Different Missions

Seven years later, photo quality about the same. Dancers fill the floor following a chat with author Dan Charnas about his book on J Dilla, The Drake Underground, May 22, 2022

I’ve always had a personal glitch pertaining to to matters of identity.

After I moved to Toronto, I quickly became aware of the familial intimacy that exists between people with a shared culture and point of origin, and how absent that feeling had been in my own life. Being an only child, coming from a place where what passes for culture is Catholicism and classic rock radio, I’ve always felt somewhat…blank? So in a life devoid of shared touchpoints I tried to build my own, usually centered around art, typically art made by people who do have that familial intimacy. Even then, I typically feel like I’ve failed, operating on the outside of a lot of these spaces. Most people who know me personally would consider me someone knowledgeable about music and record collecting, or as an ambassador for a certain type of art and music from Japan, or as a writer, but to the people who inhabit these spaces, I remain unknown. Much of this has to do with my apprehension for inserting myself into these them, for the noble belief that if I keep my head down and do good work, it will have to be noticed. Social anxiety remains a motherfucker, friends.

Back in may there was an event in Toronto to celebrate the release of the book Dilla Time by professor and journalist Dan Charnas. The book is a thorough examination of the life and work of James DeWitt Yancey, known profesionally as J Dilla, specifically his innovations in the use of musical time. I’m not going to synopsize any further, if you have any interest in the subject, Dan’s work is as definitive as we may ever get. I loved the book, as much as I loved his previous work of hip-hop scholarship, but getting through it was fraught for me at times.

As some of you may recall, and can see along the sidebar, I also wrote a book about J Dilla, a textual reading of his final album. At the time it was the only work of that size devoted to him. It was a top seller, well reviewed, taught (by Dan) in college classes. I remain immensely proud of what I did in that book, and what it accomplished and still is accomplishing. But I can recognize its imperfections, flaws that reading Dan’s book highlighted, even as it answered and contextualized some questions that still lingered from my time working on it.

But I knew I had to drag my introvert ass to the function that night, if nothing else just to celebrate what is truly an exceptional piece of work deserving of every accolade. After the panel portion of the evening, the DJs started up, flooding the room with bass, making it near impossible to talk. Waiting in line to get my copy of the book signed, I quickly tapped out a few words on my Notes app, introducing myself, congratulating him on the book and thanking him for showing love from the stage, as he’d dropped my name and book during his discussion with local hip-hop fixture Arcee.

Predictably, once he’d read the screen, realized who I was and come from behind the table for the dap and hug, I started blathering on about all the things I mentioned above, how I always meant for my book to be the first of its kind, not the only, and how grateful I was that he was able to tell parts of the story I wasn’t.

There are different missions,” he replied, slapping my shoulder.

After he finished signing for those attendance we each grabbed a beer and chatted in a corner of the Drake for nearly two hours. He’d treated me as a peer, because to him I am one, and I left that feeling for the first time in years, like a writer. Even when faced numerous times by the dreaded “What are you working on now?“, I welcomed it, because it had been so long since anyone cared to ask.

When I logged in today, WordPress informed me it had been 13 years, nearly to the day, of when I started this blog. It was initially designed to keep my chops up while I tried my hand at fiction writing again, until the lure of criticism and commentary pulled me back. One thing that never changed in all that time? I never liked calling myself a writer. Even when I was getting paid for it as my primary occupation, even when a book came out with my name on the spine. It always felt unearned to me. Considering that Homestar Runner has updated more in the last seven years than this website has, it feels even less earned now.

In the 1987 movie Throw Momma From the Train the character played by Billy Crystal, a community college writing teacher, has a mantra he frequently imparts to his students: A writer writes. Always. Yes, it’s trite, but I’ve thought of that line a lot in the month following my evening at the Drake. I thought of it when I repurchased the domain for this site. I thought of it when I loaded the WordPress app back on my iPad. The simple fact, a fact I’ve probably denied so many times in my life, is that there is value in doing the thing, no matter what it’s for. Even if it’s some lukewarm takes about Japanese Pop music or clumsily interrogating why certain things resonate with me more than others. Just do the damn thing. A writer w rites, always.

On New Year’s Day 2022, my first social media post was something I’d seen on Instagram, a piece of window dressing that simply read, I WANT TO MAKE BEAUTIFUL THINGS, EVEN IF NOBODY CARES. I found it so moving, and then promptly forg ot about it, obviously. But here’s the thing I am perpetually reminded of: This business? Tapping on a keyboard? It is the one of a handful of things that I love doing so wholeheartedly, even when I feel at my stupidest, that I never notice the time spent on it. I think if any activity makes you feel like that, it’s a good indicator that it’s an activity you should spend more time on. It would serve me to remember that an d prioritize it accordingly.

So, what have I been doing instead of writing? I actually did finish a draft of a second project, something I cowrote with a friend I met through this site, actually. We handed in the first draft in 2019, so obviously it already feels like we need to rewrite a significant portion of it. It remains to be seen if it will ever come out. I had a handful of articles come out here and there, usually about Dilla, including a recent essay about him as a posthumous entity on the heels of a podcast episode based around the Donuts book. And, speaking of podcasts, I cranked out over 280 episodes of Geekdown, the podcast on nerdery I’ve been producing and co-hosting with my longtime friend Caitlin MacKinnon since around…whenever this blog last updated. It’s never set the world on fire, but it’s drawn a small and loyal listenership. I think we’ve been successful at making topics a listener might be interested in sound compelling, and it’s a testament to the power of just doing the thing week in and week out. I think our COVID era was surprisingly moving, as the show morphed into the two of us processing all the ways the ground was shifting under our feet.

Much as I love making the show, it takes a fair bit of work and sucks up a lot of bandwidth during the week, between watching content, recording, editing and posting. July is traditionally when we take the month off to recharge (and avoid the heat in my third-floor apartment) so I’ll have some free time to try some other things. I don’t know how frequent the updates will be, and it is not lost on me that the last thing the world needs right now are the musings of a mediocre white man in his forties. But there are different missions, and there still some best suited to my skill set. I want need to make things even if no one cares.

I promise it won’t be six years between updates.

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