Ben Greenman on Questlove, George Clinton Memoirs: "When It Comes To These Books, You Have To Audition"
A great book is like a great song, once it gets in your head, it's in there for the rest of your life. Just ask Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson and George Clinton, two of America's greatest living recording artists, and now authors.
Their albums and shows have pushed the creative boundaries of successive generations of sound while consistently maintaining mass appeal. So how does one transcend beyond selling millions of records? The written word.
It's all with the help of co-author Ben Greenman. The Miami native and former New Times reporter penned the New York Times best-selling Mo Meta Blues, for Quest, and Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard on You?: A Memoir for Clinton.
Greenman grew up fishing with his grandpa in Hallandale and graduated from Palmetto High. Here's what he had to say about his favorite stories, spending a year backstage at Late Night, and fishing with George Clinton in Tallahassee.
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New Times: What's your history with the Miami book fair?
Ben Greenman: I'm from Miami, but I was born in 1969 so I didn't go as a kid. I really only started to go as an author. I've been going since 2000, when I published my first book.
When did you start reading New Times?
I was a reporter at New Times. I got hired in June of 1990 as a movie critic and general interest reporter. It was very new. It was originally called The Wave and then New Times bought it and they turned it into Miami New Times. Greg Baker was there before me, but I was one of the very early classes of reporters there.
Was the first thing you wrote an article about the Cash Dome Pawn Shop?
That's one of the early ones. The first big piece I wrote was about a sexual harassment lawsuit in Dade County HUD, "The Unwanted Touch." I know I did a movie review. I was the main movie critic. I think it was Gremlins II.
How did you get started writing about music?
I got started writing about music from listening to a ton of music. At New Times I was listening to records all the time. But there's two different parts: writing as a critic, and writing as a collaborator like I did with Questlove and George Clinton. I've written criticism forever, but the collaborations are really only over the last decade.
How did you meet Questlove and George Clinton?
It's interesting. In 2009 my book Please Step Back, (which I think Scott Cunningham wrote about) came out. It's a novel about a funk rock musician, kind of like Sly Stone. Since I was 9 or 10 years old, I was obsessed with Sly Stone's Greatest Hits cassette. I played it 1,000 times and burned it out and bought it again.
All my life I wanted to do a real biography on him, talk to people who knew him, pull out the microfiche at the library. But I didn't like all the bad drug problem stories I found out about and I abandoned the project and turned it into a novel. I think that indirectly got me all these jobs. Somebody in his management team found out about it and called me. When it comes to all these books, you have to audition. You meet the artist and talk with them so they can see if you're going to give their story a good presentation and be fair and listen well. And that's what I did with Quest and George. But the first domino that fell was the novel. And as it turns out, George's book has a lot of Sly Stone in it. It ends up being the true version of what I wrote the novel about. It's a little weird for me.
What was the process for reporting and writing the books?
Quest lives in NYC, so I would go see him once a week at what at the time was Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and is now The Tonight Show. We'd have long weekly interviews and we did that in person for a year. George lives in Tallahassee and he's on the road a lot. I went fishing with him a couple of times and saw him here and there over the course of two years.
What was your favorite story from each?
It's funny. Very different people. Questlove, he's about my age, a fairly clean life in terms of not a lot of drugs or crazy partying. He's a pretty scholarly, smart, contained person. Not gonna get a lot of insanity. So we designed a book that's kind of a like an exploded memoir. It's his life story, but I talk, his manager talks, the editor is there, there's footnotes, and there are really good and funny stories like rollerskating with Prince, and meeting Morris Day, and Stevie Wonder. Stories about Pharcyde, the first time he heard J Dilla. About touring with his father as a little kid doing doo wop music and oldies circuits, cutting light gels, and drumming in the family band. His father being sampled on Dr Dre's The Chronic. Being 8 years old and seeing KISS walk out an elevator in a hotel while going to get soda from a vending machine.
George is a guy who's been in the business 50 years and has crazy stories of buying drugs, abusing drugs, crazy parties, and much more hedonistic debauched music business. Probably the best story in terms of how you'd start the movie is in the early '80s. He's just done Atomic Dog, a huge hit after the P Funk empire dissolves. He goes on tour, but he's scared of being a fucked up drug addict so he gets a crack rock and says "I'm not gonna smoke this whole tour." He pulls it out and shows it to people, plays marbles with it, and he probably didn't stay sober, but he didn't smoke it. He keeps the crack rock the whole time and when the tour ends he's in a hotel room smoking it and catches the room on fire. That kind of thing happened all the time.
What was it like fishing with George Clinton in Tallahassee?
It was great. I knew he really liked fishing. It was George and some of his lifelong friends all together for a family reunion birthday party. I got a lot of interviews and stayed up all night and typed while they talked. My grandfather lived in Hallandale and I used to go fishing with him growing up. The amazing thing about George is how good his memory is.
What is the cultural importance of pop culture?
I don't think we really know. We don't know what things that we call pop culture will actually turn into the classical music of the future. Two hundred years ago it was just music. I think just like any form of culture, it's people's ideas of the world around them that they try to package in a way that reaches others in a broad audience.
Will there be a sequel to either of the books?
There will definitely be a sequel to Quest's book in some form. He's so interested in so many kinds of ideas. He's really interested in comedy, food, architecture. So he's definitely doing more books, and hopefully I work on more books with him.
George's book covers his whole life, but I'm sure he'd be happy to live another 70 years, and if he wants me to work with him again when I'm 110, I'm happy to do it.
Is there a literary equivalent to sampling?
I think every piece of writing is the literary equivalent to sampling. Originality is a strange idea. Nobody or everybody is original. George is the Shakespeare of Hip Hop.
Would you ever do a book on Miami music history?
My wife is an art director and she grew up in Miami, too. She wants to do a photo book of the Miami scene in the '90s. When I worked at New Times I saw Nine Inch Nails real early, and hung out with James Brown's band. Miami has always been such an interesting mix of white, black, and Latin culture, youth culture, and tradition that you can't help but have interesting art.
What do you think of editorialized sales charts?
A long time ago as a novelist, I stopped reading reviews and caring about all that. It matters a little when it's time to sell the next book, but I think they carry too much weight and it's gotten worse. Lists are more popular than ever and a lot of people are consuming the same things.
Ben Greenman with Questlove on Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove and George Clinton on Brothas Be, Yo Like George Ain't That Funkin' Kinda Hard on You? on Sunday, November 23, at 5 p.m., Chapman Conference Center (Building 3, 2nd Floor, Room 3210). Visit miamibookfair.com
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