A Q&A with Our State’s Resident Playlist Maker: Mark Kemp
Each month, our senior editor, a former music editor of Rolling Stone, curates one-of-a-kind Spotify playlists featuring North Carolina songs and musicians. We sat down with him to find out more about his love of music.
OS: You have quite the background in music! Where does your passion for it come from?
MK: When I was a kid, my first favorite band was The Jackson Five — they were huge at the time. From there, I began discovering magazines that wrote about music. When I was really little, I would read all the little teenybopper magazines to find out what Michael Jackson and those folks were doing. And then I discovered Rolling Stone from a cousin when I was probably about 12, and it was just a window into a world that I didn’t know existed. It was fairly new at the time, still very much an underground sort of magazine — and I loved it. And then I discovered a couple of writers for Rolling Stone: Hunter S. Thompson and Lester Bangs. And I just realized that that was what I wanted to do. I either wanted to be a rock star, or I wanted to work at Rolling Stone. After college, I started working at a little magazine in Los Angeles called Option. When their editor stepped down, the publisher asked if I’d be interested in editing the magazine, and that was how I got started. Option covered alternative music and hip hop — stuff that was very underground at the time. All of this coincided with Nirvana’s rise, and we ended up doing one of the earliest cover stories on them. After that, Rolling Stone took note, and when their senior music editor stepped down, they called me, and I went to my dream job!
OS: When did your obsession with creating playlists begin?
MK: Well, my first playlists were made on these little reel-to-reel tape recorders, not cassettes. When I was really young and I was still listening to The Jackson Five, I had a detachable microphone, and I would stick the microphone up to the speakers of my eight-track tape player to record them. I’d record The Fifth Dimension, Aretha Franklin. Then I got a cassette player and cassette culture kind of started. A few years later I had a whole lot of albums and I started making mixtapes for my friends. I was sort of the music kid in my neighborhood — I was the guy who you’d go to find out about new music. I felt like I was kind of always the arbiter of cool, ha! When I got to New York City, I had a little Sony Walkman, so I’d make mix tapes of hip hop and stuff to play when I was in the subway. I’ve just always loved it.
OS: Can you walk us through the creative process of putting together an Our State playlist?
MK: I think that a good example of this would be how I put together our February playlist, which is all about Black music in North Carolina, and is probably my favorite playlist of 2022! For that one, I began with a concept: I opened the playlist with Nina Simone’s “Young, Gifted and Black,” because I think that’s the main message that I want this playlist to convey — there have always been so many young, gifted, and Black people creating music in North Carolina. That song carries historical significance, too; Nina Simone is such an icon of North Carolina. I then followed that up with a song by Rissi Palmer, a younger artist and mother, who sings “Little Black Girl, Little Black Boy” from the perspective of a concerned parent who is raising young, gifted, and Black children. From there, I picked a song by this artist from Charlotte named Greg Cox, who’s an R&B singer — “Bigger Dreams.” So, in a way, I set the scene with the first few songs: big dreams that span multiple generations. From there, I pulled back the lens, just like with any great story, to take the listener through a historical journey by genre, starting with Blind Boy Fuller’s “My Brown Skin Sugar Plum.” A few songs later I bring in Elizabeth Cotten, who was a pioneering acoustic guitar player — she played a kind of finger picking that was hugely influential on all subsequent people who use fingerpicking in acoustic folk music. And from there, I went into the folk music, which includes bands like The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Kamara Thomas, and more. Then I moved into R&B with Calvin Richardson … and some newer R&B with Fantasia, and some funk with Betty Davis. I also couldn’t make this playlist without including jazz! I go from funk to jazz with Max Roach, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, and then way, way back to some of the doo-wop stuff. There are many more artists on the playlist, but ultimately, I take a meandering trail through the history of Black music in North Carolina. I’m really trying to tell stories with each playlist — and that’s what Our State does, you know? We tell stories. I want to carry that on through each playlist I create.
OS: How did you curate the songs for January’s North Carolina Music Primer playlist? Was it hard to pick just 10 songs every North Carolinian should know?
MK: Well, this was one where I had to think, What do people know? What are people familiar with? What do people sing along with? For instance, I couldn’t make a playlist like this without “Carolina In My Mind.” Everybody knows and loves it. Another one, “Carolina In The Morning,” is a really old song that Bing Crosby and many other old school singers have covered, and my dad used to sing it when I was a kid. I also had to include “Freight Train” by Elizabeth Cotten — a song that she wrote when she was in her early teens and sitting on her front porch in Carrboro, watching the trains go by. Like I said before, she invented this guitar style that every acoustic guitar player knows — they try to learn “Freight Train” like rockers try to learn “Stairway to Heaven.” Bluegrass is another big part of the state’s music scene — Doc Watson’s “Deep River Blues” and Flatt and Scruggs’s “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” are essentials. Then I thought of beach music, and everybody that knows beach music knows “Carolina Girls.” Another song that’s played so often at this point that everybody knows it is “Wagon Wheel.” When you hear those familiar opening chords, it’s kind of comforting. Of course, I had to include songs by The Carolina Chocolate Drops and The Avett Brothers, too — they’re really essential artists. Finally, I wanted a good R&B song on there, so I picked Anthony Hamilton’s song “Comin’ From Where I’m From” — which, for him, is Charlotte! When making the playlist, I did my best not to just think about popularity, but also a range of genres and time periods. I want everyone to enjoy something from the playlist.
OS: What sets North Carolina’s musical landscape apart from other places?
MK: Well, North Carolina is kind of like the home of Piedmont blues, and Piedmont blues is a very specific sound. It’s rhythmically different from the Delta blues that you might normally think of. When you think of Delta blues, you think of Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters. The Piedmont blues is more folk- and acoustic-based — like the music from Elizabeth Cotten. Also, a lot of the major bluegrass musicians, like Earl Scruggs, came from here. So when you have the Piedmont blues and bluegrass, that sets the tone for a lot of music that comes out of North Carolina. There are lots of different kinds of Southern music, and North Carolina’s tone is different in that it has a very good-natured, laid-back, and friendly sound. It’s not as dark — there’s a sense of lightness that always lingers within much of the music that’s made here.
OS: In your opinion, what sound defines our state’s music?
MK: I would say the sound of finger-picked acoustic guitar. Just like what I was saying about Elizabeth Cotten, you know, she kind of set that tone and pioneered that sound. And you can hear it everywhere. That tone carries on through James Taylor’s songs, all the way to some of the indie-pop bands in Asheville, now. That classic, soothing sound says “North Carolina” to me.
OS: What’s your favorite part about creating Our State playlists?
MK: It’s about the discovery and process as much as it is about the finished product. There’s a common thread that runs all the way through each playlist, and it’s fun to play off of that and find artists and songs from North Carolina that fit into such specific themes. When you create a playlist or mixtape, in many ways, you get to be the artist. You have the opportunity to create something where the songs flow together well, and it’s something that you — and others — want to listen to, which is beautiful.
To commemorate our 90th anniversary, we’ve compiled a time line that highlights the stories, contributors, and themes that have shaped this magazine — and your view of the Old North State — using nine decades of our own words.