We caught up with producer and Recollective co-founder Carl Scott a month after WNYC’s broadcast of I, Too, Sing America: Music in the Life of Langston Hughes. The hour-long radio documentary, produced by Carl and hosted by radio veteran Terrance McKnight, is a beautiful tribute to an enduring icon and a surprising exploration of how music affected and inspired the work of Langston Hughes. Carl’s second collaboration with McKnight is only the latest in a long line of radio projects that use music to to tell the stories of culture and community. And it all began with his early examination of hip-hop culture called Rip and Rebind; An ongoing audio series presented by the National Black Programming Consortium.
The Recollective: Tell us how Rip and Rebind came about?
Carl: Rip and Rebind really began as a desire to teach media literacy. Since graduating college, I’ve had this not-so-secret desire to assist in giving young people the critical analysis skills necessary to make educated choices about the media they choose to consume. Hip-hop music just seemed like a natural place to start. I’m part of a generation of people who never really say that they “listen” to hip-hop. We say, “I AM hip-hop.” It’s a cultural ownership that the community shares with other musics stemming from revolutionary roots, like punk. In the opening to his first album “Black on Both Sides” the artist Mos Def (Yasiin Bey) says:
“People talk about hip-hop as if it’s some giant living in the hillside that comes down to visit the townspeople. We are hip-hop. Me, you, everybody. We are hip-hop. So, hip-hop is going where we are going.”
I believe that statement. But in 2008 there was much conversation revolving around the phrase “hip-hop is dead.” It all seemed futile to me. As an avid participant in hip-hop, I was proud of the cultural machine it had produced. Hip-hop was a worldwide commodity that had come from a group of young people just looking to be heard. And it was my belief that if any participant thought that the culture was terrible, then it was his or her responsibility to make better decisions. Naturally, the culture will change. All cultures change. But I didn’t see many people connecting those dots. Hip-hop was no longer a culture to most people, it was now an industry driven primarily by economic factors. So I wanted to make something that would help.
The Recollective: How did the show find its way to PRX and Remix Radio?
Carl: It started with me grabbing a $10 Sony mono recorder to perform interviews with my friends and co-workers about basic topics that intrigued me. Those early shows were full of creativity and really lacking in production value. Technologically I sucked, but I really loved the work. My cousin had introduced me to a friend of hers in Chicago that was starting an internet radio station where I could broadcast and I jumped on the opportunity. Soon my process evolved and I was creating full dramatic scripts where I used my friends as voice actors and employed samples to construct a larger sound collage. I started using sound effects and scoring. I quickly got immersed in the world of painting pictures with sound.After a few episodes, another friend pointed me toward New York and the oral history project StoryCorps. Within six months I moved to NYC to spend a year traveling the country with StoryCorps, recording the stories of everyday Americans. It was a great experience, but during this time I was much less involved with the work that brought me to New York in the first place. I got a big break after StoryCorps when Public Radio Exchange (PRX) started to branch out to organizations looking to bring independent producers up the public radio pipeline. PRX partnered with the National Black Programming Consortium to hire a producer to create a year’s worth of audio content to be broadcast on a new PRX project called Remix Radio. I got the job and naturally took the chance to make my Chicago sketches in to a full-fledged show.
The Recollective: In 2011 you produced Still Swinging, Still Classic: A Musical Biography of Pianist Hazel Scott (no relation). How did that project come about?
Carl: While I was still working on episodes of Rip and Rebind, my mentor Roman Mars was approached by a friend and asked if he knew of any independent producers who might be interested in producing a documentary for the New York based classical music station WQXR. He sent along a few episodes of Rip and Rebind as a demo without telling me. I was still living in creative bliss with the National Black Programming Consortium, enjoying the freedom to make whatever I wanted without all the worry and pressure of expectations. It was only required to be good by my standards. The executive producer at WQXR back then, Limor Tomer, heard the episodes and thought I’d be a good fit to produce the concept she was crafting for the show All Ears with Terrance McKnight. For the previous 2 years, the show had been producing radio biographies of known and lesser known figures in the Black community. The documentaries highlighted the impact of music on the lives and careers of each subject.
They had already selected their next project, a show on prodigious Jazz pianist Hazel Scott. Limor thought that my style of melding music with narratives was just the approach she had been looking for to format the show. She wanted something that would not resemble their previous shows, yet would still weave together both talk and music into a balanced hybrid, lifting the narrative to the height of entertainment. So that’s what I attempted to do. I owe a tremendous amount to Roman for putting my work out in the world without my knowledge. It was a really smart idea to leave me out of it. I’ve always been scared that my production style was not appropriate for public radio and to know that someone at WQXR was critiquing my work would have driven me crazy. I also am grateful to Limor for giving me the opportunity to execute my craft at a more professional level. By allowing me to produce the story I heard, rather than adhere to another previously existing format, she helped open up a sensibility that has really proven invaluable as I continue to produce work.
Stay tuned next month for the second part of this interview with Carl Scott.