After a successful three-decade writing career traversing all things music, journalist Tamara Palmer now turns her attention towards her latest venture: Music Book Club. Encouraging engagement, conversation, and collaboration from members across the globe, Music Book Club is an exciting addition to the landscape of music media. Ahead of the first instalment on 28 January, (Dan Charnas talking about Dilla Time), Abigail Tate spoke to Palmer and gained insight into her journey as a writer, inspirations and process behind Music Book Club.
Where did your journey in the music industry begin and how has it since developed to lead you to the point of creating the Music Book Club?
My professional life in music began in high school with an internship at a terrestrial radio station in San Francisco called Live 105, which recently returned to the airwaves after a two-year absence. The format was originally billed as “modern rock” in the nineties (and, later, alternative rock), but the nightly mix show DJ and music director Steve Masters mixed Belgian new beat, early Detroit techno and English industrial anthems at night that made me more curious than all the music I loved hearing during the day. Opening his mail and recording his mixes (on cassette) made me want to figure out how to get free promos like he did and how to spin at parties.
I moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA and basically majored in raves. I got another internship through the university’s internship office, this time for an electronic music and hip-hop magazine called URB. After a brief post-university stint working for the German techno label Harthouse/Eye Q, I served as an editor at URB for several years while simultaneously beginning to DJ professionally. Then I came back to San Francisco, wrote a book about Southern rap and added food, news and reality television to my writing beats.
In 2019, I started publishing a small crowdfunded food zine called California Eating; it took a pandemic nap and re-emerged with a mini toast cookbook for the 2022 SF Zine Fest. A comeback issue starring Danny Trejo (who was also my cover star for Issue #3) and subsequent guide books are in my self-publishing plans for 2024.
In the fall of 2023, I got offered a really exploitative book deal to write about Bay Area rap, which I’ve been spinning and writing about for three decades. I turned it down and decided that I am going to publish it myself with the help of crowdfunding. Then, as I started thinking about forming a book club, I realised I could tie it into this effort and build a community and audience for that and other ideas I’d like to publish through Music Book Club. I’ve never had a project come together so beautifully and organically. It’s only been open to the public for under two weeks, and I already am certain that it is going to be a lot of fun.
How did you go about selecting the books you wanted to foreground in the Music Book Club?
The initial Music Book Club Picks collectively represent a broad range of styles, tastes, stories and people. My goal is to find compelling titles for readers with open minds who want to learn about scenes and sounds that they may not have experienced. In the near future, we will have members vote to select titles they’d like to discuss as well.
The conversation begins with Dan Charnas and Dilla Time – can you tell us a bit more about what we can expect?
Dan needed a textbook for his J Dilla classes at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at NYU. There wasn’t one available, so he wrote his own, and Dilla Time was four years in the making, with over 200 interviews conducted. I think people will get a real picture of the work it takes to craft a book of this magnitude. Dan and I are friends, so I would expect that there will be a lot of laughter as well. It should be a really good time. I made a DJ mix in honor of the occasion, too!
You also include Shawn Reynaldo’s First Floor Volume 1: Reflections on Electronic Music Culture, what were your thoughts on this text?
I’ve long been a fan of Shawn’s work — I live in San Francisco, where he used to reside, write and throw amazing parties — and I understand his international yet Bay Area perspective as well as his generational one. The First Floor book and newsletter feels like home to me in that the various discussions and debates he touches on are ones that I’ve been surrounded by for my entire adult life.
Music Book Club already has a lot of music journalists and authors as members, and I suspect that people will be inspired to hear Shawn talk about how he built his newsletter and parlayed it into the book. That’s going to be relatable to people beyond the electronic music discourse. I’m very much looking forward to this conversation!
How important has collaboration been as a writer and in overseeing your career endeavours?
I wouldn’t be anywhere in my career without the collaboration and help of friends and colleagues who have helped me find regular work and grow artistically. My longtime friend Carly Eiseman has joined Music Book Club as a producing partner. She has hired me to work on various editorial projects for different companies over the years, but this is the first time that we are creating something that we own. It’s already apparent to me that this collaboration has more business and creative promise than anything I’ve done on my own to date.
Why is it important for you to establish a personal haven dedicated to exploring the culture of electronic music?
I haven’t seen any book clubs of this nature, so I want it to serve a broad spectrum of musical interests. I personally enjoy a wide range of sounds, but electronic music is especially important to me as a professional DJ. I began my writing career as an electronic music specialist and have a 30-year archive of amazing interviews with legendary DJs, producers and artists, some of whom are no longer with us. We need more spaces to discuss, preserve and enjoy this history.
Part of the purpose of Music Book Club is to serve as a support group and incubator for my future self-published music books. I’m starting with a book about Bay Area rap after turning down a lowball offer to write it for a major publisher. I’d love to write a sequel to my first published book, the first on the market on the topic of Southern rap, for its 20th anniversary in 2025. But I am also interested to see how I can channel highlights from my electronic music vaults into insightful publications. In the meantime, I am going to self-publish a zine of rave and club flyers as well as the first annual Music Book Club zine.
With a virtual platform, there’s potential for a global audience. How do you plan to capitalise on this and foster a sense of community universally?
It’s really exciting that Music Book Club already has members from around the world. I hope that we continue to grow internationally. We’ve scheduled our Zoom author conversations during early afternoons here in California so that they aren’t too inconvenient for participants in other time zones to attend. We will archive the event recordings on our media partner 48 Hills, so people can still check them out from anywhere on demand.
There are paid membership tiers that some participants select to support the effort financially, but we also encourage free subscribers and for readers to use their library cards. I hope that encourages a global audience. We are also starting to get interest from notable music-maker/book authors from different countries; I can’t name those names right now, but all our events are high quality and I know these will excite people around the world once confirmed.
I hope that we will continue to attract a global audience by featuring international authors and books as well as a wide range of music in my DJ mixes and Carly Eiseman’s 1 Album A Day Art playlists; the latter is her long-running listening project that’s going to make a new home at Music Book Club.
What is exciting you most about the music industry going into 2024?
In terms of the mainstream music industry, I am very excited to see the continued breakthrough international success of artists such as Burna Boy and Tems from Nigeria and Black Coffee and Tyla from South Africa. I am appreciative that the last few years gave us a wider opportunity to watch DJs from across the globe spinning on our phones and laptops.
I am looking forward to reading many wonderful new books about electronic music that will be released this year. And I am excited that I will get to continue to personally DJ and cover music festivals after recently turning 50! On another note, I’m still excited by the current interest in drum & bass – my forever motto is “Women Respond to Bass!”