Old school New York City hiphop has a true friend in Brian Coleman, author of 2005’s Rakim Told Me and the new Check the Technique, a passionate and down-to-earth collection of interviews featuring classic hiphop artists describing how they made their best records. We’re talking about the late 80’s/early 90’s here, the golden age of hiphop lyricism and poetry, and the artists included in Coleman’s books are the ones I’ve been telling you about.
Along with EPMD, this book will bring you memories and surprising factoids from Mobb Deep, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, M. O. P., Beastie Boys, Run-DMC (of course), Biz Markie, Digable Planets, Keith Murray, Das EFX, KRS-One, Cypress Hill, Marley Marl, Redman and Onyx. I got a chance to interview the supreme interviewer myself, and found Mr. Coleman ready to compare notes on many topics relative to the state of hiphop and hiphop poetry today.
Levi: Let’s start by focusing here on the lyrical content of the great old school hiphop you profile in your book. Of all the artists you cover, which are the ones you admire most strictly as lyricists? Can you share some examples of hiphop lyrics that mean a lot to you, and tell us why?
Brian: You can’t discuss hip-hop music without going into lyrical content, so that’s obviously always going to be a big part of any fan’s appreciation — me included. From my own standpoint there are two kinds of lyricists who have always impressed me: (1) MCs who are more straight-forward and have a lot to say and get their points across in a powerful way and, (2) technical MCs who just kick your ass with the complexity of their rhymes. If group #2 also has a lot to say and gets their points across, then that’s obviously the ultimate.
From the first group I’ll point to Chuck D and Ice-T as two of the ultimate examples. They never tried to get all tongue-twisting or never went for style over substance. They both spoke as much as they rapped (Chuck was just a bit more powerful, mostly because his voice is just so deep and strong), telling tales and speaking their mind. I’d point to a track like Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe The Hype” (from It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back) and Ice-T’s “High Rollers” (from Power) as great examples of how to be a powerful lyricist — talking to listeners by either telling great stories or just speaking your mind and engaging your audience.
From group #2 you’d have to put Rakim at the top of that list, as a technical, “scientifical” rapper who was incredibly complex but also had so much substance to his rhymes. For example just check out “Follow the Leader” from Eric B & Rakim’s second album (Follow the Leader), among many other of his classics. Big Daddy Kane also falls into that category, just below Rakim. “I’ll Take You There” from Long Live the Kane is a great case in point.
And the musical portion of any hip-hop track is a huge part, and all of the above had amazing tracks to rhyme over. Without that, they wouldn’t be half as classic as they are. You have to have the mix.
Levi: I like it that your book hits on some of the literary connections in hiphop — the fact that Phife Dawg learned poetry from his mom, the fact that Digable Planets reference Jorge Luis Borges. Do you think hiphop gets the respect it deserves from a literary/poetic point of view? And do you think this is a question that many of the top artists you’ve spoken to particularly care about, or not?
Brian: Hip-hop lyricists still haven’t gotten the poetic respect they deserves, in my opinion. But I don’t think that a lot of the top lyricists out there — people like Rakim, KRS-One, Q-Tip — really care that they’re not accepted as poets in the poetry community. They care that their fans and peers respect them as lyricists. But I definitely think it’s due to ignorance in the older academic or poetry community (or whatever term people would use to describe it) if there is that kind of disconnect. A lot of especially older academics seem to have a view of hip-hop like it’s just a bunch of thug kids playing loud music and that’s the end of it. Which is, of course, ridiculous. Younger poets and academics understand, because they grew up with hip-hop music. And they are the reason that hip-hop studies in academia continue to grow. I challenge any poet out there to go up against Rakim or Sadat X [from Brand Nubian] in a one-on-one a capella showdown, they’d lose. It may not be in the form they’re used to, but like it or not, rappers — at least the most talented ones — are poets, no way to deny that.
Levi: What was the first hiphop record that grabbed you (and I’m going to disallow “Rapper’s Delight” as an answer)? And how did you become involved in hiphop journalism?
Brian: I was only nine when “Rapper’s Delight” came out, so I never heard that song until many years after that. And honestly I’m not 100% sure about the first hip-hop record that grabbed me. Unlike a lot of the artists in the book, I don’t have that one moment when it all clicked for me in the beginning. My journey into hip-hop was a gradual one. I definitely remember loving the first Run-DMC album and I must have heard “Rock Box” first, and seen the video on MTV, to be drawn to it.
I was also a big fan of one of the most slept-on hip-hop groups of the early-to-mid ’80s, the Fat Boys. Their first two records were both very popular and are both pretty amazing, and I loved both of them. Throughout the ’80s I just kept paying more and more attention to hip-hop and it became more and more a part of my record collection — alongside the rock (mostly punk) that I was listening to concurrently.
Regarding my foray into journalism, that was more by accident. It basically boiled down to the fact that I really just wasn’t finding enough coverage of hip-hop in Boston media in the mid-’90s, so I took matters into my own hands. There was one guy in town who knew what was up — Ken Capobianco from the Boston TAB, who still does lots of great work for the Boston Globe. But other than that, it was really sketchy and I thought that was ridiculous. So I just started writing for a local monthly paper called Boston Rock, for free. Covering groups like the Roots when they first started making waves, Organized Konfusion, that kind of stuff. That led to stints with Boston Phoenix, CMJ Weekly, CMJ Monthly and into national hip-hop mags like XXL and Scratch. It’s been gradual and random and I’ve loved every minute of it. Right now I’m a bit bored writing magazine reviews and articles — books are where I’d like to be. 500-word pieces don’t really do it for me anymore.
Levi: Judging from the interviews in your book, it seems that different hiphop artists have widely varying approaches to being interviewed. For instance, I got the feeling that A Tribe Called Quest would have talked to you all day, whereas EPMD didn’t seem to want to get too analytical or share too much. What strategies did you use to get the best interviews possible from these artists?
Brian: Actually, I think EPMD would have talked to me for a lot longer, but they were just really busy at the time I did those interviews, especially Erick Sermon. But even despite that, both of those guys gave me a lot of great info and I loved talking to them.
The thing I love about all the chapters in the book is that they each have their own personality. There’s no set structure (although most of them are the same — the Boogie Down Productions one is a notable exception), no set word count. They each just happen like they happen, and the quality of each is determined by how much time I’m able to
spend with each artist.
My only real strategy in talking to the artists is really just talking to them person-to-person, on the same level. Not as fan-to-superstar or even journalist-to-interviewee. Of course I’m a fan and a journalist, and a lot of these artists are indeed superstars, but I try and push that to the side whenever I can. Surprisingly, every one of these artists seem to be fine with that.
The way I see it, they’ve all done way too many interviews in the past that kiss their ass and just stay on the surface, so they all seem to find going in-depth like I try and do a refreshing change. I think that’s too bad, that they aren’t used to really digging into an interview. But I really have one rule — I won’t talk to artists on their “press days” when they have 10 interviews lined up and they just bang them out one after the other. That’s a horrible way to do an interview, although it’s obviously a necessity if you’re a big, in-demand star. But I’d rather wait a month or two (or more) to get a real interview, rather than take a 15-minute slot.
Levi: Did you feel intimidated by any of these artists? Are there any hiphop artists so great that you would be too nervous to interview them?
Brian: I’d be totally full of shit if I didn’t admit to being intimidated by some of these artists at first, just the thought of interviewing them. But not because I’m star-struck, because that’s one thing I’ve never been. It’s more because I just have so much respect for them and because their music means so much to me. So people like Chuck D or Ice-T or Rakim definitely got my butterflies going. But not for long … once things got going that all went away. And, in fact, those guys were some of the most fulfilling interviews I’ve ever done. That’s not surprising, though, because all of them are huge fans of hip-hop, and fans always have great conversations with other fans. That’s really the dialogue I’m trying to get going — to get the artists to, at times, step outside themselves as the artist and look at what they’ve done on a more objective level. To look at their albums like I look at them, as a fan.
Levi: Finally, if you don’t mind I’d like to bounce a theory of my own off you. Obviously, your book pays respect to old school hiphop, but I’ve been wondering if possibly the current decade, rather than the decades before, will go down in history as the greatest decade for hiphop.
Now, before you tell me I’m crazy, here’s the evidence: Jay-Z’s Blueprint … Dre’s 2001 … 50 Cent’s first (and only good) album … D-Block … Fat Joe … Mike Jones. Do you think the hiphop of today stands a chance of being remembered as equal to the legendary era, or not? And do you think you’ll ever write a book about the hiphop that’s on the radio today?
Brian: In my opinion, someone would be treading on thin critical ice by comparing D-Block or 50 Cent with actual hip-hop trailblazers like Public Enemy or Wu-Tang Clan … I would have to respectfully disagree with anyone that said that the last decade’s music can stand up to the innovation and artistry as the groups covered in Check the Technique [1986 – 1996].
And I think it’s important to point out one thing: selling great numbers of records doesn’t mean you’re a great artist. It means that you’re making music that people want to buy, for whatever reason. A lot of major label artists, in my opinion, have gotten it in their head that sales are more important than skills. Which is fine if you want to be rich. But don’t equate record sales with artistic greatness. De La Soul and Vanilla Ice both went platinum back in the day. Are they both great artists?
On the other side of the coin, the other aspect of what makes artists and albums classics is how much impact they had — on the industry as a whole, and on the music and artists that came in their wake. Will Mike Jones or Kanye have as much impact as Das Efx or Pete Rock & CL Smooth or the Geto Boys did? Maybe. Ask me in another five or ten years. I hold out hope that some of the stuff coming out today holds up in another five years and ten years. Every artist in Check the Technique does, to me at least. That’s why they’re in there.
As I’ve said in other interviews, as far as I can tell, there doesn’t seem to be much reward in 2007 in the major label game (aka the stuff people hear on the radio) for being original or being great. In fact, if you want to get on — or stay on — a major label, you generally get demerits for being different and going against the grain. Outkast, Timbaland and the Neptunes are exceptions, but they’ve all had to put up with a lot of bullshit in the industry before they got their current “carte blanche” status. It’s probably no surprise that those are the kinds of artists I’m drawn to — innovators, whether they sell a ton of records or not. When you can innovate and get paid, then that’s the best thing possible. I don’t have much respect for rich rappers who don’t have any real skills.
So … sorry D-Block or Diplomats or Ying Yang Twins, don’t wait around for my call about the next volume or the book. (I’m sure they’ll be heartbroken!)
Brian Coleman will be appearing in New York City on August 9 and in Philadelphia (with Q-Tip) on August 18. Check his website for more info.