The Plot: Exclusive Nelson George Interview
There seems to be something of an explosion going on in the world of hiphop-related publishing in 2011. But considering how close the art of storytelling is to the heart of rap music, hip-hop literature (not to be confused with either “street lit” or “novels written by rappers”) is still a wide-open field.
The new novel from rap historian and intellectual Nelson George– The Plot Against Hip-Hop–-aims to change all that, however. Built around the strangely plausible premise that the corporatization of rap’s assets over the last few decades is not simply the result of the invisible hand of the market–but a concerted effort by powerful players to divert the music’s revolutionary potential into a “safer” and more lucrative direction–TPAHH may have singlehandedly established the genre of the rap conspiracy novel. OKP met up with George at his Brooklyn book-signing event to chop it up with the author about the book, its inspirations and the current state of hip-hop storytelling. Spoiler alert: It was all a dream. Or was it?
Okayplayer: So what’s the response to the book been like so far?
Nelson George: So far, we’ve had six reviews, and five of them are spectacularly good. One bad one but, what the fuck. I think five to one is good. You know, there’s a lot of novels that reference hip-hop but I think it’s the first book where hip-hop is the subject, as opposed to the back-drop or flavor. This is really about hip-hop and what it means. Particularly there’s a whole dialogue about its history and has it been sold out or not sold out.
OKP: It is a pretty unique premise for a thriller, how did the idea come about?
NG: I read a book by Philip Roth about 5 years ago maybe, called The Plot Against America, and I’ve always liked the idea of re-writing history, or alternative histories to official history. Also James Elroy’s novels like L.A. Confidential and stuff. For me this is a chance to take a lot of the elements of hip-hop history and almost do the bizarro-world version of it. Black audiences in general, and certainly hip-hop audiences, believe in conspiracy theories. In fact I was researching the book and there’s like reams and reams of pages of stuff… You know, I was telling Russell Simmons, “You know you’re part of the conspiracy to destroy hip-hop? You and Rick [Rubin] are the original illuminati and Def Jam has been the ongoing conspiracy to control it!” So that was another inspiration for it, but I created my own conspiracy.
OKP: Not to give away any secrets but the premise revolves around a leaked corporate document called the Sawyer memorandum which has some precedents in real life…
NG: I can tell you man, one of the things that really sparked the book is, when I did the Death of Rhythm and Blues in 1988, I went to a convention and I was sitting around with some older R&B veterans, and they asked me, Do you know about the Harvard Report? I said, What? So one of them got me a copy. In the early ‘70’s CBS records commissioned the Harvard Business school to do a marketing survey on how to penetrate the Black music market. It exists. I’ve seen it. I got a copy. I wrote about it. That one really exists and they really did what was in that report, pretty much. In the late 80’s, I saw a similar memorandum by a marketing company out of Philadelphia about what hip-hop meant. So these memorandums– I’m not making that stuff up– the Sawyer memorandum that I use in the book– I saw a document like this. So these are not…I mean I would call the book very factual fiction.
When people think about conspiracies, they think about like this over-arching thing controlled by figures above everything, but when you look at how things have often worked in this country, it’s individuals and institutions that have power and are un-managed. A good example is Oliver North. There’s people within an institution who decide they want it to go in a certain direction and use those tools. If you go back to, I wanna say the early nineties, when NWA went on one of their first national tours, there was an FBI agent who was really offended by “Fuck The Police” and all that stuff and he literally went out and sent emails to almost every police department, where NWA was touring, alerting the police departments to the fact that these guys were potential trouble-makers, anti-police. This is documented, that’s a real thing that happened. And it wasn’t an official FBI thing, it was a guy inside the building, who decided to use the powers he had to make his point. So that struck me profoundly, I’ve always thought about that case, like how it doesn’t take a whole group of people to create something that could be damaging, it takes a few people well-placed with an agenda.
OKP: Have you always had this in the back of your mind or did it come to you recently?
NG: Nah, I’ve always had this idea. This title has been in my head for a while, at least maybe since the late 90’s, definitely around 2000. And parts of the book were written, different episodes of the book were written for a while, and then I kind of sat with them.
OKP: What really seeps through from this book is a—maybe “self-hate” is too strong, but a profound discomfort about where hip-hop has arrived. How much of that is autobiographical?
NG: Oh yeah, I mean I wanted to write a character that felt like those guys that I know.
For me it was very much a chance to embody all of that discomfort through the story. So I picked a point of view, and that point of view was, I was going to be that guy who loved hip-hop as a younger man, and now is profiting off of hip-hop as an adult, but is uncomfortable with that profiting. And I think there’s a lot of people like that. It’s become such a business, that there are people who are wedded to hip-hop as a business, even if they’re not wedded to hip-hop as a culture anymore. It’s become such a vehicle for everything but the music. And I think that’s really what’s striking about it. There’s a character in the book who is, loosely, kind of a Steve Stoute-esque character, Gibbs. That was on purpose, because Steve Stoute has a book out–The Tanning of America–and the whole point of his book is the marketing of hip-hop as a commercial entity to major corporations is good for hip-hop and good for race relations. And I’m not quite sure that’s true. I do think it has spread the power– the buying power of hip-hop artists, but I think it alienates and has taken away all of the rebel energy. To me part of what hip-hop was about was that it wasn’t mainstream, that it represented another point of view on culture and life. And when you’re endorsing Hewlett-Packard…I’m not saying you shouldn’t do that at all, I’m just saying: What’s the consequence of that, for the culture, not for the individual?
People always complain that there’s not enough politics in hip-hop anymore and I think part of that is that if you’re an artist who’s trying to make a living, you’re like “Well, I’m not selling records, I’m gonna make money somehow, with some kind of product endorsement or some kind of business off-shoot. Critiquing the mainstream and capitalism in any form is probably not the way I’m going to make a living. So let me just talk about, you know, the vodka I like and the car I like.”
And [one consequence is] if you talk to young black people in their twenties; teenagers, adolescents, hip-hop is not necessarily their number one passion. I don’t think hip-hop has the same central role, because that particular group wants rebellion and hip-hop doesn’t mean rebellion. I mean not really, not anymore, not in this country.
OKP: So where is that need for rebellion being met? Rock music?
NG: I think the black skateboard phenomenon is part of that. I think there’s a lot more kids who are open to ghetto-metal, if you will. That’s probably the same hip, trendsetting kid who was into hip-hop. But I think music in general is not the same force. The internet as a construct has a lot more impact, video game culture is massive.
E: To switch tacks, if one figure in the book sort of stands in for everything that’s wrong with hip-hop in the world it’s Drake, who comes in for several gratuitous cheap shots. Is that coming from the character or the author?
NG: He is kind of an easy target. He’s Canadian and he has a bad leg and he kinda looks funny. Mostly, I can’t stand Drake’s voice. I mean I think he can write some good rhymes but auto-tune or no auto-tune, he just irritates the fuck outta me. He comes on the radio and… I can’t. I’ve even had conversations with Jay-Z, where Jay is like “Yo, Drake is really blah blah blah” and I’m like, Man, your taste is impeccable obviously…but, yo. He’s not like an evil guy, but his banality is what’s evil.
OKP: Well, he sort of epitomizes the fact that rap’s storytelling has gone on internal mode, that is his major contribution, right? He’s brave enough to rap about his emotions and such…
NG: In Philadelphia last night I did an event, and there was mostly men present, one woman. There was a lot of criticism of hip-hop from the males and she’s like, “A lot of these guys are writing about their dysfunctional families”; Jay-Z writing about his father…there’s a lot of vulnerability in the music that as a woman appealed to her. And I thought that was very interesting, and maybe that’s part of Drake’s appeal as well. But I do think that, the “Black CNN” thing that Chuck D said…it doesn’t feel like that up to the minute part of it [anymore], which was really exciting about it.
OKP: Well, in fairness, the regular CNN ain’t what it used to be either.
NG: But isn’t somebody going to write a rhyme about coming back from Afghanistan or Iraq –somebody’s boy must have come back and had crazy stories about seeing people get their head blown off or whatever. I was really surprised that I didn’t see more stories like that, that people projected themselves outside of that. Cause I thought that would be such a very immediate experience for so many people who are part of what hip-hop is. Clearly people think no one’s gonna play that, so why tell that story? But it does feel like there’s some kind of self-censorship.
OKP: So if not rap, what is the forum for those stories going forward?
NG: There’s a friend of mine who lives in the neighborhood, who’s working on some political video games, or socially conscious video games. I’ve actually looked a little bit at the form, but I don’t know if I have time to really learn how to do it. But it seems to me that that’s where the next level of storytelling is, because now video games embrace music, they embrace action…
OKP: So who is the ideal reader for The Plot Against Hip-Hop? The young kid who doesn’t hear his rebellion reflected in rap or the older cat who is uncomfortable with this new rap order?
NG: Every book I’ve ever written is written for the same person: it’s written for me when I was 21. I think, when I was like 21 or 22, I wanted to know shit. I wanted to know how the world worked, I had all these theories, and I was really trying to figure it out. I read every music book, every jazz book, every rock history book I could get my hands on. And I when I do readings, I run into that guy. The really musically, culturally interested young guy… He used to be the guy who read the liner notes, now they go online and read all this shit, on chatrooms. Like who makes the best beat, I love the 808, but I like the 810 better, those fucking guys. I write for them, and then the other people… It is interesting though that– I’ve done a lot of fiction, and there’s people who love my non-fiction who have no idea about that, because fiction tends to be bought by women, and the best selling novels I’ve had have been relationship-based. So I’m really excited, because I’m hoping that guys who read non-fiction for information will find a way into this book, because it has both stuff for them, and it has a narrative.
OKP: What kind of stuff is for them?
NG: There’s a couple “easter eggs” in the book. There’s something in the book that’s threaded through the entire book– So far no one has said anything about it, but it’s there. It’s a little joke, once you probably unravel the first one, you will eventually figure out the other ones. And it’s not a story point, it’s just something that’s in there consistently throughout, so I’m waiting for the hip-hop fan who’ll go “Oh yea man, I saw that, blah blah blah…” There are some things that I put in there, for that nerdy kid to unravel.