The Culture Report: Remembering the impact of Baltimore’s blog era on music and TV

Published 4/30/2023 5:30 a.m. EDT, Updated 5/1/2023 4:56 p.m. EDT

A screenshot of a Government Names post in 2007 that promoted a video shoot for rapper Mullyman in West Baltimore.

Blogs may seem a bit archaic now, but there was a time when they shifted culture.

Pharrell Williams’ podcast network OTHERtone introduced a new hip-hop-focused show last week, “The Blog Era,” that zeroes in on how the genre evolved between the mid-2000s and early 2010s. Named after the term used to describe the period in which rap’s most promising acts and fascinating trends were broadcast and discovered through individual-run websites, the show goes deep on the major players of that time. Back then, a globe-spanning artist like Drake would have needed a cosign from popular blogs to be taken seriously, and the only way you’d hear new music from someone like Wiz Khalifa was an early exclusive post to a select site.

Hosted by brothers Eric and Jeff Rosenthal, well-known rap fans known as ItsTheReal, the first three episodes go deep into the origins of “The Blog Era” with compelling stories that contextualize a period that has long since passed. Episode 1 dives into the story of rapper and podcast host Joe Budden adopting a digital fanbase earlier than his mainstream peers; Episode 2 looks at rappers who started blowing up on MySpace and directly connected with their listeners; and the third episode is essentially an oral history of NahRight, a site that went on to be more valued than traditional forms of media by artists such as Big Sean, Nipsey Hussle and J. Cole.

Listening to the podcast has made me think of the blog era’s impact on my own journey as a writer. In late 2011, I bought the domain name for True Laurels, a blog dedicated to covering the music and art from Baltimore and the wider DMV region. It changed my life: Using the site as an ongoing documentation of a specific area opened up opportunities for me to write for more established national publications that were trying to stay on track with blogs like NahRight. But there were others before me that offered a template for what that success could look like.

“The Blog Era” has yet to cover the regionally specific sites of that time period. The hosts and majority of people interviewed are from New York, so that perspective is dominant. But even if the most popular blogs of the time were coming from New Yorkers, a good deal of passionate writers and fans from outside of the media mecca were doing their part in talking about music in their areas — or wherever else there were interesting rap scenes.

In Baltimore, one of the first to occupy that space was Al Shipley, a contributing writer for The Baltimore Banner. Shipley’s blog, Government Names, first published on Blogspot in May 2004 during the first wave of rap-focused sites. Musically, Baltimore was completely different than it is now. The local rap scene was second fiddle to Baltimore club, which, in terms of local music, dominated the radio, though rappers like B. Rich and Comp experienced short-lived mainstream success.

Government Names gave Shipley the opportunity to give some context to the burgeoning scene. For a while, he was one of the only people covering the rising talent here and, at one point, his sharing of local artists resulted in a phone call from music supervisors of “The Wire,” who needed help putting together a compilation of Baltimore music. I spoke with Shipley about the origins of Government Names, how Baltimore’s rap scene has changed since he started it, and his thoughts on the blog era in general.

To you, what time period encompasses “The Blog Era”? Because according to who you talk to, the years kinda teeter.

Al Shipley: The funny thing is that I understand it’s the best way to explain the era, to call it the blog era. I hate the phrase, but I kind of get it. But I remember the beginning of MP3 blogs around 2002. And then for a while it just seemed like a lot of people I knew online started to have music blogs. I, reluctantly around 2004, started Government Names. I was like, “Okay, this will be fun,” because a lot of the other blogs were not covering hip-hop. Very 2004 stuff like Ma$e coming back.

And occasionally you’d get an MP3 and post it before anyone else. I remember I posted a leaked song by Amerie before her label wanted it out there, and that was really fun because people love that song. So that was an era where, again, DJs still held a lot of the power. So that was changing where suddenly once a DJ had it, there was an MP3 and everyone could post it. I kind of feel like the reason the DJ era ended is because basically it went from being labels and DJs controlling everything to then anyone who wanted to start a blog could kind of be a middle man. And then the social media era started. Now the artists don’t need that middle man, either. They don’t need the blogger either.

What other blogs were active when you started Government Names?

AS: Cocaine Blunts was one of the big ones. I want to say Noz was pretty early on, 2003 or something. I just remember there was all these little sites. It was kind of the Wild West, where it was just anyone who had a connection was like, “Oh, we can do this.” People get nostalgic about things like NahRight where the writing, to me, had no personality. They would just put up a song and the comment section created the whole culture of the site. Some of the people turned out to be great writers and are still doing great things, but a lot of it was just people just getting excited about a song, writing a weird paragraph and living in the moment.

Would you say that you were one of the first, if not the first, person that was covering what was happening here? Because at that time, Baltimore was not looked at as a rap city. Club was dominant.

AS: It was interesting because there was still this vacuum where even when someone was popular, even if someone was on 92Q [radio station] all day, people outside of this area would have no idea. You could search for Tim Trees’ music on Google and there’d be nothing about it. I remember things like Bossman and Mullyman and these guys being on the radio every day and you couldn’t find anything on the internet. So for me to even just upload their album cover or upload an MP3, I would be contributing to what little knowledge there was about these guys on the internet.

There were all these moments where things were very exciting just in this little bubble. I would be trying to post show flyers and help people get the word out about shows or post a little review of a mixtape. I’d post probably 50 or 100 mixtape reviews a year, and not everything’s good, especially on a local level. And so people would think I was being mean, but it’s just like, I just want people to know about it, period. I want to be honest if it’s not a masterpiece, but I’ll find the best song and try to tell people what the best song is and have them listen to it.

Who would you say are some of the standout Baltimore artists of the blog era?

AS: Bossman was the first guy that I got to post about every time he released a single, every time he released something. And there were all these other guys. When Smash came out, that was big. I remember the first guy I interviewed was Comp when he was on Def Jam. The early days of King Los were really cool. He came to my apartment and hung out. He’d just signed to Bad Boy and he was just really, really low-key and super talented.

What else from that time felt notable for you?

AS: I would say it was an amazing time because I would post songs on my blog and the music supervisor from “The Wire” emailed me and they used some of those songs in the show and thanked me in the soundtrack album. I did not think that was possible when I started the blog that I would influence what music they put on “The Wire.”

There was a song, “Jail Flick” by this guy Diablo — that’s another example of, to me, the Baltimore blog era, because they had the whole Hamsterdam mixtape and those guys were really good at promoting themselves online. I saw this guy Diablo perform the song in every little venue in the city probably 20 times. And then eventually it was on “The Wire.” That, to me, is a great moment of just seeing the internet be used to help these people get a little bit of recognition.

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