Featured Faces: William Ketchum III
Photo at Hoyt Library by Jaime Torres
Interview by Gina Myers
June 2, 2009, Savoy Bar & Grill
At the age of 23, journalist William Ketchum III has interviewed 50 Cent, Nelly, and Gerald LaVert, to name a few, and he has written for magazines he read growing up. A year after graduating with a degree in journalism from Michigan State University, Ketchum is back in Saginaw, working as the Managing Editor for MichiganHip-Hop.com and writing for a number of places like Metro Times and XXL. He also manages two rappers, mentors young journalists, is involved in a clothing company, and is the Media Manager for the Saginaw County Community Action Center. I recently caught up with William at the Savoy Bar & Grill on Franklin Street. Our conversation covered books, the state of journalism, working hard and playing hard, and IT advice for the random guy who interrupted our interview.
Gina Myers: How did you get involved with listening to hip-hop and then writing about hip-hop?
William Ketchum III: Wow…listening to hip-hop? Well, when I started listening I was in grade school. I actually got into it relatively late because initially I was just listening to Michael Jackson and…well, Michael Jackson. One of my friends had the Mase album Harlem World, and I thought it was cool. Then later on, I heard Puff Daddy and the Family’s No Way Out, and my mother had just died at the time, and Biggie had just died too. So the happy songs on that album were escapism, and the really sad songs I could relate to. That’s how I got started listening.
Now with writing, I started at my high school paper, Arthur Hill News. Back then I would really emulate what I saw in magazines—I would use the same words they used and so on—and my teacher thought I was really good. Plus my dad is an English teacher, so I had always been good at writing. When I got to college, I worked for the website RapReviews.com. I started doing small stuff with them and built my resume up from there, connecting with other places, and it really snowballed from there.
GM: You currently work as the Managing Editor of MichiganHipHop.com. What are your roles there and how did it come about? Did you launch the site or did you come into the position?
WK: I came into the position at MichiganHipHop.com. My friend M.O.S. Ologist does a lot of website work for a lot of different artists in hip-hop. I had covered Michigan hip-hop for a while, but I only covered it in the spectrum of my other coverage. I remember being at home one day and thinking I should do a site on Michigan hip-hop. I called M.O.S. Ologist and he told me he was actually re-launching MichiganHipHop.com, so that’s how I got involved.
I oversee content. We both do. I either write stories myself or I assign them to other writers. I mediate between artists and my writers, and I edit and help perfect their stories. I also stay abreast on songs, videos, and other content that I can post on the web site.
GM: How long have you been doing this?
WK: I’m about a year in. We started last summer. We had a release party…a concert to launch the site. That was about a year ago now.
GM: What made you want to focus on Michigan hip-hop as opposed to hip-hop in general, or East Coast or West Coast hip-hop?
WK: What’s interesting is that I got into Michigan hip-hop really late because initially I was into Jay-Z, Mase, Biggie…so that was like East Coast. I started to learn about Michigan artists because I would be assigned articles on them for other publications. A lot of context was added to the state’s hip-hop with J Dilla, Proof and Blade Icewood dying, so they all made me feel more interested in the hip-hop here. And I thought, “Why embrace hip-hop in these other places when we have artists just as good and even better here?”
GM: Who are the current Michigan artists you are interested in following? Is there anyone we should be looking out for?
WK: Black Milk is really dope. Slum Village, and specifically Elzhi who is a member of Slum Village. Big Sean, just signed to Kayne West’s label. Guilty Simpson, OneBeLo, Royce Da 5’9”, the list goes on. And the people I manage, JYoung The General and P.H.I.L.T.H.Y.
GM: So tell me about the people you manage. How did you meet them and get involved with managing them?
WK: JYoung and I attended Michigan State, and P.H.I.L.T.H.Y. worked on campus. I got cool with JYoung about two years ago, and I had actually worked with P.H.I.L.T.H.Y. my freshman year, but I didn’t know him as a rapper back then.
After we got cool, I got to hear their music and really liked it. And as we formed a crew—now known as the Blat! Pack—I would just help them out wherever I could. JYoung asked me to be his manager and at first I was apprehensive about it, because I had never done that before. Then I realized a lot of the stuff I was already doing for him was stuff that managers do. I look at it as a way of me doing something new on my end and a way to help out artists who I am cool with.
I told P.H.I.L.T.H.Y. this whole time I’ve been managing them has been like a giant episode of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. With every situation I have a lifeline I can use. How do I book shows? Let’s hit up someone that I know who books shows. My artist says he wants to do a song with Black Milk—I actually know Black Milk. So, it’s been really interesting to use contacts that I have had but in a context that I had never had before.
GM: It seems like writers are often in the position of putting people in contact with one another just because they know a lot of people who work in a lot of different roles and industries.
WK: Yeah, it’s like all these other connects, they know I have built a rapport with them in other ways, so they are going to do me favors. Like this one producer, Maestro, he does a lot of beats for Lil Wayne, and he had me do his artist bio based on this interview I had done, and in exchange he gave a beat to JYoung. And he’s a Grammy-winning producer, so to give us a free beat is ridiculous.
GM: That is great. So what is coming up for your artists?
WK: They both have projects coming out this summer. JYoung has an EP called Jahshua 1:6 and that is going to be a sort of prelude leading to his album called The Book of Jahshua—that’s his real name, Jahshua. He has several EPs leading up to the album, but that’s the first one. It’s going to be about six songs, with a single, really to give people a primer of what to expect.
And P.H.I.L.T.H.Y. has an EP coming out produced by Jansport J, based out of LA. And his EP is called Love Songs for Losers and Ballads for Ballers.
Both of those are getting mastered right now, and they should be coming out this summer. They’ve also completed 48 Hours, an EP that they recorded together in two days. So it’s a really exciting time. And after that we are hoping to book shows; I’m hitting up artists that I know have backings in their regions or states, seeing if we can open up for them. It should just be a matter of paperwork and working out the dates.
GM: So, I hear you are also working on a book project. Can you tell me a little about that?
WK: I’m holding back the title for now, but it’s going to be about the history of Michigan hip-hop. I have learned a lot about Michigan hip-hop over the past few years and like I said, the context has really expanded with the deaths of J Dilla, Proof, Blade Icewood and as of last year, MC Breed. But also with the expansion of a lot of our artists here; the underground scene is just ridiculous. Not just in terms of talent, but in terms of relevance, too. Black Milk is one of the most sought after producers right now. Royce Da 5’9” dropped one of the most critically acclaimed mix tapes last year and he is part of a group, Slaughterhouse, that has a lot of buzz behind it. And Eminem and Slum Village are also well known. So the state has a lot of hip-hop and I don’t think it has necessarily been documented, especially when you look at how regional hip hop is. You have different eras of the music defined by an area. So what I plan on doing is taking the most important albums in the state’s hip-hop history and giving a real in-depth look at how those albums were made.
I had a week where I had a lot of things happen subsequently that made me decide to write it. I talked to two people involved in hip-hop that I had been trying to get in contact for a long time: Jay Smooth, who runs IllDoctine.com, and Jeff Chang who wrote Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop. To give you an idea of how weird this was, I had been trying to get a hold of Jay Smooth for about six months, and I had been trying to get a hold of Jeff Chang for a year. I finally got a hold of both of them within ten minutes of each other. I also had another situation where I needed to get something going to get more money for a friend of mine, but it needed to be doing something I love. And a friend said, “You should write a book.” So seeing two people who are living their dream, needing a new venture of my own, and a friend randomly suggesting a book all went together.
I want to make something that is really hip hop friendly in terms of page length but also that still has a lot of information that hip-hop nerds would want. To do the album idea, I can capture the history that way, and the albums will kind of connect the dots. And it will be easier to capture the history that way then to try to do it comprehensively.
GM: You are also involved with a clothing company…
WK: Yep, Identical Variant. I got involved with them one or two summers ago. The clothing line is co-owned by one of my best friend Sean Mack’s roommate, Randall Pointer. And Sean is one of the designers. I figured with all the outlets I have that I could do some marketing, and I am putting together the clothing line’s mixtape right now. And the whole lifeline thing I mentioned before applies here, too, because I am using what I already have to work with them.
GM: You’re involved with so much. It seems like today it is common for young people to wear a lot of hats, to be involved in a lot of different projects. I don’t know if that is more so the case now than before, but it seems like it. Do you have any thoughts on that?
WK: As far as wearing a lot of hats, I think that is common with younger people for a few reasons. One, young people often aren’t sure what they want to do yet. So they try a lot of things until they find what they want to do. But also, it seems more popular in youth culture because when you see a lot of different famous people looking for ways to expand their brand as much as possible. I think people look at that and like the idea of being able to do a lot of things while still being who they are.
The best example I can think of is Kanye West. He does music, he does random art projects, he does clothing. He has a shoe with Nike and a series of six or seven shoes with Louis Vuitton. It’s like he is doing exactly what he loves, and he is expanding himself to every area that he likes.
GM: Everyone involved in journalism has been hearing the doomsday predictions for the industry, and locally we just had the Saginaw News scale back to a three day a week publication schedule. Where do you see the future of journalism, and what advice would you give today’s journalism students?
WK: They have to be ready to do anything. You have to be able to write, to edit, to use blog editors, to record and edit videos. You have to be able to do a lot to survive. Find mentors, and be as well-rounded as possible. You aren’t going to be as much of an asset to a place just being able to do one thing. If you are only able to write really well, and another person can write really well and edit video, they are going to hire that other person.
I have been debating over this a lot because a lot of people ask me. A lot of it is going toward online, but print media is going to have to change to survive. Now a lot of print has changed, but some hasn’t had to—places like Essence, Ebony, Jet, and even GQ. They’ve kept their subscriptions and advertising.
GM: You mentioned mentoring, and I know you mentor young journalists. How did you get into mentoring?
WK: Some people ask me for help, and sometimes I need help with different projects I am doing. I may have a lot of interviews stacked up that I may need someone to transcribe for me. Or with MichiganHipHop.com, I may need some new people to interview artists. But also, some people know about my experience and ask for help. And if I can tell that they are serious—because not everyone is—but if I can tell that they are serious, I’ll see how I can help. Sometimes it is as simple as looking over their work to make sure it is solid. I can give them advice on other things that they are doing. I can link them up with other publications. Basically, I just serve as a guide to help them realize what they want and how they can get there. And realizing what you want is just as important as working hard.
GM: So again it seems like you are in the role of connecting people with other people…
WK: I never thought of it like that, but yeah. With my managing, with mentoring, with everything, I try to help people do what they are best at. I try to help people be the best that they can be: whether it is telling a writer how to make a certain article better, or telling one of my artists how to make their song sound better in the studio. I guess ever since I was younger, people have trusted me. They have said I have really good logic. I make logical decisions, and I try to help other people make logical decisions.
GM: I have been meaning to ask, do you have a favorite interview you did or is there anyone you were really excited to talk to?
WK: It’s a three-way tie. The first one was Nelly. I hated Nelly’s music, and to so many people he is symbolic of what is bad about rap, but I took it because he was a big name. The thing about the interview was that he was so candid and he was so open. He didn’t turn down any questions, and I asked some difficult questions. It was perfect. He just seemed like a cool person. People would hate on his music whether it was for it being whack or for it being misogynistic. But he came across as one of the most honest people I’ve ever interviewed.
GM: Has it changed your attitude towards his music?
WK: It has. Yeah, just because I listen to his music now and I realize this guy is just being himself. I know that now. And if he was putting on a front for the interview, he did a really good job.
Another one is DJ Premier. He’s one of the best producers ever. He is in a lot of people’s top five or top ten lists, and I got to interview him in person. He is really known for his scratching on the turntables. He had a show at The Shelter in Detroit, and I was there during the sound check and he did some scratching, and I was like wow, this is happening. And I interviewed him right outside, and it felt like a really hip-hop atmosphere. I’m interviewing one of the greatest producers ever right outside and it felt like we were just kicking it, and then he cussed out a drunk dude.
GM: [Laughs] And there always are drunk dudes out there too…
WK: Yeah. And the drunk guy who walked by was like just yelling random shit, and I was just going to ignore it. But he was like, “Hey man, I’m doing an interview here, can you quiet down.” And the guy was like, “What do you mean?” And they started arguing. It was pretty funny.
I also interviewed Gerald Levert, the singer. He was a lot older than me but it was dope because we had a mutual respect there. And respect isn’t what a lot of people expect between different age groups like that, and we were just clowning. He talked about the singer Mario and he was like, “Mario’s song ‘Let Me Love You’ is a great song, but he doesn’t know about that. He hasn’t lived that.” And he was like, “How old are you?” I told him 19, and he was like “Oh, but I am sure you have been through more than Mario has!”
And then he died a few years later, and it was weird to have actually spoken to him before he died.
GM: So, I’ve got to ask: As someone who is usually dishing them, how is it being on the receiving end of the questions?
WK: It’s cool, I like it. I always wanted to be interviewed to see what it would feel like.