A few months ago I went to a minor league hockey game in Worcester, Massachusetts with my friend and fellow hockey fan Brian Coleman. Brian is a huge fan of Peter Forsberg and while I have a difficult time comprehending that, I allow it. Anyway, he and I have a very long history. We are actually twins, in fact, but got seperated at birth due to some, uh, situations which involved cases upon cases of black market Buffrin, some illegally smuggled poisonous cobras and Jarts, those crazy lawn darts from back it the 1970s. Really – don’t ask.
Anyway, Brian and I were sitting and chatting when he told me he was in the process of putting the finishing touches on a book he had been working on. The idea he had for the book was one of those ideas where, after hearing it, you smack yourself in the forehead and say “why the hell can’t I come up with an idea like that?” For me, I didn’t need to smack myself in the forehead, though, as an errant slap shot took care of the job.
When I came to, Brian explained to me that back in the 1980s all those crazy-ass, massively influential rap records never had liner notes! I started thinking back to my high school days about the rap records I owned – the Run-DMC stuff, The Beastie Boys, etc. He was right! Brian has since grown up (ahem) to become a damn solid human being and also a writer (me = jealous). He’s been published in various newspapers and magazines such as XXL, Scratch, Complex, CMJ Weekly & Monthly, URB, The Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Blaze and the NY Press. He’s a walking encyclopedia of of many different kinds of music, despite his apartment, which literally drips with vinyl, cassettes and CD’s.
Anyway, Brian went back and expanded many of his “Classic Material” columns in XXL and put together what I define as definitive and ultimate liner notes for many classic rap and hip-hop albums, most of which make up the foundation for the very genre. Interviewed are Run-DMC, Schoolly D, 2-Live Crew, De La Soul, Public Enemy, Ice-T and one of my personal favorites, Slick Rick. And more. All told, 21 chapters and whole hell of a lot of blanks filled.
What I find most admiring about this endeavor is that Brian decided to release the book himself, bypassing all the distribution bullshit one has to endure. So, while inexplicably still a fan of cassette tapes, it’s refreshing to see that Brian is also dialed into the new century, where self-publishing of media is fast becoming an accepted and in some cases, quite profitable venture. If you are at all a fan of old school hip-hop or rap, I implore you to buy this book, It’s well written, interesting and a fun romp down memory lane.
Before we get to today’s very special RustedRobot feature, I should also mention that Brian also dabbles in the web, having been a part of two unbelieveably funny (and now defunct) websites which defy explanation. The URL’s alone merit enough laughter and I think it best we keep it all a secret for now.
So after all that – I bring you the latest installment of Item Five, featuring author, music fan, and friend, Brian Coleman. Hit it, run.
1. My introduction to hip-hop/rap was Run-DMC’s “King of Rock” back in 1985 and I attribute/blame it all on MTV. As a somewhat normal kid in the ‘burbs, it kind of blew my mind to hear and see that stuff. What was your introduction and do you remember anything specific about it?
I donâ€™t think either of us were alone in getting introduced to hip-hop music through MTV and also by Run-DMC. I remember digging The Fat Boys before Run-DMC, but both groups started captivating me around the same time, 1983 and 1984. People front on the FatBoys, now and also back then, but they were a very talented group of guys. They played the gimmick up, of course, and became somewhat cartoonish, but their first two or three albums were great. I didnâ€™t even know it at the time, but Kurtis Blow produced them. I dug â€œBasketballâ€ by Kurtis Blow back then, too, come to think of it.
Iâ€™m not sure that I remember anything too specific about my first exposure. I remember the videos, of course. And I remember I always used to mow lawns (I had a small biz doing lawns for extra cash in High School) to Run-DMCâ€™s â€œKing Of Rockâ€ album, definitely. I memorized it.
I think also like a lot of people, I didnâ€™t treat hip-hop that much differently than any other music at the time. Iâ€™ve never listened to just one kind of music in my life, not back then and not now. So I was definitely buying Run-DMC and Boogie Boys albums at the same time I was checking out The Police and Black Flag and the Descendents. In reality, I was more of a punk rock kid than anything else, especially by the time I got to high school. So groups like Public Enemy and even the Beastie Boys werenâ€™t a stretch, in attitude and approach.
2. Come clean – did you ever attempt break-dancing in public back then? Ever rap in the mirror?
To be honest, I never had the desire to break-dance. I respect it as an artform and as one of the four elements of hip-hop (alongside MCing, DJing and graffiti writing), but itâ€™s never been anything Iâ€™ve been drawn to. Iâ€™m sure hip-hop nation is thankful for that. And yes, I have rapped in the mirror. Mostly LL Cool Jâ€™s â€œI Need Love.â€ You should have that memorized if you want to show your sensitive side in high school.
3. You and I were talking the other day and you mentioned something about trying to get a hold of hip-hop musicians which I thought was pretty funny. Tell it…..
Hip-hop guys, old-school and new, are always an adventure to get in touch with. Iâ€™ve never really tried to track down rock superstars, but Iâ€™m sure theyâ€™re about the same. I blame cell phones (note: I donâ€™t have one and hope to never own one). It makes people even harder to get in touch with, since most of the guys Iâ€™ve dealt with change their cell numbers at least every couple months. They must lose them often or the numbers get out and they get a lot of calls they donâ€™t want. So, eventually, you learn that if you want to stay in touch with anyone past the interview youâ€™re doing, make sure you not only get their info, but their managerâ€™s and/or some of their friendsâ€™ also. For example, trying to keep up with Kool Keith is near impossible, but I know Kutmasta Kurt (who works with him all the time) and Kurtâ€™s much easier to reach. So when I need Keith, I reach out to Kurt. It becomes a game many times, and not always a fun one, especially when youâ€™re on deadline. For example, I remember I had to talk to about six people to get to Erick Sermon from EPMD, and this was after I already had his cel number and had left a couple messages. Guess itâ€™s not easy being so popular. I donâ€™t have that problem so I canâ€™t really relate.
4. I found that one of the most surprising chapters in the book was the 2 Live Crew chapter, a group I had kind of written off at the time as almost a joke band. Turns out they were far more influential than I thought. Have you “loved them long time?”
Sure, Iâ€™ve always loved 2 Live Crew. Iâ€™m sure I first got exposed to them with the â€œAs Nasty As They Wanna Beâ€ album [which I cover in the book], but in the years since Iâ€™ve dug a lot deeper, into their earlier stuff. And Iâ€™ve also talked to Mr. Mixx several times â€“ heâ€™s a really nice guy. 2 Live Crew were hugely influential in the South, Midwest and West, more than almost any New York rappers. Itâ€™s no stretch to say that hip-hop music in Florida or Texas, for example, is a whole different world than whatâ€™s coming out of New York. And artists will tell you â€“ down there itâ€™s about the SOUND (and, many times, the BASS), not as much about the lyrics. And, granted, a lot of 2 Live Crew lyrics werenâ€™t up to par with a more accomplished lyricist like Rakim or Special Ed. But then again, if you went to a jam in Atlanta, youâ€™d get a lot more people on the floor with 2 Live Crew than you would with a Rakim track. Itâ€™s all about where youâ€™re at and what youâ€™re trying to do. It doesnâ€™t mean that either of them are better or worse. But ask Luke from 2 Live Crew how much money he made back in 1988 and then ask Rakim. Rakim had more respect, of course, but Luke probably made about 10x as much cash, because he put his stuff out on his own label and went gold and platinum.
On the artistic side with 2 Live Crew, Mr. Mixxâ€™s music and DJing were most definitely influential, especially back when 2 Live Crew [as it also explains in the chapter, Luke wasnâ€™t in the first version of 2 Live Crew, which started in California, not Miami â€¦ but Mixx was] first started getting heard in early 1986. They could do no wrong back then, everywhere *but* New York.
5. Rap/hip-hop have long been critized in the media as having negative influence on kids due to the content of the lyrics and images/stereotypes portrayed in videos. What’s your opinion on that?
Itâ€™s impossible to make broad judgments on hip-hop, whether positive or negative. Just like rock music. People forget that, I think, and figure that because 50 Cent is popular and they donâ€™t know shit about hip-hop, that he must be the representative of the whole genre.
Rather than being a negative influence, Iâ€™m more concerned with the lack of originality in hip-hop in the past 10 years than I am about the images and stereotypes it portrays. I agree that most groups on major labels (50 Cent, Jay-Z, P-Diddy) portray horrible images of themselves, and of women especially. But what annoys me more is how brainless and unchallenging all of their lyrics are. Think about it this way: horrible images can be found anywhere â€“ have you ever watched Law & Order: SVU? Or, on the dangerous ideas front, what about â€œJackassâ€ or â€œbackyard wrestlingâ€ videos? Iâ€™d rather have my kid watching women dancing around in bikinis than hearing about some of the heinous things that happen to kids and women on SVU. You can always raise kids right so that they know how to treat people with respect. I
mean, Iâ€™ve always listened to a lot of Slayer, but that doesnâ€™t mean I love Satan and want to go out and kill people. And I like Judas Priest, but I havenâ€™t ever wanted to kill myself.
Overall, the thing that makes me sad about kids today who buy albums by the abovementioned artists just seem kind of sheep-like, or at least not people who care about music or people who can look at things critically. There are dozens and dozens of great hip-hop groups (on the major labels thereâ€™s Kanye West, Jurassic 5 and even Nas and Dead Prez on occasion; and in the indie world there are so many â€“ Madlib, Mr. Lif, Lyrics Born, Edan, Z-Trip, Blueprint and Anticon for starters) out there making thoughtful, provocative and superior music. You just donâ€™t see them on MTV. But MTV isnâ€™t to blame â€“ theyâ€™re in the business of making money and theyâ€™ll make it however they can. Showing hip-hop artists driving around in fancy cars and letting women sell themselves out to make $500 as an extra in a video is just the easiest way to do that. If you stop watching and buying those albums, theyâ€™d have to change the way they think about things. All you have to do is read a magazine like URB or check out Davey Dâ€™s website to find hundreds of alternatives. Kids who buy 50 Cent albums are just lazy, I think. If they had an alternative and compared it against what they listen to now theyâ€™d probably take it. When I was 15 I didnâ€™t just accept whatever was on the radio, I went digging for stuff. 50 Cent should indeed be able to make all that money if people are dumb enough to buy his albums. Itâ€™s a free country.
6. My first rap concert was the Beastie Boys at the Worcester Centrum in 1986 on the “Licenced to Ill” tour. I was 15! Public Enemy were the opening band. Which of those two groups do you think had more importance to the hip-hop/rap world in the 1986-1992 time period?
Thatâ€™s a tough question. Both of them were hugely influential, for different reasons. The Beastie Boys were (and still are) only moderately talented as MCs. Their first album was important because: (1) they were white, and white kids who didnâ€™t like hip-hop were all of a sudden like â€œhey, rap music is pretty good, it even has guitars and everything.â€ And we all know what â€œcrossover successâ€ means to a group, and in this case, a whole genre. The Beasties were a gateway to getting to Boogie Down Productions and Eric B & Rakim. (2) the production on the â€œLicensed To Illâ€ album was pretty amazing â€“ Iâ€™d still say itâ€™s some of Rick Rubinâ€™s finest work. People who loved rap already could at least respect it on that level. And (3) they made great videos. â€œFight For Your Rightâ€ is still one of the funniest videos ever made.
The Beastie Boys obviously went on to make a couple more solid and pretty important records after the first one, but hip-hop people, at least not serious hip-hop people, didnâ€™t pay as much attention to them. â€œLicensed To Illâ€ was hugely influential, though. And they were indeed a novelty, but they werenâ€™t a joke. Try and count the number of records that sampled something off that first album, especially the vocals. I mean, NWA was obsessed with the Beastie Boys (listen to their first two records â€“ â€œNWA And The Posseâ€ and â€œStraight Outta Comptonâ€). Go figure. But it proves that they werenâ€™t a joke.
Public Enemy, on the other hand, were also a novelty in their own way, because they were so extreme and so blunt and in-your-face. (And let it be noted that I consider them to be the greatest hip-hop artist or group of all time.) But musically and lyrically, they couldnâ€™t be touched during that era, at least not as far as musical power was concerned. Lyrically they brought politics to rap in a way that hadnâ€™t been done before, and musically their stuff was so complex, occasionally disconcerting and funky that you just couldnâ€™t ignore them.
As for which group was better and more important to hip-hop as an artform then itâ€™s definitely Public Enemy. But as for which one was more influential, for better or worse it was the Beasties. They brought whitey fully into the fold, and they had some pretty good music to boot.
7. I know this is a collection of past material you’ve written for a column, but did any of these stories shock or surprise you in any way and did it result in you having more (or less) respect for a musician/band? Did any of these stories cause you to go back and re-listen to something that you didn’t originally care for?
I canâ€™t say that any of these interviews made me view any of the artists in a more positive light, because I already loved or at least greatly respected all of them before I did the interviews. My column in XXL was called â€œClassic Materialâ€ and I would only cover albums that were considered classic â€“ so that narrows the field a great deal. But I guess two artists that I learned a lot more about and as a result had even more respect for were The D.O.C. (who was one of the main, albeit uncredited, guys behind the NWA phenomenon back in 1986-1988) and Oaklandâ€™s Too $hort. Especially $hort because, like 2 Live Crew, some people think heâ€™s a gimmick, because he does indeed talk about the ladies and about hustling quite a bit. But, like 2 Live Crew, he also really cares about his music. He worked his ass off before his first album in 1987, for like 4-5 years, doing homemade tapes he sold to people direct, and eventually through stores. He really takes his music very seriously, as all of the artists in the book do. So those guys were great to talk to. D.O.C. was almost killed in a car crash in 1989 before his career even started to take off (he speaks with an extreme rasp thatâ€™s hard to even make out, until you get used to it) and heâ€™s had a rough time ever since then with drugs and depression. So Iâ€™m glad heâ€™s still around. And I bet most people out there donâ€™t even know Too $hort (unless youâ€™re reading this in Houston or Cali), but he has more gold records than just about any rock artist you can name.
8. What happened to beastshaver.com and hamstorm.com? Those are two excellent URL’s.
Yeah, Iâ€™m sorry to have seen those go by the wayside. Hamstorm.com was Rich Bentonâ€™s thing, and he let it expire (and never added as much to it as he should have). Iâ€™m afraid that Iâ€™m to blame for Beastshaver.com expiring. But they were good while they lasted. We still have all the Beastshaver images (and promo posters) so one day weâ€™ll bring those back. Obviously the public will demand it at some point.
9. Are you still in your “cassette tapes are cool” phase?
Iâ€™ve been in that phase since about 1983.
10. What are your thoughts on hip-hop today? Do you think there are artists out there who will be looked upon 20 years from now the way you’ve done in your book?
For the first question, I guess I answered most of that in Question 5. And for the second part of the question, Iâ€™d say â€œprobably not.â€ Maybe Iâ€™m wrong, but I donâ€™t get goosebumps today as much as I did back in 1988 when I heard hip-hop stuff. Back then it was like a couple times a month at least. Nowadays I hear an incredible track or album about once every 4-5 months. I really donâ€™t think most artists out there try very hard. And most of them arenâ€™t talking about anything meaningful anyways. Some are (like the artists I mentioned in Question 5), but not the majority. You definitely have to look harder for important hip-hop today. And thatâ€™s too bad. But then again â€“ who says you have to listen to new music all day long? I donâ€™t. I have a Joy Division tape in my car deck right now. And Iâ€™m very happy to listen to old KDAY and DJ Red Alert tapes [LA and NYC radio shows from the â€˜80s] when nothing new grabs me.
11. Sad to say, but don’t you think there should be a ban on all Flavor Flav public appearances?
I say Flav should be able to do what he wants. But Brigitte should not be allowed anywhere near a Public Enemy concert, or also within 500 yards of me. Poor Chuck D â€“ did you see the â€œopen letterâ€ that he put out a couple weeks back (I think you can find it on Davey Dâ€™s website)? Flav has always been crazy, so itâ€™s nothing new. But he definitely has questionable taste in the ladies.
12. Alright, go ahead, why don’t you ask me a question?
Arenâ€™t you glad I donâ€™t have a blog and that you arenâ€™t my webmaster? Also â€“ is it more of a pain owning a record label or owning a house?
[Answer] I’ve spent hours and hours slaving on this thing, editing it to make you look smart. I mean, I basically wrote the whole damn thing, dude. So yes, I’m so glad I’m not your webmaster (kidding…really).
It’s way more of a pain owning a record label than a house. At least with a house you can paint a wall or mow a lawn and step back almost immeadiately and say “hey – I did that.” With a record label, it’s more like “hey – did I really do that? Why?”
Many thanks to Brian……buy his book. Really.