Nelson George has spent his career not sitting still. He began by writing music journalism for Billboard and The Village Voice just as hip-hop was taking off. He published two defining books (the Motown history Where Did Our Love Go? and The Death Of Rhythm & Blues) before reaching his mid-30s. He branched into novels, film (he co-wrote CB4 with Chris Rock), and television (he stars in VH1’s Soul Cities). And he’s chronicled black America’s relationship with the movies (Blackface), basketball (Elevating The Game), and the ’70s and ’80s (Buppies, B-Boys, Baps, And Bohos). George has threaded portions of his own story through several of his earlier books, but City Kid: A Writer’s Memoir Of Ghetto Life And Post-Soul Success is his first real memoir, and it’s swift and authoritative.
Unsurprisingly, it’s also obsessed with work. That’s true of a lot of writers’ memoirs, but George’s circumstances give the book its uniqueness. Shortly after George’s sister Andrea was born, his father abandoned the family and became a small-time Harlem hustler, while his mother became a schoolteacher. George’s family lived in a Brooklyn apartment; when their neighborhood, Brownsville, was named “the worst ghetto in the United States” on TV, an 11-year-old Nelson watched with “a perverse sense of pride”: “If you were gonna live in the ghetto, it might as well be the highest of the low.”
George devoured culture, from his mom’s soul records to his white high-school pals’ Led Zeppelin albums, and read everything from X-Men to Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who inspired him to become a writer: “To employ a phrase whites once typically used to describe their fascination with black music, I found this white literature ‘exotic.’” He explored wider New York as a teenager just for the hell of it—a good sign for a budding reporter—and as he began racking up bylines, he kept his eyes open for other chances, writing a quickie Michael Jackson bio that wound up a bestseller, enabling his move to Fort Greene, Brooklyn, right as it became a black-bohemian enclave. He invested in Spike Lee’s debut, She’s Gotta Have It, and formed an enduring friendship with Chris Rock, whose HBO talk show George would produce.
It’s no surprise that City Kid features plenty of famous names, from Quincy Jones (whose description of Michael Jackson’s perfectionism as “ass power” became a cornerstone of George’s own lexicon) to Russell Simmons (whose autobiography George co-wrote). Still, City Kid is mostly a tribute to youthful ambition: “I’d roll around my bed at night frustrated if I felt I hadn’t worked hard enough, or anxious if I thought I hadn’t worked well. I’d think there was a white writer out there who was already out ahead of me, who could afford to relax, and I’d jump out of bed and start writing.”