Finding 'passion' in tragedy: Alumnus Jeff Weiss's journey to an award-winning blog

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Jeff Weiss ‘03 doesn’t want to preach. The Angeleno writer and critic steers away from clichés and universal truths. He will try not to ramble — unless he is working on a post. Written rants, when regarding hip-hop or rap, baseball or basketball, literature, recreational drug use or corporate-run publications, are encouraged.

The freedom to ramble, to be his own editor and to abide by his own stylistic rules motivated Weiss to found his celebrated music site, Passion of the Weiss, in 2005. In the following decade, Weiss established himself as one of Los Angeles’ most influential writers, particularly in the entertainment sector. His blog includes interviews with artists, album reviews, staff-made mixes and criticisms. Content crosses all genres, from punk to grime to its hip-hop focus. In 2013, Passion of the Weiss won the LA Weekly Web Award for Best Music Blog — amazingly, an operation that is largely unpaid and uninterested in the coverage of popular music has garnered widespread acclaim. It’s not only a testament to Weiss’ integrity, but also to his energy.

“Every day, he’ll call me,” contributor and friend Paul Thompson said. “By the time I say ‘Hello?’ he’s already fully launched into conversation. There’s no preamble. It’s just mid-sentence.”

Weiss’ work transcends genre in both musical and literary senses. His repertoire includes columns in LA Weekly and Pitchfork, a podcast with MC Nocando of Hellfyre Club and a book about Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. He just signed on as a correspondent for The Washington Post. He’s been tracking down Beat Generation poets. He was among the first to cover Kendrick Lamar.

But the earliest stage of Weiss’ career took place during his time at Occidental as an English major and baseball player. His passion for writing took shape during his junior year in 2002, after tragedy occurred within the college’s former chapter of Alpha Tau Omega (ATO).

Pledges were returning from the fraternity’s annual Las Vegas scavenger hunt. Having been forced to stay awake through the duration of their trip, one of the sleep-deprived students driving fell asleep at the wheel. Greg Davis — a first year, starting shortstop and teammate to Weiss — was killed in the crash.

“Right that week, I started taking writing seriously,” Weiss said. “I guess it was one of those things where you’re trying to do something creative, and you just need a trigger. I was lucky. My friends were in the car. That made me realize what it was that I wanted.”

Weiss published an anecdotal piece and accompanying poem in The Occidental Weekly, addressing the tragedy and its impact on his team and himself.

“I have never been as profoundly affected by anything as I was by this,” Weiss wrote in the article.

More than a decade later, he reinforced the weight of the incident, citing it as an event that marred his college experience, regardless of the inspiration it provided.

“I had such a weird, tumultuous time at Occidental,” Weiss said. “I made a lot of great friends and met cool people, but at the same time, it taught me about light and darkness. Getting to college was the first time where I started to understand what human nature is, where people are going to go and how people change when they’re in groups.”

Later that semester, Weiss participated in a team-wide walkout in response to building tensions with the head coach and did not look back, thus bowing out of his baseball career. He turned his attention to writing, through creative writing courses at Occidental and a position at the Weekly. Weiss’ first article solidified his status as a columnist for the newspaper, and he quickly demonstrated versatility by transitioning from a tone of mourning to his own rhetorical voice. In addressing campus issues (“A party-hardly campus,” “The Weiss is right: Campus Safety needs to settle down”), Weiss frequently merged humor with biting criticism of his peers, the administration and, sardonically, himself.

An early indication of Weiss’ interest in music coverage appeared in his 2002 Weekly review of a Wu-Tang Clan performance, titled “Déjà Wu? The Clan is past its prime.” Fleetingly, the article reflected Weiss’ connection with rap and hip-hop as an LA native. Weiss mentioned his deep-seated interest in the genre, even today.

“It’s your first language when you grow up in LA,” Weiss said. “As far as I’m concerned, this is a rap city. If you look at the artists who have come out of LA in the last 15 years — look, there’s a reason ‘Straight Out of Compton’ made hundreds of millions of dollars.”

But before tapping into his love of music on a professional level, Weiss sought other forms of written work. After graduation, he took on a number of odd jobs and settled down temporarily with a position at the San Fernando Valley Business Journal. He focused his efforts on a novel about fraternity hazing and the conditions of Davis’s death.

Still, Weiss could not ignore a blog-boom taking place in 2005. Like many aspiring writers, he saw the internet as an opportune platform for discovering and discussing music. Passion of the Weiss was founded, amongst sites such as Gorilla vs. Bear and Aquarium Drunkard, as Weiss’ side project, secondary to the completion of his novel. In what he considered to be a disappointing year for hip-hop, he hoped to keep the site running until finishing and selling the book.

“I thought I was writing, like, the great American novel, and then I finished and realized it was a young adult novel,” Weiss said. “I was 24 at this point and didn’t want to sell a young adult novel, didn’t want to go on a book tour for a young adult novel, didn’t want to be a young adult writer, so I just put it in my drawer, and it’s still there.”

Meanwhile, paying publications had taken notice of his site. An editor at LA Weekly contacted Weiss about taking on a blogging position. He subsequently racked up bylines in the Los Angeles Times, the Arizona Republic and others to make ends meet.

He eventually shifted focus toward Passion of the Weiss to suit his vision: a site made for merit, not profit.

“I know what gets clicks,” Weiss said. “I know how to make money through the website, but I’m not interested in that. I would rather have it be something pure.”

Weiss built a staff, a committed readership and, in turn, gathered the respect of an industry. The site’s archive is remarkably diverse in its cross-genre coverage of various artists. Interviews with Future, Tyler, the Creator, Mac DeMarco, Run the Jewels and Father John Misty have all run on the blog. However, Weiss makes a point of highlighting undiscovered musical talents as well.

He recently heard Autumn in June, a young indie-pop producer from South Central LA. Last week, a piece on the blog by Douglas Martin praised Seattle girl group Childbirth and its smartest, most sardonic tracks including “Siri, Open Tinder” and “Since When Are You Gay.”

While working at Stones Throw Records, Haley Potiker ’13 was asked to reference the site regularly while scouting new artists.

“It’s one of those blogs that at a rap label, and as a hip-hop designated A&R person, I was told to read,” Potiker said. “And there are not very many on that list.”

Potiker stands among a group of regular writers for the site. Most staffers contribute to Passion of the Weiss in addition to other outlets. Yet they maintain that writing for Weiss is a very different experience than writing for larger, corporate publications. The small scale of his staff allows him to create a community of contributors, offer specific edits and support each writer on an individual basis. Weiss occasionally enlists all writers to collectively produce staff-wide posts and dedicates a section of the blog, titled “Side Pieces,” to writers’ work from other sites or publications.

“I think Jeff’s a better writer than pretty much every other music editor,” contributor Torii MacAdams ’13 said. “He has a better perspective than most editors, because he still freelances so often. He knows what it’s like to be on the other side. Most editors are pretty entrenched in their jobs.”

Weiss does not intrinsically identify as a journalist or a critic, but rather chiefly relies on his abilities as a writer. The decade-long expansion of Passion of the Weiss only encourages him to pursue written opportunities beyond music, and even beyond the Internet.

“I want to write things that matter, and I think music writing matters, but as a writer, you’re always trying to capture what it’s like to be a human being in the year that you’re born in the city that you’re living in,” Weiss said. “Music is a part of it, but its naïve to think that’s the only element of life that matters.”

According to Thompson, Passion of the Weiss is in a state of constant flux. The same goes for Weiss himself. Right now, he is trying to host monthly shows around LA, as he did for the blog’s tenth anniversary celebration. He hopes to get merchandise up on the site. He invented a comic book character. He wants to write scripts and non-fiction books. One day, he hopes to pull his novel about Davis, hazing and his time at Occidental out from the drawer for publication. Weiss isn’t unsatisfied, but he isn’t tired either. He’s just mid-sentence.