"The history of America is always up for grabs": Hip-hop intellectual Nelson George reads in SF this week
"A lot of people are unaware that there are huge sections of Twitter that are all about Def Jam being the root of all evil." Last month, I got to Skype with Nelson George about his new book The Plot Against Hip-Hop (Akashic Books, 176pp, $15.95), a noir mystery that explores the commercialization of the music through the fictional death of a renowned hip-hop historian named Dwanye Robinson. You can catch George at City Lights Bookstore (Thu/1) and Marcus Books' Oakland location (Fri/2) this week.
Robinson bears more than a passing resemblance to George, who has written decades worth of academic looks at hip-hop and R&B. So naturally, our conversation turned to to the more sinister workings of the world (to be clear, he's not committed to the Russel Simmons-as-devil version of things). Turns out George is more than a little frustrated with the state of the music today -- and he thinks the Occupy movement might be the answer to hip-hop's woes.
"This stuff they're making," he says, speaking of todays' radio stars in his characteristically familiar tone (he is, after years of writing about them and producing VH1's Hip Hop Honors awards show, on a first name basis with many of the big hip-hop guns). "They're not even hoping for art. They're just hoping to sell sugar water, T-shirts -- whatever Jay(-Z)'s selling this week. I don't think people were feeling that way about L.L., Eazy E."
The Plot does illustrate a phenomenon that he says can affect the way social movements like hip-hop progress. In it, a security guard named D. Hunter takes on a massive cover-up that has gone back decades and might just hold the key to why hip-hop sucks these days. Throughout the storyline he runs into gangsters, CEOs, and all kinds of mixtures of the two -- eventually stumbling upon certain individuals who have taken it upon themselves to subvert the true meaning of the music.
"That seems more compelling to me than the all-encompassing whoever-the-fuck-they-are," George says earnestly, his face filling up the bottom half of my computer screen. He's not into Illuminati-Def Jam theories, but he does talk about NWA's first tour as an example in which history has been messed with. During that run, an official faxed letters all around the country that identified the cop-hating rap group as a security threat to small towns. "One guy was able to make a lot of fuss because he had the FBI seal behind him," George tells me.
But, at least a month ago when Zuccoti Park was in its prime, George thinks that the Occupy movement is a decisive step against the tides of mind-numbing commercialization that has brought us emcees who will hawk whatever to whomever, as long as their singles are racking in the big bucks. He calls this music cum commerical process "the chilling effect," whereby brands dictate what artists are able to put forward.
"I think that the Occupy movement will goose a lot of people to deal with a lot of things that are going on these days," he concluded, telling me about how many of the hip-hop heads he knows have dropped by to check out the movement in the past months. "I think that it will help hip-hop."
Thu/1 7 p.m., free
City Lights Bookstore
261 Columbus, SF
Fri/2 6:30 p.m., free
3900 Martin Luther King Jr., Oakl.