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The LAist Interview: Dr. Josh Kun

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LA native Josh Kun demolishes the myth of the tweed jacket wearing, Euro-centric cannon defending, Ivory Tower clinging English professor. As an intellectual jack-of-all-trades, Kun’s interest in mainstream and far-flung aspects of pop culture ensures he’ll never succumb to the latter component of the "publish or perish" maxim. In addition to his position as Associate Professor of English at UC Riverside, Kun contributes to numerous periodicals and is the author of numerous essays, such as the introduction to Papa, Play for Me: The Autobiography of Mickey Katz. Other projects include his forthcoming book, Audiotopia: Music, Race and America (due this fall from UC Press), and a post as contributing critic to "The Movie Club" with John Ridley (coming to AMC in May). His professional roster also encompasses multimedia curating, serving as a DJ and VJ, consulting on matters related to Latin music and numerous aspects of pop culture, and writing about Tijuana.

1. Age and Occupation:

33; day job: English professor at UC Riverside; I also moonlight as a freelance writer (mostly these days for Los Angeles Magazine, LA Times Magazine, and NY Times), a columnist (SF Bay Guardian/Boston Phoenix), and host of a Latino music video show on KJLA-LATV, Fridays, 9pm.

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2. Where in Los Angeles did you grow up, and which neighborhood do you now live in?

I grew up in Rancho Park, a residential extension of the old 20th Century Fox studios backlot where I saw them film ChiPs, When A Stranger Calls, Starsky & Hutch, and the video for Josie Cotton’s “Johnny Are You Queer?” Now I live in West Hollywood near the Dar Marghreb where we ate before junior prom.

3. How have you simultaneously developed a career as an academic and music journalist? What are some of the benefits of sustaining a career in both worlds?

The two developed alongside each other. I was writing about music when I started grad school and I never stopped. I have been lucky enough to have editors and colleagues who support my multiple personalities instead of making me choose one. The music and social issues I was writing about in my seminars (race, ethnicity, nationalism, immigration) are for the most part the same music and social issues I write about in the press, so the two arenas just feed each other. I can rehearse my scholarly ideas in my articles and columns. Academic writing allows for far more sustained analysis and historical critique than journalism, but it also has a far more limited audience. I like being able to live in both worlds and address multiple audiences in multiple registers. Most things are too complicated to be talked about in just one language anyway. I would like to think that writing in the press makes my scholarship better and vice-versa, but that remains to be seen! Overall, I see both fields as means to a bigger end—talking about culture that I believe in, culture that is inspiring and innovative, culture that is urgen to the contemporary political moment, in whatever format that is available—from a classroom to a newspaper article to a TV show.

4. Since you teach at Riverside you must pass through a considerable swath of LA and adjacent counties. Other than traffic, which other major changes along your commute are most notable, intriguing, and/or infuriating?

I like the way, on the one hand, nothing seems to change at all. But when you really pay attention, what you see is a slow morph, the incremental growth of suburban outposts anchored to mini-malls into suburban outposts anchored to palm trees and desert. I like witnessing the gradual revelation that no matter how much we build, this is all still desert. I usually head East just as the sun is up and on certain mornings if I time it right, I can catch the most incredible cloud shadow patterns on the face of the foothills in my rearview mirror.

5. Because California and specifically So Cal are significant components of your professional interests, do you frequently encounter academic regional bias?

Not any different from anywhere else though our biases never feel as exclusive or limiting as New England’s. We have to be biased. If we don’t look out for So Cal, who will? We need our advocates, our intellectual boosters.

6. At the risk of sounding pretentious, which do you find to be among the most compelling current cultural discourses related to our region?

Though so many around here are still enamored with the idea of impending apocalypse (from quakes to riots to fires to mudslides to Ricky Martin’s move west), I think the key is going to be a real conversation about dialogue and exchange based in the changing nature of LA communities. Some of the most exciting ideas are coming at the level of culture itself, which is telling all sorts of new stories about the unconventional directions that LA identities are taking.

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7. What's your preferred mode of transportation?

The car, though if I could go everywhere by golf cart, I certainly would (instant disclaimer: I do not play golf, but I love the golf cart, much as I do not ski, but love the ski lodge and after-ski boots).

8. How often do you ride the MTA subway or light rail?
In my intentional w
orld, always. In my real world, never.

9. What's your favorite movie(s) and/or or TV show(s) based in LA?

Beverly Hills, 90210; Sunset Boulevard; The Long Goodbye; ChiPs; Chinatown; The Big Sleep; old Dragnet; Mojado Power; Miracle Mile

10. What's the best place to walk in LA?

Spaulding Square at sunset, Santee Alley on Sundays, Pico-Robertson on a Friday night, weekend mornings on a secret stretch of Malibu beach north of Pepperdine.

11. It's 9:30 PM on a Thursday. Where are you coming from and where are you going?

From the kitchen to the couch. So sad. (You should have asked me about Mondays. On Mondays I rage.)

12. If you could live in LA during any era, when would it be?

The 1940s

13. What is the "center" of LA to you?

Tijuana

14. If you were forced to live in a neighboring county, which would you choose? Ventura County is a wussy answer.

Coachella Valley/ Riverside County

15. If you could live in any neighborhood or specific house in LA, where/which would you choose?

A Lautner house on top of Mt. Washington

16. What is the city's greatest secret?

Why I would reveal that?

17. Please describe your best LA dining experience.

A 3-way tie between civilization, barbarism, and the leathery land in between:

Giorgio Baldi (ignore the celeb factor and focus on just how ridiculously perfect the pasta is);

Taylor's Steak House in Koreatown--iceberg lettuce house salad with bleu cheese, Filet, side of spinach and a side of mash potatoes with a few Taylor's stiff Vodka gimlets. Worth it alone for the booths and the oxygen tanks next to the barflys;

a Marty's combo--chilicheeseburger and a hot dog on the same bun (rock it before 11 and they give you an egg). Eat it as you watch neighborhood kids do baseball card deals with the fry cooks.

oh, and Dupar's pancakes, 5-stack, with side of bacon, extra crisp.

18. What do you have to say to East Coast supremacists?

Do you have cell phone towers disguised as palm trees? Where can you get machaca on a Sunday morning? You have to stay in Bed & Breakfasts!

19. Do you find the threat of earthquakes preferable to the threat of hurricanes and long winters?

Long winters aren't really a threat, they're just proof that people make mistakes and the Sweet Lord in Heaven believes in punishing the meak. But hurricanes scare me way more. Both will destroy you, but an earthquake is like being in a drive-by (and as I Jew from the Westside, trust me, I know): it just happens, then it's over. Hurricanes are like being kidnapped, then tortured. You have way too much time to be anxious and realize just how bad things are.

20. Where do you want to be when the Big One hits?

If the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel was still around, I'd wanna be like Warren Zevon and be there, staring into an empty coffee cup. But since it's not, I'll take the top of Runyon Canyon, so I can watch the city split before being thrown down into it.