When it comes to hip hop knowledge, Shawn Setaro is up there with the best of them. Educated at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, he then became the Editor-in-Chief of website Rap Genius (now Genius), where rap lyrics are broken down and explained. From there he set up the Cipher Show, a weekly podcast dedicated to hip hop.
Unintentionally founded in 2012, he and his producer Josh Kross have interviewed almost every big name in the hip hop world, such as Nas, Pharoahe Monch, Rakim and our New York Editor, photographer Janette Beckman – as well as exceptions with the likes of John Lydon.
The focus is on dealing with the scope of a person's work
Before preparing for each show, Setaro is renowned for undertaking extensive research on his subject. His style of interviewing is direct and honest, he asks questions that haven't been asked before, and tries to get the full scope of their career and uncover anecdotes that no one has heard before.
What is the Cipher Show?
The Cipher is a weekly podcast where I talk to prominent and interesting figures in hip hop and culture. There are artists, rappers and producers. There are also music industry people and photographers. There are writers, academics and occasionally people who don’t fit in any of those categories. The focus is on dealing with the scope of a person's work and trying to ask them things they haven't been asked before and get unusual and interesting stuff out of them.
What's your background pre-the Cipher Show?
Well, pretty varied. I was a musician for a very long time. I was playing guitar and bass in bands, sessions, touring as well as teaching for a very long time. I played all sorts of genres.
And did you listen to all sorts of genres, or did you mainly listen to hip hop?
Yeah it was some of what I listened to certainly, and a little later on some of the golden age stuff like Public Enemy, NWA. Having to be of an age to watch YO! MTV Raps was very important too and had a major influence on me. But I was also listening to lots of other stuff, as a musician I don't want to limit myself to one genre.
Ok, and you worked for Rap Genius before you started the Cipher?
Yeah, in 2009 I discovered a website that was then called Rap Exegesis and later became known as Rap Genius (now called Genius) and became involved with it from very early on and eventually became the Editor-in-Chief and staffed there. How that relates to the show is that whilst I was there I got a chance to sit down with Jean Grae, who is one of my favourite artists.
I want to ask people things that they haven't been asked before
The way Rap Genius works is that you break down specific lyrics, a line or two at a time, and so I asked her a bunch of questions about specific lyrics with the intention of cutting them up. But at the end of this I had this great 45 minute conversation and my girlfriend said you should use this as a podcast. Which to me sounded so intimidating and what do I know about podcasts? But then eventually I did it and I found that I really liked that format and that became the beginning of what would eventually become The Cipher.
And what year was that?
That was 2012 when that first conversation took place.
So you simply just liked working in that new format and continued to do so?
Yes, it was a different kind of interaction with artists that I was doing otherwise at Rap Genius. There was basically a tutorial that was great, but it was showing them how to use a website for the most part. That definitely had its advantages but I also found that I really loved the idea of sitting down with someone and just asking them whatever I want. I think part of that had to do with Jean's initial reaction, to be so happy to be asked about her work and have a conversation about her art, rather than the usual boring repetitive questions that artists get asked the whole time. I saw maybe that there was a little bit of a niche there, to ask the things I was interested in, and at least the artist liked it and would react.
So how would you describe your style of interviewing then?
I think that ideally I want to ask people things that they haven't been asked before. My focus tends to be on an artists’ full career. With Janette I asked about everything from her early pictures in London to her current work with different brands, the whole scope of things, not just the obvious ones. So I think that those are the two key things, focussing on an artists' work and the scope of their career and on trying to ask them things that they haven't been asked before. How I do that is to do as much preparation as I can before.
I've read that you really do your research prior to interviews?
I try to read a bunch of interviews as I feel like that’s helpful for me, both in what and what not to ask. If you read the same anecdotes 15 times then I know to try and avoid that. The other thing that the research does is to provide things to ask.
I have so many great memories of meeting people, its hard to pick a favourite
If there is something that an artist has talked about, or mentioned in passing, and it needs more explanation, or just catches my interest, then I know to dig in there. If the person is a musician, I try to listen to as much of their work as possible. If they're speaking about a new record obviously that but I'll also try and get in as much of their work as I can. Even if I don't ask about it specifically I have it just as a scope of what to do.
What made you want to interview our New York editor Janette then?
Well I had heard her name through Brian Coleman, who is a fantastic writer. He did a series of books called Check The Technique Vol 1&2 where he writes about classic hip hop albums. I heard him mention Janette's name and that he had used some of her photos in one of his books. So then there was this exhibition at the Museum City of New York.
‘Hip Hop Revolution’?
Yeah with her and Joe Conzo. A little lightbulb went off and I put two and two together, there was this exciting thing happening in New York and I know someone who knows this person. So I asked Brian for her information, I got in touch and I think it turned out great. It was fantastic to meet her and I have seen her a few times since the interview and she has been incredibly supportive in what myself and Josh are doing.
And when is that out?
Her episode will be out 1 June just in time for her panel at The Museum of the City of New York with Cey Adams and Bill Adler which is on 3 June.
Looking back on the Cipher and having done it for the past three years, what are you fondest memories?
I have so many great memories of meeting people, its hard to pick a favourite. But one or two that come to mind for me, the initial one with Jean Grae as the whole experience was so new and such a positive thing. I guess one more that props up to mind I think would be getting to sit down with Abiodun Oyewole of the Last Poets.
That conversation was a history lesson on black arts and black culture from probably the early 1960s through to the present day. That was absolutely great stuff, to have spoken to someone who has been a part of so much history. To have been taken through that was really incredible. That's one that comes to mind out of so many fantastic interviews and probably one of our longest interviews but one of the most fun, he was so animated and so fascinating and detail-orientated in this interesting way.
If you could interview and be in the presence of one artist, dead or alive, who would it be?
I think I would want to talk to Tupac. There are several reasons for that; so much of his work was phenomenal, the impact he had on people was great and his personal and family history he had with black activism. He was also not born in jail but, for much of the time his mother was pregnant with him, she was in jail. I think it was on charges of the Panther 21 case. So there is literally from almost conception, a revolutionary history that he was aware of, negotiating and interacting with that would be fascinating to talk about itself and in the context of the art he was making.