Brian Coleman: Check the Technique

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Photo courtesy of Mary Galli

Photo courtesy of Mary Galli

Stories in Hip-Hop are rarely told correctly. They most certainly aren’t often told in detail. Author Brian Coleman has gone above and beyond the call of duty to give rap fans some insight into some of the genres most important creations. Beginning in 2005 with ‘Rakim Told Me’ Coleman compiled the most important information from some of Hip-Hop’s greatest albums by the people that made it happen.

Coleman’s latest look into some of Hip-Hop’s best albums, ‘Check the Technique Volume 2: More Liner Notes For Hip-Hop Junkies’ carries on the tradition that he started nearly a decade ago.

Check the Technique Volume 2 gives a detailed glimpse into several classic albums including Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Black Sheep’s A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, Mos Def & Talib Kweli’s Black Star, and DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper to name a few.

Brian Coleman spoke to The Real Hip-Hop about the start of his love affair with Hip-Hop, his all-time favorite Hip-Hop album, and his new book, Check the Technique Volume 2.

TRHH: Let’s start from the top, how did you get into Hip-Hop?

Brian Coleman: That’s a very complicated question. I grew up all over the northeast – New Jersey, Massachusetts, and I was born in New York. I wasn’t born in New York City, I was born on the other end of the state in Rochester. I kind of always been around the northeast. From a young age I was always a big music fan. I listened to the Fat Boys and Run-DMC back when they hit in 83-84. I was only 13 or 14 so I wasn’t really that sophisticated of a listener so I didn’t realize there were different kinds of music. It was all just music to me. I was listening to The Police, Van Halen, and a bunch of different shit. I think my love affair with Hip-Hop was more like 86-87. I definitely remember very clearly hearing Miuzi Weighs A Ton from Public Enemy’s first record and just being like, “What the fuck!? This is crazy!” From that point on that was it.

I was fortunate enough in high school in the late 80s in central New Jersey I could get in KISS 98.7 so I listened to Red Alert. Red is a man that influenced millions of people through that radio show and I was one of them. I used to listen religiously every week to what he was doing. That was really all you needed. I wasn’t seeing a lot of live stuff back in that era. I was going to a lot of Punk shows. What the crossover was for me was I felt that same energy from golden era Hip-Hop and Punk. Some people think it’s weird, but I didn’t think it was weird at all. It made perfect sense to me. From there I gradually went from being just a fan to doing a radio show in the mid-90s in Boston. I’ve been in Boston since like 1988. I did a radio show where I went to college at Boston College and I kind of started writing. It was a gradual thing. Writing books about any kind of music, Hip-Hop especially, was never really my life-long goal. It was a natural progression and it just kind of happened. It’s all been very random and beautiful.

TRHH: What inspired you to write the first book, Rakim Told Me?

Brian Coleman: I was writing for a lot of magazines at the time. I was getting kind of frustrated with the word count that some of these spots were giving me to cover some of these old school guys. To be fair, it wasn’t very sexy to do a huge feature on Dana Dane or even Slick Rick back in 2003. That was the least sexy thing you could do if you were writing for a magazine. That was my passion and that’s what I wanted to do. I was fascinated by these back stories when I started talking to these guys. Really it grew almost directly out of me being annoyed and frustrated with the way the magazines were. Keep in mind this was before the blog world even existed, so that wasn’t an option. I think if the internet was where it’s at now or even 5 years ago back in 2005 I probably would have just started a blog. I might not have decided to print up that first book. It wasn’t an option. I put that book out almost as like a fanzine on steroids. I wanted it to be out there.

I’ve always valued books. I like magazines –they’re fine and I respect them. I actually like fanzines more than magazine’s because they’re more from the heart. They don’t have these slick ads and there is no real agenda. There is no back door shit like, “Well they took out $10,000 in ads so we better feature their artist.” Fanzines are more my style, which is from the heart and spazzing out over music you love. That’s really what Rakim Told Me was. I took a bit of a risk in that it was not destined to succeed and guaranteed that people were really going to like this shit. I felt it was worth a shot. I got a designer who is a friend of mine and I figured out a little about how to get stuff printed for a fairly decent amount of money. I just did it. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I had friends at Traffic Entertainment who are still my boys to this day and they’re distributing the new book, too. They helped me get out in record stores and that was really the key.

My philosophy has been that this book doesn’t live in book stores. This book is for record stores. That was really the crux of it really. It’s not like no one had ever thought of this before but I just said, “Getting it in Barnes & Noble and Borders and all that shit is probably not going to happen.” First of all they don’t give a shit about Hip-Hop and second they don’t give a shit about books that are independently published. That was okay with me because I knew it was a book about music and a book that should live in record stores and they bought it. As much as I dislike Amazon, Amazon and a bunch of incredible indie book stores bought it. It sold a decent number and that confirmed what I always knew which was, I wanna know this shit so I do it on my own, for very selfish purposes, but I know there are tons of people out there who want to know the exact same stuff and feel the exact same way about this music. That’s really it in a nutshell.

TRHH: How is Check the Technique Volume 2 different from Volume 1?

Brian Coleman: From what it’s about at its very core there is no difference. It’s about wanting to know everything you could possibly know about your favorite records. It’s different albums, it’s a bigger book, it looks better, but at its core it’s the same exact thing. But, that being said this is 9 years down the road and I’ve figured out some things. I had some time to put into this and do some lengthy interviews with a lot of different people. I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve been able to get access kind of building on the success of the other two books. So it helps that I can send the previous books to people I want to interview so they can see what I’m trying to do and they can make their own decision on whether they want to take part or not – generally they do.

Visually I think it looks pretty amazing. I’m proud of it. My designer James Blackwell crushed it. It has over 350 images in the book. I think it helps to break up the texts because there is a ridiculous amount of texts. It can make you go blind just reading straight texts. It also kind of draws you in even more as you make your way through the chapters. I’ve always hated when you have all the images in the middle of the book and you have to go back and forth. That’s stupid to me. I can’t imagine why you would do that. I know why people do it, I just think it’s idiotic. They do it because it’s super to have everything on that glossy paper in the middle. But people who do that shit don’t think about the reading experience because it’s a horrible reading experience. I wanted to do it my way – the way I would want to read it. That’s really the big difference.

I think a lot of people are kind of shocked that it’s a self-published book because it looks so good and I love that. It makes me proud. It makes me proud for myself and it makes me proud for anyone who self-publishes a book because you don’t have to wait for people’s permission to let you publish books. If you’re energized by something, just do it. That’s what Hip-Hop is. What’s more Hip-Hop than that? What’s more Punk Rock than that? Schoolly D wasn’t like, “Will you please let me put my music out?” It was like, fuck that, I’m doing this shit if you like it or not. The world is a better place because he did. Just think of all the people that he influenced. If he’d waited around begging people for a record deal he might have just given up. Luckily he believed in it and did it. That’s what Kool Herc did and that’s what Grandmaster Flash did with their art. That’s what it’s all about.

TRHH: How long did it take to complete this book?

Brian Coleman: I mean it’s a difficult question to answer. I can tell you that the intense work that I did on this book was probably about 9 months to a year. Some of the interviews were older interviews, but not many of them in this book. I kind of supplemented them with tons of more interviews. For instance people have asked me how I got Doom on the phone, but I’ve been sitting on this Doom interview for 13 years. But there are other interviews in that chapter that I did a year ago. The Doom interview that I did in 2001 was dope, but it wasn’t enough to do a full chapter. I’m pretty proud of this list. I always tell people, “I think it’s about 50,” of albums I’ve covered in these books but it’s actually 66 in all three books. I’m pretty proud of that.

TRHH: What albums did you try to do for the book that just didn’t materialize?

Brian Coleman: I generally don’t like to talk about the ones that don’t happen because these books are about what does happen, not what doesn’t happen. I’ll say that there are definitely a lot of artists that I wish I could have covered. Queen Latifah is one who her handlers just constantly block me from getting to her. Dre is another example. Here is the one thing I’ll say because I’m not going to talk anymore about stuff I didn’t do because there are so many that I have done, every artist that I do talk to seems to really enjoy doing these interviews. If I can get to the artist in an ideal world it’s never a problem.

Some people surround themselves with people who are meant to keep guys like me away from them. Because I’m not going to sell their next movie, their next talk show, or next TV series. It’s something that the artist would enjoy but from a business perspective it’s not really going to help their current box office career or sell more headphones or whatever. Their job is to keep people like me away because they’re trying to monetize every second of these peoples day. That’s sad, that’s too bad. Sometimes if you’re Will Smith that’s the way your life has gone. I don’t think Will Smith is losing sleep because he’s not in that chapter. It’s too bad for fans, and I’m one of those fans. It’s still a dope chapter so I don’t lose any sleep over it either.

TRHH: What was the most surprising thing you discovered during the process?

Brian Coleman: There’s a lot. Surprising is relative I suppose. Something can be surprising without being super dramatic. A lot of this shit is kind of hidden in plain sight. If you have an early copy of the first known album from DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. People knew Rock the House, but it wasn’t a ridiculous smash. I’m taking about He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. There’s a sticker on the front of it that says “And plus bonus scratch album”. That was Hip-Hop’s first double album. The reason was is because it actually started as a solo DJ Jazzy Jeff scratch album that would have been the first turntablist album ever made. You can look at that record now and think, “Wow, that’s crazy!” There really is no DJ presence on ‘Parents Just Don’t Understand’ so it’s almost two albums that have been mushed together. Most of the heavier DJ cuts are toward the end. That’s a perfect example.

You already love a certain record and subconsciously don’t think you can love it anymore or be more attached to it, but then you learn shit and are like, “Wow.” Kool G Rap almost died before they made Wanted: Dead or Alive. He was in the hospital and people thought he was going to die. I’d never heard that one before. It was new to me. He came back from that and was stronger than ever. He even said, “People joke with me that they put a microchip in my brain in the hospital.” Guys can look back on that shit and laugh but it was not a laughing matter at the time, I can tell you that. So basically there are revelations like that in every chapter and that’s the beauty of it. Some of them are minor and some of them are major.

With the Dr. Octagon album you may love it and think, “Wow, they must have been in the lab for about six months crafting this crazy record,” but they didn’t record for more than a week. That was a record that was put together fairly quickly. Not that it’s sonically this glistening record like The Chronic or some shit, but that was kind of the point. If you read what Dan the Automator was talking about he was trying to do the anti-Dre record and shake Hip-Hop up — the same thing with El-P and Company Flow. Those are the guys that I’m drawn to. The people that want to shake the tree a little bit and wake people up and let them know Hip-Hop doesn’t have to be a certain way. Dan the Automator makes an interesting comment in the intro of the chapter. He says, “People say that the sun rose and set with DJ Premier and Dr. Dre and that just wasn’t the case.” That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t love and respect Dr. Dre and Premier, because he does. You can tell because any producer that comes after them will do so. He was just saying that Hip-Hop is more than what they offer. That was more about fans than those artists. It’s reminding fans that there was Public Enemy back in the day but there was also Biz Markie. Things don’t have to be one way and that’s the beauty of music.

People say, “What is Hip-Hop?” and how do I answer that? You’d need a week for me to talk about all the different shit that Hip-Hop is. There is so much under this tent that Hip-Hop is and that’s the beauty of it. Most people like it all. Most people aren’t like, “I only listen to Public Enemy and X Clan and that’s it!” No they listen to all kinds of goofy shit, serious stuff, and R&B shit. I don’t know anyone that listens to one certain kind of music and one specific type of Hip-Hop. Everybody likes a wide range of it and that’s what these books are all about really. You have Too $hort, Company Flow, Public Enemy, and X Clan and that’s a beautiful thing.

TRHH: One thing that surprised me was with Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. I did not know how big of an impact that Sir Jinx and Eric “Vietnam” Sadler had on the creation of that album. That really surprised me. Talk a little about the AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted chapter.

Brian Coleman: That may be one of the examples of the one thing that is really the motif that goes across every single album I cover and that’s that making art is not easy. It’s never just one person. There are always a lot of different people involved. Emcees can influence producers even if they don’t co-produce. The Bomb Squad was a complicated enough group on its own making a Public Enemy record or a Son of Bazerk record. Adding Cube, Jinx, and the Lench Mob to the mix and it was penciled to be a total shit show. It could have been chaos, everyone clashing, and all these egos, but it wasn’t. That was kind of the beauty of it. Jinx was brought in originally because he and Cube had a history together making music – both as emcees and having Jinx produce. Jinx was really brought there to make sure, and both Cube and Jinx agree, solely to make sure it didn’t end up sounding too east coast. They wanted to keep L.A. in there. Jinx was a dope producer and the Bomb Squad wasn’t always around so there was down time. Jinx would fuck with stuff a little bit to see what happened. It’s not like you couldn’t erase it or use some other shit.

That’s really what happened, it was the dawning of Sir Jinx as a top-level producer. It happened very naturally. Like Cube said it wasn’t like, “Fuck the Bomb Squad, Jinx is going to produce some songs here.” Jinx could have said, “Hey, this shit sounds east coast,” and The Bomb Squad who was literally ruling the world then could have said, “Who the fuck are you? Shut up.” But they respected Cube and Jinx so it was a give and take. That’s really when the best art happens — that’s really what that album is all about. It can be a very volitive mixture to mix the sounds, aesthetics and sounds like the west coast and east coast, which are very different. And also to mix egos and personalities. AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted is a triumph of mixing both of those together and coming up with something amazing. That’s the back story but on its face that’s just a fucking dope record. You can listen to it and it makes sense. I can hear how it’s a Bomb Squad record and I can hear how it’s a Cube record. It’s not one or the other. It was the only Bomb Squad/Cube record. It was a one-time thing and that also can be very powerful as well.

TRHH: In the final chapter you cover Wild Style. When people think of Hip-Hop albums they don’t think of the Wild Style soundtrack, but it’s an important movie…

Brian Coleman: The interesting thing about that one is it’s not even the soundtrack. It’s the break beats that were never even released as an album until this year. Originally I’d done a version of those for the liner notes for this package that Kenny Dope did on his KD label. My chapter looks different but I added a bunch of stuff from what they did so it’s a little bit different. To answer your question, the Wild Style soundtrack is ridiculously underrated in the impact it’s had. That album was out there and a lot of people to this day bump that shit all the time. That’s really the shit. It’s the essence. Krush Groove was Krush Groove. It wasn’t, “Wow, I feel like I’m in the middle of this shit!” It was a Hollywood version of what Hip-Hop was. Wild Style is the New York version of what Hip-Hop was. That was the real fuckin’ deal. There are some parts of it that makes you raise your eyebrows like the Patti Astor stuff. Those live sequences is as real as its ever gotten.

Tell me a movie where people have actually captured a more realistic version of what live Hip-Hop is? That was 35 years ago – that says something right there. Me babbling about all that stuff is to say the break beats were the actual DNA of that whole movie. That’s what they used for the live sequences on stage when Busy Bee was rockin’, Double Trouble, and Cold Crush Brothers. That’s what they used and that story has never been told – ever. That’s important to me. People have talked about Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted before, maybe not as in depth as I have and maybe in different ways, but no one has ever fucked with the Wild Style break beats. That’s kind of what happens. I’ve already covered De La Soul, Ice-T, Eric B & Rakim, Run-DMC, irrefutable classics. So when you get to the third volume you can really start stretching out and I can say, “You might not consider this a classic but once you read it you might think differently.” That’s the luxury I’ve had this time around. Keep in mind too that I’m also my editor, so I can do what the fuck I want [laughs]. Whether people like it or not.

I’m not lecturing you on it but I’m saying, “Maybe check this out you and might think a little bit differently about Wild Style and you might like it even more the next time you watch that movie.” The same with Dr. Octagon. That might not be on their list of the best Hip-Hop albums ever made and that’s fair enough. I can tell you that once you read this chapter you’re going to appreciate it more – there is no way you can’t. With all these chapters it tells you about the process that goes into it. No one ever knows about the process. You can talk all you want about the hit single that came after they’ve done all this work to make it, but I’ve always been more interested in the shit that I don’t know. I know ‘O.P.P.’ was a big hit, OK, got it. It was a great video, people love it, but how did that song come about? That’s kind of a crazy song. That’s what I’ve always been more interested in.

TRHH: Have people told you that your book introduced them to certain albums?

Brian Coleman: Introduced? Sometimes. Just last week somebody told me that they always loved the Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince album but kind of put it away 15 years ago and hadn’t thought about it. They said, “As soon as I read that chapter I was like, ‘Shit, man I love this album.’” Or conversely someone will say, “I never heard of this Dr. Octagon thing before. I know Ice Cube and Naughty by Nature, but I went and listened to it and bought it on iTunes and it’s great shit!” The books are supposed to be gateway drugs for people to get into shit. If they come in knowing half the albums or more, but they learn 2-or-3 or 10, they learn more about groups that they’d heard about in the past but maybe didn’t pay attention, maybe they heard the single but never bought the full album, that’s the best thing that can happen in my view. It’s kind of why I make the books as long as I do. You may not know every one of these albums and you may not give a shit about every one of these albums, but hopefully there is enough that going in if you only read the ones that you know you’ll still get your money’s worth. The other shit is just bonus.

TRHH: What are your top 5 Hip-Hop albums of all-time?

Brian Coleman: Oh jeez. I don’t do lists. I think it kinds of paints you into too much of a corner when you do lists. I’ll tell you my number one and that’s Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation of Millions [To Hold Us Back], hands down. That’s the best Hip-Hop album ever made. No one will ever top it – ever! I don’t care if it’s 50 years from now you won’t top that record. I’d put that as my number one. You can look at my books and I love all those records. I don’t see the point in debating what’s the top 5, 15, or 20 albums ever made because it’s all personal taste. If someone loves a certain artist I don’t say, “You’re an idiot.” A lot of people will look at my taste and be like, “What the hell is the matter with you?”

I listen to crazy shit, man, believe me. I listen to stuff way beyond Hip-Hop that people would be like, “Shit, dude.” If people really knew all the stuff I listened to my street cred would be right into the toilet. I’m proud of it because the producers that people love don’t listen to just Hip-Hop, they listen to everything. They listen to Madonna, Lorde, and all the shit that’s out there because you have to do that to be a great producer. Your ears have to be wide open to everything, not just Hip-Hop. That’s the way I live. I think that it’s tempting to do a top whatever list, but I’d rather just talk about albums I love rather than trying to rank a bunch of shit. I understand why people do them, but I try to leave it to other people to do that. PE is definitely number one and it will never be dethroned.

TRHH Why do you say never?

Brian Coleman: I just don’t see how it’s possible. Maybe I’m wrong, you’re right [laughs]. Maybe that is foolish of me to say in the same way that you could be like, “I never thought I could be more into ‘3 Feet High and Rising’ and then I read your chapter and was like, ‘holy shit’. I never realized all that shit and it made me like it even more!” You’re right, it could happen. But when that album hit I bought it on the day it came out and I had the highest expectations you could possibly have and they were all just destroyed. They were blown out of the water. It was 400 times better than I even thought it would be. The tidal wave that it created after it happened, I mean Straight Outta Compton wouldn’t have sounded anything like it sounded without Nation of Millions. Think about all the shit that Straight Outta Compton influenced. It’s crazy to think about the tidal wave. There was so much stuff that came before Nation of Millions that was dope. It took all of that and put it in a blender and injected some kind of nuclear plutonium into it and made it into a giant crazy beast that was better than you could ever expect. I hope someone makes an album that’s better than that in 10 or 50 years, but I don’t see how it’s possible.

TRHH: Why is this the last installment of Check the Technique?

Brian Coleman: Just to be clear, it’s not my last book hopefully, but it’s the last one in this series. I just feel like the albums that are really dear to me personally, because that’s what these books are – they aren’t me telling the book reader what the best albums of all-time are, I wanted to know more about them and now you also know more about them. That’s really what the books are. That being said, there are still some outlying records that I love that I could cover. I don’t feel like a fourth volume in a series would have as much meat in it. It would be like Run-DMC’s first record that has several tracks that are filler. It would be a shorter book. It would be weird for me to do a 200 page book after doing two 500 page books. Finally, going back to something that we talked about earlier in the interview, there are some artists that I tried to get for three books in a row and they’re just not fuckin’ with me. I’m kind of tired of that too. I tried. I tried for 9 years to get you on the fucking phone and clearly there’s something that says you don’t want to do this book.

I don’t take it personally with any of this shit. It’s the handlers, it’s not the artists. Cube has got better things to do than to talk to me, and I understand that. It doesn’t offend me in the least. I do consider it an honor that he looked at all his options of shit he could have done and said, “I wanna talk to this dude.” For every time I get rebuffed from someone I say, “Chuck D didn’t mind talking to me. Ice Cube didn’t mind talking to me. Some people that I idolize found it as a valuable way to spend an hour or two of their time.” I feel good about it. I feel good about everything. I do want to do more books, I just don’t feel like doing another one in this series. I wouldn’t be as fired up about it. That’s my requirement; I have to be fired up about some shit to do it. Believe me, I’m not buying my lake house with profits from this book [laughs]. This is a passion thing. All of the books are passion things. Even when I was on Random House I wasn’t making any money. If I’m not ramped up about it, it’s not going to happen.

Purchase: Check the Technique Volume 2: More Liner Notes For Hip-Hop Junkies

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About Sherron Shabazz

Sherron Shabazz is a freelance writer with an intense passion for Hip-Hop culture. Sherron is your quintessential Hip-Hop snob, seeking to advance the future of the culture while fondly remembering its past.
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