Shirt is the rapper we all deserve. If hip-hop has always survived by some measure of braggadocio and self-promotion, this Queens resident has, possibly, perfected that for the social media age.
Consider that this is how many of us first heard of Shirt last week: through a coronation-style article by possibly the ultimate mainstream press kingmaker, the New York Times’ Jon Caramanica. In an article circulated online last week, it appeared that Caramanica had called Shirt’s music, in best music writer-ese, “galvanizing” and “languorous.”
However, Caramanica didn’t write it. Shirt himself did. But instead of going for the usual plagiarism/parody/whatever you want to call it, he took it to the next level: an entire fake New York Times web site. Layout? Completely nailed it. Navigation? Nailed it too, if you didn’t click around too much.
And the actual writing? Nailed it. Let’s face it: Music writing, especially of the kind meant to solidify the ever-crucial buzz, is formulaic as hell. Read enough of it, and you can reasonably emulate it after a while. Caramanica, too, was a wise choice – an alum of magazines like XXL and Vibe, he gives the Times a bit of street cred. He also often serves the last seal of approval for formerly “indie” acts about to poke through to a bigger level.
And once the New York Times – or some equally vaunted Musical Tastemaker decides something is good – usually most of the second-wave of Influencers also decide it is Good. The perceived Goodness lasts for a while, or at least until a second album. So the Goodness is good for a while. Harnessing that Goodness is a good idea.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, this kind of stunt was often called “culture jamming,” or performance art, or a statement or whatever. Now? It’s just called playing the game. And Shirt scored a pretty decent hit – hello, we’re talking about him now.
Don’t worry, though – there’s some actual music behind the culture interruption. This maddeningly hard-to-Google artist has released an album with a similarly, maddeningly hard-to-Google-album, Rap.
Lucky for you, you can download it below and draw your own musical conclusions. (Do you really need an intermediary all the time to tell you whether or not something is good?) Also, you can check out what he had to say about just how this whole stunt is working out for him.
DOWNLOAD: Shirt - Rap
Fusion: In a nutshell, who is Shirt? You're a rapper, a designer, and a visual artist. Which of these practices is most important to you — or are they all part of one artistic project? And how long have you been at this?
Shirt: Yeah, I think for a long time maybe I wasn't sure how I wanted to approach those things. I was always rapping and writing. That came first. Then it was like, “Okay, I wanna wear my own s***, let me make tees and hoodies.” That's where the name came from.
Then it was like, “Okay, I never wanna be the guy just making the music and not caring about the videos, the artwork, the plan; let me figure out what I like design-wise and marketing-wise and take control of that.” Then there was the other stuff, painting large canvases, directing short videos etc. I did on spare time when I was inspired.
I just loved doing it and felt like maybe I could add something. But I didn't know how to be all those guys at once. Maybe I was scared a bit. It was only recently I became clear. I'm Shirt. This guy from New York making rap records and being creative. I have a take, you know? Things I wanna say and leave behind.
It's 2014 and rappers are still mostly considered only one kind of way. Everyone knows these guys can make a lot of money, sell a product, influence kids etc. but very few are respected for their take.
I'm a human first, you know? A guy from New York first. A best friend, a brother, a lover. But I grew up on the beauty that is rap. I started releasing things in 2009.
Where did the fake New York Times idea come from? What was the hardest part about the actual execution of the whole site?
The idea came because I constantly want to push forward and get people excited. Do something different. I've kind of learned to leave the rap alone and let it write itself, and let it move how it wants.
What I try and pay close attention to now is how best to present what happens naturally—titles of records, albums, how a project feels, and plays through, what kind of extra things happen around it.
I wanted to do something that'd have high share value. Whether you've been with me for a while and would go crazy if I was actually on the front page of the Times, or you've never heard of me, and think faking the site in this way is a great, bold move, on a basic level I just wanted to make something compelling enough people might share.
The hardest part about making the site was getting each font right. The real site is super custom so making sure it looked and felt official was important to me.
So how did you manage to nail the exact layout, down to the navigation bars at the top?
Any designer would tell you that wasn't the super hard part. You have the real site as a perfect reference. It's just about adding the new elements in and not being able to tell.
Didn’t you think people would realize that you had a .la URL rather than .com for the fake Times web site?
Um, of course. But then again who's to say the Times doesn't own the .la? I had an idea that most people don't usually look too hard at links they click online.
Why did you choose to satirize Jon Caramanica specifically?
I never had one thought to “satirize” Jon Caramanica. Ever. The original idea in writing the article was to piece together sentences and paragraphs from past Caramanica articles.
The poet Kenneth Goldsmith, whom I mentioned as an inspiration, believes in this notion of repurposing information, that enough great writing has been done in the world, and now it's all about the curating of those ideas and texts to fit whatever you're trying to do and say.
An updated definition of genius could be the ability to sift through all the information available in the world now, and be able to pick out the best stuff.
Unfortunately I'm not as ill as Kenneth Goldsmith, haha. This practice of going through the thousands of awesome things Caramanica wrote was too much, and besides the actual point I was trying to make on any level. I eventually just began to add elements in I wrote myself.
After all of that trouble, I have to ask, why didn't you write a headline that more closely matched the New York Times' headline style?
Coming up with the right headline was especially difficult. Whenever I have trouble coming up with a piece of writing I refer back to my own music. I don't write anything as naturally and comfortable as I write rap. “Let me break down the scene in the city for you” is a line on the song "Take Off" from the new album.
It seems like you study a certain style of music writing pretty closely — even using adjectives like "galvanizing." How much do you keep up with that sort of thing? Is it helpful or hurtful to you as an artist?
I wouldn't say I study music writing closely. I read certain pieces from writers I like. It's a pretty normal consumption. "Galvanizing" was from a paragraph Caramanica wrote about Jay Electronica some years ago, I believe.
Is what hurtful to being an artist, reading about music you like? How would it be?
Your attempt to fake music writing is generating even more music-related writing (like this blog post). What do you think that says about the whole practice?
The whole practice of writing about music? What about it? Is there a coalition I'm not aware of trying to crack down on people writing about music? I don't understand really.
When artists make anything, music included, there's people who are gonna write about it. I don't want to live in a world where there isn't. Whether you get paid to do it, or you're on ichat with a friend writing back and forth about that new album that just came out, I think it's the most normal thing in the world.
You previously got some attention for rapping over the entire Purity Ring album. How much of all of this is an attempt to specifically pick up on a certain internet-culture zeitgeist for your benefit?
You know, one of my biggest joys is making moves from a very natural and pure place, to later have them look like chess moves I was planning all along. I'm really proud of that.
I had no idea who Purity Ring was or how popular they were. My boy Mixmason in L.A. played me a few cuts from that album and I was vibing. A few days later I got the record, moved some stuff around, and decided to rap on the entire thing.
It's never an attempt at trying to catch the zeitgeist. No B.S.; it's always just been that the stuff I'm into, happens to be kind of ill.
Arielle Castillo is Fusion's culture editor, reporting on arts, music, culture, and subcultures from the streets on up. She's also a connoisseur of weird Florida, weightlifting, and cats.