“I don’t have to know what a song means.” — Bob Dylan
Except, sometimes you kinda do.
Dylan made that comment at his recent Nobel Lecture (you can read the transcript here). Dylan was making a particular point, about the need for artistic inspiration and creativity. He seemed to be pushing back against the need for some people to always view the world and other people literally, without nuance. Some people want to categorize and organize everything they touch, and that can be good, but sometimes it veers into attempts to possess and control. Dylan has always resisted that.
A remarkable podcast called “Dissect” is actually headed toward the same destination Dylan wants to reach, but by a different route. It’s not just different. It’s pretty much the opposite path. It’s a podcast that spends 20 to 30 minutes interpreting one song at a time, through the entirety of one album: Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly.”
Cole Cuchna is 33, lives in Sacramento (where he was born and raised), works for Temple Coffee doing marketing and social media, and is raising a two-year old daughter with his wife B. I spoke with Cole by phone recently, and a partial transcript of our conversation is below.
What Cole has done with “Dissect” is a remarkable achievement, a work of art and journalism. It’s the result of a lot of hard labor on his part. Ultimately it’s a huge public service.
You don’t have to be a rap or hip hop fan to enjoy this podcast. In fact, if you’re not, this podcast is an amazing introduction to the genre, because while Cole is a fan of Kendrick’s, he approaches the album like a scholar. He unpacks the history and anthropology behind Kendrick’s music. He identifies the narrative arc of Kendrick’s album, which is a continuation of the album before it (“Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City”). And then he takes us through each song, verse by verse, patiently and thoroughly guiding us through the many layers of meaning in Kendrick’s story.
It is a tour de force.
I listened to a lot of hip hop in high school, and have come back to the genre over the past four years, after I wrote a profile of Lecrae in 2013 for The Huffington Post (link to that piece here). But no matter which type of music I’m listening to, I’ve never been very good at paying attention to lyrics. I’ve always felt a tiny bit embarrassed by it, actually. Am I just shallow?
After listening to most of “Dissect’s” first season, (Season 2 will debut in August), I found myself able to follow the lyrics more easily.
But I think maybe the most important thing Cole does is contextualize the music. If someone does not understand that much of what is being said is part of a story, then it’s very easy to misinterpret the music. Misinterpretation could mean judging the music as immoral or harmful. It could also mean a young person hears a song where Kendrick is telling a story of how he viewed the world when he was young and immature, and thinks that Kendrick is lauding that point of view.
At the core of Cole’s project is a passion to promote empathy, to “replace judgment with curiosity” as he says. And Lord knows, we need more of that these days.
I called Cole for two reasons: First, I wanted to tell people about his podcast. And second, and I wanted to know who he was, and the story behind this remarkable project.
Jon: I’m really curious just about the origin story of this podcast. Like I said, to me, it’s an amazing podcast, and you don’t really insert yourself very much at all into the story. It’s very much a work of … I don’t know. I’m a journalist. It feels to me like a work of journalism, in a sense, but you keep yourself out of it. Who are you? How old are you? Where are you from? What’s your background?
Cole Cuchna: I am 33. I’ve been playing music since I was … 13 is when I picked up a guitar, and played in bands for quite a long time. That took up most of my creative energy until … Maybe five years ago or so is when I stopped playing in bands, five or six years ago. I went to school later. I was in my mid-20s when I went to college, or when I actually went to college to graduate, and I chose music composition. I got a new … I was self-taught and more in the not classical style of composition before that. I’d write music for band and that kind of thing, but when I entered school, that’s kind of when I really got serious about learning theory. I took my first piano lessons there and learned how to compose for orchestra and all that.
That’s kind of where I feel like my strength is, knowing both worlds of popular music very well and classical music pretty well. Dissect was kind of my attempt to merge those two worlds, meaning I learned how to analyze music classically. You’re taught to analyze Bach and Beethoven and all of that, which are awesome and great, but I wanted to apply those same techniques to contemporary works that I thought could undergo that scrutiny. Obviously, To Pimp a Butterfly was more than enough to work with to do that.
Jon: What was your background in hip-hop?
Cole: Yeah, I mean, I liked it from a young age. All my early experiences with music very, very early, thinking back on it, were mostly hip-hop in the very beginning, when I was like 10 years old or something. I think my first CD was MC Hammer. Then I remember Doggystyle. I’m a white kid from the suburbs, so I think it was more of a “Wow, this world exists, and I have no idea where this is coming from, but it’s super interesting to me.” Then I got into the Beatles and all that kind of music, too.
Hip-hop has been a part of what I would listen to. It was never the main thing until really recently, actually. I feel like hip-hop as a genre is the most progressive right now; it’s the most interesting new sounds and new approaches. I feel like either electronic music or hip-hop is where the excitement is. I feel like rock music is kind of in this weird dead area. Most of the time, nothing really interests me in that world as much as it used to. Yeah, I mean, I’ve always been a fan of hip-hop, but I’m by no means a strict hip-hop head or whatever. I listen to classical just as much as anything else, too. I have a pretty diverse music selection, I guess.
Jon: I want to know how this podcast started, where’d you get the idea, all that.
Cole: I guess probably I wouldn’t have … Well, I don’t know. I used to listen to this … Have you heard of The Great Courses …
Jon: Yeah, I have.
Cole: … or The Teaching Company? Yeah. I used to listen to basically as much of that as I could when I was in college. I don’t have that much time anymore to listen to them, but I was a big fan of that. I loved that I could learn at my own pace. I loved that they were short enough that I could digest them quickly, but if I wanted to binge, I could binge. I just thought that model was really fitting to what is going on now. I mean, that was kind of ahead of its time in terms of how we consume product now.
Obviously, their demographic is older. Most of the professors on there are kind of boring to listen to, so you really have to want to learn about the subject to get through it. For me, I was kind of like, how can I, one, merge the classical and contemporary music together? That’s kind of my background. How do I merge those together? How do I do it in a way that fits contemporary? One thing I thought we were losing in so much content all the time and just disposable culture was that long-form analysis, thinking critically and sitting down and spending a lot of time with one piece of artwork, rather than just listening for a week and then moving on to whatever was new. I also wanted to be realistic about how I was going to do that because you have to be realistic about how we consume things now. That’s not going to change or go backwards. That was kind of the idea, long-form analysis with short episodes.
Jon: Has the response to the podcast indicated to you that there’s a desire for that sort of thing?
Cole: Yeah. I mean, I was just doing it for myself, honestly. That’s the third component of me starting this thing was that I’m not playing music as much as I used to anymore. I have a kid now.
Jon: How old?
Cole: She just turned two. My wife was working nights until very recently, so I had to create something that, one, would force me to do … I found myself not actually spending any time with a piece of art as much as I used to in college, and college gave me that structure that I could do that. I kind of needed to build my own structure to force myself to continue to do that, and then I also had to be realistic about my life. A podcast was kind of like, oh, I could just write this thing, record it at night. It doesn’t take a lot of energy. It just kind of fit my life at this time. I was basically just doing it for selfish reasons. Then I was like, “Oh, I’ll just put it out there,” and the response has been honestly crazy unexpected. I wasn’t expecting any kind of interest, or at least not to the level that it has gotten to.
Jon: Yeah, when did you start releasing episodes and when did you finish releasing episodes? I mean, I could look at those iTunes.
Cole: Yeah, August of last year is when I started, and I went until I think February was the last one, February or March, I think.
Jon: Yeah. What was the craziest or the most surprising piece of feedback that you got?
Cole: It was mostly just all the emails that I would get. I mean, iTunes picked it up pretty early on and featured it on their editor’s choice. It was on the homepage of iTunes for I want to say a couple of months. Once that happened, it was like that’s when everything kind of took off. Then, after that, it was like I would get just a bunch of emails, a few a day for a while, just people really grateful about it. I think everyone kind of saw that the work that I was doing was time-consuming, and it was more of just an appreciation of, hey, thanks for actually doing this and making it consumable.
Jon: This podcast really, I think, can help turn music like this from something that could be detrimental if it’s just repeating certain lyrics over and over into something that is incredibly positive. That’s a pretty interesting thing.
Cole: To me, that kind of just reflects our mindset about that culture in general. I think it’s just misunderstood by a lot of people who just see face value and make a judgment based on that and don’t really think to dig deeper to think, well, one, what causes that behavior, or what is that behavior masking. I mean, there’s just so many things that go into that. I think it tells a larger story. I mean, you can get as wide open as the way the country is set up. There’s just so many things that I think people can understand about our culture better through that music and that community that just aren’t … It’s not presented in a way that is … or at least not often presented in a way that I think is empathetic to both parties. I think when the conversation comes up, there’s a lot of negativity, I guess, and not a lot of openness about it from both sides. Hopefully, that’s part of what I was thinking is this could be a window, a very open window, a very positive, empathetic angle, into that conversation.
I always give the analogy that it is my goal to make my mom a fan of Kendrick Lamar by the end of the podcast, meaning that she would never listen to Kendrick Lamar or hip-hop, and would probably write it off very easily. I wanted to present him in a way that someone like her could actually understand his value.
Jon: Did that work?
Cole: Yeah, not really. It did, actually. It did in that she’s not going to be listening to … She’s not going to be bumping him in her car anytime soon, but she has definitely learned a lot from the podcast and just more about the things we’re talking about, the culture aspect more than the actual music itself. She has a much better appreciation for I would say hip-hop culture and things like that now because of it.
Jon: Was the 2016 election … did that have anything to do with you wanting to do this?
Cole: No, not at all, actually. I was already kind of creating it before all that. I think, more than anything, that just the feeling and the energy of the country affected the way maybe I looked at the music and presented it. I just see so much divide and so much closed-mindedness about issues from both sides. I think that’s really important. It’s not just one side that’s doing that. That’s where I think everything comes for me, at least. It always leads back to empathy and learning to view others, no matter what side you’re on, just opening a dialogue and not being so confrontational with it.
Jon: Yeah, that is awesome. I think that’s a huge value of the podcast. I couldn’t agree more with the need for that, and I just thank you and commend you for doing that. Were you raised in church at all? Is there a religious component to your perspective?
Cole: No, I don’t. I don’t know, I could probably count on one hand the times I’ve stepped inside a church.
Jon: Okay. Yeah, I only ask because there are some people that you seem to be connected with … Tyler Burns was on, I think, a podcast of yours. Your latest podcast, the summary of Kendrick’s DAMN album, had some religious undertones, I would say. That’s interesting to know that you don’t have a religious element to your perspective. I thought I detected some, so that makes it kind of interesting.
Cole: Yeah, maybe that’s just the product of Kendrick talking about God. I mean, I’ve learned a lot about religion, or just spirituality I guess, through it. Yeah, personally, no, I don’t really have any affinity with any religious group.
Jon: Going back to where you talked about the origins of it, it seemed like you seemed to say that you wanted to have something to do at night rather than I’m guessing just sit passively and watch television. I mean, I hear you on it’s taxing and it’s hard, but I think making use of whatever time we have that’s our own, that doesn’t have demands on it, to seek beauty or to be creative I think is so important to our mental and spiritual health.
Cole: Yeah, that’s definitely a great way of putting it. I think that’s exactly what I was meaning to say. Yeah, I mean, I see it as something pure and coming from a good place. Yeah, it just started out as just for my own personal well-being, so if I were to take criticism too harshly, then it would lose some of that to me. It would lose some of that purity if I started to worry about that too much, rather than just making the best thing possible. I’m sure if I went and listened to it I would have a hundred things to tell you, but I honestly just have not listened to it.
P.S. — I know people who would be horrified to listen to Kendrick Lamar. Truly. It might depend on what song they started with, of course. If they happened upon “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” and heard the young men praying to Jesus, they might think it was ok, (except for the cursing of course, but who among us). But if they happened upon “Backseat Freestyle” and listened to the chorus about Kendrick wishing a part of his body was as big as the Eiffel Tower, they’d pull a Tipper Gore. (There is a fair amount of foul language, given the content of Kendrick’s lyrics, so fair warning.)
And of course I know plenty of people who love Kendrick and think he’s a genius.
If you’re in that group that thinks rap like Kendrick’s is offensive, or you’re just not interested, that’s fine. But I think you should consider listening. You might learn something. I know I have.