-What's your background in the music industry - was it always intentional to become a writer?
I don’t have a background in music or the music industry, I can’t play any instruments or DJ – I’m just a fan. There was a guy at my university who only owned three CDs, because, he said, “I don’t really like music”. I always found that pretty extraordinary. That’s like saying “I don’t really like food”, isn’t it?
As for writing, I won a competition at school when I was 13 where we all had to write a 400-word review of Dragonheart, this god-awful kids film featuring a CGI dragon voiced by Sean Connery. I won a Down Periscope hat and a Nutty Professor long-sleeve t-shirt. So obviously with incentives like that I knew I was onto a winner.
-What journalists inspire the way you write?
So many of my friends and peers, too numerous to mention... most of them are linked on my blog. As for journalists I don’t actually know in person, people like Gary Younge and Barbara Ehrenreich I like a great deal in terms of their subject matter. Jason Burke and Jon Boone I find fascinating because they write about things I would know nothing about otherwise... but for style my main inspiration is PJ O’Rourke, whose libertarian politics I cannot stand, but he’s so brilliantly witty that I can’t help but read and re-read his stuff. I’ve just noticed that not one of those are music journalists. There might be a reason for that.
-As a music journalist do you still think bands see you in the old stereotype of the enemy?
They’re generally just a bit sceptical (understandably so, really), rather than oppositional or defensive. But then the people I interview have never been sitting in a hotel room all day doing 300 interviews in 15 minute slots – they’re musicians who are grateful for any sort of media interest, usually. So my job often means chasing grime MCs whose mobile numbers seem to change every week, waiting at Leytonstone tube station in the rain for two hours, going on wild-goose chases through the Isle of Dogs... but better that than dealing with handlers, minders, PRs and managers – and bored, boring ‘artists’ who’ve nothing to talk about but the quality of the room service.
-Your articles often focus on sometimes overlooked but nevertheless, important parts of urban youth, like food and music, are you trying to embrace the culture in London around you or is more tongue in cheek than that?
Er, there’s nothing arch or condescending about it – well, the Junior Spesh blog is very tongue-in-cheek (and also deadly serious, sort of), but that’s quite obvious – not least because it’s inspired by a brilliant novelty grime song. If you’re asking whether it’s patronising or condescending for me to write about ‘urban youth’ culture, well then no, it’s not. In census terms I’m a 28 year-old middle-class white male… but this is London. I’m not ‘road’, but – for example – I went to school with Neutrino from So Solid Crew, who among other achievements shot himself in the leg “cos I’m fucking crazy like that”, as he once spat. My point is that compared to most megalopolises, London doesn’t discriminate or segregate – it throws everyone together. Apart from the bits that voted for Boris Johnson – they can fuck off.
-What's the most exciting thing in British music right now?
First, the fuzzy, inchoate areas in the middle of the Venn diagrams of UK dance music. These grey areas between and beyond existing genres are larger and harder to define than ever before. We’re at a stage where grime, house, dubstep, and funky are bleeding into one another – what do we call it? I don’t know. But search for mixes and tracks by the likes of Bok Bok, Jam City, Untold, Roska, Scratcha, Mosca, Ikonika, Brackles, LVis1990, Cooly G and the Hessle Audio label.
Secondly, the much more clearly-defined world of funky bashment, which has been created, curated and nurtured by Gabriel Heatwave, with the help of a lot of great producers and MCs – it self-consciously connects the dots between Jamaican MCs and London electronic music culture – in this case, funky. There are a couple of great ‘primer’ mixes out there by Gabriel I’d really recommend downloading.
Tom Humberstone (left) and Dan Hancox by Humberstone
-In a recent blog post you mention how its very easy for the extraordinary to become normalized. Looking back at the US election it's pretty obvious why Obama won, but at the start did it feel like you were making a book about his journey to the Whitehouse?
Not at the beginning, not at all. His role in the story in January 2008 was clearly defined: he would be a noteworthy supporting cast member to the central narrative of Hillary Vs The Republicans. For the Democrats, he would motivate those few young Americans whose political spirit had not been entirely crushed by eight years of President Bush, revive the black vote a bit, teach the Washington mafia some new tricks in terms of online fundraising, and recede into the background like Howard Dean in 2004. Or possibly be Hillary’s VP candidate. Tom Humberstone (my illustrator/travel buddy/Ralph Steadman) and I bought this logic too – until the epiphanic moment when we saw him speak, in a snow-caked school gym outside Iowa City in early January. He was really that good.
-'My Fellow Americans' sold out of copies in UK, what do you think captures British peoples attention about the American political system?
Bigger fireworks, louder shouting, and shinier suits. This sounds glib – and it is – but it’s also true. Irrespective of your political views on the two of them, who would you rather watch a news item about: Sarah Palin, or Nick Clegg?
-You released MFA last year and started it the year before that, do you ever think you'll be doing something like it again? What would be the next step from here?
Tempted though I was by the idea of writing My Fellow Kashmiris, I’m not really that kind of journalist. But the ideas that motivated My Fellow Americans are more pressing than ever: as the old media continues to die off, genuine grass-roots reportage is suffering. Time-challenged staff reporters are increasingly tethered to their desks, regurgitating press releases and doing phone interviews with official spokesmen – and editors half-heartedly temper this by sending their hacks on brief, surgical strikes to somewhere outside of Westminster for an afternoon. I’m not sure what the next step is exactly, except that I want to see more journalists doing genuine grass-roots reporting, and I’d like to be one of those journalists.
-I may have focused unfairly on you being a music journalist here, but you also write a lot for the New Statesman (amongst others) - are their any similarities in the types of people you meet and write about?
I suppose so. The musicians I interview very very rarely have publicists, agents, managers, or eyebrow technicians – and the people I talk to for political pieces in the New Statesman, Prospect, etc don’t either; in the sense that they’re not politicians, but normal people.
Dan Hancox can be found online via Twitter and Blogspot.