Nelson George: More Than Just Music
Nelson George: More Than Just Music
by Omar Burgess
There’s really no politically correct way to discuss the problem of how Hip Hop celebrates its own culture—namely the Hip Hop award show. Perhaps the only thing worse than the many decades the Grammy's, American Music Awards and MTV completely ignored Hip Hop’s contributions to Pop culture, was the job we’ve done.
Aside from the fact that said award shows inevitably ended up on that shining beacon of black culture, the now-defunct UPN network, the mantra of “keeping it real” always produced head-shaking results. Beatdowns and chain-snatchings were commonplace. And occasionally beef followed artists from the studio to the venue to produce the occasional knifing or shootout.
In 2004 VH1 emerged with Hip Hop Honors, in hopes of properly paying tribute to the culture’s past while showcasing its future. The staff had experience in TV, movies and, most importantly, in the streets of Brooklyn, Harlem and The Bronx during Hip Hop’s infancy. In anticipation of the fifth installment of the show, co-executive producer Nelson George broke down what goes on behind the scenes, and why he and his peers are up for the impossible task of trying to please so many discriminating palettes.
HipHopDX: Can you explain how you, Fab 5 Freddy and Christina Norman got Hip Hop Honors started?
Nelson George: Christina was running VH1 about six years ago, and she was really a key person in terms of turning that whole network around. There started being more of a black presence on VH1. Obviously, when she came with the idea of Hip Hop Honors, it meant by definition there would be more black folks at the network. I’m not sure who it was, but I came from a recommendation. They brought me in, and I think Fab [5 Freddy] already had a longstanding relationship with those folks. There was also Jac Benson [II], whom I had known and worked with before in different environments. Lee Rolontz, Keshia Williams and some of the talent bookers were also part of the core group who put the show together.
DX: Wasn’t most of your experience in movies before that?
NG: I had done some TV stuff with for The Chris Rock Show, but never this kind of show. This was a big bit of exposure for me. Freddy and I initially came on as consulting producers during the first two or three years. That involved everything from talking about the criteria for selecting people to actually trying to select people. We worked on who would be involved in which tributes, and we did a lot of work on the script. The first year Freddy and I were also interviewed on camera for some of the tribute packages. Last year I directed the intro as well as some of the runners with Tracy Morgan. So I’ve had a variety of jobs with the show.
DX: In the past you would never see Hip Hop on VH1. After Hip Hop Honors we started seeing icons like Ice T, Salt-N-Pepa and, for better or worse, Flavor Flav. Is it fair to say you guys opened the doors for Hip Hop at the network?
NG: The first year we did the show, we faced a lot of resistance from people who thought, “Why is VH1 even doing this? They’re not really in a Hip Hop space.” So there was definitely a major attitude shift that needed to occur. People were either skeptical or confused as to why VH1 was doing this. The brand of VH1 was not really associated with Hip Hop in that way.
There was definitely a period where people were like, “I’m not sure. I don’t want to be involved,” or “I don’t think you know what you’re doing.” The first year was the toughest year, no doubt about it. We had to establish it from scratch, and it has a lot of moving parts—honorees, people giving tribute and people’s general skepticism of what the show would be. It was a real challenge trying to invent the show.
VH1 had done Divas, and to some degree that was a template for combining people who don’t normally perform together. But, again, VH1 was known for Pop, Rock and some older Soul or R&B acts to a lesser extent. I do think Hip Hop Honors was a benchmark, and it opened up VH1 for business. Producers in TV, as well as artists, began seeing VH1 as a possible home for shows they wanted to do. It’s certainly become a destination for Hip Hop based reality shows.
DX: Despite the success, certain pioneers like DJ Disco Wiz and Jazzy Jay have been extremely critical of when artists are honored, the selection process and the credentials of the selection committee. Any thoughts?
NG: Well, number one, it’s a TV show. That’s the thing everyone should remember. There’s a lot of pressure, and rightfully so, to make sure people watch it. As much as the pioneers in New York feel they may not have been honored, it is a national show. One of the things we’re always aware of is trying to make sure people outside of New York are honored and have a presence. This year we have Too $hort. For the Bay Area he is DJ Hollywood. He is DJ Kool Herc. He’s the building block from which the whole Oakland scene comes from. If you just do New York people, then you just have a New York show.
The truth is Hip Hop is a national and international movement. This is true even with the tributes. When we did Big Daddy Kane, we had T.I. [click to read] very early on in his career. Common, who is from Chicago, was also on that show. I think it’s very important for people to keep in mind that it’s a national show. There are people who are very well-known in The Bronx and Harlem who don’t have a national profile.
I really fought hard to get DJ Hollywood on [in 2004], because for me Hollywood is a signature artist. He and Herc introduced me to Hip Hop in a very profound way. I saw both of them in the late ‘70’s before there were any thoughts of having records. Both Herc, and Hollywood to some degree, have name recognition, but people don’t really know what they look like. Once you get past that level of brands like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five or Afrika Bambaataa, then you have to try and figure out how to get them on the show vis-à-vis people who bring in ratings. If we don’t get ratings we don’t have a show. It’s a balancing act. I don’t think any award show dealing with anything historic satisfies everybody. I don’t think it’s possible.
DX: That’s definitely a valid argument. Are there any other difficulties?
NG: Another thing we are trying to do, which has been a real challenge, is making sure women are involved. We’ve had Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte, and this year Eve is going to be presenting, and she’s involved in paying tribute to one of our male honorees. One thing that’s very interesting is that, when you look at the ratings during the show, every time a female is on—from Missy [Elliott] to Salt-N-Pepa to Lyte—the ratings during that time are either the highest, or the second highest, during the entire show.
NG: Absolutely. When we did En Vogue featuring Salt-N-Pepa [in 2005] the numbers shot up. There’s something to be said for the fact that, even though Hip Hop is more of a male-oriented culture, having women present brings women to the party. We don’t want to leave that element out, and the audience really responds when there’s a woman in the mix. That’s one of the biggest challenges this year. In some respects, that’s the biggest issue with the show—maybe more than the whole old school, new school thing.
This year we’re honoring Naughty By Nature [click to read]. We couldn’t get [Queen] Latifah in the building, because she’s running around the country promoting her new movie. But she taped a funny comedy piece with her and Tracy Morgan, which leads into the Naughty tribute. So we try to get female emcees and DJs involved as much as possible.
DX: Considering that, how difficult is it to include women when there isn’t really a dominant female artist out right now?
NG: It’s very difficult. When we did the Lyte tribute, we had a great lineup—Lil Kim, Da Brat and a couple others. There’s Eve, and maybe you can make an argument for Trina. Eve isn’t really that active anymore. She had an album that kind of came out and then didn’t come out. It’s problematic. If we wanted to honor Latifah, who would we get to do the tribute?
DX: Yeah, it’s kind of slim pickings right now. But the pioneers seem harder to appease than the ladies.
NG: We tried to go back and get as many of the people from those early days as we could, and some people just turned us down. We’ve been turned down by some older pioneers who either didn’t want to do it, or they just weren’t ready to be honored. We’ve also been turned down by bigger stars from that middle period who are worried that getting honored makes it look like they’re over. There are a lot of issues going on within the artists themselves, as far as where they fit into the contemporary scene and their relationship to the past. We’ve definitely had artists who were reluctant to be on the stage, and then still came to the show. There have also been artists who have gone back and forth about it and finally said no.
DX: There seems to be a non-stop argument about old school versus new school and the group who is sort of in between.
NG: There are a lot of people in that middle group who are ‘80’s to ‘90’s bridge artists. We’re trying to figure out which of those artists want to be honored, deserve to be honored and are comfortable being honored. A lot of these artists are still at a point where they want to put out a new record. For example, Naughty plans on releasing a new album soon. They said they were going to put a new single out, and hopefully release an album this fall. A lot of people from that group are a little conflicted about if they should be honored at this point in time. Does that make them no longer contemporary? There’s a lot of philosophical issues the artists have to wrestle with.
DX: In some respects the show sounds like a microcosm of everything going on in the culture—egos, gender equality and the fight for more money.
NG: The things happening with Hip Hop in a larger sense definitely affect the show—just in terms of booking people to do the tributes. I’m not saying something new when I say emcees with these types of skills are not coming out of the record companies on a regular basis right now. You end up with people who have hits and could be bringing in ratings. But they’re not people who would necessarily work paying tribute to Slick Rick, De La Soul or Naughty By Nature. The artists themselves obviously have a lot of input into who tributes them, and they have their own thoughts and issues regarding who tributes them.
There’s about five or six people where, every honoree wants them to do the tribute. You have situations where either those people aren’t available or they’ve already committed to doing something else. Finding who to tribute and figuring out how to tribute them is definitely an interesting challenge. A lot of artists are very vocal about that because it’s their career, and they want the right person. All the issues affecting the quality of the music in Hip Hop—who’s hot, and what movements are happening—affect the show profoundly.
DX: Hip Hop is still pretty young, so you don’t have the luxury of making everyone wait a certain amount of years before they’re honored like the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame does. Cypress Hill’s first album dropped 17 years ago, so some people from the 106 & Park generation would consider them old school…
NG: When you look at where we are now, I wouldn’t call Cypress Hill old school. I would say there’s old school and there’s middle school. Look at Naughty By Nature. They were from [New] Jersey, and they went to all the shows and saw all of the early Hip Hop acts like Run DMC and Public Enemy. Their careers were built on that first wave of emcees who had hit records. They came right after that. You can make that argument for Cypress Hill too, to some degree. So they’re not really old school.
When you talk about old school, you’re talking about people who have roots in the 70’s to the mid 80’s. [Naughty By Nature and Cypress Hill] are based in the late 80’s and 90’s, which is a different generation. These are the people who weren’t inventing Hip Hop per se, but they were inventing new ways to be successful in Hip Hop. I think we’re at the point where we’re trying to get those people on there, and that’s a different thing. We’ve done a lot of the people on record who were major pioneers. We’ve done most of the important people, and now you get into this group that’s kind of in the middle. It’s just a matter of the evolution of the culture.
DX: Whether it’s intentional or not, a lot of award shows end up looking like they’re parading out a bunch of washed up artists instead of paying tribute. How has Hip Hop Honors been able to avoid that?
NG: I just think we’ve been able to do some really good matching. Every show we’ve done has had some incredible performances. One thing about some of these middle school artists, if you will, is that they can still really perform. Whodini was great, and they were a well-loved group. Nelly [click to read] and Jermaine Dupri [click to read]were very excited to go on stage [with them]. They had an extraordinary performance, and Nelly came out and did The Wop. It was a lot of fun.
Of all the performances, Big Daddy Kane is everyone’s favorite moment. That performance built up from T.I., to Common, Black Thought and then Kane himself. It’s one of those magical things, where the room just kept getting more intense. It felt like the roof was going to blow off the building when Kane started dancing. Kane is in great shape, and he made it his business to be in great shape for that show. He knew everyone was going to be there.
The night we had the Nelly and LL Cool J thing was great too. One of the great dynamics of the show that’s not on camera, is the rehearsal. The day before, and usually the day of the show, there’s a run-through for camera. Most of the artists are usually there. We had this one moment where LL was there, and a bunch of younger emcees were just watching him.
One of the biggest changes from the '80's is that a lot of these guys used to tour together. More of the artists had contact. They knew each other, whether they liked each other or just had a rivalry. In today’s age there are so many cliques, and the big tours don’t happen anymore. Hip Hop Honors allows a lot of the artists to either meet or see each other perform live for the first time. That energy ends up on the stage. One of the things that make the show work is that the young and the old meet each other. They’re collaborating and talking. And everyone has huge egos. No one wants to go out. Even if the walkthrough performance was so-so, when the adrenaline kicks in they give an incredible performance on the stage. They know they’re being judged by their peers. To me, that’s one of the incredible things about Hip Hop when it works. The show works best when the artists have that sense of, “I’m being watched by my peers. No matter what my reputation is, I’m here to maintain my reputation.” That’s a big part of why the show really works. There’s a level of friendly competitiveness, which is what Hip Hop used to be all about.
DX: Christina Norman left in 2005, and Reginald Hudlin left BET in early September. Does that pose any threat to the future of shows such as Hip Hop Honors?
NG: BET’s still going to have shows. They’re a black network. I’m still going to be doing two or three shows for them. I think the people at VH1 have been very committed to Hip Hop Honors and continuing black programming in general. I have this soul travel show on VH1 Soul coming out in November. We went to Philly, New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago, L.A. and the Bay Area. That’s a show which is kind of a direct result of my relationship [with VH1] through Hip Hop Honors. They began saying, “We need more regional programming on VH1 Soul. Nelson’s someone we’ve worked with. Nelson’s obviously someone who knows a lot about soul culture and soul music.” I pitched them about three different ideas, and they bought that one. So I think they are very aware of this evolution and the fact that they need to continue doing it.
DX: Since you brought it up, can you give us a synopsis of your new series, Soul Cities?
NG: It’s a celebration of the culture of Soul music today. When I say that, I mean food, music and historical landmarks. You can go to any one of these cities, and you’ll know great restaurants to eat at and great clubs to go to. You’ll hear great music and get to associate with the people who made it.
DX: Did any cities stand out?
NG:We just finished the Philly show, which was incredible. We had Gamble and Huff talking about their careers as song writers in their famous studio. We had Jazmine Sullivan, a young soul singer with hit record who’s opening for Maxwell. We had Patti LaBelle, and LaBelle has just reformed. We also had Ahmir [“?uestlove”] Thompson and Kindred [the Family Soul]. We did all of this in restaurants, clubs and environments that are very Philly associated. I must say I was very proud of myself, for somehow convincing Gamble and Huff to play piano and sing parts of some of the songs they wrote. They never do that kind of stuff. Fucking amazing! LaBelle did an acapella version of [The O’Jays’] “For the Love of Money,” which is sick. Jazmine Sullivan sang acapella too. It’s got a really great feel of that city.
In San Francisco we went to some incredible nouvelle cuisine, soul-food restaurants. They have black, European-trained chefs, and their take on soul food is completely different from traditional soul-food. We had Robin Thicke [click to read] performing at a club in the Bay Area, and we also had Raphael Saadiq [click to read] performing.
One feature I have on every show is that going to old-school, vinyl-junkie hangouts. I go to record stories that sell old-school Funk, Hip Hop or Dance music, but it’s primarily vinyl. It’s just celebrating the fact that the culture is still alive, and vinyl has become the new collector’s medium. In each city I do a listing of the top five records from each city—top five Philly, top five Bay Area, top five Chicago, Memphis, LA and New Orleans.
DX: How was post-Katrina New Orleans?
NG: New Orleans was amazing. Despite all the trouble the city has had, the musical core of the city is incredible. The musicianship is outstanding. I talked to the great jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard. Raheem DeVaughn, who just did the Essence Music Festival, was down there. We kicked it about New Orleans and about the music down there.
We met a charismatic, local musician, who is just genius, named Kermit Ruffins. He has a band called the Barbeque Swingers, and he barbeques outside of the club before he performs there. He was making turkey necks and grilling yams while we were there, and then he also played some trumpet.
DX: Wow, that’s pretty unheard of.
NG: Yeah. The show is definitely different, and I’m all over the place. You really get the feeling of these very diverse places where black culture comes out of. I’m very, very excited about the show. It’s also the first time I’ve hosted anything. I’ve done a million interviews and million documentaries, but I’ve never been the host. The mix of food, culture and music has never been done like this. We use soul in a very large way, but it’s not all soul-food restaurants. Sometimes we use Creole, Chinese food or even Mexican, depending on the city. The idea is to use food that reflects the essence of that particular town.
When we were in Memphis at the Stax Museum, it was insane. Then we went to the Civil Rights Museum. A lot of people don’t know the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] was murdered, has been turned into a museum. You walk through the entire museum, and it slowly leads you up. The last exhibit is the room that King was shot in. In fact, the famous balcony that you always see people pointing to, is right there. You can look out and actually see the spot Dr. King was shot at. It’s a serious visit, and it’s very emotional. But that’s also a part of soul culture and black America.
DX: It’s an interesting blend. There’s what you’ve often referred to as “Post-Soul generation” and the black migration. And then there’s my generation, which reflects civic pride in everything from tattoos to riding donks.
NG: Absolutely. My idea for the show was to have that sense of continuity. In Chicago we had Jerry Butler, Lalah Hathaway and a singer named Ya [Extraordinaire], who’s coming up on the underground scene. The interviews are really about the city. We’re not asking Jerry Butler about his entire career. We ask the artists what the city means to them and how it influences their music. We want to know what distinguishes your city. Everyone we talked to loved their city, and we got a lot of really intimate details. The sense of continuity, with past and present existing together, is really a big part of the show. I hope the show is a way to connect generations. Plus there’s a lot of good eating in there. There’s so many restaurants to hit when you go to these cities.
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