Shea Serrano is a fabulous human being. For a long time, he wrote regular features here like Artist of the Week, Five Spot and time-stamped stream-of-consciousness concert reviews that people would sometimes email us to say they couldn't finish because they were laughing so hard. He has an author page about five miles long somewhere on this Web site; you should scroll through it sometime. Before he moved on to places like LA Weekly, Grantland, ESPN and lots of other sites, he created Bun B’s Rap Coloring and Activity Book, which combines the fun of coloring with the fun of doing stuff like drawing in Drake’s eyebrows. Shea Serrano would never run for president, because he is a man of scruples and dignity, but if he ever does you should vote for him anyway.
Right now Shea Serrano has a new book out, The Rap Year Book, published earlier this week by Abrams Books. It’s like the Bun B book except with less coloring, more writing, and lots more informative charts and graphs like a timeline of rap-group breakups and a graphic analysis of the “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” lyrics. Instead of activities, Serrano and his advisors tell the story of hip-hop by reducing each year to a single song, already the cause of many arguments and surely the cause of many more in the future. Houston acts are represented twice, in 1991 (“Mind Playin’ Tricks On Me”) and 2004 (“Still Tippin’”). It might be the most monumental book in the history of publishing, which means you should totally buy it. (Ice-T wrote the foreword, and you definitely don’t want to piss him off.)
As it happens, Shea Serrano will be signing copies of Rap Year Book at 1 p.m. this Saturday at Cactus Music, where not coincidentally the Bun B coloring book is the all-time best-selling book. Dressing up as your favorite rapper is encouraged. In the midst of a promotional tour for the new book, he was kind enough to answer some questions for us via email while on a plane to New York.
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Houston Press: Who is your favorite rapper right this second?
Shea Serrano: It's gotta be Kendrick Lamar. He's just too good and smart and important. He spent his whole last album grappling with his own identity in America, and it really was just this gorgeous thing. He's the best right now. Nobody's touching him.
Who is your favorite rapper of all time?
That's a trickier question. I'm not sure I have a favorite of all-time. Rap ebbs and flows too much. It's too dependent on the way I'm feeling on a particular day or at a particular moment, you know what I'm saying?
Who was your favorite rapper growing up?
Let's say we'll call "growing up" to mean "when you were 13-18." In that case, it's gonna be someone like Juvenile or maybe Tupac. Those were the guys I was listening to the most back then. If we're talking about "growing up" as "when you were in college" then it'll probably be someone like Cash Money era Lil Wayne and BG or maybe 50 Cent.
If the last two are different, when did it change and why?
Because rap — or at least the rap I want to listen to — is always affected by whatever environment I happen to be in. It's real fluid. That's part of the reason it's so dope, and definitely part of the reason I love it so much.
Who was your brain trust for this book?
I leaned on a bunch of people while I was putting this book together, for sure. It was such a mammoth undertaking. I talked to a lot of different writers and thinkers and people who were involved in rap and are involved in rap. Whatever I was working on, I just tried to find someone who I knew had a strong background in that thing. So, say, when I was working on the early chapters, I hit up Chuck Eddy, who was covering all of that stuff back then and is super-duper smart. When I was writing about, let's say — writing about something like the way Virginia became this crazy-hot rap area, I reached out to Brandon Soderberg because he's real good at writing about that sort of thing (Soderberg helped me out on a bunch of chapters, actually). I had a guy named Zein help me with some of data research and Evan Auerbach from Up North Trips helped me a bunch, too. Chris Weingarten was real dope and great and helpful, and Reggie Osse was there when I tugged on his cape, too. And that's not to say anything of the people who wrote rebuttal blurbs for the book arguing against songs that I picked for the chapters.
What years were hardest to pick a song? What years were the easiest? (Explain the reasoning behind both.)
The hardest years were the ones where I'd settle on a song as the most important and realize I didn't like it very much and not want to write about it. The easiest ones were the ones were there were these big, seismic shifts in rap because those ones were the easiest to argue. For example, Kurtis Blow's "The Breaks" was the first rap song to have a chorus, so of course his was the most important of that year.
Besides a song's commercial success, what other factors did you consider?
Mostly I just tried to figure out what songs inspired some sort of change in rap. If a song did that, then it was important. Sometimes it was easy and sometimes it was hard, but it was always a fun and interesting thing to try and figure out. It was always such a good feeling to finally, after hours and hours and days and weeks of research, to say "yeah, this is it, this is the most important rap song of this year."
Explain the reasoning behind choosing "Still Tippin'" for 2004.
Because of what I mentioned above: it caused a big change in rap. Ever since "Still Tippin'" came out, Houston's influence and thumbprint on rap has been undeniable. Now, that's of course not to say there weren't others from Houston before them who never did anything, it's just to say that after 2004 it was really impossible that Houston's sound held only a regional attractiveness.
After working on this book, what do you think are the most important ways that hip-hop has changed?
I think the two biggest things were when rap began to shift into this overtly political and confrontational thing in the last half of the '80s, and then when Dr. Dre took all of that and turned it into this accessible and fun thing with G-Funk. Those are the two biggest moments, to me.
Writing about hip-hop and sports, what are the biggest similarities you see between the two? (Besides the pursuit of making money, I suppose.)
Well, there are lots of parallels. They're both competitive. They're both pursuing things greater than themselves. They're both fun. They're both political. There are a lot of lines that can be drawn between the two.
What is your favorite hip-hop movie? Why?
Juice. It ain't a rap movie, per se, but it's a hip-hop movie. It came at an important time and was really this big moment in Tupac's career and is just a great, exciting movie. It's probably the one that's the most endlessly rewatchable, with Boyz N the Hood coming in right behind it.
What's the difference between a rap movie and a hip-hop movie?
A rap movie is something like Krush Groove, where there are actual rappers and it's part of the storyline and stuff. A hip-hop movie is one that exists on the periphery and isn't explicitly tied to rap, but is for sure in its blast radius.
What is your favorite hip-hop soundtrack? Why?
Above the Rim's soundtrack is legit one of the 20 best albums of 1994, which is, in my estimation, the best year in rap. So I'm going with that one.
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Would you like to plug anyone or anything in relation to the book?
Nah. We're good. The book is dope. And, I mean, Ice-T wrote the fucking foreword. That's incredible. Go buy it. Like, literally right now. Thank you. Love you.
Last question: I see people are encouraged to dress up as their favorite rappers at the Cactus in-store. What are your sons' favorite rappers?
The kid who sings "Watch Me Whip."
Serrano will be signing copies of The Rap Year Book and, he says, giving out presents at 1 p.m. this Saturday, October 17, at Cactus Music, 2110 Portsmouth. You can also purchase the book at this link.