Documenting hip-hop liner notes with Brian Coleman

Growing up in the rap isle of Sam Goody and then graduating to local record stores in my teens, my guiding light became less what I saw on MTV and more about connecting the lineages of the hip hop family tree on my own. I did that by turning the CD over to the tracklisting, seeking the familiar names in the producer credits and guest appearances. Reach for a Da Bush Babees CD, notice it features production from Shawn J. Period, recall his beat on “Body Rock” is one of my favorite songs from the Lyricist Lounge Vol.1, the record also features appearances by Mos Def, Q-Tip, and Rahzel from The Roots. Determine it’s worth the $15.99 risk and spend hoarded dollars from a few weeks of lunch allowance on testing out a new group. It was a lot of risk taking, dollar bin browsing, and taking the mangey record store clerk’s word for it. “Dr. Octagon is going to change your life forever, dude.”

Author Brian Coleman understands one of the biggest issues and in turn gripes with early rap releases—no goddamn liner notes. Each purchase was a lottery in the jewel case as to the extent of accreditation and documentation of who contributed to the record and to what extent. Nothing stung more than opening the jewel case, looking on the backside of the insert and seeing a white blank square. But as Coleman notes, early rap records weren’t made on enormous budgets, the source of nearly every record is an arduous process that remains untold because after its release the artist went on to sell in the hundred thousands to millions. Over the phone we discuss the reality versus the mythology and he states, “they were very much blue collar lunch pale, let’s get in the studio and knock this shit out,” not directed at any artist in particular, but an ongoing theme that courses through both volumes of his books.

In 2007, Brian Coleman with the assistance of Random House publishing released Check The Technique: Liner Note for Hip-Hop Junkies, which was the official debut to the demo tape entitled Rakim Told Me. Check The Technique explored the history and creative process behind 36 classic hip hop records through interviews with the performers, producers, and A&Rs that have permanent finger prints in the hip hop history books. For Vol.II, Coleman has ditched the woes of mainstream publishing to self-publish (Wax Facts Press) without limitations to his word count or the depth of exploration.

“The reason I did the first book was because I was writing for magazines and they were like, well just 600 words,” he said. “And it’s like, ‘dude, I just talked to KRS-One for three hours. You’re going to make me do 600 words? That’s physically painful for me to think about chopping this down.”

Vol.II travels further down the chronology of classics to include indie albums from the late 90s, Rawkus-era like Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus and Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star, as well as traversing the country to document Dan The Automator and Kool Keiths’ seminally praised collaboration as Dr. Octagon, Dr. Octagonecologyst. In 25 Chapters, Coleman is all over the map with interviews with Ice Cube, 3rd Bass, Stetsasonic, Naughty By Nature, MF Doom, Raekwon, and DJ Jazzy Jeff, among others.

I talked to Coleman about going independent, improving the format, documenting beyond the Golden Era of hip-hop, and the importance of permanence his books provide.

Improving upon the format (aka this volume is huge):

Coleman: The last book was kind of two books put together. The book I’d already done, Rakim Told Me, was part of the book, which was not intentional on my part. Random House wanted those chapters and I figured why not, now it will get to a wider audience.

There were certain chapters that yes, I did dive much deeper than I have before. But for instance The Roots chapter in the last book was pretty long and the original version was even longer, but [Random House] had me cut it down. This time since I’m self-publishing I don’t have to answer to anybody, so it’s like fuck it, let it all fly.

I was talking to a friend recently and they called [Vol.II] the unabridged, which is technically correct. There was no bridging going on. Everything I got I threw it in there. Hopefully none of it is superfluous. I always find the more information the better. These books all depend on how much input the artists give me. If they’re willing to dive in with me then things get pretty deep.

Check the Technique Vol 2 FRONT COVER July 2014

On the artists being aware of the original books and the structure:

There certainly was the advantage of me being able to say ‘hey this last one came out.’ If they weren’t familiar and didn’t have it, I could say ‘let me send it to you and I’ll call you next week.’ It was helpful. But, some artists already knew the last book, which I was certainly honored by.

It helps a lot to have another book to reference so you know what you’re getting yourself into. These aren’t 10 minute interviews and I just need a couple sound bytes. We’re going deep. This is Sigmund Freud shit. We’re not fucking around with these. There are many artists that really went above and beyond to give me time and multiple sessions on the phone.

Chapters that didn’t make Vol.I:

I handed in my manuscript and they were like ‘this is way too long’ even though it was the same words they told me to hand in roughly. There’s some weird shit in which they do their page count or word count. I don’t have any other reference than to just do the word count on MS Word. At first I was upset and mystified by it, but then I realized the book is already long as shit so that’s fine. This will give me a head start on the next one. I can start the 100 yard dash from 30 yards in.

They wanted me to keep the chapters I had but chop them up and make them smaller, but I just said no. I ended up keeping the length of the chapters and cut out whole chapters like Naughty By Nature, Black Sheep, Beatnuts, Jeru [da Damaja]. But for instance I’d only talked to Jeru. I hadn’t talked to [DJ] Premier yet. So that was the impetus. It’s not like the chapters are untouched from being cut from the first volume.

The “Onyx was on acid” moment of Vol. II:

[Editor’s Note: in Vol.1, the chapter on Onxy’s Badafucup revealed that the group was dropping LSD throughout the recording sessions.]

Well, in the Company Flow chapter Mr. Len had a heart attack when he was 18 years old. One of the guys in the group didn’t even mention it. [Laughs] Even, Len wasn’t dramatic about it. It’s pretty fucked up to think he could have died.

I never knew the original plan to have the DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince album, He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper, to be a deejay-only record. Jazzy Jeff was the star of the group when they started. It’s interesting to think of Will Smith as the sidekick, but he was. He was very much the sidekick in 1987 and 1988. Jazzy Jeff won the big DJ battle, the New Music Seminar DJ Battle. You look on the back cover of the album and it’s him with his trophy. That album was supposed to be a deejay record, which would have made it the first turntablist record ever… several, several years before groups like X-ecutioners and Invisibl Skratch Piklz came along.

But then once they got in the studio and things like “Parents Just Don’t Understand” came along, they were like hold on a second. Then, it became… they could have just jettisoned all the deejay tracks, but it was important to the group to keep those. That album, there’s not a lot of secrecy. It was two people. He’s the deejay. I’m the rapper. One of them is on the front cover, one of them is on the back cover. Clearly the dynamic swung at some point and Jeff got pushed more into the background, but it’s hard as a deejay to keep the spotlight all the time when the rapper is someone like Will Smith who is that charismatic.

DJ Jazzy Jeff Parents single cover (7 inch)

Sticking to the Golden Age versus looking beyond it:

A lot of the chapters in the first two books I did are ones I wanted to do, but I also felt I should do. You have to cover Public Enemy. Duh. You have to cover De La Soul. You have to cover Run DMC. Putting Dr. Octagon in the last book would have raised some eyebrows.

There are a lot of people that would say how dare you cover 2 Live Crew. But I have no qualms about that at all. They weren’t making music as serious or as important as Public Enemy, but they were hugely important because they were an indie operation, an independent label and outside of New York. They had to fight 10 times as hard to be heard and it became a phenomenon.

I’m not trying to say these are the greatest albums ever made, this is the list, and don’t argue with me. These are records that I love. I find them to be important and fascinating. If the hip hop world was all Big Daddy Kane and Public Enemy and you didn’t have Dr. Octagon and 2 Live Cew and Biz Markie it wouldn’t be that interesting.

Dr Octagon Bulk album Ad Grand Royal 96

The book as a window into the creative process:

It makes you appreciate that artists are people exactly like you and me. They still have to work for it. There’s still a process. You don’t just go in and in a couple days they have a classic album. I was certainly guilty of this before I started diving this deep is you think of the artists you love as super heroes. Everything they do is right. They never fuck up. And that’s not the case at all. They’re human and go through struggles. In the Public Enemy chapter, talking to Chuck D, he struggled with the lyrics for “Bring The Noise” for months. Or how MC Serch on the “Gasface” in the new book, he struggled with those lyrics. I don’t think of Chuck D struggling to do anything.

On “Respiration” Talib talks about how he psyched himself out with that song and the lines. It took a long time for it to happen and get Common and at the last minute they changed up the beat and he’d been writing to a completely different beat for so long he wasn’t sure he could do it. Talib over prepares for everything. From the Mos Def side, much like now, he floats in and out and he can’t prepare. If he prepares for something it’s not as dope.

On connecting the family tree of hip hop:

You start to think about who influenced whom. De La Soul and Prince Paul would not have been the same without Ultramagnetic [MCs]. Same with DJ Premier. El-P was influenced by Scott La Rock and Ced Gee of Ultramagnetic and other producers that came before him. He didn’t mimic them, he mimicked the energy and maybe the attitude of some of them. That was the beauty of what Company Flow did, I thought.

When they first came out it hit me the way Boogie Down Productions’ first record did. It was seismic shift that could really change the way people look at it. Now, dipping into the 2000s you can look at all the people that were influenced by El-P and you can say, well El-P was influenced by these other guys.

On the importance of book and online documentation as magazine print disappears:

When these albums came out people did interviews, but who remembers the interview Doom did when KMD’s Black Bastards came out? You can’t just pull up the The Source from 1994.

It’s important to put it down in a place that has more permanence. It’s information that people will want in the far flung future. I hope that more people continue to do this kind of stuff. In online magazine and blogs even. When the first book came out there were blogs but they were nowhere near what they are now.

On setting the record straight on shady liner notes:

They’re supposed to be celebrations and not tear things apart. For instance, in the Kool G. Rap chapter it’s revealed… and this is not new, Rob Swift has posted this before… that Dr. Butcher did most of the cuts on the [Kool G. Rap & DJ Polo] Wanted: Dead Or Alive album. So that was revelatory to me. I even checked that with DJ Polo because I wanted to make sure he had a chance to talk about that. He has his ‘response.’ He was like ‘I didn’t want to do that type of pyrotechnic type shit and that guy Dr. Butcher did.’ He didn’t say fuck that guy or that’s a lie. He didn’t deny it. It wasn’t common knowledge, but it also goes on a lot.

If I ever feel like something is 180 degrees from what someone else is saying, I’ll either follow-up with someone or that’s what the author’s notes are for, just to clarify. I’m not trying to do a Behind the Music thing where it’s all leading to how the group fucks up, crashes, and burns. I don’t generally get a lot of static and I’m glad because that’s really the last thing I’d ever want.

Brian Coleman’s Check The Technique Vol. II is self-published and out now on Wax Facts Press.