Wednesday, February 1, 2012
The Dime Squad #1: Michael A. Gonzales
For the Nineties Hip-Hop Issue, I decided to dub our team of contributors 'The Dime Squad' as an homage to seminal hip-hop publication The Source who did a lot of important work during the decade documenting the genre. The Source's editorial team called themselves 'The Mind Squad' and we would be a low-rent equivelent (dime as in ten cents). But by the time we were finished a bunch of the old Source guys were writing for One More Robot too, so the name probably wasn't all that appropriate. Still, to accompany the new edition I'm putting together a series of blog posts where I enjoy an ol' tete-e-tete via e-mail with some of the writers about their pieces and careers in general. First up, its regular One More Robot scribe, and XXL, Vibe and Wax Poetics contributor, Michael A. Gonzales. --Dean Van Nguyen, Editor.
DVN: Your latest piece addresses Bad Boy Records in the nineties. Based in NYC at the same time the label was exploding, did you get a sense that something special was happening?
MAG: In 1993, when it was announced that Uptown Records had fired Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs, the entire industry was speculating on what would be his next move. At Uptown, Puffy was the chief conceptualist behind Jodeci, Mary J. and the emerging "hip-hop soul" era. So, when he announced the formation of Bad Boy Records a few months later, I was psyched.
Some of the best black music, be it soul or hip-hop, has been defined by their labels. Be it Stax or Motown, Sugarhill or Def Jam, the branding of these labels begins with the sound of the music. That said, I was a Bad Boy fan from the very beginning. Once their first single "Flava in Ya Ear" by Craig Mack was released, I was smitten by the Puff Daddy sound.
Working with the Hitmen, a crew of musicians, arrangers and real musicians, Puff threw in the attitude and swagger and a few stars were born including Biggie, Faith, 112, Total, Mase, The Lox, Carl Thomas and Puff Daddy. Still, it's somewhat amazing that nineteen years after the formation of Bad Boy, the biggest star Diddy has launched is himself.
Coming from Harlem, I thought the boom of Bad Boy was the perfect 1990s soundtrack for hanging out in bars, dancing with girls and making money. Whereas a lot of hip-hop encouraged anti-social/male aggressive behavior, Bad Boy music insisted you be cool as the winter wind and always have a fine woman by your side. In its first decade, Bad Boy was the James Bond of black music...I'm just saying.
DVN: You interviewed Faith Evans for this piece. How cool was she?
MAG: First, let me say I've had a crush on Faith since 1995 when I saw her signing autographs against the wall of a Brooklyn weed spot. Instantly, I fell in love. Ironically, that same night my friend Raymond O'Neal played me an advance of Faith's self-titled debut and I was smitten for life.
The first time I interviewed Faith was in 1998, when her second album Keep the Faith was coming out. Me and my friend Amy Linden were writing The Source magazines first R&B supplement and I insisted that Faith be my story.
Faith and I went out for sushi in Greenwich Village. Since her husband/manager sat in the car for the entire time, I could pretend I was on a date. But, jokes aside, she was very cool and down to earth and answered every question.
In 2010, with the release of her sixth studio album Something About Faith, I interviewed her again and the singer had lost none of her wit or charm. "The Ballad of Faith and Biggie" was written from the transcripts of that interview.
DVN: You've interviewed so many of the greats! Like Curtis Mayfield, Barry White, Jay-Z, D'angelo...The list goes on! Is there anyone stand out you've met in your career, for good or bad reasons?
MAG: I would have to say Sade, but she was the not the ice queen I imagined her to be, but a sweet woman who was also very down to earth. During the interview, she and I sat in her hotel room smoking cigarettes. A few weeks later, she had her manager send me a book on how to stop smoking.
I would also put my old friend Tricky in this category, because he was the total opposite of his depressing aural persona and he always had the best weed on the planet.
DVN: Haha. Cool. How did you get into the whole pop journo game?
MAG: From the time I was a kid, I was a music fan. I was kind of strange because I listened to a little bit of everything and a few favorites was Elton John, Curtis Mayfield, Chaka Khan, David Bowie, Al Green, Isaac Hayes, anything produced by Gamble and Huff, Queen, Frank Sinatra and big band music. When I was in 7th grade, I self-published a school newspaper and wrote a review of the movie Tommy, mostly because it featured my man Elton performing "Pinball Wizard."
That said, I started reading pop magazines like Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy and Creem. Later, when I was an English major at Long Island University in the eighties I discovered the Village Voice and was turned on to a writers Greg Tate, Barry Michael Cooper, Carol Cooper, Chuck Eddy, Frank Kogan, Nelson George, Lisa Jones, Harry Allen, Bonz Malone and others who wrote about music in the same crazed way I often thought it.
Although I was well aware from the age of seven that I wanted to be a writer, it was those guys and dolls that sent me on the path to pop. Later, I stumbled on the Brit newspapers New Music Express, Melody Maker, The Face and various collections, which introduced me to an entire other level of pop appreciation in the works of Nik Cohn, Paul Morley, Julie Burchill, Tony Parsons, David Toop, Frank Owen and Simon Reynolds.
While I also write crime fiction, erotica and other types of essays, the world of pop, or "Planet Pop" as my buddy Frank Owen once put, is still appealing. From my long stories in Wax Poetics on Nina Simone and Curtis Mayfield to "The Ballad of Faith and Biggie" in the latest One More Robot, pop documentation remains important to me
DVN: School newspaper aside, when did you begin seriously covering "planet pop" and what publication gave you your start?
MAG: Besides the school paper and a couple of fanzines, my first music writing was done for a newspaper called Cover. It was a freebie monthly that was published by a Lower East Side poet named Jeff Wright. The music editor was a cool dude named James Graham, who taught me a lot about writing, jazz, Fela and the magic of the the Lower East Side. While at Cover I wrote about different kinds of stuff, from MC Hammer to Casandra Wilson to guitarists Jean-Paul Bourelly and Vernon Reid.
It wasn't until 1990, when my friend Havelock Nelson invited me to collaborate on the book "Bring the Noise" (1991, Random House) that the hip-hop writing thing took off. I was occasionally writing pieces for Word Up and Right On, which were teen magazines. A few years later, when The Source opened there New York City office, I began writing for them. My first piece was on Poor Righteous Teachers and my first cover story was about Cypress Hill.
After that Vibe started, RapPages was launched, XXL was established, Ego Trip was hatched and in the matter of a few years I was writing for them all. I might be one of the few writers to write cover stories for all the major urban magazines during that era.
As an aside, I'd like to also point out that it was during this same era that I began writing for a full-figured woman's fashion magazine called Mode, that allowed me to do various types of stories outside of rap. Editors Abbie Britton and Corynne Corbett allowed me to do all kinds of writing including essays on torch singers, Burt Bacharach and female disco artists.
DVN: A lot of writers seem to be defined by their work in one or two publications, but your stuff keeps popping up all over the place, from The Telegraph to Aleim. How do you maintain such a super-human workrate and do you ever get to a stage where you actually have to tell an editor "NO!" lol. Also, is there anything you have coming out soon we should look out for?
MAG: First, very rarely do I say "no" when there might be some mean green attached, but at the same time I'm blessed because editors see my work and reach out to me. I started writing for the London Telegraph, because the editor Nisha Diu saw my work in New York magazine.
There are also other magazines where I've written pieces I'm proud of, like the late great Stop Smiling, that I developed a relationship with because of my publicist friend Tresa Sanders, who convinced the editors to meet with me about doing a Rza feature in 2006 and we worked together until their last issue a few years later.
My interest in pop is varied, and I've become comfortable writing about various subjects including visual arts and literary subjects. As a writer, I think it's important to absorb as much knowledge as possible on as many subjects as one can manage. For me, art, film, music, books and blogs fuels my desire to write, document and push pop culture as though it were a drug.
In the last few years, I've also started writing a lot of long-form music pieces, most of the about 6,000 words, for Wax Poetics. When I write those stories, be it on Barry White or Nina Simone, I often think of the pieces as though I was writing movie like Ray, Walk the Line, Purple Rain, Velvet Goldmine or Grace of My Heart.
Currently, I'm proud to be a contributing editor for HYCIDE, which is an arts queterly and blog. The next one, which will be out next month, is the sex issue which features my essay "Through the Plexiglass," an article about the decadent days of old Times Square and the Screw magazine art of my friend Guy Gonzales.
I recently wrote the Notorious B.I.G. introduction for the Biggie special issue of XXL, an essay for Complex about the making of Society of Soul's underrated 1995 album Brainchild, an upcoming interview with George Clinton also for Complex and and I'm working with the editor of a classic hip-hop magazine that is about to be resurrected.
One of the upcoming articles I'm most proud of is my interview/profile with guitarist Jesse Johnson, who was originally a member of the funk group the Time. Remember the dude in the pink suit that played guitar with Prince's rival band in Purple Rain, well, that was Jesse. He played with the Time for a while, had a wild and crazy solo career in the '80s, recorded a single with Sly Stone called "Crazay" that and, with the exception of a few independent discs, kind of disappeared for a while. Currently, though, he is on tour in Europe with D'Angelo. Anyway, the piece is coming out in Wax Poetics, which is doing a special Prince issue featuring the purple clad maestro, a few of his collaborators and members from his various side project. Anybody that likes Prince and Wax Poetics will be happy.
Michael blogs at http://blackadelicpop.blogspot.com and the erotica blog http://openerotica.com. Open is also a print journal that he co-edits with writer/editor Fayemi Shakur.
at 1:56 AM