The shuffler: Nelson George, journalist, critic, TV host (Soul Cities), TV producer (The Chris Rock Show, BET’s American Gangster), filmmaker (the documentary A Great Day In Hip-Hop, the HBO film Life Support), and author or editor of 15 books, including the new Thriller: The Musical Life Of Michael Jackson (Da Capo). George served as Billboard’s black-music editor for most of the ’80s, coining the term “retro-nuevo” (a forerunner of “neo-soul”), and he contributed criticism to The Village Voice. His books on black film (Blackface), basketball (Elevating The Game), post-civil-rights culture (Post-Soul Nation), and the history of black music (The Death Of Rhythm & Blues) mark him as one of America’s keenest social historians. George shuffled his iPod—for the first time ever—at a café near his home in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
Nas, “One Mic”
Nelson George: Great record. I’m a big fan of Nas, actually. Obviously he’s had an up-and-down career.
AVC: He’s more interesting for being up-and-down.
NG: Absolutely. It’s not like his great rival, Jay-Z. Jay’s a businessman. He made records that were very commercially astute; that’s all he cares about. There’s very little, in my opinion, introspection and self-revelation. He’s a streamlined sports car. Nas is a real artist. He follows his muse; sometimes he goes in the wrong spots. “Oochie Wally”—that whole period. But “One Mic” is a unique record. So much about his career has been about artistic whim. [He’s] not a conscious rapper in the sense of a Chuck D, but he’s explored every aspect of this urban persona, from the album he has out right now with Damien Marley to his Escobar thing to his kind of street thug [role]. It’s just a really interesting life.
AVC: Nas seems to be searching for who he is, whereas Jay seems to have figured that out early on.
NG: Well, Jay does that to sell records. I don’t even know if that’s really Jay. It’s very calculated. Russell [Simmons] had a line about him once that Jay didn’t like, but it’s true: “You know, if you want to find out what people were wearing at any given time during his fame, or what car was hot, or what watch was hot, you listen to a Jay-Z record.” I think Nas is finding out about his own struggles, about his father, about his mother. I just think he’s a really profound artist. It’s interesting that “One Mic” came up, because it’s not a formula hip-hop record. In fact, it was kind of radical when he made it; it’s still kind of radical.
AVC: You didn’t cover their feud at all, did you?
NG: No, no. I stopped writing about music as a full-time job around ’90, ’91; I still did journalism for a while. I basically had the same job from ’81 to ’89, at a trade publication—first at Record World, then at Billboard—and the Voice for a lot of that time. [Afterward], I was through knowing what every hit record was that came out. I just was over that. But these are interesting guys. And Jay is one of the more charming people I’ve met. I never interviewed him, but I just met him socially. He’s got a good sense of humor—very disarming, confident, but not obnoxiously so, at least in my dealings with him. I had one long conversation with Nas around ’90, around the Stop The Violence Movement [the one-shot rap supergroup whose 1989 single, “Self Destruction,” George executive-produced]. I associate him with that period: Young guy, very smart, very conscious, very interesting, well-spoken, and well-read.
TV On The Radio, “Dogs Of Light”
NG: I’m a huge TV On The Radio fan. Sia Michel, who’s at the [New York] Times now, and who was at Spin at the time—we were friends. I became part of a group of people who rented a [summer] house in Montauk. I was with this group of people for about four or five years, and Sia was one of them. We became really good friends. I remember she’d come in on Friday, fucking exhausted from a week of editing that magazine. She called me one day when she was still at Spin, and said, “You’ve got to see this band. They’re these black guys from Brooklyn; they’re playing the Mercury Lounge.” I was like, “Okay, this is intriguing.” I wasn’t into alternative music. I didn’t really pay any attention to Williamsburg; I wasn’t a Williamsburger at all. I didn’t even like The Strokes, you know? None of that really meant anything to me.
But okay, [TV On The Radio] sounds intriguing—who are these black rock guys? And then I was really knocked out by the show at the Mercury Lounge. I got the [Young Liars] EP, and they became a really big part of my life. [The woman] who became my girlfriend after that and I were big fans; I associate that with her and that period in my life. I have a sort of sentimental attachment to it, as well as musical.
I like a lot of the album tracks. “Dirtywhirl,” which was not a single, I really love that. “Family Tree,” which was on the last album, Dear Science—a lot of my favorite songs are not even the ones they perform in concert. But their mix of harmonies and these discordant guitar sounds were just unique.
AVC: Were you into the later-’70s Bowie stuff? They remind me of that a lot.
NG: Like Low? Oh yeah, I enjoy that Berlin stuff. I actually did like a lot of that stuff. I think [TVOTR’s] harmony thing is really interesting. I like that EP—that first one is still amazing. Dear Science is one of the great records of the last decade, I guess.
They’re very exciting also, because—it’s funny, because I tried to turn on a lot of my black friends, who had liked Living Colour and that sort of black rock. But what they’re doing is not like that. It’s not blues-based. They couldn’t find that point of reference for it. But for me, there’s kind of a Brooklyn nerd aesthetic that’s a huge part of what I identify them with.
AVC: Did being a TV On The Radio fan bring you into any other Brooklyn rock?
NG: Yeah, because I started going to Williamsburg a little bit more. The woman I was seeing lived in Bushwick. She hung out in Williamsburg a lot. But you know, Interpol I liked. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, I actually got to like through her, and through them, because I realized the same guy who was [in] TV produced them. I knew a girl who dated Dave Sitek—all these weird little intersections of New York life.
The Strokes didn’t move me at all. I mean, I’ve heard that done really good by the people who did that. So TV On The Radio and some of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs seemed newer, and the direction seemed fresher; it’s like a new approach. Where The Strokes seem like shit where I could go get my Stooges record—I can get The Knack, for that matter—and hear the same shit. I thought of them as The Knack of New York. And I thought they were about as useful.
Cesaria Evora, “Bondade E Maldade”
Oh my God. I first got turned onto her album Café Atlantico. That was one of those real things where a record came through the transom, had an interesting label, I didn’t know anything about it—something about the idea that she recorded it in Cuba and in Africa intrigued me, and I put it in the CD player, and I really became a huge fan. I love the romanticism of it. And the lushness of her voice, and the fact that her singing style was very emotional, but it wasn’t like a soul [singer]. She didn’t really use melisma; she didn’t slur. She sang the notes. It’s a French tradition inherent in [her music]. I still don’t know anything about Portuguese music. It’s morna, which is this style that’s a kind of Cape Verdean blues, if you will.
I really, really loved that record. Then I went backward to the earlier ones, which are a lot less morna than she was doing by then. Then I saw this amazing show at the Beacon Theater. I saw her three or four times during that period, and just really loved her. Café Atlantico in particular: that was my gift record for people for about three years. If I met someone I liked—man, woman, it didn’t matter—I would give them that record. For me, that felt like a life-changing record. Something about it can make me cry: her voice, the fucking strings, the violins—you’re pouring out tears. It had a very profound effect on people.
AVC: What other records have that effect on you?
NG: I’m a guy who likes to listen to the same record eight times in a row. Aretha Franklin, I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You—that album. Man, amazing. Coltrane’s A Love Supreme album. Actually, it’s funny: This movie I directed for HBO, Life Support, the last song in the film is Maxwell’s version of “This Woman’s Work.” Even when I was writing the script, that song was always the ending. It just spoke to me in some way, just said something. He’s one of the few contemporary singers that actually can really sing. He’s got an amazing instrument. And he’s got good taste in covers. I mean, what black guy is gonna do Kate Bush’s “Woman’s Work”?
Maxwell’s version of that song is one of the most-liked songs of its era. I’ve seen it used in other movie trailers. Interestingly enough, it’s the live version for MTV—actually at the BAM Harvey Theater right in this neighborhood. Sam Mendes does a lot of plays there. It’s on Fulton. Anyway, [Maxwell] did two versions of it. The studio version of that same song is not nearly as—there’s something about the live version that’s amazing. He managed to pull off those vocals, and those notes he hits, live. So that’s another all-time favorite for when I’m in my melancholy moods. We put that at the end of Life Support. I said, “Between the story and this song, there’ll be people crying at the end of the movie.” I knew it was the right record.
AVC: How do you gauge the audience response when the movie is on HBO?
NG: The movie premièred at Sundance. We were the closing-night film at the festival. That was one of the great moments of my life, actually. The movie plays; I’m sitting there fucking freaking out. Maxwell comes on, [Queen] Latifah’s there, the camera’s spinning around; it was like, “This is the moment I’m waiting for. Let’s see if this shit really, really works.” And there were people crying all over the fucking theater. I got a standing ovation, which was the only time: Writers don’t get standing ovations. Like, this is never going to happen again. It was an amazing moment.
Songs that make people cry—they’re undervalued. They make people cry not just because of the vocals or the words; it’s the combination of sound and melody that just gets into your core somehow. It’s intangible, why this note, why that thing hits you in that way. And Cesaria has that ability.
The Temptations, “Don’t Look Back”
This is a great one. “If it’s love that you’re running from, there’s no hiding place / You can’t run, you can’t hide / If you just put your hand in mine, we’re gonna leave all our troubles behind”—that’s fucking classic shit. I grew up on this. My mother was a soul lady. She had parties on Saturday night. She had a big stack of 45s on the record changer, and they’d plop down, and that big Motown label would pop up, or Stax, or Atlantic. Otis and Aretha and Gladys Knight—David Ruffin, she loved David Ruffin.
AVC: What was record-shopping like for you back then?
NG: We had a friend—a guy who dated one of my mother’s best friends—who owned a very famous record store on Nostrand Avenue and Fulton, called Berdell’s. He’s actually still there, or he was there two years ago. He’s been in business, like, I’m going to say 40 years, but it might have been 50. He’s, like, seventysomething. Now he sells mostly gospel and Caribbean. That spot, you go in there, it’s the record store for the neighborhood. He’s behind the counter, “What are you looking for?” He’s playing a big speaker outside the window on the street. Stacks and stacks of wax, as you’d say, everywhere. Just crowded with records, 45 and vinyl, he’d have them all stacked up. I remember that as a wonderful place to go.
The other place that was crucial to me as a music person was J&R Music World. That was in high school, junior-senior year. That’s when I got into buying records heavily. Me and a couple other of my friends would take the train in from Brooklyn. At that point, I was way out—not even East New York, I lived in Spring Creek, way out—and we’d go all the way into the city to go to J&R. That’s where I got my first B.B. King records, [like] Live At The Regal. At that point, the record stores in my neighborhood mostly had the hits. When I wanted to learn more about blues and jazz, J&R had this amazing, deep, deep collection.
AVC: Did you have a guide for what to buy?
NG: I was reading LeRoi Jones’ Blues People for jazz. There were a lot of jazz books. I got turned on to Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train, to Robert Johnson. A lot of stuff, I just read good articles about them. We’d buy these records, and there was this souvlaki place on West Broadway that closed up recently, Adelphi. We would go eat souvlaki and then walk through what is now Soho. It might have been the beginnings of [it as a neighborhood], but it didn’t really have a name. There were a few art galleries, but it was an empty area, not that many people. We’d walk through West Broadway to get to the Bleecker Street Cinema. For us, coming from Brooklyn, it was so vibrant to go there. That’s where all the jazz clubs were.
Also, a place I read about in a couple of [Norman] Mailer books was the Lion’s Head, which was a famous writer’s bar. I’d get my records and I would wander through Soho and the Village and go to the Lion’s Head. I’d go in and the guys would have their book jackets [on display]: Sam Jenkins, Mailer was up in there, [Frederick] Exley, and a bunch of other writers. I would be like, “Wow, this is where all the writers hang out.” I would get a Rolling Rock beer—which was a very exotic beer then—and sit and drink and have my little notebook and feel like I was going to be a writer.
A lot of my senior year and into my first year or two of college, this was a ritual: the ability to buy a bunch of records. At the time, the superstores weren’t there, so J&R was really a crucial spot if you were a music junkie back then. It was way before Virgin and Tower came in, I’m going to say, in the ’80s. I associate it more with the ’80s period. J&R was a big destination; you’d see a lot of music-heads in there.
AVC: Since we’re on Motown: Your first book was The Michael Jackson Story in 1984. Now you’ve written a book on Thriller, which you were working on before he died—
NG: I signed a contract for the book, and it was going to be what’s become a new standard, the book about the album—a new staple of music writing. I’d done some work on it, was trying to figure out who I could reach out [to], and he died. It’s quite a profound thing. I talk about it in the book: There was that whole fucking gluttony of instant, bullshit analysis. It was a lot of people talking about shit they knew nothing about. And I was like, “I’m not doing that. I don’t want to be on that panel. I don’t want to talk about drug use, because I don’t know anything about it. I don’t want to talk about his doctor—I don’t know anything about it.” So I didn’t feel like joining that.
I know about music. That’s what I cared about, and that’s what I wrote about. That’s what Michael Jackson meant to me. The idea of the book was a chance to put down a lot of stuff I really felt. It’s a mix of memoir, a little bit. See, that first book I did was basically a fanzine book: All the music criticism I put in that book was taken out by the editors.
AVC: That had to sting.
NG: It definitely stung. To me, it’s like half the book. I looked back over the notes. I did a cover story for Musician magazine about the making of the album. I talked to Quincy [Jones], Ndugu Chancler, who was the drummer on “Billie Jean,” [drummer] Jeff Porcaro, [guitarist] Steve Lukather, [keyboardist] Greg Phillinganes. Actually, this book is in many ways about the men around Michael. There’s a section on Michael Peters I was happy to write. The “Thriller” dance may be the biggest social dance in the world, and this gay man from New York who died of AIDS created it.
AVC: Thriller sounds so precision-tooled that it almost doesn’t seem like people played on it, but those obviously aren’t just machines.
NG: Bruce Swedien has done a book about being an engineer; a lot of it is about Thriller. I interviewed him numerous times during that period. That record is on the cusp between analog and digital. Quincy experimented, and there may be some digital elements on the record, but they’re secondary. He was not convinced at that time that the technology was ready. He and Swedien stayed more analog, the highest tech of analog there was at that time. He used techniques from a lot of different sources.
Earth, Wind & Fire were known for their drum sound at the time—really snappy. A guy named George Massenberg was their engineer. For “Billie Jean,” in particular, he borrowed Massenberg’s equipment to isolate the drums, to create that drum sound. He used this device—almost a baffle around that entire bass drum. And he stuck the mic in there, so all of it is being held in; the mic is taking in everything. The mic they used goes back to the 1930s. It’s an old mic. But it’s the best mic ever. They used it extensively. They did a lot of things you could push a button to get now.
People slag off Toto, but they played the shit out of that record. People think Eddie Van Halen played all the guitars on “Beat It.” He just takes one solo, which he played twice and went home. Steve Lukather’s playing really captured the bigness of that. Even people like [early Jackson 5 producer] Hal Davis, one of the great underappreciated record producers of the ’70s, who spanned that connection between the pop early ’70s and the later disco thing; he was there to make that transition. He made [Diana Ross’] “Love Hangover.” The book really is in many ways about the world of Michael Jackson—these people he worked with who were mentors to him.
It’s funny, I was talking to Teddy Riley about two years ago, about working on Dangerous . Really fucking hilarious stories: Michael moved him out there. He basically built him a bedroom at [L.A. studio] the Record Plant, because he doesn’t want Teddy to leave. He’s living there, basically. Michael comes in: “I’ve got to step out for a minute, I’ll be right back.” So Teddy waits. An hour goes by. He calls Michael: “Where are you?” Michael calls him from a plane: “I’m on my way to Australia. I have a shopping mall opening up.” That would happen all the time.
That thing about Michael and his money—how do you waste so much money? One, Michael Jackson had no sense of money. And two—and I know this for a fact—whoever the vendors were, from the guy who put in the curtains to the guy who cleaned the lawn, there’s no deals for Michael Jackson. Everyone charged over their regular amount. The combination of not being aware and the fact that everyone’s double-charging you for everything—that’ll burn through a lot of money.