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A Rational Conversation: Neal Brennan On What The Hell Happened This Year

Neal Brennan.
Courtesy of Neal Brennan
Neal Brennan.

"A Rational Conversation" is a column by writer Eric Ducker in which he gets on instant messenger or the phone with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop culture consciousness.

To cut to the bone of music in 2014, Ducker got on the phone with writer, director and comedian Neal Brennan. This year Brennan released his stand-up special Women and Black Dudes on Comedy Central and hosted the TV show The Approval Matrix on SundanceTV. He also continued his podcast The Champs, where he and his fellow white male co-host Moshe Kasher interview people of color (for the most part). This year's episodes with Arsenio Hall, Baratunde Thurston, Freddie Gibbs, MC Serch and Wyatt Cenac were particularly great. Brennan is also famously the co-creator of Chappelle's Show.

Here Brennan discusses with Ducker how he found music this year and if he even liked anything he heard.

How do you discover music these days?

It's pretty scattered at this point. I have all these songs in my iTunes and people will say to me, "I went to see so-so at this concert," and I'll say, "I have no idea who that is." Then they'll tell me what song they sing, and I'll say, "Oh, I really like that song."

I get music from odd places that I assume are fairly typical at this point. I'll just go on iTunes, go to EDM and just look at the Top 100, or I'll go on the Beats app and look on the playlists that are sort of curated. I'm pretty agnostic when it comes to, "I like this group" or "I like this guy."

When you do find something that you're into, do you dig down deeper into them or do you take it song by song?

I'm sorry to say that I take it song by song. I have no allegiance at all. You're on your own, man. That's more common than it used to be. Why marry myself to an entire album? I don't have to. If I download four songs from somebody on an iTunes sojourn, that's about as good as it gets.

When's the last time you got a whole album?

Run the Jewels, just because I had to download the whole thing. Well, we all bought U2, right?

Now that you have all of Run the Jewels, do you listen to the whole thing?

I haven't listened to all of it, but I've listened to a lot of it and Killer Mike is worth listening to for more than a song. He's not a singles guy.

What about the new D'Angelo, did you get that?

No, I downloaded one song, "Really Love." Here's my thing with D'Angelo: I understand his appeal, I have friends who work on his albums, Ahmir ["Questlove" Thompson] has told me for forever how genius he is and that the Voodoo tour was the best shows ever, etc., etc. But I find him a bit inscrutable lyrically. What am I supposed to make of this guy? He's good, I just don't find it that relatable.

So the vibe isn't enough to carry you through.

It's a great vibe. I like his vibe more than his singing and lyrics. I wish he would just produce records. If he could produce records and have, like, Anthony Hamilton sing over them, that would mean more to me. The way he produces [his own] vocals mysteriously and slinkily, it's like he's constantly fading away. It's just really hard to pin down, like, "What are you saying?"

Even if you are listening on a song-by-song basis and aren't that into albums, do you consider yourself a follower of music?

Yeah, sure, absolutely! I just don't believe in the old definition that a fan of music is: I find a band, I listen to all of it and I pretend to like stuff that I don't like. Now if I don't like it, I just go, "I don't like this." It's way fairer.

So it's freeing?

Yes, it's freeing. For the first time in my life I'm truly free.

You don't subscribe to the idea that certain songs grow on you over time? You think it should be an instantaneous reaction?

I find that I like what I like. I like a strong melody, I like an inventive structure and I have to like the singer's voice or I have no interest in it.

What have you been into this year?

Bobby Shmurda, "Hot N-word." He's from the staccato school of rapping. Those Rae Sremmurd guys are part of that. It's staccato, it's super disposable. Another one I like is the guy who did "I'm in Love with the CoCo." I don't think that guy is going to have long life in music; he might not even have long life, period. But he's exceeding his dreams.

You hate to say Soulja Boy started anything, but I'd say they're the direct descendants of Soulja Boy and Trinidad James. It's fun, it's interesting, it's not challenging in any way. They know it's stupid. They just made a song for 30 dudes they're friends with or their crew, and then the song takes off.

Bobby Shmurda really sped up the process of a rapper putting out a record and then going to jail. He really streamlined the whole thing and did it in a matter of months. It took Lil Wayne 15 years to go to jail.

I listened to the episode of The Champs where you had King Bach on and discussed the whole comedy Vine phenomenon. Have you followed how Bobby Shmurda went from Vine to where he is now?

I don't think he disseminated [the Shmoney Dance Vine]. They edited that one part and it became popular. It's a good song though. I've got no beef with Vine. The same way I'm consuming music is the same way people are consuming comedy. I can't hate on them. I've slowly come around to the idea that just because it makes me feel old, it doesn't mean it's bad. I'd like to condemn it, but I can't, man.

I like that you're embracing the disposability of stuff in your life. People often say, "Well, are you going to listen to that in two years?" And it's like, it doesn't matter, I'm listening to it now.

Two years? Dude, the speed of culture is so fast, what are you even talking about? Two years feels like a decade now. Two years ago, was that the Occupy Wall Street year? It's a long ass time ago.

Plus these guys are super young, so they're not thinking longevity. Whereas it used to be a record label would create "The Twist" or whatever your dumb single was based on a dance move, now people just do it themselves. And I don't think they do it intentionally. These things take on a life of their own.

Also the terms of longevity are new. You used to make records and build a 15-year career. I guess Taylor Swift is doing that and I think Drake is doing that — I didn't think he'd last this long, but he's building up a body of work.

What else did you download?

The Mark Ronson song is hilarious. Hilarious. It's so brazen. I can't believe that trumpet lick didn't exist. The whole song seems pre-existing, like it would be in a Michael J. Fox movie in 1988. The "don't believe me just watch" part is stolen from my friend Trinidad James, of course, from "All Gold Everything." That song makes me laugh, so I downloaded that. I just downloaded "B----, I'm Madonna." It doesn't sound like Madonna at all. I like the beat. I don't know who made the beat, maybe it's Diplo. I've always liked EDM and I gotta say I like how it's infusing everything. I resent the million-dollar a night DJ, that is annoying, but I can't hate on Diplo. Even that dumb Flo Rida song, it's awful, but it's kind of great. The EDM people come up with most of the good hooks.

Why do you hate the million-dollar DJ thing?

It's the button pressing. I mean, I get it. I have a theory about why EDM works on so many young people, which is because of the solipsism of culture. A lot of these songs barely have lyrics so you can just focus on yourself the whole time. You don't have to get caught up in someone else's story, you can just hear the beat, be on drugs and focus on yourself. I think it's kind of goofy. I feel like these guys, they're not that talented. I think Diplo is talented, I think he's made a lot of good beats, but DJ Mustard and Mike Will Made It, they've made more good beats than Dillon Francis and Skrillex and Diplo. But those guys are black so they're not EDM beats so they can't go out and make a million dollars.

So you're saying you can respect an EDM guy as a producer, but not as a live act?

Because it's not a live act. It's pre-taped. It's worse than lip-syncing. They're not even lip-syncing. They're basically the engineer for the lip-sync, but there's no lip-sync. It goes back to the solipsism of young people now. They can just take selfies of themselves and not have to listen to lyrics or even watch the performer. I'm about to name drop, but I was lucky enough to have dinner with John Mayer and Jeff Ross the roastmaster (I won a radio contest), and John Mayer was saying that when he first started performing in big venues the problem would be people jumping on stage or whatever. Now he says the biggest distraction during shows is people running up to the front of the stage, turning their back to him and taking a selfie. He has security just to stop that.

What do you think about Lil Jon, who has gone from being a hip-hop producer to making his money by DJing in Las Vegas?

First of all, let me just say that the "Turn Down For What" video is one of the best videos in the history of music videos. I'm not kidding. It is a perfectly realized piece of art. It's perfect. Perfect. But yeah, I don't blame Jon for that, that's awesome. Lil Jon was smart with the "Whaaaaat?" and "Okaaaaay" thing and branded himself early. I don't resent him at all. He is still technically a performer. He's from the Fatman Scoop school, to me.

Did you listen to any rock this year?

Not really. I downloaded a couple of those Spoon songs because I like Spoon, I think Britt [Daniel]'s voice is amazing. I don't know if I've abandoned it, but it doesn't seem like there's anything new there. It all sounds like something else that I already have. Ty Segall sounds like Alice Cooper or Johnny Winter to me, War on Drugs sounds like Bryan Ferry, Sun Kil Moon sounds like Leonard Cohen meets Bruce Hornsby. It all sounds like other s---. I'm sure you could say that about all the other s--- that came out this year, but not ILOVEMAKONNEN. At least there's something kind of new.

I downloaded all of Thom Yorke's record, but I don't know if I've heard of all of it because I keep my iTunes on random. I downloaded some Flying Lotus.

What did you think of that?

I like it as much I can like jazz fusion. I like him personally, that's one of the reasons I listen to him. He was more into electronic music seven years ago and making dubby, trip-hoppy stuff. I don't know where everybody else went, but he's gone on to jazz fusion. He's good at it.

But it's not something you necessarily want to be listening to it?

No, I don't want to be listening to a lot of it, but I'll listen to some of it if I'm in the right mood.

I'll download pop records. I probably have "Shake it Off." I don't have "Anaconda" (you're welcome). The Iggy Azalea thing, I really liked Q-Tip's explanation to her that was online. I found it helpful. I'm kind of the mind that culture is open source. I never bought the fact that only black people are supposed to twerk, because the world now is so connected. It's like, "You did it and I saw it and I liked it." Once you start selling it, that's where the problem comes in.

There is part of me where I hear myself say the thing about culture being open source and I agree, but so much of white culture is forced on the world. Other people's cultures seep into the world and the world adopts it. White people end up looking worse for co-opting other people's cultures than other cultures do co-opting white culture because white culture is so ubiquitous and they kind of have no choice.

Because white people are coming from a place of power.

I would say that black people are more powerful at creating culture than white people, they're just not as powerful in disseminating it. They don't have as many outlets as white people. They don't have the entrenched, digged-in culture.

Having said that, Iggy Azalea is the strongest case of cognitive dissonance I've gotten in a long time. She's so clearly co-opted and even her pronunciations are so weird. Michael Che had a tweet that said she's basically Robert Downey Jr.'s character from Tropic Thunder. You're an Australian acting like a black American, but you're kind of making fun of it and also doing it at the same time? Also for Iggy Azalea, most the credit for "Fancy" should go to Charli XCX. That's the thing you're going to remember 10 years from now, or two years from now.

You brought up how Q-Tip responded to her, but how did you feel about how Snoop reacted to her and people calling out T.I. about her?

I thought Snoop was really misogynist and gross, actually. It really made me uncomfortable. As a fan of his, it's like, ah, dude, stop.

T.I. is an interesting position because now we're getting into making money off of it. It's almost like the Usher and Justin Bieber thing. It's like Elvis, except if the Colonel was black. It's going to a black person, which is certainly better than it going to a white person. I think the optimal is a black artist on a black label, then second would be a white artist on a black label. As long as a black person is making some money, that seems positive. It's like Michael Jackson making money off the Beatles, assuming the Beatles were doing some form of black music. I think the Stones are like a straight up minstrel show, but the Beatles are more nuanced. They started bluesy but went elsewhere, whereas the Stones stayed Mick Jagger doing a s---ty James Brown impression. In fact, an embarrassing James Brown impression.

Thinking about this year, I think Azaelia Banks, and in some respects Nicki Minaj, are the people M.I.A. pretends to be. I've never bought M.I.A. Azaelia Banks is truly idiosyncratic and unique and has weird, eclectic taste and it comes to her naturally. She is almost overcoming her surrounding to develop this sound and this taste, while with M.I.A. I think she's co-opting a lot of stuff. I just believe it from Azaelia Banks more. Now if she can figure out how to make a song as good as "212" again, she'll have a good career.

Azaelia Banks has taken lots of hits over the years for the things she's said on Twitter, but at the same time people complain that artists never say how they really feel. How do you toe that line?

I'm glad she got credit for that Hot 97 interview. I've never seen a black person cry over cultural co-option. That was real interesting, just straight up: You're taking something that doesn't belong to you. Again it gets into the open source thing. I think that she's right and it strikes a deep chord within her. As she was talking about all of that, she brought up Eric Garner and I think she was expressing a deeply held feeling, which is like: Can we have anything?

And she was complimented on it as it was happening. Ebro [Darden] and [Peter] Rosenberg were saying, "We need you," which was cool. Do they play her? Probably not. But they need her for the discourse this year.

What did you think of the rap coming out of Los Angeles?

Y.G., I feel like is fairly standard. It's a little poppier than normal, but ScHoolboy Q and Kendrick Lamar are doing something a little more. Those guys are like Dre and Snoop and the Game with a heavy dose of the Pharcyde, making it real arty and jazzy. Kendrick is the Los Angels rapper bringing real emotion to his music.

Then you've got all the cathedral rock people like Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, Hozier ... It doesn't bother me. They all kind of sound the same. It speaks to the blue-eyed soul thing.

A lot of women would say Taylor Swift has the album of the year. I don't think they'd be wrong. Taylor Swift, like Drake — I don't want to like her, but yet, here I am.

Would you ever go see her perform live?

I would not, but I would barely see anyone perform live. But I completely get it. She's got lines. I find her unctuous as hell, but she's sharp.

Were you blown away by anything? I mean the song of the year was the song from Serial. Let's be honest.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Ducker
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