Why Slow Burn Decided to Investigate the Tupac-Biggie Story

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Slow Burn, Slate’s excellent documentary podcast series, is radically switching gears for its third season, leaving behind the world of presidential scandals to focus on one of hip-hop’s biggest tragedies: the murders of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. The upcoming season will also feature a brand-new host at the heart of the production: former ESPN senior writer Joel Anderson, who replaces Leon Neyfakh.

Neyfakh left Slate in November to form his own production company not long after the podcast wrapped up its highly successful second season about the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and went on to garner critical acclaim, as well as millions of downloads. (Digiday recently reported that Slow Burn brought in 15 million downloads last year — a stunning number for a seven-part season.) His first project, the Slow Burn–like political documentary series Fiasco, is set to drop on Luminary later this year.

By orienting the upcoming season around a new host and a completely new subject area, Slow Burn is laying the foundation for an expanded definition of what the production can be. Vulture spoke to Gabriel Roth, Slate’s editorial director of audio, on Wednesday about Slow Burn’s evolving definition, the choice to cover Biggie-Tupac, and what the show suggests about collective cultural memory.

This third season, which focuses on Biggie and Tupac, feels like a big shift for Slow Burn, which I had thought to be a political documentary show up until this point. How would you define Slow Burn today?
So, Slow Burn is our narrative series about the biggest events in recent American history — “recent” being, let’s say, from the second half of the 20th century to the present. It started as “Hey, let’s make a podcast about Watergate,” and when we wanted to follow it up, the Clinton-Lewinsky story felt like the obvious next choice. But even when we chose that second topic, I don’t think we had intended to restrict the series to only cover presidential scandals.

What was the decision-making process after the second season ended?
We knew we wanted to keep making the show. As the Clinton-Lewinsky season ended, we talked about several possible stories that we could pursue, and we had discussed some ideas with Leon before he left to launch Fiasco. Some of those ideas were still very much in the political vein. But we always thought that it could be interesting to look at worlds outside of politics. Culture and entertainment, in particular, was one area we thought we could do something in.

One of Slow Burn’s main ideas is the premise that there are stories everybody knows the basic outlines of — say, the story that Nixon did some dirty tricks but was forced to resign — but that most people would still be surprised if you took them through the story in a way that captures what it felt like to live through that moment in time. That’s as true of culture stories as much as it’s true of big political stories.

For this upcoming season, which came first: the story or the reporter, Joel D. Anderson?
It’s a bit of both. We had talked to several different people about hosting the third season, and we were internally going over a bunch of different stories we could pursue. When we started talking to Joel, it was at a point where we were becoming increasingly interested about [doing] a Biggie and Tupac story, and so when we began discussing it with him, it was very clear that we had found a really good match of host and story. That match excited us instantly.

What drew you to Joel’s work?
Whether he’s writing about sports or politics, Joel has often approached stories that other people were already chasing and that were already on the forefront of people’s minds. But he’s always been able to do it in a way that genuinely avoids just repeating the same things everybody else is doing. That style is great for shedding new light on things that may feel like familiar terrain — and of course, when you’re thinking about a story like Biggie and Tupac, or about the first two seasons we did with Leon, that’s the thing you really want from the host.

The Tupac and Biggie story looms large for a lot of people, and one of the main responses I’ve heard since your team announced that it was doing this story was a broad sense of like, “What’s left?”
I don’t want to dig too deeply into that because, you know, that’s the work we’re going to be doing this year. I mean, if I knew that answer right now, then I’d have some episodes to play for you. [Laughs.]

However, I will say that, as with the political seasons, there’s an audience out there who are very familiar with the Biggie-Tupac story in a granular, beat-by-beat sort of way. But there’s also an audience who are only broadly familiar — that includes both people who aren’t particularly fans of hip-hop and people who were maybe too young to be following the story at the time. You know, the kinds of people who only knew the story as lore passed down generationally.

Again, our goal with Slow Burn is to tell the story in a way that’s eye-opening for that second set of audiences — the people who don’t quite know the material — but in a way that will be a satisfying and thoughtful exploration of the questions raised by the story for the people who already know all about it.

Do you feel like any recent story can passed through the Slow Burn filter, or do you think only certain kinds of stories can?
That’s an interesting question. There are some days that I think, yes, almost all stories can pass through, at least in terms of being interesting or surprising — though I think it’s probably true as long as it’s not so recent that we still haven’t gotten enough distance from it yet. Certainly, if it’s a big enough story, you could probably find enough interesting material.

But there are other considerations as well. Does the tone feel right for the approach we want to take? Would it be fun to explore that story? Would there be enough connections to the present day that makes it feel immediately urgent and relevant and not just like a kind of diversion?

What has making Slow Burn taught you about collective cultural memory?
Ahh … that’s a big one. Let’s think here.

It was very interesting, in the first two seasons, to see a process of generational forgetting being played out. So, the premise of the very first episode of the first season was about Martha Mitchell, the wife of Nixon’s attorney general, and it was like, “Here’s this incredibly famous woman and something very dramatic happened to her that was widely reported at the time and that everyone who was following the news at that moment would have immediately known about.”

But when Leon read about her, he had never heard that story before. And then you had people like Jacob Weisberg, who was the editor-in-chief of the Slate Group at the time and who is about a decade older than us, saying to Leon, “Wait, really? You haven’t heard of Martha Mitchell? Really?” I think all of that is just a function of whether you’re reading the papers at the time, or whether you were reading the papers in a time frame where that would just become something you would know about.

Likewise, with the Clinton-Lewinsky story, where you’re shifting things 20-some years into the future, there were just some things that I remember from reading the papers at the time that many people in a younger generation just don’t. As it turns out, that’s just how history works. Does that answer your question?

Absolutely. But I guess I’m interested in that question because of the meme that I’ve seen popping up from time to time where people say, like, “I can’t wait to hear Slow Burn season 34 when they cover the Trump presidency.” It makes me think about how we’ll probably forget a lot about this present moment, which itself comes on top of the fact that we might not be experiencing the present moment holistically in the first place. It makes me wonder if collective cultural memory is just something that’s always been artificial or consistently unreliable, or whether it’s something that’s being uniquely ripped apart in this moment.
I hadn’t made that comparison to the present quite before, but I guess the way I’d think about it is: Whatever the standard narrative of a major event that’s happening at any given point in time — whether it’s Watergate, or Clinton-Lewinsky, or Biggie-Tupac — those standard narratives are radically incomplete and probably wildly inaccurate in various ways.

But they exist as a sort of canonical version that most people come to know and believe, and that if you want to challenge them, then you’re in this position of arguing with the consensus. Nowadays, however, even the idea of having that standard consensus narrative comes under threat.

How flexible is the Slow Burn franchise? My personal hope is that the show will tackle sports or technology at some point.
Well, I can say, if it hadn’t been for Ezra Edelman’s magnificent documentary, the O.J. Simpson story would have been perfect for us. So, yeah, sports is absolutely something we would do.

Slow Burn isn’t the only podcast announcement that Slate made this week. You just launched Man Up, a new series about masculinity by Aymann Ismail. Could you tell me about that?
Sure. Aymann Ismail began as a video producer for Slate, and he wound up making this terrific video series called Who’s Afraid of Aymann Ismail?, which is about his existence as a Muslim in America in a time when it’s difficult to be Muslim in America. It’s about the way in which people respond to him as a Muslim, and it’s set up as a series of encounters both within the Muslim community and with people who are hostile to Muslims.

We realized, in watching Aymann and the rest of his team making that video series, that he can be so disarming in conversations with people that he can really bring out things that you don’t usually see captured on-camera or behind a microphone. So our thinking when we decided to build a podcast around him was: What if we were to focus his attention on masculinity? What if he were to engage in these conversations and provocations with various men from different parts of American culture who are thinking and exploring and trying to understand some of the strange ideas that our culture has about masculinity?

It felt like a show that didn’t exist quite yet.

What comes next for Slate Podcasts?
So, Man Up is structured as a semi-scripted interview show that’s built around natural spontaneous conversations, and I think we’re going to do more work in this way. The classic Slate Podcast mode has been the pure conversational show — Political Gabfest and so on — and it’s only more recently that we’ve tried doing more scripted and semi-scripted stuff like Slow Burn, Decoder Ring, and Hit Parade. I think this form feels like a very interesting place for us to be working in right now.

This month we’re also launching a new miniseries from Josh Levin, The Queen, which stems from his upcoming book. We definitely have more launches to announce this year, but I can’t tell you about them just yet.

Why Slow Burn Decided to Investigate the Tupac-Biggie Story