How Pitchfork changed the rap industry by changing itself
Isaiah Rashad performs at the 2014 Pitchfork Music Festival in July 20, 2014. Photo by Roger Kisby/Getty Images.
Rap Column is a column about rap music by Vivian Medithi and Nadine Smith for The FADER.
It’s been two weeks since the news broke that Pitchfork, a bellwether of music for over two decades, would be dramatically restructured by parent company and publisher Conde Nast. In a swift and unexpected bloodletting, at least a dozen staffers were laid off, and every section of the site aside from Reviews and News essentially shuttered. Conde Nast has said that they intend to bring Pitchfork under the editorial purview of GQ, but what exactly that means is still unclear: for the time being, at least, the Pitchfork brand remains, albeit in a desiccated form.
The shocking development prompted countless writers, readers, and even artists to begin pouring one out for a publication that has helped define millennial culture. If you’ve followed music at all in the 21st century, you probably have an opinion about Pitchfork: maybe you love it for introducing you to music you’ve never heard of, or maybe you hate it because they gave your favorite artist a 5.3 a decade ago. Either way, it was a crucial link in the chain of the music ecosystem, not just for the writers who worked there, but for the musicians and publicists who depended upon its coverage.
Though the pronouncement of Pitchfork’s actual death may have been slightly premature, it’s nevertheless the end of an era: the lay-offs included not just editor-in-chief Puja Patel, but some of its longest-serving staffers, including editors like Amy Phillips and Ryan Dombal who have worked for the company since the 2000s—an increasing rarity in a digital media landscape where the turnover feels endless and writers are regularly disposed of to satisfy the impossible demands of corporate overlords.
Over the last decade… the site began to take rap seriously, making hip-hop a core component of its coverage instead of a mere appendage.
I should divulge at this point that I do have a particular bias when it comes to Pitchfork: 2024 will mark five years that I’ve been a freelance contributor to the site, a relationship that began when I reviewed a project from the vocalist Triad God in 2019. It’s impossible for me to overstate the impact that writing for Pitchfork has had on my own career, both in the platform it gave me and the opportunity to be edited by some of the sharpest minds in the business. While I’d written about music before, it wasn’t until I wrote for Pitchfork that I started to feel like I was an actual music writer, a voice contributing to a culture much larger than myself. There’s a strong likelihood I would not even be authoring this column if it wasn’t for everything I learned from Pitchfork.
When I first heard about the massacre behind-the-scenes, it knocked me off my axis — other outlets have paid me better, but the consistency of my relationship with Pitchfork has been a crucial anchor in an industry where freelancers are guaranteed nothing. Being a self-employed homebody, I don’t have any of the nostalgic memories of working in the office or listening to a hotly-anticipated record together that true blue Pitchfork staffers might be able to provide. But I do think I can offer some insight into the site’s legacy, especially where rap is concerned: not just as someone who contributed a piece of that coverage over the years, but as someone who read it extensively.
It might just be an age difference or a matter of taste, but I never really felt much connection to the provocations of Pitchfork’s early years: my most formative exposure to the site wasn’t in the halcyon days of blog rock, but the early and mid-2010s, when the site began to substantially expand the range of genres it covered. Pitchfork was and is inextricably intertwined with “indie” culture, but I always gravitated toward the rap coverage: to me, Pitchfork was never about indie guys taking the piss out of sacred cows, it was Meaghan Garvey writing about Sicko Mobb, or Tom Breihan writing about Paper Route Gangstaz, or David Drake writing about Gucci Mane. I still constantly think about a stray line from Jeff Weiss’ 2015 survey of the year in hip-hop, where he says “If Kanye is rap’s Steve Jobs, Drake is the CEO of Snapchat.”
Whenever I hear complaints that Pitchfork went too “poptimist,” it rings a little hollow. In the 2010s, Pitchfork did start to review pop artists it might have deliberately ignored in a previous era, but it was part of a larger effort to broaden the range of genres that the site took seriously. That change wasn’t just about keeping up with the times or trying to cover a more diverse arrange of artists; in many ways, it was a response to the razing of music media, as many genre-specific publications died or dwindled. With rap magazines like XXL and The Source becoming shadows of their former selves, it fell on comprehensive publications like Pitchfork to fill in the gaps.
To my eyes, the most substantial change in Pitchfork’s editorial direction over the last decade isn’t that pop music got more space: it’s that the site began to take rap seriously, making hip-hop a core component of its coverage instead of a mere appendage. Just compare Pitchfork’s list of the best albums of the 1990s from 2003 with the version published last year: the only hip-hop album that cracked the top 10 on the original list was DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing, while the 2023 update includes Ms. Lauryn Hill, Wu-Tang Clan, and A Tribe Called Quest. Part of that is a general cultural change beyond Pitchfork, as hip-hop has become subsumed into the elemental texture of pop music.
Pitchfork’s initial ethos was very much what you would expect from a group of predominantly white DIY guys from Chicago, which meant that in the site’s early years, rap and R&B were largely overlooked, perceived as a representation of the corporate values Pitchfork set out to skewer. Despite that perception, Pitchfork was never totally rap-agnostic. In the prehistoric era of the site that now only lives on the Wayback Machine, you can find reviews of everything from Dr. Octagon to Kottonmouth Kings, though even positive coverage of hip-hop could still at times treat it like an exoticized novelty.
Pitchfork started to take rap more seriously with the addition of writer Rollie Pemberton, better known today as the rapper Cadence Weapon. In his 2022 memoir Bedroom Rapper, Pemberton reflects on his time reviewing albums for the site; the then-17-year old reached out to site founder Ryan Schrieber about contributing after noticing that only one rap album, Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein, made it onto 2001’s end-of-year list. Though Pemberton could snark it up with the best of them, he also brought a sense of history and tactility to his rap reviews that other contributors at the time lacked:
I was a young Black rapper with a solid grasp of classic and underground hip hop, which imbued my writing about rap with a level of credibility no other reviewer there had. If you look at the write-ups for Pitchfork’s top fifty singles of 2003, when some of the other writers wrote about rap, it seemed as if they were doing it begrudgingly, like they had been forced to acknowledge the greatness of a track but wished they hadn’t. It felt disrespectful. Some writers wrote about rap music like they were detailing the movements of a newly discovered tribe in National Geographic. Back then, white critics treated mainstream rap and R&B singles solely as guilty pleasures.
Pemberton’s reviews took rap seriously, not just as a music but as a living culture that he was actually immersed in. His mentality — a fondness for the alternative and a skepticism toward the mainstream — mirrored Pitchfork’s approach to rock music, as Pemberton covered the latest releases from underground labels like Rhymesayers and Def Jux while also putting on for lesser-known acts, like fellow Canadian rapper Buck 65. 2003 saw the launch of Pitchfork’s highly-coveted Best New Music feature, and five rap albums received the designation that year: WHY?’s Oaklandazulasylum, Dizzee Rascal’s Boy In Da Corner, Viktor Vaughn’s Vaudeville Villain, Non-Prophets’ Hope, and JAY-Z’s The Black Album. Even though the site was starting to push its own envelope, that line-up illustrates how Pitchfork often favored a more traditional conception of underground hip-hop; one of Pemberton’s most controversial reviews was an infamous 3.2 pan of Juelz Santana’s From Me to U.
Though Pemberton was fired from the site in 2004, he laid the groundwork for what was to come, and Pitchfork’s rap coverage continued to expand with the addition of writers like Tom Breihan. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, the rap albums most highly acclaimed by Pitchfork often felt like consensus favorites: marquee major label acts like Kanye and Drake, or critical darlings like Earl Sweatshirt and Danny Brown. While the writing itself could be very good, it still sometimes felt like the site approached rap music from the perspective of an indie head who only checks out a handful of pre-approved hip-hop records a year.
In the last five years, the site’s rap coverage shifted; it was less concerned with attempting to capture an elusive monoculture, and more interested in exploring the actual frontiers of hip-hop culture. These days, it’s not usually Kendrick who gets Best New Music, but emerging voices like $ilkMoney, Yung Kayo, or CEO Trayle. I’m not sure of many other sites that would give such high marks to the album that Drakeo the Ruler recorded over a prison phone. Staff writer Alphonse Pierre is something like the Jacques Cousteau of rap, uncovering hidden gems I’d never hear of otherwise; he was an early advocate of the new waves of Michigan rap and New York sample drill, and he’s been at the forefront of Milwaukee’s exploding scene. While Alphonse is constantly putting over younger talent, I’m always impressed by the careful and thoughtful manner in which Dylan Green considers the legacies of living legends, from controversial icons like Killer Mike to underappreciated lyricists like Starlito, as well as Paul Thompson’s grasp of rap history. And then there’s a whole host of emerging writers who have joined the stable of insightful voices: Mano Sundaresan, Hattie Lindert, Dash Lewis, and so many more I’m probably forgetting.
Again, I might be biased: I now consider many of these folks not just peers or colleagues, but my actual friends. But in some ways I feel like that makes me more impartial, because I can actually see the faces behind the scores. Though Pitchfork is often falsely perceived as a monolithic brand, dispensing decimal points from on high, what makes the site so singular is that it’s always been determined by the unique voices and idiosyncratic tastes of its writers. Whether Pitchfork is too poptimist for you now or not poptimist enough, what spurred the site’s editorial evolution over time wasn’t a corporate mandate or some enforced sense of conformity: it’s that the people behind the site kept evolving too.
Contrary to what some might tell you, the Pitchfork ethos was never really about privileging a certain kind of music or advancing a specific agenda. It was about creating a space where talented writers were free to trust their gut instincts. Even under the precarity of corporate stewardship, Pitchfork will continue to endure so long as the people who made Pitchfork keep that spirit of adventurousness alive. Only a few days after news of Pitchfork’s uncertain future broke, the site surprisingly awarded Best New Music to emerging New York rapper xaviersobased — maybe the site’s heyday as a millennial mouthpiece is over, but Pitchfork can still be for the children.