One of the greatest things about listening to hip-hop—or any lyrically-focused and sample based music for that matter—is the moment when you hear a phrase, a chord progression, or even a coupling of words and you smile to yourself because it dawns on you that you “get” it. You got the reference, you recognise the sample, you suddenly understand what the musician’s trying to get at.
But the subtle nature of producing and writing hip-hop music leaves fans with little to go on at times. Like Madlib says in Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton, Dilla used to sample things he knows nobody but only Lord Quas himself would get.
That’s why, for someone like Brian Coleman, writing Check The Technique Vol. II was satisfying not only in the writing aspect, but also from a perspective of a knowledge-thirsty fan eager to learn about what went on behind the makings of their favourite albums; what these musicians as people—not just as the personas they portray—were going through. “It’s basically me as a nerdy hip-hop fan, [being] like, this is what I wanna know,” he tells me.
And he’s not alone. “Finally someone has put in perspective the stuff I have been dying to know about,” Questlove praises the book, “My circle of liner note junkies run deep, and we spend many hours dissecting the chapters in [this book].” Ice Cube commented “It’s good to see somebody going in-depth in hip-hop, not just surface shit.” You’ll find similar commendations from Chuck D, Peanut Butter Wolf and major publications for Coleman’s work.
Hip-hop albums, since the beginning, did not have liner notes. Listeners are left to make do with a list of producers, couple of publicity photos, credits and some shout outs when it came to learning about the makings of their favourite albums. What Check The Technique manage to fill in, are detailed chapters of these missing information.
The book in its 525 pages of glory, doesn’t leave anything out. “I didn’t cut down much, that is for sure,” Coleman laughs. And reading it as a fan, every bit of information to do with albums like KMD Black Bastards is what fresh green grass must be like for growing calves, meals you hastily gulp down out of curiosity, then regurgitate over and over to catch any missed details.
Sometimes you just kind of capture a moment in time and it just it touches so many people, including the artist themselves.
The DOOM we know today, guarded physically with the famed gladiator’s mask, was formerly known as Zev Love X and one part of KMD. His brother Subroc, with whom he formed the group passed before their second full length was released, and he was subsequently dropped by his label. This is what is widely conceived but the chapter goes deeper. “That one I kind of felt a bit of extra responsibility,” Coleman says, “I wanted to make sure I got it as close to correct as I could.” With an interview from ten years back when it was a “less complicated time to [DOOM]”, it shares details like the two brothers’ interdependent, mutually complimenting producing process, Subroc’s budding growth as an MC, and the reality of the music industry that led to DOOM’s transformation from his former persona.
The same process goes for the chapter on Talib Kweli and Mos Def’s 1998 album Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star. Coleman starts from the beginning, unearthing what the two rappers and the producers on the album experienced at a ripe age, the Spike Lee/Malcom X inspired movement that was going on in Brooklyn at the time, and how all of these factors led to produce the album that it was. “I go back to the prequel, you know,” he says.
And if it weren’t for his investigation, the significance of Brooklyn bookstore Nkiru to the album would have been left untold. “[That’s] really where Black Star was born,” Kweli says of the space where spoken word poetry embraced hip-hop unlike others of its time. And fittingly, too, as the dense intellect of their rap—no doubt influenced by the community and open mic events of the store—is what set Black Star apart from its contemporaries.
“I love that chapter especially because those guys are just so different. Sometimes you just kind of capture a moment in time and it just it touches so many people, including the artist themselves. I mean, they all look back on that record as a very special kind of comet passing, and they harnessed it and made something great,” Coleman says.
A reader willing to dive deep with him will be rewarded at the end of the volume with a chapter on Wild Style Breakbeats. For those that haven’t seen the 1983 film, it is arguably one of the best illustrations of hip-hop in its budding stages, on top of laying the grounds for Nas’ The Genesis, Beef Rapp and other noteworthy rap classics. In this chapter, Coleman tells the story of the core reason why him and many others love this genre, this movement: “It’s not about how much money [or] equipment you have, but if you have ingenuity and passion, you can make something really beautiful out of what you have available to you.”
When film director Charlie Ahearne set out to make movie about this emerging youth culture called hip-hop, clearing songs with a limited budget made compiling the soundtrack difficult. Ahearne’s solution was to make their own soundtrack—with the help of scenester Fred “Fab 5 Freddy” Brathwaite, who wasn’t a producer but had “funky friends”. The chapter tells of how he gathered the talents of instrumentalists Lenny Ferrari and Chris Stein and made it work—at times using a magazine as a snare drum—resulting in capturing some of the most original sounds of the time.
When asked if he’s thought about writing someone’s biography, Coleman replies yes, it’s what he would prefer to do next. “I’ve covered 66 albums up to this point, I would really love to dive deeper with one artist, one scene, a record label, or some kind of movement.” We would love to see that too.
Words: Grace Wang