TheNeedleDrop vs HMTA
Anthony Fantano sits down with HMTA
These days, everyone (including us at Hand Me the Aux) thinks they can review music. So we asked ‘the internet’s busiest music nerd’ Anthony Fantano if we have the chops.
Fantano has skyrocketed to popularity over the last ten years due largely to the success of his Youtube channel, TheNeedleDrop. With his more than 1 million followers, he gives his opinions on everything from the newest mumble rap to death metal, and has his fair share of hot takes that have kept the internet debating.Recently, Fantano was at the heart of a scandal surrounding his separate (now-deleted) Youtube channel, Thatistheplan, and was accused by Fader of using it to pander to the alt-right. We sat down with Fantano to get his point of view on the article – and to talk about his journey to internet fandom, his secret to keeping up with new music, and what’s in the future for hip-hop.
My interest in music goes back way further than the needle drop. The most significant start was in college when I was just working at my college radio station and I had been involved there looking to get started in broadcast, preferably radio. From there I ended up landing an internship with a big NPR affiliate WNPR and that was just before the housing bubble popped. They had to let a bunch of people go and simultaneously they were switching over from an all classical format to a news format.
They were repeating a ton of programming – and I used to do a kind of zany music show. I was having fun, mostly shadowing reporters, and following and editing a lot of political reporting stuff – since that’s what I studied in school. So then I posed to the general manager on the suggestion of a producer that I take my music show, and put it on here [wnpr] since you’re repeating a lot of the day’s programming anyway – it’s kind of redundant. And he liked it so we turned it into a podcast, and we did that for a while.
By the end of 2008, it was aired on the station every Saturday night, and we were offering the program for free to other stations who were willing to pick it up. Eventually about a dozen stations across the country were running it. A bunch of stations in Nebraska, Connecticut, west coast and southern stations.
Whatever was indie music at the time … Which is funny because at the time I was taking my show and trying to pitch it to NPR music and show it to other stations. NPR Music is totally on the whole indie train now, but at the time they were very much not seeing the reasoning. Only local stations like KEXP were wanting it – and they only do local stuff, most of their music production is in-house.
I guess at the time I could’ve decided to just get up and go and try my hand in working in DC or working on the west coast, trying to get something in KEXP and climbing up the ladder up there. But at that point, I’d invested so much time in trying to build my own brand with this podcast, and this little blog and this podcast, I felt like I owed it to myself to see if it would turn into something else.
That’s when I decided I was going to start a YouTube channel, because I was already pretty involved in YouTube – just as far as watching it all the time. Following a lot of different youtubers. Of all my years of being on a platform, which has probably been since 2006, I remember YouTube being a relatively small community. YouTube drama around that time was some youtuber had started a thousand stock accounts to subscribe to themselves to bring up their subscriber rates. Stuff like that. (laughs)
I decided to try reviewing music on there since I didn’t know anybody talking about music on YouTube. And I’d already done a number of music reviews on my blog but I always had difficulty writing. Some people say my writing is fine – but I think I communicate better using speech.
It can be good. It depends on views. It doesn’t help when you have a multi-network channel taking a chunk of that check and basically providing no service whatsoever. YouTube is kind of losing out on signing these people instead, YouTube could be signing them and adding them to their own network and adding legitimate value to their channels. In exchange for that saying: we’ll promote you more legitimately on the website, we’ll actually grow your career; all you have to do is behave.
At first I was pretty psyched to even get a thousand subscribers, which I think took me a year to get to that point. The next year I was on YouTube I went from a thousand to ten thousand, then by the end of the year I hit 50 thousand. I remember by the end of I think it was 2012 – I was doing full-time but scraping by barely. I was living in an apartment with my now-wife. So it took me a little bit but it had to do with my consistency, the level of output I had going on, it was such a new idea on YouTube to be reviewing music on YouTube.
It’s just from years of practice. And a mix of also growing my audience – my audience and I are a symbiotic relationship as far as what I’m interested in reviewing and what they want me to review. There’s obviously a lot of overlap between those two things. But it’s just come from years of covering certain artists, covering certain sounds, kind of giving people this expectation that I’m willing to cover things that are popular, but I’m not going to cover things just because they’re popular. I’m reviewing cutting edge stuff, but I’m not doing it because it’s experimental, weird or off the beaten path or whatever. Ultimately, the most important thing is conversation. What’s the cultural impact of the record itself? Who’s making music that’s driving and influencing?
In a perfect world, if I was just doing whatever I wanted and didn’t worry about people asking me to review xyz, I’d probably just spent all day on bandcamp or Soundcloud reviewing whatever weird completely solo independent underground odd thing that someone made in their bedroom.
From what I’ve read, hip-hop and r&b are selling and streaming more widely than any other style of music right now. They are kind of the zeitgeist. And since I started, I’ve kind of been in the front of slowly seeing the styles of music and the demands of the music that the audience is requesting change from mostly indie rock to mostly rap requests. Which I don’t have an issue with – I love listening to hip-hop. It’s interesting that the zeitgeist has totally shifted. It’s just funny to see a lot of people catching up to it now – like whoa, hip-hop is the most popular thing. But that’s been the majority of what people have been requesting since like 2013.
Well, one, the internet. Hip-hop previously has been a really insular genre in the culture, and the internet, sites like DatPiff, Genius, gave people who had no understanding of the culture the ability to understand and participate in it in a way that they couldn’t before. Beforehand, to participate, you needed to sort of be in it at the local level or be in the industry. So there’s that.
Before Drake, I think a lot of it had to do with Kanye’s Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. And not to say that I think that album is – it’s not so much that record, but the way that it was covered. I think before that, you didn’t have a whole lot of hip-hop records being taken super, super, super seriously.
That record was taken as seriously as if like, the Beatles had been resurrected. Or as if Neutral Milk Hotel got back together and came out with like, an in air over the sea triple album that was like the greatest thing anyone had ever heard in their lives. So I think that sort of introduced the idea of getting into hip-hop for a lot of people. On top of that, not that it hadn’t been alive before, a lot of people heard MBDTF and like – I like MF doom, roots, all the 90s shit – there’s lots of great experimental stuff. But through the bling era, people got used to this kind of idea of hip-hop like the G-Unit face, that sort of thing. They got used to it as hedonistic party music. Not that it’s not still that in a sense. But I think that MBDTF turned a lot of people on to the idea that oh – hip-hop can be artsy. It can be artsy fartsy. It doesn’t have to be this one singular thing.
And I understand why a lot of people think that that album is amazing – because if that album is the introduction to that idea for you, that’s gonna blow your mind, you know what I mean? Before that, it had already been an established idea to me, because I love the Beastie Boys, I love the Pharcyde, Public Enemy, that sort of thing.
I don’t think Soundcloud should die. They just need to run their platform better. If there’s any reason that Soundcloud should die it’s to teach a lesson of how not to run your platform. The blatant overspending on the offices, the personnel, underadvertising, undermonetizing, that’s not a formula for success. Culturally I think it would hurt for Soundcloud to die. Not that those artists wouldn’t find somewhere else to go – there has been a particular culture of listeners and artists who for whatever reason have connected there. It would find another home somewhere else most likely, but it would be a weird transitional moment. For them to have to do that, there would always be a question of what would’ve been.
I’m glad that they’re still a thing. There are two kinds of music fans, and that’s never really been acknowledged across the board. I think there are music fans who generally listen to whatever is popular and whatever songs they prefer, and that ranges from people who listen to top 40 stuff.
There’s a lot of people out there who like a lot of stuff but only listen to singular songs. Then there’s people, like myself, who literally approach music and music fandom in the same way that someone does comic book collecting. Like you’re a slightly cooler nerd than a Star Wars nerd. Because music is just inherently has a sense of coolness to it. There’s not really a lane for those sorts of people.
I feel like there’s not really a term for those kinds of people, but if there is a place you can unquestionably find them, it’s in the vinyl community. They’re really passionate about music, and music at a deeper level. People ask me all the time about: should I get vinyl should I listen to records? I enjoy my vinyl collection, but honestly, it’s like, I like the convenience the digital age brings. I think it’s fantastic. If someone gave me the opportunity to own every record in the world, but the downside is that digital died, I wouldn’t take that for anything.
I think honestly the offense about that article goes beyond being offended. The wheels are still spinning on this so I can’t talk too deeply about it right now. Honestly I feel like it went beyond simply being offended. Because honestly, hundreds of thousands of people were watching my channel, it wasn’t a secret channel. And I know there are legitimate alt-right channels on YouTube. I’ve seen them, and they don’t have hundreds of thousands of subscribers. When I talk about alt-right, I don’t mean the catch-all term that we throw around to characterize people we don’t like – I mean legitimate Richard Spencer white nationalists. I follow a lot of political channels on YouTube … I studied that in school so that really interests me.
I think it was past the point of being offended because, there were hundreds of thousands of people watching it. If they thought that my channel was an alt-right channel, they could have made those connections and brought it up. Tons of people who watched it were fans of my other channel. My review channel is not an alt-right channel.
Reviewing memes. Making and reviewing memes. I was doing it as a joke. I had a video series where I bullied other youtubers as a joke, I made fun of that one sports channel dudeperfect that just does trick shots. There were videos on the channel that I was making fun of political outrage on the channel, there were videos where I was making fun of PC culture and videos where I was making fun of Trumpists. There were videos that I was making fun of Hillary Clinton and sort of brought into this idea of pepe the frog as a hate symbol, and I had a video of Trump going into his cabinet and picking the top five cabinet picks – I labelled all of them as villains from cartoon shows. Like Gargamel and that sort of thing. It was a mix of stuff. Anything I thought was dumb, silly, anything I thought that once people clicked on it and started watching it they’d be like: why am I watching this? I felt like it would take off because I thought meme culture is cool and popular – but it wasn’t a political angle. It wasn’t a political channel. It was all meant to be ridiculous and be stupid – just dumb. Just the kind of content you watch it and you feel dumb when you finish it.
So do I think the Fader article has something to do with this wave of PC culture? I think it certainly serves as reason for making that article, as an angle, and took advantage of the fact that there were a lot of people who read that article wouldn’t be familiar with the channel at all. And basically took some of the edgiest memes that would’ve been on the channel. I think meme culture has the ability to promote edginess in a way that, today, some comedians can’t. For somebody to make a meme and throw it on the internet, there’s almost no responsibility. And as a result of that, there’s kind of a freedom in that kind of humor that you don’t get anywhere else.
Anyway, that’s about all I have to say about that. Sorry I just had to get that out.
No worries – that was heavy. Let’s do a lightning round.
Recently I’d have to say I think the new King Krule is kind of overrated. I gave it like a 4/10 – I did not care for it. I think King Krule is pretty overrated. That was one of those projects I kind of went the complete other direction of what most other opinions were on it.
There are a lot. Simultaneously I would kind of say the Big KRIT album – I think it deserves way more hype than it’s getting right now. I feel like the right people are listening to it and the hardcore hip-hop fans and nerds are listening to it and appreciating what he’s doing there. He’s not getting the mainstream exposure that he has in the past, he’s not getting the mainstream exposure as like Kendrick Lamar.
I also think this rapper I really like out of New York is pretty underrated – his name is Uncommon NASA. He’s got a unique kind of shouty, spoken-word rap style. He made an excellent record called Written at Night and it was probably one of the most political rap records I’ve heard all year – and was really a reflection on the insanity that’s been normalized in this time culturally. There’s a lot of tracks reflecting on that – and the whole concept plays along – it’s midnight, it’s 1am, it’s 2am, and the longer the record draws on into the wee hours the more paranoid and crazy it gets. All the guests he has on there play into what the concept of the track is lyrically. It has a very grimy, LP, fantastic damage kind of aesthetic to it. So if you go into it be prepared for that.
I guess I’m excited to hear what the next step is for artists like you know, Flatbush Zombies is gonna be. I’m interested to see what they’ll do next. Also, right now, I’m interested to see what is this new wave going to be like?
Soundcloud rap has really changed things in a big way, and I think, love em or hate em dudes like XXXTentacion and Lil Pump are kind of like – they’re going to be short-lived – but their influence is going to outlast them. Even if their careers don’t go on very long there are a lot of kids out there who are listening to them who are going to have an impact.
In the same way that if you listen to Brockhampton now, which another project I’m amped for is Saturation 3, they’re so obviously taking off of Odd Future. And when Odd Future took off that wasn’t even that long ago. So we could be seeing artists getting sort of on that level of popularity within the next 3 years who are heavily influenced by X, or Lil Pump, or you know, Smokepurpp.
I’m also really excited to see where Ski Mask the Slump God goes – out of that movement I think he’s the most technically able and the most lyrically eccentric. Not by much, but I think there’s room to grow there. There’s a lot of aspects of his music that are out there and weird, and I can see it getting weirder. Clearly he’s made the moves to separate himself from X and other people because he wants to enter the scene on his own. He seems to be making the right moves to be a solo artist with a singular sound.
P.S. here's a quick review of his alter ego's mixtape