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Baltimore Orator: Barry Michael Cooper
Highlights from Issue 30: Hip-Hop Nuggets
Photograph by JOHN DAVIS
Monday, April 09, 2007
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Baltimore Orator: Barry Michael Cooper
By Michael A. Gonzales
In the Eighties, when the Village Voice still overflowed with ambition, Barry Michael Cooper began his writing career under the guidance of music critic Robert Christgau. While Cooper had written the first rap record review for the paper, it was not until the textual hip-hop of his groundbreaking 1988 article, “Teddy Riley’s New Jack Swing,” that readers really began to pay attention. Cooper’s article not only named a seminal musical sound, it also mixed so-called New Journalism with a ghetto sensibility that was rare in the annals of music writing.
As a Harlemite who had always loved seeing the hood represented in popular culture, be it in a poem by Langston Hughes or Fred Williamson walking down 125th Street in Black Caesar, Cooper represents uptown in a way no writer has since the Black Arts Movement of the Sixties. Still, nothing could have prepared admirers of Cooper’s journalism for his first foray into the film industry, as the screenwriter for Mario Van Peebles’s 1991 hit, New Jack City.
Though originally brought in to rewrite a dusty script about heroin in Harlem by Thomas Lee Wright, Cooper injected the crack concept and made the work his own. With a memorable cast of characters — among them drug lord Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes) and comic relief crackhead Pookie (Chris Rock) — New Jack City became an instant classic. As Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times, “The movie was advertised (no doubt wisely) as a slam-bang action adventure, but in fact, it’s a serious, smart film with an impact that lingers after the lights go up.”
Following New Jack City, Cooper wrote the hoop-dream saga Above the Rim, which starred Tupac Shakur, and the masterful Sugar Hill, which starred Wesley Snipes. Cooper’s gritty Harlem trilogy made an impact on hip-hop culture that can be heard in Jay-Z’s lyrics and seen in P. Diddy’s style. Still writing and striving in his adopted home of Baltimore, where last year he completed his directorial debut, Blood on the Walls, Cooper’s oeuvre gives aspiring hip-hop writers something to aim for.
Stop Smiling: Harlem is the basis for your films and the foundation for a lot of your writing.
Barry Michael Cooper: I grew up in Little Washington Heights between 164th and 165th Street on Amsterdam Avenue. I lived there until I was about 10 years old. I can remember socializing with Jewish kids, Irish kids. Then I moved to Esplanade Gardens. The neighborhood I moved from was very culturally and racially mixed. When I moved to Harlem I was scared. I’d always heard the stories. That was 1968. Esplanade Gardens is a co-op high rise. You had all levels of society in there — from millionaires to people on welfare. I’ve been in Baltimore 22 years now and Harlem is still with me. All three movies I’ve produced — Sugar Hill, Above the Rim and New Jack City — were written here in Baltimore. It’s nice that even out here all that stuff came back to me in a blinding, colorful flash.
This is what I would do on Saturdays in the summer time. At nine o’clock in the morning I’d go to the Schomburg Library on 135th Street. You could sit down at the Schomburg and read Countee Cullen or Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry. We could read anything by Langston Hughes — any of those people — and know we’re part of that. I knew early on that I was a part of that stuff. I had no doubt about it. From there I’d go to the Rucker Park basketball courts to watch Dr. J. Then to A.J. Lester’s clothing store to get what I was going to wear to the Apollo later that night. I don’t know too many people in this country that can have that kind of experience, all in the course of 12 hours. There’s a great artistic legacy that comes out of Harlem, and it’s imprinted in us like a kind of cultural DNA.
SS: Do you remember when crack came to Harlem?
BMC: Harlem is split into two periods: BC and AC, Before Crack and After Crack. There was a profound change when that drug hit Harlem. People talk about heroin, but heroin is almost a lifer drug. You see 40-, 50-, 60-year-old lifelong, functional heroin addicts.
SS: To me crack was the first “out” drug. Guys on the street sold crack, standing in doorways. Back in the day, dealers would never think of selling drugs in the open.
BMC: They would go behind the staircase and that type of thing in the tenement. I think crack became so widespread because it didn’t involve needles. People are scared of needles. With crack — you smoked it, and it was an immediate high.
SS: Do you think of crack as a hip-hop drug?
BMC: Without a doubt. Because even people who weren’t getting high off crack felt the cultural effect it brought. That drug changed hip-hop. This is gonna sound freaky, but crack made hip-hop corporate, because the guys who emulated the crack dealers became rap stars. They wanted to be tough like them and wanted to floss. Crack made hip-hop very corporate. It took it beyond break dancing, graffiti and the South Bronx. The stories that Biggie told, that Jigga told, that Eazy-E told, all of them guys came out of the crack culture. It really had a profound change on the culture.
I researched this crack story for Spin back in 1985; that’s when I learned a lot about the drug. It was the first national piece on crack. I heard about all the base houses up and down 145th Street, from Bradhurst Avenue all the way over to Broadway and Riverside. The Spin article was just called “Crack.” It really opened doors for me. It made people pay attention. It was also my first piece away from doing music stories, because that’s what I wanted to go into.
SS: How did you become a writer?
BMC: I always wanted to be a novelist, ever since 11th or 12th grade. I went to Charles Evans Hughes, which was in Chelsea. It was a great experience because I was coming from Harlem. Going to school near Greenwich Village, meeting all kinds of different people and getting out of Harlem was great because I was exposed to another world. I had great English teachers there. I was getting into poetry contests, literary contests — doing really well. I had this English teacher who said, “You are a writer and you need to get published.” When I was in the 11th grade, I won this poetry award in a contest on 135th Street that she sponsored.
After that, I started reading voraciously. I went one year to my mother’s alma mater, North Carolina Central University, which is where that girl went who claims she was raped by the Duke students. I was in the English honors program, so I was a freshman in a class with seniors. I started reading my heroes: Dostoyevsky, Richard Wright. I started reading New Journalism. Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Jimmy Breslin, Tom Wolfe and, of course, Truman Capote, my hero.
I gotta give my first girlfriend props. Her name was Cynthia Coleman. I was frustrated because I was sending my stuff to magazines, and then I started working at the post office around 1979. She said, “Why don’t you try to write for a newspaper, send something to the Amsterdam News.” I said, “I ain’t no reporter.” She said, “Don’t you know Richard Wright and Hemingway started off as reporters? They were reporters.”
Sure enough, she was on point. From then, I started reading the Voice. I wasn’t crazy about the Village Voice, but I liked that they were able to freely express themselves as writers.
Finally, I called Bob Christgau one night. I said I wanted to do something on Parliament-Funkadelic. At the time they had an album called Gloryhallastoopid. Christgau said, “Bring it to me. Let me take a look at it. If it’s any good, I’ll run it. If it’s not, if you call me again I’ll have you arrested for harassment.”
I brought the piece to him. He said, “It’s rough and needs work, but you got a voice.” It ran in January 1980. It was called “The Gospel According to Parliament” and it was my first piece in the Voice. Man, I felt like I was floating on air.
I have to give it to Christgau. We didn’t always get along; we didn’t always see eye-to-eye. He had a love for me, but he didn’t like me like he did Greg Tate and Nelson George. I guess I was rough around the edges. I had a bad temper back then. I said certain things to him. I would scream at him, which was not called for, but I still had a lot of street in me, too. We respected each other, though.
I can remember when hip-hop really started catching on. The thing about Christgau that’s so amazing is he can listen to any kind of music and riff on it. That’s what amazed me about this guy: his knowledge, his critical expertise and just his strong writing ability. I learned a lot from him.
SS: The best reporters have a natural curiosity.
BMC: Oh, I’m nosy. That helped me in the long run. I kept at it and then that crack story happened. I said, “I got it now. I know where I wanna go with this.” I have to give Rudy Langlais a lot of credit because he saw it early on. He said, “That’s why I gave you Frankie Crocker, because you got a natural curiosity and a really skewed way of looking at the world.”
SS: Had your Detroit piece, “New Jack City Eats Its Young,” come out yet?
BMC: The Detroit piece came out right before. That actually happened at the same time and they shuffled the publication on it. I was at Spin and all of a sudden, I’m Bob Guccione’s favorite writer. He said, “Man, you’re getting this like no one else gets it.” So they started assigning me stories. At that time I finally got a hold of how to mix journalism with what I heard going on in the music and all that was relating to how I grew up. There were guys like [drug dealers] Alpo and AZ riding motorcycles up and down 8th Avenue at two or three o’clock in the morning, breaking bottles, and I was hearing all of those stories. All of that was in my mind. I wanted to detail their voices — the way the hustlers talked. I wanted to put it in a literary context like The Great Gatsby. I wanted to write it like that, with literary fervor. I said, “I’m gonna take Harlem and the Renaissance and put it in a modern context.”
SS: You titled the musical genre New Jack Swing. What did new jack mean?
BMC: New jack means two things. My brother used the term a lot. He was still in New York. I’d never heard the term before. He used to say, “Yeah, that kid is a new jack.” I said, “What does that mean?” He said, “You know, someone who’s new to the game and frontin’.” It’s almost a derogatory term — almost like a rookie or someone who was frontin’. Then I heard a song by Grandmaster Caz and he used a line about this guy who was “a new jack clown.” I took the phrase and wanted to flip it.
It rang strong, new jack. They were two words that weren’t supposed to go together but they did. There was a whole thing about the play on words and the power of words to me. New Jack City started this way. Rudy Langlais, again coming into my life, told me about a guy in Detroit by the name of Carl Taylor. Taylor was a professor at Michigan State University. He was widely regarded as an intellectual and also as a guy who understood the origins of the decline in urban neighborhoods and black neighborhoods and families.
He’s a sociologist, but when I met the dude he was straight gangsta. He and his brother, Al, used to be bodyguards for Quincy Jones and he was on the Victory Tour, protecting Michael Jackson. He was one of his personal bodyguards. He’s like me in a lot of ways: one foot in academia, the other foot on the streets. When we met, we really hit it off. He really is like a mentor.
I went to the Voice with a story about this guy. I wanted to do the 20th anniversary of the riots in Detroit on 12th Street, called euphemistically “the summer of love.” I got the assignment. Christgau okayed it with this guy named Greg Ryder. I went to Detroit, met Carl Taylor and it was enormous. Initially I wanted to get an interview with the late great mayor, Coleman Young, but he wouldn’t do it. I wanted to talk to him about the effect the riots had on the city.
Then I got a call — to this day I don’t know who it was. The person told me, “If Mayor Young won’t talk to you, we’ve got a scoop.” They said that Mayor Young’s niece was, allegedly, a mule for the biggest drug consortium in the Midwest, Young Boys Incorporated, who were the predecessors of the Black Mafia Family, which also comes out of Detroit.
These guys were clocking $400 million a year, so I went and talked to some people who were connected to it. I did some research, talked to district attorneys, talked to some dudes who were actually in that movement, and that’s what became “New Jack City Eats Its Young.” It was this whole thing, politics, drugs and, really, it was the disintegration of what the riots did to that great city.
You had blacks who were almost at millionaire status, who were very wealthy because of the auto industry. They had houses on the west side of Detroit that were like mansions. These guys were drug dealers, but they ran their organization like Ford or Chrysler.
YBI started stamping bags of their heroin because they did it in New York, but YBI took it to a whole other level. Those guys rolled so hard because they were the ones who were running it, not street guys. They came from the black middle class. They’re used to the finer things in life and they wanna keep that. They don’t wanna work at the Big Three automakers. These were the first guys I saw drivin’ jeeps. They had the big cell phones before anyone else. They were doin’ it big before New York, before LA, before anybody. The thing that stood out the night the story got made, me and Taylor and a few other people went to this festival at the Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit. It was during the summer and a lot of people were outside, and these hillbillies almost smashed into the back of this Mercedes 450 SLC. The guys jumped out of that car and pulled guns in the middle of the street. In the story I said I covered my eyes, but I peeked through my fingers. They held guns on these guys and the cops didn’t come anywhere near these people.
I was shocked. I was staying in Canada by the Detroit tunnel, over in Windsor, Ontario. On our way there, we saw a jeep embroidered with this MCM stuff and on the back it said, “How you like me now?” I said, “That’s the fucking story, this is some gangster shit.”
SS: In terms of the characters in New Jack City, were they also informed by gangsters from Harlem like Nicky Barnes?
BMC: NJC was originally scripted about Nicky. It was written by this guy named Thomas Lee Wright. After the success of the “NJC Eats Its Young” story, Quincy Jones saw the piece. Rudy had shown it to him. Quincy said, “Get that guy. Find him.” They had been looking for a writer to do a rewrite on the Nicky Barnes script, which Francis Ford Coppola originally had at Paramount.
SS: You’ve said you used Oliver Stone’s screenplay for Wall Street as a learning device.
BMC: That is a paradigm for the perfect script. What I did was watch it 20 times on mute just for story structure, to teach myself the structure and the body of a script. Scriptwriting is like craftsmanship. You have act one, act two and act three. It’s almost like architecture. You can admire Robert Towne and the greats, like William Goldman and people like that, but you have to follow a structure and that’s what I learned.
I met Oliver Stone at a party. It was me, Russell Simmons and Stan Lathan. It was Paula Abdul’s platinum party on Hacienda Boulevard. Eddie Murphy was there. I said, “Oliver Stone’s my hero,” so I went over to him, but he was tied up. I said, “Man, my name is Barry Michael Cooper.” This was after NJC had come out. “I wrote the movie.” He said, “Okay” and shook my hand. I said, “Man, I love your movie Wall Street. That’s how I learned to write. That was my tool and my instruction book for writing NJC.” He said to me, “Okay, thank you very much. I bet you like Scarface, too — all niggers like Scarface.” And he stumbled off.
Right before I could go after him and commit career suicide, Stan and Russell pulled on my arm and said, “No you don’t. Let it go. That’s just him, he’s high.” High or not, it was a crazy statement. Still, I respect the man.
SS: How much of Thomas Lee Wright’s original script was kept?
BMC: After I did one rewrite, the first thing I did was change it from heroin to crack. I told George, “We gotta tell the story of what’s going on now: Young kids uptown with gold chains, Milano cars, thousands of dollars in their pockets. That’s what people are gonna relate to. Let’s tell the story of the future that we’re in now.” He agreed. I was just trying to tell a good story from personal knowledge. I started to rewrite the script.
The Nino Brown character was an insider’s wink and nod to the scramblers who used to shop at this store, Nino Gabriel, on 61st and Third Avenue, where the shoes started at $200. I remember when I was in 12th grade, I saved up five or six neighborhood youth job checks to buy a pair of $150 shoes there — the most money I’d ever spent in my entire life. I lied to my mother and said they were on sale for $60. That was my acknowledgment of the hustlers — the name Nino Brown. Nino for Nino Gabriel, brown for the color of the bag.
SS: The first time I saw Nino Brown, I thought he embodied the classic swagger of Cagney and Bogart.
BMC: Funny you say that, because the movies I watched were Public Enemy, Angels With Dirty Faces. I went and got those old Warner Bros. movies, which were Jimmy Cagney showpieces. And there was the original Scarface with Paul Muni. I used that template when I did the rewrite. I took that template and piled on top what I saw going on in the streets of Harlem and Baltimore. The guys I grew up with, the language, their movement, the way they fought, the way they spoke, the places they hung out. I wanted to put that in, and to director Mario Van Peebles’s credit, he captured it beautifully.
SS: Let’s talk about the effect NJC had. It was almost immediate. Dudes saw NJC on Friday and on Monday there were a hundred Nino Browns up in Harlem.
BMC: Here’s what happened: Me and a mutual friend of ours, Gary Harris, on the night NJC opened, rented a town car. He said, “Yo, you gotta do this. Everybody does this in Hollywood. We’re gonna ride to every theater in Manhattan and see how long the line is.” We rolled around Manhattan probably from seven that night to almost midnight. At every single theater in Manhattan, there was a line around the block.
It was crazy. The effect it had was like crack. It was an immediate hit. Wesley gave the performance of a lifetime. He took Nino Brown and made him sympathetic and repulsive at the same time. Nino had all of it. In every scene of that movie, Wesley projected that, so he’s a progenitor of that movement — of Puff, of Dame, of Jay-Z, even Cam’ron. I would go as far as people like Game and even Kanye. He had confidence, with intelligence, style and danger. These guys have this because the record business is dangerous. That’s like the drug game. And the drugs is the music.
I interviewed Michael Harris, the legendary drug dealer who supposedly financed Suge Knight and Dr. Dre for Death Row. He was supposed to do a movie at one point, and I had a phone conversation with him and his wife, Lydia Harris. He said that if it wasn’t for New Jack, there would be no Jay-Z, no Dame Dash, no Puffy. He said, “You saved the East Coast with that movie. That’s what kept it afloat.” Crack was destroying neighborhoods, but it was also making people rich.
SS: How do you feel New Jack City fits into the pantheon of hip-hop cinema?
BMC: If there was no New Jack, there would be no Boyz n the Hood, there would be no Menace II Society, because it let the public know, and more importantly let the suits in the studios know, that these movies make money. I think it set it off.
For more of Barry Michael Cooper's current work, click here