Podcasts are in tune with the democratized spirit of Internet media; anyone with a microphone and a computer can offer listeners unlimited hours of recordings, usually for free. Limited only by their imaginations, podcasters have a freedom of expression unrestricted by commerce, censorship or geography. Several great podcasts have blossomed in Denver's flourishing arts community; here to celebrate them is Podcast Profiles, a series documenting the efforts of local podcasters and spotlighting the peculiar personalities behind them.
Rather than dive into a podcast landscape overcrowded with shows spotlighting comedians talking about comedy, local standups Nolawee Mengist and John Davis use their pithy persuasion to review hip-hop albums on As the Rhyme Goes on. An act of fannish devotion, each episode dissects a pair of new releases from prominent rappers (with a few special episodes dedicated to classics), creating a riff-driven chronicle of what's hot in hip-hop circa 2018. Westword caught up with Davis and Mengist via email to discuss the As The Rhyme Goes On origin story, the best albums they've reviewed, and their upcoming shows.
Westword: Okay, let's start with the As the Rhyme Goes On origin story. When did you guys hatch the idea for the podcast?
Nolawee Mengist: I have a terrible memory, so I’d use John’s answer for this one.
John Davis: Originally, the idea was to do a podcast reviewing the biography of Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane. Gucci has had a very turbulent life and career, so we imagined that the book would be pretty wild. One night at a comedy open mic, we were talking about rap albums and our love for West Coast rap. The discussion started with — at the time — two recent releases: Schoolboy Q's Blankface LP and the Game's The Documentary 2.5. Specifically, the Game's album has a song produced by legend DJ Quik. We ended up going on and on about how much we love DJ Quik and how he doesn't get the credit he deserves. A week later, Nolawee hit me up and asked [if] we should do the podcast about rap rather than just the Gucci Mane book.
Why did you both decide to mostly focus on reviewing and discussing new releases?
Davis: New music is the most exciting. New releases give both us and the guest a pretty genuine response. We will do classic album review episodes, and a lot of those episodes have Nolawee, the guest and I reminiscing about our lives when the album was released, and we have memories tied to those albums. With a new release, there is less emotion and the review has a higher level of honesty.
Mengist: I personally like reviewing new music because my opinions aren’t going to be clouded by nostalgia, thus allowing me to give more nuanced and honest opinions. Now, occasionally we do review rap classics such as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, The Blueprint, Good Kid M.A.A.D. City. Those reviews are some of my favorites, because I can talk about where I was in my life when an album came out and how my opinions have changed since its release.
Which episodes would you recommend to new listeners?
Mengist: I really like both “Album of the Year” episodes we released. One is for rap albums of the year, which included my brother, Eyo, as a guest. The non-rap albums of the year episode featured guest Matt Cobos. The Revival review with Steve Vanderploeg was a lot of fun since Eminem’s new album was one I really didn’t enjoy and John did, and Vanderploeg maintained a more neutral stance. Also, all the episodes with our most frequent guest, Jacob Rupp, have been great.
Davis: Our first episode with Troy Walker is great. Nolawee and Troy had a disagreement over the albums To Pimp a Butterfly, by Kendrick Lamar, and Illmatic, by Nas. The episode "GAHMEANIE," with Denver comedian CJ Willard, was a fun one. We reviewed Rapsody's Laila's Wisdom and Macklemore's Gemni. Rapsody's album was great, and Macklemore is very polarizing. We were more harsh on Macklemore than I ever like to be on an album, but I think we have really solid reviews on both. A few others would be the "1999" episode with Stephen Agyei, where we talk about Big KRIT's 4Eva Is a Mighty Long Time, and another classic album episode, "9/11," where Zeke Herrera discusses Jay Z's The Blueprint and Kanye West's Graduation. I also like our "Most Anticipated of 2018" episode with Jacob Rupp, who reviewed Jaden Smith's Syre.
What's the best album you've reviewed so far?
Davis: For me, Statik Selektah, 8. Statik is a DJ. I'm showing my age, but albums like this don't happen as often anymore. Back in the late ’90s, early 2000s, you could get these great compilations like Soundbombing, Handsome Boy Modeling School, Fat Beats, We Came From Beyond, and others. Albums full of straight hip-hop. DJs and MCs. "8" has that feel. It has a mix of underground and mainstream rappers like 2 Chainz, Run the Jewels, new comers Westside Gunn and Conway, Prodigy of Mobb Deep, Cypress Hill, Joey Bad Ass, G Eazy, the Lox and a song by Royce da 5'9" and Raekwon that is too dope to put into words.
Mengist: So I actually have two answers. One will be the actual best album we reviewed, and the other will be my favorite album we reviewed. As far as best album is concerned, I’d give it to Big K.R.I.T’s 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time. There was a small period of time where I wasn’t listening to hip-hop as much, due to artists like Lil Wayne and Drake topping the charts. I can now enjoy Yung Money Entertainment music more in retrospect, but around mid-2011, stumbling upon K.R.I.T’s second mixtape Return of 4eva made me fall in love with the genre again. Now, even though I’ve been a K.R.I.T fan ever since then, I don’t feel like he’s topped Return of 4eva. That is, until his most recent project. From the trunk-knocking first disc to the more jazzy, introspective and confessional second disc, 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time is easily his best work to date. Now, my favorite album we reviewed is probably Ugly God’s The Booty Tape due to the complete absurdity of the project. Is it a “good” album? No. Despite that, I still constantly went back to it because of Ugly God’s absolutely profane, crude and hilarious bars. Also, he produced all the instrumentals himself, and his ethereal trap beats shouldn’t be slept on.
You guys are both local comics who've been around for a couple years. What made you consider going from casually hanging out at mics to forging a co-creative partnership?
Mengist: Once again, I don’t remember anything, so John’s narrative is probably correct here. But honestly, we’re both pretty laid-back dudes, so things kinda came together naturally. It’s always much easier to work with people you’re actually friends with than to try to force a partnership.
Davis: It started with the podcast. We both wanted to do something with rap music that wasn't necessarily comedy-related. Once we started recording, we had a pretty good chemistry. Even though the podcast isn't a comedy podcast, our humor is what makes it work. We have a good time hanging out. I have a monthly show at Westfax Brewery, and the comedian that I used to run the show with moved back to Boston, so I needed somebody to come in and help me. Nolawee was the easy choice. Neither one of us is a control freak, and we both prefer to enjoy what we're doing while putting out a good product. Also, we're a decade apart age-wise, so I think we benefit from each other's different points of view.
On the tech end, what sort of equipment do you use?
Davis: I'll let Nolawee answer that. He's a computer guy. That's another reason I work with him. He can do all the shit I don't know how to do and I don't have the time to learn.
Mengist: So, I can’t give specifics on the microphones and mixers we use since we use the studio at Sexpot Comedy, but before we started using their space, we recorded most of our episodes using a Zoom H4nSP, and when I’d forget to bring that to John’s apartment, I’d record on my personal iPhone. I also use Logic Pro X for basic editing and mixing.
How do you delegate production responsibilities as far as booking, recording, editing and releasing the podcast goes?
Davis: We discuss booking together. Nolawee handles the edits and release.
Mengist: We also discuss topics and which albums to base our episodes on together, as well. But anything that requires any technical effort is up to me to handle because John is 76 years old.
Do you guys have plans to do live episode recordings or branch out in other ways?
Davis: We haven't discussed live recordings. I'm not sure I would want to review an album live. One avenue we tentatively discussed is interviewing artists. With Twitter and Instagram you can directly reach out to artists, and the older acts are pretty cool about responding. We would love to interview legends like DOC, MC Ren, Onyx or Naughty by Nature. I could see a live interview recording in the future.
Mengist: We don't have plans for live episode recordings. This is actually the first time I’ve ever even thought of that idea, but I imagine that could be a lot of fun once we build up the required following. I personally think interviews are the next step we take this podcast, although I do fear that we’ll interview some guests who we’ve talked some shit about in previous episodes, but hopefully that won’t be for a while.
When are the next Token and Westfax Comedy Shows? Do you have lineups and everything ready for those yet?
Davis: Yeah, the next Westfax is on March 31, at 8 p.m. We've got Adam Cayton-Holland headlining with Cody Spyker and Jacob Rupp opening. It's free!
Mengist: I don’t have a date or lineup for the next Token just yet, but we are expecting another show late April to mid-May.
Is there anything else you want to be sure to mention before we wrap up the interview?
Davis: We do our best to not rip an artist. Making an album is hard, and we're not trying to pump negativity out there. But we do have to be honest. And if we don't like it, we'll say so. But we try to be fun in that approach and find redeeming qualities if they're there. We don't mean to talk Eminem, Kendrick and Kanye in every episode, but we agree they had the three best runs in rap music, so a lot gets compared to those three, so, not sorry if we mention them too much. We're not going to stop. Also, Dr. Dre and Jay Z come a lot. Not sorry about that, either.
Mengist: I stand by everything I’ve said about Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Don’t @ me.
Check out As the Rhyme Goes On's Podbean page for the episode archive.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.