Watching the talented and confident Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, get pushed off balance in an interview with upcoming Chicago rapper Chief Keef is irresistibly uncomfortable. There are awkward pauses. One-word answers. Non-answers. And sincere attempts by Glover to make a connection fell flat each time. The entire ordeal offers the same queazy appeal as that clip from CNN’s Crossfire, in which Jon Stewart appeared to wreck the show from the guest’s chair.
As one who has spent a considerable amount of time with interview subjects that have been uninterested or hostile (or both), I feel his pain. So, I reached out to some music journalists who have some experience in the matter to offer their interview secrets for hostile subjects. Mr. Gambino, you are welcome.
Lesson #1. It’s A Courtship
“Birdman was my toughest,” remembers Jayson Rodriguez, Executive Editor for XXL magazine. “I interviewed him for AllHipHop around the time when Wendy Day was beginning to speak out about helping Cash Money get a deal and not getting anything in return.”
Unlike Childish Gambino who was looking to pull out an entertaining conversation, Jay was after some specific information. But both were trying to affect an outcome, to get another person to speak in a way that would satisfy their intents. Jayson didn’t fare much better than Gambino.
“When I came in the small room, Manny Fresh, Baby and four or five goons were sitting in the room watching a flatscreen TV. I went straight in and tried to get answers from Birdman. At that time, I didn’t get my interview strategy right. I didn’t know to throw the soft questions first and save the tough questions for the end. I uploaded too fast. I asked the Wendy Question too early. Mannie Fresh was being a gentleman for the Big Tymers questions. But I remember asking the Wendy Day question and he gave me ice-grill.”
Jayson didn’t get his story but he learned a lesson that could benefit any journalist who is struggling with a rascally subject.
“Now I always say it’s like courtship,” he explains all these years later. “It’s like talking to a girl. You are not going to ask the girl back to the apartment with the first qustion. Even if you only have 10 minutes, you have to figure out how to manage it. You have to work nonverbal communication. Weave in and out of mindless chatter to get to the probing questions.”
Lesson #2. Call ‘Em Out
Clover Hope, who is senior editor for VIBE magazine, has had her fair share of contentious interviews. Over the years she has developed her own strategies to deal with a mumble mouth interviewee. She conducted a phoner with Keyshia Cole, who proved to be a reluctant subject. To add an extra layer of difficulty, Hope was restricted to a ten-minute window to discuss her album.
“Keyshia Cole was pretty bad,” Clover recalls. “I interviewed her twice. It felt like she didn’t want to do the interview–both of them. The second time, it was about her album for KING. I was asking her questions about the album and she was giving me five-word answers: ‘The album is going to be great.’ [That's seven words but you get the point]
‘Can you be more specific?,’ I’d ask her.
‘You’ll see when it comes out.’
“I had to be snippy like, ‘This interview is for print and we asked you to talk about the album, it would be nice if you give some details.’ She responded a little bit, but it was awkward.”
Cole had the same problem with Ray Benzino (“It was something about Eminem”) and then again in this interview with Nicki Minaj (“The question about how much of her album is pop got on her nerves”).
What could Clover have done differently, if there was something she could have done?
“It gets awkward when you don’t call them out on it,” she said. “You have to say how that person is making you feel. Making me feel like you don’t want to do this interview. Showing them that you have emotions, too, might help them realize that you aren’t really that different. It puts the mirror up to them. I do that. ‘Are you in a bad mood today?’”
Lesson #3. Know When To Call It Quits
Keith Murphy, the longtime music journalist friends of this blog will remember from this Nas post, has had plenty of run-ins with combative interviewees. But one stands out among them all.
“DJ Clue was the worst,” he remembers. “When I was interviewing him, he was eating chinees food and he had a spoon in his mouth the whole time he was talking. He didn’t understand that this was a professional interview. I’ve interviewed Notorious B.I.G., New Edition, anybody, Jay-Z, Nas, Eminem. All these people have been professional. I ask him about his album and he says, ‘the album is dope.’ You don’t give one-word answers and mumble throughout the interview. And had a spoon in his mouth the whole time.”
Oh, then there was Murphy’s the Juvenile interview that almost ended in fisticuffs but that’s another story and a requires a different kind of technique. Gambino didn’t have to contend with that.
So how does an interviewer get a clue?
“I would have ended the interview if it were now,” he says. “I would have been professional enough to tell the publicist this will not continue and we can’t do the interview this way. We’re taking about DJ Clue here not fucking Prince. But I was new and I didn’t want to rock the boat. It turned out to be a very bad story for me.”
All of this has little, if anything, to do with Gambino’s performance. Chief Keef is the toughest interview subject to crack for a veteran journalist or a rising comedian/rapper/actor. Bill Duke, as the detective in Menace II Society couldn’t get a peep out of Keef. The dude is a one-answer pro.
There are rumors that he is on the spectrum or has Asperger’s Disorder, which is a subgroup of autism. I don’t say that to imply that there is any truth to the rumor, but to explain how Keef has developed a reputation for awkward interactions. Gambino had no idea what he was in for. And when it comes to throwing questions at a disinterested participant, he’s not alone.
Welcome to the club, Mr. Gambino, where you’re not only a client, you may be the president.