As we continue throughout our lives to be the best that we can possibly be, we all have a group of individuals that we aspire to be someday. For me, the one person that I’ve continuously looked up to throughout the course of my life, especially in adulthood is Jay-Z. That’s from every angle of life outside of the amazing rapping and music-making ability. When it comes to writing groundbreaking pieces, capturing an audience with words and having people like Jay-Z read your articles, I look up to guys like Yoh Phillips.
I’ve been a fan of Yoh Phillips since my freelance days. I would sit around reading his articles wondering who the guy was behind the mysterious name and custom avatars on social media. His thought-provoking pieces consistently send the timeline into a frenzy and with that, he has grown to be one of the most respected music journalists in the industry.
I had the pleasure of catching with Yoh to talk about his journalism career, how and why he decided to get into writing, the growth of his voice and the DJ Booth brand, the evolution of the Atlanta music scene and much more. Check out the full interview below.
1 – What inspired you to get into writing?
Well, I didn’t have a moment where I woke and said I was going to be a writer. I came out of high school and had time to figure it out. I didn’t go straight to college, you know I wanted to make some money. I wanted to find a job. It’s 2009/2010, the job markets trash, there are no jobs. I was going to job fairs on a weekly basis, standing in line with people who are 30/40 and at 18/19 there was no work. So in the downtime, I listened to music, I listened to albums, I read interviews, I was on the blogs. You know, just being a kid with a lot of time and had to fill that time up. Listening to music and reading every day, I naturally started to formulate opinions about music and having a desire to share these opinions through words. Finding a love for music, finding love for reading, finding a love for words – that all lead to writing.
2 – So it sounds like your love for music is what helped you transition to writing. Is that safe to say?
Yeah, I would say there’s a balance of how much I like music and how much I like reading. My love for literature and my love for albums are on par so being a music journalist was a natural space to enter because I have an admiration for both. You know, I wouldn’t say one outweighs the other because if I love music more than I love writing then maybe I would have gone into management or maybe been in PR. If I loved writing more than I loved music then maybe I would have been a novelist. I would have approached writing in another different way but because of the balance of the two, music journalism was the perfect space.
3 – Did you have any outside factors that helped contribute to your love for music? Was there anybody that inspired you to love the music that you love growing up?
I have an older brother whose really big into a lot of hip-hop that was popping in the 2000s. He was the one who bought College Dropout; he was the one who bought Get Rich or Die Tryin’. I would go through his music catalog and discover the artist. He was the plug, haha. We had the program Limewire, and that was a giant library of accessible albums. You search whatever you want, it’s at your fingertips. If you want Lil Wayne, you search Lil Wayne and had access. If you had an interest in 50 Cent you had access; if you had an interest in The Game you had access. That much access turned into collecting. I used to sell mixtapes at my high school of the hottest songs of the month for $3. Back in the 9th/10th grade, we had a CD burner, and at the time not everyone had CD burners as they do now.
So we were burning CDs for kids and making our lunch money or little PlayStation money just because we were so into music and people used to give us a list like, “Hey, can you find me these songs?” People would hear songs from the radio and not know the name so they would write the hooks as the title. I would go to Limewire, and I would pull up the hook and download the song and burn the disc. Doing little things like that were periods in which hip hop was big in my life. My parents own a roller rink; I was at the rink at least 3-4 times a week, and the DJs had mixes with the hottest songs. Music was always around, a consistent part of my life since I was 9. How I engage with music changed over time, but that love has always been there.
4 – Would you say as you began to love music more that this made your writing or your pieces much stronger?
I don’t know. I think the music was the medium, the entry Hip-hop taught me the rhythm of writing. There’s a rhythm to writing, and there’s a way words grace the page. Before I got into literature, it was discovering rappers that had the best wordplay. Not even the way they construct their words, but the words they would use. I wouldn’t say music plays a huge part in my actual writing, though. It was more of what I was reading at the time. I knew I wanted to write about rap in a certain kind of way. I knew I wanted a certain elegance to my language. When I was on the blogs a lot of what I read was too straight forward. I didn’t see enough flower, you know. I was looking for writing vibrancy of the records they were posting about. I was actively looking for someone writing about rap in a certain kind of way. I would find writers here and there but, it was still something I thought was missing. So when I got into writing about music I knew there was a certain color I wanted for my writing to capture the color of the music.
5 – It sounds like you do more literature reading than you do like self-help books and things like that. Am I right with that?
My old editor Nathan, he was the managing editor of DJBooth when I first joined, he told me early on that a good writer is a good reader. You want to absorb as much writing as you absorb the music. The music will give you something to write about, but other writers will be the inspiration to write a better or different way to approach writing. Also, reading will help you recognize what you don’t like. I want to make sure I don’t make those mistakes in my writing. For a while, I would only read writers that were dead. I went through this whole phase early on. I would read old poets; I would read classic literature because I knew whatever I was inspired by was from the dead.
I found my way of molding the inspiration, operating with an approach that isn’t in the now. I was worried about having too many contemporary influences because I didn’t want to be confused for writing like anyone else. Currently, I’m really into Ken Kesey. He was big in the 1960s and 1970s for many things, one being writing. When I read him, I’m peeping style, I’m peeping language, I’m peeping how he structured sentences and how to potentially incorporate those same tactics that he put into a novel into music journalism. Even if I’m not writing a book, music journalism is still writing so it can be literary.
6 – When did you get your first shot at doing blogging and writing for publications online?
Interviewee: I had an aunt who had a website called The Silver Tongue. It was a rock site. Atlanta had a rock scene, and she was covering bands and events through 2008-2012. Around this time hip-hop had the blog era beginning to explode. She recognized there was an audience of readers for rap music. I was not working at the time, you know, I wasn’t pursuing higher education, and she asked me if I would do some writing for her site. Nothing major, just a couple of reviews and such. I wasn’t interested; it wasn’t something I jumped on immediately, but after thinking it over I had the time. All the time in the world. One of my first reviews was Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday. That was the first, feels like a lifetime ago. Writing that was ok, it wasn’t good, but it was something. Enough to grab me. I did a few more review, but the opportunity to write my first op-ed really let me discover a love for words, language, and articulating my feelings. When I wrote the album review I was trying to fit the structure, I was trying to figure out how I could be The Source or XXL or Complex.
I was trying to be such a professional with the album reviews, but when it came to writing an op-ed, having to do an opinion piece I felt free. I got to figure out the way I wanted everything to align. It felt like I had touched something that I never touched before, like touching magic. The desire to chase that feeling will consume you. She eventually moved on from the website so I found a new publication. A friend had the website Kids r Evil, I did some writing over there for a little bit. I started writing for the site TheTapeDeck; I end up writing there for two years, we shut down after I joined DJBooth. There were a couple of other really small sites. Those were training periods. Where I was able to hone in and craft myself. I was doing a lot of writing: blog posts, interviews, editorials, everything. That period in my life was like write, write, write, write, and write. Some of it was good, some of it wasn’t, but I’m glad I had the training period. I wasn’t working at the time so I had to deal with the frustration of that, but that period was very instrumental in me getting to where I am now. I had to earn those stripes.
7 – This a question that you can or not answer but is this where you discovered your alias Yoh? Was it that time or was it after?
I’ve been writing under Yoh since I started seriously writing. Everything has been under Yoh. It started with changing my Twitter, Yoh wasn’t my original username. My initials and the year I graduated was the original. I wanted a three-letter name with two numbers again. I didn’t want to do 09 again so I ended up with my birthdate (31). I probably had my twitter, maybe two years before I changed it. When I changed it, I probably had 200 followers. It was dead, lol, a ghost town. When I changed it, I didn’t expect it to do anything, but I knew I wanted something fresh. I found it interesting how you are given a name, but you get a chance to choose a name when you enter any form of art, so I chose a name that was fitting for this particular journey in my life.
8 – How did you manage to get into a lane where you are now writing for DJ Booth? Was that an opportunity that you pursued or did somebody come to you with that opportunity?
Coming up I didn’t have any mentors. One day I was on Twitter and came across @RefineHype, the twitter page ran by my future managing editor Nathan. Nathan had tweeted out something, I don’t remember what he said, but he tweeted and I thought, I wrote about this and I sent him the link, and he liked it. Now, the piece I sent him was my first op-ed. He read that was like, “Ah, this is dope. I’m going to send it to my staff.” I was excited to have somebody who was a writer that wanted to read my work because at the time all the people who were reading it were rappers that I covered and my friends. I didn’t have a lot of people inside the industry reading my work. Having someone to talk with who made a living writing was so exciting to me. He made the dream tangible. Nathan was instrumental in helping me continue to write. He asked me to send him more articles for his website Refined Hype, DJBooth’s brother site at the time. I did that for a couple of months. We met during A3C in 2014, I kept sending him more articles.
There was a period where I didn’t send him anything. For a month or two. I worked for Olive Garden at the time and was really busy. I came home one day, inspired to write, and penned a piece about fans and music consumption. I sent it to him. He loved it and told me the editorial would be posted on DJBooth. I sent him the article the day before Refined Hype and DjBooth merged into one website. The DJBooth team realized that op-eds were pretty much going to be instrumental in the future of the website. That’s what Refined Hype was doing, writing long-form pieces and op-eds. DjBooth was focused solely on mixtapes, singles, and posting rap news. The merger happened, and I had my first piece on DJBooth. Nathan and Z really enjoyed it; they asked me to send more stuff. I kept sending articles, and there was a point in time where Nathan sent me an email and like, “Hey if we have the salary cap for a writer we’ll make sure we think of you for the position.” He kept his word. I was able to make more money than I was making at my day job, so I quit. Since then writing has been my only job.
9 – DJ Booth has revolutionized the way consumers view articles or even how the journalism industry is now because there are not a lot of websites that are primarily focusing on putting out strong op-ed pieces but DjBooth seems to have that platform that people turn to for that. How do you think that has changed how journalism is looked at in the music industry?
That’s a good question. I’m so close to it I don’t know what’s going on outside. I remember when Twitter was just trending topics. Most users would log on and try to find whatever hashtag was hot and contribute to that. Before there were memes or gifs, Twitter was a space for various conversations and popular talk. DJBooth and a few sites saw or predicted how opinion pieces could connect with an audience that was naturally heading into a direction of opinions. For a while, the blog space was mostly known for giving the audience music. Readers went to sites knowing the post would be mostly what was new, what was hot, who was up and coming. The blogs were the middlemen between new artists, new music, and fans.
Now, there’s still an interest in discovering music through a website, but DJBooth saw the potential in giving readers something to talk about. They found a way to inform readers about the music industry. DJBooth understood very early how they wanted to deliver information and drive conversations. If anything, that is something the industry saw. DJBooth is a community built space, you know. Our readers grew with us. If you were trying to build your readership you had to at least look at us and see the content we were making and how it connected. Almost every site in 2019 have found their unique way of interacting with their readership.
10 – In your opinion, where do you think Atlanta stands right now musically? Secondly, how have you seen the progression when it comes to the Atlanta musicians being that you’re in the middle of it?
Atlanta is a magical place where everyone believes they can make it. You’ll never run into a rapper who doesn’t believe they have it. I’m not sure about everywhere else, but everyone knows they got it, and that belief with work, a good team, and luck is enough to make miracles.
You hear stories about 21 Savage or Lil Baby and how they weren’t rappers but were adjacent to a lot of people in the business. They had people telling them they could do this. If someone puts you in the studio, telling you that you got this, and you put the work in, the energy can manifest. Being able to see success is special. At the very least, witnessing others have success will encourage you to take your shot. You don’t have to live in New York or go to LA to see rappers making it. It’s a sense of pride making it out of Atlanta because you want to be that next one. Everyone comprehends it could be them. So they continue shooting their shots. The hustle here to create opportunities is ridiculous. I believe that plays a huge part in why Atlanta continues to have a thriving roster of new artists entering the industry at all times.
11 – All of these guys know how to collaboratively work together so do you think that contributes to the new Atlanta sound?
The city is not that big. If you make music or you work in music or do anything creative, there’s going to be overlap. Even if you’re beefing with somebody, you’ll eventually run into them somewhere because everything happens in the Metro-Atlanta areas. Most studios are in the city; all the venues are in the city; all the clubs are in the city. There’s a positive to that, though. The overlap is why it’s easy to collaborate and connect.
I don’t know if it’s like a huge sense of camaraderie. It exists, but I don’t know if it’s super intentional. I wouldn’t say Atlanta is this zen place where everybody gets along. I will say Atlanta is a place where you are going to see everybody. If you do catch that spark, you catch that vibe, you catch that energy, you end up working in some capacity. I do think people are open to sharing a space with each other. You know, especially if you click. If you don’t, then you don’t. If you connect naturally, you’ll eventually feel it on record. There’s just no way around each other here.
12 – Being that you have this anonymous presence, how do you feel when you hear things about writing going out of style and everyone looking for visuals? What are your thoughts on that?
Naturally, people are trying to find the next foundation where they’ll be able to reach people. Where people are clicking. So much is changing in the publishing industry; think about it, we didn’t have smartphones 20 years ago.
We have to figure out how to make writing still matter in this new age. Look at streaming. The music industry was hurt with the rise of the internet, and streaming was the answer. Streaming was the next progression. Publishing will progress, hopefully. I feel like it’s going to have a functioning model that’s going to represent itself in the new age. I have a few ideas of what I think that looks like, nothing I would say out loud because I might want to put a few of them before everybody catches up. I’m interested in watching how everything plays out. I think that podcasts are cool, but I like words. I need to see it. I need to see words on a page. I’m always going to be that guy. I don’t think anything is going to change that. I’ll write until I can’t write anymore. So, whatever the space looks like I’ll have to figure it out. I don’t find other mediums of conversation and storytelling as interesting as the written words. I’m going through a comic book phase right now. I’m so intrigued by the way you can use words with a visual, you know. You get a certain number of pages, to tell a story with illustrations and language. Great comics don’t neglect either form. It’s a fascinating form of writing, almost like a movie, but not quite. It’s almost like a book, but not quite. Comics are a form of writing told through a progressive form of storytelling. I don’t know what the next form publishing will take, but I don’t see podcasts being what kills writing. I don’t think Instagram stories are going to end the importance of this medium.
13 – You just put out a book not too long ago. What made you want to put out something else readers can engage with outside of your work on DJ Booth?
I didn’t have a chance to write for any print magazine coming up. My work was never in print. I think every writer wants to have that chance to hold their work. It’s just a very natural feeling, a desire to say the least. Actually, a good friend of mine, John, he printed a book of my articles back in like 2015 as a Christmas gift. One of the most touching gifts I’ve ever been given. That’s when I started to consider having a book of my writing out in the world.
Then my publisher Superchamp Books reached out. The editors of Best Damn Hip-Hop: Book of Yoh were early supporters of my work. The editors came to me with this opportunity to do an essay collection. I didn’t know much about publishing, but I knew this gave me the chance to work through the publishing process with a publisher. They had knowledge and experience. They help work through picking the essays, there were tons to go through, and then selecting how they would fit in the book, how many each section should have, it was completely new to me. Even working with editors for a collection was different than working with my DJBooth editors.
As a writer, something I’m compelled by compels is the chance to insert my work in various kinds of mediums. We shouldn’t be married to one space. There are so many ways to present writing to the world. Getting the book out, and seeing people buy the book was mind-blowing. Getting pictures tweeted of the book and signing a couple of copies, even my parents have one over their fireplace. I recommend all writers to find a way to touch their work. It’s no feeling quite like it.
14 – Do you think something may be coming in the future or do you think you’re going to be completely separate from that?
Man, I can’t tell you. I can’t; I can’t reveal anything. Definitely, more physical work. I want to be published as many different ways that are possible. That’s all I’m gonna say about that. I’m not going to stop with just one book; I have a lot to share.
15 – What piece of advice was given to you, whether personally or professionally, do you still hold on to now?
The best advice came from my friend Miles. I was with Miles one day and I don’t know what we were doing, but he says, “My mom always says, don’t let success go to your head and don’t let failure go to your heart.” I was like what? Your mom is wise. That is such an important thing to share with young creatives. You don’t want to allow the success of any kind, or failure of any kind to take you too high or hold you down too far.
We all have reasons why we get into our fields or what drives our craft. Sometimes failure can make you forget, and success can do the same. The key is, no matter how many punches you take or rewards you receive, that you never forget why you’re doing it. There’s always going to be satisfied if you stay the course.
Why you’re doing it is a choice made long before there was money made or recognition given. Something I have been telling myself all year, sometimes I do forget, but I have been trying to be adamant about what’s for me is for me. I no longer try to rationalize why things happen. I accept and move forward. When good things come my way, I don’t try to intellectualize why. I accept it was for me. Everything I do, regardless if it makes a lot of money or if it falls on deaf ears, my mindset is if this is for me then it will be.
Accept that you’re on your path and that you’re doing what you’re supposed to do and get everything that’s for you. Sometimes you have to accept that everything is not for you – not every award, not every trophy, not every accolade is for you. The ones that are, you appreciate them, you work for them, you earn them. No one can take away what’s for you, but you also can’t take away what isn’t for you.