Talk to me about being raised in Illinois and how you became a writer.
I started a fanzine in 7th Grade and by the 11th I was publishing my own underground newspaper called The Tin Whistle distributed to four high schools, and banned at all of them.
My hippie newspaper published six issues in 1968. The schools in Illinois were very racist and polarized at the time, but my newspaper led a movement for recognizing black student rights among other campaigns. We were able to elect the first black student council president in the history of Urbana High School, and he did a lot to heal the broken race relations. His name was James “Chef Ra” Wilson and he taught me a lot about ceremony. We both ended up going to the first Woodstock festival, then he went to Jamaica and became an early Bob Marley devotee. We worked on many projects for decades until one Christmas Day when his heart exploded while he was sleeping.
What was your entry into hip hop?
I moved to New York at the end of 1979. My roommate Jeff Peisch was into the music scene and working at Record World Magazine with Nelson George, and he gave me a promo copy of These are the Breaks by Kurtis Blow. Shortly after that, I went to the New York/New Wave art exhibition curated by Diego Cortez, and was astounded by a subway train titled Break by Futura 2000. The connection between the song and the mural made me realize something was going on and nobody was covering it. As a young reporter, it looked like an opening.
What was the first article on hip hop that you read that changed the game for you? Who wrote it? How did you hear about it?
For over a year I didn’t read anyone’s articles. There were none. I only wrote my own. There were a couple of photographers on the scene, Martha Cooper, Henry Chalfant, but I was the only journalist. Most of the coverage aside from me was coming out of England. But they weren’t on the ground and going to any parties, just reviewing records and sometimes interviewing acts if anyone came to England, which was rare early on.
What was the first magazine/newspaper publication that you heard about just focused on hip hop? Did that inspire you to write for it?
There were no magazines until after Run DMC. I guess The Source was the first big one that went all hip hop, although Phase 2 had a fantastic fanzine he was self-publishing for years. I had long since stopped covering hip hop when The Source appeared.
Who were you looking up to as far as writing?
The journalists who most influenced me were Calvin Tompkins, George Orwell, Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe.
Do you call yourself a hip hop journalist?
I sometimes call myself the first hip hop journalist, because in the early days I was the only professional reporter on the scene. But I have 30 books and only three are on hip hop, and all those concern only the first generation from 1974 to 1984.
How did you feel when your name was on the cover of The Village Voice for your cover with the words “hip hop” on it?
Bambaataa coined the term and focused the culture. I just told his story. It took the Voice half a year to print it, although it was “accepted” immediately. I was enraged they held it so long because I was afraid someone was going to break the story, but fortunately, after endless phone calls and threats to publish elsewhere, they finally put it on the schedule.
You were able to make a major impact in how we receive hip hop through your writing and Beat Street. Did you ever have any intention to impact the culture the way you did?
If only my script had been used, it was the real thing. The movie was a great disappointment. Only the dance crews and some of the rap performances saved it. The plot was completely whack. I didn’t recognize any South Bronx people I knew and wrote about.
Who was your favorite artist interview?
In the world of hip hop I am closest with Grandmaster Caz, Coke La Rock and Busy Bee. In fact, we are all members of a secret society called The Pot Illuminati and hold ceremonies upon occasion. Those are three of the greatest storytellers in hip hop, and also three of the most overlooked people in hip hop’s history.
Who was the 1st person that you heard of calling themselves a hip hop journalist? What opened up for you because of it?
By the time hip hop went global and hip hop journalism was born, I was long gone and had no interest in the gangsta rap that came up in a huge wave to displace the political fervor of Public Enemy. I only did research on the first generation, from Kool Herc to Funky Four to Furious Five to Treacherous Three to the Cold Crush Brothers. And I also covered graffiti and some of the original dance crews. I was in a rock band in the sixties, and after rap got commercialized, I formed a garage band and played three-chord-rock for a decade. Being around hip hop inspired me to get back to my own musical heritage. Although I did one hip hop performance early on as a deejay with Jeff Peisch rapping and David Bither (now of Nonesuch Records) on saxophone. Between the three of us we had enough talent to give the soon-to-emerge Beasties Boys a run, but it was just a one-off goof. But David blew the lid off that party as I recall, with me scratching up some hip hop anthem.
What was the first article you wrote about hip hop?
A biography on Futura 2000 for the New York Daily News. After that I had my Voice cover story, followed by one more Voice story. Then I wrote three articles for the Soho Weekly News. And then a couple stories for the East Village Eye. Then I sold Beat Street and published my book, Hip Hop. Then I stopped covering hip hop and not a single hip hop magazine ever asked me to write anything or even gave me props for blazing the trail, although everyone was reading my book to find out how it all started. Most of the people I was hanging with never got props either, like Coke La Rock. Virtually nobody knows him, yet he was right there with Herc when it all happened and playing a major role. My book went out of print really fast and copies started selling for $500 for years.
Whats your experience with publications?
I prefer to self-publish and maintain control over my work.
Who are some rappers you that you feel changed the game for hip hop?
Grandmaster Caz elevated rapping with his comedy and complex story lines and Melle Mel elevated lyrics to high art with those lines in Superappin’ that became the best part of The Message. In fact, my version of Beat Street (called Looking for the Perfect Beat) was built around the political awakening of a kid in the South Bronx who moves from partying to seeing-the-big-picture. When Run/DMC landed, they brought back the original first generation style of staying hard and giving no quarter, something the original scene had drifted away from.