Friday, May 20, 2011

The Ebony Cat Roars: An Interview With Writer/Journalist Allen Scott Gordon (Part 1)

By the time the golden age of Hip-Hop journalism began, the golden age of rap music was already well under way.  The Source emerged during the early and mid-1990’s as the consummate hip-hop publication of its era.  It was indeed a powerhouse, boasting a plethora of talent, professionalism and journalistic integrity.  Still, it often presented a lop-sided perspective on the culture since the majority of its staff hailed from the northeastern United States.  Another voice was needed to balance things out.  Enter Bay Area native Allen Scott Gordon.

Allen Scott Gordon became a contributor to The Source just as the west coast was emerging as hip-hop’s most commercially successful region.  He possessed an intimate understanding of left coast culture coupled with formidable writing skills.  He put things into perspective for outsiders while offering relatable voice to those already in the know.  From there, Gordon went on to become editor-in-chief at the other most important hip-hop publication that time, Rap Pages.  Since then he has continued to make substantial though less celebrated contributions to the documentation of hip-hop culture.

While talking to Allen I began to realize that he possessed all that has been sorely missing from Hip-Hop journalism in the past decade: biting humor, brutal honesty, intelligence, and a clear perspective.  He’s an endangered species, but he still has the ability to strike fear in the hearts of perpetrators who dare wander into his habitat.  When the Ebony Cat roars, half assed hip-hoppers run for the hills.

Allen Scott Gordon

Scott Tre: Allen, give the readers a brief introduction of yourself.

Allen Scott Gordon: Allen Scott Gordon.  I started writing about hip-hop in a college newspaper called The Gramblingnite at Grambling State University back in ‘89.  Then a partner of mine named P.E. Cobb started a magazine after that called Rapology.  We did it for three years.  I went from there to interning at The Source in 1992.  I came back in ‘93 and ended up getting hired as a staff writer in ‘95, moved from there to Rap Pages as a music editor at first in ‘96, and then editor in chief in ‘97.  I held that position until 2000. 

From there, I did various freelance jobs and consulting.  I ended up being an associate producer on a documentary called Welcome to Death Row with Xenon Pictures and the Harris family, Michael and Lydia Harris.  Since then I’ve just been chronicling what’s going on and working on my upcoming book which is called Love, Guns, and Backpacks, which is due out in June of 2013. 

Scott Tre: What was it like working at The Source in the mid to late ‘90’s?

Allen Scott Gordon: Oh man, fantastic!  I was first there with the original Mind Squad: John Shecter, Reginald Dennis, James Bernard, Chris Wilder, Kierna Mayo, Matty Cupalongo aka Matty C, Rob Tewlow just left to get an A&R job.  Then we had freelance writers like Dream Hampton, Ronin Ro, three years later.  Bonz Malone.  Everybody that entered the magazine at that point was there prior to me being there.

Then I left for college and of course they had the break off in 1994 when Carter Harris, Rob Marriott, James Bernard, all that crew left.  Then I actually ended up coming back and there wasn’t really an editor in chief.  There was like a collective:  Bakari Kitwana, Todd Williams, Bonz Malone, Adario Strange.  Bakari had become the editor in chief.  And then it was Adario Strange.  I had decided to pursue other interests.  He would become editor in chief right before I left or after I left.  I can’t really remember.  I was off by then to Rap Pages in November of 1996.   

Scott Tre: A lot of the hip-hop publications of the time were accused of east coast bias in terms of coverage and the opinions expressed by the writers themselves.  Did you ever have any run-ins with that bias or issues with other staff members because of it? 

Allen Scott Gordon: Well that was my initial reason for wanting to write for the magazine.  I didn’t think they were biased because they hated the west coast or anything like that, even though I think some people were obviously partial to what they grew up with or what was in their area.  Nobody had really traveled anywhere.  Prior to the magazine I don’t think anybody had been to California.  It was there just because I think it was a natural reaction to not really understanding what they were listening to.  You could assess certain things, but when things became so geographically specific in terms of what you’re referencing and all that, you just might not get it.

Allen (front center) chilling with Ice Cube (far right) and friends.

Of course with that later bias, that kind of forced its way in because the popularity/rise of gangsta rap or, for lack of a better term back packer rap right now.  That’s starting to take over.  Between the press and all of the adulation that either Heiro and a lot of the Good Life MC’s like Freestyle Fellowship and Volume 10 are garnering, it was like a lot of the industry was forcing groups onto publications.  Of course, people are going to defend the stuff they like, you know.  You have an east coast MC who has yet to make it who is just getting signed, who is fighting for that kind of space in the magazine, so you know…  there might be a lean towards giving someone like the Cella Dwellas or Rumpletilskinz or any number of groups that you could name in the 90’s a little bit more shine than some of the other groups.  But mostly it centered around gangsta rap and what became popular.

Scott Tre: What was you proudest moment as a journalist?

Allen S Gordon: I’d say being the first magazine to put Outkast on the cover, and the reason why I say that is because Outkast got 4.5 mics for Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik and it probably should have got 5, because it was one of the seminal albums of all time.  But those where the arguments had by the Mind Squad at the time.  Then when ATLiens came out, I thought that deserved 5, and usually you wouldn’t think that any artist deserves 5 mics for two albums because you can only create the wheel once.  But as we found out later, Outkast, at least for the first four albums was a different group every time their album came out.  They seemed to be able to top their work and I think the only artists who were able to do that on a consistent basis, at least creatively, was De La Soul.  Outkast was right there if not doing it better at least musically at that time and they got four mics.

The November 1998 issue of Rap Pages.

They also didn’t garner enough support at the magazine, at least at The Source at the time to warrant a cover.  But that’s interesting because Georgia’s an interesting place, these guys are interesting guys and nobody really knew what to make of them.  So like their interviews in the magazines Rap Pages was like “F” all the writers were from New York. Then you had some from California who didn’t live in New York but had never left California, so that same bias extended to what they liked.  When I took over the editorship at Rap Pages, a year into that the Aquemini album was coming out.   It was like a no brainer for me to put them on the cover and we were the first ones to do that.  That still kind of stands as a memory for them and for me.

Scott Tre: Was there ever an article, interview, or review that you’re kind of embarrassed about?  That you feel you should not have put out in hindsight?

Allen S Gordon: I got two moments.  The first one was in late ‘93 or early ‘94 if I can remember correctly.  I think it was late ’93, either the winter or the fall.  It was back in San Francisco and I had attended an album release party for Paris’ Guerilla Funk.  Paris was a friend of mine prior to all the music stuff and him making it big.  I was dating his girlfriend’s sister at the time.  So I’m at the party and everything, and I felt it was right to let him know how I felt about the album prior to it coming out because I didn’t want to be part of everybody (at the time I was a Muslim so I wasn’t really drinking) eating on his dime and having fun without expressing that I wasn’t feeling the album.  There were a couple of songs I thought were cool, but trying to make G-Funk appeal more to the masses was a bad move.  I thought he was already on track and he had his own sound, so just adding that little eerie sound over the George Clinton beats was a step in the wrong direction.  It wasn’t going to garner any more support than the first two albums.

The Cover of Paris's third LP Guerrilla Funk.

 I was still in college at the time, so I sent him a copy of the review before I got back to Grambling.  It was prior to it being published I and didn’t understand what kind of problems that would cause.  So Priority records called and said that they’d got like three mics and I was basically taking them to task but tactfully, not just dissing them or anything.  So the publicist and head from Priority called and they were arguing with The Source.  So then I got a call from Reginald Dennis who was the music editor at the time and he asked me “Hey did you send Paris a copy of the interview?”  I said “Yeah” because I didn’t think anything of it.  I got read the riot act and didn’t get to do any reviews for a couple of months, like a suspension…that was a low moment for me.  First rule when it comes to entertainers, they’re not your friends.  Paris was somebody I had a relationship with prior to the music industry so I felt bad behind that.

The second one, I was in my hometown of Oakland to do an interview of Hammer around November or December of 1995.  Hammer, again, was another friend.  I was a ball boy for the Oakland A’s for a year, following him.  We knew a lot of the same people even though Hammer is like years older than me. So I went out there to do the interview because he was putting out another album.  He had separated from his brother due to some financial issues they were having.

All the rumors about Hammer’s finances were just rumors at the time.  I didn’t do any investigating, I didn’t do any extra questions, I just let Hammer tell me what it was, and I was on the grounds of the house before I asked him any questions.  I got to drive the Ferrari.  Basically I was just living the fan thing like I was somebody from E! Entertainment or something.  So I did this story and I was like “Oh, Hammers not broke.  Hammer’s doing just fine.  He’s still got this, this, this and this thing happening and blah blah blah.  A month after that story hit, all the news about Hammers finances came out and it was all true.  A foreclosure sign was slapped on the house.  The family had to move out.  It was really embarrassing.  I had written this huge puff piece.  I wasn’t gonna ask any embarrassing questions. It was Hammer!  I didn’t want to diss Hammer!


Funny thing is I got a call from a triple O.G. homie who was locked in the pen.  He was a drug dealer by the name of Darryl Reed from Oakland.  So he was gonna run me the “don’t diss Hammer” story over the phone, but not in a threatening way.  He was just letting me know what good Hammer was to the Bay Area and all that he’d done.  I already knew all this but an O.G. from my old neighborhood called! I was kind of conflicted because I was still down with that part of my life, but was a journalist/college student.  So I put out a weak puff piece…but I justified it by saying: “It’s well written.”  That shit didn’t have any journalistic integrity to it at all.  Then of course three days later it’s getting bashed and slathered all over the place because I wrote this puffy ass piece that had not one bit of truth to it.  It was all about his finances and what not.  After that I was like: “Okay, never again.”    After that it didn’t matter if it was WC, DJ Quik, Cube, Redman or whoever. I would be honest with them up front, right then and there.  Then I’d ask the questions that had to be asked and not worry about how they felt.

Scott Tre: So being that your originally from Oakland, and you have a lot of insider information and knowledge on the west coast rap scene, what would you say was the biggest misconception about that scene during its heyday in the 90’s?

Allen S. Gordon: The biggest misconception about west coast rap in the 1990’s was that it was all the same.  That was what I would hear from a lot of other writers whether they worked for The Source or not.  They’d say “Man that shit all sounds the same.”  I’m wondering how’d you come to that conclusion.  That rap didn’t fall on any group harder than it fell on Above the Law, because everybody looked at Above the Law like another N.W.A.  The clear distinction between the two was that N.W.A was like youthful gangbanging music but kind of explanatory.  Eazy was what he rapped about, with the sex and the drug dealing and all that kind of stuff no matter who was writing the rhymes for him.  But that was from a young, gang neighborhood perspective whereas Above the Law’s album was a much more mature album from a bunch of hustlers.  They weren’t into gangbanging.  They were into selling dope but not on the corner.  They were pushing weight.  When you listen to the song everything is sophisticated.  They’re talking about Courvoisier, XO, high top shelf liquor.  They didn’t talk about wearing khakis and Chucks, they talked about wearing tailored suits.  Shit that only that breed of hustler can afford.  These are guys who were at the time making money like that.  They weren’t small timers, they had been at one point, but they weren’t small timers prior to that album coming out. Their mentality was different.  If you look at the album cover they are on the steps of L.A. County court.  They have on suits with the godfather hats and canes… certain rings that regular drug dealers don’t wear.  Regular drug dealers were wearing the gold nugget rings or the four fingered rings.  These guys had like the princess cut diamonds on their pinky, all the old player shit.  That was a big difference, and the album spoke of a different maturity.

The Cover of Above the Law's debut LP Livin' Like Hustlers.

People couldn’t see the different styles in rap from Spice-1 to Ice Cube to a Jayo Felony.  Jayo Felony doesn’t sound like anybody.  But he got lumped in as just another gangsta rapper. There’s a clear difference between say, Warren G or Jayo Felony or The Twins or the Dove Shack or any of the LBC crew that came after Snoop.  The same thing goes for Spice-1 and C-Bo, or Richie Rich or Seagram who are actually from the Bay area. 

That’s the other thing about West Coast rap is that it seemed like it was all in one place, not knowing that the Bay area is completely different from Los Angeles, Compton, or Watts.  Even in the Bay area, Oakland is different than San Francisco, San Francisco is different than Richmond, Richmond is different than Vallejo, Vallejo is different from Sacramento.  It’s not just one homogenous sound or one homogenous type of vibe.  It’s like eight different vibes and four different places. 

Scott Tre: What do you think ultimately lead to the downfall of the West Coast dynasty?

Allen Scott Gordon: The ultimate downfall came from the over saturation of groups at one point and the over saturation of a certain sound.  Once The Chronic hit and influenced so many people, a lot of them groups started changing their music and trying to be Dre-esque (laughs).  They figured that was the way to get more radio play or to sell more records and that ruined it because the hallmark of the west coast sound at its height was the individuality it had.  It went from the production of Digital Underground and Shock G, to the various guys who produced the 2pac records, to EA-Ski to Ant Banks who produced most of the Dangerous Crew stuff, DJ Silk and the various producers on Jayo Felony’s album.  Compton’s Most Wanted with DJ Slip.  To DJ Unknown, to the various guys who put together the King T albums like DJ Pooh, J-Ro, E-Swift.  You basically had a diverse amount of talent all throughout California which would later extend to Seattle as a west coast hot bed as well.

The popularity of The Chronic lead other west coast artists to copy it's sound and style.

When everybody started trying to make the G-Funk sound it just kind of ruined things, because now everything sounded the same.  There was like this wave of Dr. Dre knock off music.   Of course, some of the groups weren’t as talented as they would like to think and people didn’t buy their records.  Not just people across the country, but people who were right there in their own backyard.  It was like an oversaturation of gangsta stuff.  Especially when it came to a lot of Los Angeles area rap you had eight or nine motherfuckers from the same hood rapping about the same shit.  The only thing that whittled it all down were cats who were the most talented making the best records.  You might have a cat like Mac-10 who has the most basic rap talent, but made some really good records.  He never disturbed the beat, he always had knockin’ beats.  The way he flows over a song, whether he’s talking about something involving drugs or your basic one two one two rap, he’s never out of pocket so he doesn’t disturb the beat.  But at the same time, you might not be getting anything that’s overly impressive lyrically.  So depending on what you like, it’ll either fall in your lap or fall through your lap.  There were a bunch of guys who didn’t have the talent of a Mack-10 and the beats weren’t good either, so that kind of fell through.

We got very trendy out here too. Everybody had some guest appearances from either some national artist or a bunch of local motherfuckers.  Then was like all this unremarkable music coming out for a while.  So it’s like “Oh, so-and-so’s album featuring O.G. Henny Loc and Monster Crack” or whatever their rap name was and the shit was just unremarkable.  You’re like what the fuck is this?  At the same time, a lot of the southern stuff was incredible.  For shit to move and sound that way was easy to follow, because they were talking about some of the same gangster shit but it was from their perspective.  And the music was just as good if not better than G-Funk because you got guys who grew up in high school bands and had a better understanding of the music they were making and everybody was different.  Your 8ball and MJG’s were different than your Scarfaces who were different from your South Circles and Mr. Mikes and the whole Rap-A-Lot crew and Suave House.  When New Orleans artists hit, it first started with Master P then you got that look at that other New Orleans when Cash Money was getting it.  So musically you couldn’t compete with that.  “Back That Azz Up” for example; you play that anywhere in the United States you’ll see asses start shaking.

Southern artists like 8Ball and MJG took the west coast gangsta aesthetic in bold new directions, creating a uniquely southern brand of gangsta music.

Again, with a lot of the west coast music, especially gangsta rap, it became more and more stylized to be gangbanging music, so it’s just a bunch of niggas standing around,  and it wasn’t danceable.  So you eliminate the female factor enjoying your music because one: they can’t dance to it, and two: they’re being berated!  You have: “Yeah bitch, suck my dick!  Yeah, fuck a bitch in the ass,” over a beat!  Alright, now you can do it like Snoop with “Ain’t no fun if the homeys can’t have none” which is about running trains on chicks.  It’s so melodic and sweet, you can dance to it and the girls would sing it.  Some of the staunchest feminists liked that song.  It’s a guilty pleasure because it’s so melodic and danceable.  In contrast you may listen to somebody who’s talented like Yukmouth, but his shit is not danceable.  He has a tale about how a bitch sucks his dick and it’s like “Well why do I want to listen to that?”  It’s not appealing me at all, especially on a musical level because a lot of the innovations of west coast hip-hop have a lot to do with how good the music is.  So when the music is about five niggas holding they dicks standing on the corner or riding in the back of a Chevy, that shit sound a little gay.  That’s that prison mentality.

Yukmouth is a talented lyricist who's music isn't suited for all tastes.

People might laugh at that shit, but when you go back and listen to those records watch how shit changed from using musical Barry White samples, shit that everybody can get into, to more stylized and strictly gangbang, mob, or dope fiend music. It ceased to be engaging to women.  Only cats like Too $hort or E-40 kept a track that women could get into on the record. There was also a time when music changed with the style of dance that was popular, and by the kind of drugs people are taking.  When everybody was smoking weed and just laid back the music was all about two stepping and just being real chill.  After that it evolved to accompany sitting in your car smoked out, not being able to dance at all… like: “Yeah man, I can ride to this.”  Then you listen to the lyrics on some these records and it’s like: “Yeah this is something to ride to.”  So everybody’s riding, hollering at a chick from the car.  Nah nigga, get the fuck out the car and talk to her. 

I think that a lot of the music focused on the car culture, and just bumping it in a car riding around with a bunch of dudes, and women were just like an object for after eating, something like an afterthought, a prop.  Then the problem with the music later on was everybody started making their club songs.  Like “Yeah, this is the song for the bitches, this is the song for the clubs.” And that shit was whack, whack as a song idea.  Now it served its purpose as something to dance to, but it’s not giving people something to live with.  Like one of Cubes songs: “We Be Clubbing.”  There’s a beat, there’s a few of lines in there that are cool, but ultimately it’s not a song that I would want to hear if I wasn’t in a club.  And that’s the other aspect of that. 

You don’t see motherfuckers just riding down the street playing European Trance music.  You hear that shit coming out of a box Chevy or a ‘64 Impala you’ll be like: “Man that motherfucker gay.”  Not that there’s anything wrong with being gay, but that’s how you would look at it. It just doesn’t fit.  That’s some shit that you would play if you were living in Hollywood and you were just coming back from a rave.  If you were on speed or ecstasy, that’s how you get down.

Death Certificate bridged the gap between gangsta music and conscious rap, showing how both sub-genres complemented each other perfectly.

We started pigeonholing ourselves, our sound and our perspective.  Take the perspective of gangsta rap for example.  If you listen to Above the Law, N.W.A, early WC and the Maad Circle, Spice-1, 415, (the first album not the second album) you couldn’t talk about gangsta shit without talking about politics, which obviously is a big influence from Public Enemy because they go hand in hand.  Politics of the time would dictate what type of gangsta shit went on.  If motherfuckers don’t show up to vote and stricter laws against carrying drugs or guns are made, then that dictates what goes on in the streets.  Then you had fewer jobs because they were moving overseas, people lacked good educations because the public schools sucked and the parents gave up.  All those socio-political factors affected what happened on the streets…especially the effects of dope moving across the border freely into the black and Latino neighborhoods.  So the music stopped reflecting that and it was a celebration of dope like “Oh my God, on the seventh day God created cocaine and said ‘Sell dope’ to niggas.’” 

When the music started reflecting that, you got artists like Young Jeezy. That first album from him is incredible.  I had a disagreement about that album with a buddy of mine, Marcus Reeves.  He was like, “That’s the worst shit ever.”  I was like “Yo, this is fantastic.”  One because it was really good, but it was like this young cat on a record from that era, as being a child of the drug scene of the eighties who grew and has nothing but celebration, pays homage to the dope game like “fuck the history and what people are going through or the fact that you’re living off somebody’s misery.”  Coke was like a blessing.  That was like an actual occupation that you could have while you were growing up.  You wanna be a fireman?  You wanna be a lawyer?  Or you wanna be a dope dealer?  That album is unabashedly celebrating the dope game.  I said there had to come a time where there was going to be an individual who was going to make an album like that.  Not that he sought to do that, but that’s who he was at the time.  You give a shout out to all your dope dealers.  There’s no emotion. There’s no regret for the whole thing.  It’s just: “Man, this is the greatest shit ever and fuck anybody who doesn’t think so!  Dope fiends are meant to be sold dope to.  That’s the way it goes.”

Young Jeezy's first album Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101.

West coast gangsta rap basically cleared the cannon for that, not on a social level but musically.  That’s where a lot of the later records were going in terms of selling dope and killing motherfuckers.  Like that’s the way shit’s supposed to be.  It didn’t have a conscience anymore.  Everybody was trying to sell records and they figured that that level of conversation was what sold the records.  They sold a fantasy, and all these white kids in the suburbs bought into that whole fucking myth.  Like white people are just dumb and they just listen to the records and don’t understand what they’re listening to.  They do understand what they’re listening to.  They might not be there, but they understand that yeah, there’s fantasy here and there’s an element of reality but for them it’s just entertainment.  But the artists bought into a lot of the hype from mainstream media that was passed in through the publicists, the A&R’s and the record labels. According to them, these are elements that you’ve got to have in your records: you’ve got to talk about guns.  You’ve got to talk about stories about serving dope on the block.  These motherfuckers fell for that shit and that became the basis for a lot of their albums. 

How does everyone on their albums sell dope so freely without ever getting busted?  If you sold all this cocaine and all this cocaine is being sold, what are the repercussions of all this?  Who’s made a song about a dope fiend, where’s the dope fiend anthem?  Where’s a “Blues for Nino” or a “Shante’s Blues”, about all these families broken up?  There’re no stories about that.  The last bastion of that might have been DJ Quik’s personal testimonies on his albums about his family, like Trauma.  WC and the Maad Circle always put a song like that on their albums because that’s who they are and they can’t separate that element from themselves because they are interested and aware of what’s going on in the neighborhood, even if it’s not gonna sell records.  After a while it ceased to be about art and it started to be about hitting numbers.  “We need a gold record from you.”  What motherfucker at the record company can tell you what a gold record is or is not gonna be, unless they’re shaping it in the same mold as something else.  Then it ceases to be art and you’re putting out cookie cutter music.  I think that’s the point that a lot of west coast rap got to, and I think it was endemic of a lot of stuff.  It was endemic of New York music for a while, where people were trying to emulate the formula but not necessarily the style of Bad Boy or Wu-Tang.  The only person it really worked for was Jay-Z, not that everybody in Roc-a-Fella does it.  I think that Memphis Bleek is actually a pretty dope rapper, but not over those type of tracks. He’s just not gonna be a pop star, even though he got the matinee idol look , a young black dude that can sell to females.  But the doo-rags and baseball caps just look corny.  And the music wasn’t befitting of his talent.  Then there was Beanie Siegel, and everyone else on Roc-A-Fella except for Kanye and Jay.  Jay can fit into anything, but Kanye’s music definitely fits him.  It’s very emotional.  It can be hard sometimes, very frustrating, or soft…he’s everything.  He’s the entire spectrum of a young black dude with a lot of direction and sometimes with no direction.  The shit ends up being dope even though I never thought he was the best rapper because he’s got a weird voice, that weird cadence.  But subject matter wise he’s dope.    

I think we pigeonholed ourselves into a few different categories and ultimately it was oversaturation of: the style of music, the subject matter or lack thereof, which gave rise to the underground backpack scene on the west coast.  It made your Souls of Mischief more interesting.  It opened up a big avenue for a group like Jurassic 5 to be as popular as they were at one point, or Blackalicious, Lateef the Truth Speaker, Lyrics Born and DJ Shadow, the rise of turntablism.  California’s a place of extremes where we’re all kind of together racially, at least in the Bay area.  We’re more racially diverse and united than L.A. or anywhere else like Seattle or Portland.  So you had a bunch of fans who didn’t want to be around the gangster element. Those fans had music that was, I don’t want to say tailored for them, but they found artists who made the music they wanted to make, and they found a niche that appreciates it.

Stay Tuned for Part 2!

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