Boston-based music journalist and author Brian Coleman is quickly becoming one of the foremost voices on hip hop. 10 years spent producing articles and now releasing his third book on the genre, we find him delving into the creative process deeper than ever before. R$N thought it only right to challenge Brian with the tough questions – such as why do hip hop artists spend so much time choosing their names?
So Mike congratulations on the new book! With the great level of detail and so many interview subjects - how difficult was it to make?
These books are always a lot of work, but it’s all worth it in the end. The research is cool, the interviews are great, and the transcriptions are always the roughest! This latest one has more than 80 interviews with artists, record label people, managers and the like, and I don’t usually do short interviews, so most of them are at least 30 minutes long, and some go as long as three hours.
What compelled you to take on such a big undertaking?
Very good question! I originally started the process with my first book, Rakim Told Me, in 2005 and that was a result of me being frustrated with not getting enough word-count for articles I wanted to write in magazines with old-school artists. So I just put them out myself. The response was good, which led to Volume 1 in the series. There was a seven year gap between that volume and this one, I guess I needed to recharge and become re-energized. But I just love talking to artists and finding out what makes them tick and how they produce amazing music. Now that the book is actually out, this is the fun part, talking about all the hard work instead of doing it. If you had interviewed me a year ago I would have been about to slit my wrists!
How difficult was it to get hold of the artists? MF Doom for example?
Each chapter and each artist is its own adventure. Sometimes the biggest artists are easy and the more obscure ones are difficult. It’s all a big puzzle that I try and put together. A lot of times if one person in a group is tough to get to, you start with other members of their circle who will then help you get to your target.
Do some artists resent prying into their process and prefer to keep the mystique? Is there a danger that revealing too much of the process takes way some of the magic?
I don’t think the artists I interview tell me *everything*, but generally I think they are pretty open and generous with their time, memories and insights. I think that since most of these albums are 20 or even 30 years old, artists don’t mind going back and talking about them. They might have been a bit more guarded closer to when the albums first came out.
There are so many fascinating tales that come out - did anything surprise you about the making of any of the hip-hop albums in the book?
Sure, there are plenty of surprises! That’s what keeps me doing these. You’ll have to read the book to find out what those surprises are, but trust me, there are lots. I have never been asked for refund.
Were there any albums that you wish you could have covered?
Yes, lots! But I don’t worry about those. Up until this last volume I have covered 66 albums in-depth, so I have no complaints about the artists I have been able to get on the phone.
How has the process of making a hip-hop record changed since the beginning?
Obviously digital and “home” recording has changed a lot. Back in 1985 when Mantronix first came on the scene, the only way to edit songs was to use razor blades with the reel-to-reel tape. That is so ridiculously time-consuming, people can’t even imagine. But even into the early ‘90s, things were still very primitive, compared with today. Now, kids can make a whole album in their room with a laptop. And that’s great. But keep in mind – if you don’t make music that is innovative and/or connects with your audience, then it doesn’t matter how great technology is. That will never change. Plus I feel that all the work that old-school artists put in only helped build their bond, and that bond comes across in the music. There’s a difference you can hear when dudes are in the same room sweating for three days over a track, instead of emailing some MP3s across the country, sitting in their living room.
It was interesting to read about how much thought artists put into their names and song titles – I’m thinking of Doom thinking up the name Zev Love X as an example. Are names more important in hip-hop than any other kind of music?
That’s a good question. I would say that many hip-hop artists take more time with their names and song titles. Although Prince certainly spends a lot of time. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are more important. I guess rock people don’t care as much. It’s just personal preference, I suppose.
Did you learn anything about the act of musical creation? Were there common themes between each development process?
That question is pretty broad, but every chapter in all of my books is about learning about musical creation. It makes fans appreciate the music more and for musicians who read them, hopefully it might make them work harder the next time they are working on a song. As for common themes, I always like to bring out the work and struggles that artists go through. Classic music isn’t easy and hip-hop music creation isn’t just pushing buttons. It’s all about innovation and energy and dedication to the craft.
What impact do you hope this book will have?
I hope fans will love their favorite albums even more than they already do, I hope that people who don’t know some of the artists in the book will seek out their music and love it someday soon, and I hope artists that read these chapters are inspired to make amazing, classic, timeless music themselves.
This being your third book in the same vein as well as the articles you have written you must have picked up quite a body of knowledge. How do you see your role in the culture of hip-hop and music generally now?
I am really just a tour-guide, helping artists to tell their stories. They are fully capable of telling their own stories, but if I can help push them to do it sooner, that’s great. But I am just approaching these albums as a fan, gaining knowledge and insights that I am sharing with fellow fans.
What do you see for the future of hip-hop?
Wow, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? No one can predict the future, but as long as artists continue to innovate and strive to be different and push the artform ahead, the music will be fine. Maybe that will be from artists on major labels, maybe on indie labels, maybe self-released. But new artists are born every day – if you are a creator, you create, you just can’t help it.