With Hip-Hop America, his popular 1999 book, Nelson George deftly packed cultural criticism and a wide-ranging history of 25 years of hip-hop into a slim volume. The book served as a love letter to the music, but also a broad-viewed look at the culture surrounding it. Now, more than a decade later, George has taken up many of these themes again, but, this time, with fiction.
The Plot Against Hip-Hop, due out this month from New York-based independent publisher Akashic Books (“dedicated to the reverse-gentrification of the literary world”), boasts an eyebrow-raising title and a murder within the first few of its 174 pages. By the end of the second chapter, Dwayne Robinson, an old-school hip-hop critic who’s a thinly veiled effigy for George himself, lies stabbed to death in a Soho office building. Staggering to the office door of his old friend, the younger, successful entertainment world body guard, D Hunter, Robinson stammers a famous Notorious B.I.G. line as his last words.
The murder initiates a fast-paced, kaleidoscoping world of intrigue as Hunter searches for Robinson’s killer, opening up in the process a Pandora’s box of shady dealings in the hip-hop industry. Conspiracy theorists, aging record executives, gang members, and other shadowy figures abound, all with an apparent interest in an archival document that set out the first tenets of marketing to the hip-hop generation.
Yes, there is some of the Illuminati talk long popular in Internet hip-hop circles. But George’s novel is very much a snapshot of the industry right now. There are scenes set at Russell Simmons-hosted charity events, Kanye West name-checks, and even a relatively protracted passage detailing the beef between Flo Rida, DJ Khaled, and the Rick Ross camp.
The Plot Against Hip-Hop is likely the literary world’s first true hard-boiled hip-hop novel, and it works because George comes from a place of cultural authority. A lifelong New Yorker, he was one of the first journalists to document the rise of hip-hop when it still centered around park jams. Along the years, he’s also written 14 nonfiction books, authored a long-running column for The Village Voice, served as music editor at Billboard, and even directed films.
Now he’s landing in Miami — a place he visits frequently — to speak for the first time at the Miami Book Fair. He’ll appear in a panel called The Writer’s Voice alongside fellow suspense authors Tom Franklin and Bradford Morrow on Sunday, November 20.
I caught up with George recently at his Brooklyn home to discuss his new book, other projects, and, of course, the Illuminati. Our conversation begins with George talking about a documentary he’s making about Magic Johnson’s announcement, 20 years ago last month, that he had tested HIV positive.
Is it an authorized documentary?
NG: Absolutely. It was for ESPN and working with NBA Entertainment, so I’m using NBA editing rooms and everything. It’s a long road. It’s a pretty intense subject, and actually, there’s a pretty strong Miami connection, because Pat Riley is a strong character in the piece.
His relationship with Magic was quite strong. They won five championships together and basically came up together making their reputations together. They’re very close, and Riley — you may not remember this, but the day [Johnson] announced [he had H.I.V.], it was about 1 p.m. L.A. time and 4 p.m. New York time. There was a Knicks game that Riley was coaching — I was actually at that game — and Riley came out and made a very emotional speech to the crowd. Then he got both teams who were playing that night to pray together.
It’s going to be an interesting piece because it’s not your typical sports documentary. It’s kind of a thing about male vulnerability in a great many ways. There’s this great athlete, a symbol of success, and at the time he contracted HIV, people considered it a death sentence. So a lot of people were confronting Magic’s mortality and their own mortality. A lot of the characters had really strong emotions about revisiting that time, and Riley is one of the strongest parts of it.
People know a lot about your music criticism and books. Do you think that helped you approach another subject in an out-of-the-box way?
NG: Well, I directed a film in 2007 about HIV called Life Support, which dealt with that. My sister has the virus, and Queen Latifah played a character more or less based on my sister.
I also had Knicks season tickets for 20 years, so I’m a sports fan. So it’s going to be a sports documentary and a history of the relationship between mainstream America. That segues into the book, because the main character in The Plot Against Hip-Hop is HIV positive.
How important was that to you? He’s dealing with taking care of his health, and at the same time he’s trying to deal with all these other issues.
NG: One of the great cliches of the music world is the big, black body guard. There’s a huge black guy, and he’s body-guarding Britney Spears or Miley Cyrus, or he’s outside an exclusive nightclub, and he’s wearing a black suit or a black T-shirt. The idea of this imposing guy is a pretty standard-issue cliche of nightlife all around the world. That’s certainly true in the U.S. and even in Europe — if you go to nightclubs on the Champs-Elysee you’ll see big African guys outside.
So I wanted to get beyond that cliche and have a guy who’s outwardly intimidating and inwardly very vulnerable and aware of his frailty. I was interested in the contrast. But also because my sister has the virus and because I’ve done films on it, it’s a way to introduce it, and make it part of the normal life of America. There are a lot of people here living with this virus. I felt like if I could do these pieces, and introduce it as a fact of life, then it was a way to be an HIV advocate.
Right. I was going to ask you about that because the first time the reader finds out that D, the main character, has the virus, it’s very matter-of-fact, almost an aside, and then the plot moves on. So this was a calculated choice?
NG: I wrote another book a few years ago called The Accidental Hunter, which also featured D Hunter, and in that book, HIV was a bigger part of the story. The thing is, this book is about hip-hop, but there are a lot of HIV-positive people in hip-hop.
And you never hear about it.
NG: Right, but look at what’s going on with infection rates, the numbers in the black community are pretty high, so it’s not unusual to encounter someone with the virus. It’s part of the tapestry of the world we live in. I also think it adds some distinction to a character who could otherwise be a stock character.
Do you think that people who are living with the virus, especially in hip-hop, should be more open about it?
NG: Well, for all the talk about sex and hip-hop, there is still a lot about sexuality in hip-hop that is very taboo. Homosexuality is very taboo, and HIV is taboo. Even to a great degree, normal married life is taboo. A great many MCs are married and have kids or are in monogamous relationships, but that’s not what they rhyme about. So sex is both exploited in hip-hop, and under-exploited.
What made you want to revisit this particular body guard character?
NG: I like the idea of this guy who looks like one thing and is another. I remember meeting some guys who body-guarded Britney Spears one time, and I thought they were pretty interesting guys, and liked getting their perspective on the world they lived in.
I think the idea of a guy who’s always present but never speaking is always an interesting character. It was also a way to travel to a lot of parts of the world of pop culture with this person who is always there, but he’s always at the edge of the frame. His presence defines the edge of the frame — he’s beyond the interest of the paparazzi, but he’s always there.
Also, many of the scenes in the novel are things I witnessed, and events I was there for, so D Hunter becomes my proxy. For example, the last chapter in the novel takes place on a boat ride around Manhattan with Jay-Z, Beyonce, Mary J. Blige, and Alicia Keys. That was actually a boat I was on last summer after a concert. It was an amazing thing to be in proximity to all these iconic people who were basically chilling on a couple’s night out. So that became a scene where I thought, “What would the body guard do?” So that became the end of my book.
There’s also a scene at the VH1 Hip-Hop Honors where there’s a dispute between some guys from Miami, in fact — between Flo Rida and some guys in Rick Ross’ camp. And that really happened. There really was this dust-up where Flo Rida was onstage and they played the “Maybach Music” thing and he got pissed off, and it became a mini controversy at the rehearsal. So a lot of the books were things I was actually at and I re-calibrated them as a backdrop for a fictional scene.
I’m a big fan of James Ellroy, who wrote L.A. Confidential, and he always takes real, historical events, and then gives a subterranean view of what caused them to happen. So in a way, this is my own attempt to do an L.A. Confidential in the world of hip-hop.
Another author who was a big influence on the book was the great novelist Philip Roth, who wrote the book The Plot Against America six or seven years ago. I thought, that was it, that was what I needed. The Plot Against America, The Plot Against Hip-Hop.
Did you have the idea for this particular story before that book came out, or was it the title that really sparked you?
NG: I had the idea of doing something in the world of hip-hop involving conspiracy. African-Americans, as a group, are pretty big conspiracy theorists. We’ve had a lot of bad things done to us, from government-sponsored experiments done on us at the beginning of the 20th century, on up to COINTELPRO, the FBI plot against black militants.
That’s the thing … part of the reason black folks are so into conspiracies is that there is a long history of things being done against us. So I said, let me take this to the next level. Anecdotally, there is all this talk about these damn Illuminati. “Jay-Z is a tool of the Illuminati” and blah, blah, blah. So I thought it would be fun as a writer to create this kind of conspiracy. And two, there is this sense of people who grew up on hip-hop, like myself, that the culture has taken a turn, it’s been dumbed down in terms of the content of the records. So when you combine a sense of conspiracy with this kind of turn in hip-hop, you think, maybe the conspiracy was done to change the direction of hip-hop.
So the book, then, becomes a vehicle to discuss the changes in hip-hop over the last 20 years, and the commerciality of hip-hop. I could have written a nonfiction book dealing about these things, like I did years ago with Hip-Hop America. But I felt this was a lot more engaging for me as a writer, and a challenge to deal with it in a fresh way.
I believe that my novel is the first novel to be about hip-hop fully. There are a lot of novels with rapper characters or include hip-hop sessions or whatever, but this book is about hip-hop both as a subject and subtext. I’m very happy about that as well.
There are so many different issues going on in the novel, and you said you could have explored them in a nonfiction book. The novel is pretty short, though. How did you introduce all these issues and still keep the book succinct and quickly paced?
NG: I’m not a very long-winded writer. I came up out of journalism, and I was a big fan of Hemingway as a child, and even the detective novels by Chandler. For me, personally, as a writer, I like a lean style. I think you can pack a lot of great information and atmosphere into few words if it’s done properly.
I also think a lot of the characters are expositional characters, who both move the plot along and are informational. One of my favorite characters is this older man, Lenox, who’s this old-school black record label guy who schools D Hunter on the old-school conspiracies. These are things a lot of younger people aren’t familiar with. So as we school and inform our character, we’re schooling and informing our readers.
I try to do that a lot. Walter Gibbs in the book is kind of a Steve Stoute character. He’s a big guy in the world of marketing to hip-hop by major brands, and he’s got a book out called The Tanning of America. So Walter Gibbs is kind of that guy, and we play devil’s advocate with him about what the role of hip-hop is.
The attitude of D Hunter is the attitude of a lot of people who are two decades or so into hip-hop. They feel somewhat that the commercialization of the culture has actually made it a business, but has taken away a lot of its cultural relevance.
At what point did you decide to add in the music critic as the character around which the rest of the plot revolves?
NG: That was always central to the story. Dwayne Robinson is to some extent a fictionalization of me. His death is symbolic of the death of hip-hop history. We’re in an ahistorical era to some extent. There are kids coming up now who listen to hip-hop who have no connection to any of the stuff we called hip-hop for T.I. Even Biggie and Tupac are too far back for some of them.
So his history, and the fact that it is a history of loss, is symbolic of the loss of connection that’s endemic to Americans, period. And the only reason he dives into this is because of his loyalty to Dwayne Robinson, and he gets his own education in the course of the story.
You mentioned the Illuminati earlier and that’s mentioned a few times throughout the book. Why do you think Illuminati talk is reaching such a fever pitch in hip-hop right now?
NG: I think there are two things. Conspiracy theories in general are very rampant in eras when people feel disempowered. They don’t know why things are going poorly, but they feel like things are out of their control, so they try to find reasons. “Why is Drake successful, or why is Kanye successful, and not me? Are they helped by powers that are helping them but holding me back?”
So I do think there is a strong sense of disempowerment, among young people in particular, because of the economy and so on. They don’t feel like they have a lot of agency in their life, so who do they blame? So the Illuminati become these straw men, an attractive, all-controlling thing. Then you can blame them for everything, because you never know how they control things.
Online there’s a very strong thread. There’s a lot in the book that I found online about the Illuminati. There are reams and reams and reams about conspiracy in hip-hop. But I think the sense of disempowerment has a lot to do with it. It’s a sad and even frightening aspect of what’s going on out here.
Is that something you had been researching much before you got really into working on this book?
NG: I knew it was out there. I have a young friend who’s about 28, and she’s totally invested in the conspiracy thing. So I said to her, “Send me links to hip-hop conspiracy stuff.” So she sent me like 20 pages about Def Jam, Roc-a-Fella, Kanye, Lil Wayne, all the way back to Rick Rubin as the anti-Christ!
I didn’t want to make the whole book about it because I didn’t want to super-validate it. But it’s part of the active imagination, and part of why the conspiracy thinking is so rampant in hip-hop. A lot of people have really bought into this thing. I have a whole file of this stuff here in my house that’s like, wow.
AC: Did any of it threaten to change your mind once you started to go down all of these rabbit holes?
NG: I don’t buy much of it. I don’t know who these all-powerful people are, but I never meet them. Every time I go up the food chain of powerful people I run into in this country, they’re never that smart. They’re powerful, but they don’t seem smart enough, or care enough, quite honestly, to spend that much time worrying about Kanye West. It doesn’t make any sense on any level. But it does make good fiction!
To take things back to a local angle, how did you get involved in speaking at the Miami Book Fair?
NG: I was invited this year to go down. I’ve never been, but I’m a huge Miami fan. I go down to Miami at least three times a year, and I’ve spent four of the last five New Year’s Eves in Miami. I’ve also been down many times to the Black Film Festival … Miami’s one of those places that I contemplated moving to. I tell you, last winter I was in Miami for New Year’s and I had to come back, and believe me, I would have much rather have been in Miami in January and February than New York.
Final question: What other projects do you have coming up besides this book and the Magic Johnson documentary?
NG: I have another film coming out called Brooklyn Boheme. It premiered at the Urban World Festival and played at the Doc NYC festival. It’s about the neighborhood I’ve lived in for the last 25 or 30 years, Fort Greene, Brooklyn. It’s been a great cultural center with people like Spike Lee, Chris Rock, Rosie Perez, Mos Def, Wesley Snipes, Branford Marsalis.
Particularly from the early ’80s to the late ’90s, it was one of the major black artistic centers in the country. It’s now a very gentrified area. I’m standing in front of my building now and I just see lots of white babies and their nannies. It’s a huge change from before.
The film documents a time when it was mostly single, young, black artistic people. If you look at films like She’s Gotta Have It or Do the Right Thing, or listen to the Black Star album by Talib Kweli and Mos Def, or Erykah Badu’s first album, those are documents of what the neighborhood was like. There was a certain black bohemian vibe, and that’s what the film documents. That’s going to be on a major national cable early next year.