[Interview] Brian Coleman: Reflections Of Classics (Part I)
Brian Coleman has spent many years contributing to the preservation of hip-hop culture through his writing on classics and the underappreciated. His two books, Rakim Told Me and Check The Technique, are must reads for people interested in the creation of some of the finest albums in hip-hop history. In part one of our interview with Brian, he spoke to Hip-Hop Authority about his career in journalism and what led to him publishing his first book.
By: Matt Wright
Brian Coleman: My whole thing all along has never been I’m the best writer out there, or I’m the best historian out there, but more just this is the kind of book that I myself would buy. So, whoever did it, somebody’s got to do it. So, that was always kind of my approach. It was never make a lot of money, get famous, or anything even remotely related to that, but just this information is important and it’s got to get out there. So, obviously I was counting on likeminded people like yourself and thousands; there’s lots of us out there! I definitely appreciate all that.
HHA: Well, both books are awesome, but let’s talk about your writing career. How did you first get started writing specifically about hip-hop?
Brian Coleman: Coming up, let’s see in high-school, I’m 41 now so I came up in high-school in the mid to late 80s. I was originally, kind of, the music that caught my attention, first and foremost, was punk. I would go to shows. I went to high-school in Central New Jersey outside of Trenton, so I would go to this club called City Garden there in Trenton that was like the local, kind of, punk club that all the touring punk bands would come there. I was always drawn to the energy of punk rock, and the community aspect/the communal aspect of it. So, basically that was my thing through 1985/1986. At the same time I was listening to Run-DMC, Fat Boys, Kurtis Blow – stuff that was on MTV at the time. Keep in mind that I was fourteen years old living in the suburbs, so it’s not like there were tons of City Gardens, or anyplace wasn’t really booking anything, so I couldn’t really see it live at that point without really trying hard, and when you’re fourteen years old there’s only so much you can kind of do outside of your immediate city.
I was kind of aware of hip-hop, and once it got to the mid to late 80’s I was kind of more aware of what hip-hop was as an art form, and what it meant to sample music and things like that. Getting into Public Enemy and the Bomb Squad, and I used to listen to Red Alert’s show all the time; every weekend. So I was starting to kind of understand that hip-hop was a communal music just the same, in certain ways, the same as punk was. Clearly different people involved in the subculture coming from different backgrounds, but not a hundred percent. I certainly noticed the similarities and was really interested in that more than just typical rock music, or pop, or whatever.
My whole thing was never to be a writer; it was always just a fan. I went to school, I got a communications degree, and I never really throughout my twenties had a desire to be a writer, I was just a fan. I was listening to hip-hop, I was still listening to punk, and rock, and a whole bunch of different stuff. So, I’ve never been exclusively a hip-hop person, but I’ve always been interested in how hip-hop is put together as a musical artform, and how different that is to rock and roll, and country, and every other kind of music. The producer in hip-hop is very different from rock and any other kind of artform, in that they’re much more actively engaged as a song writer than your typical producer – your kind of George Martin, Mutt Lange; Rick Rubin kind of straddled that.
Basically, I was in Boston in the late 90s and there weren’t really enough people writing about hip-hop for my liking, and I wanted to read more about it, and in the vein of the artists that I respect in both hip-hop and punk it was – if I don’t like what’s out there and I can do a good enough job, or a better job, than fuck it, I’ll just do it myself and we’ll see what happens. So, I started writing for a local publication here in Boston called Boston Rock Magazine. It was just basically reviewing stuff that people weren’t talking about as much in Boston, and I felt they should of, like The Roots were starting to make some waves at that point, and a lot of underground stuff especially – Fondle Em’ Records and stuff like Doctor Octagon was coming out at the time. So, my writing career just basically started because no one else was really covering hip-hop as much as I thought they should, and I was like, ‘I’m not going to be the best person doing it, but I’ll at least give it a shot.’ Things kind of went from there. I guess I created a bit of a niche for myself in that most people were interested in what was popular at the time, when you’re talking about hip-hop writing, and I was more interested in the classic stuff and underground things that weren’t being covered as much, because I didn’t really think much of what was popular at the time the Bad Boy stuff wasn’t very interesting.
It just kind of led to, you know, there’s a magazine called CMJ, they are the college radio magazine and there was a newsstand monthly; I wrote for both of them for a while; XXL, and I just kind of fell into a bit of a niche, and I enjoyed doing it, and I guess the publications felt what I was doing was worthy enough. I just basically became the guy at certain places who, you know, if it was the underground, independent hip-hop release, or if it was an old school thing, ‘Well, call Coleman because he’s that guy that writes that. Give that to him so we can focus on the stuff that actually sells magazines. ’ And I was like, that’s fine with me, and it meant that I wasn’t getting tons and tons of assignments, and I wasn’t getting the big cover stories because the stuff I covered was not very sexy, but I felt that stuff was actually a lot more important because once you get into the magazine world, it’s a little bit of a tightrope –and I understand the politics of how that stuff works – in that you have to sell magazines or you go bankrupt, so that’s fair but you also have to have balance. I guess I was one of many guys providing balance to the kind of cover story type stuff.
HHA: When you started writing for XXL, how did you eventually become the columnist who would do Classic Material? How did you get that part and how long were you doing that?
Brian Coleman: Let’s see. I did that, gosh that’s so long ago. I think my first one was in 1999; don’t quote me on that a hundred percent, but I believe I started doing that in 1999. I would have to look back and see if I was the first person to do it. It was basically Elliott Wilson’s idea to do the column, who was the editor, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’d love to do it.” And like I was saying, I was kind of that guy. I’d written for XXL for a little while doing reviews and some features – I did a big Ultramagnetic feature in the late 90s.
HHA: Really? I never saw that one
Brian Coleman: You know, that one basically, parts of that –those initial interviews and then I did tons more to replace the initial one- there’s that big Ultramagnetic chapter in Rakim Told Me. He just asked me if I wanted to do it on a monthly basis, and I said, ‘I’d be absolutely thrilled,’ because that was exactly in my wheelhouse of what I was interested in doing, and honestly what I was good at. Which was, kind of being able to contextualize the classic albums for an audience that had come along, and potentially might not have had any idea who Schoolly D, or some of the artists who weren’t currently huge (were). So if you were fifteen, you were five when they came out, so you wouldn’t be aware. Just kind of contextualizing that, and I did the column, pretty steadily, for five years until the mid 2000s. At which point I just started to focus more on book stuff for whatever reason.
HHA: It seemed they kept that column around for a little while longer, but somebody else was doing it, and then it kind of disappeared after a while.
Brian Coleman: Yeah yeah, I mean I never owned the column. I never claimed to have “invented it.” It was definitely a column and I was the guy doing it, and so it wasn’t like, ‘Oh my God, Brian Coleman’s not doing it anymore; we have to retire it.’ It stayed around for a while after I left. I think Oliver Wang did some; they would have different people doing it and it kept going for a while. It was a great column, it was a great idea for a column, and it was a very important column – not because I did it – but because it was important to have it out there and have that, like I was talking about before, that balance.
HHA: For me, I like the type of stuff like your books, and more the underground magazines that were around at the time, and things like that. If I did pick up XXL, it was just to read the reviews and read that column, so it definitely served its purpose in terms of drawing other readers in that maybe wouldn’t usually pick up the magazine.
Brian Coleman: Props go out to XXL for doing that because they did realize, as any magazine should, that unless you’re Teen Beat, or you’re trying to just do only the super bubblegum hits of the day, you have to provide balance. Hip-hop is a culture; it’s not just a fad, as clearly that’s been clear for thirty years now, so it’s really important to have the balance there so it’s not just only the new popular stuff. You know, doing Lil Wayne features all the time, but talking about the artists that laid the groundwork, and the concrete foundation, for what hip-hop culture is.
HHA: After you were writing for XXL, amongst other places, when did you come up with the idea to transition those types of things into the book format?
Brian Coleman: Basically, this just kind of goes back to the reality of magazines, in that I was always appreciative that I got the chance to interview all these artists for the column, and for other features, and in general, but the fact was they were never going to run a five page feature on Schoolly D, or on any of the artists, honestly, that I have ever covered. I’ve always been a fan of long form interview features, which clearly include books. The writers like, any kind of writers you want to talk about, from Nelson George and David Toop, to Peter Guralnick and some of the people who covered rock and roll, and to a more limited extent hip-hop in a more extended format. So, what I always started realizing, after a little while, was that I was always kind of bitching and moaning, and it wasn’t any magazine’s fault, it was just the nature of the beast that they weren’t going to run a huge feature on the Jungle Brothers or Ultramagnetic; that really wasn’t going to happen on a consistent basis. And I said, well, there were a couple of – hip-hop in itself is a very diy aesthetic, just like punk rock was – basically, if you don’t like what’s being done, or if you think there’s a “market” out there for what you’re doing, than just do it yourself if you’re not happy with it.
It’s very democratic as well because if you put out a 7” or a 12” and nobody buys it, that means that maybe you were wrong. Maybe there weren’t enough people out there , or maybe you weren’t good enough.
It’s kind of where I got to the point of saying, ‘I want to do this in a longer format. I want to present a five thousand word piece.’ And honestly, the other thing about magazines is that they are here today and gone tomorrow; they’re ephemeral and books are not. Books, I’ve always had a respect for books and how they’re forever. And since I wasn’t doing stuff that was, you know, the new Mase or Shyne album, or something like that; I was writing about things that had permanence , and were classics, and had already been established as classics, so they would be as interesting to someone today as they would be to someone in ten to fifteen years. I just said, ‘Well, I guess I should just put out a book.’
Over the years I’ve talked to different agents, both like literary agents and different publishers, and they’ve all expressed varying degrees of interest. I really came to the point where I, at least initially, said, ‘Well, why don’t I just do this myself? I can figure this out, or other people have done this on their own and self published books.’ I don’t know if you are familiar with the Freddy Fresh books?
HHA: Yeah, I have the first one that came out.
Brian Coleman: Freddie Fresh did that book, and he originally just photocopied it. He literally just photocopied the book, and it wasn’t pretty, but that’s not the point. Books aren’t always about being a beautiful presentation; it’s about putting the information out there.
There’s another guy Del Jones, I think out of Philadelphia, who put out a bunch of self-published books. Scoop Jackson, who I don’t know if you know Scoop.
HHA: The basketball writer?
Brian Coleman: Yeah, so Scoop actually put out a really dope book called, something like Tales from the Darkside, which is a pretty incredible book. (Looking for book) Oh, here it is: The Darkside. Yeah, Robert Scoop Jackson, where if it wasn’t self-published, it was definitely on a very small press: Noble Press out of Chicago, 1997.
So, It’s not like me doing Rakim Told Me was that revolutionary. A lot of people had done it before me. They hadn’t done a book like Rakim Told Me, so I said, as I always have in my career, ‘Let me just give this a shot.’ And honestly, it’s funny, what I did was – Wax Poetics has always been a favorite publication of mine; I’ve known Andre Torres: Editor and founder for a long time, and I just called him up and said, ‘Who prints your book? Who prints you every month?’ Because it looks really good, it’s not super glossy, and it’s not clearly super expensive, but it looks really great. So he told me and I just called those guys up and said, ‘What do I have to do?’
Basically what I did was I just started doing these interviews in a longer format, instead of not in six hundred words or eight hundred words – which eventually my columns were getting less and less space in the magazine – which wasn’t necessarily anything against me; I didn’t take it personally but that was just the way things were going. So, I said, ‘I’m going to present these the way I think they should be presented,’ and that’s what I did. I just compiled and did a ton more interviews, and compiled the first book which was all 80s. The Rakim Told Me was all 80s albums, and clearly not comprehensive – like these are the only classic albums that came out in the 80s – but here’s a collection of albums that I consider to be classics – only me, and I put it out there. So that was 2005 that Rakim Told Me came out.
In my theory, the marketing plan, which is in quotes because I didn’t have much of a plan, was I’m going to put this in record stores instead of bookstores. Because at a record store, first of all, it clearly fits in because it’s all about records. But secondly, it’s going to stand out because a book stands out at a record store; a book does not stand out at a book store. I knew that it was going to be swimming upstream to try and get it into Barnes & Noble, and Borders, and all of those huge mega chains like Wal-Mart or K-Mart. So I set my sights lower and that ended up really working out because it did get the attention of people in the record store.
I sold a lot on Amazon too, just because standing on the shoulders of much better writers than myself like Jeff Chang, whose book was out at the time, and on Amazon it will pop up, ‘If you like this, you’ll also like this.’ My book, thankfully, would pop up in there. Or, people who bought Jeff Chang’s book also bought this book. That was really the whole plan for it, and it ended up selling really well, and that was gratifying. It was never because it was the most beautiful looking book or the best written , but just because those albums, as you know, and your readers know, those are the albums that really just strike a cord with people who love golden era hip-hop. Who want to know more because this info had never really been out there, and I always felt it should, so that is really just the basic story of it all.
Next Week, in part II on our interview with Brian Coleman, he discusses the response to Rakim Told Me, how Check The Technique came to fruition, artists’ reactions to inclusion in his books, and a lot more.