Off The Books: Check The Technique Vol. 2 – More Liner Notes For Hip-Hop Junkies by Brian Coleman

The sequel to Brian Coleman's legendary hip-hop text, "Check the Technique."
By    August 24, 2015


Dweez is like a neurosurgeon operating with a purer vision.

“We were saying to the world at large: ‘We’re a lot more dynamic than what you might assume.’ It was another perspective, showing that there are more narratives besides the macho narrative, the self-congratulatory narrative, and whatever others. Those weren’t our narratives.”

        – Yasiin Bey, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, Check The Technique Vol. 2, page 396*

I never wanted to rap because stages spooked me. My scrawny arms were no good for breakdancing’s cooler-looking poses. To tag well one needs to, at least, have good handwriting: I did not. Before it was just playing songs on iTunes, DJing required a BPM mathematics that made me go cross eyed.

In short: the four elements of Hip-Hop were not viable options for me.

Until I picked up Raquel Cepeda’s And It Don’t Stop: The Best American Hip-Hop Journalism of the Last 25 Years in the fall of my freshman year of college, I had no idea how I could contribute to this culture that — alongside European soccer — had become the center of my universe. In the introduction, Cepeda wrestled with KRS-ONE’s notion that knowledge was Hip-Hop’s fifth element until she declared that journalism — covering the culture — was in, fact, the fifth element (or at least part of it).

This was about the eureka-est moment I had in my short 18-year life and for the next decade I contributed my own little column in the pantheon of Hip-Hop journalism.

Meanwhile, Brian Coleman released his first book Rakim Told Me: Wax Facts, Straight from the Original Artists in April 2005, six months after Cepeda’s. Coleman’s idea was brilliant in its simplicity: explain the circumstances of a classic Hip-Hop record, ask those were involved in its creation about it, and get out of their way. He expanded the book in 2007 releasing Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies, applying the Coleman method of letting artists speak for themselves to a total of 36 albums between the two books.

While the inventive reviews, deep interviews, and cerebral essays of his many contemporaries have added value in their own way, it is hard to argue that many have contributed more to Hip-Hop’s fifth element than Brian Coleman.

That is what makes flipping through the 30 albums (across analog and digital formats) in 2014’s Check the Technique vol.2: More Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies so beautiful and so heartbreaking.

What Works

Coleman’s work on CTT2 is impressive: 544 pages, 80+ interviews, and over 350 images.

He dives into albums as wide ranging as Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… by Raekwon and DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. For those unfamiliar with the series, each chapter is formatted thusly: Coleman reserves a few pages to contextualize the albums with help from the artists, then leaves the album’s personnel alone to discuss what went into each track while removing his commentary and question protocol completely — except when an artist’s reference to an album or person might confuse readers.

What revelations does this format yield? From just the Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star chapter:

  • Mos Def reading about how string and horn instruments conjure evil spirits.
  • Talib living his childhood fantasy by calling Vinia Mojica for “K.O.S.”
  • Details about a really thick rubber band’s role in the “Children’s Story” beat.
  • Talib’s B-Boy cluelessness and his job at Brooklyn’s defunct Nkiru bookstore.
  • Their having to cajole Common across multiple states to be on the album.

Coleman’s approach removes a huge barrier for the artists (who often criticize the critics/journalists in interviews elsewhere or on wax). It allows them to detail their craft free of categorization and judgment. They can talk about whatever they want.

Coleman’s method of merely positing the album tracks is so obvious it stings Hip-Hop documentarians. My fellow Almost Famous-eyed aspirant journalists with our over-prepared questions and quirky asides look frivolous beside Coleman’s Zen-like approach.

There is, ultimately, something for everyone who ever listened to a rap record on offer.

For example, those of you who contributed to the $67M opening weekend of the Straight Outta Compton film might enjoy the AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted chapter. You might already know (or recently learned from the movie) that Ice Cube wasted no time after his N.W.A. departure to drop his solo debut. What you might not fully appreciate is the delicate tightrope act waltzed to give the album an L.A. feel while being recorded in a snowy New York winter.

Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad (Hank Shocklee, Eric Sadler, Chuck D were interviewed for Coleman’s chapter on the album) had to integrate with Sir Jinx and Cube’s Lench Mob crew to conjure the L.A. spirit. The gangster atmosphere Lench Mob brought to New York was articulated by Sadler: “Those motherfuckers were definitely pretty rough. They were the real deal, real gang-bangers. They’d sleep on the concrete floor, when there was an empty couch right next to them.” (page 245)

Gems like that exist at every turn, in every chapter, on every page of this book. There are too many other examples to name and, surely, some I’ve yet to read. As the great many blurbs applauding CTT2 attest to: any ‘nerd’ of the culture, genre, or rap recording process will be captivated by the it’s revelations.

What Doesn’t

It’s precisely these blurbs (and the book’s subheading) that I take issue with. The book’s appearance is a barrier to entry. I confess to having Check the Technique vol.1 on my bookshelf for the better part of a decade without once picking it up — and I love this shit.

Every self-proclaimed ‘junkie’ of anything enters themselves in a competition. It’s a competition against other junkies, where winning means having the bigger obsession. The most insidious thing about this voluntary categorization is that it excludes the not-so-gnarly.

Life leaves room for a finite amount of obsessions. Where is the appeal to the casual?

Where are the voices of moderation in the cracked-out-rap-fan vortex?

I get it. Publishers make books by appealing to buyers, not readers. It is the aunties and uncles purchasing their nephew the book for “Hip-Hop Junkies” at Urban Outfitters (without realizing that he has now downloaded a pirated version of Ableton and recently changed his hair from Eminem blonde to Diplo blonde) that keeps the book industry afloat.

But what about the kid who decides, he does, in fact prefer this hip-hop thing to EDM? What happens is that he approaches the same book on the shelf, feels its weight, reads the word “junkie,” and sets it down. Or worse — he does pick it up and adds it to the clutter of his personality on his shelf like I did, but never cracks it open for fear of unbalancing himself.

It’s like when someone describes themselves as a foodie, as if others can’t possibly enjoy food as much as they do. Who wants to eat with these people much less become one of them?

It might seem like a small detail but it contributes to the inaccessibility of such an intimidating tomb. It turns the book into something tough to want to crack open for anyone under a certain obsessive-grade. Is classic hip-hop connoisseurship to go the way of jazz like coffee appreciation now likens Viticulture? There is nothing wrong with ‘knowing’ but what more than ego is served when ‘knowledge’ is one wiki away?

Coleman’s writing, for its part, isn’t inline with the book’s apparent inaccessibility. There is joy on every page. He takes great care to direct every paragraph in every chapter so that even a rap fan with training wheels could understand the high stakes that these classic albums rose to meet. He even makes it a point to get out of the way when the artists are expressing themselves. Coleman accomplishes this without sacrificing any sort of authenticity or credibility.

Still, if his laborious contributions to the history of the culture and considerate writing are going to serve as more than a bookshelf balancer, there should be some thought given to the way the book is positioned and who it is positioned for (or in this case, who it is not for). There is much here for the non-junkie and junkie alike.

But Should You Read It?

Across his three books, Coleman has fought an unimaginable amount of battles to give 71 classic rap albums the liner notes they deserve. It aches to think about the amount of man hours spent tracking down these albums’ personnel. To put in all that work and somehow avoid the urge to put yourself in the mix: if there was a sainthood for rap journalists, Coleman would be right in line.

In wanting to make my own contribution to hip-hop’s fifth element over the years, I — and I think I speak for many of my fellow rap world scribes here — have let my personality take precedence, craved for my cleverness to be vindicated, and, at my worst, longed for an artist I’ve interviewed come up in a conversation so I can out-obsess whoever stands in my way.

Coleman does none of these things in his work. That is why it was with great sadness that I read his only self-congratulatory words in his Preface:

“This is likely to be my last edition in the series, because I feel that I have put a pretty firm stake in the ground when it comes to creating ‘invisible liner notes’ for hip-hop albums. Perhaps the next generation will add to the fact-finding and discussions, and beat my ass in the process. I would love nothing more than to see that happen.”

How long will we mourn him? When will we see another Coleman in this weird world of writing about rap? What will the invisible liner notes of the future look like? I went through more drafts for this review than I care to admit, trying (and failing) to fight my indulgent reflexes to give Coleman the credit he deserves.

“But,” to quote and take a cue from Coleman, “Enough of my rambling because these books are definitely not about me.”

*Page numbers are taken from Check the Technique Vol.2, 2014 Gingko Press. That was the edition reviewed.

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