Trying To Get To You

Monday, April 06, 2009

An Interview With Nelson George, Part One

Nelson George is a writer whose work I have enjoyed for years. His books, Where Did Our Love Go, The Death Of Rhythm And Blues, Hip-Hop America, have lovingly, intelligently and insightfully chronicled the history of soul and post-soul black music, looking behind the scenes and under the hood to get to the sometimes messy contradictions that are both behind the scenes, and in the grooves.

In addition to writing fifteen books, George has also written for the screen, and, in 2007, had his directorial debut with the HBO film Life Support, starring Queen Latifah.

George has recently released his own memoir,
City Kid, a chronicle of his growing up in the projects of Brooklyn, his family, and the enormous impact that music, literature and film has on his life. It's a gripping tale told from a perspective that is uniquely his own, one that has been a major contribution to music and film. I recently spoke with George by phone and we had a freewheeling conversation about soul, hip-hop, Brooklyn, President Obama, the decline of the record business and a lot more.

Q: The book is a chronicle of several things: of your family, of life in the ghetto, of New York in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. But what struck me is that the book is really about your love affair with art – music, literature and film, and how that sustained, inspired and propelled you into a different world. Looking back on your life, how do you see your relationship to art, and is it as sustaining for you now as it was then?

The great thing about growing up in New York, and what makes New York such a great place to live is if you’re able to access all the things that the city has to offer. My mother was a big movie fan so we saw tons of movies. We went to Radio City Music Hall and those kinds of places. We saw the beginnings of a lot of black theater – I remember going to see “The Me Nobody Knows,” and early 70’s black plays. I was a big reader as well, and by the time I got to high school it all sort of came together, and I started venturing out – into Times Square, into the Village, which was full of jazz clubs, and Soho – and I don’t even know if it was called that then – it was just a weird area with art galleries. By the time I was in college there was not only hip-hop, but there was a lot of great avant-garde jazz. The city not only gives stimulation, but it allows you to see different worlds. And for me, it’s still that.

In terms of film, besides maybe Paris, I don’t think there’s a better city for film. We still have some incredible revival houses. You can basically see the entire history of cinema on a screen in this town if you’re paying attention. There are films that get played here that don’t get played anywhere else. I recently went to see “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” a silent film from 1927 by Carl Dreyer. And man, it knocked me the fuck out. It’s an incredible piece of film making. You can go on a Saturday night and see a Danish silent film from 1927 on a big screen – those are the kinds of things that make New York special.

I know a lot of talk of like, “the city isn’t what it used to be” in terms of music, but I don’t know. Between the invitations I get to stuff going on in Williamsburg, what’s going on in Brooklyn, still what’s going on downtown – you can still get a great range of music – great DJ’s, great bands, right now. I think the difference between ten years ago – definitely twenty years ago – is that a lot of the action isn’t in Manhattan anymore. Brooklyn has become the cutting edge, and like most things, it’s driven by real estate – real estate is always the number one issue in New York City, and real estate has driven it to Brooklyn.

There’s a critical mass of creative people in this city, and despite the Internet, despite Twitter and all that stuff, people like to be among other people. And creative people like to be around other creative people. The city still has a strong berth on that.

Q: I want to ask you about your eclecticism of taste. You write very lovingly about a lot of different authors and musicians. But you started with soul music, and I’m wondering if there was something about soul that provided you with some sort of foundation with which to view art, and, is there a common thread when you’re being with a piece of art?

The thing that I learned from soul music that still stays with me is a quest for emotion. When I was directing Life Support I asked myself, “What is it I’m trying to do here – what is the thru line?” And I tossed away a lot of my intellectual stuff. I just asked myself, “What is the emotion of this scene? What is the core of this particular moment?” Queen Latifah is pretty funny and she kept telling me, “Stop saying so many words! Just tell me what the emotion is.” That’s something that kind of comes out of soul music. The great thing about soul music is that the words are vehicles – it comes out in the phrasing and the singing. The words on the page might not be much - they might even be banal, but it all comes out in the emotion of the moment.

I write about it in the book about when I was trying to understand why I responded to different works of art, and it all comes back to emotional reaction. If I don’t have an emotional reaction, than the intellectual side takes over. Then you go, “Well, it sounds like it was influences by blah blah blah.” If there’s no emotional connection, there’s nothing to analyze.

Q: Hip-hop is 30+ years old – I think this year is the 30th anniversary of Rapper’s Delight –

Oh, God. (Laughter)

- You chronicled the birth and growth of the music and you may be the journalist most closely identified with the music. What’s your relationship to hip-hop today? Does it still feel as vital to you?

What I would say is, we use this phrase hip-hop – what the fuck does that mean right now? When I hear the records that Hot 97 plays, I hear a lot of dance music. I hear some really good records, but I don’t hear anything that’s connected to ’87 or even ’92. Just because a guy is rhyming doesn’t make it hip-hop. I think when people use the phrase hip-hop, they’re now referring more to a marketing term rather than a cultural one. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s evolutionary. But I think the word has been devalued because of the way it’s been marketing. I don’t know if there’s hip-hop video games. I don’t see how there’s a rebel aesthetic in video games.

I saw that Def Jam video game when they’re wrestling. That’s hip-hop? Just because someone involved with hip-hop is involved in the game and they say it’s hip-hop doesn’t make it a valid definition. And it’s one reason there’s a lot of disillusionment is because the word itself has been devalued. I think Lil’ Wayne is hip-hop, and I think Kanye is mostly hip-hop, but not always. For me, hip-hop was most exciting when it was giving a voice to the voiceless, not just a commercial phrase to sell product – whether it’s music, clothes or watches. I don’t know if there’s a hip-hop watch. (Laughter)

You could say the same thing about rock – you can line up 50 rock fans and they won’t agree on a single band or what the meaning of the music is.

I actually think that rock is healthier now then it’s been in a long time, because you’ve fragmented away from the era where you had these dominant bands that sold out arenas. Because of the Internet and the breakdown of the record business, it feels more fan based to me. It feels far more organic to me than the top down shit.

My favorite band right now is TV On The Radio. I’ll listen to them more than any individual hip-hop artist, because it seems fresher, and it’s shit I never heard before. Their combination of elements – the way they use their voices and guitars – I never heard that before. That they’re from Brooklyn is a benefit (laughter). But I’m excited about them. And I’m really interested in the afro-punk thing. It seems like it’s growing organically, somewhat out of a reaction to hip-hop, quite honestly. I don’t know if it’ll be big. But if you throw in Santogold, TV On The Radio and even M.I.A., it’s already sort of arrived.

I have an office in the Village, and I was walking on Broadway the other day and I saw a guy who was totally b-boy’d down – 90’s b-boy. He’s wearing red, he’s got a baseball cap on sideways, he’s got matching white sneakers with red laces. And then I see these other kids walking, wearing straight jeans - the kind of faux-80’s outfit. And I thought, “The b-boy looks old! He looks like an old motherfucker from another era!” So there are new forces at work in the black culture that are tied to the pop culture. And I think that is one of the new movements that seems to have credibility to me, because it seems organic.

Q: So as someone who was an editor at Billboard, what are your thoughts about the decline of the record business?

The record business killed itself. I never thought it was a well-run business. When I was around it all those years, I thought there were a lot of people with a lot of passion, and a lot of people that didn’t give a fuck. And a lot of them weren’t business people – they were aficionados of music and they liked being around parties. And I’m even talking about big executives. I never felt like they were business people. I didn’t feel a lot of foresight.

For me, the key moment is when Napster comes out. I was at NYU teaching a class on the history of recorded music in 2000. And boom! The NYU Internet system collapses. And this happened at about five other universities that I know of, because kids are overloading the system, downloading and ripping music. This is a moment of critical mass – people are realizing that something is going on and it’s happening at the youth level. The record industry’s reaction is to sue Napster and sue their customers.

So what happened was that the technology was way ahead of the industry, and for three or four years, the industry’s reaction was to try to penalize the consumer. So they spun their wheels and went the wrong direction – alienated their artists, a lot of their consumer base. It took Apple with iTunes to figure it out. The technology people figured it out before the software people. It's been downhill for nine years.

Q: Greil Marcus’s “Mystery Train” was one of the most influential on me in terms of how I thought about and related to music. In City Kid you write about the impact the book had on you, especially the chapter on Sly Stone. How did you find that book?

I don’t know how I got turned onto that book – I think I read about it somewhere, and I was just knocked out. I had never read anything like that before. To me, black music had never been that well respected in terms of how it was written about. What I was feeling about the music when I was a kid – I wasn’t reading about it in Rolling Stone or in the Village Voice, at least not on a consistent basis. So when I read “Mystery Train,” I was like, “This is some shit.” He dug deep into the music, he dug deep into Sly’s persona, and he dug deep into the ramifications and the politics of the music. I just thought it was an amazing piece of writing.

The other chapter that was so big for me was the chapter on Robert Johnson. Because I had never heard of Robert Johnson before. And I remember going out and getting a Robert Johnson record and putting it on, and being like, “What the fuck.” That was the scariest shit – devil music.

I remember meeting Greil Marcus and him being amazed that I had first experienced Robert Johnson through his book. I owe him a major debt of gratitude. He gave me a way to think about writing about music and a guide into all of it. It’s a major piece of writing and I just hope that I’ve honored it.

Between Marcus and Robert Christgau, I really learned to see culture in the broadest way possible. So when people would say to me, “You’re a hip-hop writer,” I never saw it that way. I saw myself as someone writing about black culture – and hip-hop is one manifestation of that culture.

In the book, you write of LeRoi Jones’s book Blues People, saying, “The idea that our music was in a constant struggle with the forces of capitalism to define its own direction struck me as right on (and still does)." The dynamic of capitalism in black music has really shifted in the past twenty years – you have much more black ownership, you have the black mogul culturally, etc. How do you see that struggle playing out today?

Well, what Berry Gordy accomplished, no one has accomplished in quite the same way. But, the fact is that Russell Simmons, Andre Harrell, Damon Dash, Puffy, Jay-Z and a bunch of other guys have benefited from their music in a way that just wasn’t possible before, and, in fact, have expanded outside of music, using music as a platform for other businesses. I think that’s unprecedented and I’m really excited by it.

The caveat of that is: Are the values that these guys pursuing any more enlightened than the white executive might have been in that same position? That I’m not always sure about. Once you get past the idea that they’re black executives, you starting getting into the question of individual taste and the question of what are they going to do with their power. I think that’s a much more muddy thing.

In part two: George shares his thoughts about the Brooklyn renaissance, the value of hard work, his mother's example, what he's listening to these days and the impact of Barack Obama's election and presidency.


ambersun said...

Hi again

What a wonderful interview. I'm not that into music but, like Nelson George, I like to be around creative people.

I have a couple of friends who are also writers and that really helps me to keep it up.

Also the influences etc were interesting - I got a picture of a very inspired, and inspiring, personality.


Keith said...

I'm going to read this interview when I have more time. I saw it's in two parts. I like Nelson George. I had watched his show Soul Cities. I really liked that.

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