Today Jonathan Abrams joins The Stacks to discuss his third book The Come Up: An Oral History of the Rise of Hip-Hop. In unpacking the massive undertaking, the NYT staff writer and sports reporter addresses what goes into crafting a good oral history, and why he wanted to tell this particular story now. Plus, we get into the best diss tracks and rap beefs of all time.
The Stacks Book Club selection for November is Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms by Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law. We will discuss the book on November 30th with Mariame Kaba.
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*Due to the nature of advertising placement, these timestamps are not 100% accurate.*
Traci Thomas 0:08
Welcome to The Stacks, a podcast about books and the people who read them. I’m your host Traci Thomas and today we welcome Jonathan Abrams to the show. Jonathan is a New York Times sports reporter and a former staff writer for the LA Times and ESPN is now defunct Grantland. He is the author of a brand new book called The Come Up: An Oral History of the Rise of Hip Hop. You might also know Jonathan’s book about the wire called all the pieces matter. In his new book that come up, Jonathan dives into the history of hip hop as told by the people who lived it. He interviews over 300 artists DJs producers and music executives through all different eras of hip hop through all different regions of the United States. It is the most comprehensive chronicle of America’s most popular music genre by far. Today, we talk about the process of writing oral history, as well as some of Jonathan and my favorite distracts. Don’t forget our November book club pick is prison by any other name the harmful consequences of popular reforms by the journalists Maya Shenwar and Victoria law. We will discuss the book on November 30. With Mariame Kaba. Quick reminder, everything we talked about on today’s episode of The Stacks can be found in the link in the shownotes. If you love The Stacks, and you want more of it, head to patreon.com/thestacks to join the stacks pack. Over there, you’re gonna get bonus episodes of the show, access to our Discord community discounts on merch, and our virtual book club. Not to mention, when you join The Stacks pack, you get to know that your money is going to support your favorite bookish podcast, the stacks, da. So if you want to be part of this wonderful community if you want to support this show, head to patreon.com/the stacks. And now a quick shout out some of our newest members Sarah Sherbrooke, Duncan slobodian Kyrsten DeSanto Priya and Brandon Weaver Bay. Thank you all so much, and thank you to the entire stacks pack. You know I love you. Okay, now it’s time for my conversation with Jonathan Abrams.
Alright, everybody, I am so excited. Today I am joined by Jonathan Abrams, who is the author of multiple books, but his newest book is The Come Up: An Oral History of the Rise of Hip Hop. Jonathan, welcome to The Stacks.
Tracy, thank you so much for having me. I think I just want to say first off, what you built and nurtured and fostered is so vibrant and needed and beautiful and necessary. So just major props and hats off to you for doing this thing, because it’s amazing.
Wow. And I didn’t even pay him to say that. What a dream. Thank you. Oh, my gosh, I mean, so much, because I’m such a big fan of your work. I’ve been following you since your Grantland days. So I was really excited when your team reached out. It was like Jonathan Abrams. And I was like what Jonathan and Ruth has a new book, like send him by way immediately. So this is definitely a joyful day for me. We always start here. Can you just tell people what this book is about? In about 30 seconds or so? Yes. So it’s a oral history on the rise of hip hop, which is the subtitle but it’s on this, this genre as amazing march from being birthed and decay and desolation in the Bronx in the early 1970s, into becoming this musical genre that permeates not just American culture, but culture worldwide. And I don’t think that there’s ever been a journey on anything quite like this in American history, where it just rose from nothing. So that’s what the book is about in the voices of those who create it and birth it. I had such a good time reading this book. I really like oral history. I don’t know why I do so much. But I really, really do. And what I liked about this book is like not only what did I learn a lot of like stories and juicy tidbits like have to admit, I didn’t know that Russell Simmons brother was run from Run DMC. And I feel really stupid now because I’m like, that seems like something everybody knows, I had no idea. When in the book, it was like, and then he was with his brother. And I was like, oh, like, Maybe he meant like his brother, like his friend. And I was like, nope, those are brothers, they are actually related. So like, I loved learning little tidbits like that. But then I also loved like, seeing people talk about things that I didn’t know, in their own way, like so it’s sort of a mix of like, Hey, if you want to learn a bit, or if you just want to like delve into some of your favorite artists or like some of your favorite songs and how they came to be like, it’s such a good balance. I’m curious, why tell this story in this way, at this time.
Jonathan Abrams 5:00
So there have been a couple of really, really good history of hip hop books written and I think even before I dove into this project, I just spent a lot of months just reading history of hip hop books. So Jeff Chang has can’t stop won’t stop. And Dan Charnas has the big pay back. And those are almost like Bible history of hip hop books. But this genre is so young that when you look at other musical genres like jazz or rock and roll like this, this thing is only 50 years old, and there’s still a lot of bricklayers and pioneers who are still among us. And I wanted to be able to have this just in their words and diluted in their voices. So people would know about the contributions they made, because there’s a lot of people who have lent their sweat and blood and toil into this genre who probably aren’t as well known as it should be.
Traci Thomas 5:16
Yeah, for sure. There were definite names that I was like, wow, you sound like you were really important to every song that I’ve ever loved in my life. It’s interesting that I’m just learning your name today. I told you this before I I just want to talk about oral history and shaping an oral history because as I mentioned, I love oral history. You wrote one for Grantland on the malice at the palace that is still one of my favorite things I’ve ever read that I go back and read like, every year on the anniversary, I just I love it so much. It’s so good. It’s like the most suspenseful thing I’ve ever read. And I do remember every second of that event, like I remember being a kid and watching it, but reading it oh my god. It’s like such an incredible piece of oral history. And I think that’s like sort of my was my one of my gateways. It was that, and then the Grantland one on the earthquake in 1989, because I’m from Oakland. And so that was like a huge event, Bay Area Bay Bridge series. So those were, like my gateways into oral history. And now I really, really love the genre. So I have a lot of like, process questions for you today, which is, where do you start? Are you like, let me find the people. Are you like, let me break this down into what I want to talk about. Do you go in saying like, I know, we have to hit X, Y, and Z? Or do you go in and just say, let me start asking questions and see what the people tell me I have to hit.
Jonathan Abrams 6:34
Well, it’s funny because Grantland was my origin with oral histories to that. Now it’s at the palace was the first one that I ever did. And just thinking it was almost a decade ago. And Bill Simmons asked me to start looking into it. And I just thought that there was no way I could do it. And then I was almost about to throw in the towel. And then I went to a basketball game. And Steven Jackson just opened the door by talking about it for like an hour and a half, because I think he was suspended for that night’s game. So he cracks. Yeah. So when I’m doing it, the first thing I do is I just compound names on top of names on top of names of people who I’m going to try to reach to because you’re hamstrung with an oral history if you don’t get the types of voices that you need to be able to tell the story. And I think in particular, one reason why the malice at the palace oral history went so once a well or thought the reporting went pretty good for that. One is because it’s a singular event where all these people have different perspectives on the same thing that happened because the same sequence of events occurred and people have different prisms to look at it from with a book like this. On oral history, there’s so many different tempos and milestones and events that you have to hit on. So it’s almost trying to replicate that over and over and over and over again.
Traci Thomas 7:54
Right. Yeah, I love those are my favorite when it would be like one moment and like three different people would weigh in on what they thought about it. And I was like, I love I love this controversy between the two people. Like I love that you all think differently about this. But how do you deal with that? Like, are you? Because there’s a part where I think it’s like Ron references something that like someone else says, or maybe it’s Russell Simmons, and it’s like Russell Russell said this, but that’s not how it happened or whatever. How do you like verify fact check? How important is that? Or are you supposed to just like say what the people say? Or can you let people just say whatever they want and put it in a book like how does that work?
Jonathan Abrams 8:32
Yeah. So for me, I almost love those moments, right? Because ideally, in oral history, you want people to feel like these subjects are almost at a roundtable just discussing this moment. So if there’s point of contention, it’s almost like a family dinner, right? Where people are going back and forth and giving their perspective. And especially with the events and I know what section you’re you’re hinting at is when I think public, one of the members of public enemies said that Russell Simmons wasn’t interested in them at all, and like threw their demo in the in the, in the trash and Russell window, out the window. And Russell was like, no, no, I love public enemy from the get go. So for me, I love those points of conflicts and points of confliction. And like whether or not it’s true or not, I think so much time has passed that I think each of them are probably hard in their perspective. So each of them will argue that there’s their standpoint is the truth. And I think my goal is to let give both of them enough air to breathe.
Traci Thomas 9:34
So do you show them what the other person says? Or like, you know, like when you see like, it’s not like the last dance documentary, it’s like, you see Michael Jordan watching the tape back of like what other people are saying and he’s like laughing at them and like being like, that’s not true or whatever. Are you letting your subjects read like transcripts of other people, or because sometimes it sounds like they reference exactly the sentence that the other person said,
Jonathan Abrams 9:58
I think occasionally if I really You want them to play off of one another, you can just be like, Oh, but this person said this. And I remember not for this book, but for my previous book, the oral history on the show the wire, where I had done almost every interview, by the time I’ve talked to David Simon. And so with David Simon, I just literally had almost everybody’s answers to questions. So he could literally just just react and respond to what people were saying, I think for this one, it would have been a little bit more difficult because there’s not one central figure or main character, like there would be for David Simon creating that show.
Traci Thomas 10:35
Right. And it was out on purpose that he was last or was that just like, how scheduling worked out?
Jonathan Abrams 10:40
It was on his schedule worked out. And it was funny, I know, this is a bit of a tangent, but so I used to live in New York. And he agreed to be interviewed as he was traveling from New York to, to Harvard to give a speech on the Amtrak train. And I used to, I used to live in New York, I had, you know, knowing the trains really, really well. But for whatever reason that morning, the subway was running late. And I like almost missed the Amtrak train and get on there with David Simon, to where the point I probably made it by like, 15 seconds, and I was a mess. When I finally found him on that train. I was just sweating bullets. He was just like, take a breath, calm down.
Traci Thomas 11:18
Oh, my God, that is like, I feel like I’m sweating. That’s my nightmare. That was like, literally, when you talk about what a personal nightmare would be. That’s it, like running late for such a big thing. Oh,
Jonathan Abrams 11:30
Tracy, this was like after months and months and months of trying to schedule and plan this interview.
Traci Thomas 11:34
I can’t, I literally can’t, like I feel hot. Like I’m, oh my god, I’m overwhelmed by the story. But you made it and your book was great. And everybody loved it. I have to admit, though, I have not finished the wire.
Jonathan Abrams 11:48
Oh, my goodness.
Traci Thomas 11:49
I know. Everyone says it’s great. I watched the first season and I really liked it. And then I started the second season, which I know this is common that the second season people don’t like or it’s like a departure and you don’t really understand it till you get to the end. But then I just fizzled out, you know, a new season of Grey’s Anatomy started and there I was, you know, watching that and say, I think
Jonathan Abrams 12:07
it’s, I think if you look at the wire from the perspective of It’s a novel, and not necessarily a television show, to where season two is just a chapter and you don’t know how it’s gonna fit in until you finish the whole show. And then it’ll make a lot of sense.
Traci Thomas 12:22
I see. Well, I do want to watch it. I just still haven’t. It’s on my list of like shows I must watch. But anyways, we’re not talking about the wire, because I don’t know anything about it, except for season one. Okay, I have more questions about oral history. So you have your list of people? How much stuff are you open to bringing in versus how much stuff are you like, we have to hit on this topic? Like we have to talk about the blackout in 77?
Jonathan Abrams 12:49
That’s a really good question. So I try to be malleable to the structure because history of hip hop, there’s milestones, like I said that you have to hit you have to hit those three foundational deejays you have to hit the blackout, you have to hit Rapper’s Delight and the message and other tentpole events coming forward. At the same time, I want it to be truthful to the type of interviews and subjects that I was talking to, to be able to tell their individual stories in hip hop. So it’s almost like trying to split the difference. It sounds probably more complicated than it is. But you’re you’re you’re trying to report out whatever narrative you’re reporting, and you’re trying to stay true to that.
Traci Thomas 13:35
And like if people aren’t answering what you want, or like, you’re not getting what you want, do you like push them? Or do you sort of just say, like, I hope somebody else will talk about this more like, because I’m sure like, you know, if you want to talk about the message, and then people are like, yeah, that was a good song. Like, I mean, I know that that’s not what happened. But you know what I’m saying? Like if people are sort of like, yeah, like, it was a Bob, and you’re like, No, but I need to know, like, more specifically. And they’re like, yeah, no, I like like, it was fun. Like, do you push or are you just like, Okay, this is the wrong person for this conversation. Like in the moment? How are you negotiating like getting what you need versus like derailing the interview?
Jonathan Abrams 14:12
Yeah, I wouldn’t say push, I would say more a gentle nudge. I think.
Traci Thomas 14:19
Obviously, I have a different temperament than me. I’m very pushy.
Jonathan Abrams 14:24
Yeah. And I also think that you can also buffer what you’re trying to report by talking to different people, if you’re not getting what you’re necessarily trying to get from a certain subject. It’s all weaving this tapestry that you’re trying to put together at the end. And with oral histories, especially, there’s not going to be one person who’s going to hit on everything you need. So you need to be able to have multiple people talking about a singular thing.
Traci Thomas 14:51
Do you ever get to go back to people and be like, Hey, can you respond?
Jonathan Abrams 14:57
Yeah, yeah, especially if you want them to play off of the conversations and have it seem like it’s at table type setting where people are bouncing ideas and thoughts and reflections off of one another.
Traci Thomas 15:09
Right? And did you do these virtually during the pandemic? or in person? I know you’ve been working on this book for like four or five years.
Jonathan Abrams 15:16
Yeah, so the crux of the reporting happened during the pandemic, there were a lot of phone calls picked the only places I was able to actually travel while reporting it was New York and Los Angeles, I really wish I could have done more of the reporting in person just because, you know, when you’re sitting face to face with somebody, it’s more of a conversation, you’re gonna get them to usually open up more. And I want to say like, this was even before I started doing zoom more often, most of it was just Yeah, by phone.
Traci Thomas 15:47
Interesting, and then you record it, and someone transcribes it,
Jonathan Abrams 15:50
correct? Yep. Well, a lot of money towards transcription fees.
Traci Thomas 15:54
I bet I feel like a lot of talking, especially because it’s like with oral history, it’s so much like colloquial language and like, just like you have to get every little nuance in a way that if you were just turning it into a nonfiction book, you could kind of like gloss over some things or like change it or summarize things. Okay, this isn’t this is a very mean question, which is, how do you catalogue everything to remember who said what, who is worthy of weighing in on what whose purse? Like, because you have all these interviews, you have all these people? I think, like you mentioned in the introduction, that you cut out, like two thirds of the book, which just had me imagining, like how much more stuff you had on all of these topics, and all these people. So how did you organize yourself to be able to go in and pull what you needed.
Jonathan Abrams 16:43
So when I’m doing an oral history, or and when I’m doing even if it’s just a small article, I like having all the transcripts in front of me. So I like seeing every single thing a person said, and I have a highlighter, and anything that I think is relevant, I’m going to use, I highlight it and I go through and I keep trimming and trimming and trimming what I can, it’s almost like you have a wet towel, and you’re trying to draw it, dry it out. And you’re, you know, twisting and twisting and twisting and trying to take out that excess water. That’s how I compare it. Interesting.
Traci Thomas 17:19
Such an interesting analogy. Okay, what did you take from previous oral histories that you’ve done to this project? Like, what are things that you learn that you were like, I’ll never do that again. Or I always should do this. And you brought to the table with the come up.
Jonathan Abrams 17:34
So this was such a huge undertaking, where like, if you look at the wire, it’s an insular world. There’s David Simon at the top, and he has his show. So basically, getting David Simon’s permission, it was, you know, afterwards, it was pretty easy to go from there to get the people I need it. Hip hop is just so big and so fast that I feel like I appreciate it the undertaking when I started, but in the end, I probably didn’t. Right? Where it was trying to get in touch with in rappers, they don’t work nine to five, right. And you’re talking that comes up
Traci Thomas 18:13
a lot in the book. Yeah, what hours and
Jonathan Abrams 18:17
asking a rapper to talk for free for a long time for a book that’s going to come out in four or five years. I couldn’t understand some of them being like, What in the world. But you know, I just figured that I’d be able to have the reporting chops and had the hopes that I’d be able to get the people who I wanted to. But that was the biggest thing. It was just, it’s just trying to replicate it over and over and over again. So if the wire is like, like 1/3 of what I’m trying to do now, then it’s just doing that process two or three times over. But I think the fundamentals of reporting a book or reporting an oral history remain the same, and that you’re trying to just get the best quotes, you can and weave together the best narrative. You can.
Traci Thomas 19:02
Yeah. And then you I mean, you’re also part of this story. Like, there’s some narration in there, where you kind of like set up different, different moments throughout for us, like you kind of connect the dots because like, there’s so much time in so many people, and I actually really liked those sections. I was like, Oh, here’s Jonathan, our tour guide through hip hop, like, I thought it was very fun. Um, were there any topics or things that you wanted to talk about in the book that you didn’t get to? Because you couldn’t get to the right people? Or like, Were there things that you had to leave on the cutting room floor because you feel like you just couldn’t do it justice?
Jonathan Abrams 19:36
Yeah. That’s another really, really good question. Tracy. You’re good at this.
Traci Thomas 19:41
Oh, they try hard. I’m just nosy.
Jonathan Abrams 19:47
So it’s funny that you, you segwayed from what you had just said to this question, because I feel like a lot of those transition periods in the oral history where it is my voice are almost shortcomings for when I couldn’t get the right quote that I wanted to transition from place to place or air to air. Some of it is necessary, right? Like I need to, I need to write my own voice to open up a chapter to explain what this chapter is about. But some of the times, it’s like, I almost want to kick myself because it’s like one of those secrets you’re not supposed to know about. But I’m being honest with you, Tracy.
Traci Thomas 20:25
See, I see. So it means I didn’t mean to make you feel bad. And I really liked those parts.
Jonathan Abrams 20:30
No, no, it’s kind of the behind the scenes stuff that is sometimes needed in oral histories. So if you’re, if I’m driving this car and the book to get us where we need to go, I’m almost thinking like, Man, I don’t have the best quote here. But let me tell you why the roots are important. Because roots are a group that I can get to talk to me for this book.
Traci Thomas 20:52
How rude, really, Questlove seems like Mr. Knows, everybody talks to everybody
Jonathan Abrams 20:57
I know. And I really, really wanted to talk to him.
Traci Thomas 21:00
I’m gonna write him a strongly worded letter, why he should have been in this book. Okay, so one of the things that I noticed that you sort of shied away from in the book, which I personally as a messy bitch would have appreciated more of was like, I felt like you really didn’t lean into any of the serious beefs, you obviously talked about Biggie and Tupac. But was that a choice for you? Like, I don’t want to get into the interpersonal stuff.
Jonathan Abrams 21:21
Yeah. So I thought that if I did really dive into the beefs that, where would I stop?
Traci Thomas 21:30
Right, right. Like this is, I think that’s why I wanted you to go to as I can read 1000 pages on people hate each other. It’s my personal favorite genre, and
Jonathan Abrams 21:39
it would have been 1000 pages. So I thought about that. Like, there’s stuff about the bridge early on. And there’s stuff about Biggie and POC, I had stuff on NAS and Jay Z, talking about stuff that hit the cutting room floor, I had stuff on there beef, and stuff on 50 cent with his beef with the world. But I was just like, this is going to be a tangent. And I really want this book to be about the rise of this and the artistry behind it. And so that was some of the stuff that left the cutting room floor.
Traci Thomas 22:10
Yeah, I respect it. I feel like it’s the mature thing to do. I just as I mentioned, love drama. Okay, were there things that you learned when you were doing this book that surprised you? Because I’m sure you went in with like a lot of preconceived notions and like a lot of ideas of how you wanted the book to be. Was there anything that like really stuck out as you at you as like, whoa, surprise, like, for me, as I mentioned, Russell Simmons, brother, it was a big shocker for me. And I have one, but I want to hear what you say first, before I say mine.
Jonathan Abrams 22:41
Yeah, I think with any book, you want to go into it with a lot of knowledge. But you also want to go in with the capacity to learn more. And it’s almost a selfish pursuit, in that regard. Because, yeah, you just want to fill in the gaps of your own knowledge and have a fun time doing it. So learning about the message, and that came out in 1982. And before, before that time, in hip hop, it was a mostly party rap genre, it was Rappers Delight, and hip hop, and hibbity, hip hop, they weren’t really saying all too much. But then the message comes out in 1982. And it takes hip hop to broken glass everywhere. And it’s the social commentary. And I don’t know if the pioneers would start at this had really envisioned this genre as a social vessel before that. And you know, in subsequent years, you see groups like Public Enemy, and all these socially conscious groups rising up after that song.
Traci Thomas 23:40
Yeah, I think the biggest surprise for me or the thing that really stuck out in my head was when I think it was paradise, Gray said that rappers were trying to look like drug dealers and not the other way around. And like that, that’s like, where the money was. And those were the business people in the community that were that were like, admired and looked up to and like, were the style icons of the time. And I thought that was really interesting. Because I think now we really think of it as the other way around. It’s like rappers are who people emulate. And I just, I really, I really like that it was a nice little flip for me. One of the other things that really surprised me, it was like, I felt like there was a lot of respectability politics from the older generation sort of around like rappers who weren’t doing drugs or like rappers who were like, being responsible in the studio or showing up during regular nine to five hours or didn’t have women around. So I’m wondering, like, if you thought about that at all?
Jonathan Abrams 24:33
Yeah, so that’s possibly because maybe they’re outliers in that situation, somebody like ice cube when he came to work on America’s Most Wanted in New York and met the bomb squad for the first time. They all remarked how he was just a man on a mission and ready to do his work. So maybe I just quoted those people more because it was outliers who they weren’t expecting that or maybe they had heard something differently. But studio time is important. And especially back then it was,
Traci Thomas 25:05
apparently, especially when he talked about that. Yep.
Jonathan Abrams 25:08
People don’t like, especially the producers, they don’t like people who come in and waste time and waste money.
Traci Thomas 25:14
Yeah. Okay, we’re gonna take a quick break, and then we’ll be right back. I have a very personal question for you. I was born in 1986. And I am from California. And so I am like very much Tupac gow, myself, I was raised. That way my brother was into He’s older than me, like, I just Biggie was, like, never a big thing for me. But when I was reading through your book, I kept like, listening to the songs that you would mention. And I realized that like, for me, I didn’t start, like, the songs that I like, and hip hop are around like, 9090 9092. That’s like when I really started to like hip hop. And I’m wondering, was there a shift? Then, like, what changed? Or is it just my personal nostalgia? And that’s like, when I really started to like music. And that was the music that was on. Like, when you’re six years old, and you’re listening to cameo and you’re not supposed to be or whatever. So I’m wondering if it was like an actual shift in the sound or if that’s just a me thing.
Jonathan Abrams 26:16
So you’re like, four, between four and six listening to it? Yeah.
Traci Thomas 26:21
Like I’m thinking of, like, criss cross, like, I really liked that, like, I liked to pot like, there’s like something different in the music. But when I went back and listened, like the message doesn’t speak to me, Public Enemy didn’t like it doesn’t. It doesn’t bark for me in the same way that like the, like, early 90s. Stuff did. My brother was born in 1981. So it was probably whatever he was listening to. I wasn’t like four years old, being like, Give me all eyes on me or whatever.
Jonathan Abrams 26:47
Right? No, I get what you’re saying. So the big thing that happens in the early 1990s, as far as West Coast, and I’m only a couple years earlier than you is that the chronic comes out. And that really, that’s really the first time that the West Coast is really recognized countrywide for their impact on hip hop, right? Like NWA came through. And New York was still kinda like, what did these guys do under the music that we’ve created, but it’s just sonically artistically wise, with Dr. Dre came out to with the chronic with the synthesizers and the G funk and just the perfect music to ride around in Southern California. And it’s also they can also make the lyrics clean enough so that it’s almost ubiquitous on radio, on Kim, el for you, and on POWER and POWER 106 and 22.3. The beat that it just, it’s almost like in the veins of people growing up in that air.
Traci Thomas 27:42
Yeah, okay. So, uh, probably a mix of the sound, but also just like the nostalgia, because I know, like, older people are like, you know, Public Enemy is a greatest thing that ever happened to hip hop. And I’m just like, it’s not, it’s not for me, like it just not quite, it’s just not. But you know, I think it’s probably just an age thing, too.
Jonathan Abrams 27:58
I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t change the era that I grew up on as far as the early 90s. With Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg and Tupac and DJ Quik and all those guys coming out in Southern California was, like, too short and mod music and, and banks. Was that big. When you were growing up?
Traci Thomas 28:20
Yeah. I mean, I’m from Oakland. So to short you 40. Big deal. I mean, also huge MC Hammer fan here, you know, love MC Hammer. I think what it also is for me is that when hip hop started, it was like, disco, right? Or like, ghetto disco, I think is what someone called it in the book. And I love disco. And I’ve always loved disco, because I grew up as a dancer. So we always did dancing, you know. And I feel like that 80s era, the music wasn’t as danceable. And then I feel like in the 90s, you kind of got like the bops back a little bit like hip hop music went back to like finding sort of the like, funky vibes as opposed to like, I don’t know, I’m just like, not dancing. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just it’s my it’s just being a soldier thing, but I feel like there’s like, a nothing but a G thing. Like yes, like I’m I’m grooving. I’m here with you. You know,
Jonathan Abrams 29:14
that’s interesting, because hip hop is a direct descendant of disco where it is party and dance music. But I do feel like in that late 80s, early 90s period, sonically, with producers like Dr. Dre and Pete Rock and Davis soul and all these other groups coming up that just sonically it just becomes so much more diverse and majestic.
Traci Thomas 29:43
Yeah, yeah, that’s such a good word. Okay. I want to ask you, I know everyone probably asked your top five MCs or whatever. So I’m going to do a slight shift on this question because like, I’m sure you’re tired and you probably have a list that you’ve prepared and I hate prepared answers. So what are the top five Cultural moments that impacted hip hop for you.
Jonathan Abrams 30:05
1995 Source Awards. Okay, because that’s when the East Coast West Coast rivalry really shifted. And you also have Andre 3000, getting on stage and saying the south got something to say. And that really became the rallying cry of the south, to pucks death. I am a West Coast guy, and that’s one of the man land on the moon moments for me where I’ll never forget where I was when I heard that he passed Kendrick Lamar and his Pulitzer Prize.
Traci Thomas 30:36
Jonathan Abrams 30:38
I think that’s another step with hip hop, going into a new ground and new territory that people never envision. And I might, is this question for my lifetime, or just in hip hop,
Traci Thomas 30:52
and hip hop history. I guess that’s how I was thinking about it. But if you want to just do your lifetime, that’s fine, too.
Jonathan Abrams 30:58
Well, I think Rappers Delight when it came out in 1979 is such a touchstone moment for hip hop, because it’s the first time that it gets on vinyl. And the masses hear it, and they like it. But at the same time, a lot of the pioneers who had been practicing hip hop for years by that point, that it was Elementary and almost resented Sugar Hill gang, because they had to go back and almost retrain themselves. Right. And then I will go with not a split. But there was a moment in the late 1980s, when public enemy and NWA were both really popular. And it was almost like they came to a head where the corporations were going to back either this socially conscious music or this gangster rap music. And it almost seemed like the gangster rap music one at that time. So yeah, I think those are, those are five. That’s a good question. Really
Traci Thomas 31:53
good answers. I really liked those answers. I recently read Justin Tim’s Lee’s book on biggie. So now, as Yeah, the best at my ripe old age, I’ve now like listening to biggie for real for the first time in my life. And I live in LA and I live close to the Petersen Automotive Museum, which is where he was killed, as you know, and I have like a whole new appreciation for him, though, I remember exactly where I was when Tupac died. And I was six, which is like, really fucking weird to be a six year old, like, or No, I was 10. I was 10. Okay, I want to talk about something you do in the book. This is sort of structure and sort of content related question. The book is structured by time, but also by location. So like we, you know, we might go to 1984. And then we might jump back to, you know, 1982, but in a different city like, or we might go to the south, or we might go, whatever. So I want to know why you decided to structure it in time and place as opposed to like theme or topic or concept,
Jonathan Abrams 32:59
I thought that it would make the most sense to do the book as chronologically as possible. But in doing so, it’s impossible with hip hop, hip hop history is messy, right. So if you right, the way I tried to view it was that hip hop is this tree that starts in New York, and the roots grow there. And it’s grown in New York for a little while. But then the branches are spreading everywhere. And they’re also getting tangled up. So if you look at something like gangster rap that started basically in Philadelphia was school ed in the early 1980s, and quickly jumps to the west coast. So I wanted to do that chronologically by having a start there, and then jumping out west to LA with iced tea. So it kind of it kind of flows in and out through different regions. And then different geographies are important. Trying to trying to structure the book was a lot of headaches. I felt like a bad carry Matheson at some point. All the outlines and plots and
Traci Thomas 34:02
different did you have like a big board like that with string and stuff?
Jonathan Abrams 34:06
I didn’t have the string I had index cards, okay. Okay,
Traci Thomas 34:09
okay. But like did you tape them up on your wall or whatever
Jonathan Abrams 34:12
they were probably went a step too far with that, but they were taped up to my wall.
Traci Thomas 34:17
I love it. Honestly, the only reason I ever want to be an author is just so that I have an excuse to tape things. Like that would be like I would be so I would be such a perfectionist that I would like be like, Oh, it’s crooked. I have to tape it again. Like I never gotten anything done.
Jonathan Abrams 34:31
Be be careful with that though. Because when I took the tape off, some paint came off and my wife wasn’t too happy about that. So
Traci Thomas 34:38
I have toddlers so I have like a lot of parts of my house where there’s no paint on the wall. So I’m gonna have to do a revamp anyway. So I should write my book before I repaint the house because otherwise what you’re telling me, Okay, another question for you. So, in college, I studied hip hop in hip hop theater, and we had to like I went to NYU. So I got to learn from like some really cool old head like hip hop people. We had to like learn how to DJ and like we got breakdancing classes and like, all this stuff. And let me just say, scratching is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my entire life. It’s nearly impossible. But that’s not the question. The question is, when hip hop first started, it was like four components, right? It was the DJ, it was the emcee, it was the dancer and it was the graffiti. Why? Why did graffiti and dance and the DJ to an extent like publicly fall off? Like, Why did it become all about the emcee? Obviously, the DJ still there, they still produce, they still make the music, but it’s not like we know hell of DJs in the way that we know how of
Jonathan Abrams 35:47
rappers, I think it just became what was most popular as time evolved. Right, the MC became more of an art form, it became more lucrative for people to do it. I would almost argue I feel like producers are maybe not as well known as artists. But I feel like being a producer is still lucrative, and especially with signature tags and songs these days that producers are becoming more and more well known.
Traci Thomas 36:13
Right? But like, if you’re an everyday like music listener, you might not know who was the producer behind a certain album, but you know, who’s rapping on it? That’s what I mean. Like, I definitely think they’re super important. And it’s like, their vision is sort of what gives us the sounds that we know and love. But it’s not like unless it’s like Dr. Dre. It’s not like everybody knows who produces what, like I know who produces Kendrick Lamar. But I don’t think that a lot of people do or like I know who he works with. That’s not a good example. Yeah, he little baby.
Jonathan Abrams 36:44
Producers these days, they’re screaming their names on tracks. So people know. But as far as those, as far as all the four cultural elements that really birthed this thing. Some of them kind of fallen off. I just feel like as time evolved, it was one of those things is say, what’s popular, what are the masses gonna do. And it’s also a lot easier to consume something that’s lyrically and that’s in your ears or back in the day, you could transport it with the boombox rather than write, you know, graffiti is always going to be something that there’s an elemental, or an element of danger about it, because it’s illegal. If you’re writing or painting or tagging somebody’s walls. And being a DJ, I still think that’s an art form. Maybe there’s not people who can study it, and have the time to do it and really throw themselves into it.
Traci Thomas 37:38
Yeah, it’s really hard job to turntables and a microphone. Not easy people.
Jonathan Abrams 37:45
That sounds like a really cool major, though.
Traci Thomas 37:48
And what wasn’t my major, so I was a theater major, but my senior year, there’s this guy, Daniel banks who offered this like practicum. So it was hip hop theater, and we studied hip hop. We studied theater, like through the lens of hip hop. And like it was sort of a pedagogy class where we were learning how to like teach theater, to kids using hip hop as like sort of the entryway. So like, we had to learn the different elements and stuff. And it was like a lot about like hip hop history. And then also at NYU, there’s the Clive Davis School of recorded music or whatever. So that same year, I also took a hip hop history class. I can’t I can’t remember his last name. His name was Jay. Anyways, I had this great teacher and we did all this like reading on hip hop. So I feel like I learned a ton about like, early, early, early hip hop. But there’s sort of this like, I don’t know, I’m sure it’s with everything like we’re the newer art like, Isn’t studied as much like the newer forms. So like we learned a ton about graffiti and like breakdancing and whatever, like Kool Herc, or whatever, but like we didn’t really talk about what was going on when I was in college was like 2008, like we didn’t talk about. So I loved it. I had a great time. But I’m not a hip hop major. Because that would be embarrassing, because I would certainly have to know that Russell Simmons and his brother isn’t Run DMC, or his brother wasn’t Run DMC. I’m shamed by this. Okay, I want to ask you about the cover and the title. Talk to me about this cover.
Jonathan Abrams 39:18
So the cover is unique. We wanted to almost seem like a old school party flyer. We have these pastel colors that really jumped out on the page. And we were debating and going back and forth over whether the covers should have been just like an arrow with some of the same graphics pointing up and a lot of black space behind the arrow or this looking like a straight up cover. Or looking like a straight up party flyer. And this one was one that I argued for because I liked that old school feeling and vibe.
Traci Thomas 39:53
I love I love it and you have pictures in the book which I love when I get to the picture inserts it is my favorite Were part of reading a book with pictures, I got so excited. And I’m like, oh my god, now I get to see who all these people are. I was like living for the photos, so much fun. Oh, I know what I wanted to ask you about, I wanted to ask you about women in hip hop. I’m sure you’re aware, there have been many women in hip hop. And I’m sure you’re also aware that women in hip hop don’t get nearly as much shine as they probably deserve. How did you negotiate that in this book? How were you thinking about that? Was that something that was on your mind as you’re working through the project?
Jonathan Abrams 40:33
That was something on my mind, throughout this project, where there were a lot of times when I reached out to women who had really, really wanted to talk to for this book, and I couldn’t get to a lot of them. And I can understand that a lot of them have their own story to tell. And they’ve had, they’ve had told them. And even knowing that and hitting that roadblock, I was still proud of some of the things I was able to capture in this book. I talked to people like and Carly and Monica Lynch, who are two leading female executives who probably aren’t as well known as they should be. And Carly was an integral in the role of Jive Records and fresh prints and DJ Jazzy Jeff coming up and a whole slew of other people. Monica Lynch was at Tommy Boy Records. But there has been a whole lot of misogyny and sexism in the history of hip hop, and it’s something that needs to be addressed. It needs to be answered.
Traci Thomas 41:36
Yeah. How did you know where you wanted to stop the book? And then how did you know when you had were done? Like, how did you know like, I don’t need to go out and get more interviews.
Jonathan Abrams 41:46
When I I knew that when I had come up on the year long extension that I had asked for this book, and I knew that I needed to get the book yet. Because this was, this was something that I could have gone on for for infinity. So there was just a stop sign that I just had to go and say, Okay, this is the stuff we got. And there were still interview answers coming in, even after that point. And I was just like, No, no, I’m done. You had enough time to answer that I need to just go forward with it. And so I knew that I wanted to deal with a lot of the hip hop that I knew best. And then I had grown up with and if you’re going to ask me about little baby, or little uzi vert, or those guys, today, I’m not going to have the foremost knowledge on them. But for me, the book almost ends when Kendrick Lamar gets a Pulitzer Prize in 2017. There’s, you know, a lot of space and gap in between that in the chapters. But I want to timeless and with that, as a note to say that one, this is hip hop hitting a new pinnacle, but just as easily, Public Enemy could have won this award 30 years ago for what they were doing. So it’s really the shift is come how people and the greater population views hip hop.
Traci Thomas 43:00
Yeah. Let me ask you very smart person who writes great books. What’s a word? You can never spell correctly? On the first try?
Jonathan Abrams 43:09
That is an exceedingly difficult question.
Traci Thomas 43:13
Are you a good speller? Or a bad speller?
Jonathan Abrams 43:15
That was the answer. There were two exceedingly and difficult. Okay.
Traci Thomas 43:20
Sometimes people like Oh, it’s so hard for me to answer. I’m just such a great speller. And I’m like, I
Jonathan Abrams 43:26
know, Tracy, I’ve heard I listened to your podcast, so I was prepared for that one.
Traci Thomas 43:32
Good. Well, then you’re also be prepared for this. How do you write how many hours day? How often? Is there music specifically for this book? Were you listening to the music? In the book? Are there snacks and beverages? Are there rituals? Are you lighting candles, incense? Are you doing a soaking in a lavender bath after every writing session, tell me about it.
Jonathan Abrams 43:53
I usually just try to get in where I can fit in. Especially because a lot of the writing I do is based on reporting and with reporting, you have to do interviews at anytime, anywhere. So and I also have two young kids. So a lot of the times when I was trying to weave this together, it’s either early in the morning or late at night when the kids are sleeping or just put down. And I have a basement I have a little little nook where I go to work and have a lot of space and time and quiet. As much as I can get done in a session. I don’t hold myself to any type of goals or objections during one session. It’s always writing a book is just for me at least it’s about taking small steps forward every day. And as long as you’re taking those small steps in progress is made. It doesn’t have to be measured. It’s just knowing that you’re going towards the
Traci Thomas 44:46
goal. Snacks, beverages, music,
Jonathan Abrams 44:50
music I listened to. I listened to a lot of hip hop when I’m writing whether it’s a book or an article. I also have a treadmill that I have My journey to where if I get stuck, I just hop on that bad boy and try to give
Traci Thomas 45:05
Jonathan Abrams 45:07
No. No snacks or beverages at least in the basement. I try to not eat down there.
Traci Thomas 45:12
Wow, what a scary place that basement sounds like no beverages you have to walk on your treadmill okay, I told you I wasn’t going to do this, but I sort of am because we didn’t get because in the book, you are respectable and you don’t talk about too many beefs. I need to know what the greatest distraction of all time is.
Jonathan Abrams 45:35
That’s an easy answer for me would be hit him up with two pucks cords vicious,
Traci Thomas 45:40
was there a debate? This is how I feel. I was okay. So this will air after this happens. But my children this year for Halloween. I have identical twins and they are almost three and they’re being Tupac and Biggie this year for Halloween. I’m a crazy mom. But to get them hyped, we’ve been listening to a lot of Tupac and Biggie like a lot. That’s all be listened to right now. And the other day, I’m just driving the car like not paying attention and hit him up comes on and it’s on and like I know the songs I’m not really paying attention. And then it gets to the like outro which I think on some versions is cut out, where Tupac is just like saying fuck dude, all these people and calling people all these like horrible names. And I’m listening. And I’m like, I haven’t listened to this part, obviously in years. And I’m like, we have a debate about the greatest distract with this song exists and has existed for 20 years. Like, what that’s how he is insane.
Jonathan Abrams 46:37
Once he starts talking about sickle cell and with Mobb Deep is just too personal.
Traci Thomas 46:44
Like, I’m not saying that anyone ever should be murdered. But I also understand how deeply offensive what he is saying those people like he went all the way the fuck off on my track. Like that is wild. And people are like, no Drake and Meek Mill. Are you out of your mind? Drake made fun of like a baseball team. Anyways, I just wanted to make sure that we were on the same page about that, though. That’s
Jonathan Abrams 47:18
hilarious. Yeah, to two twins. At three or under three.
Traci Thomas 47:24
They’re almost three.
Jonathan Abrams 47:25
Oh my gosh, I hope you and your husband are getting sleep in have sanity.
Traci Thomas 47:30
I gotta say my kids sleep. Thank God. I don’t have any Saturday. No, of course not. But I have kids who listen to Tupac. So I go on our way to school. Now they’ll be like, we want to listen to biggie. And I always laugh because I’m like pulling into the preschool. And I’m like, blasting biggie. And we’re like dancing in the car. Like, you know, all these parents are like listening to Kidz Bop. And I’m like, over my dead body. People not gonna happen. Yeah, that’s great.
Jonathan Abrams 47:55
Because, like, with my wife, like, I have to, like, turn the music down. Or if I have it too loud around the kids, like I have my sons are eight and five. And she’ll be like, Jonathan, or so I have to wait till we’re in the car alone or stuff like that. Because I want I want them to grow up on it. You know,
Traci Thomas 48:13
me too. I always say like, I just don’t want my kids to ever not know what it was like, I don’t want them to ever be like, Oh, the first time I heard hit him up, well, maybe not that one. I feel like I should pull back on that one. But like, because that’s how my that’s how I was raised, like my dad always had on music. And like, I don’t ever remember hearing Whitney Houston for the first time or Michael Jackson for the first time or whoever or the stylistics or Al Green, like all of that was just part of my musical life. And I feel like that’s how I want my kids to be like, I just want them to hear a song and be like, Oh, that’s amazing. Yeah. The greatest MC of all time, who’s really not in the book very much mace. One of my personal favorites, you know, I think that might be nostalgia.
Jonathan Abrams 48:58
You know what, I used to love mace too.
Traci Thomas 49:02
Because I feel like mace because you wrapped slow. I could rap along and so I was like, Wow, I’m a professional rapper. Whereas like, Busta Rhymes. It was a little too fast for me to keep up at a young age. You know, I mean, even now still. So I’d like Mace was very approachable, very slow. And he had that tongue with total. That was so good. Yeah, tell me tell me what? Yeah. What a great talk. I mean, those are middle school dances for me. So that’s like prime nostalgia music.
Jonathan Abrams 49:29
I tried to not let my taste get in the way of this reporting on this book too much because, like, back in the day, I used to love super shocker.
Traci Thomas 49:40
Or Oh my god. Yes.
Jonathan Abrams 49:43
Or the st lunatics. I used to love the st lunatics.
Traci Thomas 49:46
But I feel like those I mean, you talked about Nelly that’s important regional stuff. Like you really was crucial for the Midwest.
Jonathan Abrams 49:53
Yeah. I don’t know if his seven friends were.
Traci Thomas 49:56
Well, I mean, Air Force ones. That was such a great song.
Jonathan Abrams 50:00
Doug had it. That was its moment.
Traci Thomas 50:02
Yeah. This is exactly why I could never do a book like this because I’d also just be like, I would be like, No, I don’t want to talk to ice cube. I just want to talk to me. So if that’s okay. It’s just an oral history of me and Mays hanging out talking about total, like, whatever. Okay, we’re almost out of time. So I got to ask you these last few questions. I could talk nostalgia Hip Hop forever. I know your book just came out. Don’t yell at me. What comes next for you? Do you have another oral history you want to write? Is there something you’re percolating on that you could share with us? And you can also say, No,
Jonathan Abrams 50:34
I can honestly say no. And it’s a little relieving because it’s like the first time in probably about seven years or so then I don’t have a book that’s due or that I’m working on. And that’s on the way so it took a quick exhale before I get going on another one.
Traci Thomas 50:49
I mean, you do reporting like you write for the New York Times you wrote for Grantland, you write a lot. How does the book thing compared to the article feature writing thing?
Jonathan Abrams 51:00
It’s a different rhythm. You know, for a book that it’s a long term marathon project where news writing or writing articles is more of a sprint, especially if you’re on deadline. There’s a different type of adrenaline surge that that you don’t get out of a book where Writing a book is more just marinating.
Traci Thomas 51:21
For people who love the come up. What are some other books you might recommend to them that are in conversation with your work? I know in the back of the book folks are is like a little bibliography too. So if you want like a long list of recommendations that exists,
Jonathan Abrams 51:34
yeah, Dan charnas is the big payback. Jeff Chang can’t stop won’t stop. Ben West off original gangsters. Garrett Kennedy has an NWA book. The rap yearbook was che Serrana. Those are some some of the ones that come to mind.
Traci Thomas 51:51
Love che che was on the show when he did movies and other things. Che my grant one buddy? Yeah, iconic. I always say Bill Simmons is the greatest hire of all time. I feel like everyone who’s ever hired is like my favorite person to do whatever they do. Though, Bill Simmons is not my favorite person. But I think he’s like the greatest hire like you che Serrano, I just I’d like the list goes on and on. Anyways, what do you hope folks will keep in mind as they read this book
Jonathan Abrams 52:21
that it pop is such a grand, vast genre that if your favorite group or artists isn’t mentioned, it’s probably not an oversight. I probably try to get them in there. Either. They didn’t talk to me or that it got squeezed out in the final edit. But it is not any type of final judgment on your favorite artists or group.
Traci Thomas 52:45
So you don’t hate mace fine. A great, a great. If you could have one person. This is last one. If you could have one person dead or alive, read this book. Who would you want it to be?
Jonathan Abrams 52:56
Let’s go with Obama. I feel like hip hop, when he was going to school was really fundamental. And probably take him back to nostalgia.
Traci Thomas 53:06
And then we could get you on Obama’s reading list at the end of the year. Just trying to while we’re at
Jonathan Abrams 53:13
it from your lips to Obama’s ears.
Traci Thomas 53:16
Obama, if you are listening, please. You’re on the show. If you’re around anytime. Jonathan, this was so much fun. Thank you so much. The book is called The come up it is out. Now. You can get it wherever you get your books. Is there an audiobook? There is? Yes.
Jonathan Abrams 53:29
Not me, though. Not you?
Traci Thomas 53:31
Is it multiple people?
Jonathan Abrams 53:32
Yeah, it’s multiple people, professional readers. I did an audio book before and I did not like it. And I said, Alright, next time I’m gonna have a professional do it?
Traci Thomas 53:41
No, no, thanks. I’m gonna pass this off. Well, folks, get the physical book or an e book or get the audiobook requested from your library. It’s very, very good. If you like hip hop, if you like history, if you don’t like either of those things, but you feel like you are missing some education on the culture. This book is a really, really good one. Jonathan, thank you so much for being here.
Jonathan Abrams 54:00
Tracy, thank you keep doing what you’re doing.
Traci Thomas 54:03
Okay. And everyone else, we will see you in The Stacks. Alright, y’all. That does it for us today. Thank you so much for listening. And thank you to Jonathan for being our guest. I’d also like to thank when a Stansfield for helping to make this conversation possible. Remember, The Stacks book club pick for November is prison by any other name by Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law. We will be discussing the book on November 30 With Mariame Kaba. If you love the show is one inside access to it head to patreon.com/the stacks to join the stacks pack. Make sure you’re subscribed to the stacks wherever you listen to your podcasts. And if you listen through Apple Podcasts or Spotify be sure to leave us a rating and a review. For more from the sacks follow us on social media at TheStackspod on Instagram and at TheStackspod underscore on Twitter and check out our website the stocks podcast.com This episode of the stocks was edited by Cristian Duenas with production assistants from Lauren Tyree. The Stacks is created and produced by me Traci Thomas.
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