. [I found it. It’s from 1988.]
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Like I said, I grew up with an artist mom, so we were always drawing, painting, sculpting, making something. It’s hard to imagine my life without it.
My approach to it has always excluded relying on it for my livelihood. I was a full-time professional music journalist for a brief time in the mid-1990s, but outside of that few months, being a writer or an artist has only cost me money. That’s not a complaint nor is it important, but it gives my art a different perspective, a different goal. I write and draw and create because I want to, because I do other things to pay my bills. You get different results when you’re not relying on it for the rent.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
There are sounds that make us feel things that words cannot explain. When an instrumental piece of music can make you cry, you’ve found that ineffable sound.
Sometimes, even if we like the same piece of music, we’re not having the same experience with it. That space in between is music’s domain alone and only expressible with sound.