In 1998 Saul Williams generated some buzz by co-writing and starring in the hit of the Cannes and Sundance film festivals, Slam, a breezy tale about spoken-word poetry in New York. Just a few months later MTV Books, capitalizing on his name, released a "book" of Williams's doggerel, She. A typical Williams poem makes Santana look like Santayana. Take the title piece: "she is leaving me / for the sun / she may be disappointed / when she learns / that we are twins." Eighteen words, one idea. Somewhere, a high school sophomore is crying copyright infringement. Evoking winces from actual poets, She indicated the depths to which a multinational company like Viacom, which owns MTV, will sink to gain entrée to a new market.
The book was never really much of a book anyway, but more of a steroid-enhanced "product" to flaunt MTV's synergistic might.
To every bound copy of She, MTV attached a CD of Williams's spoken word. Seeing some sort of market, if you could call it that, for coffee-drinkin' poetry lovers who also happen to indulge occasionally in MTV staples Britney Spears or Ricky Martin, the music channel hyped the book with the kind of vigor usually reserved for anything with Madonna's name on it. Though the book appealed to the Starbucks crowd, the idea behind it never caught on, and MTV execs may still be fishing their tails out from between their legs.
Still, the idea of pop lit lives. In addition to MTV Books, whose product line also includes three works of Gen-X fiction, another publishing company with musical ties is coming cold correct with even more crap. In cahoots with publishing guru Marc Gerald, actor/magazine-skimmer Wesley "Blade" Snipes recently co-founded [S]Affiliated, which publishes what the company brazenly refers to in its promotional material as "hip-hop fiction." This month [S]Affiliated releases its first of six books, Ronin Ro's Street Sweeper, which will be taking up space on retail shelves everywhere. Other [S]Affiliated books set for release this year include Antoine Black's The International, Roland Jefferson's XXL Money, Gary Phillip's The Perpetrators, Joel Rose's Anything That Moves and Michael Gonzalez's Platinum.
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The problem with [S]Affiliated's admittedly pulpy books is that they are being presented under the guise of genuine reading material, promising to offer to go "where no publisher has dared to go," according to promotional material, "into the streets, to tell stories about the true players and hustlers in the game." In reality, these books, if [S]Affiliated's first offering is any indication, may amount to nothing more than masked advertisements, pushing products as much as selling their authors to Hollywood.
Snipes's production company, Amen Ra Films, whose work is distributed by Universal Pictures (which, along with Universal Music Group, is part of the Seagram monolith), has already received first reading rights to Street Sweeper. Def Jam, itself distributed by Universal, is pressing "soundtracks," mix CDs of six or seven tunes from Def Jam/Universal artists, to accompany each book. And Red, an independent music distribution company owned by Sony, will help distribute the books with an assist from PNB NaTioN, hip-hop clothiers, which will sponsor special events and sell [S]Affiliated's titles along with baggy pants, knit caps and whatever other kinds of cool duds PNB pushes. Got it?
In an advance copy of Street Sweeper, Sony gets its props earliest. The ad attack is subtle. Hero Jerome Usher, a 22-year-old hit man, is an unabashed fan of Mobb Deep. The rap group's music ends up on Usher's hi-fi and on Usher's lips when he whistles: "[Usher] whistled Mobb Deep's 'G.O.D. Godfather Part III,' that Scarface keyboard riff." One night Usher even bumps into "one of the cats from Mobb Deep" while walking up a flight of stairs to a club. Could it be a coincidence that Mobb Deep, and most of the other acts mentioned by name in Ro's book -- such as "Michael Jackson" (which also serves as a nickname for one of the characters), "Cypress Hill" and "Big Pun" -- are all directly connected to Sony?
PNB also gets some love. In the beginning of chapter two, the hip-hop elite, including "Russell" (as in Simmons, president of [S]Affiliated-affiliated Def Jam) and "Puffy" (as in Combs, president of Bad Boy Entertainment), make their appearances at a posh New York City nightclub with "some burly cats from Brooklyn decked out in" -- what else? -- "PNB wool caps, heavy leather jackets, gold fronts, boots and blunts."
Universal also gets its due. Nearly every song title mentioned comes from an artist associated with either Sony or Universal. "Children's Story," by Slick Rick (Def Jam/Universal and Sony), "Microphone Fiend," by Eric B. & Rakim (Universal), "You Gots to Chill," by EPMD (Def Jam/Universal), and Sony artist Luther Vandross's version of Universal International artist Burt Bacharach's "A House Is Not a Home" all find their way into Ro's writing. Coincidence?
Artistically, all this stacking of name brands is just as cloying. Even the best novelists sometimes fall into the trap of developing a character through his possessions. If a character named Biff, for example, owns a BMW and a house in Beverly Hills and has the liberty to have his nails done occasionally, he must be an elitist, racist, old-moneyed hoity-toity, right? Same goes for a brother with all that and a bag of Fritos. Usher's entire identity can be summed up in a Rodeo Drive shopping list: "[Usher] tossed the remote onto the bed and entered an enormous walk-in closet. Rows of suits on hangers: Versace, Armani, Valentino, Hugo Boss, and Gucci. They were neat, clean, and costly as hell. But not a problem with steady work coming in.
"He opted for a black viscose blend snap closure by Ermenegildo Zegna, and within five minutes was dressed and slipping into his Ferragamos. Next he pulled out a drawer with his watches: Cartiers, Patek Philippes, Boucherons, you name it. He opted for his platinum Vacheron Constantin Overseas. Finally." You get the idea. He owns a Cartier, he must be dope.
After 90 words, though, we readers still know nothing of how this character thinks, what this character speaks like, even what he feels about his possessions -- only what brands he prefers. This is either character development for the writerly challenged or one helluva sales pitch. Though Ro is an exceptional journalist, having written Have Gun Will Travel, the book on Death Row Records and its iconic bully of a president, Suge Knight, the writer cannot summon his astute, insightful eye here. Writing for the silver screen and Lord & Taylor shoppers will do that, though.
Snipes, according to press material, "joined forces with Gerald to insure the development of a new breed of black action novelists and to give Amen Ra a first look at a steady stream of film material." It seems that, based on Snipes's stated goal and the minuscule intellectual heft of Ro's work, the paperback form has now become nothing more than another film-development and advertising tool -- not something meant to engage, but something meant to distract. Just like MTV. Just like Blade.
E-mail Anthony Mariani at email@example.com.