"Writing about sex is always a lot more fun than writing about rap records."
This is how 43-year-old Nelson George explains his leap from music and cultural criticism to romance novelist. Since publishing his first novel, Urban Romance, in 1993, George has found fictionalizing the erotic-neurotic exploits of black folk to be far more nourishing than doing some piddly write-up of a new LL Cool J album. This is what he has done in his fourth and latest novel, Show & Tell (Scribner), which he describes as "a book about sexual obsession." But for some readers, he's at his finest when he deconstructs popular African-American culture and its discontents, like in his nonfiction books, which include The Death of Rhythm & Blues, Elevating the Game: Black Men & Basketball and Hip Hop America.
A former Billboard urban music editor, George began reaching readers with his prescient essays about black music and culture for The Village Voice during the 1980s, many of which were accumulated in the trenchant Buppies, B-Boys, Baps and Bohos. "There were a lot of black people writing about black music at the Voice, actually," remembers George. "There were a lot of great young writers there who I wrote or hung out with: Greg Tate, Lisa Jones, Harry Allen, Stanley Crouch. It was a great place to go and talk about music and culture because there were so many people there who were interested in it. The music editor at the time, Bob Christgau, was very interested in developing black writers, which was unusual. You didn't see that many editors get more black writers in their papers."
The way George explains it, there wasn't a better time to report and comment on the things he knew about so passionately because there was a freshness to the scene. "There was a lot of stuff that was new," remembers George. "Hip-hop was new. Black film as we know it -- the whole Spike Lee, John Singleton movement -- was new Certainly, when something's new -- when the idea of hip-hop as this big, huge national movement was coming into existence, when the idea that black filmmakers would reach large audiences with their work was new -- that was very exciting because you had two very important mass-cultural movements developing simultaneously. In New York, there was a lot of interaction among the people involved. Everyone knew each other. I don't know that today is any less interesting, [but] when something's new and everyone's relatively young, there's a sense of youthful energy."
These days, George looks beyond U.S. shores for distinctive black music and cutting-edge culture. If there is one thing he would like to write about extensively as a journalist, it's global black music. "Black culture in Europe is exploding," he exclaims. "Great music is coming out of London and Paris. There is a big black impact of black people in Europe culturally that is really getting powerful, and I think it's a great story."
"I don't look at the world anymore in terms of black America as the only place things are going on," he continues. "My favorite singer is Césaria Évora, a black woman. She's from the Cape Verde Islands." According to George, American black music is beginning to depress him. "I think contemporary African-American music is kind of in a rut," he says. "Hip-hop has become pretty predictable. I think the most exciting black culture, musically, is the stuff coming from black people from elsewhere. I'm not as caught up in what goes on [here], because I don't think it's in a very creative period."
Not even Britney or 'N Sync?
"That's fine. It's not very creative, but it's, you know, fun. It's good for 14-, 15-year-olds. They both have made individual records that were good. But as artists, I don't think they're that interesting. I mean, I like Destiny's Child. I think Beyoncé's got a good voice, and they've made some good records. I just don't think they're pushing the envelope anywhere special. They're not leading us in any direction culturally."
But getting back to the whole "hip-hop in a rut" thing -- can hip-hop grind its way out? Or is it just another moribund genre? "I don't know," he answers. "Things don't stay creative forever. Hip-hop's had a great run. It's been a really, really interesting style since the '80s. There may be new things coming: A lot of the stuff that goes on in techno, trip-hop, etc . But hip-hop is probably the least interesting music form that black people are doing in this country."
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George is very close to mouthing the once unthinkable words "Hip-hop is dead."
"It's too early to tell," he responds. "It certainly hasn't been very creative in the last couple of years. You have to see this as a long-term trend. I mean, it's very commercial, but it's not really that interesting right now, outside maybe Timbaland, who is a great producer. But lyrically, it's pretty much in a rut. No major star is saying much. Smaller groups are doing interesting things. So I think the question will be, Will Lauryn Hill come out and reinvigorate it? You'll have to see. I mean, the biggest artists in the black community in the last year have been women: Destiny's Child, Jill Scott, Sade, whose album did incredibly well, and she hasn't even toured yet. That whole wing of black music, actually even lyrically, has been more interesting. Destiny's Child has said some interesting things about being young women."
George's knowledge-filled noggin has raised its head outside the print arena on more than one occasion. His various film and television credits include co-writing and co-producing the movies Strictly Business and CB4 and serving as a producer for good buddy Chris Rock on his now defunct Chris Rock Show (sorry, fans, George confirms it). In June BET will air One Special Moment, a film he wrote and directed. So while many folks still look to him for a better understanding of hip-hop and R&B, Nelson George wants people to get a better understanding of his broader goals.
"I've always admired Langston Hughes and his diversified career," he says. "He was a really well known and revered poet. He wrote short stories, fiction, nonfiction. I enjoy that diversity of expression. I like the fact that I've written a book that deals with sexuality, a book [on] rhythm and blues, that I've worked on The Chris Rock Show. I've always wanted to have an interesting life. That was the whole thing about getting out of just writing about music. I was interested in more than the new 12-inch, the new CD. I think the idea of doing a lot of different things and getting out there and being engaged in the world is really important. For me the '80s were about writing about black music. And the '90s were really about diversifying. And the 21st century will be about continuing that diversity and maybe finding some new challenges."