Nelson George

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Nelson George is an esteemed author, filmmaker and culture critic who was there for the birth of hip hop in New York City. He chooses one of the most important recordings of that era -- which he appears on – as well as two legends who spurred his musical education. He also picks a recent breakout band that he feels represents the Brooklyn of today. Nelson George recently released his new book City Kid: A Writer's Memoir of Ghetto Life and Post-Soul Success.

For More:


1. The Four Tops - Standing in the Shadows of Love
2. Bob Dylan - Shelter from the Storm
3. John Coltrane - My Favorite Things
4. Kurtis Blow - The Breaks
5. TV on the Radio - Staring at the Sun


Garth Trinidad: Hey this is Garth Trinidad from KCRW, and I am here with esteemed author and journalist and director and hip-hop and music aficionado, Mr. Nelson George. We are going to talk about music that has inspired you over the years and, of course, this is what we call KCRW's Guest DJ Project when we get interesting people who aren’t necessarily musicians or artists or producers to come in and talk about how music has played a role in their lives and careers. So I want to get into this first track that you brought for us, The Four Tops, can we talk about this song real quick? "Standing in the Shadows of Love"

Nelson George: My mother was a huge influence in my musical taste. She was a huge soul person and this particular song was one of those songs, it's almost operatic when you hear it now. It has these castanets, it has all kinds of big orchestral things. This particular record reminds me of my God Aunt's house in Queens because I just have these vivid memories of being on this street in Queens. I grew up in the projects, so this was different -- there were actually houses and basements and the music coming out of someone's transistor radio driving by and I was standing on the lawn. This is one of those records that was part of the tapestry. You hear this song and it reminds you of getting Italian ices so there's a musical, obviously a musical story and part of me vibes it, and it also brings back very tactile memories of my childhood.

Song: The Four Tops’ "Standing in the Shadows of Love"

Garth Trinidad: Nelson George is in the house he's brought some goodies for us, some musical treats. I want to get into this next batch of songs, next couple of songs you brought: John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" but you mention that it's tied to Bob Dylan's "Shelter from the Storm." What's that about?

Nelson George: When I really began taking music seriously -- that it was more than just things that I listen to but there was a depth to it, a complexity -- I started reading all these books about it music. And I'm talking about, I am 12, 13, 14, 15 in this range. I started reading things about Dylan. There was tons of stuff about Dylan. All white critics loved Dylan. Then there's also the stuff about Coltrane. There wasn't very much about soul music. So I would start to read the stuff, because I was a reader, and then listen to the records and try to understand – okay, the person who consumes music doesn't consume the notes, they consume the emotion that the notes are communicating. Like Dylan, he quote unquote can't sing, but he CAN sing and that particular song "Shelter of the Storm," it's a real travelogue. It's a long journey, it goes different places. The narrative voice changes a couple of times. Sometimes it seems like it's in first person, sometimes it's in another. Then he's there with this girl, then she's gone. All of his lyrics are very elusive. You can't really put your finger on everything in it. There is a majesty to it, especially when he starts to get on harmonica. You know, you can hear Stevie a mile away when he picks up his harp. Same thing with Bob Dylan. That really captured me and I will listen to that over and over again.

Song: Bob Dylan's Shelter from the Storm

Nelson George: Similarly I was into Coltrane. Only as I got older did I understand the whole spiritual dimension of Coltrane and his evolution as a man. But you can listen to him play on a song that's accessible. My favorite thing was an accessible record because I knew the melody line and, just again, there was this emotional level to it.

When people think about people who write music criticism, they sometimes think we are thinking from the head, but I think that ultimately the stuff that makes sense and connects with you comes from the heart -- and then you trying to figure out with the head why this connected with you. And both of these records, you know, Bob Dylan, Shelter from the Storm and Coltrane’s My Favorite Things, are the things that I try to understand intellectually after I understood them emotionally. So, they were part of my education in music. I don't really write about jazz and I've written a little about rock but these records have meant a great deal to me as a connective thing to my experience and my development.

Song: John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things

GT: Nelson George is here. He is the guest DJ. Guest DJ Project on KCRW. Continuing on with the list. The Breaks, Kurtis Blow. So you are an original Brooklyn kid. You grew up in the BK. You were there. You beared witness to what Hip Hop was in the very beginning before it went anywhere outside the Boroughs. You saw all this. You were bearing witness. So Kurtis Blow, The Breaks was one of the breakout joints.

NG: Absolutely.

NG: I meet this guy. It's a long story. Robert Ford Jr. was my roommate in Queens. He also was the guy who wrote at Billboard, so he got me at Billboard. He met Run. Run was putting posters up on a subway platform in Queens for some Russell Simmons promotion. It had some rappers -- Kurtis Blow, Flash, whatever -- bringing them to Queens because that was Russell's territory at the time. Long story short, we all meet.

Robert Ford and his partner end up producing Christmas Rapping which was the first Kurtis Blow record. So they got some more money to do The Breaks. Now, they were trying to capture the party feeling of the record. So, they brought a bunch of people into the room, into the recording studio, to make party sounds. If you listen to the record especially when you hit the second half and Kurtis is just popping off the rhymes that were party rhymes at the time and you hear people going, shouting, in response whatever. We were all in there having a little party and so I'm on that record somewhere shouting. So that's a product of that whole period. I would come home to my apartment in Queens, and Kurtis Blow would be in the living room with Russell and they'd be playing acetates of stuff that they were trying to get done. So, the Breaks is really from a time before Hip Hop in a strange way, when it was still rapping.

Song: Kurtis Blow’s The Breaks

GT: Last but not least, a newer band, TV On The Radio. You brought a track called Staring at the Sun. Now tell me what you like about these cats and what you like about this song.

NG: I had gone to see them at the Mercury Lounge in Manhattan, the first time I saw them and I was knocked out. I didn't really know they were black- most of the guys were black -- and I had no idea. And they were an interesting band because I think there are a lot of black people that don't know anything about them and I try to turn people on to them but, unlike let’s say Living Color and that Black Rock Coalition and that generation of black rock, it's not blues really. There's blues in it, but it's not blues- the guitar sounds are very dissonant and abrasive and, until this new album, the rhythms were not really danceable really. And then but they have this beautiful contrast of these two guys who do this amazing… not even soul harmonies really almost barbershop harmonies, Beach Boy harmonies. There's a unique combination of elements to that band and how they sound and then you go see them and the lead dude, he's gyrating around and he's the most unrhythmic black man you've ever seen, so for brothers it's a little bit of a leap to make this ‘what the hell?’ But I got it immediately and I loved it. So that band, they really represent to me the Brooklyn I live in now, which is this changed Brooklyn which has become again a cultural center.

Song: TV on the Radio’s Staring at the Sun

GT: Nelson, man, thank you so much for joining us on It's a pleasure to have you and to meet you finally in person face to face and to talk a little bit about music. Thank you and much success in 2009.

NG: Thank you.