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What is villin?

Published in villin.

Why Iowa & Nashville? A self-indulgent reflection on how villin came to be…

I love a lot of different types of music and have graduated through various stages of fandom over the years. When I was in grade school, for example, I loved dance mix compilations, packed with techno, house, and radio-friendly hip-hop. From there I transitioned to rock, electronica, rap, then metal, punk, and everything in between. I amassed a huge cassette and CD collection as a kid, and when the advent of the CD burner arrived I spent a (now) regrettable amount of money and time upgrading computer hardware to burn my own mixes. Somehow, that was 20+ years ago… Making CD mixes was a pastime until mp3 players came along, where the focus then transitioned to a digital medium. In the mid-aughts I began blogging about music online and it was around that time where mixes faded into the background for me.

I first arrived in Nashville in July of 2010. When I originally landed in town I had a music blog called Culture Bully, and shortly after getting settled in I began going to shows and reaching out to a few people in the community to get a feel for the city’s hip-hop and rap scene. I have fond memories of several folks like Malcolm DeWayneKabyGotty & 2L’s on a Cloud (among many others who were welcoming) who educated me about what was going on around town. They might not remember me, but those initial interactions helped shape my view of the city. Nashville was unlike anywhere I’d been before. In the years prior I’d been living in the Twin Cities and kept tabs on music up there via my blog and a small role I played with the local alt-weekly, City Pages, where I (almost exclusively) covered local music. Using that experience as the lens through which I was seeing things in Nashville, the scene seemed kind of fractured and the city somewhat ambivalent toward it. I was used to local publications and outlets covering and promoting hip-hop and it wasn’t uncommon to hear Rhymesayers or Doomtree artists on the radio up there. The same wasn’t quite as true in my new home.

I moved around a lot from 2010-2013 and gave up blogging during that time, but not before befriending the Break on a Cloud crew and publishing a bunch of locally-focused posts on their site. There was so much cool stuff going on around Nashville and as time drew on I still had interest in the scene, but was just burned out on the blogging process. Until 2014 when I tried again…

I’d bounced in and out of town to help open a record store up in Kansas City, but in the spring of that year I started villin as a Nashville-focused music blog. There wasn’t a specific bend toward any single genre on the site, though I wanted to keep an eye and ear out for music I figured to be under-represented in Music City. Once again, many in the scene were welcoming and supportive and I remain grateful to guys like Caveman the Wise and JOTA ESE who let me tag along and share their stories. I wasn’t in a great place personally though and gave up the project only a few months after kicking it off. It took me a few years to get back on my feet and through that time I continued to have this itch, wondering if I’d made a mistake by stepping away. In 2017 I tried blogging again, but something about the resulting interviews just didn’t feel right, and after a few more months I again called it quits. (Articles published during those years are all available here.)

While not active with any projects of my own in the following years, I continued to keep an eye and ear out around town. Since 2013, for example, I’ve hung out in the background helping maintain an archive of the Fringe Radio Show, hosted by emcees AL-D and E.T. Those guys have been holding it down as two of the city’s finest champions of local hip-hop, and in 2016 the Nashville Scene recognized them accordingly. Their show, in large part, is what helped keep me connected as a fan of the scene.

This brings me to late-2021 where I was mulling thoughts over about all of the above, compounded by a desire to make something… Maybe music? Maybe videos? Nearly a decade earlier I’d dabbled with creating some strange mashup-type videos which still rank as some of the most enjoyable-to-create things I’ve ever worked on. I thought… what if I tried to do something like that again? I’d never really tried to make music before, but I went with the idea, picked up some entry-level tools, and dove in. One of my primary goals with villin moving forward is to use it as an outlet to create and share whatever music and videos I end up making. Even if they’re not any good, it feels like the right thing to do after being a bystander on the outside looking in for so many years.

But that still doesn’t explain these playlists… In a nutshell, while I’ve long-since fallen out of love with the reality of actually maintaining a music blog, I never quite lost the motivation behind blogging about music. So, compiling these playlists feels like I’m carrying forward the same ethos via a different medium. However small a contribution I’m actually making, recognizing artists in my community–wherever that community might be–has been a value that seems to have stuck with me through the years.

Fifteen years ago it was a chore trying to find music online and music bloggers served as something of a stopgap, offering outlets through which new music could be explored. They also created a shift in the release cycle, helping to bridge the large divide between fans and musicians who didn’t have a budget for promotion. Artists could submit releases directly to bloggers, who would sift through incoming emails and packages (back in the CD days) to cull music for online features. Since Rolling Stone wasn’t likely to publish anything about artists few had ever heard of, this went a long way in helping shift the broader online landscape of music discovery. Due to several dozen reasons (which could each be individual essays on their own), music blogs have all but died off though, with the online music discovery space having now largely shifted to algorithmically-driven recommendation engines which are at the heart of every online streaming platform.

I opened my first Spotify account in 2012 and at the time it wasn’t uncommon for huge, superstar musicians and bands to be missing from the platform; forget about smaller independent artists (or worse yet, those part of “local” scenes who were nearly universally absent). Ten years later and it’s become commonplace for all of the above to be represented on the likes of Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal and YouTube. In terms of music discovery, the great news is that there’s never been a better time to be alive with respect to the widespread availability of music. One of the downsides of that, however, is that if you don’t want to rely on those platforms to tell you what to listen to, it can be frustratingly difficulty to know where to begin. Another downside is that if you’re putting music out on your own, with little-to-no budget to promote it, it can be nearly impossible to be heard when your new release is lumped into a system that is also distributing nearly 100 million other songs, with at least 60,000 new tracks being uploaded daily.

Creating a few playlists or sharing songs and videos on social media isn’t exactly going to solve that problem, but I feel like there’s value in keeping tabs on and boosting local creators, regardless. Head back to late-2021 again, where I was thinking: Why not try to just put together a little platform of my own to celebrate some of the good music I’ve been exposed to along the way? So, in January of 2022 I began periodically updating playlists of Nashville artists at a relaxed pace, which felt about the right speed for a reformed blogger who’s been historically burned out on trying to keep up with any sort of publishing schedule. When I began, I figured I’d aim to keep it up for a year, but a few months into that year, just when I began to feel like I was finding a rhythm, life began to change again. Before making it even a half way into 2022 I packed up my things and moved to Iowa.

Iowa seems like a weird place to move if you don’t already live here. But for me it’s not as random as it sounds. While I’m a lifelong fan of music, I started blogging about it from a college dorm room in a small town called Storm Lake, Iowa back in 2005. That’s where I really sunk my teeth into the process, and a few early successes there started a trajectory for me that led me on a wild ride around the outskirts of the music industry. Continuing this project up north rather than down south is closing a loop for me in a strange kind of way.

I first moved to Nashville on a whim, but in time it became more of a home for me than anywhere I’d ever lived in before. And I want to continue honoring my time in the city and celebrating its incredible artists by keeping a focus on the quality music being made by its artists. (After all, it’s a great time to be a fan of Nashville hip-hop!) I’ve been a spectator to so much change in the city since first arriving and I’m proud of what I’m seeing develop in the community. Nashville has grown in some troubling ways over the years, but in some inspiring and beautiful ways, too. Whereas hip-hop was relegated to the outer fringes of the city when I first arrived, it’s now commonplace to see live hip-hop on lower Broadway, where honky tonks and tourist traps have been historically predominant. What a change a decade makes. As time moves on though, I’ll likely transition to primarily sharing music from Iowa. Like I said… there’s a loop to be closed. I’ve got a lot to learn, but I’m already excited by what I’m hearing and look forward to shining a light on artists from the state.