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Episode 141 : RJ Smith on Chuck Berry + Ice-T + Black L.A. + Wilko Johnson

28 November 2022

In this episode we invite esteemed author RJ Smith to tell us about his career, his adopted Los Angeles, and his new biography of Chuck Berry.

We start in Detroit, where RJ was raised on a diet of AM radio, the Stooges and Creem magazine, then follow him to New York and his decade of writing for the Village Voice. He talks about the impact of Lester Bangs and Robert Christgau before explaining why he followed the Voice's executive editor Kit Rachlis to California and the L.A. Weekly. We hear how he became fascinated by the pre-rock history of African-American L.A. and how that led to the publication of The Great Black Way (2008). His fourth book, Chuck Berry: An American Life, gives us the opportunity to discuss the problematic brilliance of St. Louis's "Black bard of white teen angst", a half-century after the creepy novelty comedy of 'My Ding-a-Ling' gave the Black-rock pioneer a No. 1 hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

We return to our L.A. theme to hear clips from a 1991 audio interview in which Tracy "Ice-T" Marrow talks to Andy Gill about the birth of gangsta rap and his thrash-metal side project Body Count. RJ recalls his own writing about West Coast hip hop before we say a sad goodbye to the great Wilko Johnson and hear the-then Dr. Feelgood guitarist speaking to Mick Gold in 1975.

Mark quotes from some of the pieces he's added to the RBP library, including interviews with Long John Baldry and Olivia Newton-John, after which Jasper wraps matters up with remarks on articles about Deadmau5 and Asian Dub Foundation.

Many thanks to special guest RJ SmithChuck Berry: An American Life is published by Omnibus in the UK and Hachette in the US and is available now from all good bookshops.