WMUA is housed in the back corner in the dingy basement of UMass Amherst’s campus center. Walk into this tiny studio, and chances are that you will find students busy putting together the latest and greatest playlists in all genres. Over the past few years, Miles Powell and John Holowitz have clocked a lot of time in this spot, co-creating the Beatspill radio show.
Beatspill, which started as a hip-hop blog, was the brain baby of four friends who met in high school and learned to love the genre as they got into college life. The guys were late bloomers to the hip-hop fandom, which shouldn’t be all too surprising considering they are middle class white kids from the suburbs of Boston.
“I grew up listening to all oldies music,” Powell says. “To the extent where I had such a stereotypical attitude of [hip-hop] music… I would be going to basketball games, and I’d be jamming out to the Bee Gees.”
Holowitz had a very wholesome upbringing, and as the eldest kid, wasn’t allowed to listen to “inappropriate” music, which he says, ruled out a lot of the genre until he got to college.
But as they got into the music, the guys realized that a lot of what they loved growing up lended itself to the creation and evolution of hip-hop. Then, through Beatspill, and their education in hip-hop culture, the guys developed a keen appreciation for the genre as a whole.
“People hate on hip-hop a lot because they think sampling is like stealing what’s already been done,” says Powell. “But no, that’s the evolution of music. Its paying tribute to this old music that’s probably not going to be played as much anymore, and bringing that into new music is a way to keep it alive.”
To that end, the guys have developed a taste for the genre that takes most people much longer than just a couple years to understand. They base most of their song selections on producers rather than artists, and because of the differentiation, have decided that they prefer music that was created between 1993 and 2006.
That date range is the prime Wu-Tang era. It is also the heyday of J Dilla, one of the pair’s favorite producers. Their keen interest in these two particular artists led to their meeting and interviewing DJ Symphony – the official DJ for RAEKWON of Wu Tang – and GZA. That interview got them a lot of web traction, and also got them towards the inner circle of one of the most notorious hip-hop groups in history.
“We made it clear to [DJ Symphony] that we liked late-’90s hip-hop – which isn’t promoted too much anymore” says Powell. “Which was Wu-Tang’s period. That was the golden era of hip-hop.”
DJ Symphony liked Powell and Holowitz, and their taste in hip-hop, so much that he asked if he could play their show through his station in California, which, of course was answered with a ‘hell yeah’ from the guys.
But even with that kind of connection, the guys behind Beatspill didn’t get too far ahead of themselves. Even though they know more today then they did when they started out, they understand there is so much that they still have to learn.
“There are so many collaborations that … it almost seems endless,” Holowitz says. “There’s no way that you could get through them all. Which makes it so exciting.”
That excitement is exactly what they bring to their show, which is why their audience tunes in. They work to learn something new with each show, and share that knowledge with their listeners. While their goal is still to learn as much about this underappreciated genre as possible, now they hope that their show also helps others learn to love the genre.
“I think my main thing is I want as many people as possible to go through the mental, intellectual transition as possible,” Powell says. “So many people see it as this one-dimensional thing – misogynistic, violent – and some of the music I listen to is like that. But as much as we can [we want to] bring the roots of hip-hop back into light…and so many people who like rap these days are down for old-school hip-hop if you show it to them.”
They curate their show with that mindset as well. Holowitz adds, “Time doesn’t matter. If you made a cool song in 2001, we are going to treat it the same as if you made it in 2014. We just don’t care.”
Over the summer, the guys continued to progress. Holowitz got the opportunity to interview Masta Ace and Cappadonna of Wu-Tang for the blog, which was a great experience for him, and a huge step for the show.
Now that they both have graduated, they hope to keep up with the blog, try their hand at band management and just be creative.
As for work, Holowitz says he wants to do “anything creative that we can get involved in [going forward]. Because this doesn’t have to be our work. We just enjoy it.”
Check out Beatspill here: http://beatspill.com/
**A version of this story was published by Performer Magazine here