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Studio Visit: Oliver Wang

The L.A.-based music critic-scholar on border crossing, his “West Coast vibe”, and why we should leave the guilt and take the pleasure

Oliver Wang has been writing about pop music, culture, and politics for the past 20 years. In 2003, he co-authored the book Classic Material: The Hip-Hop Album Guide, and in 2004 started the influential music blog Soul-Sides, which turned 10 years old today. Outside of the music world (where he is also an active DJ), Wang keeps busy teaching as an Assistant Professor of Sociology at California State University, Long Beach. He’s currently a regular contributor to NPR and KCET’s ArtBound, and wrapping up a history book project on the Filipino American mobile DJ scene in the Bay Area.

AAWW caught up with Wang at his office in L.A. for our weekly Q&A series, Studio Visit.

What’s on your nightstand right now?

Mike Davis’s City of Quartz, Reyner Bantham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, and J-Zone’s Root For the Villain.

What superpower would you most like to possess?

Teleportation. I feel like anyone who deals with traffic on a daily basis wants this. Plus, imagine the vacation savings.

What role does place have in your writing?

On a practical level, one of my main gigs right now is writing about arts and culture for KCET’s ArtBound series. That, by its very assignment, forces me to engage with L.A. or the Southland on every story. I appreciate that challenge since I’m learning to dive into the tangle and contradictions of L.A., which I think is one of the most misunderstood (and maligned) cities in America, no doubt partly a product of how badly a certain Hollywood caricature colors the city’s image. There’s so much here though. So many layers. So many different Los Angeleses. If my writing is ever able to articulate even a minute fraction of that complexity, I’d consider that a remarkable achievement.

Otherwise, my career as a writer owes much to publications in the Bay Area and L.A.: Asian Week, URB Magazine, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the L.A. Weekly, KALX, KQED’s Pacific Time…these were the places I cut my teeth in print and radio.

I also think the personality of my writing reflects what others might describe as a “West Coast vibe:” laid-back, more reflective than prescriptive, more interested in border crossings than nation building. As friends of mine might say, it’s all “very Berkeley.” That’s not necessarily a compliment, mind you.

What songs are on your iPod now?

I’ve been listening to this local L.A. band I like a lot, Chicano Batman; they just came out with their second LP, Existential Cycles of Rhyme. It’s early yet; I haven’t heard too many other new-new albums that are sitting in heavy rotation but I’m forever listening to older songs. One of the better ones is this Filipino soul tune, “Love Song,” by Joe Cruz and the Cruzettes. So smoooooth.

What is your writing process?

Where Oliver Wang gets busy writing, early in the morning or late at night.
Where Oliver Wang gets busy writing, early in the morning or late at night.

I usually have a fragment of a piece written in my head before I start: sometimes, it’s the opening, on far rarer occasions, it’s the ending (endings endlessly frustrate me; I mildly hate my colleagues who say they always have the ending written first). Most times, it’s something in the middle and then the challenge becomes how to structure the overall narrative to allow me to “organically” arrive and depart from that point. I don’t think it’s a terribly efficient process and I surely need to learn how to kill my darlings better. I also find that writing comes easily and naturally once I start; it’s the “starting” that’s the challenge.

In any case, I’m either a “first thing in the morning” or “late at night” writer. Midday is a mess; much better for clearing out email or other busy work than trying to force my creative energies into focus.

What are you working on right now?

I’m awaiting on the final decision to proceed to publication for my first academic book, a social history of the Filipino American mobile DJ crew scene in the Bay Area, entitled Legions of Boom. My audioblog,, turns 10 at the end of Feb. so I’m putting together a few special things for that. And otherwise, just grinding out writing in my spare time.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

Ha, I recently wrote about how I don’t have any, anymore. I don’t think pleasure is something to be ashamed about; we should strive to own our tastes.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

A zoologist. My daughter, now 9, also says she wants to grow up to work with animals. I’ll have to check back with her in 30 years and see if she got closer to that ambition than I did.