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 hes hardly out of ink.
AllHipHop.com: As a successful screenwriter and journalist, its little
surprise that youd be contacted to assist Andre Harrell in his memoir.
However, did you have a preexisting relationship? How did this come to
Barry Michael Cooper: Ive 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 Rileys 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; Im 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 didnt 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. Its 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 sos brother. He
said, You sure youre a reporter? I said, I used to get high on
129th Street, near St. Nick, sniffing twenties Fishscale. He said,
You win, money. You aint 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 dont know, it
could have been. There wasnt anything like it before that, and Im not
patting myself on the back. All I know is I wanted to give it a certain
AllHipHop.com: What year was this?
Barry Michael Cooper: This was 87. I had just reread [F. Scott Fitzgeralds] The Great Gatsby and [Truman Capotes] 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 hes doing it while the cop cars was out there; hed
kick their door and have them chase him at two oclock in the morning.
I said to myself, This is a movie and somebody needs to be writing
this. Im 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. Thats 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. Hes a brilliant guy great
storyteller, humorous, deep guy. He said, Who are you? I told him,
Im the guy who wrote the Teddy Riley article? [Eventually,] we found
out we went to the same high school. Thats how to I got to know Andre.
He said, Look, Im not gonna comment on that. He was very
business-like, very polite and very friendly.
AllHipHop.com: 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, its just
being finished this week. Its been through several drafts, its taken
a minute. But I wanted it to take that long. So many things have
transpired in that time. Hes a visionary. He said, Barry, I want this
to feel like a movie about me. Write it like its a movie. Its very
cinematic in its quality. Theres arcs, levels, and its 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 Grammys. It got a great reaction. The book
will be out, God willing, spring of 2008. Its not gonna be like any
book out there. Im not saying that cause Im some great writer, Im
not. Im okay, I do my thing. I say that because Andres life is so
deep and rich and textured. Its gonna knock people out.
AllHipHop.com: 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]
Were 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. Its not gonna crumble; there is gonna
be a rebirth of Hip-Hop. I think you see it with Lupe Fiasco even The
Clipse; I dont think people give those kids out of Virginia enough
respect. To me, theyre 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. Thats what Nas is trying to say in [Hip Hop is Dead].
If Im reading the hieroglyphics of Nas correctly, Nas is not trying to
say that the music is dead, [but that] the culture has died. Its on
cardiac arrest, it needs to be revived.
Jay-Z put out an incredible album [in Kingdom Come].
Thats a grown mans album. Hip-Hop has grown up. Its going on its
proper rite of passage into manhood, and people dont want to accept
that. They want it to be infantile and juvenile, and its 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 DMXs [Its Dark and Hell is Hot].
I heard [Damien] on there with the Chuckie character, and Im like,
Check this out. Im gonna play you this tape right now. Were gonnas
listen to it together. Im gonna explain to you whats real and not
real. That was a pivotal moment for me and my two sons, who are grown
men now. I said, Im 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 Im not going to stop you from listening to this music,
youre in the world. In it, but not of it. Since youre in it, youve
got to understand your environment. They never forgot that. My father
did the same thing to me and my brother when Id sneak off and try to
listen to Richard Pryors The N***a is Crazy. I love my father to this day for that too. Thats whats missing in the culture! Thats why people are not getting Kingdom Come and Hip Hop is Dead,
cause theres 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. Nobodys
on their level right now.
AllHipHop.com: 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: Thats 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 didnt 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 hadnt 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 didnt
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 dudes get-down, but Im not trying to sell no drugs; I know
thats short-term. I know it! People will take what they want to take
from Nino Brown, from G-Money, from the Cash Money brothers. Its
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 Im not defending
the negativity of it. It had to be very brutal and intense as far as
getting the message across. Its on you to take the message. Fifteen
years later, 16 years, Jake, Im proud of the movie.