- Faith & Family
Nelson George, 54, is one of America’s most-respected social historians and was one of the first writers to chronicle the development of hip-hop music. He has authored books and articles and produced documentaries on almost every imaginable topic: Michael Jackson, post-civil rights culture, basketball and the history of Black music. Nelson got his start as a music editor for Billboard magazine before moving on to The Village Voice as a columnist. In his latest novel, “The Plot Against Hip-Hop,” the Brooklyn-born rap historian and intellectual takes on the notion that as rap music developed there was a concerted effort by powerful people to divert former revolutionary voices into a “safer” direction.
“One of the first people I remember talking to about B-beats [later referred to as rap and hip-hop] was DJ Hercurock at a party in New York City,” George said. “I was in college then and brothers were rapping on the street corners. I was there from the beginning — none of us imagined how big it would become. I think it’s become so popular because of its diversity. You can speak hip-hop, dance it or wear it. In that regard, hip-hop differs from old school R&B because it’s an experience. And for young people who are searching for an identity, it fills a void.”
New book takes on hip-hop conspiracy theories
George says Black audiences, especially those who follow hip-hop, believe in conspiracy theories and often express concerns that there are individuals and institutions that have great amounts of power who often use that power in very destructive ways. Hip-hop has been caught up in that power play.
“In the early days, hip-hop was a rebellious voice that criticized mainstream culture and life,” he said. “It’s gone through three generations now and in many ways it has become part of the mainstream itself. Companies actually did research on how to market hip-hop. I know that first-hand. What you see in the book are many of my own experiences and observations. You could call it a factual fiction because I take actual events and put them in a fictional context. What’s interesting about hip-hop today is that rappers make more money on endorsements than they do on their music. The implication is that hip-hop artists can’t be as political or critical as they once were — I am not sure that’s such a good thing.”
New horizons: two documentaries
Not one to take time to rest on his laurels, George is already working on two documentaries that he plans to release next year. The first chronicles a community in Brooklyn that had people like Terry McMillan, Spike Lee and a host of others who lived there from the early 80s until 2000 when gentrification took over. The second focuses on basketball legend Magic Johnson who recently marked his 20th year of living with HIV.
“Magic’s wife talked with me at length — something she rarely does — and we also spoke with his doctors,” George said. “Remember that when he was diagnosed, HIV/AIDS was still considered a death sentence. Arsenio Hall was the person that I remember first talking about Magic’s case on television. Johnson’s doctor paved the way for research that has successfully extended life for millions of people. It’s a fascinating story.”
Nelson George is clearly one of the coolest, most-informed cultural critics on the planet. Check him out!
By D. Kevin McNeir