Writer Marcus Guillory Hips Us To 'The Breaks,' Art + Finding His Truth [Interview]
If you've never heard the name Marcus Guillory then don't worry, here's a rundown as to why you should know the 43-year-old producer and writer behind VH1's The Breaks. Legendary author Walter Mosley lauded his script, Gully, at the Sundance Writer's Workshop. Guillory's fiction novel, Red Now and Laters was shortlisted for the Ernest Gaines Award. His first EP, Postcards from Strangers, which is available now on Yoruba Records, got love around the world.
Now, as a working staff writer for The Breaks, which stars Mack Wilds, Wood Harris and Teyona Taylor, Marcus Guillory helps the team to focus on the '90s era hip-hop culture and the business deals behind it. With the show making its debut on Feb. 20th at 9:00 p.m. EST, we were fortunate enough to get a bit of time from Marcus Guillory, as he talks with Okayplayer about art, hip-hop, film and finding his truth. Lock your dial in + enjoy the read!
Okayplayer: You started working as a staff writer on the upcoming VH1 television series, The Breaks. What interest did you have around hip-hop and the culture surrounding it?
Marcus Guillory: The cool thing was the movie [that aired on VH1], The Breaks, was focused on my generation, my era. I was living in Philadelphia at the time in the 1990s, going to New York every other weekend because my sister was in New York. I immediately identified with that moment. There are different moments, of course. I remember memorizing Run-DMC lyrics in the '80s and reciting Kurtis Blow lines while holding my momma's comb in elementary school. That's the cool thing about Generation X with hip-hop is that we can mark it from day one to different times in our lives. [The] cool thing was the movie was touching on the good, formative years when I was on the East Coast.
OKP: What about your interest in hip-hop as a young person from Houston?
MG: Being from the South, well... the South with hip-hop was a trip because we were always supportive of the stuff coming from New York and the West Coast. But we were keenly aware that they weren't feeling us. We supported our artists [like] UGK and the Geto Boys. They were our heroes. We bumped Run-DMC and N.W.A. with just as much passion.
OKP: How long have you been writing on The Breaks as a member of its staff?
MG: We started at the beginning of May. It's a really smart room. Everybody is very sharp. We want to present a good, authentic story. That is very important because it is easy to set something in a time period, then try to time code it with props and costume design and miss the mark on how people were talking, acting and feeling.
We are taking that all into account. A good number of us are around the same age and were living where our main characters were from. Dan [Charnas], one of our executive producers who wrote the book, The Big Payback, is like the Wikipedia of Hip-Hop [laughs]. It is useful to talk to him and just get information.
OKP: Are there anyone from the hip-hop generation of the '90s that served as consultants on the show?
MG: We talk to people while we're in the room. We'll call people up. We'll text them. I hit up an NYPD detective to ask him about some stuff [that happened] in Brooklyn in the 1990s, just to make sure what we were going to apply to the plot would translate to people who lived it. Jason's Lyric—most people from Houston weren't feeling that movie at all. Some of the movements, [the] mannerisms were off. I was insulted as a Houstonian that people didn't take the time to really, really get it right. Like, they didn't care. It was like we got these stars, so let's prop them at the bayou and keep it moving. I think [that] the audience will be thoroughly entertained and plesantly surprised with this.
OKP: Recently, you were picked to be a part of the Sundance Writer's Lab. Can you talk more about it?
MG: Yeah, the June Sundance Writer's Lab is invitation only. Somebody slid them my script and they went for it quick. The script is titled, Gully, [and] it is about three teens in South Central [who are] trying to negotiate the world around them and find some bit of happiness and catharsis while dealing with their demons. They decided to deal with it together. The reason I wrote that was because after years of working with young boys in New Orleans, in the Mac Melph projects at Carter G. Woodson as a teacher while I was in law school and then living in South Central for nine years, I interviewed a lot of these kids in gang areas.
One of the things that made me think about this story was that at some point around this time, this was years ago, there was a study which asked black men between the ages of 12-and-24 about friendship. After explaining what the word meant, they asked them do you have a friend? Something like 85% of them said no. I never forgot that. I thought that that was tragic. We speak about young black male performance, athleticism and talent at mythical levels, but I was thinking: what is the angst? What are they fearful of? And when I would interview the gang bangers—what are you scared of—if you're not scared of dying. Have you even thought about that?
Most of them were so set up in this space where you can't be scared of anything that they don't know how to address their fears because they don't acknowledge them. What I wanted to do in Gully was to deal with that. Deal with it directly from their point of view. The characters are friends. I wanted to explore friendship. How far would you go for a friend? How do you express love? Concern? Camaraderie? Companionship? And how do you do that in a way that's healthy, given that you had trauma growing up? That has a lot to do with my growing up, which I documented in fiction with my novel, Red Now and Laters. Growing up in the urban south in Houston, Texas, a lot of my playmates [had] stories [that] weren't good.
They didn't have anything to look forward to.
So, you're just living and you are looking for temporal gratification and we sometimes equate that with material things. This kind of car. This kind of jewelry. Pretty girls. And then we self-medicate because so much of the cards are stacked against us. It then becomes the ethos of who we are as black men. The more cities I've lived in: New Orleans, Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, even Seattle where I worked in a group home with kids — I saw the same thing over and over again. When we talk about the mentality of these kids, their psychology and how they deal with their trauma — Gully deals directly with that to the point that it makes it disturbing.
It is a disturbing script. It is going to bother you after you read it. It has been a script that has certainly propelled me in Hollywood in terms of being a guy that writes edgy stuff or psychological thriller, or really effed up stuff. I ask the tough questions and I deal with it. It ain't no "Big Mama," or ain't no preacher or no savior and at the end she cooks a whole bunch of food and everybody eats. That's a whole part of this middle class mythology that a lot of our films deal with when it comes to the present day black community. Then when they deal with the hood, it is a cops and robbers thing. Cops are barely present in Gully. I purposely didn't have that in there because it's like for what...? It is their [the character's] story, it's not about The Man.
At Sundance, I got really good responses from folks like Charles Randolph, who won an Oscar for The Big Short. I had a really good conversation with Tyger Williams who wrote Menace II Society. Gully is the descendant of Boyz 'N Da Hood and Menace II Society. His film and John [Singleton's] film were addressing our generation and my film is aimed [directly] at this generation.
OKP: One of the things that distinguishes Gully is the heightened language in it...
MG: I chose to go [in] that direction with the characters because I wanted to change or make an impact on how we communicate. In hood films, the conversation is very short. The idea is communicated in a very basic way: 1) it was rough in the hood, 2) moms had to work three jobs and 3) I had to do what I had to do. Gully shows the generational difference in terms of how they are communicating the things they know about, the things that they can reference due to their online participation [and how that] has changed the semantics. Not all of the youth, of course, but with our characters that is the case. It is just heightened language. It is a departure from what we've seen before. Walter Mosley thought I did a good job when I met with him.
OKP: What is happening with you as an author?
MG: I am halfway finished with the next book. The new book is set in an alternative Los Angeles, and it is more of an Orwellian tale, with a bit of social commentary, but not quite a satire. It is a bit dark.
OKP: How is the first book, Red Now and Laters, doing?
MG: I got shortlisted for the Ernest Gaines Award. It got starred in the Kirkus Review [and] it got positive reviews from Publisher's Weekly. I didn't get the kind of readership or critical coverage that a lot of my peers that went to MFA programs got. I didn't do a big book tour. The critics thought it was good. It was an interesting experience for me, primarily because my father passed, six weeks before the book came out. It took a lot of joy, accomplishment and triumph that you feel from your first novel. It was difficult because the protagonist's father was modeled after my own father. It was difficult reading that book and doing readings across the country [after his passing].
OKP: Did your father get a chance to read the book before his death?
MG: He got a galley in the hospital. Everybody who came to visit him, including the nurses, he let them read the first chapter. [Then he would say], "You got a phone? You gotta go to Amazon.com and get it." [Laughs] He was my sales rep. Last time I saw him, he had the book in his lap and I told him I would come back and see him soon. He said, "You go out and work that book, don't worry about me." He died two weeks later.
OKP: Tell us what is going on with your music, Marcus. Is there a commonality between all of the things you do?
MG: The lit house thing, that's my label of distinction in the House Music world. My primary label is Yoruba Records with Osunlade and I. We produced a group Trinidad Senolia, which is based under my pseudonym, Mateo Senolia, and Garth Trinidad, a DJ from KCRW in Los Angeles. Garth and I met because there was a television show he wanted to produce. At the same time, I was a story producer for the Snoop Dogg Fatherhood show.
I put out solo stuff. Okayplayer put out a record last year called "Noelle," which has me reciting excerpts from Red Now and Laters. I did a remix for The Internet for their last album. I did a remix for Stuart Matthewson for his new jazz group. He did a remix for me and I did a remix for him. I did a remix for Little Dragon [and] maybe I might be doing a remix for Anderson .Paak.
My intention with the lit house was to turn listeners into readers. Garth and I would do lit house live at the R Bar. That was the first residency we had in Koreatown. I have a track on it and Garth has a fantastic voice being a radio guy. He would recite the stuff that I wrote. It is a way for people to experience an author in a whole different kind of way. Mateo Senolia—Senolia is my grandfather's middle name and it is my daughter's first name. It is an Creole name.
OKP: Was making the transition from being a lawyer to being a writer something that was necessary for you?
MG: It was an accident. I was working for Ruff Ryder's film company, a fledgling one at that from a major rap label, and they sent me all these scripts to read for consideration. I just started thinking, "Shit, I can do that." I went and got some software books and format and I just started. What I discovered was that I had a gift for storytelling that I never knew I had. I read a lot and I learned to write from reading. When I discovered my voice people responded to it.
People thought I was crazy when I left law. I was an entertainment lawyer in the game at a big level firm, making big money. I kept writing and liquidating assets until I was living in a park and still writing. I never felt more free than when I was homeless. I had no bills, except my phone bill. Every day was an adventure. I didn't beg or steal. I only had one prayer and the prayer was this: I don't want to die and I don't want to go to jail. Amen. I questioned whether I made the best choice. My mother didn't know I was homeless until after the fact. She said instead of concentrating on what you don't have, focus on what you do have. And, unbeknownst to her at the time, all I had was writing. I could write myself out of poverty.
In order to get there, you have to absolutely submit. It is either hell or hot water. You have to be extremely irrational. It's always irrational if you're not making money off of it. You ave to find the truth of yourself and if that truth is you being a writer [then] you have to commit to it and it has to be an addiction. The minute I got a place with electricity, I got a guitar and played it to help me relax. I had a Latin band in New Orleans [and] I studied under Bill Summers. I took everything I learned and I started to translate that onto a computer. With the help of two people—Bosco Kante, a hip-hop producer and Taz Arnold, a member of Sa-Ra and a producer behind Kendrick Lamar's album—they were the first people to hear the tracks I was making and they encouraged me.
These are interesting times. I am an artist, anything I do is a protest as a black artist. The very fact of being black and being an artist is a protest in and of itself. I try to write something I've never read. I try to produce music that I have never heard. I try to write scripts for movies [that] I have never seen. I am not a teacher at an institution. I am out here in the world. Last year, I spent a year working at a group home for incarcerated boys, and within the past six months I was helping people get food stamps. You gotta love music. With writing, you gotta dig people. You gotta really, really dig people. You gotta understand their proclivities, their strengths and weaknesses, their background.
You gotta know in a way that it is almost like [being] a psychotherapist. You gotta like being alone a lot, too [laughs]. [All in all] I feel fulfilled because what I do is pure and it is not a gimmick. If it is a true expression of who you are then that is its own reward right there.
Marcus Guillory is a staff writer for VH1's The Breaks, which will premiere on TV sets on Monday, Feb. 20 at 9:00 p.m. EST / 8:00 p.m. CT.
Ericka Blount is a journalist, professor and author from Baltimore, Maryland. Her book ‘Love, Peace and Soul: Behind the Scenes of Soul Train’ is available on Amazon. Please follow her (and us!) on Twitter @ErickaBlount.