Barry Michael Cooper: Dramacydal Part One

Outsiders who can vividly picture Harlem owe that image to Barry Michael Cooper. The man who wrote New Jack City, Above the Rim and Sugar Hill made his New York youth cinematic, and perhaps provided the drama and tension that so many mid-to-late ‘90s rappers used in their verses. A former Village Voice journalist-turned-Hollywood heavyweight, […]

Outsiders who can vividly picture Harlem owe that image to Barry Michael Cooper. The man who wrote New Jack City, Above the Rim and Sugar Hill

made his New York youth cinematic, and perhaps provided the drama and

tension that so many mid-to-late ‘90s rappers used in their verses.

A former Village Voice

journalist-turned-Hollywood heavyweight, Cooper has been one of “us”

for two decades. Whether he was hanging with a young Spoonie Gee,

writing about Teddy Riley, or teaching his sons about the fantasies and

realities of DMX lyrics, Cooper always used Hip-Hop as a muse,

meanwhile inspiring the musical medium. In a candid two-part

interview, the veteran Cooper, now living in Baltimore, gives Hip-Hop

some cinematic and literary interpretation, reveals his latest Internet

film works Blood on the Walls,

discusses his Andre Harrell memoir, and discusses why Nas and Jay-Z are

on the same plane as Hemmingway and Capote. A true master of language

and drama, Barry Michael Cooper has immortalized Hip-Hop for two

decades, and he’s hardly out of ink. As a successful screenwriter and journalist, it’s little

surprise that you’d be contacted to assist Andre Harrell in his memoir.

However, did you have a preexisting relationship? How did this come to


Barry Michael Cooper: I’ve known Andre off and on for about 20 years. What happened was, I met him when I did a piece for The Village Voice

called “Teddy Riley’s New Jack Swing.” I met him through [screenwriter

and author] Nelson George, one of my great friends. He and Greg Tate

were both Voice writers; I’m still working to get on their

level, even close to the way that they had put it down. Teddy and his

manager at the time, Gene Griffin didn’t trust reporters for whatever

reason. I had heard stories about Gene roughing up Andre in an MCA

[Records] conference room and all that. A lot of stuff, when you hear

it, it turns to mythos after awhile. It’s like the childhood game


I told Juanita Steffans, a great publicist at MCA at the time to let me

talk to either one of them. I knew the neighborhood that they come

from, ‘cause I used to get high in that neighborhood. Some kinda way I

got a chance to talk to Gene Griffin. He used to be Georgia Gene

Griffin, he drove a green [Rolls Royce], he had a King James Bible on

the dashboard and a .44 magnum in the glove compartment. I used to see

him at this cheeba spot called The Hardest Hard. I told him this, I

told him I knew this person and that person, so and so’s brother. He

said, “You sure you’re a reporter?” I said, “I used to get high on

129th Street, near St. Nick, sniffing twenties Fishscale.” He said,

“You win, money. You ain’t gotta say no more.” I was one of the

reporters ‘cause I told him I knew people. They took me under their

wing, so to speak. I wanted to take the street, the voices I heard in

the street and the characters in the street and match it with The Great Gatsby.

People say that was the birth of Hip-Hop journalism. I don’t know, it

could have been. There wasn’t anything like it before that, and I’m not

patting myself on the back. All I know is I wanted to give it a certain

street classicism. What year was this?

Barry Michael Cooper: This was ’87. I had just reread [F. Scott Fitzgerald’s] The Great Gatsby and [Truman Capote’s] In Cold Blood,

and I said to myself, “I want to ring like that.” This was a time like

when you had guys like [Harlem drug kingpins] Alpo and Rich and AZ.

Alpo was poppin’ wheelies all the way from 155th by the Rucker all the

way to 147th, and he’s doing it while the cop cars was out there; he’d

kick their door and have them chase him at two o’clock in the morning.

I said to myself, “This is a movie and somebody needs to be writing

this. I’m the person to do this.”

All of New Jack City, Sugar Hill and Above the Rim

comes from me being a part of this neighborhood, this Neo-Harlem

Renaissance stuff goin’ down. That’s how I met Andre. When Gene and

Teddy took me in, and I started [getting to people]. [After Gene

Griffith assaulted Andre Harrell in an MCA conference room], I called

Andre. Initially, he was very skeptical. He’s a brilliant guy – great

storyteller, humorous, deep guy. He said, “Who are you?” I told him,

“I’m the guy who wrote the Teddy Riley article?” [Eventually,] we found

out we went to the same high school. That’s how to I got to know Andre.

He said, “Look, I’m not gonna comment on that.” He was very

business-like, very polite and very friendly. Having that relationship for two decades, you were

worlds ahead of most writers pulled onto an assignment. But for the

memoir, how many hours of interviews do you think the two of you


Barry Michael Cooper: This book was started in late 2004, it’s just

being finished this week. It’s been through several drafts, it’s taken

a minute. But I wanted it to take that long. So many things have

transpired in that time. He’s a visionary. He said, “Barry, I want this

to feel like a movie about me. Write it like it’s a movie.” It’s very

cinematic in its quality. There’s arcs, levels, and it’s not just about

the record business. The tentative title is Notes on a Revolution: From Uptown to Nu America, The Andre Harrell Story

Without giving away too much, there was an except [on Mary J. Blige]

that ran on A-List, a great blog, just to give people a taste, right

after she cleaned up at the Grammy’s. It got a great reaction. The book

will be out, God willing, spring of 2008. It’s not gonna be like any

book out there. I’m not saying that ‘cause I’m some great writer, I’m

not. I’m okay, I do my thing. I say that because Andre’s life is so

deep and rich and textured. It’s gonna knock people out. As the great achievements are celebrated, readers will

always want to know how the controversy or awkward points are treated.

You mentioned Gene Griffith; to what extent, did you address the myth

involving Suge Knight bullying Andre over Mary J. Blige?

Barry Michael Cooper: I did ask Andre about that, and he says the truth

is that was blown out of proportion. He and Suge had a mutual respect

for each other, and without giving too much away, I will just say this:

Andre’s observation of that era in the ’90s really speaks to that whole

moment in time. That was a confluence. From ’92 to ’98-’99, you had so

many things that happened. You had Suge Knight emerging as this larger

than life character. Puffy became this incredible, mythic character.

You had the rise and fall of the two greatest MCs that ever lived –

outside of Jay-Z right now, Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace. It

changed Hip-Hop forever. It took Hip-Hop from the corner and put it all

over the globe; it made it corporate. It made it cinematic – [look at]

Hype Williams. It was a pivotal time in the culture. When it became

corporate, it became larger than life – Paramount Studios [meets]


We’re feeling the Enron part of it now. The sales are dropping. People

are turning on a hot, bright light to examine the lyrics, the

motivation, the culture itself. It’s not gonna crumble; there is gonna

be a rebirth of Hip-Hop. I think you see it with Lupe Fiasco – even The

Clipse; I don’t think people give those kids out of Virginia enough

respect. To me, they’re twin Biggies. They are like Voltaire, man.

Hip-Hop needs to find a way to present itself out of the maliciousness,

the negativity, and that stuff that corporate cultured used to magnify

and get their dollar in these great, rich-textured, multi-level, global

culture once again. That’s what Nas is trying to say in [Hip Hop is Dead].

If I’m reading the hieroglyphics of Nas correctly, Nas is not trying to

say that the music is dead, [but that] the culture has died. It’s on

cardiac arrest, it needs to be revived.

Jay-Z put out an incredible album [in Kingdom Come].

That’s a grown man’s album. Hip-Hop has grown up. It’s going on its

proper rite of passage into manhood, and people don’t want to accept

that. They want it to be infantile and juvenile, and it’s not anymore.

My sons are into Hip-Hop now; one is a producer, the other is a

filmmaker. When they were in middle school, they brought home DMX’s [It’s Dark and Hell is Hot].

I heard [“Damien”] on there with the Chuckie character, and I’m like,

“Check this out. I’m gonna play you this tape right now. We’re gonnas

listen to it together. I’m gonna explain to you what’s real and not

real.” That was a pivotal moment for me and my two sons, who are grown

men now. I said, “I’m not gonna keep this from you, nor would I try to

censor this from you. But I want you to understand as young Black men,

as Christians – I’m not going to stop you from listening to this music,

you’re in the world. In it, but not of it. Since you’re in it, you’ve

got to understand your environment.” They never forgot that. My father

did the same thing to me and my brother when I’d sneak off and try to

listen to Richard Pryor’s The N***a is Crazy. I love my father to this day for that too. That’s what’s missing in the culture! That’s why people are not getting Kingdom Come and Hip Hop is Dead,

‘cause there’s nobody to mentor and talk to their seeds. Listen to what

these old heads – these brilliant, seasoned geniuses are trying to tell

you. Nas and Jay-Z right now are [timeless authors] Richard Wright and

James Baldwin; they are Truman Capote and Ernest Hemmingway. Nobody’s

on their level right now. With the exception of “Dope Man” by N.W.A. and a few

other choice records, smoking and or selling crack was rarely discussed

in Hip-Hop until movies, especially New Jack City

came out. I think its glorious that your film, your script opened up

doors, but as somebody with a stake in Hip-Hop, how did you feel five

years later, when you saw its affect on the strongest voices in the


Barry Michael Cooper: That’s a great question, Jake. I remember when a

guy was shot and killed during that opening weekend. The media came to

me, and I really didn’t know what to say. I said something stupid; I

was young and stupid. People forget…Nino [Brown] was murdered at the

end of that movie. He was murdered vaingloriously too. There was no

honor in the way that man shot him. People forget that. People look at

what they want to look at. Tony Montana died in the hail of a million

bullets in a cocaine-induced stupor.

I know that the movie had an enormous affect on the culture. Nino was

portrayed, not by accident, as this brilliant, Machiavellian,

articulate, well-groomed, powerful Black man. We hadn’t seen that in a

long time. Coming out of the Reagan-era, transitioning into Bush 1.0,

he was like an anti-hero. They took the wrong things from this guy.

Growing up, my hero was the anti-hero in Leroy “Nicky” Barnes. I didn’t

want to sell drugs; I wanted to dress like him, I wanted to talk like

him, I wanted to have his swag, and I wanted to have his power – but I

wanted to do it as a writer. I wanted to be a powerful Black man. I

like this dude’s get-down, but I’m not trying to sell no drugs; I know

that’s short-term. I know it! People will take what they want to take

from Nino Brown, from G-Money, from the Cash Money brothers. It’s

influenced from Jigga to Puff to a record company naming themselves

Cash Money [Records]. Lil’ Wayne, even though his last name is Carter,

he called [his albums] The Carter.

It had a definite influence on these guys who became multi-millionaires

in of themselves. Something good came from it, but I’m not defending

the negativity of it. It had to be very brutal and intense as far as

getting the message across. It’s on you to take the message. Fifteen

years later, 16 years, Jake, I’m proud of the movie.