It’s Like That: The Makings of a Hip-Hop Writer

Hip-hop was a different kind of music that needed a different kind of writer to cover it. This is how Michael A. Gonzales came of age in a time when Black writers began breaking the white ceiling.

Michael A. Gonzales | Longreads | June 2019 | 45 minutes (7,644 words)

 

Recently a friend told me, “When I was a newbie at Vibe magazine, I always thought, Mike looks like what I always imagined a real writer looked like, with your trenchcoat and briefcase and papers … and your hats. I can’t forget the hats.” Though he did forget the Mikli glasses and wingtips, I had to confess my style was one I’d visualized years before when I was a Harlem boy hanging out in the Hamilton Grange Library on 145th Street, looking at Richard Wright, Chester Himes, and James Baldwin book jacket pictures.

Of course, in their day being a writer primarily meant being a novelist, but it was the world of music journalism and cultural criticism that I tumbled into as though it were Alice’s rabbit hole. Although I’ve published some fiction over the years, I return to nonfiction more often, continuing to explore its dimensions and possibilities.

In the 1990s, my wonderland became writing for “urban” magazines, the ’90s code word for Black that included The Source, Vibe, RapPages, Ego Trip, and XXL. Although I, along with my contemporaries Harry Allen, Karen Good, Ronin Ro, dream hampton, Sheena Lester, Sacha Jenkins, Kris Ex, Chairman Mao, Cheo H. Coker, Skiz Fernando, and Miles Marshall Lewis were labeled “hip-hop writers,” our interest in documenting Black culture went beyond rap music into politics, art, film, fashion, and history. Though aware that some editors and more established music journalists used it in a derogatory way, the word “hip-hop” has always represented Blackness, experimentation, the vanguard. Obviously, a different kind of music needed a different kind of writer.

Since Andrew Bradford published the first American magazine in 1741, one of the industry’s open secrets was its lily-whiteness, with only a few folks of color able to bypass the widespread racism that kept the industry mostly white. While writers Orde Coombs, Ben Fong Torres, and Elvis Mitchell were among the few to crash the Caucasian ceiling, ’90s urban magazines gave writers of color opportunities to compose in-depth pieces about our music that incorporated our lives and our world.

However, since rap was barely considered “real” music, many thought that “hip-hop writers” were barely real critics or journalists. Still, I saw us as part of a continuum that connected the Harlem Renaissance with the Black Arts Movement. Finally, writers of color with unique, sometimes raw voices had a place to publish the kind of material other publications weren’t even checking for: from Hammer to Wu-Tang, Bad Boy to Jamiroquai, MC Lyte to Missy Elliott, Cross Colors to Tommy Hilfiger, boom bap to Jermaine Dupri, Mary J. Blige to Brandy, strip clubs to churches, Justin’s to Moomba, Nas to Jay-Z, old soul to neo soul. As definers of a new-new-Black Aesthetic, we were there to tell our story.

Though aware that some editors and more established music journalists used it in a derogatory way, the word “hip-hop” has always represented Blackness, experimentation, the vanguard.

Encouraged by a bookish mother who brought home magazines and newspapers, my dream of becoming a writer started during my childhood in the mid-’70s. I sat on the living room floor typing since the day after my godfather bought my first typewriter for Christmas when I was 8. Usually I wrote as WABC-AM pop songs boomed from the radio on the end table. Then, as now, music was a big part of my life, something in the blood. Mom tells a tale about me screaming the lyrics to Wilson Pickett’s soul anthem “Funky Broadway” at age 4. A few years later I owned my first album, the 1971 Shaft soundtrack by Isaac Hayes. Whenever I obtained a new disc, I studied the album’s cover, liner notes, and musician credits as though they were sacred texts, as I imagined myself transported to the houses of the holy studios where the magic was made.

In my neighborhood, music was everywhere, and it wasn’t uncommon to hear Guayabera-clad conga/bongo players pretending to be Ray Barretto, while across the street a parked car blasted the latest disco jam. In the summertime, Mom often took me and baby brother to Central Park to see old-school soulsters, with Little Anthony and the Imperials being my first concert. My cousins Denise and Caren introduced me to the bass-heavy world of funk and the glam of Elton John.

As my passion for music grew, I had Mom visit Mr. Freddy’s small record shop to buy songs I’d heard on the radio. Well-dressed Mr. Freddy was a family friend whose shop I’d visited countless times with my parents, but it wasn’t until I turned 13 that I went to the shop solo. I stood outside looking at the various album covers displayed in the window. Inside, albums jammed the metal wall racks. The 7-inch singles were in a case behind the counter. Wearing a sharp suit, Mr. Freddy smiled. “Hey, Michael, how can I help you today?” Having looked at that week’s Soul Brothers Top 20 in Jet magazine before leaving the house, I wasn’t sure which singles to get. Damn near an hour after arriving, I finally selected the funk of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Shining Star,” the bump of “Bertha Butt Boogie” by Jimmy Castor, and the Isley Brothers’ brutal “Fight the Power.”

Years later, I’d jokingly refer to that summer afternoon at Mr. Freddy’s as my first High Fidelity moment. That opportunity to geek out on records was on the same level as losing my virginity. Visiting record shops eventually became therapeutic, as I flipped through the racks looking for contentment through vinyl. I became a regular at Disc-O-Mat, J&R, and The Wiz. Still, it would be more than a decade before I slipped behind the grooves to review records and document the lives of the people who created them.

* * *

I always thought I’d be a pop song lyricist, comic book writer, or novelist, instead of a cultural critic. Certainly, the masters who served as my early journalistic heroes had literary aspirations that had nothing to do with documenting the angst of Lou Reed, defending Miles Davis’s electric period, or crafting slick names for the latest soulful subgenre blaring from Sugar Hill. As a teen, Lester Bangs worshipped Kerouac and Burroughs, and envisioned himself as a post-Beat novelist, while Greg Tate, inspired by Ntozake Shange and Amiri Baraka, wrote revolutionary poetry and science fiction. Harlem native Barry Michael Cooper thought he would become the next Truman Capote, penning well-researched nonfiction novels. Still, somehow, each of these men launched their celebrated careers by penning pieces about stoned singers, puking punks, soulful screamers, fierce funksters, rebellious rappers, and other musical geniuses. Each writer brought his literary strengths to the occupation and raised the bar along the way. They also influenced me, as well as other aspiring wordsmiths who were happy to follow in their ink-stained footsteps.

That opportunity to geek out on records was on the same level as losing my virginity.

1978 was a pivotal twelve months in my young life. Turning 15 that summer, it was the year that I heard my first hip-hop crew spinning and rapping. Pioneering duo DJ Hollywood and Junebug performed their set at a block party on my street. As Junebug turntable-spun MFSB’s disco hit “Love Is the Message,” Hollywood rapped over the beat, “It’s not how good I make it baby, it’s how I make it good.” I had no idea what was going on, but I liked it.

“What are they doing?” I asked my friend Kyle. The words “hip-hop” and “rap” didn’t exist yet.

“That’s that new shit,” Kyle replied. Seeing Hollywood on 151st Street a year before the first rap records was the equivalent of seeing Louis Armstrong blowing trumpet in a Storyville whore house. A year away from “King Tim III (Personality Rap)” and Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” rap was still on a grassroots level in New York City fire-trap clubs, parks, and block parties.

That August, I joined my mother in Baltimore where she decided to relocate. After the first month, I got into the swing of things at Northwestern High, the first public school I’d attended since first grade. I took a first-period journalism class where I was introduced to the recently launched City Paper, a free alternative weekly. Published by Alan Hirsch and Russ Smith, the paper’s music critic J.D. Considine became the first pop journalist whose work I followed regularly. Considine wrote with simplicity that was clear as a glass of water. I liked his work enough to pick up the paper regularly and eventually got my first publishing internship there, after begging my way through the front door.

Unfortunately, my internship involved no writing. I spent most of my time in the art department learning the now forgotten art of pasting-up type. While my byline wouldn’t appear in the paper until 35 years later, when I wrote a cover story essay about my teenage days hanging at the punk club Marble Bar, that didn’t stop me from lying about my status as a music critic for the paper two years after my internship.

In 1980, the radio station 98 Rock began promoting a new local singer named Tony Sciuto. Although the sugary-goo pop sound of his debut Island Nights grates on nerves today, back then, I dug it. Sciuto was doing a stint at Girard’s disco, so I called the club and asked for the manager. “Hello, my name is Michael Gonzales and I’m a music critic at the City Paper,” I began. “I’d like to do an interview with Tony Sciuto.”

There was a pause and finally the manager replied, “No problem. I’ll put you on the list.”  Much to my surprise, it was as simple as that. The following day, I bought my first tape recorder, along with Sciuto’s album, which I studied thoroughly. On the cover Tony projected an intense pretty-boy Italian stare that rivaled John Travolta. Playing the disc, I lay on the floor scribbling notes as though preparing for a test.

The night of the show, I was afraid that the ruse would end when the doorman saw my 16-year-old face. In my right hand, I carried a black soft-leather briefcase that contained pens, notes, cassettes, and a tape recorder. Dressed in Calvin Klein jeans, a button-down shirt, and polished black shoes, instead of being kicked to the curb, I was escorted up a flight of stairs to a private area filled with pretty women and cool white guys smoking cigarettes.

The night of the show, I was afraid that the ruse would end when the doorman saw my 16-year-old face.

Back then, the drinking age was 18, but no one asked for ID, so I ordered a piña colada, which, I suppose, was my idea of fancy. The star’s manager ushered me to a quiet area where Tony was waiting. This was my first celebrity interview, and my heart beat fast. I’m sure Tony must’ve heard the tremble in my voice as I channeled talk-show idols Dick Cavett and Gil Noble into my interview technique. Tony was a cool, down-to-earth guy who made the process painless. He told charming stories about growing up in Baltimore, writing “My Lisa” for the Bay City Rollers, and being big in Japan.

A half hour later, Sciuto was due on stage. Walking on sunshine and slightly intoxicated from the piña colada, I followed him downstairs and stood by the stage as he performed “Café L.A.,” “Captain Wonderful,” and “Street Dancer.”  I can’t remember ever transcribing the interview, but I did learn a lot from the experience. Although I wasn’t yet a professional, acting like one was enough to get me to the finish line.

Months later, after graduating in 1981, I returned to New York City, where I started as an English major at Long Island University in Brooklyn. My LIU years were nerve wracking and eye-opening. While I ain’t no dummy, school was never my thing, so it was only a matter of time before I got bored and dropped out three years later. Besides making lifelong friends, the best thing about LIU was that it got me into the habit of reading the Village Voice every Wednesday. The Voice employed the best cultural writers in the country, including dean of rock criticism Robert Christgau. As music editor, Christgau was instrumental in hiring many of the young Black writers that composed the first wave of hip-hop critics, including Greg Tate, Nelson George, and Barry Michael Cooper.

To make a little cash, I got a part-time Archer Messenger gig in Midtown. I usually dressed entirely in black and, in the winter, wore long vintage coats and a beret. After work, I trooped to the Mid-Manhattan Library where I taught myself the art of New Journalism by reading the articles of Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Nora Ephron, Nik Cohn, and Gay Talese as I leafed through bound editions of Esquire, New York, and Rolling Stone. Those stories taught me that great reporting, research, and style went a long way into making a brilliant piece.


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Uptown, my community’s enthusiasm for rap music made me listen to it more. At the Music Factory in Times Square I started buying rap singles like “I Can’t Live Without My Radio,” “Marley Scratch,” and “Roxanne Roxanne,” and listened to the Red Alert and Mr. Magic featuring Marley Marl radio shows every Friday and Saturday night. The Music Factory was where fat man Stanley Platzer reigned supreme as the breakbeat king. In addition to The Ultimate Breaks & Beats series, they had the city’s best cutout bins of old soul and funk, and many pioneers shopped there. That year, I also got a job as an institutional aide at Catherine Street homeless shelter located in Lower Manhattan, where rap was the constant soundtrack.

In 1987, a punk rocker friend named R.W. asked me to write reviews of the Beastie Boys’ debut Licensed to Ill and Fishbone’s introductory EP for a fanzine he was publishing. I sat in my junky bedroom near the stereo speakers and played each disc numerous times while taking notes. Having never written a review before, writing those pieces was a struggle and took me almost a week. When the writing got good, I felt as though I was in an altered state, and in the end R.W. was as happy.

Not long afterward, I contacted Cover, an arty downtown newspaper, about writing music features. Publisher Jeff Wright invited me to the paper’s cluttered office, where he introduced me to music editor James Graham. I began freelancing — emphasis on free, since I wasn’t paid — and, for my first issue, wrote a cover story essay on former Labelle vocalist Nona Hendryx, who was promoting her album Female Trouble. I saw her perform at the Ritz, though I never interviewed her. I can’t recall if talking to Hendryx was an option, but reviewing a live show was something new. Unlike writing about records, you can’t replay a concert, and I was determined to get it right. Standing at the lip of the stage, scared that I might miss something, I watched Hendryx’s every move as she strutted through an electrifying set. Published in November, that same issue of Cover included my interview with jazz-blues guitarist Jean-Paul Bourelly, a friend whose debut album Jungle Cowboy was released that fall.

This was during the M-Base jazz days, and Bourelly was part of their avant-jazz posse that included saxophonist and movement founder Steve Coleman, pianist Gerri Allen, and singer Cassandra Wilson, whose sophomore album Days Aweigh also came out that year. Bourelly introduced me to Wilson’s music, played me tracks from her debut Point of View, and connected us for an interview. A week later, Wilson and I met at an intimate Italian restaurant in Brooklyn. Although she wasn’t yet famous, I was still a bit nervous and had written out questions in a spiral notebook. Wilson was smart and charming, and our interview flowed smoothly. She talked about growing up in Mississippi, recording with Henry Threadgill, and reading science fiction novels on the road.

Although I was well prepared with background information, while talking to her I realized that the best interviews are more mutual conversation than one-sided interrogation. When it came time to deliver the piece, I handed James a story that was more textual experimentation than journalistic examination of a young jazz singer. Details about Wilson’s life and music got lost in the chaos of my cuteness. “What the hell is this?” James asked after reading it. Of course, I thought it was brilliant, so I didn’t reply. “I’m sorry, but I can’t run this. You’re a better writer than this.” Graham was a patient editor who dealt kindly with my goof and gave me the opportunity to rewrite the article minus the Afro-Gonzo tangents.

Although I was well prepared with background information, while talking to her I realized that the best interviews are more mutual conversation than one-sided interrogation.

During that time, I had started reading a lot of different pop publications to expand my range and absorb other voices, especially the ones coming out of England. The Face, Melody Maker, NME, and Smash Hits were the best. The writing was smarter, and the subjects more diverse than Rolling Stone or Musician. I was very impressed by the lengthy music features that writer Frank Owen did for Melody Maker on Scott LaRock, Schoolly D., Mantronix, and Just Ice, stories that incorporated first-person journalism with cultural theory, semiotics, history, and British humor. I began applying the same techniques to my Cover profiles and reviews on Stetsasonic, MC Hammer, Afrika Bambaataa, and Public Enemy.

My girlfriend Initia, who I had been practically living with for two years, had a younger sister named Chane who started dating Owen when he moved to New York that year. He was writing for the Voice and Paper, and the four of us started hanging out. One winter night Initia made a big pot of soup, which gave me ample opportunity to pick Frank’s brain. His thick Mancunian accent made it difficult to understand what the hell he was saying, but I learned a lot from him about research and asking tough questions.

Later, Frank got a few gigs, which included freelance editing at Paper magazine and helping with press at dance/hip-hop label Sleeping Bag Records. Always generous toward me, he got me my first bio writing gig for rap duo EPMD. We did the interview in the Sleeping Bag Records mailroom. That summer, Frank also offered me a chance to interview and write a Paper feature on dream-pop trio the Cocteau Twins, who were set to release Blue Bell Knoll. Paper was one of the downtown arts community’s most important publications, and writing that article would have changed the game for me. But I was suddenly filled with self-doubt and turned down the offer. Frank didn’t make a big deal of it, but Chene got in my ass.

“Why did you turn down that assignment? I thought writing about music was what you wanted to do.” I could tell I’d disappointed her.

“I don’t know. I was scared. I didn’t know if I could do it.” Her snicker reminded me of actress Bette Davis. “You’re a good writer, Michael, you don’t need to be scared. Hell, while you’re being scared, the bad music journalists are writing their asses off.”

* * *

In 1988, which would become known as rap music’s first golden year thanks to virtuoso albums from Public Enemy (It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back) and Eric B. & Rakim (Follow the Leader), I gave my shelter coworker Mitch Smith a copy of Cover that contained my new column Da Cyberfunk Generation. “I didn’t know you wrote about hip-hop,” he said. “You should meet my friend Havelock.” I knew the name from The City Sun and Word Up, and had always dug his work. Havelock and I became fast friends, and he introduced me to various editors and publicists.

Two years later, he asked if I wanted to cowrite a hip-hop book with him. We named it Bring the Noise, a title we’d swiped from Public Enemy. The idea came from Random House editor Michael Pietsch, who a few years later put David Foster Wallace on the literary map with Infinite Jest. In Pietsch’s Midtown office, he explained that he wanted to publish a rap record guide comparable to the notable Rolling Stone guides. “Oh, one thing,” Pietsch said. “We’re going to need the book in seven months if we’re going to come out in November 1991.” Havelock and I looked at each other and laughed. “Yeah, OK,” I said. “I’m sure we can do it.”

Havelock lived in East Flatbush, and I moved into his basement apartment for the nine months it took for us to finish our book. Although our writing styles were quite different, we proved to be a great balance for each other. He had a straight, reportorial style that offset my gonzo leanings. We split the list of artists we considered essential and began working. The clean apartment soon filled with notebooks, newspapers, cassette tapes, CDs, and our other research material. While writing, the books I kept close were LeRoi Jones’s Black Music, David Toop’s Rap Attack: African Jive to New York Hip Hop, the first Lester Bang’s collection Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, and Roland Barthes’s Mythologies. After writing our entries, we’d exchange text and edit each other. Surprisingly, we never argued.

One entry I wrote was on a female rapper named L.A. Star. A biracial MC from the Bronx with a raspy, sing-songy voice, she was signed to Profile Records and was formerly part of the Bronx’s infamous B-Boy Records posse. Labelmates with Boogie Down Productions and Sparky D, she debuted on the completion disc B. Girls Live And Kicking with the tracks “B-Girls” and “Write That Rhyme,” a Salt-N-Pepa dis record. When I received L.A.’s debut Poetess, her buxom, full-figured image on the blue-tinted cover was boogie-down sexy, with her sporting a fresh Kagol, bamboo earrings, and dookie gold chain. Still, she had skills, and on tracks “Fade to Black” and “Swing to the Beat,” she spit with the best of them.

I’d always thought it was best just to stay purely professional, but Lisa was one of the few artists I became friends with outside the studio.

After pitching the story to Cover, L.A.’s publicist set up an interview. L.A.’s government name was Lisa Ali, and although I assumed she was Puerto Rican, she was actually mixed, with a Haitian daddy and a white Jewish mother. Sitting in the conference room, we talked about her various jobs, including driving a gypsy cab, as well as the shadiness of her former label and her hopes for the future. She was a single mom, and her shy 4-year-old daughter Lorice later became rapper Rece Steele and appeared on Ego Trip’s Miss Rap Supreme.

I’d always thought it was best just to stay purely professional, but Lisa was one of the few artists I became friends with outside the studio. She was loud and crass in that way we currently see in Cardi B. L.A. was a lot of fun, even if I did spend too much time asking her to please lower her voice. Although a few writers including former columnists Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, often befriended subjects, over the years fellow journalists told me horror stories about becoming besties with their subjects. Luckily Lisa and I didn’t have any missteps. I invited her to my grandmother’s house for dinner one Sunday, and for the first time I saw a different Lisa, a sweet young woman who could be polite and less street. Later that night, hanging out at the cheap, no-frills recording studio with her friend Pudgee Tha Phat Bastard, Lisa’s mother brought two bags of cold cuts, bagels, cheeses, and soft drinks. A sweet older lady, she reminded me of the Yiddish women I used to see in Washington Heights.

Profile Records threw a release party for Poetess at the trendy club Mars. Surrounded by record industry folks and adoring fans, Lisa looked so happy that night. A few weeks later, I was at work when I heard Hot 97 announce that “rapper L.A. Star was shot and killed in the Bronx this afternoon.” I panicked and, without making any phone calls, raced to the record company offices. Bolting off the elevator, a voice screamed my name and stopped me in my tracks. There was L.A. Star sitting in the waiting area.

“What the fuck,” I muttered. “You don’t look dead.” Lisa laughed. I sat down and she explained that she’d arranged the whole thing as a hoax to get press. “I had my girlfriend call the station and tell them I’d been killed.” I just shook my head.

“Let’s take a walk,” I said. We strolled in silence to Washington Square Park and sat on a paint-chipped bench “You had me scared to death. Why would you do some dumb shit like that?”

She looked at me as if I could never understand the complexities of her life. “Nobody even knows my record is out. My manager doesn’t care nothing about me. You know, I was thinking, why don’t you become my manager.”

“You must be joking. What the hell do I know about managing artists? I can barely manage myself.”

“These guys I have, they’re just gangsters from the Bronx, and they don’t know what they’re doing either. At least I wouldn’t have to worry about you stealing from me.”

I chuckled. “Gangsters from the Bronx, huh? I don’t think I can handle all of that Lisa. I’m sorry.” A year passed before I saw her again. Though she recorded material for a second album, Profile dropped her. Next time we ran into each other, she was working at a gift shop at South Street Seaport. We hugged, went out for a drink, and I never saw her again.

In March 1991, Havelock and I delivered Bring the Noise. In a Q&A that Havelock and I did for a press release, I described the book’s title as referring “not only to rap music but also the voices of Blacks in America. The noise could be the sound of urban cities, of trains, the sounds of kids in the playgrounds or the sound of breaking glass outside your window.”

After introducing myself to The Source editor in chief Shecter and senior editor Bernard, I proposed that I write for them. Both of them looked at me like, Yeah, right buddy, stand on line.

That summer, I attended a hip-hop showcase at Irving Plaza during the New Music Seminar. Upstairs on the mezzanine, a small magazine called The Source had set up merchandise tables. Founded as a newsletter in 1988 by Harvard students Dave Mays, Jon Shecter, James Bernard, and Ed Young, it evolved into a four-color glossy. In 1990 they moved from their Cambridge dorms to New York City, got national distribution, and set their sights on taking over the world. After introducing myself to editor in chief Shecter and senior editor Bernard, I told them about Bring the Noise and proposed that I write for them. Both of them looked at me like, Yeah, right buddy, stand on line.

I figured they’d never get in touch, so it surprised me when James called a month later asking if I’d spend the day in Trenton, New Jersey, with Poor Righteous Teachers, whose second album Pure Poverty had just come out. The year before their single “Rock Dis Funky Joint” boomed in the streets, and I was a fan. A week later, I traveled by Town Car to Trenton, a city that by 1991 was beat down from the usual depressions that turned once-thriving communities into ghettos. I spent the day with the trio, hanging at the crib of Wise Intelligent, chilling on the block, and going to the local corner store to buy sandwiches. Besides the music, we talked about the group’s Five-Percent Nation religious beliefs from which they got their name, as well as their personal histories and relationship with the city.

That August at the publicity firm Set to Run, a company that represented rap artists including A Tribe Called Quest and Young MC, I met a new publicist, a pretty New Jersey–born woman named Lesley Pitts. A few weeks later, she would become my girlfriend, partner, constant companion, and supreme champion until her death in 1999.

The Poor Righteous Teachers story led to other articles for The Source including features on the Beatnuts and MC Lyte. Still, two years passed before Shecter invited me to write a cover story on the Cali crew Cypress Hill, who’s first single “How I Could Just Kill a Man” had made them stars. Shecter didn’t just want me to take a stoned approach to the article. He wanted me to tie hemp history into the narrative and write about how weed was once legal and used for reasons other than getting high.

A long way from California, group members DJ Muggs, B-Real, and Sen Dogg had relocated to the East Coast to finish their sophomore record Black Sunday. Photographer Daniel Hastings shot the group at a Greenwich photo studio, toking and goofing. We spent hours with Cypress just getting to know them. By the time I hooked up with them again, they were finishing the mix of Black Sunday, an album that was sonically superior to their self-titled debut. I had taken the Amtrak to Philly and met them at Ruffhouse Studios. With tracks “Legalize It” and “Hits from the Bong,” they were rapping about a subject they loved. “It’s when you get to the point while smoking herb that everything is better,” Sen Dogg told me. With his gravelly voice, he sounded like he’d been smoking blunts since age 3.

The Cypress sound was an explosion of screaming sirens, eerie echoes, and slowed-down funk. A New York Italian from Queens who took his dirty sound to the West Coast, Muggs’s brand of artful noise was the beginning of a new era in weeded music. “I was just doing what I was doing,” Muggs told me, “making the type of records that I wanted to hear. When Public Enemy came out they changed the face of hip-hop. When De La Soul came out, they changed the face of hip-hop. I wanted to do something different too.”

When the group decided to visit a tattoo parlor, B-Real said, “You should get one too. Don’t worry, we’ll pay for it.” The idea of getting my first tattoo with Cypress Hill excited me. However, once inside, I watched the tattooist digging that inked needle into B-Real’s arm and felt sick. “Fuck that,” I said. B-Real and Muggs laughed. It made no difference to me. I might’ve been high, but I wasn’t high enough to get a permanent Cypress-sponsored souvenir. Since this was my first Source cover, I must’ve checked the newsstand daily for two months. Then one morning, as though by magic, the vivid 8½-by-11 magazine was dangling from a clothespin attached to a thin wire above the vendor’s window, the words “The Cypress Experience” in bold letters.

The idea of getting my first tattoo with Cypress Hill excited me. However, once inside, I watched the tattooist digging that inked needle into B-Real’s arm and felt sick.

That year, Vibe released their preview test issue with Treach from Naughty by Nature on the cover, while inside Kevin Powell wrote the feature on the group. Owned by Quincy Jones and Time Inc., Vibe was designed to compete with The Source while trying to be more grown-up with features on author Toni Morrison, tele-goddess Oprah Winfrey and public intellectual Cornel West. At both magazines, Ivy League graduates worked beside school-of-hardknockers, but class differences were rarely a big deal.

Vibe’s Lexington Avenue offices formerly belonged to the New Yorker. My only contribution to the preview issue was a record review of MC Serch’s Return of the Product. I dug 3rd Bass, but Serch solo wasn’t something I enjoyed. Serch was also Lesley’s client, which made things icy for a few days. That review was assigned by the music editor Alan Light, who I had met a few years earlier at a Living Colour show when he was writing about rap for Rolling Stone.

Vibe’s top editors were Jonathan Van Meter, a former Vogue assistant editor, and Diane Cardwell, both of whom I had socialized with, but they didn’t seem very impressed with my work. They were good editors, but instead of hiring me, they sent Hilton Als to write about Too Short and Christian Wright to interview SWV. As the author of a recent book on rap and frequent contributor to their direct competitor, I was pissed that neither editor took my work  seriously.

Obviously retaining the DNA of his Condé Nast past, Van Meter attempted to create a hip-hop version of Vogue, which wasn’t something the world really wanted. To their credit, Van Meter and Caldwell did hire an excellent staff including editors and writers Ben Mapp, Scott Poulson Bryant, Kevin Powell, Rob Kenner, Emil Wilbekin, and Joan Morgan. Still, it wasn’t until the top editors left, after a disagreement with Quincy Jones about putting Madonna and Dennis Rodman on the cover, that the magazine became more open to me writing features. Alan Light was promoted to editor in chief, and freelancer Danyel Smith was hired as the music editor. Smith and I had met in 1993 when she moved to New York from Oakland to work for Billboard. She and I discovered we shared a June 23rd birthday. She invited Lesley and me to her house for dinner, and the two Cancerian women soon became great friends.

A few weeks before Thanksgiving 1995, Smith called me into her office and offered me chance to interview Barry White in Brussels. With me being older than most of the other writers on the masthead, and nostalgic about ’70s soul, she figured I was the perfect choice. Talking to new jack rappers or singers was simple, but White was my first real legend. White was making a comeback with the song “Practice What You Preach,” and my piece was to be his first big story in years.

Light mentioned that he originally wanted Gerri Hirshey to do the story. “But,” he told me, “Danyel insisted on you.” I could tell by his tone he wasn’t sure what to expect. Hirshey was the author of the seminal Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music, but Smith believed I could deliver as good or better. “I want you to take notes of everything,” Smith instructed. “I want you to get as many details as possible.” For a few hours after our meeting I was simultaneously giddy and, again, overflowing with self-doubt. I realized that this was a make-or-break moment, and my future as music journalist hinged on how well I did on the story. Any failure would reflect on both me and Smith, and I couldn’t let that happen.

Obviously retaining the DNA of his Condé Nast past, Van Meter attempted to create a hip-hop version of Vogue, which wasn’t something the world really wanted.

Getting the details of my European surroundings was easy, and there was a lot of material to work with as I followed White and interviewed his band, manager, and fans. Later, we retreated to a private room at the five-star Stanhope Hotel, where we were both staying. Penetrating White’s tough persona was the hard part, but once he felt comfortable, we were cool and he was honest. Chain-smoking, White had a gruff voice, but he was cool and made me comfortable as he told me of his street gang days when he was a businessman. “Whether we was dancing, fighting, or just sitting around the park smoking bush or drinking wine, we was taking care of business.” We also talked about how sad he was when Marvin Gaye’s father killed the Motown singer with a .38-caliber revolver the decade before. Gaye was a fan of White’s, and a few weeks before his murder, he told people that White was going to produce his next album.

White remembered making plans with Gaye only two days before his life ended. “He felt like he didn’t have the juice he needed for that next album,” said White. “But Marvin Gaye didn’t need no producer. We agreed, on a Friday, to meet Monday for a first session. He called me that Saturday to tell me how happy he was that I’d consented to the project, and how it was going to be the baddest album of his entire career. I told him, ‘I don’t know about all that, Marvin, but we gonna put out an album they’ll never forget.’ That Sunday, his daddy killed him. I went to see him at the funeral home. I kissed him on the forehead and rubbed his hands.”

Nervous as hell, I delivered a solid piece where details of Europe overlapped with memories of South Central. I felt as though I’d reached the next level. I became their main soul man, doing stories on Curtis Mayfield, Nile Rodgers Kid Creole and the Coconuts, and the O’Jays. In fact, whenever the subject was something old-school, I was the go-to scribe.

The Vibe office was a cool place to hang out, and staff often let me work up there. Some days there would be a collective conversation happening as people talked about their stories in progress or buzzing with anticipation about an upcoming industry party. I became best friends with one great writer, the late Robert (Bob) Morales, who knew everything about comic books, porn (he did an interview with Vanessa del Rio for the magazine), literature, film, and science fiction. Writer and first season Real World guy Kevin Powell and I became close, and I still remember when he was planning a publication coup because there were too many white editors at Vibe. “I’ll be the editor in chief and I’ll make you the music editor,” Powell said. I understood his point, but I was happy simply writing.

Writer and first season Real World guy Kevin Powell and I became close, and I still remember when he was planning a publication coup because there were too many white editors at Vibe.

“I don’t want to be the music editor,” I replied, “and you don’t want to be the editor in chief. There’s no glamour in that shit.” Although being an editor might’ve provided more stability, I couldn’t imagine being chained to desk reading someone else’s copy. I was more concerned with publisher Keith Clinkscales refused to hire me as a staffer. “Writers are a dime a dozen,” he told me. Instead, the magazine gave me a contract as writer-at-large. When I wrote about A Tribe Called Quest for a competing magazine two years later, Keith told me he liked the story. “I wish you had written it for Vibe,” he said.

I smiled. “Well, remember, writers are a dime a dozen.”

My least favorite Vibe feature, ironically, was my biggest story and only cover feature — an article about  Toni Braxton published in the summer of ’97. Featuring a naked Braxton with just a sheet draped over her crotch, Daniela Federici’s photos drove the public crazy while the story was supposed to be nonfiction erotica, to bring out the sexuality from the soulful church girl. Braxton and I talked about sex like two horny teens. Orchestrated by the record label and our publisher, they instructed me to “write about sex,” and like a fool I listened and described Braxton as though she was a femme fatale in a noir novel pretending that her “sexual mystique” was more important than her songs. Truthfully, I was more excited when she mentioned dressing up like Madonna and Janet Jackson as a teenager than talking about losing her virginity.

On the other hand, my favorite feature was the Tricky piece, “Weeded, Wicked and Wise,” also published in 1997. Tricky and I had met through our mutual friend Tracii McGregor, who did some p.r. for him. We met the night of D’Angelo’s platinum party on September 13, 1997. The year before, D’Angelo’s debut Brown Sugar had been one of the year’s best, and critics christened him “the new Marvin Gaye.” The title track was nominated for a Grammy and the wack term “neo soul” was coined to describe his music, which was Southern soul laced with a hip-hop sensibility.

Tricky was dressed in a stylish suit. His debut album Maxinquaye was dark, sinister, and spooky music that I played often while working. “So you’re the guy that makes that suicide music my boyfriend listens to,” Lesley said when Tracii introduced us, and Tricky laughed. The party, filled with stars and industry folks, came to an abrupt end when word began to circulate that Tupac, who was shot in Las Vegas six days before, had died. A few weeks later Tricky and I ran into one another at a Radio City Music Hall screening for the Muhammad Ali documentary When We Were Kings.

After the movie we went to Howard Johnson’s for a midnight snack, then back to Tricky’s crib where he played some works in progress. For the first time since L.A. Star, I’d allowed myself to befriend a potential interview subject, but I didn’t regret it. Tricky was smart and savvy, and better still, he never expected anything nor asked for any favors. During that period, Tricky, who was considered a rock star, but always referred to himself as a hip-hop artist, recorded prolifically, while also working with Grace Jones and DJ Muggs. “The press has made me into the flavor of the month,” he told me, “but I’m just trying to make music that is pure and honest.”

After damn near begging Alan Light to let me write a profile of Tricky, I was assigned to go on tour with him. For two days I rolled with Tricky through Toronto and Detroit. I shadowed him for the day as he went to various interviews. Rob Kenner, my favorite editor to work with in those days, edited the story. We spent all night in his office smoking weed and eating Chinese while chopping and shaping the text. After it was published, I ran into Spin editor Charles Aaron at a listening session at Puff Daddy’s studio for Biggie’s second album, Life After Death, and he, a Tricky fan himself, praised the story. Two weeks later, Biggie was dead, killed in Los Angeles after leaving a Vibe party. “I love the New York hip-hop community,” Tricky told me, “but I’m afraid to get too deeply involved because there are so many politics, and people get killed over that shit.”

We spent all night in his office smoking weed and eating Chinese while chopping and shaping the text.

In 1996, Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism awarded Danyel Smith the National Arts Journalism Program fellowship. Required to live in Evanston, Illinois, and attend classes, she took a leave from Vibe. When she returned in 1997, she became editor in chief, and Alan Light took over the magazine’s budding book imprint. Smith was determined to make the magazine more accessible by, as she put it, planning “to follow the pop charts” and embracing celebrity culture.

I don’t know why, but our relationship also changed. Smith made it clear she was no longer my guardian angel. One of the first things she said when she saw me was, “I hear your work has fallen off.” I didn’t know who might’ve told her that, but her words felt like a punch to the gut. I knew it was only a matter of time before I crashed to the canvas.

Vibe didn’t renew my contract that year, assignments slowed down, and my article about trip-hop pioneers Massive Attack kept getting pushed back until, without explanation, it got killed completely. I had learned so much at Vibe, grown as a writer, and made great friends, but it ended suddenly. I wasn’t fired, but with my stories being killed, it felt as if I was being pushed out, so  I left. I was sad for a little while until Lesley, always the bearer of common sense, said, “You act like Vibe is the only magazine you can write for; there are plenty of magazines that want your work.” Of course she was right.

Not long after, I connected with Selwyn Seyfu Hinds, The Source’s newest editor in chief. The magazine had been doing badly since all the folks I’d worked with left in 1994 after co-owner Dave Mays secretly slipped in a feature on the Almighty RSO (“Boston Bigshots”), a group he managed. I never thought it could be properly revived, but Selwyn had vision and smarts. He soon turned The Source into a major magazine, by bringing in top-tier writers, hiring a new photo editor and art director that made the publication more visually attractive. He expanded the editorial content to include superior political coverage, short fiction, and special sections.

While The Source couldn’t offer me a staff position, Hinds gave me as many assignments that I could handle. Feeling more appreciated, I was soon writing cover stories on Jay-Z, a combo on Foxy Brown and Lil Kim, Nas, LL Cool J, and Lauryn Hill. Fellow writer Amy Linden and I did the magazine’s first R&B music package where I wrote about Faith Evans and Ginuwine. As part of Hinds’s team that included Elliott Wilson, Akiba Solomon, Tracii McGregor, Carlito Rodriguez, Smokey Fontaine, P. Frank Williams, Riggs Morales, and Marcus Reeves, I was happy. Hinds stayed until October 1999, and I left in 2003.

It’s been 33 years since I wrote the Licensed to Ill review for R.W.’s fanzine, and hip-hop writers, both old and new, are still going strong. Like rap music itself, the writing has acquired global acceptance at more general magazines. Into the new millennium, the influence and inspiration of the tradition can be seen in the cultural essays of Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Doreen St. Félix. Additionally, the hip-hop aesthetic itself has bled into the fabric of various mediums including novels, film, and paintings.

As for my peers, most are still publishing. Kevin Powell and Joan Morgan both released critically acclaimed nonfiction books in 2018, while Cheo Hodari Coker, Carlito Rodriguez, dream hampton, and Sacha Jenkins are working in television and film. Although I’ve long lost interest in reading The Source, Vibe, or XXL, all three are very much alive in print or online, alongside All HipHop, The Fader, Complex, Micro-Chop, Very Smart Brothas, and Pitchfork’s recently launched hip-hop channel Levels, just to name a few.

Looking back with bliss at the 1990s hip-hop writing era and my small contribution to it, there is a sentimental pride in being a part of a generation of writers striving for change in publishing while staying true to ourselves in the texts. Beyond being a grooveable feast, we were part of a cultural movement that redefined Black artistic narratives, knocked out literary stereotypes, and wrote boldly, as though there were no limits.

***

Michael A. Gonzales writes The Blacklist book column for Catapult. He has written for The Paris Review,The Village VoicePitchforkNew York magazine, and Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop edited by Vikki Tobak. A former hip-hop journalist, his articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in The SourceRapPagesVibeEgo TripXXLComplex, and Mass Appeal. In addition, he is the co-author of Bring The Noise: A Guide to Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture (1991). Currently he is working on a hip-hop novel.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checkers: Ethan Chiel and Matt Giles