We spoke to Brian Coleman about his new book, the golden era of rap and hiphop media online.
When did you first start out as a hip-hop scribe and what are the key publications you've worked for?
I started about 10 years ago, here in Boston (USA). It wasn't anything I ever planned on, I was just annoyed because there were almost no writers here writing intelligently about hip-hop, "acid jazz" and other music that I was interested in. I was just a fan of the music, and I started in a local 'zine called Boston Rock and it just kept going from there. Over the years the most popular publications I've written for are XXL, Scratch, Complex and URB. I also had a long association with CMJ (College Music Journal) – not sure if that one ever makes it over to the UK. It's been an interesting ride, most definitely.
What would you say has been the most enjoyable experience since becoming a journalist of the culture?
That's a tough one, and I guess I'd have to generalize because it's all been a hell of a lot of fun. I suppose the best thing has just been doing the "Classic Material" column for XXL magazine (which I began doing in 2000), since I get paid to talk to the musicians that I have always had the utmost respect for. Talking to people like Chuck D, KRS-One and of course Rakim were all experiences that I won't ever forget. Basically, it's always very fulfilling to talk to artists you truly respect, and deal with them on that level – showing them that you respect them and having a conversation about why you think so. And if you come at them that way, the respect is usually reciprocated.
Who has been the coolest and wackest famous person that you've dealt with?
I won't get into any of the wack ones 'cause I don't want to hate on anyone, and honestly just about everyone I've ever dealt with has been cool to me. I always like talking to Kool Keith and have done so many times over the years. He's a really intelligent guy and although he likes to project the image of being somewhat crazy (on occasion), it's not really that hard to bring him down to Earth and have a normal, even serious conversation. Some of the stuff he gave me for the Ultramagnetic chapter in my book was pretty deep. Other guys I've really enjoyed talking to would be: DJ Jazzy Jay, DMC from Run-DMC, Luke and Mr. Mixx from 2 Live Crew, definitely Chuck D (probably the smartest guy in hip-hop and maybe all of music), Ice-T. DJ Premier and Paradise (from X-Clan), too. I could go on and on….
Have you ever been star-struck when mixing with such legendary people like Rakim or KRS-One?
People might think I'm fronting, but no, not really. I mean, I was a lot more nervous talking to guys like Rakim or Ice-T, just because I didn't want to say anything stupid, because I had so much respect for them. But I've never looked at any musicians, rock or hip-hop or whatever, as celebrities. Just as artists.
Why did you decide to compile your work for your new book "Rakim Told Me??
I've really loved all the magazine writing I've done over the years, but there's a huge drawback to writing for magazines. Once the issue is past the date on the cover, it's generally gone, and people move on to the next issue. But there are soooo many articles over the years (from other writers) that I've read and wished I had kept the magazine. So it was just a way to make things more permanent, to put it all down in something that wasn't going to be recycled next month. Plus, I'm not a big fan of the word counts I'm generally given by editors. Not that my editors are wrong, since they have to put together a magazine and the pieces of the puzzle have to fit. But for every 750 word piece I do, I could and would prefer to do a 2,000 word piece, you know? So this book was a way for me to put it all down in book-form and, more importantly, to write the pieces on these artists and albums the exact way I wanted them to be written, without worrying word counts and all that. In a perfect world XXL would let me do a 5,000 word piece on Public Enemy, but it's not a perfect world.
How welcoming did you find publishers when you approached them with a hip-hop-related idea?
I've had some good interactions with publishers over the past couple years when I've pitched them book ideas, but I can say, generally, that they have no interest in taking chances on hip-hop books. Which is fair enough, I guess. I mean, they're in the business of making money, and hip-hop books have never proven to be solid money-makers (I haven't seen any "soundscan? type of figures, but it must be true…). I was very disappointed that no publishers wanted to give me $75,000 to write about old-school hip-hop, but I got over it (haha). And I decided to publish the book myself, since I didn't feel like waiting for anyone's permission to do so. I'm broke as hell, but it's all good, and things are really going well.
Could you explain to our readers the general format of the book?
It's 21 chapters, each one covers a different hip-hop album from the '80s (you can find the Table of Contents at my website, www.waxfacts.com). Some are relatively short, about 2,500 words. Some are loooong, more like 7,000 – 9,000 words. And the overall concept is something I call "invisible liner notes." Basically telling the stories behind these albums, with as little as possible from me, and as much as possible from the artists who made the albums. I hate music "Guide" books, because I could care less what some writer I've never heard of thinks about De La Soul or the Wu-Tang Clan. In reality, the people who get the most out of the book are people who own at least five, if not more like fifteen, of these records. If someone is like, "Who is this Rakim guy?" then you should probably look for another book to read.
Why do you think that liner notes as so often neglected by hip-hop releases?
I wish I did, but I don't really have an answer to that. It was a precedent that started and just continued, and still exists to this day. As I say in the intro to the book, I don't think it's any kind of evil conspiracy. I just think that the artists and the record labels never saw it as a big deal (maybe because they didn't want to take the time to do them, for deadline reasons), and there wasn't any public outcry about it, so you just list the producers, do your shoutouts and press it up. A lot of albums, and I mean rock albums and country albums (jazz tends to be the exception), these days don't have liner notes. And all albums should have them. Even shitty albums. I mean, I'd love to read Kelly Clarkson liner notes, that'd be pretty damn funny.
Which is your personal favorite album out of the ones the book covers, and why?
Damn. I mean, I loooove all of these albums, they're all a part of me and I grew up with them. But I have always said that Public Enemy's "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" is the greatest hip-hop album ever made (I know I'm not alone in this opinion), so I'll go with that.
Will there ever be a second volume, or another hip-hop publication authored by you?
Definitely. I'm not sure what I'll do next, but I'm digging the self-publishing thing, since I can do what I want without waiting around for a publisher. Don't get me wrong, I'd like to have a cool publisher in my corner, since it would make things a lot easier. But I'm definitely fine with doing it myself, because I'm not a very patient person. So, a Volume Two is a definitely possibility, and I've got a lot of other ideas, too. I can't share those just yet. Top secret.
Do you have any favorite hip-hop-related books that you could recommend that we all read?
As you probably know, the best book ever written about hip-hop is by a Brit: David Toop's "Rap Attack" (still in print, as far as I know, and it still reads like genius to me). Everyone who loves hip-hop and cares about it must read that book. Nelson George has done a lot of important work, with "Hip-Hop America? and "Buppies, B-Boys, Baps and Bohos" And just this year one of the top hip-hop books ever jumped right in: Jeff Chang's "Can't Stop Won't Stop" is really amazing. Chuck D, Ice-T, KRS-One, Luther Campbell and other rappers have books out, too. There are a lot more, so keep digging. But start with Toop. Or Steven Hager's "Hip-Hop: The Illustrated History of Break Dancing, Rap Music, and Graffiti" if you can find it (it's tragically been way out of print for years now).
Being a fan of all the greats, what do you make of the current hip-hop climate? Which artists do you feel someone will be including in a similar book twenty years down the line?
Interesting question. I think that almost all major label or at least popular hip-hop music these days is useless. I mean, T.I.? Lil Jon? Cam'ron? Jay-Z? Fabolos? I have no use for any of that stuff. It's unimaginative and formulaic. But there's a lot of amazing music being made by indie people. I think Madlib is a genius, with all the stuff he does. MF Doom puts out really interesting stuff on the regular. I miss Antipop Consortium. I think my man Mr. Lif and his group Perceptionists (with Akrobatik and Fakts One) are making very important music. I'm glad to see underground cats like Living Legends and Del and Hieroglyphics still doing their thing. But I'd say that the general frequency of classic-level albums is pretty amazingly low these days (especially vs. the Golden Era that my book focuses on). Most guys just don't seem to try very hard. On the major label tip, the only person who has surprised me and that I've really enjoyed in the past year or so is Kanye West. I don't care how much hype he gets, he deserves it. I'll take Kanye over the entire Roc A Fella roster anyday.
Has the book got UK distribution and how can UK readers get hold of a copy?
I have one main distributor right now, Traffic Entertainment here outside of Boston. They've sold a good number of books to different UK distributors, so the book should be in the best record stores out there (don't think I mentioned it before, but I'm selling it mostly to record stores at this point. I'll attack bookstores later on). I've gotten a lot of orders directly on my website (www.waxfacts.com, orders with Paypal) and it only takes about 4-5 days for books to get from me to the UK. I've had a lot of orders from the UK and Europe thus far. Soo….. try your local shop but if they don't have it, check my site, which has sample chapters and all that anyways. And if any distributors are reading this, I'm open to selling direct, and in bulk. I know that the UK and Europe are a huge market for this book, maybe even more than here in the states.
What do you make of the increasing number of hip-hop-focused websites and independent journalism on the culture?
I think it's amazing. I mean, if you read the mainstream mags you get boring articles about the same artists, since those are the ones getting pushed and editors almost always take an easy piece over one they have to work for. I don't even read some of the magazines I write for since they bore me to do death. But websites are definitely where it's at. Because although some people on the web talk shit and have incorrect facts, they're still trying to do the right thing and expressing themselves, rather than sell magazines or please their editor. It's a lot more pure expression, by people who really care. So I love it. I read a lot more websites and even blogs than I do magazines.
What do you rate as the best hip-hop-related magazine in the world?
In my opinion, there is no "best" hip-hop magazine that I've seen in the past 5-10 years. I skim through most magazines and maybe read about 1/10 of what's in them. To be honest, the magazine I read and enjoy more, percentage-wise, is URB.
Do you wish to make any shout-outs or promotional plugs to end this on?
I'll give you a shout-out for asking dope questions. And thanks to everyone out there who bought the book already – someday I'll break even on this shit!
Brian Coleman's new book "Rakim Told Me: Hip-Hop Wax Facts, Straight From The Original Artists. The '80s" is available now on Wax Facts Press. www.waxfacts.com