“Why the hell didn’t hip-hop albums ever have liner notes?!!??” quoth journalist Brian Coleman, “Hip-hop fans have been robbed of context and background when buying and enjoying classic albums from the Golden Age: the 1980s.” With his self-published book, Rakim Told Me (Waxfacts, 2005), Coleman set out to fix that problem and to fill a void in the written history of hip-hop. That, and where a lot of writers who acknowledge the influence and importance of hip-hop tend to focus on its sociological implications, Coleman stays with the music, how it was made, and where these artists were in the process. He brings a breath of fresh air to the study of hip-hop, just by dint of focusing on the music itself.
Roy Christopher: For the uninitiated, tell us about the premise behind Rakim Told Me.
Brian Coleman: Well, the book is twenty-one chapters, each one explores one classic hip-hop album from the ’80s. The premise itself is something I call “invisible liner notes.” It’s the stories behind all these albums (e.g., Public Enemy, Run-DMC, Boogie Down Productions, Eric B & Rakim, etc.) — the history of the groups, from back when they first started. And, most importantly, it’s about talking to the artists themselves about their work as musicians, as creators. It seems to me that when you talk about music a lot of times, people tend to view the image of a group or at least the end product of their art, an album, as the most important thing. I think that the process of making them what they are as a group is as, if not more, important.
If you want to check out background on the book, or even sample chapters (and find out how to buy it), check out my website. It’s more interesting than me telling you about it.
RC: Where most writers discuss the anger, misogyny, or politics of hip-hop, Rakim Told Me focuses on how these classic records were made, down to the minutiae of drum machine models and the subtle nuances of early samplers. Do you think that hip-hop’s relevance and influence strictly as music has taken a backseat to its relevance as a sociological topic?
BC: That’s a great question. And the short answer would be “yes.” I’m not sure why, but in hip-hop, maybe more than any other musical genre, the journalists and authors who write about it can be (or at least seem to be) so detached from it. I understand the allure of an academic discussing why and maybe how Tupac is so influential, but I really wish that more fans would start writing about hip-hop. Because sometimes you get the feeling that some of these writers aren’t true fans of the music — they just like it well enough and find it interesting but are really just using it as a springboard to extrapolate on other extramusical things.
When I sit down and chop it up with my friends about what hip-hop albums I love, I’m not like: “Wow, isn’t it weird how many white people like hip-hop? Why do you think that is?” I’m more like: “Holy shit, how did Schoolly D get ‘PSK’ to sound like that? Did he do that drum program himself? And that story about his mom tearing apart his room in ‘Saturday Night’ is fucking hilarious.” If writers are really fans of the music and the art form, personally I just wish they would put the energy into describing why it’s such a dynamic music and stop trying to describe and translate it to their unhip academic peers. That’s why I think that David Toop’s Rap Attack (first edition came out in 1984) is the best book ever written about hip-hop. Because it describes the music and the culture in a fully comprehensive way, but it also captures the energy of the people who make it, and also the excitement that fans get listening to hip-hop. In the end, the highest goal of any hip-hop writer, in my opinion, should be to want to make people throw down the magazine or book they’re reading and go right to their stereo and put on the song or album you’re talking about. That’s what Toop did for me, and if I can do that for even a small percentage of my readers, then I’ve accomplished something.
RC: What prompted you to self-publish a book as opposed to going through a publisher?
BC: I’ve been in touch with various publishers, directly and through an agent, over the past year or so. And although I had some interest and some good conversations with people, it wasn’t enough to make me think that anyone was really that interested in what I was doing. But I guess I was convinced enough of the importance of this book. And I took cues from some of the artists in this book, who didn’t really care what other people thought about their work, and went for self — Schoolly D and Luke from 2 Live Crew, for example. Not that I’m on their level in terms of chutzpah or in terms of artistic merit, but I know people with “real” book deals and they aren’t happy with them (same with artists I know who have “real” record deals). So I was like: “If I’m going to get fucked putting out a book, I’d at least like to be the main one to blame.” Putting out a book isn’t easy, but it’s certainly not as hard as people might think. If you know how to use computers well enough or, even better, know a friend who can use Quark or InDesign (I was the latter, of course — props to Matt Nicholas, my designer!), then why the hell not? I’ve been pretty happy with what’s gone on thus far. I’m almost breaking even and it’s only been out about four months.
RC: Based on your experiences, would you recommend self-publishing to aspiring book writers out there?
BC: I’d say yes. But it depends on what kind of person you are. If you’re unorganized and unmotivated then it’s probably not for you. But then again, if you’re unorganized and unmotivated then you’re probably not going to put a whole book together on your own. As long as you think it through before you start and don’t set your sights too high at first, then it’s not a bad idea. I always had it in my mind that this would be a slow build, and it has been.
The way people react to, and then purchase or not purchase, your book is a whole other thing. I mean, if your book isn’t very good or very interesting to the masses, then hundreds or thousands of people probably won’t want to read it, so get ready to look into the “bucket of truth” (Upright Citizens Brigade reference). If it doesn’t sell, be prepared for the financial and emotional consequences (which would, in certain instances, be much more harsh and embarrassing if you were on a “real” publisher). But if you can be a little bit objective and step back and say, “I dig this book and I think people like me will dig it,” then you should do fine. I’m writing about albums that millions of people own, so it’s not like it’s really that obscure. If you were going to do some kind of fiction or a philosophy book, I wouldn’t know. But let me say this, go to www.loompanics.com (one of my favorite sites ever) and tell me that just because a book is weird or obscure that it doesn’t deserve to be out there.
RC: You’ve kind of set this book up as the first in a series. Are you planning to do a similar book about the ’90s?
BC: Well, I didn’t tell anyone, even friends of mine, that I was even writing this book until I got the copies back from the printer (I’m secretive like that, because music writers and bloggers gossip like old ladies). But to answer your question in a vague way, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
RC: Who do you like doing hip-hop right now?
BC: I like a lot of people doing hip-hop right now. Mostly people on the indie scene, since I think major labels have no real regard for people making music or especially hip-hop as art. But even on the majors there are people like Common who still sounds great to me. I love that Dead Prez are signed to Columbia (although who knows how long that will last — maybe they already got the boot). I think Timbaland deserves and doesn’t get much props for doing his own thang and going against the grain (even though sometimes what he does isn’t original, it’s just different and retro) within the corporate rap thing. And on the indie tip, I mean, where do I start? I’d say that Madlib is probably at the top of my list, ’cause his mind is always working and it’s full of energy and invention. I like most everything MF DOOM does. On the Boston tip, my boys Edan, Insight, Mr. Lif, Akrobatik, and 7L & Esoteric consistently make forward-looking music and spit serious wisdom. I could go on and on and it would be boring, but I still love listening to hip-hop these days. In the new issue of Scratch Magazine I reviewed twenty-five albums and I probably liked at least two-thirds of them. That’s a good sign.
But here’s an important point that I always like to make, when given the chance: It’s almost impossible to really say “Yeah, I listen to hip-hop” when you meet someone, and have them understand what you’re talking about (and vice versa, for you to understand what they mean when they say something like that). I mean, does that mean you think 50 Cent is a great rapper, or does that mean you know about Ultramagnetic MCs, KRS-One and the first Wu-Tang album (if you know the latter then you’d never make the former judgment)? I’m cautious saying I like hip-hop overarchingly, because there’s a lot of hip-hop in 2005 that I think straight-up sucks. Ten years ago only some of it sucked, so you could get away with the blanket statement. But I think a lot of MCs and producers out there bring shame to the term hip-hop, in the classic sense, if that’s what they think they are. By “classic,” I’m talking exactly about the artists in the twenty-one chapters in my book. But I mean, Lil Jon? He’s not hip-hop. He’s the antithesis of hip-hop. He’ll destroy hip-hop if kids keep buying his records. I think Jay-Z has done a lot of damage, too, so let’s hope he’s retired for good (although that’s just wishful thinking). A lot of popular rappers get free passes for making mediocre music and that upsets me. But I get over it once I put on the Perceptionists’ Black Dialogue (Definitive Jux, 2005) album.
In the end, I just wish fans were more critical and vigilant and had higher expectations. And yes, by vigilant, I mean that they should accost rappers on the street and beat them with sticks for making shitty music.