Reflections on the late rapper’s historic career, one-of-a-kind talent, and hilarious ‘Top Five’ cameo

Photo: Johnny Nunez/Getty Images

When I first heard “Get at Me Dog” in 1998, I thought, Def Jam is back.

The Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons-founded label, then home base to LL Cool J, Public Enemy, and the Beastie Boys, ran in the hip-hop wars. Yet it had been outpaced, first by West Coast gangsta rap, then by the luxurious lifestyle rhymes of Diddy’s Bad Boy and the rise of Southern juggernauts like No Limit. Akin to Cold Chillin’, Uptown, and Tommy Boy, Def Jam seemed ready to be another once-important New York rap music enterprise slated for irrelevance.

DMX’s aforementioned debut single sounded…

Maxwell’s debut is a beautiful product of a time and place

(Anytime you want, I’ll always be free)
Anytime you want some
(You’re welcome babe, you’re welcome to me)
Make yourself at home cause you’re welcome

From “Welcome” the opening song on Urban Hang Suite

Released April 2, 1996 Maxwell’s ‘Urban Hang Suite’ was an instant landmark in the history of black popular music, connecting the dots between classic ’70s soul music and the suave dance music of ’90s New York City club culture. …

I was having lunch at my favorite dosa spot in Soho pre-pandemic when I heard a voice by the cash register say the order was for “Benjamin.” I looked up and there, waiting on his dosa, was the world’s most mysterious MC, Andre Benjamin aka Andre 3000 formerly of the innovative duo Outkast. I’d interviewed him for Spin magazine not long after the explosive success of ‘Speakerboxx/The Love Below,’ but we were hardly friends.

Still, I invited him to sit down, and he did. For about forty minutes we ate dosas, talked life, art and hip hop. Andre was living…

Thoughts on the Brooklyn MC’s social media obsession after watching the Showtime Doc series

Nelson George

Just watched the Showtime documentary, ‘Tekashi 6ix9ine: The Rise and Fall of a Supervillain,’ which brought me back to the summer of 2019 when his trial captured the intersection of contemporary musical stardom and 21st century gangsta life. I became fascinated with the testimony of Daniel Hernandez, better known as Tekashi 6ixX9ine, partly because it felt like Scorsese’s ‘Goodfellows’ come to life and largely because it spoke to how powerfully the gangsta ethos resonates in our popular culture. …

There are two biographical visions of Aretha Franklin in the streaming pipeline — one starring Cynthia Erivo and the other toplining Jennifer Hudson. Well good luck to them since the documentary ‘Amazing Grace,’ released in 2018, is the definitive document of her extraordinary vocal ability. The Queen of Soul died in 2018 and had blocked that film’s release for years, apparently unhappy with proposed payments. Whatever Aretha’s reservations about the film I believe her estate did her legacy a great service in agreeing to let this testament to her singular, unmatched talent see reach cinemas.

Every time one of the…

When Rick Rubin signed the Beastie Boys to Def Jam and Russell Simmons booked them to open to for both Public Enemy and Madonna in the late ’80s they took a risk by putting a white rap group before two very different audiences — one comfortable with black nationalist rhetoric, the other in thrall to a female pop idol. Through those very different experiences the Beasties found their own audience, one that was largely white like Madonna’s but musically way more adventurous and open to the kind of sonic experimentation practiced by PE’s Bomb Squad.

At the time there was…

A short look at the long relationship between the underworld and music world in the years before hip hop

Nelson George

7 min ago

During the Prohibition era, from 1920 to 1933 when alcohol sales were banded in the United States, the “speakeasy” was a code word for locations where illegal booze was available for purchase often accompanied by music, dancing, other recreation drugs and sex, both consensual and mercenary. Often the purveyors of the booze, known as bootleggers, were recent immigrant groups who were locked out mainstream American businesses. While that thirteen year experiment in behavior control failed as government policy, it had the unintended consequence of cementing a marriage of the criminal underworld and the music industry.

Celebrations of What’s Goin’ On’s 50th anniversary lead me back to an crucial era of black media expansion

Nelson George

This month I’ve done a number of interviews about Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Goin’ On’ album, which turns fifty this year. In a poll Rolling Stone magazine named it the number album of the rock era. It’s been cited by activists and social commentators as a recording that speaks to the Black Lives Matter movement like few contemporary albums do. …

Kenny Gamble’s Philly International Records just turned 50, but another endeavor wasn’t as enduring. A look back at a unique moment in the culture of R&B

Nelson George

15 min ago

In the late ’70s Philadelphia was a tough town to be a righteous black person in. The Mayor, Frank Rizzo, who’d been a reactionary police commissioner in the late ’60s, ruled with an implicit mandate — keep the city controlled by the same (white) ethnic forces that had run Philadelphia for decades. That meant a heavy handed, often brutal brand of policing. Under Rizzo’s authority the Philadelphia Police Department raided the local Black Panther headquarters in 1970 and had its members strip searched on the sidewalk, in full view of passersby and photographers. A photo…

Revisiting my interview with the superstar just a few months before his death

Photo: Rob Verhorst/Getty Images

In the back room corner of my old Fort Greene apartment was an old plastic file cabinet. Inside, buried beneath some college newspaper clippings, promotional photos of old Stax stars (Isaac Hayes, Booker T & the MGs), and datebooks from the 1980s, was a ticket stub I should have kept in a place of honor. It was from Madison Square Garden, Saturday, September 20, 1980. The show started at 8:00 p.m. The ticket price for an orchestra seat was $12.50, but mine had “Guest” stamped on it since it was complimentary. …

Nelson George

Author and filmmaker. Current books: a novel, The Darkest Hearts (Akashic); music collection The Nelson George Mixtape (Pacific)

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