Author Interviews
2:23 am
Sat August 30, 2014

Hip-Hop In Print: Brooklyn Publisher Looks To 'Reverse Gentrify' Literature

Originally published on Sat August 30, 2014 9:33 am

At this summer's Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica, thousands turned up for readings by big-name authors: Salman Rushdie, Jamaica Kincaid, Zadie Smith and Albert Johnson. Odds are the name Albert Johnson doesn't ring a bell. But if you're a hip-hop fan, you might recognize the author by another name: Prodigy. Off and on for the past 20 years, he's been one half of the acclaimed Queens, N.Y., duo Mobb Deep.

Prodigy says he began his debut novel, H.N.I.C., over a decade ago and, with the help of co-writer Savile, it wasn't hard to translate the somber realism he expresses in songs to the page.

"Writing lyrics, I pull from my real life," Prodigy says. "A lot of negativity that goes on in my world, in my neighborhood, with my friends, negative things I had to deal with — I take that negative energy and instead of doing something bad with it, I put it into my music."

Rappers taking on book publishing has become something of a trend. 50 Cent has his own imprint with Gallery Books; Simon & Schuster has Cash Money Content, run by the heads of Cash Money Records, home to Drake and Nicki Minaj. Titles on these imprints are often classified as "street lit" or "urban fiction": gritty, hard-boiled stories about gangsters, crime and the streets. But Prodigy's not a fan of those labels, and neither is his publisher, Johnny Temple, of Akashic Books.

"So-called 'urban lit' is the closest thing publishing has to hip-hop music," Temple says. "And just as when hip-hop came around, everyone thought it was going to last two years, and now it's transformed the landscape of the world of music, I've always believed strongly that urban lit has great potential."

The genre has its roots in the 1960s and '70s, with such authors as Iceberg Slim, Donald Goines and Chester Himes. Its current renaissance goes back about 15 years, to The Coldest Winter Ever, a hit novel by rapper Sister Souljah. That book's blockbuster success transformed an indie genre into a corporate money maker, says K'wan, an author with more than 20 novels under his belt.

"Initially we weren't getting advances," K'wan recalls. "We made our money from our hustle, the out-of-the-trunk hustle. So when the major publishers came in, they started throwing these advances like, 'Hey, this is what it is: I'll give you six figures if you write two or three books.' And you're like, 'Wow, you're going to give me six figures up front — all mine?' So, off to the races."

Kwan's latest, Black Lotus, is published by an imprint of Akashic that's curated by Prodigy. It's called Infamous Books, and publisher Johnny Temple says Akashic's goal is simple: "Akashic's slogan — it's slightly tongue in cheek but not really — is 'reverse gentrification of the literary world.' And Infamous Books is, in some ways, the ultimate manifestation of that motto."

For his part, as curator of Infamous, Prodigy says he's interested in titles that teach — books with a moral. And that grows in part out of the three years he spent in prison on a gun-possession charge.

"Having that time, it helped me to learn what other inmates were going through, and the system and how it works," Prodigy says. "So I guess when I'm writing something that pertains to that, it's a little bit more authentic than if I didn't live through it. 'Cause I've seen it, I lived through it, I know what's going on in there.

"So it definitely made me want to talk about it and let people know what's going on in there, and let young people know: That's not where you want to be. 'Cause you can go to jail for something small and end up doing 10 years, life, for something that happens in there — a lot of things happen in jail. So it definitely influences the way I tell the story and the stories I choose to tell."

And it's not just his stories he wants to tell through Infamous Books.

"I like Malcolm Gladwell a lot," Prodigy says. "His books are real good. Books where you can learn something: health, religion, the food industry, government, politics, federal reserve system, monetary system — how things started and got to the way it is today."

Topics, in other words, that don't bear labels.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

For years now, hip-hop artists have been putting their names on a range of products and ventures, from clothing lines to liquor brands to nightclubs. Now they are tackling a different industry - literature. Baz Dreisinger has more.

BAZ DREISINGER, BYLINE: At this summer's Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica, thousands turned up for readings by big-name authors - Salman Rushdie, Jamaica Kincaid, Zadie Smith and this writer, on opening night.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALABASH INTERNATIONAL LITERARY FESTIVAL)

PRODIGY: (Reading) I be wanting to live, really live - suck the marrow out of the bones of life. What was the good thing in being beautiful if you running around and [bleep] and sing and laugh and punch and [bleep]. Just all of that [bleep].

DREISINGER: That's 39-year-old Albert Johnson reading from his debut novel "H.N.I.C," co-written with Steven Savile. Odds are, the name Albert Johnson doesn't ring a bell, but if you're a hip-hop fan, you might recognize the author by another name, Prodigy. Off and on for the past 20 years, he's been one half of the acclaimed Queens, New York duo Mobb Deep.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOOK ONES")

MOBB DEEP: (Rapping) Back in Queens the realness, the foundation. If I die, I couldn't choose a better location, when the slugs penetrate feel a burning sensation getting closer to God in a tight situation. Now, take these words home and think it through, or the next rhyme I write might be about you.

DREISINGER: Prodigy says he began his novel over a decade ago and with help from Savile, it wasn't hard to translate the somber realism he expresses in songs to the page.

PRODIGY: When writing the lyrics, I usually pull from situations in my real life - a lot of negativity that goes on in my world, in my neighborhoods and, you know, with my friends and things I have to deal with. I use that negative energy, and instead of doing something bad with it, I put it into my music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIRT")

MOBB DEEP: (Rapping) No sunshine, just dark skies. Nothin' but dark thoughts goin' through my mind. I got bad blood, mad love, only for the team though. Every one of us is the shooter. Now, where'd the beef go?

DREISINGER: Rappers taking on book publishing has become something of a trend. 50 Cent has his own imprint with Gallery Books, Simon and Schuster has Cash Money content, run by the heads of Cash Money Records, home to Drake and Nicki Minaj. Titles on these imprints are often classified as street lit or urban fiction; gritty hard-boiled stories about gangsters, crime, and the streets. But Prodigy's not a fan of those labels and neither is his publisher, Johnny Temple of Akashic Books.

JOHNNY TEMPLE: I think so-called urban lit is the closest thing that the book publishing business has to hip-hop music. And just as we know when hip-hop came around, everyone thought it was going to last two years. And now it's transformed the landscape of world music. And I've always believed strongly that urban lit, so-called urban lit, I feel compelled to now say, has great potential.

DREISINGER: The genre has its roots in the 1960s and '70s with such authors as Iceberg Slim, Donald Goines and Chester Himes. Its current renaissance goes back about 15 years to the hit novel "The Coldest Winter Ever," by rapper Sister Souljah. That book's blockbuster success transformed an indie genre into a corporate moneymaker, says K'wan, an author with more than 20 novels under his belt.

K'WAN: Initially, we weren't getting advances or we got advances that were really small. And we made our money based off our hustle; the out-of-the-trunk hustle because there weren't retail stores. So when the major publishers came in, they started throwing these advances of the top authors like, hey, I'll give you six figures if you write me two or three books. And you know, you're like, wow, you're going to give me six figures upfront, like, all mine? So then, you know, off to the races.

DREISINGER: At Calabash, K'wan read from his latest novel, "Black Lotus."

(SOUNDBITE OF CALABASH INTERNATIONAL LITERARY FESTIVAL)

K'WAN: As he turned the cap over in his hands, examining, he noticed something dried on it - blood. Donathan Fleming, the wind whispered softly. Hearing his name, Father Fleming jerked his head this way and that and scanned the dimly lit church. Who's there, he called out. Salvation, the wind replied.

DREISINGER: "Black Lotus" is published by an imprint of Akashic that's curated by Prodigy. It's called Infamous Books and publisher Johnny Temple says Akashic's goal is simple.

TEMPLE: Akashic's slogan, which is slightly tongue-in-cheek, but it is our slogan, is Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World. And Infamous Books is, in some ways, the ultimate manifestation of that motto.

DREISINGER: For his part as curator of Infamous, Prodigy says he's interested in titles that teach - books with a moral. And that grows in part out of the three years he spent in prison on a gun possession charge.

PRODIGY: Going through that experience, it helped me to learn, you know, what other inmates is going through and the system and how it works. So I've seen it. I've been through it. So I know what's going on in there. So it definitely made me want to talk about it and let people know what was going on in there. And let young kids be aware like, that's not the place you want to be 'cause you could go to jail for something small and end up doing 10 years, or end up doing life from something else that happens in there; inside. You know what I mean? A lot of things could happen in jail. So it definitely influenced my storytelling and the stories I choose to tell - all of that.

DREISINGER: And it's not just his stories he wants to publish through Infamous Books.

PRODIGY: I like Malcolm Gladwell a lot. His books are real good. Books where you can just learn something about health, religion, food - the food industry, government, politics, the Federal Reserve system, the monetary system and all that stuff. I just like to learn how, you know, how things started and how it got to the way it is today.

DREISINGER: Topics, in other words, that transcend labels and limitations.

For NPR News, I'm Baz Dreisinger. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.