For music fans who came of age after Napster but before Spotify — roughly the first decade of the 2000s — the internet could seem like a kind of enchanted forest. Each day delivered a new bounty for the music-hungry, copyright-resistant and broadband-equipped.
The fruits of this ecosystem — new or unreleased songs of generally hazy provenance — could be downloaded directly from file-sharing platforms like Napster or on any number of fan-led message boards. But the era reached its peak with the advent of the MP3 blog.
“The Blog Era,” a new podcast from the brothers Eric and Jeff Rosenthal, is a painstaking resurrection of the characters and events that made this humble format — vertical-scrolling logs of images, text and download links — such a seismic force in hip-hop. At its height, which the podcast situates between 2007 and 2012, a mostly decentralized network of quasi-anonymous publications remade both the mainstream music press and major record labels in its own image, elevating artists like Drake, Kid Cudi and Wiz Khalifa whose sound veered from the testosterone-fueled club music on the radio.
The Rosenthals, longtime internet personalities best known for their hip-hop sketch comedy act ItsTheReal, wrote and reported the series over the three years of the pandemic. (It is published by Pharrell’s media company Othertone.) Dozens of bloggers and artists who became stars of the scene — earning millions of fans even as many remained under or unemployed — tell their stories, which the brothers stitch together in 10 broadly thematic episodes (six have been published).
The founder of Nah Right — the front page of the rap internet for much of the late 2000s — appears extensively in the series, joined by the proprietors of Chicago’s Fake Shore Drive, the Nashville-based The Smoking Section, the mixtape-centric 2DopeBoyz and the Hot 97-backed MissInfo.TV, among others. In all, the Rosenthals conducted more than 150 interviews spanning more than 500 hours of raw tape.
In a recent video interview, Jeff, 38, and Eric, 42, discussed corralling their subjects, memorializing digital culture and what caused the blog era’s demise. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What was the initial idea for the show?
JEFF ROSENTHAL We’d been doing this weekly interview podcast, “A Waste of Time,” for five years, but when the pandemic happened we stopped pretty much immediately. It didn’t really make sense to have people coming over to our apartment to record. So I started thinking of doing something narrative and pretty immediately we came up with the idea of “The Blog Era.”
ERIC ROSENTHAL We knew if we were going to spend any amount of time on something, it had to be something that we were intimately involved in and really cared about. And when we thought about the blogs — I mean, look, when there is no proof of NahRight.com ever having existed, no page on Wikipedia, that is a scary thought. We think all of these places deserve monuments, so we wanted to make sure they were remembered in the right way.
It was such a sprawling scene. How did you go about shaping it into a story?
ERIC When we first started, Jeff was like, “OK, the first thing we need is a gigantic bulletin board.” So, we went to Staples and got this 6-foot by 4-foot bulletin board and put all these note cards on there like you would see on “Saturday Night Live.” It was really important to us that it be a compelling narrative. We always wanted it to feel like the equivalent of prestige television, like an HBO Sunday night show.
Were there interviews that were particularly hard to get?
ERIC Well, the pandemic was both a gift and a curse. We weren’t the only ones sitting at home, so getting a Big K.R.I.T. or a Wiz Khalifa or a Curren$y, or a Karen Civil on the phone was a little bit easier.
JEFF The most crucial person that we had to speak to though was Eskay [an information technology worker in Yonkers, N.Y., when he founded Nah Right in 2005], who has never really done an in-depth interview.
ERIC He’s also somebody who has been celebrated in the blog days and then forgotten about and feels burned by the business and the music industry, which we get into on the podcast.
JEFF But you can’t tell the story of the blogs without him. To us, Nah Right was always the sun to this universe.
If the blog era ended in 2012, what killed it?
JEFF It’s like a death by a thousand cuts. There is no one answer. But one of the things that was fascinating to discover in the process of researching this was just how much pressure the big music companies were putting on these sites behind the scenes. And there were some self-inflicted wounds, as well.
ERIC With blogs, like any passion project or cool nightclub, once it becomes a certain size, you go from subverting the gatekeepers to becoming the gatekeepers. You were the cool place that put on Wiz Khalifa and Curren$y and J. Cole and all these people. But what happens when Odd Future, these skateboard kids from L.A., decide that you’re not cool anymore, that you’re the enemy? When they start saying, I don’t need you to open my email and put my music up; I’m going to go over to Tumblr and curate my own stuff. That’s a big deal.
Do you see any equivalents or descendants of blogs today?
ERIC If the mixtape era preceded blogs, and the SoundCloud era happened afterward, we’re now clearly living in the streaming era. A place like RapCaviar on Spotify is probably the biggest gatekeeper of them all right now. You could say that YouTube is right up there as well, but as far as people of influence who decide what to listen to, it’s probably Carl Chery and his team at RapCaviar.
And what about podcasts?
JEFF Podcasts are so much longer and more boring. [Laughs]
ERIC It is true that someone with a very particular, unique voice was at a keyboard 15 years ago, and now that same kind of person is behind a microphone.
Do you have a preference?
JEFF There was an innocence and an authenticity to the internet 15 years ago. And those years of the Obama era just seem so nice in retrospect. And I was younger. But we eat better these days.
ERIC We do eat better now. That’s true.