Rock historiography is full of lore about the making of canonical albums, but there hasn’t been much like that for the rap world—until now. Rakim Told Me: Hip-Hop Wax Facts, Straight From the Original Artists—the ’80s, the first book by Boston-based hip-hop journalist Brian Coleman (published by the author’s own imprint, Wax Facts Press), features as-told-to accounts of 21 classic albums, from Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back to 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty as They Wanna Be to—naturally—Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid in Full.
One of the things that struck me was how eager these cats seemed to talk about the music as music, rather than as sociology. I think artists are sick of that. Some artists, say Schoolly D or Mr. Mixx from 2 Live Crew, they’re scientists. They take the shit apart and obsess over what drum machine they’re using.
If you were going to pick one album to turn into an episode of VH1’s Classic Albums, which one would it be? It’s kind of obvious that the love letter in this whole book is Ultramagnetic [MC’s Critical Beatdown]. Kool Keith obviously loves an adventure but he’s also a really, really insightful guy. If he stops making shit up, you can get a lot of really amazing stuff out of him.
You were supposed to do a book on De La Soul’s 3 Feet High & Rising for Continuum’s “33 1/3” series. Did that book become this one? Yes and no. You can blame De La and their management for that book not happening, instead of the good people of “33 1/3.”
The records in the book are pretty much your prime era as a fan, right? I’ll be 35 next month; I guess I’m about the age of a lot of the guys I covered in the book.
When did you begin writing about hip-hop? The earliest stuff I was reviewing was in ’95. I started at a local magazine called Boston Rock. No one was really writing about hip-hop, so I was like, “Maybe I should just do a column for free.” Before I knew it I was a quote-unquote writer.
Publishing the book yourself is a very hip-hop thing to do. Publishers are not all chomping at the bit to publish hip-hop books, and the books they do publish tend to be more academic and talk about hip-hop as a social, popular-culture thing. There really haven’t been enough books that talk about the music.
In the introduction, you mock music writers who write about their experiences instead of the artists’ thoughts. What’s your beef there? It’s never been something I’ve been interested in. To be honest with you, I could have called people out whose work I particularly dislike in that regard, but the point of the intro was to explain what the book wasn’t.
My understanding is that most editors are interested in that “just the facts” type stuff. True, but there’re certain people who make things more poetic and dramatic than they actually are; maybe because they should be writing fiction instead of reviewing De La Soul.
Are you thinking of anyone particular here? This isn’t really the right venue for that. Unimaginative hip-hop artists and uninformed, lazy hip-hop album buyers are a worse danger to hip-hop as an art form than shitty writers.
How do you make a living? I’ve never really done it as a full-time job. I do jazz PR for [Braithwaite & Katz].
Would you rather be writing full-time? I never really planned on being a publicist, but it was something I enjoyed. I’ve always done the writing more as a hobby because I am incapable of writing about stuff I don’t really care about. The life of a freelancer kind of horrifies me—the thought of having to do a feature on T.I.