By Jacob Ezra
Massachusetts-based podcast Turntable Teachers focuses on music from an educational angle, providing a refreshing, informative perspective through dynamic conversations with rising artists and industry personnel. Headed by Mike Scarfo, the podcast has grown into one of the premier voices on music coming from the Massachusetts area, as well as beyond. It is a hub for music discovery, as well as a source for balanced and thoughtful analysis and discussion surrounding interesting new releases. We were grateful to have Mike of Turntable Teachers sit down with us recently to discuss the podcast’s origins and upcoming initiatives, the importance of caring for the mental health of creatives, and more.
Jacob: How did you first become passionate about music?
Mike: This is definitely a loaded question. I have to start with my mom being such a major influence in my life from a musical standpoint; she was ALWAYS playing music. On a typical weekend in my house growing up you’d hear classic soft rock & R&B/Soul like Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, The Beatles, Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, & Coldplay to name a few. But then in the car she’d totally switch up the vibe- that’s when the harder rock & grunge such as Green Day, Collective Soul, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam flooded the speakers. All classics that I don’t think get enough shine these days as much as they should.
My own musical journey outside of that has been interesting, because in my adolescence, and still to this day, hip-hop was and has been at the focal point of my music taste. I guess for most teenage kids growing up in the 2000’s, it was inevitable to be exposed to hip-hop on some level. I’ll never forget hearing OutKast for the first time and recognizing similar sounds to that of Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, & Stevie Wonder, but the music was so much more upbeat and funky. I remember being like “WOAH! What is this?!”. At 9 years old I pretty much begged my mom to let me buy Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (the clean version was the compromise). Because I was so young, I don’t think I understood at the time that I was drawing those comparisons to what I had previously heard my mom playing, but it’s really cool to see the connection now in my adult life.
From there I went down the 2000’s hip-hop rabbit hole so to speak: Kanye West’s The College Dropout, to The Eminem Show, and then I had a massive G-Unit phase where Get Rich or Die Tryin’ was all I listened to for months on end. All in all, I thank my mom for never restricting my music exposure and allowing me to create my own taste. Being able to freely explore the sonic world so early on meant so much, and I don’t take it for granted.
Jacob: What originally inspired you to start the Turntable Teachers podcast?
Mike: This is actually a funny story: in 2017 I tried creating a blog and it was terrible, and I mean terrible. I had no idea what I was doing. At the time I was consuming so much music review content on YouTube, like Anthony Fantano and Dead End Hip-Hop, and it got to the point where I felt compelled to join in on the conversation. I even once recorded a trial review of Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN.; it never saw the light of day and is deleted somewhere in cyberspace.
For the longest time, probably since middle and high school, I’ve been the friend everyone comes to for music recommendations. Or I’d often have AUX in the car or at a party, because I had one of those old vintage iPod’s with like 10,000 songs on it. It got to a point where sometimes on a Friday night I’d spend hours searching for new music instead of being social. So deep down I knew I had a voice in this space somehow, but didn’t have any sense of direction with it. On a whim in late 2018, I met a friend of a friend at a gathering. His name was Cody, he was a music nerd like me. We hit it off, and long story short started the podcast. We were just having fun reviewing music for a while, and then it fizzled out and we went separate ways. I almost hung up the podcast altogether, and then unexpectedly landed myself into the Massachusetts music scene a few months before the pandemic and started doing interviews. The rest is history from there.
Jacob: As a school teacher and podcaster, how do you hope to connect your experience as a teacher with music and your podcast?
Mike: This is an awesome question because it’s actually beginning to connect in ways I never imagined. For context, I have been a full-time English Teacher for 6 years, and a basketball coach for 9 years. Initially I wanted to keep my podcasting world separate, despite the name. Naturally that didn’t last long when a student of mine stumbled across it, and then it spread and more students began listening. My ELA director eventually found out about it, thought it was super cool, and had the idea for me to start a podcasting and public speaking elective course at our high school. The class just got approved for the 2022-2023 school year and is called “Intro to Podcasting & Public Speaking”. I’ve been creating the curriculum for it for about 4 months now. I’m so excited to not only share my passion for podcasting, but to also provide an opportunity for students to explore potential passions in radio & podcasting, audio production, etc. The possibilities for this program to build further are endless, and I can’t wait to launch it in September.
Jacob: Which episode from the guest speaker series was your favourite to make?
Mike: Man, this is like asking a parent which one of their children is their favorite! This answer may sound like a total cop out, but every Guest Speaker episode holds a special place in my heart one way or another, because I feel like I’ve connected with so many great artists and producers and learned so much from them. I’m humbled that artists feel like our podcast is a space where they can be vulnerable, introspective, and share their stories. Some artists come on the show and don’t stay in touch, but the ones where we develop a working relationship or even a friendship afterwards are my favorites. Before we started doing video content, a few of the earlier ones that stand out to me are Washy and Zaafir’s first episodes. The organic energy is palpable when you listen to those, and those two guys have become some of my best friends in the industry.
It’s definitely a lot harder to cultivate that type of connection through an interview that’s done remotely, but it certainly happens. Since the pandemic the two that are my favorites are Jon Glass and Johan Lenox. Jon is one of the most personable and genuine people I’ve ever come across, and his production resume speaks for itself. The rapid fire segment at the end of his episode is classic! And Johan- man that’s another guy who is so down-to-earth despite his rising success. He’s got such a unique story with his orchestral background; his come-up to working with artists like Kanye West, Vic Mensa, and Big Sean while always staying humble and grounded is really inspiring to me. He has a bit of a mystique to him, but also has this dry sense of humor that makes him super relatable. Anyone reading this should absolutely check those episodes out. I’ve stayed in touch often with both of them since their episodes, and actually have a really cool project in the works with each of them for 2022.
Jacob: What inspired you to start a blog as well as a video-based podcast?
Mike: As you can tell by this interview, I love to write. With my English/Language Arts background, including a blog just seemed like an element of our brand that made sense. I’ve had a bunch of freelance writers help with the blog along the way, so that’s been really great too. Visually, I have to give credit to one of my best friends since college, our lead producer, Sam McKenzie for the video-based content. At the beginning of the pandemic he started producing video content for us and we quickly realized he has serious talent in it. He’s been one of my biggest supporters, and his ability to elevate our visuals has been an absolute game changer for us.
Check out the Turntable Teachers blog here.
Jacob: It’s really inspirational how you’ve been so vulnerable with your story of dealing with mental health. What message do you hope to share with those going through similar situations as content creators and artists?
Mike: Thank you for saying that, it means a lot. Truthfully, it’s something I’ve dealt with for a majority of my teenage and adult life, and nowadays more than ever raising awareness and having these conversations is so vitally important. This past spring and summer was particularly difficult for me: I hit a breaking point and it forced me to take a hiatus from the podcast. I was overworking myself and putting an unnecessary amount of pressure and expectations on myself. I decided I really needed to just focus on my health. Getting back to basics so to speak. Meditation, yoga, therapy, working out, healthy eating. A proper work/life balance. Things I was neglecting, but have now found such peace with, as they are now habits I’ve built into my daily routines. There is so much stimulus and many responsibilities in today’s society that make it easy to push those necessities off to the side.
I never had a real intention to come back onto the podcast and share some of my mental health story, but over the last 6-8 months, the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. I wanted people to understand the point was not about my story necessarily, but for people to connect it to their own lives. And I’m really happy that’s been the overwhelmingly positive feedback I’ve gotten from it, that it’s helping others with their own struggles. It’s that classic phrase “everyone is fighting a personal battle you know nothing about”.
There is an ugly and dark side to being a content creator, and social media in general. I hope by sharing my story it encourages people to take breaks when they need to. My advice would be enjoy your life outside of creating, don’t be so wrapped up in the endless pit that is social media. And just have fun with creating, don’t allow it consume you. Listen to what your mind and body need. I’ve found that when you slow down or take a pause from time to time is when the universe gives you the inspiration and introspection you need to be your best creative self. That’s why I feel like most people get their best ideas in the shower, or when they go for a walk. That separation can be as important as the grind itself.
Jacob: Tell us more about your partnership with Write Mind Resources, it looks like a great initiative. What are some of the resources you offer? And what is your goal with this partnership overall?
Mike: Hip-hop artist J Faith founded Write Mind, and we’ve built such a good relationship with him over the years that the partnership just seemed too perfect. He wanted to emphasize providing resources for upcoming artists to get their own creative outlet off the ground, or provide tips and tricks for artists or creatives who want to learn a new skill. As much as this is a music podcast, I also have envisioned it being an educational platform, and since I don’t have as much background in the technical aspects of music and don’t want to pretend like I do, it just seemed like the perfect fit for us to work together. We have a bunch of resources and tutorials on our blog such as basic editing skills, best DAW’s, tips for writing, and more.
I also want to shout out MA-based producer B Leafs and artist/engineer H3x, whose help with Write Mind has been vital. We have multiple podcast episodes with both of them walking through their processes with production and engineering. They can be found on our YouTube channel; these guys are so genuine and thorough with sharing and teaching. We all believe in the fact that there is no one gatekeeper of knowledge, and that knowledge is meant to be shared. We hope to continue to be involved with Write Mind and also evolve the content even further this year with the mental health component, and J Faith does an awesome job with that.
Learn more about the Write Mind Resources initiative here.
Jacob: I feel that you’re a key voice pushing Massachusetts underground music right now. Who are some of your favourite artists out of the area’s scene?
Mike: There’s so many to name. I encourage everyone to follow our “Night School New Music” playlist where we showcase new music from both the Massachusetts area, as well as indie scenes across the globe. We update it frequently.
Of course Johan Lenox as I mentioned earlier, he’s creating his own subgenre cross between contemporary hip-hop and classical music which I think is so dope. Neemz is an artist to keep an eye on, her music is incredible and she’s steadily on the rise. Van Buren Records is a hip-hop collective out of Brockton doing big things, and they have such an organic energy about them. Also from Brockton is Garrett Merk who people need to check out. I’ve been listening to him since I was in college and his music has only gotten more polished over the years. M-Dot is also an artist who is keeping old school hip-hop alive. And in terms of hip-hop, you can’t leave out the Western, MA scene. TAHA is an industrial/experimental hip-hop artist who’s creating soundscapes and aesthetics I don’t think many artists in the entire world are making right now- he’s so brilliantly talented it’s ridiculous. DK, Ish Akanour, Phoenix Rios, and the entire Papercity Studios crew are killing it.
As far as some other genres, Ripe is an awesome indie funk band. Maeko is another genre-blending artist who always puts out something interesting and creative. Sleeping Bela’s ambient psychedelic style is amazing. Justin Clancy makes such relatable pop music, and his story is inspiring. The Atherlace collective with dev soter, juliana maria, CRONIN, and The China Blue have a dope movement in the indie alternative pop scene right now; they showcase some colorfully catchy melodies. H3x, who I mentioned earlier, is an insanely talented hip-hop/pop artist and engineer. Heath240 is a budding bedroom pop artist. I’m probably leaving out so many- and that’s a testament to how many talented musicians are from here.
Jacob: What do you think the future holds for the Boston music scene? And the Massachusetts scene in general?
Mike: I’m glad you’re calling it the “Massachusetts scene”. I think a lot of people automatically just think “Boston” when they think of Massachusetts because it’s the major city in our state, but so many of our major artists aren’t specifically from Boston. Token is from Salem/Marblehead. Joyner Lucas is from Worcester. Johan Lenox is from Winchester. Millyz is from Cambridge. Bia is from Medford. There are so many amazing communities in Massachusetts and I think that’s the biggest discrepancy with how people view the music scene here. The scene is absolutely budding, I’m finding new talented artists and producers weekly. And people seem to be starting to collaborate more, rather than rivaling one another. The positivity and support of each other I think is going to amplify these voices in a way that maybe it hasn’t as a whole to this point. It feels like we’re building something, and even with live shows coming back the game has changed with new initiatives like Bars Over Bars Media giving smaller artists an opportunity to perform for free. It’s really awesome to witness.
Jacob: What do you envision for Turntable Teachers in the new year?
Mike: The Guest Speaker series will certainly continue, and we’ll still do music reviews here and there, but I think we’re trying to broaden the content we’re going to offer in 2022. I think that was what was most beneficial about my time away from Turntable Teachers- I’ve been able to evaluate what seems to be working and what we can maybe change or adapt going forward. We have some really awesome content and community based projects in the works, some things I can’t talk about yet. What I can say is my co-host Phoenix Rios and I, along with Sam, are finally going to be recording some episodes in the studio I built in my house before the pandemic, so we’re all really excited about that. I also would say be on the lookout for us to collaborate with some other brands and podcasts in 2022, and doing an event or collaborating on one is definitely in the cards. I think we’re just eager to get this chapter of the platform underway, and we are so grateful for everyone who still tunes in and supports what we are doing. It means a lot, and I’m blessed to be able to continue to do something I love and am passionate about while also helping others.