Talking About Music with Toure
New York City, New York
While I was interning in the marketing department at Rolling Stone I started reading articles written by Toure. His magazine pieces appealed to me naturally in that he mostly covered hip hop and soul music, which I am very fond of. One day I emailed him out of the blue to ask him about writing. He wrote back and I started going to his events whenever he would release a book, such as his latest, Never Drank the Kool-Aid. Toure has been more than gracious throughout the years with me in talking about his craft as a music journalist and author. Not only that but his writing does everything that great writing should in provoking thought and creating new worlds. The Career Cookbook is thrilled to share Toure's ideas on becoming a better writer and finding work as a journalist. Read on to find out why he'll ask just about anything in an interview and where he sees hip-hop heading.
*This interview contains explicit language.*
CCB: I read in an interview that you didn’t decide to be a writer, but “gravitated” towards it. What appeals to you about writing that pulled you into it?
T: It was such a fundamental decision to be a writer. It’s a lot of thought, a lot of contemplation, and a lot of dropping your anchor deep in one place rather than doing shallow thinking. Also one thing that I loved about being a writer from the beginning is that there is a clear body of literature about how to be a better writer. I always work well in situations where I can acquire learning about subjects. When I was in high school I read a bunch of books about backgammon, tennis. I was into boxing for awhile but there is very little writing on how to be a better boxer. Obviously there is more writing on how to be a better writer than on any other subject. That and also that writing gives you a concrete sense of what you’ve done. You write something and there it is. You’ve built a building or something. Then you move. You look back ten years and think, what have I done? I have a mountain of stuff that I’ve done rather than another job where each day erases the previous day and there is no sense of moving forward. There is a record that you’ve created something.
CCB: What was your big break into writing? Is this being allowed to do a record review after being fired as an intern at Rolling Stone?
T: That definitely made a big difference creating that relationship and being able to get a record review and another and another. It’s hard to say one big break because at the time it doesn’t feel that way. Looking back there are several moments. I mean getting my first story in The Source was a bit of a break because then I went from having no bylines to having one, which was a huge difference. Somebody at The Sourcerecommended me for a Village Voice byline so that helped moving me into the Village Voice family. One of my stories in the Village Voice the guy at Rolling Stone saw it and thought, “Oh, you can write. I’ll give you a chance.” The Village Voice thing makes the Rolling Stone thing possible. I met someone at The New Yorker, did some Talk of the Town stories. Just being in Talk of the Town really galvanized what people thought. I was working on a story for them, the Dick Griffey story in Never Drank the Kool-Aid and the story was rejected. That also became a big break because it was kind of the end of my New Yorkercareer, but I said I need to go and do graduate school. Really learn as much as I can about writing. Then I went to Columbia. I wouldn’t have thought I need to do that if that story got published. But it didn’t and it pushed me. There I learned how to write fiction and that took me in another direction.
CCB: How did your graduate studies at Columbia University help structure your writing?
T: They go through lots of different facets of writing. You are talking to professors. You are getting critiqued by your peers. You are reading things you probably would not have read. I remember some E.B. White stuff and George Orwell as well. I would have never read Orwell. Or the professor having us read and deconstruct Isherwood or whoever. Look how the first word has this symmetry with the final word. Look at the tone, how he uses this word to change the tone. Different ways of approaching characters, stories, and details.
CCB: You’d never really written fiction prior to that?
T: I’d never been able to write a short story. I didn’t have any idea how to do it. I had tried once or twice, but I’d only been doing Meta stories. I would only do a couple of sentences and the words would be complaining about the stories that they were in. It’s not a real story. (Animated) Like Bill woke up and he said, “Oh my god! I’m going to kill someone today!” Once I got to school they showed me how to take some of things I already knew and some of the other things I needed to know to be able to write fiction.
CCB: Why were you such a lousy intern?
T: Because I saw quite clearly from the beginning that the internship program was not constructed to help us become writers. It wasn’t about us moving towards us being part of the situation. It was just about us being a free labor force. So from the beginning I was like screw these duties. My real job here is to get into this little system, family, whatever. I was clear with people what I wanted. I wanted to be a writer. How do you become a writer?
CCB: Can you talk about being a freelance writer (For about six years) and how you would find work?
T: It’s a very tenuous world. Where you know if you get complacent today it’s not a problem. I could sit around a whole week, but a few months from now I’d be broke and I couldn’t do anything about it. So, there is a constant state of anxiety. It was about coming up with ideas, pitching them. If this person doesn’t like it, pitch to somebody else. If they don’t like it find somebody else. It’s about having many different places that you could work for. So, that if one editor gets deposed or they decide they don’t like you anymore or they already have somebody to write about the subject you want to write about, you can go to somebody else. As a freelancer you want to do so much for a publication so that you start to feel like family. Part of that is pitching them lots and kind of being in their face. Go by the office every once in awhile. If I hadn’t been in the office in two months I would just go to the office and say hi to everybody. Just to be remembered, not forgotten. The more ideas that you can come up with the better off you will be, no doubt.
CCB: How were you making those contacts? Cold calls?
T: A lot of those were cold calls. I met the guy from the NY Times because the publicist introduced us. I created enough of a relationship with her that she trusted me to do that. New Yorker, Esquire were through cold calls. I knew the editor at George through Rolling Stone. I called him like thirty times over two months. Got no answer, no answer. Finally he said the person you need to talk to is… I never got upset, never got testy about him not calling me back. I really wanted to write about politics and had never had that opportunity. After you’ve created enough of a name some people are coming to you. In some situations people know you already. I got a lot out of cold calling. But you have to cold call with an idea. A lot of people talk to me about getting in and they seem to want to cold call about themselves. I’m a writer. Good for you. It doesn’t mean they are going to give you an assignment. If you cold call and say, “Hey, I found out about this incredible underworld and the situation is… and it’s perfect for this magazine and I’m going to write a kick-ass story.” Now it’s like, who are you? Let’s talk. We want to get to know you.
CCB: A lot of it is just persevering?
T: Definitely. There are one hundred writers trying to get their attention. This is not a hobby. A lot of people look at this as something to do in addition to other things they are doing. It can’t be like that. You may cold call and not get anyone, but six months, twelve months down the line they might remember your name or you hit with the right idea and they are willing to listen to you. How do you get that sort of time, those twelve months to elapse for the magazine you really want to be writing for caring about you? Because you are working for other magazines. They see you in other places. You are still in the game, plugging away, getting better. If you have good story ideas for fun, exciting stories it’s hard to be stopped if they really fit the magazine that you are approaching.
CCB: What is your current life like as a writer?
T: I don’t get to do as much magazine writing as I would like. I’m trying to finish a novel. That was like the first three months of the year and December too just working on that. Then I was promoting the Never Drank the Kool-Aid book so it’s difficult to find time to write when I’m doing that. This year I’ll have more time to do magazine stuff.
CCB: When you are doing magazine writing is there a typical day?
T: No. I’ll get a call from Rolling Stone or wherever and they will say let’s do a story on John Legend. Hook up with John Legend’s publicist and make a date for when you are going to spend time with him. Follow him around Monday, Tuesday. For me I like to try and get an interview catch as catch can rather than at three o’clock we’re sitting down. We’re just flowing through the day and he’s sitting down, let’s talk. What’s going on? Over lunch or in the car, so it’s easy. Then come back. You have to get the secondary interviews, do those on the phone. Transcribe. It usually takes the whole day. It’s annoying but to get the sound of them correctly, the diction, their syntax, their grammar is really important especially for artists like a Jay-Z or an Axl Rose. I always transcribe my own and go through it really carefully to make sure I get their words right. Then it’s a couple of days of writing and arranging and figuring out where things go, what stories to tell, and how much. Then you start editing.
CCB: Does Rolling Stone tell you ahead of time we want 500 words?
T: You know your deadline and your word length from the beginning. I think the word length is critical to what sort of story we are writing. A 500 word story is going to include very little history, perhaps none. Even a 1000 word story would have only a little bit of history, maybe one scene and the person talking a bunch and observations. With 5000 words you are going to talk to his mom or dad, you have to dig deeper. You are going to be like so and so was born in and his mom was an accountant. You will have a couple, three scenes maybe. The length completely determines how deep. Even at the Village Voice that was true. The depth of your idea and how much weight you are going to put on your thesis that totally changes. How detailed your thoughts have to be changes.
CCB: How long are the Rolling Stone cover stories normally?
T: 3-5000 words.
CCB: What are the deadlines like?
T: It depends. Like the Jay-Z story I did in November we just happened to know that we were going to do that far in advance. I had three months to work on that and hung out with him a couple of times over the summer, so that was kind of easy. But then other times it will be you have two weeks or less. Even two weeks is doable because I tend to be a fairly quick writer most of the time. The Alicia Keys story I did around 9/11, that was like 48 hours. It’s almost impossible. I think it was only because we had no secondarys. I spent four days on the bus with her. It was transcribing in the hotel room and immediately going to writing it right away. It was about 48 hours turnaround. So, it can be really short.
CCB: What qualities do you need to succeed as a music journalist, writer?
T: You have to have a love of words. Have a love of ideas. You have to want to express and see things differently than everyone else and yet still correct. Like Greg Tate is probably one of the best, probably the best of all the music journalists. He sees it differently than everyone else yet he’s still dead on.
CCB: What do you mean by correct? Isn’t it still your point of view?
T: Is it? Let’s say I’m writing a story about Missy and I am like, “Missy is weird.” OK, that’s just my opinion. But that’s not going to resonate with thousands of people because they are not going to agree. It’s just an idea floating in space. It’s not about expressing, it’s about communication. Expressing is just words coming out of my mouth. Communication is how can I put an idea in your head and you go, yeah? So if I’m like, “Missy is an Aunt Jemima mixed with Oprah because she’s short, fat, and Black and kind of plays off of that. But also she is an amazing businesswoman and a visionary.” Then a thousand people are like I never looked at it that way, but that’s right. That really gets at it. That really makes you separate from other people. When people say, that’s it! That’s the thought that I’ve been looking for. Then you are taking up space in people’s heads. I want to remember what you wrote because you were right. You really put your finger on the truth. People don’t just want to read you opining. They want to read things that they think are true, that advance their thinking about something.
CCB: Isn’t that still how you see or think about the situation? Maybe it’s your truth.
T: It’s not just my truth. Obviously anything that is opinion based you never get 100% penetration of everyone agreeing with you but if a lot of people who are smart on the subject of hip-hop or punk or whatever say, you know he’s right. That’s something. Then you are communicating.
CCB: Have any advice for people interested in becoming writers?
T: You have to read a lot. You have to read as a writer in terms of how it works, why it works, and why you like it, or why you don’t like it. You also have to like to be alone. You pretty much have to be alone to write. Some people write in coffee shops. I don’t understand that. Some people think they can write with a partner but they are just deluding themselves. You have to enjoy being alone in a room and working with sentences and working with paragraphs and arranging them. I enjoy that. I have a lot of fun doing that.
CCB: You’ve mentioned previously you need to become a good reader and this will improve your writing. Is that the deconstructing of sentences and reading people that you like and seeing how they craft their stories?
T: Reading people that you like and if you can reading people that you don’t like to see what you don’t like. A lot of times it’s easier to identify what you don’t like than what you do like. That is also about building your style and saying I would never do this. Not simply I would do that. Sometimes it’s difficult because you might like certain words but they are not appropriate. But you might say I don’t like this word or I don’t like the sound of harsh Germanic words. I want to stay away from that. Like this phrase, “comfortable in your own skin.” It’s such a fucking cliché. That we’ve seen explode since the 2000 election where Bush was supposed to be “comfortable in his own skin.” Now in every article, basketball players, architects, we are all “comfortable in our skin” if we’re not fucking neurotic. (Annoyed) I decided the other day that is a dead cliché that I will never use no matter what. You can’t say that no matter what.
Reading with an eye towards what is going on in these sentences, what sort of words does this person choose? How is this person getting in and out of paragraphs? To larger things like what types of subjects is this person tackling? How are they getting into it? Are they rushing right into the subject or do they sort of take a slow dance and then introduce the subject?
(Toure crossed over to TV journalism as a result of his time spent at Rolling Stone.)
CCB: What does TV allow you to do that print does not apart from reaching a larger audience?
T: It’s a more direct, faster connection to the audience. Sometimes you’ll get people to talk to you who wouldn’t otherwise talk to you. Like Chappelle (the comedian) probably would not have sat down with me for Rolling Stone. But for BET he was willing to do that. The interview moment can be really interesting, really exciting. It’s difficult to describe that in a magazine article but the television interview is all about that. The person’s reaction, your timing, and when you come in with your question and how you direct them through their issues. Even Jay-Z and Nas, they are bouncing off each other. So, I asked Jay a question. When do I move in to come to the next question? At one point I kind of held back a second, let it be quiet for one second, and Nas jumped in and answered a question that had only been for Jay that I didn’t think he would care to answer. And he gave a great answer. Just that moment of pulling back gave him the space to say I want to talk about that too. In print that whole decision process would not be seen.
CCB: What is it that you like about being on TV?
T: The immediacy of the connection is thrilling. The magazine connection with the audience is kind of like a movie. You shoot a movie in July and there is no audience on the set. It comes out in December so you are kind of disconnected from the audience. You do a play the audience is right there when you are doing your thing.
CCB: Were you interested in being an entertainer as a kid? At book-signings and events you seem very relaxed, seem to enjoy the stage.
T: I think I was always animated. I never had a problem being a bit of a ham especially when I’m supposed to be the center of attention. I’m not the sort of person who it’s supposed to be your day and I’m going to snatch your thunder, that I don’t like doing. I feel very comfortable with people I don’t know. I did some TV commercials as a kid so it wasn’t completely foreign to me. I think part of it is also playing sports. I played tennis throughout my life as a junior a lot and then as an adult I played tournaments for a long time. Dealing with that pressure, that being alone, that one on one you’ve got to have really fine twitch muscle control to play tennis under pressure. I never really sat and worried about what will people say? I think that’s what makes you nervous, you are afraid of the reaction. I’m not afraid of whatever reaction I’m going to get and I’m also hoping that some people, not the majority of the audience, but that a minority of the audience will be upset by what I say. So, if you are hoping for that it kind of releases all the pressure.
CCB: I’d mentioned to some people that I’d be interviewing you and some were fans and some were not. You really polarize them. Why do you think that is?
T: Good. I think I’m kind of a controversial person. I think that I say whatever I think. I like to throw down the gauntlet. I’d rather not say something that is polite and middle-ground. That won’t be offensive to anyone. I’d rather throw down the gauntlet and say,” Screw this. I think this!” (Passionate) Take a position and just roll with it even if I’m wrong. I’m also not afraid to say this sucks. A lot of people can’t deal with that.
CCB: What is your writing process and does that differ depending on whether its fiction, nonfiction, short stories? Does this begin by checking your note pad of ideas, random thoughts?
T: The process is more or less generally the same. Whatever I have to write generally begins with brainstorming. For fiction or an essay it would probably need brainstorming to come up with the pieces of the puzzle. A profile would require less because you are sort of given the pieces. You do an interview. You hang out and you acquire scenes. It starts with a brainstorm. Writing down ideas and thoughts of little pieces I can use then writing it out start to finish. I know a lot of people don’t do that. They will start in the middle and build outward or backwards or whatever. I start at the beginning and go to the end. I will do an edit on the computer looking at it on the screen, maybe a couple of edits like that. Then I’ll print it out and do an edit on paper. Depending on the piece and how much I’m into it I’ll start to sort of fixate and obsess over it. Look at it fifteen or twenty times again and again and how can this draft get a little better? How can this sentence get better? Is this word really the right word? Did I change something and that threw something off? Now I have the same word twice in the same paragraph and that has to be changed. I always notice different things on paper than I notice on the screen, which I don’t know why. I’ll go through like four or five screen edits and print it out and be like how could you have not noticed that?
CCB: For some of the shorter pieces do you just see something and then an idea formulates?
T: Sometimes. I saw something the other day in the newspaper about “Poorism”, which is like tourism through slums. Which people do in Rio, Palestine, Africa, maybe here sometimes in America. I just wrote that down. If I do another novel, that might be something interesting to throw in the mix.
CCB: Do you have tips on the best ways to prepare for an interview?
T: Try and think about this person vis-à-vis the world, the culture that cares about him. What are the questions that these people would want answered? What are the people who care about Jay-Z or who are mad at him want asked? What are the issues around this person? Just so you can cover all the issues personally, professionally. Just to know as much as you can about the person going into the interview. I also don’t think the exact wording of a question makes a difference. I think you can ask the question in three or four different ways and get essentially the same answer. It’s really trying to trigger a person to talking about certain subjects. To me it’s not about a specific question but a cluster of questions which are going to be signaled by I want to talk to Toure about Suge Knight because he almost got beaten by Suge Knight once. Then I’m listening to what follow ups need to happen to take this further to get this person to talk about such and such issues. The follow up wouldn’t necessarily be written but comes from listening and observing. Did you really answer my question? Are there other branches of your answer that I want to go into? Like 50 Cent. Everybody asked him tell me about the time when you got shot nine times. And he did. Common sense, after you get shot then what? Did you go to the hospital? You have to go to the hospital unless there are some underground doctors in the hood that I don’t know about. (Smiles) It was very interesting to talk to him about going to the hospital and how the doctors sort of mistreated him. How he felt offended to pay the bill. I didn’t ask to be shot. He should pay my bill. That’s really important to me. The question clusters and listening closely to the answers to see where this answer needs to be expounded on.
CCB: Are there questions you shouldn’t ask in an interview? Do you receive certain off limit questions from PR people?
T: Totally ignore that person, seriously. Try your best not to agree to anything and depending on how sensitive or big the issue is you may placate the person, whoever the representative is and then just ask it anyway. What the fuck are they going to do? Walk out? That’s the most they are going to do. They aren’t going to jump you. I mean obviously certain situations you want to be really sensitive. I interviewed Nas for MTV2 and it was the week before the year anniversary of his mother passing. I wanted to ask him about that. One of the producers came up and was like, “Dude, you are going to make him really sad.” So, it was the passing of the guy’s mother, let it go. OK. I think every subject has the right to say I don’t want to discuss that and I would always respect that. I think that I as journalist I have the right to ask almost any question. It’s up to you as an adult and as a human being to say I don’t want to talk about that and that’s fine. It’s not up to me to decide that you don’t have to discuss that. I’m a journalist. It’s not for me to say I’m not going to ask that question. I mean certain questions are a little much, like something having to do with someone’s family.
CCB: Your first feature story was about Run DMC. Run presided over your marriage ceremony. Do you feel a special connection with the group?
T: (Face lights up) It really was the first time I conducted an interview as a professional. I did a couple of interviews when I was in college. But nobody ever told me how to do an interview.
CCB: Around how old were you when that happened?
T: About 24, 25. I remember having the three of them in the room and it just revved them up. What about this? What about that? Lot’s of short questions and real questions. (Smiling big) The energy in the room was really high. It was a really raucous interview. I remember Run walked out and he was like, “Great interview!” I was like, wow! Run thought I did a good interview. It was really my first interview. Then I had written a story in The Source and ran into him at the Apollo before the Rolling Stone story came out. I remember he came down the stairs and said, “I read your story in The Source and that was really good.” Damn. And he just walked off. Run thought my story was good. Holy shit. I just saw him over the years here and there. We did a little New Yorker story together once. I was friendly with Russell, could just talk to him a little here and there. He and his wife came down and were part of the wedding. It was really nice.
CCB: When did you decide to put together Never Drank the Kool-Aid? Had that been something that was in the works for a long time?
T: No, it wasn’t together for awhile. I wasn’t even really thinking about doing a collection, an anthology. Josh Kendall, who had been an editor at Picador, wanted to meet me. Let’s do your collection. Part of the thing was that I was getting married. So, it was like what can I do to create another revenue stream? I can do my collection. So, we did it.
CCB: I asked your fellow music journalists Jeff Chang and Alan Light where they think hip-hop is headed. Jeff mentioned how eventually the international element of hip-hop will strike in a big way. Alan Light mentioned the possibility of white culture becoming a larger part. What do you think will happen?
T: I think that hip-hop is very much the cult of the Black man. So, you’d never have a whole group of white kids on stage on the mic running it. That wouldn’t be hip-hop. The two things I want to see is the rise of the rest of the world having an impact on American hip-hop. Where is London? Where is San Juan? Havana is probably a little behind. But Tokyo, London, and San Juan should really have someone rhyming and impacting America. I’m waiting for that, for somebody to come from those three places. Especially Brixton, Tokyo, they really understand hip-hop. Those kids can really dress and understand what hip-hop is all about. There has to be one kid who can rhyme in English and really have an impact in America.
I also want to see the rise of the woman, but I don’t think that is going to happen. Where are the women who can really talk about their experiences? The way that Erykah Badu and Keyshia Cole and Mary J. Blige do through singing or like Nas did on the Street Disciples song where he rhymed in the voice of a woman. Where is the sister who can talk about Black women issues rhyming from a Black woman way? Not a tomboy or boy-toy. Almost all the female rappers we’ve had have been boy-toys or tomboys.
CCB: Could it be Lauryn Hill if she gets herself together?
T: I mean it could. Lauryn has been the closest thing to that, but I don’t think that she will be able to get her stuff together. But she hasn’t been a regular sister ever, at least since she was twenty and since The Fugees started blowing up. There are more Black women then men in the ghetto. There are more Black men then women in jail. Where are the sisters who are talking about my man is in jail? Got to have that! The rise of the real rhyming sisters.
CCB: Why don’t hip-hop artists seem as politically outspoken today especially with all the crises of the last few years whether the Iraq War or Katrina? Are they scared?
T: I don’t think they are scared. I don’t know. I’m a little surprised. It has been such a politicized period these last couple of years. Iraq was perhaps an international issue, it wasn’t a racial issue. But Katrina was very racial, very domestic. I think hip-hop in general has lost its political spine. I hear a lot of people making reference to Bin Laden, but a lot of them are making almost inappropriate reference like I’m the Bin Laden of hip-hop. That’s not funny. Don’t reference Bin Laden in any heroic way. We’re not really in a politicized space right now.
CCB: What is the most difficult part of your job?
T: I guess the most difficult would be coming up with good original ideas, which is critical. That is probably the hardest thing.
CCB: What are your career aspirations? You are working on the novel.
T: Finishing up the novel. Try to write a few more good books that people really like.
CCB: What is it about music that means so much to you?
T: Music is the culture. It’s so much of the relationship of us socially. It’s just so vital. It’s where we are as a culture and who we are as a people. Who you are as a person is defined so much by what you listen to.
* Check out Toure at: toure.com