Searching For Punks : Code Switch Once upon a time, Kai Wright saw a movie called "Punks." A romantic comedy about black gay men, it was like nothing he'd ever seen before. But then it disappeared.

Searching For Punks

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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

This is CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. Gene's out this week. And on today's episode, we've got the story of a movie time has forgotten - an almost 20-year-old comedy about queer black life. Kathy Tu and Tobin Low from WNYC's "Nancy" podcast got some help from their colleague Kai Wright to help tell this story.

TOBIN LOW, BYLINE: Do you have a clear movie that, like, really resonated with you or that you remember in your life?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: "The Incredible Adventures Of Two Girls In Love" (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It was "But I'm A Cheerleader."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: "Brokeback Mountain."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I really liked "My Beautiful Laundrette."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: "Imagine Me And You."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: All the "Law And Orders" are my seminal TV shows.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: "Inappropriate Behavior" (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: I have to put in a good word for "The L Word," which is incredibly imperfect. I think we need "The Q Word."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KATHY TU, BYLINE: From WNYC Studios, you're listening to "Nancy"...

LOW: With your hosts Tobin Low and Kathy Tu.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TU: OK, Kai.

LOW: Hey, Kai.

KAI WRIGHT, BYLINE: Hi.

TU: Colleague at WNYC.

WRIGHT: (Imitating kiss).

TU: Tell us this story.

WRIGHT: Well, I sat down one day. Me and my boyfriend had a new friend who was over our house. You know, and he's in his early 20s, and he is sort of newly gay. And he's a person of color. And he was, like, oh, let's watch a movie. And we were, like, oh, yeah. There's all these gay movies you need to be educated on that he didn't know about. And we started talking about this - you know, the gay nineties. And he's, like, what's that? What's that? What's that?

TU: (Laughter).

WRIGHT: And we were, like, young man, sit down. We are going to show you. And you know where you need to start, particularly as a young man of color? You need to see "Punks." And I go to the television. And we've got all these apps and all of these streaming services, and I thought certainly I can just pull up any of these movies. And I couldn't find "Punks" anywhere. I couldn't find it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ULTRACAT'S "UNEXPECTED LITTLE HAPPENINGS")

WRIGHT: "Punks" was a movie made by a black, gay man full of black, gay people about being black and gay and in love and the foibles thereof.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PUNKS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Sisters...

TU: This is the trailer for "Punks" and I've now watched it online about seven times.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PUNKS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Well, if upon meeting me, a man is not instantly bowled over by my beauty, then he's clearly heterosexual.

TU: And as trailers go, it gives very little plot away - actually, no plot. From what I can gather, it involves some drama with drag queens and photography and modelling and other things.

LOW: Kathy, this is not helpful.

TU: I know.

LOW: OK. Kai, can you help us out here? Like, what is "Punks" about?

WRIGHT: You know, here's the thing - I couldn't tell you.

(LAUGHTER)

WRIGHT: I do not - I haven't - so I was - I - this is, sadly, a great many years ago in my life. And I have - it's one of those things where I have an emotional memory of it more than I do a factual memory of it, right? And so basically, I remember it as, you know, "Sex And The City" with black, gay men. And there is one of each. You know, there's, like, the sassy queen. There's the hot, muscle boy. There's the, like, butch guy. You know, there's four of them. And they're best friends, and they're in Los Angeles. And they are sorting out life and love. And I'm pretty sure one of them starts dating a straight boy, I want to say. And hilarity ensues from there. But I honestly cannot tell you what it was about.

(SOUNDBITE OF ULTRACAT'S "UNEXPECTED LITTLE HAPPENINGS")

WRIGHT: When I was a young gay in my 20s - I had come out. I lived in Washington, D.C. And I was diving in - I mean, I dove in headfirst to being gay. I was, like, I'm going to figure out how to be gay. This is going to be fun. This is going to be wonderful. I moved to a gay neighborhood. It was a largely white gay neighborhood. I became a professional homosexual. I went to work for a gay newspaper. Like, and I was in it. I was loving it. And sort of at the peak of that, this thing started where there - all these movies started coming out that were, like, romantic comedies about gays. And they were, like, being played in theaters.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN AND OUT")

MATT DILLON: (As Cameron) ...To Howard Brackett from Greenleaf, Ind.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Oh, my god.

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #1: A bombshell is about to drop.

WRIGHT: And he's gay.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WILL SURVIVE")

GLORIA GAYNOR: (Singing) First, I was afraid...

WRIGHT: And I was loving that. And then I got to a point where I looked up, and I was, like, these movies, while wonderful, I mean, are just relentlessly white - just relentlessly white.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Do I look like a straight man to you?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) I'd need to meet him before I dare subject him to my gaydar.

WRIGHT: I mean, they're not just any old white but, you know, I mean, just, like, the white boy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #2: Trick - a story about two guys trying to make it in the big city.

WRIGHT: And it just started to turn for me. What was wonderful became really alienating. And in the middle of that, along comes "Punks." And it just - it changed a lot for me about my relationship to the gay community at that time. My most striking memory of "Punks" is that when it played - again, I lived in D.C., which, like, was this really - you know, I mean, it was a big gay town in the '90s; still is but really was then but quite segregated, you know? I mean, there was, like, the black gay community and the white gay community. And then when "Punks" came out - and it was at the gay film festival that year. And I - again, I just have an emotional memory (laughter) of this room full of this just rainbow of black, queer people, you know, of classes and styles and walks of life. And we were all there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ULTRACAT'S "UNEXPECTED LITTLE HAPPENINGS")

LOW: So that night when you couldn't find "Punks" with your friend...

WRIGHT: I got alarmed, you know, that this history has disappeared. Like, I literally blurted out, they're erasing us. Our - the history - our history is being taken off of the Internet. I don't know what that meant intellectually, but I immediately was convinced there was some kind of conspiracy. And then I assumed it was the economy of it, you know, that, like, we didn't register meaningfully enough to, like, count, to get streamed somewhere, you know? Like, who cares about this movie? You guys aren't a market. And so no one did the thing you got to do to serve this market.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TU: Tobin, when Kai told us this, I was like, we've got to figure this out.

LOW: Uh huh. I think I see where you're going. We're on the same wavelength.

TU: Uh huh.

LOW: Kathy, you love to dig into the corners of the internet. Get on your hands and knees, and do an army crawl under the barbed wire of improbability...

TU: Oh, wow.

LOW: ...As you search after the golden idol of finding the thing you're looking for. I've gotten lost in this metaphor.

(LAUGHTER)

LOW: You love a hunt.

TU: All of those things are true. And if something important to me - like, say "Xena" - disappeared, you better believe I'd go out there, and I would find that thing.

LOW: You would freak the hell out, and you would find it.

TU: Oh, Kai, I'm going to find this movie.

WRIGHT: I have nothing but faith. I have nothing but faith.

TU: All right. So here's some preliminary intel. "Punks" was written and directed by Patrik-Ian Polk. You may know him as the guy who created "Noah's Arc," which is like this black, gay "L Word." Anyway, "Punks" was produced by Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds.

LOW: Like, the Babyface? Like, (singing) every time I close my eyes...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERY TIME I CLOSE MY EYES")

BABYFACE: (Singing) ...I thank the lord that I've got...

LOW: That Babyface?

TU: Yes, that Babyface. And fun fact - Mariah Carey and Kenny G are both on that song.

LOW: Oh, my God. It's like the '90s in a blender.

TU: OK, anyway, I started by checking all the streaming sites - not that I didn't believe Kai, but, you know, we just - we got to check. I even checked some illegal streaming sites, and there was nothing. Then I scanned Amazon and eBay and Craigslist to see if anyone was selling a copy. Nobody was. I then emailed film festivals that screened "Punks" at some point to see they kept a copy, and they did not.

LOW: What about, like, ye olde video store?

UNIDENTIFIED VIDEO STORE WORKER #1: Hello, Videotheque (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED VIDEO STORE WORKER #2: Video Underground.

UNIDENTIFIED VIDEO STORE WORKER #3: Cinephile Video, can I help you?

TU: I'm wondering if you have this movie called "Punks" available.

UNIDENTIFIED VIDEO STORE WORKER #3: No, I'm not seeing it. I'm so sorry.

UNIDENTIFIED VIDEO STORE WORKER #1: No, yeah, we don't carry it.

TU: Next, I turned to libraries, and I mean all kinds of libraries.

PATRICIA: GLBT Historical Society archives.

TU: Hi, Patricia. My name is Kathy. And I am looking for a movie.

UNIDENTIFIED LIBRARIAN #1: (Unintelligible) Reference. How can I help you?

TU: Library of Congress.

UNIDENTIFIED LIBRARIAN #2: No, we don't have it. We have three things...

TU: UCLA.

UNIDENTIFIED LIBRARIAN #3: Yeah, none at all. So...

TU: And USC's ONE Archive.

UNIDENTIFIED LIBRARIAN #4: Was it Urbanworld Films? Does that sound...

TU: Urbanworld - oh, yes. I think they were the distributor.

UNIDENTIFIED LIBRARIAN #4: OK, then we do have it.

TU: You have it?

UNIDENTIFIED LIBRARIAN #4: Yeah.

TU: Is it possible to check it out or, like...

UNIDENTIFIED LIBRARIAN #4: No. You can come here and view it. All of our - we're a non-lending library.

TU: I see, OK.

UNIDENTIFIED LIBRARIAN #4: Yeah.

TU: How would I get a copy of that?

UNIDENTIFIED LIBRARIAN #4: I wonder - let's see. Hold on one second. Let me go a little deeper here. Here's the filmmaker. Da, da, da, da, da, da, da. There's his personal website. Oh, no. His personal website does not exist anymore - poor dude. Where is he? Oh, he's on Instagram.

TU: Oh, is this Patrik-Ian Polk you're talking about?

UNIDENTIFIED LIBRARIAN #4: Yeah, I would try contacting - go on Instagram, and send him a message (laughter).

TU: (Laughter) I will do that.

UNIDENTIFIED LIBRARIAN #4: Stranger things have happened by doing that.

TU: All right, thank you so much.

UNIDENTIFIED LIBRARIAN #4: OK, good luck.

TU: Bye.

UNIDENTIFIED LIBRARIAN #4: Bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOW: Coming up, Kathy is on the hunt for Patrik-Ian Polk because if she finds him...

TU: We find out what happened to "Punks..."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TU: ...And hopefully find a copy that's not stuck in a library in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TU: So I'm at the ONE Archive at USC in Los Angeles. It's a bright, two-story building with stacks and stacks of LGBTQ materials. And Mike, the archivist, takes a break from tending the front desk to take me upstairs into a room that looks like a storage closet.

MICHAEL OLIVEIRA: Let's see, 3146, and we're being - we're incredibly lucky today.

TU: Oh, my God. Here we go. Oh, my God. Oh, my God. I am holding a VHS of "Punks" in my hand right now.

LOW: You did it. You found "Punks."

TU: Well...

There's no way for me to borrow this?

OLIVEIRA: There is no way for you to borrow this, unfortunately. Sorry.

TU: So I failed, but at least I got to watch the movie at the library.

LOW: Oh, see you can at least answer what "Punks" is about.

TU: I can. "Punks" is about a group of friends. There's Marcus, Hill, Dante and Chris.

LOW: OK.

TU: Marcus is a photographer. He's a really sweet guy who becomes friends with his new neighbor, Darby, who is straight. But, you know, there's like a crush situation.

LOW: Oh, no.

TU: It's cute. And Hill is single again after his boyfriend cheats on him, so he's sort of sleeping around.

LOW: OK.

TU: Dante is the playboy of the group. And Chris does these amazing drag shows as Crystal, the head of an ensemble called The Sisters. And they do performances only to Sister Sledge songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE ARE FAMILY")

SISTER SLEDGE: (Singing) We are family. Get up, everybody, and sing.

TU: And now the trailer makes sense.

LOW: Gotcha, OK. OK, there's a lot happening in "Punks."

TU: And I want to say, like, I think the movie holds up. I mean, it's still a romantic comedy, so it's got all, like, the awkward, romantic comedy vibes like, you know, the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUT I FEEL LOVE")

PAULO PASCOAL: (Singing) But I feel love when I'm with you...

LOW: I love a harmony that's just up a third.

TU: I don't know what that means.

LOW: It's a very '90s thing that's like (singing) just up here.

TU: (Laughter) That's lovely, Tobin.

LOW: Thank you.

TU: OK, but, like, in the world of rom-coms, I think "Punks" is a solid film. And the fact that it's disappeared from the world is pretty unfair given that all the other rom-coms in the world get to survive, you know? Like, why not "Punks?"

LOW: Right. And so I'm guessing maybe Patrik-Ian Polk has the answer to that, so did you find him?

TU: OK, so Patrik is not the easiest person to find in the world. He's very busy being a writer on TV shows like "Being Mary Jane." So, like, he's got stuff to do.

LOW: Yeah, but, like, isn't his info a Google search away?

TU: No. No, Tobin.

LOW: OK.

TU: That's not how that works. I had to email a few different companies to see if anybody had his contact info. They did not. So finally, I did resort to sending him a message on Instagram like that librarian suggested.

LOW: So what happened?

TU: He didn't get back to me.

LOW: Womp-womp (laughter).

TU: But I did find an article written about him from a couple of years ago during the #OscarsSoWhite backlash. So I reached out to the reporter who wrote the article - his name is Tre'vell Anderson - and he passed along Patrik's email address.

LOW: (Laughter).

TU: So I then sent over a carefully crafted, non-stalky email. And finally...

PATRIK-IAN POLK: I'm Patrik-Ian Polk. I'm a filmmaker, writer, director.

TU: So it's taken me a while to find you, but I found you. And I pulled you into the studio with me because I've got some questions for you.

POLK: OK.

TU: OK. So just to start, how did "Punks" come about? And how did Babyface get involved?

POLK: So "Punks" was my first film. I was hired by Babyface and his wife Tracey Edmonds at their production company, but I was also quietly kind of writing and working on my own stuff.

TU: So this is the late '90s. And at some point, Patrik got the opportunity to pass along the script for "Punks" to Babyface and Tracey.

POLK: So I gave them the script, and they went off on holiday. And I thought - I kept thinking they're going to read the script, and they're going to say no because it's - you know, they're going to - it's just no. This is never going to happen.

TU: Yeah.

POLK: But they came back, and they said that over the course of this holiday vacation on this boat, the script had changed hands. Everyone had read the script - the grandmother, the aunt, the cousin, the brother. The whole family had the script, and they loved it. They thought it was just the funniest thing, so they were in.

So we shot the film. They financed the film. And, you know, 35-millimeter film, and then we submitted to Sundance, and we got in. And so all the gay film festivals wanted the film. We opened and closed almost every film festival we were in. So it was like everywhere. I went all over the world.

TU: So that's when Kai saw it, when it was this celebrated gay film. It won a few awards, like at L.A. Outfest and the Black Reel Awards. But then for reasons I will get into later, the film pulled a disappearing act.

LOW: Ooh, suspense.

TU: So the film right now is sort of in a limbo where...

POLK: The film is in a vault...

TU: In a - (laughter).

POLK: ...Just sitting in a vault.

TU: And do you personally have a copy of "Punks?"

POLK: I do have a copy, yeah.

TU: What are the chances that I can borrow a copy from you?

POLK: (Laughter) I'll have to figure out how to make that happen. I can - I'll figure - it's not going to be necessarily the easiest thing to do because...

TU: Really?

POLK: Well, the copy that I have, I have, like, a film copy...

TU: Oh.

POLK: ...Like, big, heavy film copy.

TU: I see.

POLK: But I'll figure it out. We can make - we can definitely make it happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOW: So did we get a copy for Kai?

TU: After we talked, I felt like Patrik was trying to ghost me a little bit. But also, he's busy being a writer and producer, and I'm just here bugging him about this old film.

LOW: I feel like you're - you are preparing me for disappointment, like you didn't get a copy from him.

TU: Well...

RACHEL: Hi.

TU: Hi, Rachel (ph). Kathy.

RACHEL: Come on in.

TU: Nice to meet you.

RACHEL: You, too.

TU: I meet up with Rachel, Patrik's assistant, at this incredible building in LA.

TU: This looks like a hotel.

RACHEL: There is a William Randolph Hearst suite from when he had a suite here. OK, so now you'll just have to bear with me while I pick through his keys.

TU: All right, sounds good.

And from Patrik's storage room, Rachel pulls out...

RACHEL: It's not not heavy.

TU: ...Something that was apparently very heavy.

RACHEL: Oh.

TU: The master film copy of...

RACHEL: "Punks." "Punks."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOW: You did it. You found "Punks." Congratulations.

TU: Thank you. Thank you, Tobin. This means that Kai is about to see "Punks" for the first time in almost two decades. We tell him to meet us at this theater in the East Village called Anthology.

WRIGHT: I'm a little nervous if the truth is told. It's a trip to my past. Like, I don't know, what if it sucks?

TU: I don't think it's going to suck.

WRIGHT: Like, why did I - why was I so into that? I think it's kind of gangster that you guys found the original.

LOW: Truly, when we started this, I was like, oh, well, she's going to find, like, 20 promotional DVDs or something. But truly, we are in a rented theater with the one 35-millimeter copy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE FILM ROTATING)

LOW: Here we go.

TU: Here we go.

LOW: Oh, my God.

WRIGHT: Please don't suck.

(LAUGHTER)

TU: For the next hour and a half, whenever I look over at Kai, he is nothing but delighted.

LOW: Aw.

WRIGHT: Aw. It's "The Sex In The City" (ph) but black and gay.

TU: He's telling us little tidbits about the film...

WRIGHT: I feel like there was a lot of, like, photographer themes. And I think it's just an excuse to have, like, half-naked people.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PUNKS")

SETH GILLIAM: (As Marcus) Hey, Felicity.

TU: ...And just loving it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PUNKS")

GILLIAM: (As Marcus) Felicity.

DEVON ODESSA: (As Felicity) Hey, yeah. Get out of here, Marcus. Unless you...

TU: The music is amazing. There's just Sister Sledge hit after Sister Sledge hit after Sister Sledge hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HE'S THE GREATEST DANCER")

SISTER SLEDGE: (Singing) I really wasn't caring, but I felt my eyes staring.

WRIGHT: Oh, wait. Did he not pay for any of this music?

LOW: Wait. Is that the key to what happened to "Punks?"

TU: Yeah. So this is what Patrik told me.

POLK: You know, it was a gay, black film, and we're talking about the year 2000. I mean, you know how kind of it's still kind of taboo in certain things in pop culture. But back then, it was a different time, so no major distributors made offers on the film. We got no sort of major offers, ended up signing a distribution deal with a small, black distributor. We found out that the distributor did not pay for the music clearances for the Sister Sledge music - the seven songs that we used. And, like, the producers who paid for the film are, like, we're not going to put any money, you know? And then time goes on. And then, you know, people forget, and then you just move on and do other things.

TU: I called the founder of Urbanworld Films. They were the distributor. And he said that those music rights would have cost millions of dollars, and they just couldn't afford it. So the film never got real distribution.

LOW: Oh, my god. That's so frustrating (laughter).

TU: I know.

WRIGHT: It's a nice soundtrack though.

TU: It is.

WRIGHT: Quick reactions - my thoughts are this is a really funny movie. This is a very, very funny movie, and I'm glad that it is still a very, very funny movie. This is a movie full of really good-looking people.

TU: True.

LOW: Oh, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

WRIGHT: And it's also - like, it still resonates with me as a unique thing. It's - for me personally. I'm not even talking about, like, in the world and what's necessary and what we should have out there. I'm just talking about for Kai Wright, personally watching it - still resonated with me emotionally as something I need to see and don't - that, like, there were all of these black, gay men who were in community and who I could relate to, who live lives like I lead my life, you know? - I mean, with less attractiveness and, you know, not quite as fabulous, but, like, that are just doing normal stuff and falling in love and having fights and being hoes (ph) when they feel like it and sometimes being positive, you know, and, like, none of it being a thing. And that still hit me as something - as a breath of fresh air, something I needed to see on a screen in 2018.

LOW: I'll tell you what stuck out to me. For, like, 0.5 seconds, I was annoyed with the fact that the lead was so attractive, and everyone was treating him like he was a dumpy nerd. And then it was, like...

TU: (Laughter).

LOW: Wait. This gets to be problematic in the same way that all rom-coms are problematic.

(LAUGHTER)

WRIGHT: Right. Right. That's exactly it. It gets to be problematic. It's - the genre of rom-coms has many built-in problems, and that is one of them. That's right.

LOW: Yeah.

TU: That's great. So how do you feel now knowing that the real reason why "Punks" isn't around anymore is kind of silly? It's, like, it has to do with music rights.

WRIGHT: I'm trying to figure out how to feel about it...

TU: (Laughter).

WRIGHT: ...Because, on one hand, I feel a way because I'm, like, really, girl? Like, you - I mean, come on.

(LAUGHTER)

WRIGHT: Like, that was the long-range vision here was built-in failure, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

WRIGHT: And I - so I feel that way about it, to be honest. But then I also am, like - you know, I'm thinking back to that era. I'm thinking back to that time and, like, the way, like, we have to just make our own stuff, you know? And I have friends who have made movies. They don't think about those kind of things, maybe. Maybe they did. I don't know. But, you know, also, like, it's kind of punk, as it were (laughter), that they were just, like, look. We're making the movie, and we're going to take these tracks, and that's what's going to be great.

LOW: There is, like, a funky moral to the story here, which is that none of us would be in a studio right now agonizing over music rights and stuff if they just made more of them.

TU: (Laughter).

WRIGHT: That's right.

TU: That's true.

WRIGHT: That's true. If this wasn't the last one in 19 - what? - 99...

LOW: Yeah (laughter).

WRIGHT: ...You know, then maybe we wouldn't have this issue.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOW: That's WNYC's Kai Wright.

TU: All right, credits.

LOW: Producer.

TU: Matt Collette.

LOW: Sound designer.

TU: Jeremy Bloom.

LOW: Editor.

TU: Jenny Lawton.

LOW: Executive producer.

TU: Paula Szuchman.

LOW: I'm Tobin Low.

TU: I'm Kathy Tu.

LOW: And "Nancy" is a production of WNYC Studios.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TU: But great music in this film, though. I mean, come on (laughter).

LOW: One would say too great...

(LAUGHTER)

WRIGHT: Perhaps.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: That's our show. Follow us on Twitter. We're @NPRCodeSwitch. You can follow me. I'm @radiomirage. Subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/newsletter/codeswitch. And, of course, a shout-out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. We'll be back next week. Peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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