Monday, December 8th, 2003

Writing A Book, Part 1


OK, now I’m realizing I’ve been holding out on yall w/regards to the book-writing thing. So let me go there, and do this shit. It’ll be kinda be like therapy for me and maybe it’ll help a lot of yall to get your own asses in gear.

Diversion: I’ll admit straight up that I have pretty strong opinions about this (e.g. this Da Capo-foot-in-my-mouth-but-still-happily-bird-flipping-cuz-what’s-more-hip-hop-than-talking-shit episode). The idea of representing is still like religion to me. Most of what’s getting out there on hip-hop in book form (and in canonized form) is still crap and written by non-hip-hop-gen heads. (That’s changing, but this is another post for another time.)

My thing is that the faster we can all get our shit out there, the happier I am in general. Then we get to a different set of problems, but at this point, we won’t be there until early 2005.

Back to the plotline.

First the basics on the book:

It’s called Can’t Stop Won’t Stop (duh) A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. “A” being the most active word in the title.

It traces the emergence of the hip-hop generation from roughly 1968 (and before that, in the Bronx) to 2000-2001. The book wasn’t meant to be a strictly music book. I wanted to write about graf and b-boying and DJing and activism and geography and the War on Youth and Public Enemy and Jesse Jackson and the Nation and etc. etc.

Main thing is I figured I couldn’t really write about C. Delores Tucker without writing about gang peace treaties, and vice versa, couldn’t talk about Herc without talking about Marley and couldn’t talk about Marley without talking about cultural capitalism and globalization and couldn’t talk about globalization without talking about localism.

That’s kinda the way my head is wired. Undisciplined, as the academics might say. And maybe the whole thing is a little loose. Hopefully Monique, my editor, will let me know soon.

Anyway, so the book opens from hip-hop and moves through culture and politics and all kinds of stuff as a way of getting a handle on who we be. But instead of doing it academic-style (read: unreadable), I wanted to make it accessible. I settled on writing it in a twisted narrative nonfiction format.

I took a lot of inspiration from Brian Cross, whose whole idea for It’s Not About A Salary was basically: Fuck all these folks who want to come in and speak for hip-hop headz, they can do it themselves. I think that’s the same motivation behind Yes Yes Y’all.

But at the same time, with oral histories you often lose the context. You get wrapped up in the details of the stories and sometimes gloss over the Big Themes and glide past the Big Questions.

I love Bakari’s book–and here’s why–but I’m more a history nerd these days so I wanted to go left in a different way. Plus my homies wouldn’t read it if it were a series of Jeff rants. And bottom line, hip-hop history is gotdamn interesting!

There are so many twists and turns and ironies and tragedies and victories and drama that I often wonder why there aren’t more hip-hop history nerds. If you read the books that are out there on hip-hop, they all reference the same two books for hip-hop history–Toop and Hager. Those books have deservedly become the Old Testament of hip-hop history, but for anyone who’s actually done a little bit of work–ask Fabel or Jay Smooth or Cheryl Aldave or Reggie Dennis, the list goes on–there’s a helluva lot of ground that hasn’t been covered by those two books. Again another rant for another time.

So in the end, I kinda took a Lorax approach. Collect the stories and put together a roughly chronological narrative that has an arc and a purpose. And down with the Once-lers!

OK so what was I trying to do in this post? Oh yeah, I was gonna talk about how this all began.

So it was the end of 1997, we had this big SoleSides pow-wow up in Lake Tahoe. Lateef’s mom had a cabin that we could rent and we were s’posed to be talking about how to blow the shit up more in 98. Truth was, we were all dead broke and exhausted, for a lot of ironic and tragic reasons I don’t need to get into, and maybe no one more than I.

It was kind of symbolic. Everyone was already there the day I drove up to Tahoe in my tiny little Honda Civic, right into the worst blizzard of the season. I fucked up in trying to put the chains on myself and tore up the outside of the car and got soaked in the snow. It’s bumper to bumper at the summit and I’ve been driving 8 hours, I’m freezing and tired and I rear-end a pickup. By the time I got to the cabin, the front hood was about three feet high and rising (Honda bumpers are literally made of fucking styrofoam), the anti-freeze had completely leaked out, and I was froze to the bone.

That night, after a long hot shower and dinner, we sat down for a meeting. They said that they had come up earlier, talked it out, and decided to shut down the label. I was shocked. But it made perfect sense. In fact, ending SoleSides liberated me. I mean, I sucked as a label manager. My only experience to qualify me as a indie label manager was that I had led a bunch of protests at Berkeley during the 80s, knew community organizing theory, and been a college radio DJ for about 7 years. That was all good until the late 90s, when hip-hop got to be big biz. I had definitely reached the outer limits of my abilities. If I had any talent, it was in writing and shit. And I hadn’t begun to explore the outer limits of my abilities there no way.

So a couple days later, I got a tow truck to take my car back to the Bay and sat in the cab and on the long ride back I thought about the whole SoleSides experience and everything. The only logical conclusion was go for what I knew, to ease myself back into writing, and to imagine something bigger than I’d ever done. The book came out of that.

The thing that I realized in writing the book–especially the last 5 months of putting together the first draft–is that every morning I was standing at the outer limits of my abilities. It was like I was outside the comfort zone as soon as I fired up the computer. That was exactly where I wanted to be, but it was also the scariest thing in the world.

Now I realize that lots of people will think the book sucks, probably including some whose opinion really matters to me, but I’m pretty content knowing that there wasn’t much more I could do at this point in my life. So if I’m destined to be the Matt Doherty of hip-hop books, it’s all good.

Right now Monique is going through 700 freaking pages. I don’t envy her. But I await her machete cuts with no worries at all. It is what it is. My car is intact. I can pay for diapers and mortgage. Praise Herc and Bam and hip-hop.

OK, back to the deadlines. More down the line when I feel like it…

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