Several years back, I received a package in the mail; it was a small self-published paperback called Rakim Told Me, and it was a collection of interviews with Hip Hop legends to provide junkies like myself with liner notes to classic albums like Paid in Full. Back then, I didn’t get too many goodies in the mail, and I remember looking at the book thinking, who is so cool as to send me something this awesome without my knowing ? Then I flipped open the book and noticed it was signed with a note from the author, a one Brian Coleman, who wrote something to the effect that he liked what I did, and thought I might enjoy checking out his book. how right he was.
I devoured Rakim Told Me in one sitting, and thirsted for more. The wait was not long. A couple of years later, the book was expanded and republished as Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip Hop Junkies, the ultimate nostalgia trip. Now, Coleman is back with Volume 2. This is history. It’s got my people: The Beatnuts/Intoxicated Demons EP, Jeru The Damaja/The Sun Rises In The East, Nice & Smooth/Ain’t A Damn Thing Changed, among the 25 chapters in the book. Coleman breaks it down, as only he can.
Miss Rosen: Please talk about the inspiration to write Hip Hop liner notes. Where did it come from? How did the idea first take hold.
Brian Coleman: I think the idea first took hold back in the early 1990s, with me simply being a hip-hop fan who always wanted to know more about how my favorite albums were made. We all read the “shout outs” on albums, but they honestly only gave you more questions. “Oh shit, they recorded at Calliope *and* Chung King Studios … but which songs???” Later in the ‘90s and into the early 2000s, I was a journalist writing about hip-hop (for CMJ, URB, XXL and other spots), and at that point I started to formulate my questions into an actual approach. “Make jazz-style liner notes, but with hip-hop albums.” It honestly wasn’t the most revolutionary idea, but if people think so, that’s cool with me (haha). But it was still the same impulse and for the same reason – I wanted to know more! And if I learned some of these facts, I wanted to share them.
Once you realized the necessity for liner notes, where did you begin ? How did you decide which albums to highlight ?
Honestly, with my first book, Rakim Told Me in 2005 (http://www.good-road.net/rtm.html), I started with interviews I had already done. It was more of a “compilation” than a true, done-from-scratch book. Although with those interviews I had initially only been allowed to write about 600-800 words on each, in various publications. With the book, I said “I’m going to do these the way they should be done, none of this bullshit word-count crap.” So I aired the interviews out and got deep with the 21 albums I covered, which were all from the 1980s. After that first book, which I did just to see if anyone would care – and, as I had hoped, people did care!!! – I did new interviews specifically for the books. As for how I decided on which albums to cover, it was pretty simple – they were albums I loved. I didn’t really care if they were accepted “classics,” or if they were in the “hip-hop canon,” whatever that might be. Although I think many of them do fall into both categories. Some people ask me if I have been trying to create a “hip-hop canon” in my work and the answer is no.
We first connected through Rakim Told Me, which was self published. What was it like to both write and publish this book ? What did you learn about the experience of being an author and publisher at the same time ?
The main thing I remembered this time around – after my first week of work on it – is how much work it takes! The main thing I didn’t take into account when I started with Volume 2 is that my last two books have been more than twice as long as Rakim Told Me. So not only was it a lot of work, it was a TON more work, volume-wise. To be honest with you, it takes a certain kind of person to self-publish, and I guess I have the characteristics you need. Not everyone does, so people need to be careful before they engage in such an endeavor, especially if it’s a 500-plus page book. You need to be disciplined and organized, that’s really first and foremost. You need to set deadlines and stick to them, as if you’re reporting to someone else. And it would have certainly helped if I had an English degree, which I do not… but somehow I managed to edit myself without too many typos. My amazing wife Margot also helped a lot in the final phases, giving everything a set of fresh eyes and doing some crucial copy editing. And I also had a great designer – James Blackwell. He went above and beyond, because this book ended up being a bigger project in pretty much every aspect. But we all somehow managed to do it and I’m very proud of it. Most people are shocked that Wax Facts Press is just me – they think that it’s on a “real” publishing house. That definitely gives me a lot of pride.
You’ve come full circle, returning to self publishing with your third book, Check the Technique Volume 2. Please talk about why you decided to self publish this book ? How has this experience compared to working with a major publisher, as you did with Check the Technique Volume 1.
My last book, the now-titled Check the Technique [Volume 1], was on Villard / Random House. I had a good experience with them throughout the entire process of making the book, thanks to the support of two really great editors and cheerleaders, Porscha Burke and Adam Korn. Both of them really went to bat for me, starting with Adam, who was the person who convinced Villard to put it out in the first place. What I didn’t like as much was after the book came out how I had to ask Random House permission for things that I would have preferred to have controlled. If an outlet wanted to run an excerpt, I had to email the person there and let them deal with it. If I wanted copies for my own promo use beyond my initial allotment, I had to buy them for the same price that retailers bought it for. None of these situations are draconian by any stretch – they are the way that things work in that world. I just didn’t like not having full control. So that’s the main reason that I self-published this time around. If any mistakes were made, I wanted them to be mine, so I had no one to kvetch about except myself. I am my own publicist and I do PR for a living, so I don’t need any publisher helping me get press. Even with Random House, I set up my own promo tour. So I’m in a good place right now – it’s a lot more work but I love having full control. Random House gave me a great shot and we made a great book together. They helped me expand my brand. And now I can take it from here, and it’s going really well so far, after only about 6 weeks of the book being officially out.
What has been the response to the books ? What has been the most surprising thing about Hip Hop that you’ve discovered along the path ?
The response has honestly been overwhelming, and it’s very gratifying. The books aren’t really about me as an author – I consider myself a “tourguide” to help these artists tell the stories of a small but important part of their early musical careers. The books are about the artists and the music, and there are so many people who love the hip-hop that we grew up on in the 1980s and ‘90s. One thing that I will definitely say I have confirmed along the way is that hip-hop fans do buy books and read, if you present everything in a way that makes sense to them as fans. I am a fan, I never aspired to be a writer. So I write them as if I am the one who will be buying them. I couldn’t write a book about country music because I think it sucks. I need to be passionate and fully-invested in order to write. It’s just like me and baseball – I’m a Red Sox fan, I don’t give a crap about any other teams. But I LOVE the Red Sox and follow them passionately. Which I guess doesn’t make me a baseball fan in a purists’ eyes. Hip-Hop fans love these artists and these artists love talking about their early triumphs. So it has all worked out quite nicely thus far, I would say!
Come on out for a night of good music and celebrate the release of Brian Coleman’s Check The Technique Vol. 2 book, from the Check The Technique book series. DJ Prestige from Flea Market Funk will be hosting. SPECIAL GUEST DJ SET by Brian Coleman.
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 28 – NYC
FREE and open to the public
8 pm until 2am
THE ACE HOTEL
20 West 29th Street (at Broadway)