Rap Genius of the Month: Touré

By:

In a world where finding and maintaining relevance as a hip-hop journalist is tougher than leather, Touré has elevated himself to be one of the most admired writers in the business. Over the course of his career he has written music features for well esteemed publications such as Rolling Stone and The New Yorker and has published one novel, one collection of short stories, and his most recent entry dealing with the meaning and understanding of African American culture titled Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to Be Black Now.

Touré possesses traits that many journalists can only dream to have, but one of his greatest strengths is his ability to tell the headlining story, a skill that has fueled his career ever since 1992, when he was a young feature writer for Rolling Stone. Inspired by the booming ascension of hip-hop in the early decade, Touré sought to capture the lives of the artists who he believed were producing an inextricable impact on the genre. Touré’s warm demeanor and gregarious personality have made him fairly approachable—and more often than not, artists haven’t too reticent to bring him along on their adventures.

Given his many years of experience in the journalism and entertainment field, Touré has participated in an innumerable amount of interviews, both as the interviewer and interviewee. His track record as an interviewee includes appearances on CNN, NPR Radio, and HBO show Real Time With Bill Maher. Given Touré’s know-how of the Q & A, when I speak with him over the phone, he sounds coolly comfortable and rarely needs to pause before answering my questions—it’s almost as if we’ve already rehearsed them beforehand. He speaks with an erudite confidence that can only be acquired from years of perfecting his craft.

Rap Genius: Hip-hop has always been your music genre of choice. How do you connect with it personally?

Touré: Hip-hop, at the beginning, is what the men of my generation are doing with their lives. I remember the first time I heard “Rapper’s Delight” on the radio when it was first coming out and I was like, “Oh my God! What is this?” I remember men talking about “The Message” and I remember people talking about Run-D.M.C. It’s just what black men of my peer group, slightly older and slightly younger, are doing with our lives and how we’re expressing ourselves, and I feel a deep kinship and connection to what’s going on in hip-hop that I don’t quite feel with R&B or rock & roll. There are R&B artists who I loved more and more, especially from the past, like the 60s and 70s. There are rock groups that I love. But I feel very connected to hip-hop, I feel very close to hip-hop, and very protective of it. I feel deeply able to understand it and I can listen to a hip-hop song and very quickly understand its depth or lack thereof and explain to people why this song really matters or really doesn’t matter. I’ve been with hip-hop and watched it develop, which is a really extraordinary gift in terms of the time I’ve lived through—to be able to see hip-hop from the beginning.

I remember going into this record store in Mattapan called Skippy White’s, which is a really small record store. They had mostly cassettes and some vinyl, and the hip-hop section was small. The reggae section was twice as big as the hip-hop section and the R&B section was much bigger. But I didn’t care about any of those—I just went straight to the hip-hop section and looked at that and thought: what do they have that’s new and that I haven’t heard yet? The guy behind the counter knew my dad, he was cool, kind of looked like Rick Rubin. He would let me hold a tape for several days before deciding to buy it. If I didn’t want to buy it, I would give it back to him. So he would let me listen to it before buying it which was an extraordinary gift because it allowed me the freedom to just try, try, try. I got to watch hip-hop grow up and develop from this small, New York street thing to something national and far more complex in terms of every level musically, socially, intellectually, everything. It became international, this behemoth— this thing that defined my generation musically.

—Skippy White’s, one of Touré’s favorite record stores growing up, is still around today.

RG: You’ve written several cover stories over the years about famous rappers like Snoop Dogg, Eminem, and Jay-Z. If you had to pick a favorite feature article of yours, which one would it be?

T: I can’t pick one, and part of me never wants to think that my best work is in the past. I always want to think that my next one is my most important one— the next one has to be better than all the rest. If the one I’m doing now isn’t my best of all-time, then something is wrong. So it’s hard to pick a favorite, but there was a Jay-Z story that I enjoyed doing. We hung out in the office, we hung out in the Hamptons, we drove around in the Maybach, we visited Beyoncé in the studio, and when you see a lot of somebody you kind of get to know them. So we spent a weekend in the Hamptons and had a night playing cards with his boys for a lot of money.

But there was this Snoop Dogg story I did for Rolling Stone where I got tremendous access. I didn’t ask him to drive me to his home— I never ask that since they so rarely say yes— but we went to his youth football practice for his youth football league that he takes very seriously. After that, we go into his Porsche, and he’s steering with his knees as he’s rolling a blunt with his hands and then he starts smoking it as we’re going.

Then he drives into this residential neighborhood and I’m like “where the heck are we?” But I’m not going to ask questions, I’m just happy to be spending time with him. So then we pull up to this little one-level unassuming ranch house that did not look like anything superstarish at all and then he’s like: “This is my house.”

And then we’re walking through the house and shows me the living room and you know, his sons are laying on the couch and had basically taken over the room. And he’s like “yeah, I used to hang out here, but you know—they took it over.” How typical a story for so many American dads who have lost the control of the living room to their kids?

Also, I covered 2Pac and his Manhattan sexual assault trail when he got shot. I saw him a lot at the trial from the early days when there were hardly any reporters around. I remembered watching him get wheeled in to the trial after he got shot. It was an epic story and an epic situation.

—2Pac being wheeled into court during his 1994 trial

RG: Do you think that when profiling an artist, it is better to lie low in the background or get actively involved in responding to what the artist is saying or doing?

T: It’s gotta be both. There is time to ask questions and sort of shape the moment because you’re asking them questions and there’s times when you have to be a fly on the wall and let the moment develop as it would organically. You’ll get a story from them by asking questions and you’ll get a story from by listening and laying back and being able to get the sort of portraits that come from just viewing the artist.

I think of moments that I’ve created by asking questions. You know, I’m with Kanye West, and he’s showing off his new Jesus piece to Jay-Z, and I say to Kanye, ‘that is a white Jesus. What’s up with that?’ Jay-Z at first was like, “Oh yeah, that’s cool.” And then I’m like, “White Jesus, yeah, isn’t that kind of whack?” and he’s like “Aw, yeah man! I was gonna say something man, what’s up with that, man?” You know, it just made the moment, and if I just sat there and said nothing, it would have been just Jay-Z commenting on Kanye’s new jewelry.

But there have been other moments where nothing need be said. I remember being with 50 Cent, and he was showing off this bulletproof vest that he bought for his son. And you know, nothing need be said. I just laid back and watched as he showed it off to his friends.

50 Cent enjoys rocking the bulletproof vest…

RG: In regards to your latest book, Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?, you defined post-blackness as a term that “defines artists who are proud to be black but don’t want to be limited by identity politics and boxed in by race.” How do you believe that this concept of post-blackness can relate to hip-hop?

T: Well, what I see with hip-hop is that there has been a broadening of identity, the sort of black man we see via hip hop. If I look at hip-hop in the 80s, I see it had a very narrow vision as to what it meant to be black. They (rappers) were all from New York, they were all straight, and they were all street wise. But now there’s many regions (where hip-hop exists) and there is a number of classes where hip-hop is represented. You look at guys like Kanye, Kid Cudi, and Andre 3000. They’re not pretending to come from the hood, they’re presenting themselves as something different than that. Add that on top of the multiple classes of hip-hop, from the newer rappers who don’t have much to Jay-Z and Kanye West who have a ton of money and are wealthy. So there’s multiple classes in hip-hop, from where you come from to where you reach. At the same time, there is large and sizable gay underground and there are openly gay rappers. So if hip-hop were a person and you asked it now what it means to be black, it would have a much broader and complex answer than it would have had in 1983.

RG: It seems that these days, you are busier than ever with a hectic schedule, yet still strive to spend time with your family. What is the driving force that keeps you focused to lead a balanced life?

T: I love having the ability to talk to people and express an opinion on things that matter to people, but then I also love taking care of my family. When you have children you become much more selfless. Even the things that you did previously for egotistical reasons become sort of sublimated into the idea that you have to take care of your family and provide for your kids.