Interview: Check The Technique’s Brian Coleman on Vol. 2, KMD, and Hip Hop What Ifs

When Brian Coleman released his first volume of hip hop liner notes, Rakim Told Me, in 2005, he filled a gaping void in hip hop historiography. Not only had many of the stories behind his (and many other hip hop fans’) favorite albums been previously left untold, but the process of creating a rap record finally received some of the validation generally reserved for other genres of music.

While Rakim Told Me’s 2007 follow-up, Check the Technique, was an impressive expanded and updated edition of its predecessor, Coleman’s newly published Check the Technique Vol. 2 finds him digging deeper than ever. Covering more than 80 artists and 325 songs, the Bostonian sheds light on 25 hip hop albums, recorded between 1981 and 1998. We caught up with the music journalist and historian to find out more about his latest, truly epic body of work.

Further information and ordering links can be found at

Courtesy: Brian Coleman

Throughout the entire book, the level of detail discussed by many of the artists you interviewed is pretty amazing. How much interview time did you generally ask for and receive of the artists featured?

The one thing you never do is ask for too much time. You always ask for less, even though you know it’s going to turn out to be more. Because if you say, “Oh, I want to spend five hours with you,” then pretty much most people are going to be like, “Oh, wow.” You can say, “Maybe we can talk for 45 minutes.” I think the initial ask is always rather low, around 45 minutes, and sometimes that turns into three or four hours.

The good thing too is, a lot of the interviews I do are on the phone. Some people think that’s bad or weird but I’ve always found phone conversations to be the most effective way to interview someone. It allows you to focus a little bit more and they get a little bit less distracted. Plus if they get interrupted then you just say, “Well, can we take this up again tomorrow afternoon?” It’s not like I’ve traveled all the way down to New York and I’m like, “Oh shit, I have to stay another day now.”

For example, I remember with Boots from The Coup, that interview probably took place during six or seven different segments over several weeks. At one point he was on tour and they were driving though some mountain range and his phone kept going in and out. I told him, “Just get to a big city and call me tomorrow when you have time and we’ll pick it up then.” He was okay with that and I also called him another couple of months later to follow up on a couple of things and ask more questions.

Some of these records are 25 years old, 30 years old, 15 years old. The people haven’t really [thought about these projects in ages].

Here’s a thing you need to keep in mind: Some of these records are 25 years old, 30 years old, 15 years old. The people haven’t really [thought about these projects in ages]. For instance with Joe Nicolo, who is part of the Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince chapter, he’s worked on God knows how many records over the years as a producer, executive producer, engineer. Once we got to the song section and back, he’s like, “I’ve got to go back and listen to this album cause I haven’t listened to this album in a long time.” I was like, “Great, you tell me when.” He’s like, “Call me next week and I’ll have listened to them by then again to refresh my memory.”

That’s great. I would rather do that than knock it off at once. It’s sometimes good to have that kind of flexibility. Sometimes you know you only have one opportunity - for example with someone like Ice Cube. Ice Cube clearly doesn’t have time to call me back three or four times, he’s Ice Cube. He’s a big star, and to me Boots is a big star too but clearly he’s not on that same level when it comes to time constraints.

Courtesy: Brian Coleman

How do you go about the process of building a sort of canon for a work like this?

Well, that’s a very interesting question. People have asked me before if I’m trying to build a canon. There are certain logistical things that make that difficult for me to do in a different way. If I can’t talk to the people involved then I don’t write a chapter. Biggie Smalls is not going to be in there, does he deserve to be in the canon? That’s something that’s a debate. 2Pac, Eazy-E… there are a lot of people who I’m just not able to talk to.

I’m not trying to build a canon because I don’t think I can do that. If I was writing the books from my own voice, then I could try and do something like that. Really what these are, they’re a lot of either some of my favorite hip hop albums of all time - or ones that I include because I feel it’s important to kind of round out certain things.

My whole view of hip hop is directly a result of Uncle Red and I have made no apologies about that.

I grew up on the East Coast of the United States and my view of hip hop is extremely East Coast-centric and certainly New York-centric because I listened to DJ Red Alert religiously when I was in high school in the mid- and late ‘80s. My whole view of hip hop is directly a result of Uncle Red and I have made no apologies about that and I’m excited that I was there during that time. That also means that at the time I was not really fucking with Too Short or 2 Live Crew or even a lot of stuff out of the West Coast because Red Alert didn’t really do that.

There are certain exceptions. For example, I felt like I needed to do something on Too Short, because he’s important and I grew to like him when I started listening to more of his stuff. I grew to appreciate his hustle and what he did to bring his music into the world. I would say that in their own weird way, these albums are my own little canon. These are simply the stories behind what I think are some amazing hip hop records.

Courtesy: Brian Coleman

Some of the selections stand out to me in particular. I mean, you have your widely acknowledged staples and classics, but other choices took me by surprise a little bit. For example, I didn’t necessarily expect to see Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince on there or Kwamé. Even seeing The Coup or Mantronix surprised me. Were you also trying to strike the balance between the more, I hate to say obvious, but maybe easier picks and things that were more along the lines of, “Hey guys, listen back to this album. This is actually an amazing record”?

Oh yeah, definitely. If I’m not necessarily trying to make some statement about a hip hop canon, I certainly am pointing out to people that just because you did or didn’t sell millions of copies doesn’t mean that your story is not important. It doesn’t mean that your work didn’t influence other people. Take Ultramagnetic MCs’ Critical Beatdown, which sold very poorly when it came out in 1988.

I guess there is a little bit of an evangelical bent to certain chapters that I do include.

If you consider the influence of that record, it’s almost incalculable, and the same goes for Mantronix. Mantronix sold better than Ultramagnetic did. Still, it’s almost impossible to think of all the different producers who were influenced by those two records and who were inspired to make their own unique music as a result of that. That to me is an important element. As hip hop moved along – as any music form, art form, any medium, writing or digital art – you have to consider what came before it and what that artist did to move things forward and to create a new wrinkle.

There were less hip hop albums in 1985 when Mantronix were just coming out. [The group] was in its own lane just logistically I guess. It was easier to innovate because there was less competition, which doesn’t decrease in any way how influential that record was.

The Coup came out in 1998 with Steal My Album, but their first stuff was in the early ‘90s. They innovated it in other very significant ways in that they combined live funk music with the firebrand lyrics of Public Enemy or X-Clan. Then again Boots had a very different outlook. His was not a Five Percenter outlook, it was not a Black Nationalist outlook, it was Communist. That was interesting, too. I’ve always found The Coup’s music to be powerful and fascinating. I’ve always felt it to be massively underrated, too. I guess there is a little bit of an evangelical bent to certain chapters that I do include. I think it’s very important to remind people sometimes about records that were important even if they’re not considered to be classics.

Influence a lot of times can come in waves. For instance, the influence of Madvillainy seems to be at its peak, nine or ten years after the album came out. A lot of younger kids starting to rap are now discovering this album for the first time and just completely fall in love with it. I think there’s definitely also a very strong thing to be said about letting an album’s impact unfold gradually over time.

To be honest with you I agree 100%, but I just think that great music is great music and sometimes, to your point, it takes a while to unfold. I remember Madvillainy when it came out and I thought it was absolute genius, and I wrote about and loved it and still love it to this day. Sometimes you also have to go back 10, 15, 20 years later and ask “Does this record withstand the test of time? Does it still sound as good to me today as it did back then?” Sometimes they don’t.

If you’re still fucking with Mantronix to this day – which I do, I listen to it all the time still – then that says something. There’s an interesting quote at the beginning of the Mantronix chapter, I think from Will Socolov from Sleeping Bag Records. He compares Mantronix to the big group of the day, which was Run-DMC.

“Do you go back and listen to the first two Run-DMC records all the way through now?” His point is there are a couple of amazing songs on there but there was a lot of filler too. If you listen to Mantronix, that sounds like it could have been done today. Run-DMC does not sound like it was done today, it sounds like it was done in 1983 and 1984. That’s an important point.

Yeah, for sure. Was that also why you steered clear of the 21st century in the book?

Yeah, I think so. I believe that you need some space in between when something comes out and when you can really go back and revisit it. There are some albums that I could have messed with from the early 2000s I guess, but not a lot. I think honestly there have been less classic albums produced since the turn of the 2000s. I’m not saying that that’s because artists are worse. I’m just saying there’s a different focus. No one is trying to make classic albums now. It’s gone back to the Sugar Hill Gang days where you have a couple of good tracks and then a bunch of filler.

Except for Kendrick maybe.

Ask me in ten years about Kendrick. I like that album and I’ll be curious to see how it holds up.

Yeah, sure. [At the same time] I don’t know. Ask me in ten years about Kendrick. I like that album and I’ll be curious to see how it holds up. He’s definitely very talented and it’s a great record. But that’s the thing too. I’m in a different position, keep in mind, than someone who reviews current music for a living. I don’t do that currently. I don’t and I’m glad about that because I did that for a long time and that’s a whole different mindset. I listen to stuff recreationally and so I listened to the Kendrick record and I like it, but I don’t go back and bump it all the time.

There’s no way in hell I’m saying that any record that was released in the last five years is a classic because I think that’s crazy to say. That’s what my books are all about, at least to me. They ask the question, “How do these albums stand up over time?”

You need breathing room in between when Company Flow came out and when you can actually start really assessing it as a classic. I’m happy to say that I think that Funcrusher Plus holds up as much as I thought it would, back when I was first reviewing their stuff when it first came out. That feels good, I’m happy about that. Hopefully some time in 10, 15 years someone will be doing a Shabazz Palaces retrospective and assess how their music holds up over time, which I think it will.

Courtesy: Brian Coleman

What were some of the most strikingly surprising things that you learned during your research for the second volume?

Honestly there are striking things [that I] learned in pretty much all of the chapters.

Were there any particular examples that really stood out for you? Where you were thinking, “Hey, I’m sure no one has ever heard this before. I can’t wait to share it with the world”?

Sometimes things come up as facts and I’m like, “Okay. Maybe I just never heard that before.” I’ll ask around and I’ll be like, “Have you ever heard this?” For instance in the Company Flow chapter, I learned that Mr. Len had a heart attack when he was 18, when the group was starting out. That was mentioned almost in passing by a lot of the group members. Len almost died and even Len himself was just like “Yeah. I had a heart attack.” Not that many people have heart attacks at age 18 and so that’s pretty dramatic.

That would’ve been the first turntablist record in the history of hip hop by many, many years.

On another less dramatic, but nonetheless interesting note: DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince – that record was originally envisioned as just a turntable record. Because at the time Jeff was the star. Will Smith was not the star of that group. You can see it in how the group is named. Jeff was the shit. He was the turntable champion. Will was clearly talented, but he still had yet to really come into his own before that record. In 1988, that would’ve been the first turntablist record in the history of hip hop by many, many years.

There’s always a lot of interesting stuff that happens. I think the thing that people tend to forget is that rappers and producers, they’re people just like everybody else. They have stuff happening in their group, in their families, with their health. It’s not like hip hoppers don’t have problems just like every other person in the world. I think that a lot of the stories that are told in these chapters, they are the real stories of these people. I go out of my way whenever possible to not sensationalize it as a “behind the music” type of thing. I try to present hip hoppers like they are, which is they’re people just like everybody else and they go through trials and tribulations.

3rd Bass signing to Def Jam Courtesy: Pete Nice

Was there anyone who was particularly honored by your interest and particularly eager to talk and revisit the old days? I could imagine a lot of these guys probably lead completely different lives now compared to when they put their album out some 20 years ago or so.

Yeah, I think that happens pretty much with all the artists in their own way. It just kind of goes back to different temperaments. Some people get more intimate about stuff generally or get excited, and some just tell it very plainly. I think all the artists tend to enjoy interviews just because they are proud of these moments in their lives when they created these incredible records.

I guess one person who I was particularly simpatico with was Pete Nice from 3rd Bass. He’s also a documentarian. He’s actually an expert on sports memorabilia. He has done a documentary about the Red Sox from Boston, which is interesting because he grew up in New York. If you look up his pedigree, he has done a lot of historical research and documentary output. He did a whole video documentary about the Royal Rooters. I think Pete kind of appreciated what I was trying to do because he’s done that. The microphone was turned on him.

He appreciated that, so he would give me all these photos and was happy to look at drafts of the chapter and make sure that everything is factually correct. I would say Pete Nice is kind of my champion in this book just because he was also very happy to be involved with KMD, which was another chapter that he helped out with a lot. I don’t know if people have ever seen these pictures of early DOOM as Zev Love X, and Subroc. I was definitely honored by Pete’s active participation. He went above and beyond for sure.

Do the conversations you have with artists sometimes provide a starting point for new chapter ideas?

That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure that’s ever happened but that doesn’t mean it’s something I wouldn't be open to. Taking KMD for example, I’ve always been fascinated by KMD and especially that album, Black Bastards. I knew their history was covered a little bit but there really hasn’t been much written about it. There are little things you’ll find online and on Wikipedia but that doesn’t really count because Wikipedia is Wikipedia. It was important to me for that record especially, to kind of dive as deep as I could and really try and get to the bottom of that story.

I’m not saying that the Black Bastards chapter is the definitive story of that album but I hope at least it’s a step in the right direction. It’s crazy to me - and hopefully people will have the same thought - how Subroc was just coming into his own as a producer and an MC with that record when he was killed.

What would KMD have become on their third record and their fourth record?

What would have happened? What would KMD have become on their third record and their fourth record? It’s kind of amazing to think about, because clearly DOOM has remained talented, always pushing things forward. I think DOOM would agree that Sub was shoulder to shoulder with him on Black Bastards. I think people don’t really know that. DOOM clearly was beyond devastated that his brother was all of a sudden gone; also his partner, his artistic musical partner was also gone. It was just a double devastation for him and the fact that he rebounded is quite honestly amazing.

[If I was in his position] I don’t know if I would have ever wanted to do music again. I think that also for DOOM’s career, it’s important for people to understand what he went through because there is always a lot of speculation about Black Bastards and about how that all went down. DOOM also kind of disappeared for a year or two [after Black Bastards]. A lot of people don’t know where the hell he was and he clearly came back as an entirely new artist. If you put MF DOOM and Zev Love X side by side, there is not a hell of a lot of continuity there, but he was [artistically] reborn. Who the hell else has ever done that? Who has kind of basically reinvented himself completely and stayed relevant and [continued] pushing things forward?

People love DOOM but I think once they read this chapter they will realize that he is even more amazing than they thought because of what he went through. That was fucked up, that was really horrible in every sense of the word horrible, what happened to DOOM and obviously Sub. It’s just incredible how he came back from that, because a lot of people wouldn’t have.

As a fan also it’s really great to be able to read these stories, so thank you for collecting them.

I do these books for me as a fan in a selfish way first but also at the same time knowing that there are so many other people out there just like me who want to know the same exact things, not the same exact things but they want to know more. Nobody has ever complained about knowing more about a record they already love. It only helps you. If you already loved Black Bastards or The Cactus Album or AmeriKKKaz Most Wanted you are going to love them even more once you really realize what these artists went through to get them done.

Header image: Zev Love X, Subroc and Pete Nice at Greene Stret Studios. Photo courtesy of Pete Nice and Brian Coleman.

By Anthony Obst on October 28, 2014