ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD: Do you think there’s enough of a connection for the youth or the younger ones that’s coming out now to really know where it all came from?
NAS: I think it’s there, but I think the young have their own young story to tell us. It’s such a story that — it’s new to them that — they’re just excited to tell their story that we need to hear. And then there’s a side where they just lazy. They don’t want to go — they don’t know that it’s beneficial for them to really know what they’re talking about and know what they’re doing. So some of this stuff may come out a little limited. Some of their creativities could be a little limited because of that.
1. Don’t insist that pop be hip. A good chunk of mainstream music gains inspiration from more cutting-edge stuff — always has. (Remember when The Monkeeswent psychedelic?) But plenty of it plays by other rules: It could be rooted in Christian contemporary music, emo, or soft rock. That doesn’t make it less meaningful; it just takes work to understand these other legacies. It’s cool if you find John Legend corny, but respect that for millions his grounding in group harmony singing and Bacharach balladry signals sophistication. Respect values other than your own.
2. Understand that selling records is the point. The major players in creating mainstream pop don’t care about integrity, in the restrictive sense. They’re collaborators, and they’re interested in making money. So yes, Dr. Luke encourages his ingénue protégés to trade in feminine stereotypes (sometimes in highly questionable ways), and Avicii goes for obvious beats. Great pop sneaks in subtleties to enrich and even sometimes undermine the obvious elements that make a song pop out of the radio. Appreciating that requires an adjustment of one’s aesthetics. Recognize the value in familiarity and big gestures.
3. Acknowledge that the assembly line is a cornerstone of pop. Since the days of Tin Pan Alley, pop’s spirit has been one of energizing collaboration and seat-by-the-pants innovation. There’s little room in this game for purist notions of artistic integrity. “We Can’t Stop" has seven writers and was originally intended for Rihanna. What’s interesting about the song is how it transformed in the process of becoming Miley Cyrus’s signature. Know the limits of this kind of production while also noticing where the soul can slip in.
4. Physically connect with the mainstream, but don’t presume you know what its different corners are all about. Lindsay Zoladz recently wrote on her Tumblr about attending a Miley concert and realizing that — at least sometimes — she wanted to write for the Bangerz, Miley’s devotees, not for her fellow Pitchfork nerds. I applaud her insistence that music obsessives need to look outside the confines of their own tribe and learn from non-fetishists. But the desire to identify can sometimes obscure that “otherness” you mention, even for poptimists. As enriching as it is to feel good in a crowd of strangers, it’s equally useful to go where things are less comfortable. For every charming fan you might meet at a non-hipster show, there’s a drunk one, and one whose political views are really different than your own, and one who (if you go see Kirk Franklin or Mary J. Blige) might ask you to pray with them. As you’ve said, encountering the other can be difficult — for poptimists too. It should be difficult. Insight comes from wrestling with the awkwardness.
5. Go beyond Beyonce. I think we all need to acknowledge that King Bey is not your average diva-bear, and that putting her on a best-list is not an adventurous move. Assignment for all poptimists: have an opinion about the Jason DeRulo album that drops today.
ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD: It’s something still for a hip-hop artist — especially, the art form’s been around for a minute and people are making money — to see people come together and make a power move like that because I don’t think that’s happened yet.
E-40: Nope, it haven’t. That’s the thing: we better together than separate. I try to tell cats. When I rock with Too Short -– one thing about me and Too Short, I respect him as being before me. He taught me a lot, just through his raps and the way he did it. He was the first one to let his nuts hang over his shoulder, and say the things he said. His beats was what the sound is now, way back in the early ’80s. With the heavy bass line. And that was him on the keyboards: Todd Shaw.
Once me and Short start really connecting, it can’t be no fallouts or nothing like that. Because you know why? I’ma always respect him as being the first. A lot of cats won’t do that. They’ll just be like, “Well, I’m over you now. I’m way more popular, I’m the dude right now.” It ain’t about that. You gotta pay homage man. These new cats don’t pay homage like that. That’s why they always separating and all over the place. Everybody got they egos, and they don’t know people like Too Short is gonna be around forever. Because he embroidered in the game. He’s in there.
Janel Kinlaw, a librarian at NPR, and Trevor Muñoz, an associate director at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities will be answering your questions about preserving old technology at 3 p.m. ET on Reddit.