The Democratization Of Knowledge

Ta-Nehisi Coates is back up at The New York Times with a reminiscence of music fandom before the digitial age:

The march toward universal music extends back to the days of Edison. But I recall, with a perverse fondness, the latter days of the 20th century, when the franchise was still the exclusive property of record pools and radio. Only the Fates could compel your local station to deliver “Fresh Is the Word” or “Sucker DJs.” This was before the lords of FM took to bragging “All hip-hop, all the time,” when, outside of the five boroughs, rap was midnight music for the urban avant-garde.

Kids with substantive allowances could purchase actual records, but the rest of us, trapped in prudent homes, had only Memorex tapes to save our favorite jams from the yawning void beyond the memory of playlists. Who knew how long it would be before we again beheld the splendor of “Cold Gettin’ Dumb”? Even the artists were ethereal. There was no Vibe or XXL to confirm the death of the Human Beat Box or Scott La Rock, or explain why UTFO faded away. Overrun by mystery, you had only divination and hours upon hours of deciphering cover art, hoping to confirm that the great Humpty Hump really was Shock G.

My version of this is simply about the knowledge stovepipes. I remember in the earliest days of my music purchasing life being in love with Dookie being sold on Kerplunk and 1039 / Smoothed Out Slappy Hours and then Rancid’s Let’s Go. The exploration of a genre or a scene was a very intensive process and required specific guidance. For whatever reason, until I was sixteen or so none of my friends had an older sibling so I was basically stuck with what I was told at the record store. Then I made some new friends, some of whom had older brothers, and that changed things again. Somehow nobody at the store had ever made me listen to “Monkey Gone To Heaven”.


The old, painstaking ways of acquiring knowledge definitely had their charms, and now that I’m thirty I claim license to be randomly nostalgic for the 20th century. But there is a tremendous democratizing potential in opening the gates of knowledge to anyone able to get his hands on an internet connection. Somehow it was possible in 1996 for “Pepper” to be a huge hit without this shedding much in the way of mainstream light on the rest of the Butthole Surfers’ extensive career. Now if you’re interested, you’ll know.