Imagine having the opportunity to interview your favorite childhood musicians about the creation of their classic albums. Boston hip-hop historian Brian Coleman has lived that fantasy many, many times.
Coleman is the author of multiple volumes of “hip-hop liner notes,” collections of interviews he’s conducted with influential rappers and producers from the 80’s and 90’s, or as Coleman describes them, “ridiculously monolithic, huge, 500-page books.”
From his first book, Rakim Told Me (2005), he has been on a mission to dig into hip-hop history, one album, one song, at a time, in order to fill in the missing gaps and share their creation stories.
In his latest edition, Check the Technique Volume 2 (Wax Facts Press, 2014), Coleman offers over 80 interviews spanning 25 seminal albums—Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper, and Mos Def & Talib Kweli’s Are Black Star, to name just three.
I was able to talk with Coleman for a few hours one morning at Bourbon Coffee in Cambridge, Mass. We settled into maroon leather chairs by the front window. I wanted to know—why write all these enormous volumes of hip-hop history?
“If you’re a fan of something and then you become a superfan, you say, ‘How can I continue this lineage? How can I contribute?’ Coleman said. “Sometimes you join a band. Sometimes you become a journalist. Sometimes you do a radio show. Sometimes you start a record label. You kind of figure out what your skill set is.”
Since Coleman released Volume 2 in October, he has been traveling the country promoting the book on radio shows and at record store events, though he doesn’t do readings.
“That would be kind of ridiculous,” Coleman said. “I try to have conversations. And I try not to do just signings because I’m really not that famous. What I try and make them is more like talks. In Boston I did a thing with me and Ed O.G. and Evil Dee at Underground Hip Hop. I try and make it about the music, not about me. Because that’s not as fun.”
Coleman has led a varied career, spending years as a journalist, hosting a radio show on WZBC at Boston College—his alma mater—working as music critic, a publicist, as well as a hip-hop promoter.
Currently he is the sole proprietor of Good Road, a media relations, event management, writing agency, and record label based in Boston. He also produces a small t-shirt line (Good Road Goods). “Good Road is an umbrella for everything I do,” Coleman said. “It’s just smaller things I do on a whim, more than try and take over the world or make a lot of money kind of shit.”
For years, the sand in Coleman’s sandbox has been hip hop—he’s turned it over, dug deep, examined each grain with a Manhattan-sized magnifying glass. But it was the energy and innovation of punk music that Coleman was first drawn to in high school in New Jersey.
“That’s always the lens I’ve viewed music through, including hip hop to be honest with you,” Coleman said. “It was a different approach, but still the same reason for making it, which was ‘Express yourself, be heard.’ So that’s the way I’ve always looked at music, no matter what it is.”
Coleman continued, “Going to punk shows in the 80’s was a very communal thing, and it still is. Going to hip-hop shows could be the same thing. But in the early days in Boston it was hard. The city and the venues, it was a very racist environment. It was difficult for groups to even get shows. It was just straight up racist. It was fucked up, and it was really hard to be a hip-hop fan and see live groups back in the late 80’s, early 90’s. So it didn’t really start to flourish until the mid-90’s in the way a scene should have flourished.
“One of my favorite groups, who’s been kind of long forgotten, was called Posse NFX, and they had to pretend like they were a jazz group or a funk group to get shows. They had to basically trick people into booking them. And that was fucked up, but it was important that they did that because they put on some amazing shows and that was important for the local scene.”
Although Coleman is an expert on Boston hip-hop in the 80’s and 90’s, he admitted that he doesn’t keep up with the city’s current younger generation of rappers.
“It’s not my job to do so,” he said. “There’s still a lot of cool shit going on, I mean, I go to Leedz shows every once in a while. That’s a cool community, and you need that for a scene. You have to have someone who is willing to book shows in places that people know to go and congregate. That’s really important for a scene to be able to flourish. You also need other things like radio and record stores, and those have kind of died away a little, which is unfortunate,” he said. “But yeah, I mean the scene seems to be pretty strong. I don’t really pay as much attention—not because it’s not good—because I don’t have to.” Coleman laughed. “I tend to keep more in touch with the guys I came up with—7L and Esoteric, and Mr. Lif. Those are the guys I follow just because we’ve all grown old together.”
While Coleman has chased plenty of rappers and their publicists to get interviews, rapper Mos Def (Yasiin Bey) perhaps tops everyone. In fact, it was the only interview in Volume 2 that Coleman farmed out. “He’s all over,” Coleman said. “The guy who usually DJ’s for him, this guy Preservation, is a friend of mine and a fan of the books, and he did the interview because I knew how difficult it was going to be, and I didn’t want to be chasing Mos Def to the ends of the Earth,” Coleman said. “He was with him—he was on the road with him, multiple times—and it still took him two or three months to do the interview. He was seeing him every night.”
With so many important hip-hop albums included in the book, was there one that Coleman was especially pleased to have included? He picked up the book in front of us and flipped to the table of contents.
“If I had to pick one, the Stetsasonic chapter [In Full Gear – 1988] is important to me. I think they’re very criminally underrated,” he said. “I’ve always been a huge fan, and I just think that they’ve been completely wiped off the map when it comes to people’s collective memory of hip hop. And honestly that chapter talks about a little bit even back then when they were around people were always kind of pushing them off to the side even though they as a band were making people up their game. Their live show was so good that really very few people could fuck with it. I think it’s fair to say that a group like Public Enemy, now, who probably at their very earliest wasn’t the best live group, were certainly well-aware of what Stetsasonic was doing and were just like ‘We gotta be as good as Stet.’ And a lot of groups were like that.
“From a Boston perspective the Ed O.G. one [Life of a Kid in the Ghetto – 1991] is important to me, obviously. And I think to a lot of people locally and nationally, too. That wasn’t just a local record. That was actually a huge national hit and it established Boston.”
Brian Coleman has been digging in the hip-hop playground for a long time, pointing his razor-sharp shovel to decades past, resurfacing forgotten treasures and infusing new life in celebrated classics. It’s no wonder that the list of praise for Volume 2 runs deep. Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Entertainment Weekly, The Village Voice, and NPR were quick to laud the stories within. Here in Boston, longtime CEO of local label Brick Records Adam “Papa D” Defalco gave me his perspective of Coleman’s work in message:
“Brian is helping to answer the questions us die hard fans used to ask ourselves after first listening to these classics—why did they use this drum sound? Who had the records where these samples came from? How did these producers meet these MCs? As a kid, us fans would scour the credits on records trying to learn as much as we could about how they were being made, but they weren’t very detailed. Brian’s notes really fill in the whole story behind the creation of some of the most important albums in history, rap or not.”
“Brian Coleman’s work is very important to the historic content of hip hop. He allows the artist to give you a first hand account of their experience working on the classic projects that we grew to love, taking you on a surreal journey through the minds and times of some of our great hip-hop pioneers, thus reminding us why we love the culture, the creators, as well as the curators. In my opinion Brian Coleman, or BC as I choose to call him, has solidified himself as one of the gatekeepers of this divine culture.”
What’s next for Boston’s premier hip-hop historian? Coleman wants to focus his next project on one topic. “I want to have full collaboration with someone and dive really deep. Some of these chapters get pretty deep,” Coleman said, pointing to the copy of Volume 2 on the coffee table between us, “but not even as deep as I’d want to go.”
If you’re lucky, you might find yourself wandering into the pit that Coleman has dug. You’ll hear a faint boom-bap beat emanating from deep down, the coarse thrust of a shovel, the sound of hip-hop history being uncovered.