Brian Coleman: Liner By Liner

Once upon a time, Brian Coleman had a great idea. He had already written for all these fancy-shmancy Hip Hop zines like XXL, Scratch, Wax Poetics, URB etcetera and had amassed all these classic records from his lifelong tenure as a true Hip-Hop fanatic, but still felt like he could do something even more extraordinary […]

Once upon a time, Brian Coleman had a great idea. He had already written for all these fancy-shmancy Hip Hop zines like XXL, Scratch, Wax Poetics, URB etcetera and had amassed all these classic records from his lifelong tenure as a true Hip-Hop fanatic, but still felt like he could do something even more extraordinary with his love for Hip-Hop. He would look at his cherished vinyls, very curious about the treasured stories behind these grand opuses, but found the existing liner notes to be quite underdeveloped. So, he decided to remedy the situation by writing a book.To make a long tale, a short tale, Coleman’s idea started with the self-published book Rakim Told Me. Thirty-six albums, over 75 interviews and 500 pages later, major publishing company Random House has released Coleman’s newest book Check the Technique. This Hip-Hop scribe will come across very humble, but trust, his music mind is truly a steel beam. It is with our pleasure that Brian Coleman talks about the state of the Hip-Hop album, why ?uestlove is the man, and where he was that fateful Tuesday when Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the 36 Chambers album dropped. How did you come up with the concept for the Check the Technique?Brian Coleman:  My old “Classic Material” column for XXL. I always liked that format. When it’s kind of a typical feature style piece, you’re [the writer] always putting more words in there, more words and less of the artist’s to try to make it flow. The thing I love most about the format is that it’s just purely the artist’s words. I love documents of oral history where people just talk. There might be some interjections probably when I’m interviewing them. It’s really been my thing especially with music. I don’t really wanna read what critics have to say about the stuff. I wanna read what the artist has to say. The format really lends itself in the best way to getting as much as the artist’s words in there as possible. I’ve seen your byline a lot. How did your writing career begin?Brian Coleman: I basically started writing for this magazine called Boston Rocks in the mid ’90s. I didn’t really just started writing about Hip-Hop. I always listened to Rock and Hip-Hop. It really struck me that there was one or two guys in Boston covering Hip-Hop. It really amazed me that a major city like Boston had no Hip-Hop coverage whatsoever. I wrote for XXL for many years, Scratch, many other mid level publications, Boston Herald, Boston ?uestlove writes the intro for Check the Technique. What is your relationship with him? Brian Coleman: He was big fan of my last book, Rakim Told Me. He gave me a ton of time and he was very supportive of the book and what I’m doing. ?uestlove doing the intro was just a natural thing. Anyone who loves music should talk to ?uestlove often [Laughs]. He’s just still such a fan and he really cares about music and it’s just a part of him. He’s scientific when it comes to talking about The Roots’ sound, the audio stuff that goes on with that, engineering. He gets real intense with that. He just understands about all kinds of music. The reason why I’m most excited that he is part of the book [is because[ he speaks as someone who is older but also as an artist in the book whose still very current and still touring. Does hearing all these stories about the genius behind genius make these albums even more classic? Brian Coleman: I think so. That’s really what liner notes are supposed to do. Like with Pete Rock and CL Smooth and “They Reminisce Over You,” they talk about “my man Papa Doc,” but I never knew who Papa Doc was. And I was thinking to myself, “Wow, I wonder who this guy is, he must be pretty cool.” I think that pretty much goes for any track in the book. It’s good just to get the back story, but also I think when you learn the story of how these tracks get put together and a lot of the years that went into them, it certainly makes you appreciate them as What are your criteria for determining a classic album?Brian Coleman: I definitely don’t have any concrete scientific method for figuring it out, but basically what it boils down to is all these records in here are records that I personally love. These are literally records I grew up with. They’re like friends of mine. If I really dissected how I classify [albums] it would be there has to be innovation there either on the lyrics side or musically. There has to be something different, there has to be substance there. As I chose the album not knowing the back story, I can’t say that here has to be struggle or drama there, but listening to the album, innovation and imagination are just really important to me. Whatever form they take, whether it’s Run-DMC or The Roots or Onyx or 2 Live Crew. I am a music snob but I try not to be too much of one and be like, “Onyx, f**k that.” There are a lot of amazing things about Onyx, they made some amazing music. Or the Geto Boys, groups that a lot of people, don’t necessarily put in the Hip-Hop canon, I think are certainly classics to There are all these tales about when artists first heard their song on the radio, shady A&Rs etc. Of all the people you sat down with, who was the best storyteller?       Brian Coleman: You’re literally talking about some of best storytellers who ever existed! Well, let’s see…Ice-T. Ice-T is amazing. Not only is he a great storyteller, he’s a glorator in his own right. He talks like he raps. He uses similar cadences. He’s very natural. Ahmir [?uestlove] is great storyteller for sure. Schoolly D. Schoolly D is just a really unique character and he really brings his stories to life. It’s really hard to pick any of them because they’re all such amazing storytellers. Luke from 2 Live Crew. You can pick any one of them and they’re guaranteed to be amazing Did any artist get frustrated or annoyed, like maybe Onyx with “Slam” or Digable Planets with “Cool Like Dat,” when you asked them to talk about their big hit?Brian Coleman: I don’t think so. I think if I had asked them back when the record came out and it was huge. They would have been like “I don’t wanna talk about this f**king record,” but I think with some years behind them and them constantly reassessing what these songs are all about along with me, I have to tell you that I was surprised as hell. They were all very interested. One of the things, I am very curious about when I ask these artists questions is, “Did you know it was hit?…when you heard it, did you know it was hit?” Almost none of them said they knew. The Digable Planets with “Cool Like Dat,” they had no idea. That record took a strange course to become the hit that it was. Basically, if it wasn’t for the show “In Living Color”, it wouldn’t have been a hit at all. And that just happened through a random set of circumstances where they ended up there. They had no idea at all and were as shocked as anybody else. There was all this uproar when they beat out Dre and Snoop for the Grammy. I thought Dre and Snoop should have won the Grammy, too. You left out albums like Nas’s Illmatic and the Notorius B.I.G.’s Ready to Die, maybe because they were overdone, but how do you justify their absence?Brian Coleman: I get that. It’s not that I didn’t try to get Nas. Nas actually turned me down. His manager said he was writing his own biography. That actually happened with a couple of others. I think it’s the 50 Cent where everybody is like, “I want some of that s**t. I wanna write my book,” which is cool. To be really honest, as long as Nas writes a good book, I can’t be mad at that. If he never writes a book or he writes a s**tty book, then I’ll be p##### [laughs]. But I’m still gonna try to get him for the next [book]. I already have it half done. I believe from the mid 90’s on, I’ll have to say about the next volume, I think there needs to be some time between when a record is out and when you can really say personally that s**t is immortal. That’s a classic record. Reasonable Doubt is on the edge of time when you can pretty much certify that. That would certainly be on my list for the next one. [I already have] 20 interviews in the bag. Wow. It’s cool how you talked about determining the time it takes to determine a classic. Could you extrapolate and predict what the classics will be from the last five years?Brian Coleman: That’s where I get into a tough area. I think you have to make an important distinction between “great” and “classic.” I think classics are always determined over time. First of all, I would say that there are almost no albums that I can forsee as classics over the last five years. I would put Kanye in there that has potential. I would have to give it another five years and we’ll see what’s up. I think the Hip-Hop album is in a really ugly state these days. I mean, there are artists on Stones Throw and Rhymesayers and Definitive Jux. Also, just people putting out records on there own are still making technical records. To say Hip-Hop is dead is bulls**t. But, major labels have done really everything they can to destroy the album. Just because there’s 73 minutes on a CD,  that does not mean you have to fill them up. If you don’t have 73 minutes of s**t to say then say 25 minutes and move on.I think it’s partially the artists’ fault. I’m not gonna give them a free pass because I think artists have control over [what] they do, but I think everyone really is to blame including consumers for letting some of these artists make these bloated albums. There’s no quality control when you have 10 producers on an album. It’s impossible. The one thing of all these albums [in Check the Technique], I can’t see any of these records that have more than three producers on them. And it is not a random thing, at least in my mind, that these are classics. There’s an intimacy that you have when you are working with just one producer. Especially with this day in age with people emailing MP3’s and they’re not there together. That’s just You’ve been interviewing all these artists so I just wanted to flip it on you and ask you where you were when these three following albums dropped… The Roots’ Do You Want More???Brian Coleman: Ah, I was still in Boston. I remember I heard From the Ground Up,Organix the EP that came out on in ’94 which was after Organix, which I had never heard until a year later. I was promoting Jazz at the time so I was really into the guys coming out—cats like Steve Coleman who’s linked in with The Roots and Steve Williamson who I believe is on From the Ground Up. So I was like, “Wow, it’s about time that a group comes along that was really f**king with Jazz and really f**king with Hip-Hop.” It had been done obviously, [Guru’s] Jazzmatazz, everything that Premier did, and obviously Digable Planets did it in certain ways, but The Roots really did it the first time as a full group Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the 36 Chambers.Brian Coleman: I don’t think I was on Wu-Tang as soon as the album came out. I remember “Protect Ya Neck” and I remember liking it. But I never flipped out over it initially. I remember the song that f**ked me up was “C.R.E.A.M.” I heard that and I just couldn’t stop playing it. Like I bought it and I just kept playing it over and over. The stories they’re telling on there and the beats are so ill. I obviously got the record and started getting layers and layers, getting more and more into it. It’s funny, I always paid attention after Enter the 36 Chambers, but I’ll be honest with you, it started to get really overwhelming when everybody started going solo. Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.Brian Coleman: At the time I was out in Jersey going to High School. I can remember being like, “When the f**k is this record coming out?” It was months and months and I was freaking out and I remember taking the subway all the into New York City, on the day I knew it was coming out, and buying it and just riding home on the train and just looking at the record cover like “Oh f**k, I wish I had a record player!” I just couldn’t wait and it was just killing me. I listened to it and it was everything I hoped it would be and more. I was like, “How could [Public Enemy] get that much better?” That what’s music should be about. I feel bad for kids now—I mean I hope they get that same kind of jolt and excitement and goosebumps with the new Young Jeezy record, but I just don’t see it. I hope they do, I really truly do. But, there’s a reason why they call it The Golden Age. That s**t was real.