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Is DJ Vlad an Investigative Journalist? An Investigation

Vince Staples questioned DJ Vlad’s credibility as a reporter on Twitter. In reality, the DJ-turned-interviewer is more like a hip-hop cop.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

It’s common for rappers to become more shy of the press as they become more famous and their time becomes more valuable. For a while, Vince Staples did interviews every other week. In fact, Vince endeared himself to many rap fans and digital-content farms largely on the strength of his wit and candor as demonstrated in interviews. For the warmer months of 2015, “Vince Staples talking to a reporter” was a whole cottage industry of viral clips within media — and not just for rap blogs, we’re talking GQ here. But that was then. Lately, Vince has reserved his best quips for Twitter and otherwise overcorrected for his overexposure in the press. DJ Vlad, ever the investigative journalist, has noticed.

On Tuesday, a fan tweeted at Vlad asking whether he’d have Vince Staples on the show sometime soon, and Vlad responded that such an interview was unlikely because Vince is “mad” at him. Pressed to elaborate by none other than Vince Staples himself, Vlad complained to Vince that his management and publicity teams haven’t answered his requests since his most recent interview with the rapper in March 2014. From there, the rapper and the journalist went back and forth about their history of interactions, the nature of investigative journalism, and life beyond gang violence. Vince ended the exchange with an assurance of no hard feelings between him and Vlad. “I just ain’t tryna sit down and talk about gang banging for 30 minutes,” Vince said. He’s just a good kid with a Def Jam contract. He’s not trying to go to jail.

Vince Staples knows how VladTV interviews work. DJ Vlad, born Vladimir Lyubovny, is a former rap mixtape DJ who transitioned to hip-hop video journalism when he launched in 2008. Very quickly, Vlad established himself as an interviewer primarily interested in rappers’ personal and illicit histories; Rick Ross’s entourage, Vlad alleged, attacked him as retribution for a video in which he interviewed other rappers about Ross’s past career as a corrections officer in Miami. In the past year, Vlad has interviewed old-school drug dealers Pee Wee Kirkland and Azie Faison as he’s taken a peculiar historical interest in the crack and heroin trades in Harlem. In recorded conversations with DJ Vlad, there’s a pervasive sense in which the “investigative” aspect feels less like journalism and more like law enforcement, akin to a “good cop” greasing a suspect.

Many VladTV interviews are pure interrogations. This vibe is largely due to the tone, weight, and precision of Vlad’s questions. Whenever he’s interviewing any subject who might be loosely defined as “a street dude,” Vlad is far less likely to ask about music, and far more likely to ask for detailed accounts of alleged criminal activities and incidents. “So, uh,” Vlad might ask, “where’d you hide the gun?” He might go so far as to open the interview with that sort of question, at which point his subject, most likely a rapper, will either (a) laugh it off or (b) answer with the kind of rambling specificity that any decent criminal defense attorney would advise against. Other times, Vlad opens interviews by quoting a provocative statement from some other, recent interview he did with someone else and ask his current guest what he or she thinks about that. In fact, you could probably trace a straight six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon-type line from each of these videos all the way back to Vlad asking the Clipse to speak on Rick Ross.

As an interviewer, Vlad chases the most morbid sort of gossip. He has a history of such interviews where rappers speak on alleged gun violence. In December, Vlad got Soulja Boy to spend six minutes recounting the scene — timeline, assailants, and witnesses — from a 2008 burglary at his home recording studio in Atlanta. The interview spawned countless rap blog headlines and a video meme format that Lil Yachty and Joe Budden, among many others, co-opted to parody Soulja Boy’s sensational account. Earlier in 2016, Vlad got Atlanta rapper No Plug to suggest that he may have fired the shot that killed Bankroll Fresh in March. (In their respective circumstances, Soulja Boy and No Plug both claimed self-defense.)

In BBC’s Sherlock, the titular detective and his partner, John Watson, solicit cases by inviting potential clients into their home to explain their desperate situations with utmost candor and in gruesome detail. VladTV interviews are all pretty much like that, and so DJ Vlad is — dare I say it — the closest thing hip-hop has, or will ever have, to Sherlock Holmes. Except for the fact that it takes Sherlock about 90 minutes to solve mysteries that Vlad might solve in anywhere between three and eight minutes on YouTube. He is, for better and worse, a more rigorous questioner than many of his blog-era peers. He asks the annoying, salacious questions that the rest of us are too shook or too good to ask.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that a portion of an interview DJ Vlad conducted with Taxstone appeared in a criminal indictment against Taxstone. Those lines have been removed.