Ever wanted to hear your favorite rap artists break down their masterpieces track by track? You’re about to get your wish, as this week sees the release of Brian Coleman’s book Check the Technique 2. Boasting over 20 track-by-track breakdowns of some of the greatest rap albums of all time, it looks to continue his series of unprecedented documentations of what went into making hip-hop classics. We spoke to Coleman about his new book and what it’s like getting rappers to talk about themselves without a beat playing.
See also: The 50 Most NYC Albums Ever
Going track by track with artists originally started with your column in XXL magazine, correct?
Yes, that format definitely came from that. I was the first columnist to start doing it every month in 1999. I did that until probably 2004 or 2005.
When you started doing it, were artists somewhat guarded about the process of making their classics, or did the classic hip-hop ego take over?
It’s interesting, I don’t think hip-hop guys are different from any other musician or anyone else who makes art. They like to talk about things that they like and other people like, and certainly things that made them famous didn’t hurt. I never found the earlier ones were very guarded. One of the earliest ones I did was Schoolly D’s Saturday Night album. Schoolly’s a friend of mine to this day, and he was great and that was a little unexpected. I remember a story about the Beastie Boys meeting Schoolly D in the ’80s and they were upset he was such a nice guy. Honestly, a lot of the time, most “gangsta” rappers of all time are some of the nicest guys I’ve ever dealt with and a lot of times the ones who seem the mellowest are the most fucked up offstage. It does take a little more winning over to get someone to do something for a book than a publication.
When you were working on the first Check the Technique in the mid-2000s, there was a random upswing in hip-hop books, both autobiographies and histories, getting released. Do you feel that opened up more opportunities to speak to rappers, or did that perhaps make them want to shy away and write their own books?
That’s an interesting question. I definitely do think that some of the people who I haven’t spoken with, even though I’ve tried to, are all “I can just do my own book and write it myself.” OK, there are people who had that attitude nine years ago who have not put out their epic tome yet, so maybe it’s a bit harder than they thought it’d be.
But I’m always glad when [hip-hop book releases] happen. The more the merrier. The more people writing books and the more artists writing books is excellent. The one thing I say is if an artist wants to write their own books, I highly doubt they’ll dive as deeply into one specific moment of their life as I’m doing here. But it’s up to them if they want to do that. But, to be fair, Chuck D and Ice-T, who put out their own books, were more than happy to talk to me because they saw that.
Now that you’ve completed three books of these interviews, have you noticed any recurring themes between artists making their masterpieces?
Well, I think the one thing I can say is definitely a theme of all of the chapters I’ve ever done is that making art is not easy. It doesn’t matter if you’re a solo artist or the Wu-Tang Clan, with the most insane amount of moving parts that you can imagine. It’s always a struggle. It’s a struggle that these artists want to go through. That’s the one thing that’s always come across to me. As a fan, you may want to think it’s just a super-talented artist, so of course it’s going to come easy for them, but it almost never does. You’ll hear the finished product, think “that sounds incredible” and might think it comes out as a polished gem. It’s never that way; you have to work for it. Where some people might give up because things get tough, the real true heroes are the ones who push through it. Kool G Rap almost died before they made that record. He could have died, and six months later he was destroying that shit, which is kind of amazing. Artists in any genre, it’s a little bit of a struggle, but you power through it if you believe it.