Brian Coleman’s boom bap bona fides are thorough. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the Boston-based writer honed his chops penning hundreds of articles on hip-hop greats for outlets such as XXL, Scratch, Wax Poetics, URB, CMJ, and locally the Boston Herald. Coleman always approached his craft with the fervor of a super fan, and prides himself on letting artists speak for themselves, and for as long as they’re willing.
As a result, his articles were typically too long, too deep, and too complete for the word counts and editorial whims of commercial magazines. And so in the mid-aughts, Coleman found himself sitting on a trove of unpublished gems that he assumed would be of interest to at least a couple thousand diehard rap fans. The result: his self-published Rakim Told Me, which begat the monumental Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies.
With the publication of Check the Technique Volume 2 on October 14, Coleman puts forth an impressive 544 pages and 25 chapters of new material, complete with more than 350 images for 80 interviews with rap legends ranging from Ice Cube and 3rd Bass, to Stetasonic and Mantronix, to MF Doom and Mos Def. To discuss this comprehensive volume in depth, I recently sat with Coleman and Boston-based technomusicologist Wayne Marshall of wayneandwax.com for the full story.
PF: Where did the idea for “liner notes for hip-hop junkies” come from?
BC: I guess I’ve said it before, but the books serve a kind of dual purpose. They’re very selfish, and yet they’re very kind of altruistic at the same time, in that this is just stuff that I want to know. This is stuff that I didn’t feel was out there, or at least readily available.
So on a personal level, on a selfish level, this is just stuff I wanted to ask these artists, because I didn’t know. So it’s kind of as a fan that’s where it really starts.
But at the same time, I know that I’m not the only person who wants to know this stuff. There are a lot of people just like me. Maybe they don’t want to know the exact same things, but they want to know more about these albums, because it’s just a simple fact: hip-hop albums never had liner notes. There were very few.
WM: More often than not you’ll get some shout-outs, and maybe some copyright clearance.
BC: Exactly. But that was actually kind of cool too because you have to piece together these unwritten liner notes. You’d say, “Alright, so he shouted out Big Daddy Kane, so he’s down with him. I didn’t know that. That’s weird. I didn’t even know he was touring with him.” And then you’re like, “Oh, well, maybe they were both part of Rush Artist Management,” and you figure things out that way.
PF: With a lot of inferences, and digging, and not much plain facts.
BC: A lot of the journalism I was doing that was kind of more review-based in the mid- to late-’90s morphed into getting a little bit deeper with specific albums. With XXL, I did the column called Classic Material for many years. I ended up enjoying a lot. But, it was for a magazine, so there wasn’t unlimited space. Dana Dane is not going to get a 5,000-word feature in XXL in 1999.
PF: Did you wind up with a lot of extra material that had no place?
BC: I had a ridiculous amount of extra material. And that can be frustrating. It’s like you have all this stuff, and you just can’t fit it in, and you’re thinking, “That’s too bad, because I know that a lot of people would be really interested in knowing that.”
So sometimes that’s where things like that end up. Because the politics of writing articles for magazines can be very frustrating. It’s good because you get to write it, and you get paid a little bit of money to do it, but then it’s like, “Oh, man, I have all this extra stuff.” Like I interviewed KRS-1 for three hours, and I can only do 700 words. That’s kind of painful; it kind of hurts. (Ed. note for younger heads: This is before the internet became a place where publications thought to publish 5,000-word interviews like this one.)
PF: When did you go, “Wait a minute, there’s a book in all this?” Because there have been a lot of people writing about this stuff for awhile.
BC: I mean, it’s not like I invented it, or anything like that. But, I guess the two things in around 2004, 2005, I had been writing kind of, “professionally,” although not really making a living at it, but still writing stuff for various places for probably eight or nine years. That’s when I started to come to this realization that, “Wow, I have all this extra stuff. Wouldn’t it be cool to just put that out?” Not just the extra stuff, but include everything. So that’s when I did Rakim Told Me in 2005.
PF: Did you actually go back and backfill and do more interviews?
BC: Not for Rakim Told Me. I self-published that one. I didn’t even really tell anyone about it. I just did it. Even a lot of friends I didn’t tell about it. And I don’t know why I didn’t, because I just thought it would be funnier if I just sprang it on people, like, “Oh, hey, by the way, here’s this book I just did.” I think they came right around March of 2005. I printed 2,000 for the first printing, so I’m thinking, “If there’s 2,000 people around the world that will also think this is kind of cool, that’s enough.” And my goal the whole time was to make it the same price as an album …
PF: That’s part of your access thing. You want people to be able to afford the books.
BC: I realized early on that the book was not going to really thrive in an atmosphere where other books thrived, but was going to thrive in a place where records thrive. So it was made for record stores more than book stores.
I wasn’t going to argue if bookstores wanted to carry it, but in the end they didn’t really end up carrying it, because as an indie self-publisher it’s very difficult to get into Barnes and Noble, and Borders, and some other places that don’t even exist anymore. But it always did well in Amoeba, and Dusty Groove in Chicago, and Turntable Lab. Places like that were always very supportive, because it made sense. So that worked as well as I had hoped it would.
PF: And then you worked with Villard to put out the first Check the Technique, which isnow Volume 1. Howdid that happen?
BC: An editor over there found the first book and he just liked it and thought it was interesting and wanted to pursue it. And it was that simple. I didn’t have a literary agent. I still don’t.
I wanted the first Check the Technique to be only ’90s albums. Rakim Told Me was only ’80s albums. My goal was to have that stay as it was, just the ’80s. But Random House wanted old albums the ’80s too, and I said, “Why not?” I already did them. I don’t really have to do anything. So that’s how the first Check the Technique became this kind of mammoth thing. In reality it was kind of two books smooshed together.
PF: So how is this second volume of Check the Technique different? I know you have done a lot of additional interviews for this one, there are a lot of new chapters.
BC: This one is the closest to starting-from-scratch of the three. And it’s different in a lot of ways. First of all, I’m self-publishing it, so I can do whatever the hell I want. I enjoyed my experiences at Random House and had two great editors over there. But it was just Random House, it was like The Man. So this new one is me doing exactly what I want to do with, with nine years of experience behind me.
WM: These are all new essays, right?
BC: None of them have been seen before. Some of them I had done but didn’t make the last volume and I beefed those up. And then there were others, like the Ice Cube chapter, that I had already started when Check the Technique was handed in. One thing I will say, in the last book, the first draft for the Roots chapter for Do You Want More? was somewhere around 14,000 words. The final ended up being like 9,000. I chopped a bunch of stuff out of it because Random House wanted me to. This time I was like, “I don’t care if it’s too long.”
WM: Complete and unabridged.
BC: It is unabridged, for better or for worse.
PF: And photos. You added photos to this. Say a little bit about the process of sourcing images and all that.
BC: The photos are a huge thing. For the last book I went with one photographer, B-Plus, who’s an incredible photographer, and I bought a certain number, something like 20 photos from him. So there wasn’t even one photo in each chapter last time. That was a problem that I wanted to fix. Keep in mind, there were none in Rakim Told Me, so each one has been a progression.
This time around I had a goal to include all this artwork so that it wasn’t just huge blocks of text, so that from a visual perspective it’s something to break up the text, and make it a little more readable. I thought maybe I’d have three or four images in each chapter. In some of these it’s probably more like 10 or 15. I kind of went overboard, and my designer was ready to kill me, but I certainly don’t regret it.
I also went to Bill Adler’s archive at Cornell, which was just absolutely amazing. So I got things like press releases, or marketing sheets, things like that. Honestly, things that should go in liner notes that I hadn’t done as good of a job with last time around because of time constraints, and money constraints, to be honest. And I did license some photos too. There are over 350 images this time around and I’m definitely proud of that.
So I think that the two things I would say is some of the chapters in there, Edo.G, Company Flow, Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, those chapters are longer, and more in-depth, and include more interviews than anything I’ve done before. So there’s that kind of evolution too. But definitely the visuals are a big part of this volume.
PF: What are a couple of the top most surprising, or amazing things that you discovered along the way?
BC: There’s definitely a lot of that. One interesting thing I had never heard of, and was mentioned to me almost casually by the people in the group, was that Mr. Len from Company Flow had a heart attack in the very early years of that group, when he was in his late-teens.
One of the guys in the group didn’t even mention it, because, obviously, it didn’t really affect the way that the group was going. But that’s kind of significant, that Len could have died, you know?
There was another medical incident – that Kool G Rap almost died before the making of their second album – that I found out about. But I won’t tell you how that happened. You’ll have to read the book, right?
PF: So the personal side of these albums.
BC: Yeah, exactly. I mean, he was laid up in a hospital bed six months or less before he went in to make that album, you know? And Kool G kind of jokes like, “You know, people thought I put a micro chip in my brain because I came back stronger than ever.” So they can kind of joke about it years later, but it was pretty heavy. He could have very easily died.
PF: Changed the trajectory of music.
BC: I mean, it’s like they’re made up of living and breathing people, and you look back at them and say, “Oh, well, obviously, they always knew what the hell they were doing.” But if you talk to Prince Paul, as I have many times, and he’s in the new one, two different times for Gravediggaz, and Stetsasonic, most of the time they’re just learning the whole way as they go along. Paul said about the first De La Soul album, “My main goal was kind of not letting them know that I didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about, because they knew less than I did, so even though I didn’t know what I was doing, I had to pretend like I did.”
And I think that’s the way a lot of artists do their thing. It’s not, “Yes, I am infallible, and everything I do is perfect.” It’s just knowing when it’s good enough to be done, and to be released, and know when it’s dope.
PF: So talk a little bit about that you go through in writing these books. I’m thinking about everything from: How do you decide what to focus on of all the albums that have been released? How do you get started to how do you fact-check stuff?
BC: That’s a complicated process. I think the albums that I pick are generally ones that I love. I mean, I’m not trying to establish a canon of the best hip-hop records ever made. I could do that if I didn’t include the artists.
These are all dependent on how much input I get, and how much access I get to the people. So I would love to have an NWA chapter. I would love to have a Dr. Dre The Chronic chapter. I would love to have Queen Latifah, and LL Cool J. They won’t talk to me. And that’s not necessarily because of them, but because of their handlers. They basically are paid to keep people away. If you’re not Entertainment Weekly, or some huge outlet that benefits them immediately, they just don’t really give a shit, and that’s frustrating.
And that’s honestly why this is probably the last book I’ll do in this series, because I feel like there are certain people that I’ve tried to get for three books, and they’re just not going to happen. And I don’t feel like begging, and begging, and begging, and hoping they will do it.
I feel like the chapters happen because they’re supposed to happen. You know, if someone wants to, if someone surrounds themselves with handlers who keep people like me away, then that’s their problem, you know.
And it’s not like their careers are going to suffer because I don’t talk to LL Cool J. He’s doing just fine. But it is a shame. I think it’s a shame for fans, and it’s definitely a shame for me. But I don’t dwell on it because so, you know, there’s 25 chapters in this new one. So when I started the process there were maybe like 50 albums that I could have done that I wanted to do.
And then it’s all like literally a puzzle from that point. It’s like, “Who can I get? And who can I get to do it, and who will do a good enough interview with me?” And that’s the process. I just let it kind of fall as it will.
There are some interviews that would have been nice. I didn’t get Will Smith. And I debated, “Can I do the Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince chapter without Will Smith?” And in the end I said, “Yes, I can,” because I talked to pretty much everyone else involved with that record. If I had just talked to Jazzy Jeff it would have been maybe a little more problematic, even though Jeff is clearly, at the very core of the group.
PF: That must be about fact checking too, because then you just have one source, and that becomes too thin?
BC: Usually, but these are not supposed to also be encyclopedias. I can’t fact check and corroborate every single fact that’s given to me. When there are facts that are very important, if someone’s saying something controversial, or like I mentioned with Kool G Rap, if he didn’t confirm that he had almost died, and had that hospital stay before the album, I couldn’t have run with it, because that’s just irresponsible. But it he tells me that he wrote that when he was sitting in this brand make of car, then I’m not going to fact check that.
PF: You put a lot of quotes in these books, and I was wondering how intentional that is. How do you think about the right mix between your own voice, and just letting the artists speak for themselves?
BC: I personally consider that to be very important. I’m not a bad writer, but I’m not an incredible writer, and it doesn’t matter. It’s kind of like I don’t want to listen to what [some academic or critic] thinks about any artist or album. I care about what that artist thinks about it. If you do a CD review, that’s one thing, but when you write a whole book about what you think about some artist or album, that’s just horseshit. Who cares? Seriously?
PF: You’re a humble man …
BC: Well, no, no. But that’s what I think is missing, and part of that is maybe because people have tried to get access to artists, and haven’t gotten it, or they’re afraid to even try to get access to the artists. So the easiest thing is always going to be, “Here’s what I think.”
I try and go to get the artists – I care what they say pretty much exclusively. I consider myself like a tour guide, so it’s I can kind of contextualize it a little bit, without offering too much. I certainly have had people say, “Oh, you can tell you really love that album especially because of the way you wrote about it.” And I think that’s fair that I like the Company Flow album more than I like some other albums in the book. You can kind of feel the energy from any writer if they’re excited about what they’re talking about.
But really I just try and kind of take the information and guide it along this path, a linear path towards telling the story of these groups and these albums. It gives a linear narrative to oral history. And I’m not the first person to do it, clearly, but that’s what I was trying to do.
PF: You’ve listened to a lot of rap music. So favorite artist, favorite albums? You said Company Flow. What’s your “desert island” list?
BC: Public Enemy’s my favorite group of all time. I’ve had a long history as a fan with them. I covered them in the first and second books. I would say, of the ’90s, Company Flow was one that was cool because I also covered them when they first started coming out.
So it was kind of full circle. Public Enemy I was just a fan when they first came out, so I wasn’t involved in the mix back then, inasmuch as I was buying their albums, and going to see them perform.
But Company Flow I was a fan, and I was a journalist at the time. So it’s kind of cool to revisit that with them this many years later. Or Black Star is in the same situation, or Dr. Octagon. Those albums were ones that I covered when they came out, and it’s cool to go back and revisit them.
PF: What did you discover? What did you find looking back on that?
BC: I still discovered a ton because there was tons of stuff that I didn’t know about Dr. Octagon, or Company Flow. Pretty much almost the entire story. I mean, nobody knows this stuff. Maybe a lot of this stuff has been put out there before. For instance, in the 3rd Bass chapter there’s a lengthy story about how MC Hammer’s brother allegedly put a hit out on them, and they were gangsters in LA that were ready to kill them when they went to LA on a promo tour. They’ve told that story before. So it’s not like I was presenting all this info for the first time, but it’s also putting it together in one place that is helpful.
I’m not necessarily saying I’m the first person who’s ever done this, but a lot of times you would have to take this article from here, and then this one from 1997, where he talks about this. I was trying to at least put it in one place. But it’s not an encyclopedia. People have said that, which I consider very flattering, but it’s not meant to be an encyclopedia. It’s meant to be the stories of the groups as completely as I can tell them, given how much access I had to the artists.
So it’s certainly limited. It’s not definitive, but I try to do the best I can. Some chapters are longer than others. So the longer chapters have more stuff in them. And that’s just the way it goes.
PF: It’s driven by your own passion and curiosity. And I think that for me that’s what makes these so fun to read.
BC: I appreciate it. Well, and the artist’s excitement. I think the one thing that people forget a lot of the time is that the artists are fans of hip-hop too. And you think of them as somehow …
BC: Floating above the fray … But they’re not.
PF: They’re the super fans of the super fans.
BC: Exactly. Like to be an incredible artist you really have to be a super fan.
PF: Last question: And it always comes back to the town I love. We have talked extensively about Boston but you’ve also looked across a huge range of albums, and places, and times in hip-hop. So give me your take on the Boston story. You include this big chapter on Edo. You know a lot about the city. Talk about how Boston fits into the story of hip-hop for you.
BC: Boston fits in just like any other city. New York and LA undeniably play a much bigger role in the history of hip-hop. And then, honestly, after New York and LA, every other city is in the mix, just like Boston, just like Philly, just like Chicago, just like Dallas, Texas. They all are part of the tapestry of what hip-hop is.
And I have a clear bias, because I’ve been in Boston for longer than any other place I’ve lived in my life. I’ve been here since 1988. I remember the RSO “One in the Chamba” [controversy], and I went to the TDS Mob record release for Dope to the Folks. I was there. I was a fan. I wasn’t part of the machine, part of the industry.
I wanted to do Edo for the last book, but it just didn’t come together. I was already had way too many chapters that I couldn’t even fuck with. So since this is probably my last book in the series, I was like, “I can’t do this book if I don’t do an Edo chapter, because Boston means so much to me, and because Edo means so much to Boston. And I’ve always just been such a huge fan of his.”
I think that along the way, in the same way that doing the Common Resurrection album in the last book talks about Chicago, it talks about him, his personal story, but also talks about what he went through in Chicago. The Edo chapter touches on a lot of the other groups in Boston along the way and how he kind of came up. And the Boston Goes Def compilation, and his part in that, and how that all played together.
BC: It was definitely important to me. Boston is as important as any other city in the mix. I’ve covered Philly a lot too. I think Boston and Philly have similarities. The thing that Philly had more was Pop Art Records, and they had a little bit more of an industry infrastructure.
PF: They had a pretty established black music industry down there.
BC: Exactly. The interesting thing is even in Philly, with the Sound of Philadelphia, and Gamble and Huff, and all that stuff that happened, Schooly D had a hell of a time getting studio time. They didn’t want to let young black kids in. Schooly was like, “They thought we were going to steal stuff, and we did.” So they had to record at classical studios. Basically, anywhere that would let them record.
PF: People forget how resistant the established music industry was to rap at first.
BC: Exactly. And Philly was kind of on its own little island anyways, which is interesting, but Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince were pretty much on a division of Pop Art. There’s an interesting story in that chapter. There was Dana and Lawrence Goodman. Lawrence didn’t like them, and didn’t think it was going to sell. So he was like, “I’m not putting that out on Pop Art. So Dana basically said, “Well, I’m going to make my own division of Pop Art called Word Up Records.” And then look who ended up blowing the fuck up, and selling ridiculous numbers of records. But they were basically on Pop Art.
So if Boston had had a more established industry, then things might have gone a little bit differently. As you know more than anybody, there was a ton of talent here, it was just that a lot of people were just making tapes, and having them played on Lecco’s Lemma, and then that was kind of it, because there wasn’t anyone to push them further.
And it was groups like RSO, and Edo who had maybe more drive. Edo was cousins with the Awesome 2. He had more connections. It’s possible he could have also put out a tape or two, not gotten any attention, and then just, you know, faded away, or just kind of kept going on into obscurity. It so happened that his talent got noticed, and he released an incredible record. But you never know.
Pacey Foster is a music historian and professor at UMass-Boston, where he is the founder of the Mass Hip Hop Archive.
BONUS: BOOK SIGNING BEFORE PARTY AT UNDERGROUNDHIPHOP.COM Store (234 Huntington Ave, Boston).6 – 8 PM. Also featuring Brian Coleman, DJ Evil Dee, Edo G – book signing / Q&A / performance by Edo G.
THE UNTOLD STORIES OF HUB HIP-HOP