Just as the internet permanently altered how we consume music, it also revolutionized the accompanying media. Gone are the days of the traditional industry gatekeepers dictating which artists prospered, instead enabling anyone with the inclination to get their content out to the world to do so. A fortuitous turn of events that permitted sonic outliers such as Raider Klan and Death Grips to change the face of music, this changing of the guard also made a bespectacled Canadian into an unlikely subcultural icon; the one, the only, Nardwuar.
Rather than YO! MTV Raps’ Fab 5 Freddie or Shade45’s Sway, Nardwuar the Human Serviette has become the correspondent of choice for hip-hop’s millennial generation. As opposed to being dyed in the cultural wool like Charlamagne Tha God or Joe Budden, the Vancouver, BC native took an alternate route into hip-hop that manifests in his image, research, and interview approach.
Where others rely on combativeness to manufacture newsworthiness, Nardwuar’s off-kilter style disarms and confounds his guests like no other. From his very first on-camera encounter, it was clear that he was tailor-made for show business. Captured at Hillside Secondary School, the teenage John Ruskin’s chat with Poisoned may have seemed relatively inconsequential but in reality, birthed a life-long vocation. Spurred on by his bewilderment over why the frontman had thanked their school in a record’s liner notes, this irrepressible quest for answers echoes his retort to each rapper that is taken aback by his exhaustive research: “We have to know!”
In a world of carefully mediated press junkets, Nardwuar’s interviews are in a league of their own. A status symbol in itself, being the subject of his investigate reporting has become the comical death knell for many burgeoning star’s mystiques. In the social media age, buzzworthy artists can exist in eked-out soundbites, allowing for only a modicum of the real person to seep out. Yet when faced with Nardwuar’s encyclopedic knowledge, the illusion becomes permeable and allow for our first real insights into soon-to-be global artists. Generated by their long-form nature, one prime example of him this arbitration between artist and consumer was his 2011 chat with Odd Future.
Released two months prior to Goblin, the interview served as a way for fans to see the contrast between Tyler, the Creator’s fun-loving nature and the misanthropic worldview that defined his early output. Flanked by Hodgy Beats, Tyler was asked if he was with “with the feds” after Nardwuar delved into his Canadian heritage and gifted him Roy Ayers records years before they’d collaborate on Cherry Bomb. Both intimate and humorous, this time capsule back to early OF is one example of Ruskin seeking out acts just as they reach the precipice of fame.
Made possible by events such as SXSW and Breakout Festival, artists that ran into Nardwuar during their ascendancy include Kendrick Lamar, Danny Brown, Joey Bada$$, and A$AP Rocky. With Flacko even labeling him a “psychic fucking genius,” this ability to get a hold of blossoming stars was undiminished in 2018 and resulted in chats with Cardi B, Lil Pump, BROCKHAMPTON, Lil Skies, and YBN Nahmir among others. Replete with moments where he caused each façade to slip, this taste-making ability goes hand in hand with the innate spontaneity that’s became his trademark.
Taking place over 10-20 minutes, anything can happen during a Nardwuar interview. While mainstream outlets are often critiqued for handling artists with kid gloves, the zany rapport between both host and guest can feel like the perfect antidote to more inane Q&A’s. In recent times, this unpredictability reared its head when Lil Uzi Vert absconded from the scene and hopped into a nearby getaway vehicle. Considering it wasn’t even Uzi’s first encounter with him, it proves that no two experiences in his company are the same. Cited by Nardwuar as “pretty much my favorite person to talk to,” it’s this combustibility that’s prevented his eight interviews with Snoop Dogg from falling into complacency. By refusing to compromise on his own idiosyncrasies, ‘Nard’ paints world-renowned artists in a less tempered light that can spawn surreal moments. This is Travis Scott giving advice on how to keep your pants up, Future’s love for cheesecake, and his comically incoherent interview with Desiigner.
Yet amid the absurdity, there are just as many genuine revelations. Often coaxed out by his sentimental gifts, the same investigatory emphasis that caused Flatbush Zombies’ Meechy to reproach Nardwuar for “bringing up shit I forgot about” has conjured up countless unique headlines. Whether it was Chance the Rapper’s undisclosed tobacco field in North Carolina, A$AP Ferg’s previous life as a jewelery-maker, uncovering Kendrick Lamar’s seventh grade rapping partner, or making Questlove cry, each interview humanized a caliber of artists that often feel inaccessible to the general public. Above all else, it is this ability to delve into their foibles that makes Nardwuar the perfect fit for a genre whose artists have been shoehorned into a one-size-fits-all mould by the mainstream since its inception.
Due to his respect for the varied pathways that made rappers into who they are, the sense of admiration is largely reciprocated. A musician in his own right with garage rock outfit The Evaporators, the kinship that he’s built with the hip-hop community may be unconventional but manifests in a variety of ways.
Upon first encountering Nardwuar, a fresh-faced Drake had no qualms about declaring it “the best interview I’ve ever done.” Rendered giddy by the whistle-stop tour through his musical lineage, Nard’s presence had a seismic effect on Drizzy as he helped him to secure Lil Wayne before the Canadians reconvened for an hour-long chat six years later. In a similar vein, Pharrell Williams was left dumbfounded when Nardwuar presented him with the first track that he ever worked on. While gazing at a copy of Wreckx-N-Effect’s “Rump Shaker,” Skateboard P proclaimed his research to be “second to none.” Years later, Pharrell brought things full circle by springing his own interview on Ruskin that light-heartedly aped his style.
Aside from this playful homage, hip-hop’s affinity for Nardwuar has transcended journalism and found its way into music itself. Referenced in tracks from Vic Mensa, A$AP Ferg, and Mick Jenkins among others, these lyrical odes all but solidify that he’s not a gimmicky roving reporter but an intrinsic part of modern hip-hop’s cultural dialogue. A million miles removed from the holier-than-thou egocentricity that he encountered from ’80s metal bands and Britpoppers alike, he has been embraced by hip-hop due to his unwavering commitment to the craft. Where others may be happy to hit preassigned PR agendas, his interviews surpass expiration dates by presenting the subject at their most compelling. As explained to Nylon, mundanity is not an acceptable outcome for Nardwuar:
“It is the interviewer’s job to make the interviewee look exciting. Afterwards you can’t go and say ‘oh that person was boring.’ No, it is up to you to bring out the best in that person.”
Just like hip-hop itself, Nardwuar is a man that came in from the margins with a DIY spirit, wearing his deviations from the norm as badges of honor rather than kinks to be ironed out. Now 50-years-old, he overcame the naysayers to become the unlikely figure that’s entrusted with removing banality from video interviews. Now that many of hip-hop’s leading lights are just as eccentric as the man himself, his status as an integral cog in the media is one that Nardwuar will retain for as long as he wishes.