Music

Shea Serrano’s ‘Hip-Hop (And Other Things)’ Is The Rap Book You Need To Read

Since the last time I spoke with Shea Serrano, he has reached another historic career milestone. His newest book, Hip-Hop (And Other Things), the third in his (And Other Things) trilogy along with Basketball and Movies, has reached the New York Times bestsellers list, making him and his collaborator, illustrator Arturo Torres, the first Mexican-Americans to reach the list four times (Serrano’s second book, The Rap Yearbook, was his first bestseller). The New York Times Book Review has been published weekly since October 12, 1931. Nearly 100 years. Just a huge accomplishment.

That’s the sort of odd factual tidbit that finds its way into Serrano’s writing, along with footnotes, off-kilter observations, funny asides, affecting personal anecdotes, and more than occasionally, startlingly astute insight into the various subjects about which he writes. The books are framed around questions that he poses that sometimes read as goofy or less than serious and the answers that he provides, which can seem goofy until he makes a comparison or uses a metaphor that whacks you over the head with a sound like a thunderclap, and you realize that you’ve just — shudder — learned something.

The questions in Serrano’s latest book range from the sort of thing that often crops up in conversation, like “Which was the most perfect duo in rap history?” to double take-inducing daydreams like “Is Action Bronson a good travel partner?” There’s a hypothetical interview with a chicken. There’s a debate between Kendrick Lamar’s magnum opus (undoubtedly Good Kid, MAAD City) and Kanye’s (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — questionable), and an extended analysis of Black Thought’s 10-minute Funkmaster Flex freestyle, which Shea can be seen evangelizing on Twitter every few months.

Over the course of our Zoom call, the author and I addressed some of these questions and more, but then things started to get really philosophical and personal — as they tend to do in the book, as well. It seemed fitting and it was funny and a grand time was had by all. Buy the book — you’ll thank me later.

What was the logic behind making hip-hop, the last one in your (And Other Things) trilogy?

Arturo and I, when we pitched the idea for the end of the thing series, we did it as a three-book thing and we knew we were going to do movies, basketball, and hip-hop. And so we just put them in order of what’s the one we want to do the most. And we both voted that it was hip-hop. And so we said, okay, well, let’s save that one for last, that way we could end on it. By that point, we will have been working on it for six years; we’re going to both be pretty tired. We’re going to both be ready for it to be over and so you end on the thing you’re most excited about. That way, it feels less like work and more like you’re celebrating the end of whatever journey it is that you’ve been on.

Even though it’s about hip-hop, I find it really amusing that you almost can’t talk about rap music without talking about basketball or movies and kind of vice versa.

I think those three subjects naturally fold over onto themselves. We’ve seen literal examples of it, of a person who was a basketball player, and then they would star in a movie.

Shaq!

Shaq, who was a basketball player, starred in Blue Chips and then put out a platinum-selling rap album. Tupac was a rapper and then he was in a movie about basketball. They’re all always together. For me, growing up, watching these movies, listening to this music, playing basketball, just felt like these were the three coolest things. So, of course, it makes sense that the three coolest things populated by the coolest people on the planet are all sort of co-mingling.

Bun B’s intro is such a cool full-circle moment. How did you feel when you finally got a chance to get Bun B to do this because he’s sort of the reason we’re even here talking about this? [Serrano’s first book was the Rap Coloring Book, a collaboration with the Port Arthur rapper.]

I was incredibly proud and humbled and Bun is, in my history of being a journalist, one of the three or four smartest people I’ve ever talked to. Whenever you have a conversation with him, he talks in paragraphs, which to me is crazy. You’re listening to me on this podcast now. And every six words, there’s a pause in there because I have to collect the things I’m going to say next that are coming out. He doesn’t do that. He has fully coherent thoughts about every single thing you could ask him. And I think it’s the most interesting thing, he also is just incredibly insightful. You ask him a question about one thing and he answers it but really he answers the question that you were meaning to ask that you didn’t quite ask. He’s just the best. To have Bun do the foreword for it was just a super cool moment. It really meant a lot to me.

The questions are always really funny in the context of these books but this one really goes super-duper left field, like the chapter where you do the Hunger Games hype music [“What’s The Order Of The Lottery Pick Songs?”]. Do you know which ones are the ones or is it a process of whittling them down? Do you pitch them?

I don’t pitch the ideas to anybody else. I might ask the editor, “What do you think of this? What do you think of that?” Or I might hit up somebody like you and be like, “Hey, tell me how you feel about this idea.” I’m fortunate to be friends with people who are smarter than I am, so I could throw something at them, and then they might say a thing that activates something else and then we end up with a new idea, but mostly it’s just sort of me sitting there trying to figure out how to write about a thing in a way that hasn’t been done yet.

I think a very common conversation people might have is, “What song would you have play as your walk-up song if you were a baseball player?” Or “If you were a boxer, what song would you have play when you come walking out to the ring?” In the movie, Creed, Donny has Tupac playing when he walks out to the ring. That collection of chapters is essentially a version of that conversation but you have to figure out a way that hasn’t been done yet. I searched all around and I didn’t find nobody had written about it in this particular way. It doesn’t always work a lot of times it starts out as one thing. And then you get 2000 words into it and you, it’s not as much fun as I thought it would be. It’s not as clever as I thought it would be. It doesn’t let me do all of the little tricks I want to do. So, you’re just trying out there and hoping it works.

I can’t talk about all of the successes and everything that has happened for you without talking about the FOH Army. I’m not sure how many Uproxx readers are going to know about the FOH. I know you’re tired of explaining it, but man, it is an incredible thing.

I’d never get tired of explaining it because it’s very important, it’s wildly important. The FOH Army is like a generic or general name somebody came up with for basically the group of us who interact or play around on Twitter or whatever, that’s what it is. And sometimes we’re doing philanthropic work, other times, we’re just sharing music, other times we’re buying books or whatever it might be. But it started out as this small thing in 2015 or so and then it has just grown and grown and grown and gotten bigger and bigger and bigger and more powerful.

This is the whole reason that any of my books have made the bestseller list. We’ve got four of them so far, and it’s not a coincidence that the first one happened right around when the sort of FOH was starting up because it was just like, “All of a sudden you have 30,000 people or whatever it is who will show up and buy a thing.” We sold 8,000 copies of The Rap Yearbook the first week, which at the time was like, holy crap. This is tremendous. We were supposed to sell 800. But we didn’t sell 8,000 copies to 8,000 people. We sold 8,000 copies to like 3000 people. So now, because of that, I have this remarkable freedom in my career where I can sit down with a publisher and I’ll be like, hey, I would like to write a book for y’all and they will just go, great. Here’s a check. They won’t ask me what it’s going to be about. They won’t ask me when I’m going to turn it in. They’re just like, that sounds good to us because they know what I know.

Then you’re going to give all the money away because you have this tendency of doing that. You are the first person to promote your work by doing things for other people. The last question is the question that I end all my interviews with. You do so many interviews. You get asked the same questions all the time. What question do you wish interviewers would ask where the answer is something you really want to talk about but they never have?

See the thing of it is, I’m not super interested in talking about myself or talking about how I feel about things. That’s the point of writing. This is why I like writing so much. Cause I can just put it on the screen and send it off and then everybody can see it. And then there you go.

That would be great if that was the only part of the writing job. It’s not. You have to do all the other stuff. You have to do all of the… when a book comes out especially, I start getting nightmares and shit like that. It’s a real thing because I know for the next three weeks or whatever, all day, every day, I’m going to have to be in these interviews and people are going to ask me questions and I’m going to be like, you just start to feel like, “Why are they talking to me?”

In the Time Is Illmatic documentary, there’s this really great part when they’re looking at a picture of Nas right when all the stuff was about to take off. It’s him and a bunch of other people sitting on the bench outside of where he grew up. The guy is going through person by person in the picture. He’s talking about a kid in the picture, grew up and this kid went to jail for this many years, this guy was in and out for this many years and he’s just going through it. And then while they’re hearing it, we’re watching Nas who’s listening to this as well.

And he is just overcome by grief almost. And he’s like, “Man, how lucky was I that this part didn’t happen to me. You look at everybody in that picture. This is one person, I happened to be the one person that, that didn’t happen to.” It might be one of my three or four favorite Nas moments. ‘Cause he’s so smart and so insightful. Very rarely is there a time where he doesn’t immediately have the right answer. And right there, you see him sit with it for a second and it’s going to be like, “Oh! Does he not know what to say here? Or is he going to say a stupid thing?” Nope. He starts talking and you’re like, “That’s exactly perfect.” That’s Nas. That’s what Nas does. But yeah, it’s some version of that feeling.

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