I hate Brian Coleman. Ask any other nerdy fan of hip-hop and we’re all liable to feel the same way. It’s because on some level, we’re envious of how Coleman has built a reputation doing what we can only dream about: talking to our favorite rappers.
Based in Boston, his career as a music journalist and historian spans nearly two decades, accented with by-lines in notable hip-hop publications like The Source, XXL, Scratch, Wax Poetics, and URB, to name a few. He managed to accomplish it all in between his career as a marketing professional and managing his Good Road media relations agency and record label.
Coleman has also published a series of critically-acclaimed anthologies that dig deep into the history behind a range of hip-hop albums, speaking directly with rappers to deconstruct their legendary albums track-by-track.
With his latest release, Check the Technique, Volume 2: More Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies (Wax Facts Press, 2014), Coleman continues a decade-plus-long journey through hip-hop history that he began with Rakim Told Me: Wax Facts Straight from the Original Artists—The ‘80s (Wax Facts Press, 2005) and continued with the original Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies (Villard / Random House, 2007). His new book adds to a body of work that has already received stamps of approval from the likes of Questlove and Public Enemy’s Chuck D.
What makes Coleman’s historical writing unique is that despite the potentially dense subject matter, he doesn’t pretend to approach it as an academic. He’s just a dyed-in-the-wool fan of hip-hop who loves to dig deep into the culture’s history. Coleman’s excitement bleeds onto the page in his new volume that features even more history behind 25 classic rap albums, ranging from the influential to the sometimes overlooked acts of rap including Ice Cube, Stetsasonic, Ed O.G. & Da Bulldogs, Company Flow, KMD, and Raekwon.
How did you go about getting access to speak with so many artists?
I’ve been at this for a while, almost two decades, so I have a decent Rolodex (kids, you can look up what that is). But even with that, it’s never easy. There’s never a set path to get to an artist.
Sometimes it’s via a publicist or manager, sometimes by talking to a friend of the artist or someone they work with. Sometimes getting a number from someone who says, “But you didn’t get this number from me.” (I remember Fredro Starr from Onyx yelled at me initially, before I explained to him why I was calling… you don’t always get that chance before someone hangs up). Sometimes it takes years to get in contact, sometimes it never happens. I always say that the chapters I do are just meant to happen, and the ones that don’t happen …. aren’t. That saves me from getting annoyed.
Who was the hardest to track down?
That’s a long list. Rakim was amazing to speak with once I got him (years ago), but getting him on the phone took months. Kurtis Mantronik is pretty reclusive, I only got him once and that was via email. I tried several ways to get him for the updated “The Album” chapter in the new volume of my book, but most people didn’t even know what continent he was on. No joke.
As hip-hop fans, we’re often tempted to take a hardline stance with our opinions, especially when it comes to older hip-hop albums. That “golden age” nostalgia can mess with our objectivity. Did you have to avoid that trap when it came time to select albums to research?
Even though I’m not a young person (I’m 44), I think I still have a pretty open mind when it comes to hip-hop. I haven’t gotten old and lame, I still get amped when I hear a dope album by a new artist who stretches boundaries and doesn’t just copy someone else. So it’s not just some “old man shit” when I say that the incredible hip-hop albums produced in the past 10 years can be counted on two hands and maybe a couple toes.
Hip-hop artists, on the whole, just don’t care about making albums anymore. Or at least they don’t try very hard. That doesn’t mean that a lot of artists don’t make great music… I’m not saying that. But making great albums is an art that for the most part died off in the late ‘90s for whatever reason.
So no, I don’t worry about not covering any albums from 2000 onwards. I stick with the Golden Age, because I was there (as a fan) and because that’s when the best hip-hop albums were made. Anyone who thinks differently is wrong.
All the albums you chronicle in your books were made with at least some analog gear. With digital gear getting cheaper and computers more powerful, do you think this affects the “magic” behind the creation of albums today?
I definitely think that magic is lost when people just email MP3s back and forth. There’s just no way you can truly collaborate that way. Email producing means that you produce at your convenience. There’s a lot to be said about guys gathered together at Calliope or D&D Studios in the ‘80s and ‘90s and throwing ideas back and forth until 5 a.m.. Taking inspiration from hearing what Q-Tip or Premier was working on in the next room and wanting to one-up him. That’s not as much of an analog vs. digital thing, but obviously very few people in 2015 record on analog equipment. So it’s more of an era thing.
Still, being able to edit a track on a computer and email it to someone changes everything. The best music is produced with people in a room together, shooting down bad ideas and being inspired by good ones. So whether it’s analog or digital, if you work on it together and put some sweat and work into it, I believe that comes through in what listeners hear.
“The more we help each other, the more it helps the music we love, and everything that surrounds it.”
I saw recently that for your latest book, you had access to fellow hip-hop archivist Bill Adler’s archives: tons of article clippings, posters, and even internal record label documents. Cornell University recently added it all to their own growing hip-hop history archives, which already included vinyl records from Afrika Bambaataa’s personal collection and Joe Conzo’s photography.
Indeed, I was VERY fortunate to have had access to Bill Adler’s Hip-Hop Archives at Cornell as I was gathering information and images to include in my book. While I was there, I also checked out Joe Conzo’s and Charlie Ahearn’s archives. Cornell is a truly amazing place, they are doing incredible work archiving hip-hop culture, far beyond the music. Katherine and Ben, who run it, are also just good people. I encourage people to check them out on Twitter and Facebook and see more info at http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/hiphop/.
How would you describe the spirit of collaboration among hip-hop historians like you, Adler, and Conzo?
Those guys are two of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet, and both have been incredibly helpful to me and supportive of my work over the years. Which means a LOT to me, because I’m nowhere near them when it comes to being deep in the hip-hop game. So as for collaboration with both guys, I would say it’s all been very open and a dream come true. I generally find that people who are trying to do good work documenting this culture are all very open and helpful with each other. I think we all realize that the more we help each other, the more it helps the music we love, and everything that surrounds it.
And I definitely feel that other institutions are starting to do great things documenting the culture, and teaching it as well. I’m not part of the academic world, I’m not a professor. But I know a lot of amazing people out there, from world-renowned institutions to community colleges, teaching hip-hop to young people. I wish I had that kind of framework when I was in school, so hopefully kids realize how lucky they are.
“Indie artists have a hell of a time in 2015.”
Some indie labels like Heavy Jewelz Records have popped up, attempting to dig through the archives and repress music from obscure or lesser-known rap acts like Othorized Fam, Gee Rock, and 12 Block on vinyl, as well as digitize it. Some of this music could only ever be found on cassettes the rappers personally made and sold.
Will we ever be able to bridge the gap and make the obscure but important hip-hop music from the ‘80s and ‘90s more accessible, especially in today’s Internet age of instantly share-able music?
I think you answered your own question — just doing work like those labels are doing is making more music available to fans. I’m a record collector, so I know the whole “this is obscure, I’m going to keep it to myself” vibe, although I’ve never bought into it. So if people want to hear those groups you mentioned above (none of which I have ever heard of!), it’s great that people can now hear it.
Back when I was coming up in the ‘80s, it was a lot harder to hear the obscure stuff. You had to search for months and years. Now you can do an online search and hear it in 15 seconds.
I’m sure that the music you’re talking about will make it online soon enough — it’s probably there already — and when it does, people will decide whether it stays obscure or blows up, or somewhere in the middle. As long as it’s available, that’s the most important thing. And hopefully the artists will make some money off of it.
The one bad thing about having so much music online is that younger people (chiefly) think that music should be free. That there’s no harm in bootlegging music. They feel entitled, and they shouldn’t. Artists, especially indie artists, have a real tough time supporting themselves. If you like their music, support them. Even if that means going to a show and buying a t-shirt or something after you downloaded their shit for free. I wish people would stop stealing music, they are just fucking over artists they claim to love. It was different with major label artists in the ‘80s and ‘90s — they got advances, so if you bootlegged you were mostly fucking over the major labels and honestly those labels deserved it. But indie artists have a hell of a time in 2015.
Who’s been getting a lot of rotation on your turntable/MP3 player nowadays?
I don’t fuck with music on computers.
It’s just not the same. And I’m not saying that to try and be cool and retro, I really dislike MP3s. They depress me, so I avoid them whenever I can. I listen to CDs, because I have a CD player in my car and because I moved recently and all my vinyl is in boxes in the attic. So I am a little bit of a hypocrite, I can admit it.
I still mostly listen to old music, and more rock than hip-hop (or at least it’s evenly divided). If people make music that is worthwhile, then I’ll buy it and support. But I still buy mostly old records.
Here’s a list of artists I have listened to in the past week, if that helps: Latin Rascals (old radio tape, transferred to CD, from 1984), Chuck Brown, Bikini Kill, Minutemen, Jurassic 5, The JBs, “Wild Style” soundtrack, Adrian Younge / Venice Dawn.
Shabazz Palaces is awesome. High on Fire is awesome. Dead Meadow is awesome. Pharrell is not awesome.
Thankfully I don’t review records for a living, because that would be pretty depressing nowadays! I was doing that in a good era (1996 to about 2004).
You’ve done hundreds of great interviews already — what’s next for you? Is there any specific rapper or group that you would consider a “bucket list” interview at this point?
I’m honestly not exactly sure what’s next, I’m doing some freelance writing and PR right now. It’s very doubtful that I’ll do another Check the Technique book, I am pretty spent on that format. I’m surprised that I did as many as I did, honestly, I usually don’t have much patience for repetition.
What I’d really love to do is work with one artist or figure and dive deep and tell their story with them. I have never really had full access or collaboration and I would really enjoy that.
As for who that artist might be, I have some ideas but nothing has happened yet. So I’ll just keep on digging.
And as for a bucket list interviewee? I have talked to a lot of my idols already and I’m VERY fortunate in that regard. But I’d love to speak with Dr. Dre at some point. For seven hours.