Jack Carenza - March 3, 2023

Taiyo Talks: Full Interview

Taiyo Coates’ bylines speak for themselves.  A seasoned hip-hop and R&B journalist/editor, he has published over 250 articles, playlists, interviews, and live music reviews.  Most notably for Variety and HotNewHipHop.  From his vivid review of Kendrick’s ‘The Big Steppers’ Tour to his unbiased coverage of Kanye West, to last year’s write-up on Saba’s Few Good Things (our selection for AOTY in 2022), Taiyo’s measured, concise style captivates readers searching for the essence of the music they love.  

“My responsibility is enlightening on the art, while also putting value in the fact that it is Black Art itself. That means making sure that it’s understood that it’s ours, but it’s good because it’s good, not just because it’s Black.”  -Taiyo Coates

Also an experienced artist development consultant, Taiyo has worked directly with over 500 artists at varying career stages to improve their sound, strategy, and public image.  

As important as his pedigree as a journalist and artist whisperer is Taiyo’s passion for advancing culture.  He consistently identifies and challenges shortcomings in music journalism and the industry as a whole. Frequently offering actionable solutions to long-standing issues. 

We were lucky enough to speak to Taiyo about his experience in the space, breaking our conversation into three distinct sections.  

  • Responsible Journalism & Black Art
  • Music Industry Hiring/HR Practices 
  • Artist Development  

Today’s Hip Hop: Great to have you Taiyo.  So I’ll start with, what are your primary responsibilities as a journalist covering Black Art?

Taiyo Coates: For sure.  I view journalism the same way that I view Black Art, right? My intention is to always put the art first. That’s the most important thing as I’ve realized the external pitfalls of putting “Black” first. Sometimes, it takes away from the art because people view it as, oh, this is Black Art so it’s automatically great, rather than holding it to a high standard.  And other times, Black Art gets disrespected because it’s Black Art, you know? We have to toe the line between the two. So my responsibility is enlightening on the art, while also putting value in the fact that it is Black Art itself. That means making sure that it’s understood that it’s ours, but it’s good because it’s good, not just because it’s Black.  

THH: No doubt.  And building off that point, a ton of publications that have global recognition for covering Black Art tend to focus on gossip or topics that fall outside the music.  Why do you think that is?   

TC: That’s a really good question because it’s multifaceted, right? Partially it is us, it really is. A large percentage of the black audience is interested in gossip, which isn’t their fault either. It’s what they’re pushed. If you push gossip to a 16-year-old who’s super impressionable, you push the same content to them consistently, they start looking for that content and reciprocating it as they get older. 

THH: So how do we change that?

TC: It changes if these publications start thinking, “I’m not looking for engagement first, and I’m making it a point to generate positive conversations on Black Art. Positive, Black conversations.” So that becomes what people are looking for. If I take a step back and decide we’re not doing gossip this week or this month, we’re doing all positivity, let’s see what, we can make. The numbers are gonna eventually trickle in because people are gonna be like, this is where I come for these specific kinds of conversations. Versus, if I run gossip all the time and then post one positive article, the audience is going to think, “I came here for the gossip. We’re not gonna click on it.”

That means starting from the positivity and then working our way around that. And of course, on the gossip side of things, the most important aspect is to hold these conversations responsibly. I feel like a lot of times it becomes gossip versus information. Negative stuff happens in every community. It is definitely our job to report this stuff so people can be informed, but the tone in which we report these things is important. The language we use is important. 

THH: With those factors in mind, you’re saying that there are times that gossip should be covered, as long as it’s done in a journalistically responsible way? 

TC: 100%.  It’s the direction in which you cover it that’s the important thing.  Kanye is a great example.  Just an easy name to point out.  When I was at HotNewHipHop, I covered a lot of Kanye, but there were members of the team that didn’t have his best interests in mind.  You feel me?  I would report what’s going on with him because it’s essential.  He’s one of the pioneers.  One of the best artists of all time. But he still has some troubling issues that we have to cover because he’s so big.  If you get that information from the wrong source or publication, they’ll misconstrue it.  So, I’d always make it my job to inform people without belittling him as a human being. And that’s a really important aspect of covering someone that has a huge impact on the culture, our demographic, and music itself.  

THH: Headlines play into that too, right? 

TC: I feel like headlines are becoming incredibly irresponsible as well because they don’t realize that kids and teenagers won’t click the article. They’ll only click the headline. Some of them do know that, and they still write irresponsible headlines on purpose so they can get the clicks.

But if we do headline testing correctly and responsibly, then the information you need is right there. Just the headline is all you need to see. If we do that correctly, then it’ll combat the whole, dying breed of publications. Because it’ll allow people to have the correct information in this link versus it just looking at the link and seeing gossip, you know?

THH: And what sources do you personally trust to uphold that journalistic integrity and put Black Art first?  

TC: The publications that I trust most are music-first. For example, Earmilk is definitely one of the publications I would go to for music and new artists. Even though they tend to do a lot more underground or smaller artists. I still would rather go there for the music.  

Vibe does a really good job as well. Vibe still carries the same flame that they did when they were first created. You know, like there’s a lot of intention behind what’s going on over there, and I feel like they still uphold their place. SOHH (Support Online Hip Hop) is definitely another good one.

Even more than blogs, I trust alternative spaces now.  Spotify, when you go to their actual stories and podcasts that are generated through them, you feel me? The Big Hit Show is another, their coverage of Kendrick was great.

Overall, I feel like publications nowadays aren’t necessarily where I would even go for this information. Go directly to alternative platforms and DSPs, and you’ll see specific instances of people covering black art in the correct ways. Not to knock pub publications, but we’re moving into a different digital media space. Even the stuff that I’m doing right now and the movements that I’m making behind the scenes are to create a space where publications meet audio-visual content.

Today’s Hip Hop: So now we are going to shift the conversation to the HR/Hiring practices section of our discussion.  It’s a topic you’ve been very outspoken about on LinkedIn. To start, why aren’t more Black professionals hired for positions at companies that profit from Black art?  

Taiyo Coates: So, I’d consider it all part of a top-down system.   Everything is right? And I don’t even mean like a deep-rooted, figurative system, it’s a literal one. So you have the overarching people, then you have employers, and then you have employees. And, if there was an overwhelming respect for the art, a lot of people would lose their jobs.  Because you have people that are here only for the numbers that have no idea about the art. Because you have people that are here for the gossip that have no idea about the art the industry lacks transparency. If there were more Black people involved in Black art, the respect, the love for the art would go up and the metrics would go down initially.  

And people in leadership roles are not looking for that dip to happen because we would not only skew away from the gossip to some extent, but we would also no longer be in it for the numbers. Keeping those numbers up is what they’re interested in.  

It extends to the music too – label heads want us to make music about certain things.  Because it generates profit for them. We are making music. If all the label heads were black, we would be like, nah, we’re not making this music that impacts us negatively to a certain extent. In the current model, of course, you can still tell your real-life stories, but some of this is manufactured by these labels, and that allows them to drive revenue.  Publications hire people that won’t question what the labels are doing. It’s a never-ending cycle. And if you hire too many people to do what’s right, you can’t profit from the wrong things, you know? 

THH: Absolutely.  And you mentioned an initial dip.  I think that’s interesting because do you think that if these labels or publications weathered that initial dip, that eventually the numbers would get higher than they are now?

TC: For sure. A lot of numbers are based on viewership versus engagement time. That’s the key difference nowadays with short-form content taking over in general. Publications and artists should be making moves that lead to long viewership, long readership, people staying on your article for a minute, two minutes reading the whole thing. That’s part of the separation between responsible platforms and the ones I just described.  

If you have Black artists and Black writers writing about black music or even music in general, the dip would come from the people that are interested in the gossip, the clickbait.  People who don’t spend a long time with content.  The positive is, you’d create long-term readership from people that care about the art. This is doubly important with Black art because we’re quick to leave your publication if we notice you’re disrespectful. Like, we don’t stand for that kind of shit, honestly. It’s not something we really play with. We don’t play with our music. So let’s say the dip came from the people outside of the culture that are looking for the gossip. It would instantly have a return on investment in the quality of your writing. Credibility, long-term. I’d be telling my people, hey, come check out this publication.  

THH: For sure.  Giving the right people the responsibility to cover the art will shift the focus.  And taking that one step further,  from a hiring perspective, do you think the music industry lacks transparency?  

TC: To be entirely honest, this is a muddy area in my opinion because of high turnover, and hiring rates.  So it’s not completely HR’s fault.  Pre-pandemic, I feel things were a little better. I mean, it was still not transparent whatsoever.  But in comparison, yeah. Unfortunately, now a lot of the budget is being, dictated by engagement in the same way that I was speaking of previously. Hiring is done to keep publications relevant, not respected.  

THH: How does that show up when you’re applying for a job in the industry?  

TC: Well, I’ve seen employers post a job listing just so that it could seem like a thousand people want to work there. You’ll see over 300 applications on LinkedIn, with no hires. Which makes no sense in the real world, but looking like you are doing more work or have more interest than you actually do is an example of the transparency issues you mentioned.  These companies want to look like they are prospering or growing, but without actually hiring a single person. 

I have a specific example that I don’t mind sharing because you’ve been so supportive.  I applied for a job in the industry.  Six-figure deal, eight-month hiring process. They ended up not even hiring externally for the position at all. Not once did they communicate this with me in the eight months of calls that I had. In the hundreds of conversations.

And that’s happening across the board with so many Black journalists, specifically, because we are the ones that will speak on certain things if we get in that position, you know? So they have to ascertain what their return on investment is.  What their intentions are. If they are seeking quality, then they’ll be hiring certain people, you feel me?

THH: What kind of people are they looking for then?   

TC:  Their return investment right now is place holding. Continuing the values they already have in place. So transparency for us doesn’t exist because they don’t want to hire someone who’s going to be a change maker. Nah. Especially in this era of journalism. They just want to get back to where they were before the pandemic.  Versus realizing that the pandemic didn’t stop change. Like if anything, it drove more change.  So you should be bringing in people that will speak up on new topics, new ideas, et cetera. But instead, on the hiring side, companies kind of look more into what you’ve done, and determine if you’d be a quality fit for what they already have going on.

Today’s Hip Hop: So Taiyo, the last topic we want to focus on is your experience with artist development.  I would define our era in music now as a time where quick-hitting movements and trends ultimately drive streaming and revenue.  How can an artist stay true to their story and artistic identity at a time when the opposite seems to lead to success?  

Taiyo Coates: I feel like adaptability is the first thing you have to learn as an artist, in my opinion. And I feel like a lot of artists don’t learn that from the start, I feel like their managers or their teams don’t really realize how to adapt. I think it starts with not studying music enough outside of the mainstream.

When it comes to the mainstream, the outliers are what I think people should be studying. The Drakes of the world – I’m not even a huge Drake fan all the time as far as his moves outside of music.  

THH: I feel that, I’m not a Drake fan personally, but I respect what he does and that’s a big difference.  

TC: For sure. It’s undeniable.  I’m not going to say I don’t like what he does, it’s just not all of his music hits home.  But I understand why he does what he does, and he does it correctly.  See, the reason the Drake model works is if your intention is numbers and also still making good music, that’s the blueprint.  Drake will have a so-so song and do numbers, then a great song that does numbers.  So studying the line between the two and why they both go big is a really big deal.  

THH: And Kendrick and Cole’s model?  

TC: Kendrick and Cole do the complete opposite.  They focus on quality first.  And shift what they’re doing to fit modern times in a positive way without losing who they are.  N95 is a great example of that, Kendrick taking the Baby Keem model and running with it.  Kendrick and Keem reference each other a lot.  They work together on their writing.  Together, they know what sounds are popular.  For Cole, his story is so poignant and people care about him so much personally, that he doesn’t have to adapt to the times as much as other artists.  

So, there are multiple ways of going about it.  You just have to study other artists that are already doing it, and a lot of artists skip that step.  They study those quick-hitting, mainstream artists, versus the upper echelon of consistency and longevity.  

THH: The shit J.Cole did with that producer this week is a great example of his character keeping him relevant, no?  

TC: Yeah, the “type beat” right?  He has such a unique way of playing on people’s emotions in different ways.  And it comes across so genuine, to the point where you can’t even question how genuine he is.  He’s already made it.  He doesn’t need free beats.  He doesn’t need to blow up anymore.  At the most, he gains more appreciation from something like that by people saying, “wow, that was so real.”  But that’s his entire point.  And a great example of adaptability.  You can do things differently than everyone else.  That’s why you need to study the outliers.  Cole’s an outlier.  Kendrick’s an outlier.  Tyler the Creator is a massive outlier.  And Drake.  He is what the mainstream is.  He’s the reason music sounds the way it does.  So studying the outliers while you craft your own sound is the fastest way to get numbers.  While keeping your story true to yourself.  

THH: So, once you get there, what would you say is the relationship between your craft and marketing, and when should an artist focus on either?    

TC: At the beginning of the career, it’s always music first.  No matter what.  You have to continue to get better at what you do.  That’s again, why studying music is such a big deal.  Kendrick sucked at one point.  Tyler was yelling on every album, straight up.  Like he was creative, but he was just yelling bro, he wasn’t getting better. So focusing early on improving will allow people to see your growth, which is what fans want to see from artists.  That’s how you get bigger.  People seeing you consistently growing artistically is how you grow your fanbase.  And that’s when it’s time for marketing.  

Once you make those improvements, you can market yourself as an artist that’s growing and getting better.  Your content can show your growth.  And then as you’re writing about better topics, new things, it gives you room to market more specifically.  Tyler couldn’t market himself as well before making Flower Boy-type music.  Kendrick did the same thing with good kid, m.A.A.d city.   As artists change, they are able to market a new sound.  Focusing on the music allows you to market with more precision.  And that leads to a real understanding of the correlation between the two.  Your music becomes the marketing, and your fans do the work for you.  

THH: That kind of connects with building a cohesive brand then, right?  Like I’m thinking about an artist like Noname.  

TC:  Yeah, Noname is interesting in that way.  Once you build a brand that’s extreme or unique, people align with it because the music is so great, and you’re making interesting points.  People who are genuine with their brand attract fans because they stand out.  

Artists like Smino and Saba who aren’t quite as extreme with their message benefit from that honest branding too.  Because they are so confident in who they are, and their fans stand by that.  Smino’s sound is the most specific, and authentic you can have.  He’s the coolest n*gga ever.  So people are going to listen to it.  And people feel that way about Saba too.  So building your fan base comes first when it comes to marketing.  Your fans will always be your market.  Your music is your marketing, so stick to the music and you’ll get your numbers.  Everything that you do has the potential to put you in the space where you want to be.  

THH: That all makes perfect sense, and those are great examples. On that note, what responsibility does an artist manager have to make sure all these things happen for their artist?  

TC: Managers are supposed to manage their artists externally.  The artist should have full control over their sound and aesthetic.  But a manager should determine who to reach out to, what songs an artist puts out at what time, etc.  An artist manager needs to ask the right people about how to get their artist more noticeable.  How to get their artists in better positions and then execute on that.  

You’re paying a manager to put you in the right positions, the right way.  To get you in the right rooms.  And in front of the people who can make a notable difference in your career.  

THH: And an Artist Development professional like you?  What is your role?  

TC: I start with a lot of artist study guides.  When an artist comes to me I look at their entire catalog.  A deep dive.  I see who they have qualities in common with, artists who have done it already in a massive way.  Find the model that works and find a way to input their unique flair on that.  That’s what every business in the world should do.  What every video game has ever done.  Every movie.  Everything’s been done before.  You just have to know how to put your unique flair on it.  

So I give them a rundown of where they are based on their catalog, and what it could be.  Most importantly, I preach that there needs to be a story in the music.  Whether it’s through the writing or through the connectivity of the sound. So using conceptual album outlines, I’m like, okay, cool. Here are what songs you’ve made that would make a great album. Let’s replicate that, but do it even better. You’ve already made this in your catalog, so you can do it.  Let’s run with that.  Let’s make something special.  

But that’s what I look for when I’m pitched certain albums.  They need to have a through line, a story.  So having that experience at the highest level writing for Variety, all the way down to working with smaller artists for HotNewHipHop.  I know what press and publications are looking for, and that’s what I always impress on the artists that I’m working with.  

As an artist development professional, I start from the ground up.  I take songwriting incredibly seriously. If you are in the same lane as a certain mainstream artist, you need to be writing at or above their level if you want to make it.  Even if you’re doing it on a minuscule scale compared to those artists, you need to be starting to plant the seeds so you can do what they do, as well as they do it.  Obviously, it’s a ridiculously high goal sometimes, but you should want to be your best because you know the best at what you do does exist.