Photo by Edwina Hay, courtesy of BRIC (Photo illustration by Johansen Peralta)
Jul 17, 2023
‘Spreading joy through music’: A peek inside NPR’s Tiny Desk
NPR's Bobby Carter joins us for a live podcast interview at Celebrate Brooklyn! to discuss Tiny Desk, their contest and that Juvenile set
About two weeks ago, the internet lit up with a super viral 30-minute hip hop performance that exuded joy and heat and pure energy and a little bit of bawdiness. The artist, a throwback to the late ’90s and early 2000s Cash Money Records hip hop heyday, was New Orleans rapper Juvenile. His insane, bonkers “Tiny Desk Concert” has racked up more than 3.5 million views in 13 days.
For the unfamiliar (and really, if you’re unfamiliar, do yourself a favor and get familiar) NPR Music’s Tiny Desk is an online video series of live concerts hosted at NPR’s Washington, D.C., offices. Launched by “All Songs Considered” host Bob Boilen in 2008, today Tiny Desk is the domain of NPR Music’s senior producer Bobby Carter. If you’ve seen the viral Anderson .Paak or Usher or Mac Miller Tiny Desk shows, you have Bobby to thank for those.
Earlier this month, the BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn Concert! series hosted an evening of Tiny Desk alums Ibrahim Maalouf and Hermanos Gutiérrez. The opener was Little Moon, this year’s winner of the NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest, an annual competition that shines a light on undiscovered acts, giving them a tremendous new platform. Previous contest winners you may have heard of include Tank and the Bangas and Fantastic Negrito.
Ahead of The Little Moon show, I sat down with NPR Music’s Bobby Carter as part of the new “In The Tent” interview series Brooklyn Magazine is doing in partnership with BRIC. We talked about the Tiny Desk series and the contest live at the Prospect Park Lena Horne Bandshell. We discussed what makes a good Tiny Desk show, who his dream performer would be, and why the Tiny Desk contest is so important. We also talked about that bombastic Juvenile set, which aired just the day before, and how it came to be. That conversation is transcribed below and can be heard on “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast,” wherever you get your podcasts.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity. You can listen to it in its entirety in the player above or wherever you get your podcasts.
We all have our favorite Tiny Desk shows. Bobby is responsible for some of the more incredible Tiny Desk shows that I’ve seen. We’re talking about Usher, Gucci Mane, Mac Miller, Noname, Anderson .Paak, and H.E.R. I think the first time I ever heard of .Paak was in 2016 from your Tiny Desk show. That one stopped me in my tracks. Talk about, for you, the highlights. What are the standouts for you?
Well, that was a big standout only because when Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals came, they had no expectations. They were hungover, they were excited, but not excited, just like, “Let’s get this over with.” And it ended up being their biggest live performance video out. And another thing I’m excited about is we dropped Juvenile’s Tiny Desk last night.
Juvenile’s was live. Dude, that was so good.
And that’s had a million views already. And that was one of the most joyous, almost out-of-control experiences ever at the Tiny Desk. It’s amazing.
So what is the thinking behind that? Because Juvenile is not exactly 2023, on the charts. How did that come up?
It happened because he did not know what Tiny Desk was. Someone on Twitter reached out and asked, “Hey, you should do Tiny Desk.” And his response was, and I quote, “What the F is Tiny Desk? And no.”
And then he comes on and kills it?
And then Twitter and Black Twitter hit him with a barrage of, “No, you should do it because of this, this, this.” And within hours it went viral and I got a DM and it happened.
That’s how you book shows, through DMs?
Rarely. No. We usually do it through a publicist or a manager, but this one people were at-ing me and DMing me. And he finally DM’d me, said, “So I hear you’re the guy.” I said, “Maybe. If you want to do it.” Yeah. So it went down.
Well, let’s talk about what’s happening tonight. We have two Tiny Desk alums. Ibrahim Maalouf, we have Hermanos Gutiérrez. And the 2023 Tiny Desk Contest winner, Little Moon.
Talk about the contest. This is something that you’re particularly interested in, invested in. This is the ninth year.
It’s the ninth year. It’s an opportunity for unsigned acts to win an opportunity to play the real Tiny Desk and start their career. This is a launch for an artist that people haven’t heard of to launch a new career. And it’s happened with bands like Tank and the Bangas, Fantastic Negrito. We’ve had people who haven’t won the Tiny Desk actually come and play a Tiny Desk and take off. We’re celebrating Little Moon tonight because they’re on their way as well.
What’s interesting about Little Moon is that this is not the first year they submitted, right?
Is that a common phenomenon?
Yes. I always encourage bands to keep going because some of these bands never know how close they are to actually winning. I mean, we get in a room and we hash it out for hours sometimes, because we usually land on some really good stuff that ends up at the top of our pile. So yeah, four times. And other winners have taken three or four times, so we’re always watching. We’re looking for the best video. So it may not happen the first time, but Little Moon is a prime example. So keep going.
What is your advice to aspiring Tiny Desk submitters? We have musicians in the crowd, people who want to be featured. How stiff is the competition, and what advice do you have?
It’s stiff. We get thousands of entries, thousands. We watch them all. But my advice is for the band to watch the winners. Watch our past winners and pull that special thing from what you saw from that video. This is an opportunity. It’s not a one-shot thing. You can continue to go until you get that feeling. We’re not necessarily looking for a perfect performance, we’re looking for emotion. We’re looking to feel something, whatever that emotion is, that’s what we’re trying to get.
And people who haven’t won but have done well in the contest have also gone on to do well. Can you shout out some of the people who are maybe not Tiny Desk Contest winners that you really liked?
I can think of a couple. Hobo Johnson had a really great video that ended up… He got millions of views. They didn’t win, but they stirred up a lot of conversation with their performance and they went on to do really, really well. This past year we had another band, another woman who’s entered five times and we finally brought her. She was planning to enter for the sixth time this year. Her name is Selina Moon, and we invited her to the desk this year and her performance is doing really well.
What do you want people to know about Little Moon? What popped for you with these guys?
You know what? I don’t have to let people know anything. It’s going to hit you in the chest. That voice and the way that band… It’s just so special. When we were in the room to decide the winner, when we watched their video, we played it in full. And once the video ended, there was 10 seconds of complete silence in the room. We were all looking at each other like, “This is kind of unanimous.” You can’t explain it. It’s just a feeling that you’re going to get once you hear this thing.
You know it when you see it. How many submissions do you get on an average year?
This year was thousands.
Thousands. And you watch every single one?
No, we watch a lot. We have a team who help us out. We have stages, but Bob and I, we watch a lot of them.
So you mentioned Bob. Bob Boilen is the creator, founder of Tiny Desk. Talk about your relationship with Bob. You started as his intern?
Yeah. I started my career at NPR 23 years ago. When I walked in the building, I met Bob Boilen, the first person I met. Because I interned for him when he was launching his podcast, “All Songs Considered,” which wasn’t a thing yet. In the year 2000, podcasts, we didn’t really know what they were. But he was launching that podcast, and my job was to work on those first couple shows.
You’ve been getting NPR Music digitally engaged. You’ve been getting them online and then through the Tiny Desk thing. What are some highlights on that road for you?
The thing I love most is that at the end of the day, we work at NPR. It’s a news organization, and the news isn’t great lately. So I think that our little nook in the building is joy. It’s just joy. That’s what we’re trying to do. I think it’s a service. Sometimes we just comb through the comments just to get that feeling that we’re really making people really, really happy with these performances. As long as we remember that, that’s the thing I get the most out of this. We’re spreading joy with music.
Is there a white whale for you? The one artist or act that you are just dying to get that you haven’t gotten yet?
I have a few, but her name is Sade. Yeah, that’s the one.
Have you reached out? Has that gone anywhere?
They know about us, and obviously I know about her. She’s not doing anything right now, but just know once you hear Sade music, I’ll be back on the hunt.
The thing about Tiny Desk that I didn’t know is that it’s not actually called that because it’s in NPRs offices. It’s because it was the name of…
Was the name Bob Boilen’s band back in the day. Tiny Desk Unit.
In ’79, maybe? Something like that.
Yeah. If you watch the videos, they’ve released some projects and the vinyl is in one of the shows that says Tiny Desk Unit.
It’s not because there’s a desk in the video. We can open up to questions if anyone has any questions for Bobby. Surprise moments. We’ve got a question back there. [Audience member asks a question off mic.] The question was, do you take viewer submissions?
I’m always watching. I’m always watching. 100 percent. I don’t think the audience realizes how much they inform our choices when it comes to Tiny Desk. Yes.
Who belongs at the Tiny Desk? What is the magic formula?
We try not to have any blind spots. We aren’t looking for a particular thing other than a special performance, and we can get that out of any genre you can name. That’s what we try to do.
We have a question over here. [Audience member asks: “Are the auditions blind?”]
Well, it depends. So for the contest, they send us a video so it isn’t blind. My personal process, I don’t look at the videos, I just listen to the music. So for me, that helps me. That’s a great question because at the end of the day, the quality of the video doesn’t matter. The quality of the mix doesn’t even matter. It’s just the music.
Oh, you have a question? Go ahead. [Audience member asks question off mic] “What drew you to the music aspect of music journalism?” I think he said.
When I walked through the doors at NPR, there was no NPR Music. None. It predated all that. I’m old, bro. I’m obsessed with music. I’m a DJ so I’m obsessed with music. I knew when I walked in, which is why I ended up working with Bob the first time. Because at the time he was the director for “All Things Considered” and part of his job was to pull the music. So that was the one thing that I saw that I wanted to be a part of. When NPR Music came about, I slowly started in the digital media space. I was a digital media engineer, so the moment NPR Music was created, I slowly started to make my way over. To the point where I had one foot in and one foot out. And then I finally got over there eventually.
Do you consider yourself a music journalist or a music curator?
A little bit of both. I always want to make sure the story is told, so a little bit of both. I sort of walk that line.
As a DJ and a curator, do you have one jam that you keep in your back pocket and you wait for the right moment and you’re like, “I’m going to drop this, and everyone’s going to lose their minds”?
Oh man, so many. We can go… Obviously Maze, “Before I Let Go.” That’s easy. We can go BBD, “Poison.” That’s going to work. Plenty. I’ve been DJing for a long time. When the crowd is down, there’s a whole crate of undeniables.
“Crate of undeniables,” which is what Tiny Desk is. I think we’re running low on time. Anything you want to say?
This is amazing. Like I said, I’m a hip hop head, so Brooklyn is a place for a long time. It feels like a planet you’ll never get to.
Where’re you from?
I’m from St. Louis, Missouri. And then I went to school in small Jackson, Mississippi. Listening to hip hop all my life. Some of my favorite MCs are right from here, and the way they talk about it feels like I would never get there. So whenever I come to Brooklyn, it’s always special.
Do you have some tourist spots that you have to hit up or landmarks? Either hip hop or music or otherwise?
I don’t have any particular landmarks because I don’t know the place that well, but I just come in. I people watch. There’s just so many different characters out here.
Well, you’ve got to come back to Celebrate Brooklyn! because Digable Planets are playing for the Hip Hop 50th in August.
Whoa. Whoa. One of my favorites. “Blowout Comb” is a classic!
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