Rising Music Stars
Nelson George is a novelist, cultural critic, and filmmaker. After receiving his degree from St. John's University in 1982, George first worked for New York's Amsterdam News, later becoming an editor at Billboard and a columnist for the Village Voice. Many of his books -- both fiction and non-fiction -- have focused on black popular culture. George is the author of Hip Hop America and The Death of Rhythm and Blues, both studies of black urban music, as well as the novels Night Work and Urban Romance. George co-wrote the films Strictly Business (1991) and CB4 (1993); he also directed To Be a Black Man, a short based on a piece he wrote for the Voice that starred Samuel L. Jackson.
Question: Whose work are you watching?
Nelson George: It’s hard to tell, and sometimes I think I’m too old to know. So I don’t necessarily . . . I don’t really think that I . . . I’m not nearly as plugged in. I was listening to Hot 97. I turned on Hot 97 and thought, “Okay, what the hell is going on here?” I mean you know I think that a guy like Kanye West is interesting because of his own . . . I think any artist who is battling his own demons within their art is good. So I think the fact that he’s got this ongoing debate about materialism and spirituality, which kind of runs through a lot of his work, is a really good thing. And I like that about him, and I think he’s a really talented music maker. The fact that his mother just died coming on the heels of this record may be, you know . . . I’m interested to see what music comes out of this experience. Because one of the things that hip hop hasn’t been is truly spiritual in an interested way. And I think that’s the difference between it and soul music – that the wrestling with the higher desires and the base desires is what made soul music so compelling. And I think that’s . . . And I think Kanye’s had the chance to tap into some of that.
I admire Common and what Common . . . He seems like a good soldier and he’s trying to do some good stuff. And he’s a really decent guy, and I can’t say that about, you know . . . He’s very clear about what he’s about and seems to have come to terms with being in hip hop and also having this kind of message. But aside from that I don’t . . . There are people who make good music, but I don’t necessarily think that there’s a transcendent musician. I think it’s harder to be that transcendent musician because of the fragmentation of how music works. When Prince . . . __________ Prince, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna. They all . . . You look back and there’s a period in the early ‘80s when they were all . . . “Born in the U.S.A.”, “Thriller”, “Purple Rain”, “Like a Virgin” – these mammoth cultural events that come through music with videos and with these mammoth live concerts. And those four artists were probably as broad . . . They had such a big tent of fans of different kinds. It’s incredibly difficult for anybody to be that now because it’s hard to get that weight . . . that cultural weight through music. You sell, and you have fans. But I don’t know if you’re able . . . It’s very hard to get that big, huge audience that makes you that, you know . . .
I think U2 is a group that has evolved, you know, from being a very appreciated, if you will, intelligent cult band to this massive, stadium-sized . . . And then beyond stadiums with Bono’s engagement in large issues. So U2 is actually a band that’s maintained . . . managed to maintain and be consistently important. So I . . . But I think again their roots go back 20 years or so, so they’ve had this whole weight of history that drives the music. I think it’s gonna be harder for them to do . . . harder for younger musicians to create that. The ambitious ones who really wanna be that, it’s harder to be that now because it’s harder to reach all the people you need to reach. Radio . . . Everyone doesn’t listen to the same radio stations. Everyone isn’t gonna see the same videos. People are more fragmented into their . . . how they use music. So I . . . It’s gonna be difficult.
Nelson George talks about who is on the way to make great music.
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