Thomas Hobbs Interview
Thomas Hobbs is a freelance writer in the UK, with bylines in just about every outlet you could name. Seriously. Here’s a list of a few places he’s written: the New Statesman, Dazed, Vice, the Guardian, Little White Lies, Evening Standard, Crack, Highsnobiety, Time Out, Wired, Pitchfork and NME. Thomas specializes in rap, broadly speaking, but he’s also written quite a bit about the trans community in the UK. To read more, check out Thomas’s writing work here. And he’s @thobbsjourno on Twitter.
How did you get to where you are today, professionally?
I always knew I wanted to write about music from a young age and reading / studying magazines like Q, NME and The Source as a child provided a real sanctuary. I would sometimes steal the music supplement out of the Guardian from my local corner shop (yeah, I was a little shit!) and just dream about one day writing for it, and escaping my life. I remember in the first year of high school we had to do a newspaper article for our English homework and I did this article about Tupac coming back from the dead and doing a concert. It got good marks and I told my teacher that one day I wanted to write about rap music for a living, and she replied: “Remember to be realistic, Thomas!” It was quite the blow for a 9 year-old.
I come from a quite an ordinary, one parent, working class British background so not a lot was expected from me, frankly. But that comment stuck and was something I always used as a sort of fuel. My mum just about got me through university (I was the first ever person from my family to go) by borrowing money and working multiple jobs, and when I left, I took out a loan to do an intensive post-grad magazine journalism course that problematically taught me that getting a job in music writing was next to impossible and that I should focus my energy on something “more realistic”—yeah, de ja vu quickly kicked in!
So my route from there was pretty unconventional. I worked my arse off at a series of trade magazines, writing exclusive stories about fruit and veg (the Fresh Produce Journal), British supermarkets and dickheads like Sir Philip Green (The Grocer), and advertising algorithms (Marketing Week), regularly seeing my stuff get picked up by national newspapers, but ultimately feeling unfulfilled. The whole time I was relentlessly freelancing on the side, basically working two 9-to-5's and 16-hour days, and, around two to three years ago, having built up bylines and more of a positive reputation, I was able to finally go freelance full-time and write about culture for a living. I worked hard to get here and I’m really proud I went from writing about broccoli to music! It’s funny because in 2017 I picked up a byline writing about Tupac Shakur in the Guardian and it felt like things had truly come full circle. I hope that dickhead teacher read it!
Did you have any mentors along the way? What did they teach you?
Honestly, not really. I constantly emailed editors for advice and rarely got anything back, which was a shame, but maybe understandable too, as I am sure they had millions of emails in their inbox. Equally, it’s something I want to put right: I actively help young music writers, particularly from working class backgrounds, with advice, proofing and words of encouragement. I think trying to find the time to help others, even if there isn't enough minutes in the day, is so important. You could change someone's life for the better, and try to remember what it was like for you at the beginning! People shouldn’t measure success in music journalism purely on personal achievements, but on how many people they help to fly. If more people had that mentality, things would be a lot better and, well, fairer.
Walk me through a typical day-to-day for you right now.
I’m always thinking of new ideas for music and culture pitches, keeping a document on my computer that I aim to fill with 2-3 new ideas every single day. Yeah, not all of them will land, but I think keeping that kind of momentum going is crucial. I try to listen to 10-15 new albums a week, watch 5-6 movies, read a lot of books and articles from other writers so I can learn from their writing, and I get my work done with a fat ginger cat by my side, which is kind of nice. It isn't unusual for me to work a 6 or 7 day week, but sometimes that's necessary to put out the best possible writing.
I guess I’ve learned that the key to making freelancing work financially and practically is to have regular copywriting that goes alongside the music reviews, interviews and features I write. I am so grateful for the commercial work I get to do and, in many ways, it's just as important as the non-commercial writing! You couldn’t have one without the other. So my week is a balance of getting stuff like bios and copywriting written, alongside getting to go interview very stoned rappers about their latest albums. People often say you can't freelance unless you have loads of money, but that isn't true: you can definitely make it work, but just be prepared to juggle a lot around and for a lot of tears! Maybe deal drugs on the side too, ha.
How has your approach to your work as a writer changed over the past few years?
I’m really trying to write for publications where editors are very full on with the editing process. There’s nothing worse than writing something and it just goes live with no changes. I think I’m a good writer, but no one is that gooooood! I recently did my first Pitchfork review and learned so much from working with an excellent editor like Philip Sherburne, who pushed me to make the review as good as it could be. I also recently picked up my first byline with Passion of the Weiss and, once again, it was amazing working with an editor (Jeff Weiss) who provided extensive notes and really prioritised a deep collaboration with their writer. I am also blessed to work with Selim Bulut at Dazed fairly regularly, who is another great editor that works closely with you to ensure you’re pushing everything as far as it can go. These guys have really taught me a lot. I think the best editors push you and make you learn something new, and I’ve definitely realised that having a Google Docs with lots of notes isn’t a bad thing, but a good thing that will help you get better and better as a writer. Don’t be daunted by it!
I would say my approach is I don’t want my style of music writing to be too cold or detached, but rather written from the perspective of a fan really trying to translate the euphoric feeling of falling in love with a particular artist or song for the first time. I think a great review or profile should also tell you something genuinely new about an artist, or have a WHAT DID THEY JUST SAY!? quote that you can’t stop thinking about. If I don’t achieve any of the above then I feel like I’ve failed. My approach isn’t just to amplify the noise around an artist, but to change what it sounds like, and write features that have a heart that will endure. I want to build a body of work that outlasts me, and I won’t stop until I have achieved that. It’s also pretty sick being paid to go to, like, a Pusha-T show. I pinch myself everyday that this is now my life!
What would you like to see more of in music journalism right now?
More non-white and working class writers getting chances to shine at major publications. It’s a shame when you see the same middle class voices getting spotlighted, over and over, and I think you’d read more interesting profiles if they were written by a more diverse pool of writers.
Less stringent news hooks would be cool too. I guess in this always online world it's difficult, but work is always better if a writer gets longer to sit with an album. I understand why anniversaries and having something to tie a feature to is important, but I also feel this mentality has become way too strict. If a music feature is quality then I don’t think readers really care if it goes live on the exact same day an album is released or celebrating its anniversary, and it would be good to see more editors become more relaxed here.
A transcription app that actually works would be sick too! Lastly, I guess it would be nice to see critics trying less hard to be friends with the people they write about. Our job definitely requires a bit of distance, and I believe you've probably only truly nailed something if you've pissed off a few people in the process.
What would you like to see less of in music journalism right now?
In an ideal world, it would be good to see less classism. You can’t help but feel the British scene, although it’s improving, with publications like The Guardian, Crack and Dazed working hard to try to work with a real diverse pool of music writers, is still built on giving people senior roles based on where they’ve graduated from or who they are friends with. A more diverse pool of writers actually sitting on editorial teams will result in a more diverse pool of freelancers too, and ultimately, much more interesting copy! Believe in the underdogs. The only thing separating a writer from a byline should be a good idea.
What's one tip that you'd give a music journalist starting out right now?
Don’t be afraid of rejections to your pitches, as you’re going to get a lot and mustn't take it too personally! But if you keep on thinking of good ideas, one of them is going to land, and from there you’re going to build a momentum that’s going to make people remember your name. If editors can see you’re a hard worker, with great ideas and clean copy, then they will come around to the idea of you being someone they can trust sooner rather than later. All it really takes is one byline at somewhere big, and then you can just build on it. Finding a speciality is also so important, as you want to be someone editors can call on if that particular subject needs someone who really gets it.
What's one thing you'd like to see more of from editors, in general?
I guess more empathy. Being a freelance music writer isn’t easy so getting paid within 30 days can be the difference between not eating and being driven by stress, or being able to smile and be peaceful. It’s easy to get depressed and anxious when you’re working by yourself too, so I think editors who really try to get to know their writers beyond just cold emails are really great. At the end of the day, we're all fighting for the same thing, so it makes no sense not trying to get on with someone.
What artist or trend are you most interested in right now?
I love the trend of rappers embodying the counter culture spirit of punk and really channelling the rage of young people into something cathartic and freeing. I wrote a long read on the rise of punk rap for the BBC last year and have been lucky to profile people like Slowthai, Rico Nasty, JPEGMAFIA, and Danny Brown recently too. These artists are really leading a charge and I want to approach writing about them like it's a truly historic moment. I want people to be able to look up one of my articles in 20 years and it takes them right back to 2020, and helps them understand what these scenes looked like and why they were so important socially.
What's your favorite part of the job?
That buzz of a musician responding positively to a question you worked days and days researching is beautiful. I also love it when an editor truly believes in something I’ve pitched, and I guess just that journey of turning something you thought of while watching a movie stoned and scribbling rubbish into the notes app on your iphone into something thousands of people read and enjoy. Readers telling me I put them onto new music is always incredibly gratifying too, but reading the comments is also dangerous. Seriously, try not to do it too often; especially if it’s for The Guardian or VICE, as their readers can be proper sadists!
What was the best track / video or film / book you've consumed in the past year?
That’s a tough question. In terms of a sole track, I am going to say Jayaire Woods’ BIG, which I was late in discovering, tbh. It’s such a melancholic rap song, which really sounds like the perfect combination of someone signing the blues like Howlin Wolf yet through the pure aesthetic of trap music. The beat is haunting, but also nostalgic, and it always transports me somewhere else entirely. He’s a seriously underrated artist and someone I hope gets more recognition and shine soon.
The best film has got to be Bohemian Rhapsody, what a thrill ride! I’m joking, fuck that homophobic, badly edited, terrible prosthetic teeth-filled, piece of shit! Um, probably a horror movie like Midsommar. I think Florence Pugh really embodies the grieving process, something I’ve written about lots and lots in the past, and that smile at the end is hard to forget about. Fuck the Oscars for not believing in horror, frankly!
The best book has to be the Assata Shakur autobiography I just finished reading. It really crystallises the experience of racism in America, and I’m shocked her life story hasn’t been turned into a film yet. Lupita would eat up that role! You won’t become a better writer unless you’re prepared to keep on reading ACTUAL BOOKS and take in lessons from the way their authors approach a subject.
If you had to point folks to one piece of yours, what would it be and why?
This feature I wrote for DAZED about Norman Whiteside, a soul musician unjustly jailed for over 30 years, whose life changed completely when Kanye sampled his music, definitely means a lot. I felt like I had a real responsibility to get this man’s music out to a bigger audience and I hope people start to look at Wee’s You Can Fly On My Aeroplane as one of the best soul records of its time, or any fucking time. I later found out that a prominent musician sampled one of Norman’s songs off the back of reading my feature and I honestly could of retired there and then. I hope it shows that I can write about music with real heart, and these are the kind of underdog stories I relate to the most, with this piece kind of an extension tonally of a profile I did on Big Star's Chris Bell for VICE a few years prior. If an artist worked hard to get to where they are and had a significant but hidden impact then I enjoy the challenge of trying to explain why their struggle was worth it.