Dissecting Hip-Hop Masterpieces: An Interview With Cole Cuchna, Founder Of Dissect Podcast
Cole Cuchna’s passion project, Dissect, blew up last year with Bitcoin-like growth. We take you on a journey with the classically-trained, hip-hop aficionado, who’s creating a burgeoning cultural phenomenon.
The golden age of binging has given us hits like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black and Serial, the true-crime podcast that took over 90 million earbuds in 2014 and ignited a podcasting frenzy.
Four years later, companies like Netflix, Amazon, and Spotify are clamoring for your binge. Netflix plans to pour $8 billion dollars into original content this year, and the company’s CEO says it’s still not enough.
With a seemingly infinite supply of material, Cole Cuchna, a 34-year-old podcaster in Sacramento, has an invitation: stop scrolling and start paying attention to the artistic genius around you.
“I found myself just swiping on my phone every night an hour goes by and I’m like, what the fuck am I doing? What did I just do? I just wasted a lot of time.”
All that time swiping, and none of it actually engaging with or learning from the content he consumed. He wanted to go deep, and decided to make it a project to force himself to do it.
That project is Dissect, a serialized music analysis that takes you on a sonic adventure through some of hip-hop’s most significant albums. For two years, Cuchna would wake early to spend time on the podcast before work. 9 or 10 hours later, he’d come home, spend time with his wife and young daughter, then pick back up once they went to bed.
Cuchna’s pick for season one: Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, a rare album that garnered critical, commercial, and academic praise. It picked up 11 Grammy nominations in 2016, second only to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Hip-hop scholar Natalie Graham wrote that Lamar “references black filmic, musical, and pop culture voices to create new, kaleidoscopic narratives of black urban possibility.”
From August 2016 through February 2017, Cuchna produced 11 hours examining To Pimp a Butterfly. Cuchna compares it to a Stanley Kubrick film. Lamar creates an expansive, intriguing, and carefully composed work of art that explores a multitude of themes: fame, wealth, influence, temptation, slavery, institutional racism, capitalism, and God, and more. For most of the first season, Cuchna’s worldwide audience could fit in a modest theater. But his listeners were passionate and engaged. At season’s end, curators at Apple discovered Dissect and named it one of the year’s best podcasts. Commercial traction via downloads and streams hadn’t hit, but Cuchna knew he had something special. “I had a premonition of that with season one,” he said. “The people that were into it were really enthusiastic about it. I knew that the potential of that meant that all I had to do was find those type of people.” Like his burgeoning audience, Cuchna is enthusiastic about music, and has been his entire life. His earliest memories are of his dad, blasting the Beatles in the garage.
“My dad loved music and he was really into stereo equipment. He listened to his music really loud. Music was definitely in the house. I can’t remember my life without music as the focus.”
Cuchna has been creating, consuming, and contemplating music his whole life. Those garage sessions prompted him to pick up a guitar at 13. It was his main obsession for six years, until the piano took over the top spot.
Like a lot of millennials, Cuchna discovered hip-hop early. His first CD was an MC Hammer album in the early 1990s. And he joined BMG and Columbia House to take advantage of wild club promotions of a bygone era, like buy one, get 7 free. From MC Hammer, Cuchna’s palette expanded into grunge and indie rock, including Radiohead. At the same time, Cuchna started playing in bands, booking gigs, and dreaming of making a living as an artist. He played in a small Sacramento-area group called Red Top Road from 2001-2004, then after a short hiatus he created The New Humans in 2007. The band received some local attention, including a write up in Sacramento’s News & Review. The article said the band featured “elegant floating piano themes” and delivered “electro-satisfaction” in bars and galleries around California’s capital city.
“I couldn’t see a future there and I really loved music,” he said. “More than anything, I loved thinking about music. So for me, the next logical step in my progression as a musician and artist and composer was to formalize my education.”
Cuchna’s late registration to college — he was 26 when he started — landed him at Cal State Sacramento to study Music Theory and Composition. For his five years in college, Cuchna shut off the world of hip-hop, rock, and pop to devote himself to classical music with monastic discipline. In 2015, armed with a degree, Cuchna dove full-time into his work as the Director of Education at Temple Coffee, a Sacramento-area coffee company with a handful of shops. He trained retail employees, wholesale clients, and taught coffee classes for amateur coffee connoisseurs, working his way to Creative Director in 2016. But coffee was a day job: Cuchna’s passion for music still burned, even though he was without a band or other musical outlet.
As Cuchna settled into his post-college life, he dove back into hip-hop, catching up on the albums and artists he had missed during school. Among those albums: Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. With both albums, Cuchna was blown away.
“When I rediscovered hip-hop, I was like, ‘holy shit, there are some really cool things happening. Just those two alone, I thought, ‘these guys are leading something really important.’”
As these familiar musical obsessions reignited, Cuchna and his wife welcomed a daughter, Mabel, to the world. With sleeping the primary thing on her agenda, Cuchna had time to listen, and discovered rising tide of podcasts. This audio trend seemed like an ideal platform to harness his classical training and explore exactly what these hip-hop artists were saying. By the time season one wrapped, Cuchna had spent nearly 500 hours with To Pimp a Butterfly, and he had found his groove as a host and musical sherpa.
But it wasn’t until season two, a close read of West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, that Dissect started to gain traction. “Season two was in a lot of ways was the thing that broke it. Kanye’s just a magnetic character, so anything that’s around Kanye seems to get a lot of attention,” Cuchna said. It was pretty clear within a month into season two that, ‘ok, this thing has a lot of potential,’ and that’s when the snowball effect started happening.”
West remains one of the most polarizing artists in pop culture, especially now after his return to Twitter broke the internet the first week of May. West strung together a 300-plus tweetstorm filled with hippie-like calls for love; musings about philosophy, business, and fashion; album release announcements; a bevy of mood screenshots. And of course, political controversy, including a tweets praising Donald Trump and showing his signed #MAGA hat.
In typical fashion, the Hollywood gossip rags thought he’d lost his mind (again), a familiar refrain when discussing Kanye’s fly-by-the-strings-of-his-Yeezy’s approach to public discourse. Kanye tweeted that he’d “do a hundred reps of controversy for a six pack of truth,” and that might have happened during an interview with TMZ when he said slavery for 400 years “sounds like a choice…like we’re mentally imprisoned.”
West’s reps of controversy even provoked a five-thousand-word piece from National Book Award Winner Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic. Coates, one of the most acerbic and precise writers in America, called Kanye “a mouthpiece” for “the propaganda that justifies voter suppression . . . and feeds police brutality.”
Magnetic character indeed.
While Kanye bears the mad genius label in modern pop culture, Cuchna’s meticulous research puts his genius under the microscope. Take Runaway, the climactic, 9-minute central argument of the album. Cuchna breaks down the song’s samples, including Expo ’83 by the Backyard Heavies, Rick James’ Mary Jane, and Introduction to Star Time! by James Brown. He pulls out Stanley Kubrick’s influence to the introduction, a haunting, solitary piano note played 15 times, influenced by classical composer György Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata II, a track used by Kubrick in his final film, Eyes Wide Shut. And Cuchna breaks down a deception in the beat – the piano note appears to drop on the 1 and 3, strong beats that hold a composition together. But it’s not until the drums kick in that the trick becomes clear. The piano notes come on 2 and 4, the beats you’d clap along with. It’s a musical flourish that underscores Kanye ’s heartfelt confession and apology for being dishonest. Finally, Kanye utilizes a push and pull between descending notes in the bass and ascending notes in the chorus’s melody and a deliberately out of tune vocal track to augment the ambiguity of the track. As Cuchna pinpoints these subtle layers, listeners can pinpoint why Kanye’s production can pierce our hearts and bring us back to the track again and again. Cuchna illuminates details like these in each track, leaving listeners with a majestic view of these albums and the artists who created them.
By the end of Cuchna’s exploration into My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Dissect had grown more than 800%. Quartz named it the best podcast of 2017. And Cuchna had interest from a flock of podcast-centric, content-hungry media looking for the next thing. As the season came to a close, Cuchna had an announcement with serendipitous timing…
“Literally the day I’m recording this, I officially accepted an opportunity that will allow me to create Dissect full-time. I’m quitting my job tomorrow,” he said in the season’s final episode in December 2017.
Spotify is the lucky winner, picking up Dissect for season three, which dropped on Tuesday. The move is part of Spotify’s push into original material, which includes RISE, Secret Genius, Spotify Singles, and Spotlight.
At the head of the company’s revamped original programming efforts is Courtney Holt, who joined Spotify as Head of Studios and Video last fall. Holt spent nearly six years at Disney’s Maker Studios before rising to Disney’s Executive Vice President of Advanced Media Strategy in January 2017.
“We are excited to have Dissect become part of Spotify [Studios] as we continue to focus on the emerging premium audio landscape,” he said. “A burgeoning cultural phenomenon, Dissect takes its listeners on a journey through the heart and soul of artist’s creative journey. Cole Cuchna is a rare creative talent, and we look forward to seeing what he comes up with in Season three and beyond.”
The deal is a realization of Cuchna’s lifelong dream as an artist and musician: to make a living doing something he creates.
“In our first conversation, [Holt] said, ‘what really struck me was that at the end of every episode, you said you wanted to do this full time, and I want to make that happen for you.”
There’s something meta about the whole endeavor for Cuchna. He sees Kendrick and Kanye as two transformational artists who made their own dreams come true through “sacrifice, hard work, dedication, blind determination, and belief in themselves.” With Dissect as his artistic platform, Cuchna followed the trail they blazed. It’s life imitating art. And Cuchna, who bounced from local bands to music theory to coffee, drew on their examples to fight off exhaustion and self-doubt to make Dissect real. And he persisted for two years, creating episodes in the early morning and late-night hours, powered by determination and belief that the project would bear fruit.
“You border on cliche, but it happened, these things happen,” he said. “And a lot of the times when you want to do something, it’s your own self getting in your own way by thinking, ‘oh, I can’t do what Kanye does because he’s Kanye West. No, he was just like you at one point, he had talent, but he worked his ass off. Dissect was the same thing. It’s the payoff of me being willing to spend those long hours, already exhausted with work and family, and just really believing in this thing and just doing it.”
Cuchna says it’s still surreal to wake up every day and work on the podcast full-time, but it’s exactly what he wanted, and exactly what he set out to do with the project.
Season three just dropped on May 15th, a six-episode exploration of Frank Ocean’s 2012 studio debut Channel Orange and a 10-episode dissection of Ocean’s 17-track follow-up, Blonde, from 2016. Both are critically acclaimed albums that weave rich narratives across a genre-bending meld of influences, including hip-hop, psychedelic rock, funk, soul, and R&B. Cuchna continues production work on the current season, but he can peak over the horizon and dream of other projects to dissect, especially albums in different genres.
“My private dream of Dissect is to get to a point where people have bought into Dissect and me so much that it doesn’t matter who I’m dissecting, [the audience] believe[s] in the process so much and the process is interesting, that I could dissect a Beethoven symphony,” he said. “That would be another dream come true, to make that successful.”
And he hopes to dissect Radiohead’s Kid A, which might be his favorite album of all-time. “Radiohead is one, I remember when Kid A came out, it was actually a similar experience. Kid A came out, and it was just like, ‘what is this?,’” he recalled. “Especially at that time, I didn’t even know what electronic music was, and then all of a sudden they hit us with that.” As one of the first records of the internet age, Kid A threw Gen X and Millennial fans into a frenzy. The album marked a significant evolution for the guitar-centric Brit rockers, who delivered a post-rock, electronic, ambient, avant-garde record. 18 years later, the early internet hate has evaporated, leaving Kid A to sparkle.
Dissect’s continued success could lead to these and other genre-specific spin-offs, all aligned with Cuchna’s purpose and vision: to use his platform as a tribute to other artists who challenge their audiences to act, expand their worldview, and grow in empathy as they become the best they can be. It’s the challenge Cuchna takes on each day as an artist living his own dream after years of faith and persistence.
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About The Author:
Chris Jones is a writer, attorney, and entrepreneur based in Los Angeles. He began his career as a campaign reporter and weekend anchor for a CBS affiliate in Iowa, covering the 2008 Iowa Caucus and general election. He received a BA from BYU and a JD from Duke University.