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nelson george: the afropunk interview

February 14, 2020
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Nelson George did it first. Whenever you think of all the fly shit a music writer has gone on to do in the wide world of media — magazines, book publishing, television, film, whatever — George is the first name that should come to mind. Indeed, if you are writing about contemporary music and culture today you are walking a trail he’s been blazing since the 1970s — especially if you’re Black. Not only was he one of the first wordsmiths to parlay his gift for storytelling into a career beyond the printed page, but he’s also one of the best to ever do it. Whether for the screen — films such as CB4 (1993) and Brooklyn Boheme (2011) — or on paper —in publications like The Village Voice, Billboard, and Amsterdam News — his depictions and descriptions of Black life are vivid, nuanced, and humanizing. It’s the work of a storyteller, inculcated with cultural context and viewing phenomena through the lenses of lived experience and journalistic curiosity. That is to say that if you write about music, or Black life, or American popular culture, there’s still a lot you could learn from Nelson George.

With the importance of collecting and documenting one’s own work in mind, and a desire to deliver a tangible, tactile artifact in a world of digital ephemera, he has released The Nelson George Mixtape: Volume 1, an anthology that collects articles by George from 1978–1993. (The soft cover edition of which is available now via New York-based publisher, Pacific.) In these pages, you’ll find some of the first reporting on hip-hop, just as the culture was forming, interviews with icons like Bob Marley and Michael Jackson, and some of the first press coverage Prince ever received (including a negative early concert review that seems sacrilegious in 2020). His Mixtape is a scrapbook as an art object, featuring scans of typewritten pages, clippings from newspapers and magazines making it an artifact of analog times, when a curious young writer from Brownsville, Brooklyn found himself covering the co-existing cultures of hip-hop, heavy metal, R&B, punk, and pop. Weeks ago right after the predictable kerfuffle over the Oscars being so white in the Academy’s nominations, I spoke to George about his book, life, and career and got some sage advice for those of us walking a path similar to his.

As a person who’s been in the world of film and television for quite a while now, what do you think about the Oscar nominations that came out a few days ago?

Not much. I don’t really care. I don’t really pay much attention to award shows. I think they’re really irrelevant to your work. The only thing the Oscars can do is, you get Oscar nomination [and] it raises your price. That’s good but other than that, I don’t really pay much attention to Oscars, Grammys, Tonys, or any of those things because they’re all PR campaigns and have very little to do with work.

Every time there’s an award season and nominations come out, or award shows happen, there’s this righteous indignation and outrage from creators and fans who are like, “Hey, you know, whatever this institution is, it is not getting it right.” It feels like there needs to be a management of expectations on the side of those people. What do you think of that?

The whole point of working is creating work. The real triumph is getting anything made, especially in terms of TV and film because of the cost involved. I think that the desire to be validated by these institutions is understandable, but not ultimately the thing that’s going to make your work last. There’s been many, many incredibly bad movies that have won Best Picture, and there are many so-so performances that have won Best Actor, and there are other [good] films that have not. Taxi Driver is one the most influential movies ever made and it didn’t win anything. The Joker wouldn’t exist without Taxi Driver. I just feel like it’s a waste of energy. It’s such a struggle to get things made and to create anything good that I personally don’t spend a lot of time — I actually spend zero time — being concerned about award shows.

Way back when I was a music writer back in the ‘80s, I remember I was covering the Grammys and there was a year where for Best R&B Song, Earth Wind & Fire was up for two awards. Parliament-Funkadelic was up for two awards and a guy named Leo Sayer, a white singer, had a song called, “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing,” and that song won for the R&B song of the year whatever year that was [1977], and I was like, OK, so this is what it is. It feels like people want awards shows to validate their taste or their racial identity or their ethnic identity, that’s fine and people can do that, but I personally don’t have time for that. It’s not going to validate your taste.

That makes a lot of sense. I think the carrot of validation is something dangled in front of people, and the frustration of not getting it can only be alleviated by not desiring that carrot. 

Absolutely. To me, it’s not so much about awards, though they’re significant signposts for people. It’s the work— getting the work done. Spike Lee was really happy to get his Oscar and God bless him, he’s a good friend of mine and I really respect him. But he’s had a historic career one way or the other. His body of work speaks volumes. In fact the Oscars the year before [he won] had given him the honorary award because they knew they had to give him something. That’s my long-winded answer to your question.

The word “work,” keeps coming up. I think about you as a very multifaceted person and a person who’s been dedicated to the work for a very long time, can you tell me what’s been the driving force for you? What’s propelled you to do all these things?

Well, I started my career really seriously in the early ‘80s, at Billboard and Amsterdam News and then The Village Voice. I had to make my rent. I’d always figure out how many articles I’d have to write to pay my rent per month. I had a regular gig with Billboard, a weekly check and then I tried to figure out [how to earn the rest of it]. I was doing fan magazine writing, or writing bios, or whatever I had to do to make the rest of that rent. I’ve never lost that mentality, that my work was my economic engine and it was actually the economic engine for my family as well, because I was also supporting, to some degree, my mother and my sister and her children. I was only going to eat if I generated work. So there’s a very strong sense of providing for people. My nieces now are all adults, thank God, and my sister’s doing well, but that idea of “you have to be productive in order to survive, in order to provide,” has always been in my mind. So I’m very focused and I never stopped having a list of things to work on every day. Even today, after [our interview], I have a conference call for a documentary that I’m directing, and then I have to do some more work on another project that I’m a producer on. I feel like, to be a creative person is also to be a business person, so those things are tied up in my mind. So I think the idea that drives me is, to some degree, survival and having a mission — and that’s always been to celebrate and document Black culture.

I’ve worked for what people would call hip-hop publications and what people would call mainstream publications, and I’ve always felt that when you write for mainstream publications, it feels like there’s a burden to not only explain Black culture but to qualify it. You being a pioneering journalist when it came to hip-hop — how did you navigate that?

Each publication has its own particular agenda. It was interesting [when I started writing about music] because it wasn’t a white-black divide. It was more a traditional-versus-innovation divide. Many of the people who were the institutions of the Black music business, who were deeply invested in R&B music —and funk music for that matter — didn’t like, didn’t care, and didn’t think I should be covering hip-hop. Especially during the period all the way up until the late ’80s, I would say. So a lot of the resistance was sort of Black traditionalist, and that also was something that was in effect at places like Amsterdam News. If you tried to write for Ebony or Essence or some of those places… it took a long time for them to believe it was valid. The Voice, which was a publication which was predicated on what was hip and next in New York, they were way more open. I mean, I sold my first article to them,  I guess it was in ’81. It was something on Grandmaster Flash and his record, “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel.” I think I did something else on Lovebug Starski. So in terms of trying to navigate each [publication], it wasn’t Black versus mainstream [thing]. Because The Voice wasn’t a mainstream [publication].

It was an alternative weekly.

It was an alternative [publication]. It was harder trying to get, for example, the New York Times to pay attention [because] they didn’t really care. I wrote a whole article for the Times, I wish I could find it now, I pitched them in the early to mid-’80s, and they just turned me down. They said the audience wasn’t interested. I ended up doing other things with them [later], but it took a long time for like the Times or the Times Magazine or any of those publications to pay serious attention to hip-hop. It was definitely a case-by-case basis, but a lot of it was based on whether a publication was open [to my ideas]. For example, the Black teen magazines were interested because girls liked LL Cool J, so they came from that point of view as opposed to the music. I found that each publication I dealt with about hip-hop at that time, was more or less about what was their agenda and what was their attitude toward innovation.

I don’t know how often you end up still engaging with any type of music or hip-hop journalism these days, but things have shifted. You were one of the people on the ground floor of this thing that now permeates every part of popular culture. What is your opinion of the way you’ve seen hip-hop covered these days? What do you think is great and what do you think is lacking?

I can’t claim to be on top of everything that’s happening digitally [but] I still go on Pitchfork. I go on AFROPUNK. I go on OkayPlayer. Those are probably the spots that I go to most. [Generally] I see a lot of gossip shit, I see a lot of instant opinion but I’m not seeing a lot of thoughtful analysis overall. Not to say it doesn’t exist, but it seems like the overwhelming majority of the dialogue is driven by personality. Personality-driven writing as opposed to content-driven. So it’s a shame because I can’t say that I voraciously read stuff [these days], but also part of it is just the content itself. When the new Kendrick Lamar comes out — or the new Drake, or the new Kanye — people will make space for thoughtful analysis of what the actual thing is in their writing. But I feel like it must be very difficult — maybe I’m wrong — to write about certain kinds of trap music in a very thoughtful way, content-wise.

I think it must be much harder to penetrate the culture with a good piece of writing about something [than it used to be]. The Voice was a really good example, it came out on a Thursday or Wednesday, I think, and by Friday — in New York at least — if you wrote a piece on Public Enemy, or you wrote a piece on Rick James or whoever you’re writing about, on Friday people pick the paper up and they were looking at the listing to see what to do over the weekend; you would go out on Saturday and Sunday and people will have read your article and, good or bad, would interplay with people at a club or at a park. It was a very intimate relationship between the reader and [the writer] in that sense. You’d meet people who had something to say, good or bad. However, the digital dialogue seems very weighted toward confrontation. I would think it would be very difficult to go and say, well, “I think the Kendrick Lamar album is terrible,” or have a real nuanced conversation saying about Kendrick Lamar, or Drake, you know, It seems to me that the fan attitude is if you don’t like it all the way, if you’re not praising Beyonce, then you’re hating her.

It’s very polarized. It’s very binary.

Yeah. And I think that’s really been terrible. I think it really hurts the discussion of the culture and even the nuances of trying to explain it because I feel like you end up in an argument about yes or no, where it should be: where are all the areas of gray that make it interesting? I feel like what I’m getting when I go online is that. I remember I wrote a negative review of Prince’s Purple Rain show in Detroit — the first show on the tour, for a lot of reasons. I can’t imagine if I wrote that now that Prince is such a deity, people would be like “How dare you?!”

You would have to go into hiding!

I feel like the extremism that’s in the popular political space is also in the cultural space.

I think reactive conversations and debate lead to a place where there’s not a lot of room for nuance but one of the things about art that makes art special is its nuance. I do want to, pivot in what we’re talking about because earlier you said that you’re a person who’s motivated by sustaining yourself and supporting family members, but you’re also motivated by your mission statement, which is telling these Black stories. At some point, you realized the limitations of just working in one medium. You could have been a journalist your whole career, what made you branch out into other things like filmmaking?

My original goal was to be a novelist. That’s what I was really interested in in high school and going into college. I started reading biographies of writers I liked, from Richard Wright to Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and realized how difficult it was, even back then, to make a living [as a novelist]. Almost all of them started as journalists. Hemingway was a working journalist for a long time, Richard Wright did a lot of journalism and essays. So I felt like I needed to figure out how I was gonna survive as a writer, and when I was in college I got internships at both the Amsterdam News and Billboard, so I got a chance to look up close at the lives of Black and music journalists. And I also saw how difficult it was to write good fiction.

I was always interested in music, always the guy who read the liner notes and was interested in who played what. I started reading all of these books on music history. There were a great many books on jazz that were out, and a great many books on rock. There were very few books, relatively speaking, on soul music, R&B — nothing on funk, and there were some on disco. So I said, “OK, there’s an opportunity, there’s a space where this culture is not being written about.” So I kind of evolved into it.

Eventually, I got around to publishing fiction. My first novel came out in the early ’90s, and I’ve done a lot of fiction since then. But there wasn’t a lot of serious writing about a great big part of American culture, and I felt like that was the space for me. And I grew up in *that* culture, it was the culture my mother raised me in, it was the culture of the neighborhoods I grew up in, so it was a natural evolution into that. What happened is that I got into it and I spent almost the entire ‘80s writing books, writing articles and liner notes. From ’79 — really starting there, but formally ‘81 to ‘89 — that was my entire life.

Then at some point in the late ‘80s, I lived in Fort Greene, and I ran into this guy in the neighborhood, Spike Lee, and it turned out that he lived a couple of blocks away from me, and he made this movie, She’s Gotta Have It. And I ended up investing some money in it. I remember seeing it and thinking, “I’ve never seen this movie. No one’s ever made this movie before.” This opened my eyes up to the possibilities of doing movies. That and Spike’s presence — he’s literally in the neighborhood and he built his organization 40 Acres & A Mule in Fort Greene. I was able to be around filmmaking and to see the excitement of it, and then also the possibilities that he opened up, and, suddenly, this explosion of opportunities. I began saying, “Well, there’s another way I can go.” I was also burnt-out on covering music full time.

Why was that?

I was just done. After I did the Death of Rhythm & Blues book in 1988. I felt like that was a product of all the stuff I’ve learned over the previous, seven or eight years, and I had nothing else to say about that, at that time. I stayed in my job probably a year longer than I should have because I was afraid to leave.

You wanted the security.

Yes. But whatever I had to say about the culture and the music I had [already] said. I quit the job in ‘89 and then it took me wandering around for a year or two to really get my bearings. Then I got two movies made in a very short amount of time. One was Strictly Business with Halle Berry, which was, an idea that came out of being connected with Andre Harrell and Uptown Records. The soundtrack for Strictly Business has Mary J. Blige’s first record, Jodeci is on it — it was very much a document of that moment and then I ended up hooking up with Chris Rock and we did CB4. So between ’91 for Strictly Business and ’93 with CB4, suddenly I’m a screenwriter. I guess the message of it is that you have to make a decision to move forward,

That’s a bar.

You have to be willing to take a leap and know that it may not happen as quickly as you want it to happen, or on the terms you want it to happen on. But you have to be prepared to make transitions and to take that gamble on yourself. So that’s what happened. I realized that Spike opened up a door of possibility, and a whole generation of filmmakers and writers and actors came out, and followed in Spike’s wake: John Singleton, the Hughes Brothers, Warrington and Reggie Hudlin. Once Spike opened that door, it allowed a ton of people to see [that] “this is our chance to go forward.” So that really gave me the impetus to take that leap and finally move on from being a full-time journalist.

Let’s talk about the book a little bit. One thing that I thought was really interesting is the way you presented all the articles. They look like tear sheets and all this other stuff. Tell me about the intention behind doing that.

I’d done one collection of my writing, which was a Buppies, B-boys and BAPs, Bohos book, and wanted to do something that was more of an artifact — because I feel like the world of the pulpy music publications just doesn’t exist anymore. So I wanted to make something that was a collection of my writings but also a thing, a document, an artifact from another era if you will. The Bob Marley interview is literally from my typewriter with all the white-out and all of the corrections. A lot of the articles I had taped up in a notebook so, you know, you see the tape marks on the edges of some of the articles. I wanted it to be something that when you looked at it, you weren’t just reading it, you were also seeing, feeling like you were back in that time. That’s why I called it a “mixtape,” because it has that sense of different articles, different textures, different typefaces bouncing up against each other.

It’s like transportive.

The goal wasn’t to make it not just a book, but sort of like an experience. I went into the art bookstore and looked at a lot of different kinds of art books, and said, “Well, what really makes this fun is not that it’s just going to be my old articles, it’s got to have a heightened visual sense.” And the minute you put a typewritten page on the paper, or the minute you put an article from a teen magazine or the Amsterdam News next to Billboard next to the [New York] Daily News, you’re getting a whole different experience, and the experience is, hopefully, transportive. It is bringing you back to a world of print and text that is receding in history.

And in that, it is exactly a mixtape. It’s almost a collage when you think of these different elements sitting next to each other, almost being juxtaposed with each other, but overall kind of painting this whole picture of a document, in music culture from ‘78 to ‘93.

Putting an Evelyn “Champagne” King article next to an article from the Amsterdam News on Kurtis Blow. And the thing is that these things were happening all at the same time. You know, there’s another page where you have — it’s the Daily News— a Brooklyn disco band, and then next to it, an early article on rapping DJs, that I co-wrote for Billboard. So the other thing is that a lot of people look at hip-hop now because it’s so dominant as this main thread, but hip-hop coexisted and fed off of and was part of a whole tapestry of musical cultures that were coexisting with it, that either predated it or existed alongside it. Hopefully, you get that feeling from my book and the juxtaposition of the articles. It was a very panoramic time to me — I would go from covering Michael Jackson at Madison Square Garden to going back to the office and getting the new 12-inch from Grandmaster Flash to listening to Whitney Houston or getting ready to interview Whitney Houston for a piece. All these things were happening at the same time. The worlds existed right next to each other. Initially, they were sort of oppositional, in the sense that a lot of the R&B world and the hip-hop/rap world were at opposition on some level. But over time, it just became part of the same thing. Now you know, the line between R&B and hip-hop is invisible.

It’s blurred a lot. Yeah.

I’m just showing [the reader], in a way, how far away they were [from each other] and it makes you appreciate the journey that has taken place.