An Interview with Toure
Prince plays basketball. When doing so, he wears a tight, almost sheer, long-sleeved black top, tight black pants and red and white Nike Air Force high-tops. We know this because writer Touré, after a face-to-face interview with The Artist left, “feeling used,” so he emailed His Purpleness and asked to play one-on-one. Touré, a Rolling Stone contributing editor, has also ran sprints with tennis star Jennifer Capriati, swirled 180° at full speed in a black Escalade driven by rapper DMX, and held hands before a concert with soul singer D’Angelo—all to report a deeper story than the ring-kissing or dunce-capping of artists that often passes for entertainment journalism.
“I told myself that I would write about hip hop with the goal of expanding the complexity of the conversation about the culture,” Touré writes in Never Drank the Kool-Aid, his 2006 debut essay collection that reads like a thinking man’s journey through hip hop culture. A prep school grad and college dropout, 36-year-old Touré is perhaps the most visible of a generation of writers who chronicled hip hop’s takeover of America. His articles and criticism have appeared in The Village Voice, Vibe, Playboy, The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Best American Essays among others. He’s crossed over to TV, becoming CNN’s first pop culture correspondent, working the red carpet for BET and (this February 20th at 8pm) hosting his new show, I’ll Try Anything Once, on Treasure HD. He is the author of the novel Soul City and the short story collection, The Portable Promised Land.
I hooked up with Touré one night via email. It was close to the holidays and he’d recently become a father. Life was good, and time, short. I took what I could get.
In the spirit of hip hop, here’s a November Huffington Post call out from Orlando Lima, former Vibe executive editor: “I’m contemplating a comeback from retirement because Touré, Wilbekin, Light, Smith and these other public hip hop experts are sitting on their asses while the [Jason] Whitlocks of the world run roughshod over my culture.” What is your responsibility to hip hop?
Hip hop is bigger than all of its defenders and detractors. Neither I nor Danyel [Smith, current Vibe editor in chief], Alan [Light, Vibe cofounder and editor of Tupac Shakur and The Vibe History of Hip Hop] or anyone has to defend hip hop on CNN or Fox or Oprah every time someone who doesn’t understand hip hop bashes it. Whitlock is not a serious threat. Nor is O’Reilly or anyone like him. Those of us who love and understand hip hop don’t listen to them and those who listen to them didn’t understand our culture before.
What’s the serious threat then?
Insiders. Terrible, uncreative rappers, lame producers, execs who just throw whatever into the marketplace, fans who don’t love hip hop but buy it anyway, magazines that cover it uncritically and thoughtlessly—they’re corrupting hip hop not demanding quality and complexity.
So Orlando’s being a dick.
I don’t think OJ’s a dick, not at all. He’s got a right to say whatever he likes. That said, no one’s waiting around to hear what he’s got to say about anything. He can come out of retirement. I’m not sure anyone would notice. I didn’t even know he’d retired. Or that he was writing important work in the first place.
Is hip hop dead?
The political spine that once existed has been lost and hip hop has not developed the emotional complexity I expected. You can hear about the human heart in rock, in soul music. Hip hop isn’t yet doing that. But hip hop isn’t dead.
You’re not convincing me.
I had a great year listening to hip hop so clearly it’s not dead. We had great albums from Jay-Z and Kanye and MIA and Ghostface and several Wayne mixtapes. Wayne’s album is still to come and the new Nas is around the corner. I’m happy with some of hip hop nowadays. But I’m also eager for the rest of the world to have an impact on American hip hop. Once we get British, Japanese, Brazilian, French, and Puerto Rican rappers making songs that matter here, the sound will broaden. The rock we hear in this country is international, why isn’t hip hop?
The better question perhaps: Is hip hop relevant?
Hip hop in the 80s was politically relevant, was countercultural, and sometimes rappers even got on TV shows like Nightline to defend the culture. We’re not doing that nowadays for many reasons but I don’t think that means it’s dead.
You once wrote that a friend said, “Milton Academy teaches you to be white….Coming here as a Black child…[is] like learning to put your head in the lion’s mouth so deep that you forget how to live outside it.” It’s 1992, nearly 40% of young black men are unemployed, about one in 20 black men is in jail and yet, you’re about to drop out of college and intern at Rolling Stone. At that time, how did Milton influence the man you wanted to be?
Milton taught me to be intelligent, unabashedly so, and how to learn anything I want to learn, and also to be unafraid of white people and their gifts or power. I’m now able to move easily between cultures, to talk about hip hop at the NY Times or CNN because I’m comfortable in the two languages.
Why would black Gen X’ers be afraid of white people? Viral lynchings, little black girls bombed, fire hoses, dogs, Bull Connor, crowds hurling blobs of spit at students—that’s all over.
I don’t know but some black people continue to hold white people in high esteem. We need to remember they’re not a bit better than us. There’re just more of them in this country.
What’s on your work desk?
Right now there’s the new Radiohead In Rainbows bonus album, the Thriller 25th anniversary disc, some pens and post-its, the house phone, my BlackBerry, my iPhone, my iPod Touch, the digital Leica I bought to photograph my son, Hendrix, who’s now five weeks old and sleeping on my chest, the latest New Yorker, the latest New York, a vinyl copy of Songs In the Key of Life, Junot Diaz’s novel, Philip Roth’s I Married A Communist, Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought, and my Mac.
Speaking of Diaz, where do you situate yourself in the pantheon of modern authors—from Ralph Ellison to Claude Brown to Michael Thomas—who illuminate the black male experience?
I don’t. First, that’s for other people to do. Second, I haven’t done enough fiction to be considered. I need to get one or two more novels out before people can really understand who I’m trying to be as a novelist. There’re a lot of changes I’d make to Soul City if I had to do it over again and I think when my next book comes out people will see that I’ve developed a lot as a novelist.
I heard that your next novel will be about Jesus’s brother?
I’m working on two books but it’s too early to talk about either of them publicly.
You weren’t feeling Barack Obama back in 2004 but voting for him is kinda like voting for you—or at least, your kind. You both went to prep school, you both belong to the Talented Tenth and you’re both liked by mad white people. What’s ‘undermoving,’ as you wrote, about a brother like that taking over the Oval Office?
I’ve always felt Barack, I’ve always liked Barack. Back then he seemed to have a long way to go as a Black man who went to Harvard and did drugs in the past. I didn’t think he could win but now that the race has come into focus, he’s got a very strong chance to win the nomination and the Presidency. He’s run a smart campaign, raised a ton of money, and gotten much of the country behind him.
What’s special about this particular black man?
Barack’s the sort of black person who’s going to succeed among white people. He doesn’t bang a gong about his blackness, doesn’t wear it on his sleeve, doesn’t remind white people about their racial guilt or the morass of race in America the way Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton do. I thought the first black President would be someone black people hate the way we’re disgusted by Clarence Thomas, Alan Keyes, and Condi Rice, but I’d be delighted to see Barack win. And those who think he’s not really black are totally wrong. He’s very black, he just doesn’t go around screaming it. But he’s very cool and laid back in a way that recalls a 50s or 60s era jazz-inflected blackness (or in what you see in Jay-Z) as opposed to a 60s R&B-influenced blackness, that ‘I’m black and I’m proud’ sort of thing that you see in Jesse and Rev. Al.
What do you think of Hillary’s chances?
Hillary once seemed inevitable to many but I never believed that and now she’s extremely vulnerable. Right now Hillary, Edwards, and Barack are polling even in Iowa and anyone can win this thing. The Republicans are all weak candidates so I think the Democratic primary will determine the next President.
If your as-yet-unborn daughter were to dig up a time capsule with the five albums or tracks that best represent where you came from and the path that you traveled, what would they be?
She could listen to Rakim to get a sense of early hip hop and the lyrical zenith of hip hop. De La Soul would give her a sense of where I came from, who I was as a young man, a boho, suburban, free thinking black man. Radiohead would give her a sense of the depth of me and my love of intellectual art. Jay-Z would give her a sense of me as a grown man, full of self-confidence and self-certainty. And Prince would give her a sense of me as a bi-cultural, sexual and sensual man who strives to be the best at everything he does.
Your new reality show, “I’ll Try Anything Once” sounds slightly Jackass-ish. How is getting the shit knocked out of you by women football players all that different?
The show was pitched to me as an intellectual version of Jackass. The thing is, unlike Jackass where they do stupid shit just to do it, my show is much more anthropological. I’m diving into why people are passionate about the things they do and who they are as people. The women’s football episode was great in part because it laid bare that once we put on pads and a helmet we’re all just football players. If you get knocked into by a man who weighs x it’s not much different than getting tackled by a woman who weighs x. I wasn’t the biggest or the strongest person on the field so I had to forget that I was playing with women and just play. Each episode is crazy. I did a demolition derby in rural Indiana, I was a rodeo clown in Wyoming, plucked a snake out of a pool with my bare hand, battled 60,000 bees, did movie stuntman training, lots of insanity.
You requested an email interview yet you’re a journalist best known for making the most of face time. What’s up with making me play Touré to your The Artist Formerly Known As Prince?
That’s funny, but this is not the same rigamarole I went through with Prince. An email interview allows me to slot you into my crazy schedule––ie, I can answer the questions when I have time rather than squeezing you into a day where I don’t really have the time. But also, an email interview allows me to more carefully consider what I’m saying. I’m a writer first and foremost and I can give really good answers at the computer.