Anthony DeCurtis, Clive Davis: Music Journalist Talks ‘Soundtrack of My Life’ – Exclusive Interview
Journalists are usually the ones asking the questions, but legendary scribe Anthony DeCurtis has done enough in his 25-plus-years covering music that he can have the tables turned on him every once in a while.
Because if there’s an artist you can think of – especially in rock, but also hip-hop and R&B – chances are the New York native has been involved in covering them.
Recently, between splitting time teaching at the University of Pennsylvania and continuing to write for publications like Rolling Stone, he’s made appearances on stage interviewing rappers like Nas, and seen the release of Clive Davis’ memoir The Soundtrack of My Life, which he helped write.
We recently caught up with DeCurtis in-person and picked his brain about music journalism, not being star-struck around Jay-Z, what it was like covering The Notorious B.I.G. and those pesky Kelly Clarkson comments that just won’t go away. Read on.
What age did you decide that journalism was the career you wanted to go into?
I was older when I made that decision. I set out to be an English professor. It was after I got my PHD in American Literature, so it would’ve been probably in the early 80’s. I wanted to get an academic job and I got one out of grad school at Emory University in Atlanta where I went to teach. That fell through after a year, and I didn’t get a decent job offer after that. Journalism then became something I started pursuing.
When you were making that decision, who were some of your influences in music?
I was a teenager when the Beatles arrived in this country. So that generation of artists made a really profound impact on me — The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, The Who — that was transformative. It felt to me like being in the renaissance era when that happened.
And in music journalism?
I wasn’t somebody that was drawn to Lester Bangs and that school, so to speak. I liked people that were smarter and wrote better. I would consciously mimic someone like John Rockwell, try to set out and write exactly like he did. Robert Palmer is a beautiful writer but someone whose knowledge was comprehensive. My friend described his tone as, “Don’t worry, I know everything.” Jon Landau was very thoughtful, somebody who you could just feel bringing his intellect on what he was writing about.
You did you first official piece for Rolling Stone back in February of 1986 on Bob Dylan. What was your experience like when you started there?
I might be the only person in the history of that magazine that was pulled aside and asked if I could write less. I never said no, I was determined to make that a success. I knocked around for a while, I was in the early 30s then. I tried this academic track that didn’t really work out and [was] getting by as a journalist but never felt like I really got my shot. When I got hired at Rolling Stone it was scary at first because I realized there was no more excuses, like this is it. I would never ever be able to say again, “Well I never got a chance.”
It was an amazing transition because suddenly you are at a place that had a tremendous impact on me. Rolling Stone was exactly what I wanted to read when I was 16, when it started. It was perfect. It was kind of a dream, and it also made your job easier. If you called up and said “Hi, this is Anthony DeCurtis from Rolling Stone,” it became like “What can we do for you, what can we give you?” It wasn’t like the other places where there was all this hassling. You had assistants to do stuff. All you had to do was report and write. It was a tremendously heavy period for me; it’s really hard to put into words. It was exactly what I hoped it would be.
You’ve written reviews on iconic R&B and hip-hop records throughout the years. What was your favorite one to review and why?
A whole generation of hip-hop writers has come along in recent years, but at first when the genre was new there weren’t a lot of people to write about it. In the early days there was a KRS-One record I reviewed that I loved; Beyonce’s first record was great as well. The Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death was a posthumous record but it was an amazing sort of occasion to write in a very visible place about an important artist and important issues. That was a thrill. I also really tried when I was the Reviews Editor at Rolling Stone to really cover [urban] music responsibly and get younger writers in. Danyel Smith and Toure’ were two people I brought into Rolling Stone. Alan Light was somebody that I was instrumental in hiring and identified a lot of great writers in the hip-hop community for me.
What was the most shocking thing you found out about Clive Davis while working on The Soundtrack of My Life?
I knew Clive’s career [but] we weren’t buddies… The big revelation is about his bisexuality. I had asked him as we were working on the book, and he assured me it would be apart of it. After that, I kind of left it to him. He drafted that part and then we made a determination on how it would be handled. I had been around him and the industry enough to not find that to be too much of a shock.
Clive brought Diddy and Bad Boy Records to Arista. How did Clive feel about Diddy?
Clive loves Puffy. There was certain person that when Clive talks about them, you can really tell it was beyond a business relationship. Something he admired about Puffy though was how business-minded he was. I think Puffy in some sense wanted to be Clive, he saw him as his model and mentor. He would show up at Clive’s office and say “Ok I’m ready for school now,” and would spend the day with him and watch him in meetings.
I was touched by Clive’s ability to connect very viscerally with someone like Puffy, and I think that feeling was mutual. When Whitney Houston died, Puffy ended up introducing Clive’s party that night. She died on the day of his Grammy party. Puffy called him and said “What can I do to help you?” He had been scheduled to participate but told him “What do you need.” I think Clive really valued that. Clive has worked with a lot of people — LA Reid and Babyface; there is a whole chapter on LaFace — but there is a special thing with Puffy and I think they were very close and continue to be close.
This is problematic for me. Clive has taken the high road in this, Kelly hasn’t.
Do you think she is justified in what she said? Do you feel she should’ve said anything in the first place?
I think she was being exactly how she was portrayed in the book. If you read that chapter, which is really one of the best chapters in the book, you would not have been surprised by her outbursts. It seemed entirely in character. As far as the accuracy about that chapter, I can say this — Clive took such pains to make sure the accuracy was vetted. I think Clive understood what the impact of it might be. Everybody that he could get to that was involved in it did an advanced read. He would come back to me and say “We need to change this.” It went through a rigorous fact-checking process. So the idea that there are misrepresentations in there, it is very hard for me to find any truth to that.
When I saw you interview Nas a couple of months ago at the 92nd Street Y, your demeanor the whole time came across as calm, cool and collected. Is that something that you have always had or something you learned to develop throughout time?
You realize what is required in certain interview situations. In a public situation like the one with Nas, what people are there for is the subject and to get the best interview from that person. What they really want to see is an interaction. That’s why I don’t go out there with notes and [I] try to make it as spontaneous as possible, so that there is immediacy to it that people can see. You are partly dependent on your subject, and I always start out interviews with something just to get them to talk so I can get an assessment on how the evening is going to go. With Nas, he was there from the start, so when you have that you can just go for it. Then you are paying attention and just trying to ride whatever waved you have set in motion. At that point you can relax because the more relaxed you are the better the experience is going to be. And whatever stature they have attained, they are still looking for you to steer the ship. So you want to give that sense that you are in control and there is nothing aggressive or off-putting about that.
Has there ever been a moment where you yourself have been starstruck?
Artists that are really important but who made their impact when I was an adult — meaning over 25 — the ship has sailed. I might respect them tremendously, but it pales in comparison to when I interviewed George Harrison. You don’t want to walk into the room being like “Oh my god, I can’t believe I am meeting you,” because you watch your subject disappear immediately upon arrival. Jay-Z is a tremendously impressive interview and a great guy and fun to be around. Someone like Nas — who is really smart and very impressive and emotionally available I should add — I wasn’t starstruck to meet [him]. I was impressed and it felt great but it wasn’t that other thing because I was a grown person when they were doing their work.
What is the best advice you would give to the young writers out there?
Work on being a good writer and develop your voice. That is what really sets people apart. When you can read something and get a sense from the individual then you know you are onto something. The other thing is to get your work out there. There is blogs and Facebook and tweets and every other way to do it. Put it out there. Nothing teaches you more in a way than the responses that you get. That said, for the more serious parts of your writing I would try to find people you can trust and people that are good to edit your stuff. Editing is not a lost art but it’s harder to find now than it has been in the past. A good editor can really teach you a good deal, whether it is a teacher at your school or your best buddy or whoever it is, don’t take that for granted. It is not always going to be there for you.