Today is Jamandahalf.com's two year "birthday" and being able to post this is the perfect way to start off another year. Sophomore year of college I took a (now legendary) class called 20th Century Black Poetics after months of hearing about it from Moodawg's brother. The class was truly a highlight of my college career and Professor Bradley's lectures always had us entranced as he spoke about the great African American poets from Langston Hughes to Gwendolyn Brooks and Rakim. Professor Bradley became a mentor to Moodawg and myself, and although I rarely ever went to office hours in general, I loved stopping to chat with Bradley about topics ranging from upcoming essays to the newest Lil' Wayne mixtape. Professor Bradley has been prolific recently, publishing five books in the past couple of years. His most recent has been Common's memoir, One Day It'll All Make Sense. I am very grateful that Professor Bradley took the time to answer some questions for Jamandahalf, and couldn't think of a better "present" than this. Enjoy.
How did the book come about? What was the writing process like between Common and yourself? In The Anthology of Rap you describe the change in Common's flow from his younger battle rapping days to the present. How hard was it for Common, a master of putting his thoughts and feelings into truncated bars, to further transition and express himself in a different format?
I wish I could say that the book came about through some chance encounter or backstage meet-up, but it came down—as most of these things do—to agents. His agent talked to my agent and Common and I met up in LA. We hit it off well from the start. As for the process, it was so important to establish Common’s voice on the page. We all know what he sounds like on record, so it was my task to craft a voice that was true to that spirit. From there, it was just a matter of time—hours and hours of conversations, which eventually led to pages and pages of manuscript.
How does it feel to have been a huge part to a New York Times best selling book? How does seeing the book on the bestseller's list compare to other achievements during your career?
As a scholar and a writer, you have certain explicit and implicit measures of your own achievement. Getting tenure, getting a book deal—stuff like that is measurable. Seeing your book in the front window display at the airport? That’s one of those intangibles. It’s a strange thing, but seeing my book at the airport meant just about as much to me as landing on the bestseller list.
From the time that the two of you worked together, what's the story that you're going to be telling friends and family in ten years?
Great question. Man, there were a lot of great ones. As someone who considers himself not only a hip hop fan but a student of the culture, the best times were in the recording studio. I remember one night Common and I went over there after dinner and met up with No ID (Common’s childhood friend who produced his first few albums and has since worked with Jay-Z, Kanye, a whole host of artists.) Then in walks Baron Davis—then on the LA Clippers. What followed was hours of rhyming, beatmaking, shit talking, and assorted other pursuits. A great night.
What's your favorite Common song and line?
This wasn’t your question, but I love the entire Like Water for Chocolate album. That’s one of a handful of albums in all of hip hop that I can start from the top and listen to all the way to the end. As for lines, I’m still fond of his less mature, more playful rhymes from his first couple albums. I just love the way he bounced sounds around: “I express like the interstate, hyper when I ventilate. . .” That’s a coldblooded opening line to me.
In light of the controversy earlier this year surrounding Common's attendance of the White House's poetry reading, how would you characterize the mainstream (or more specifically the right-wing) media's perception of hip-hop music and culture in 2011?
We were fortunate that the whole dust-up went down just as we were going to press, so we had just enough time to include a lengthy section on the White House controversy in the book. The whole thing really exposed the silly, ad hominem nature of the conservative critique of hip hop. Common? Really? Jon Stewart had the best response, I think. “This is the guy who rapped with Elmo,” he said, or something like that. They really couldn’t have picked a less appropriate MC to brand as a “thug” and a “vile rapper.” Common said to me, “Hey, maybe now Sarah Palin will listen to my music. She might become a fan.” You never know. . .
In the past few years, the careers of some of the classic hip hop artists such as Snoop, Ice Cube, and Xhibit have taken turns that almost no one would have expected when they first started off. Where do you see Common's career going and how does this general shift bode for hip-hop as a genre?
Common is moving increasingly into acting. Just next month, he’s starring in a new AMC series, Hell on Wheels. It’s what happens when the network that brought us Mad Men, The Walking Dead, and The Killing decides to tackle the making of the transcontinental railroad. I saw the pilot episode with him and he kills it. For those who are used to seeing him in romcoms with Queen Latifah, it’ll be a real eye opener.
Of course, Common’s still making music. I’ve had the privilege of listening to several of the tracks on his forthcoming album, The Dreamer, The Believer. This is a return to classic hip hop, a return to what we loved about his greatest albums: Resurrection, Like Water for Chocolate, Be. You get everything from story raps to battle raps, from clever wordplay to liquid flows. I think Common will be able to sustain this dual career as an actor and an MC for years to come.
Moving on to one of the biggest albums in hip-hop this year, what did you think of Watch The Throne? Although Hip Hop has always had an element of escapism to it, is the decadence that drips of ? On "Niggas In Paris" Jay spits "What's 50 grand to a muh'fucker like me?/Can you please remind me?" For a grad student like myself, do you think it's justified to not want to financially support Jigga with an apparently insignificant $14.99?
Haha. Yeah, I think he can probably do without your $14.99. As for the album, I loved it before I hated it before I loved it again. From the cover art to gilded similes, it’s a feast of opulence. It’s what you get when you combine two great lyrical talents with the best production money can buy. The dean of pop music writing, Robert Christgau, posted an interesting article on it recently.
What role do you see blogs having in the music scene in the coming years? Are there any blogs that you consistently check out?
Blogs are the Hip Hop CNN—but also the History Channel, the ESPN, the WeatherChannel, the Home Shopping Network. . . They are the best way to keep your finger on the pulse of the culture. I’m a big fan of Ivan Rott’s blog, Hip Hop is Read. He offers thoughtful reflections on the more cerebral currents of the culture and he brings a real crate-digger’s sensibility to the music he features. I like Angelica LeMinh’s blog, Metrotextual. She’s based in Toronto, so she offers a north of the border view on things. Oh, and of course I follow a humble blog called Jamandahalf.
What's next for you?
I have a few things going. We’re doing a classroom edition of The Anthology of Rap. I’m most excited, though, to start work on a new project: a book on the poetics of popular song that moves from hip hop to rock to R&B—even to country. I want to discover if lyrics matter more to some genres than to others, if there are certain things in the lyrics that make them pop regardless of musical style. I want to crack the lyrical code of popular music.