Michael A. Gonzales got his start writing about music in the ’80s, and has often defined himself as a “hip-hop writer.” But over the years, he’s also written about art, film, books, comics, fiction, and plenty of other music too. In this interview, he walks you through his career, his thoughts on music journalism, and much more.
How did you get to where you are today, professionally?
I got the writing bug when I was a kid growing up in Harlem. I had a godfather who was a writer, while my mother was an avid reader of books and magazines. Between the two of them, they created a monster. My mom always brought home magazines, everything from Esquire to Ebony, New York magazine, the Village Voice and Jet, which was a Black digest that published news stories and a soul music records charts for albums and singles. I became, and still am, a magazine junkie.
The first story I wrote was at my godfather’s apartment. Mom, who was also a movie junkie, had taken me to see The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight and, afterwards, my godfather asked me to dictate a story to him and I recycled the film’s plot. He typed it up and gave it to me. I’ve been writing ever since.
I knew from that age that I wanted to write, but I was also heavily into music. When I was in 7th grade, I wrote my first review. I was a huge Elton John fan and when the movie Tommy came out in 1975, I created a school paper simply so I could write about the song “Pinball Wizard” and Elton’s scene in the movie. The paper only had one issue. A few years later when I was in high school, my family moved from NYC to Baltimore in 1978. I hated the city at first, but I learned a lot there. My high school Northwestern had a great newspaper, where I wrote about Led Zeppelin.
My mom introduced me to both books and movies, and watching films from a young age inspired and influenced me as much as any text. I love all kinds of films including the so-called “New Hollywood” movies of the late-60s to mid-70s (Easy Rider, The French Connection) and Blaxploitation (Super Fly, The Mack). My mom never censored what I saw, and took me to see all kinds of movies including Network, Annie Hall, Lady Sings the Blues and many others. Later, when I was in high school in Baltimore, I discovered the films of François Truffaut when I saw The 400 Blows and fell in love. I have a very visual style, and I credit my love for movies to that.
Also, when I write my longform music essays (Kid Creole and the Coconuts, King Curtis), I try to write them as though they were textual biopics. Though most biopics are trash, every now then there are some good-to-great ones. My favorites include Lady Sings the Blues, Ray, Born to Be Blue (Chet Baker) and El Cantante. Except, unlike biopics, I don’t change the facts for dramatic effect; the truth is dramatic enough. Although they’re not really biopics, I’d like to throw in Grace of My Heart, That Thing You Do!, The Idolmaker, The Five Heartbeats and Purple Rain.
In 1989 my friend Havelock Nelson asked me to write a book with him. The book was the idea of our editor Michael Pietsch, who originally wanted a rap record guide. Instead we turned that into a book of essays of various length that incorporated straight journalism and criticism with gonzo sociology, Black history, autobiography, film noir, Blaxploitation, the new journalism of Joan Didion, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe and NYC grit. For me, those are the main ingredients of my personal brand of “hip-hop journalism.” The book was called Bring the Noise: A Guide to Rap Music and Hip-hop Culture.
That book came out in 1991, and basically helped launch my career. Around the time the book came out The Source had just moved to New York City and Vibe was being planned. They put out a test issue in 1992, but officially launched in 1993, the same year that RapPages came out. I was blessed to write for all of them. I’ve often defined myself as a “hip-hop writer,” because I wrote a lot about hip-hop culture, but I can write knowledgeably about many genres of music as well as art, film, books, comics and fiction.
Did you have any mentors along the way? What did they teach you?
I’ve been blessed with great mentors since I was a kid. When I was 13, I tried to sell horror stories to DC Comics. It was 1977 and a young editor, who later became the CEO, was a guy named Paul Levitz. He used to let me come to the DC offices, where he’d read my work and give me critiques of my work. There was another comic book writer named Nick Cuti who I was pen pals with who also read my work and gave me feedback.
I moved to Baltimore my second year of high school, and interned at a local magazine called Metropolitan. An editor named Lawrence Coleman was my boss and he was so cool. He was very smart, sarcastic and a wonderful editor. He had lots of patience with me and I learned a lot about magazine writing from him.
My high school English teacher Louise Sommer was another person in Baltimore who was a mentor. Her class was the only honors class I had and she introduced me to the work of Franz Kafka. She knew I was into science fiction, because I was always protesting that there was no Michael Moorcock, Samuel R. Delany or Harlan Ellison on our reading list.
Recently I ordered from eBay the 1982 magazine Darkstorm #2. It was a comic book magazine that published early work by Kent Williams, George Pratt and Peter Kuper, and they published my first short story “Fading Memories.” Well, I hadn’t seen the magazine since that issue came out and had forgotten that I dedicated the story to her. I ran into Mrs. Sommer about 15 years after high school graduation and she was so happy that I’d become a professional writer.
I moved back to New York City in 1981. For all its madness, it was a very fertile time for Black art and criticism. Hip-hop culture was on the rise and, at the weekly alternative The Village Voice, there were a slew of Black writers publishing on a regular basis: Greg Tate, Carol Cooper, Nelson George, Lisa Jones, Stanley Crouch and Barry Michael Cooper. It’s my understanding that it was Robert Christgau who brought many of those writers in the paper. With the exception of Greg Tate, I didn’t know those writers personally, though they’d all, with the exception of Crouch, become my friends, but reading their work week after week was so inspiring. Tate and I didn’t become friends until much later, but we were acquaintances. We met after I joined the Black Rock Coalition after a chance meeting with Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid in 1986.
At the same time, there were also writers like Chuck Eddy, Frank Kogan and Gary Giddins who I also read and liked very much.
The summer of 1985 I worked at Tower Records in the cassette department. I learned a lot about different kinds of music while working there. Writer Barry Walters was a co-worker who was writing reviews for The Village Voice. He introduced me to Prefab Spout’s brilliant Two Wheels Good and Bryan Ferry’s beautiful Boys and Girls. Barry was a cool dude, and I found it inspiring that he was already getting published. There were many musicians and future music executives working there, but Barry was the only writer I met. The following year I wrote my first non-school reviews for a punk fanzine on Fishbone’s first EP and the Beastie Boys’ debut.
In the mid-to-late ‘80s, British writer Frank Owen was a mentor, though I don’t think he knew it. He was dating and later married my then-girlfriend’s sister. Along with the Black writers at The Village Voice and The SoHo News, I was also a student of British writers going back to Nik Cohn. I read Melody Maker, NME and The Face, which turned me on to the work of Paul Morley, Tony Parsons, Julie Burchill, Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray. The next generation were the ones that starting publishing in the mid-‘80s, with Simon Reynolds and Frank Owen being my favorites.
Frank wrote about rap, soul, house, techo and other dance music. The pieces they wrote were long, detailed, and I remember the amount of research put into each piece. Frank would go directly to where the scene was happening be it The Garage, a dive bar in the South Bronx or a warehouse in Chicago. But, then he’d take that reportage and research and craft some of the coolest Black music essays being written in the UK.
From the mid-‘80s to the early ‘90s I wrote for an alternative New York paper called Cover. My editor was a guy named James Graham, who was an excellent editor and mentor. He introduced me to the works of Virgil Thomson, Fela Kuti and a lot of jazz musicians. He really helped me shape my non-fiction style from being a bad Greg Tate biter to a more original voice. I wrote a lot about hip-hop, but I was also writing jazz stories. I wrote early pieces on Cassandra Wilson, Steve Coleman and Jean-Paul Bourelly, pieces I never would have written without James’ guidance.
The three stories that inspired my own work the most was “Cult-Nats Meet Freaky-Deke” by Greg Tate, “Scott La Rock: Wasted In The Zoo” by Frank Owen and “Teddy Riley’s New Jack Swing: Harlem Gangsters Raise a Genius” by Barry Michael Cooper
Walk me through a typical day-to-day for you right now.
My days are usually very simple. I usually wake up about 6:30/7:00 and start the day with very strong coffee. Then I look at my emails and read. An hour later, I jump into work. I’m usually working on several pieces at the same time, which is helpful whenever I get stuck on one, I can jump to the other. That practice might not work for everyone.
Before the pandemic I sometimes worked at the library, which I used a lot for research purposes. Now I do most of my research online. I would like to give props to my friends at Rock’s Backpages, which is run by writers Barney Hoskyns and Mark Pringle. With me writing a lot about vintage soul and hip-hop, there are so many articles I need for research purposes that I’ve only been able to find through their service.
What does your media diet look like?
There are a few sites I look at every day: Literary Hub, Pitchfork and CrimeReads, who I also write for; CrimeReads is primarily a book site, though they do also cover film, television and music. The editor Dwyer Murphy has let me write a few music-crime connected pieces. One was about Eric B. & Rakim’s “Paid in Full” and connecting it with the 1980s crack era and 2002 film of the same name. The other was on the noir qualities of Billy Joel lyrics.
During the week I’ll also read the Paris Review online, The New York Times, The Guardian and Page Six. I’m a huge film buff so I like movie and television sites like The Current @ The Criterion Channel, Crooked Marquee and We Are the Mutants. There are a few comic book/graphic novel sites I look at regularly that include The Comics Journal and NeoText, both which covers a lot of old comic book artists and writers.
How has your approach to your work changed over the past few years?
I really try to write every day, but I also like writing what I want to write. A few years back I started writing stories that I wasn’t assigned and selling them when they’re done. It’s worked out so far, thank God. When I wrote my most recent Wax Poetics piece, which was on King Curtis, I didn’t necessarily write it for them. I wrote it because, after reading about his life and brutal death in a Aretha Franklin biography, his was a story I wanted to tell.
Where do you see music journalism headed?
That’s a good question. I’m happy to see that more writers of color including Clover Hope, S.H. Fernando, Craig Seymour and Miles Marshall Lewis are doing books. I’m not really that into podcasts, but few of my favorite writers including David Ma, Amy Linden, Oliver Wang, Danyel Smith and Nelson George do them.
I don’t believe in “the death of music journalism” theories that some people throw around. In fact, there are a few younger writers I think who are doing interesting work writing about old soul, jazz and hip-hop: Tari Ngangura, Marcus J. Moore, Quentin Harrison, John Morrison, Danielle A. Jackson, Mark Skillz, John Murph, Sheldon Taylor, DJ Lynnée Denise, Christian John Wikane, Jay Quan, Carina del Valle Schorske, Chris Williams, Matthew Allen, Scott Woods and Christopher A. Daniel. I’m sure there are many others, but those are the writers I read most.
I’m not sure where they’re headed, but for a while Longreads was doing some interesting longform music journalism. Writer Tom Maxwell was doing great work with his Shelved column there. Former Longreads editors Danielle A. Jackson and Aaron Gilbreath were doing some interesting things editorially when they were there. Catapult is another site that runs some interesting music essays.
What would you like to see more of in music journalism right now?
I like longform journalism. I grew-up from a small kid reading Esquire, Playboy, Rolling Stone, The Village Voice and other magazines and newspapers that took pop culture seriously and dedicated space to it. I would love to see more music documentaries spearheaded by music critics. Robert Gordon’s fantastic Respect Yourself: Stax Records Story and Nelson George’s wonderful Finding the Funk are two of my favorites. I used to read Mojo, but they repeat themselves too much for me. How many Paul Weller stories can one person read?
What would you like to see less of in music journalism right now?
Lists; I’m so over lists.
What’s one tip that you’d give a music journalist starting out right now?
Don’t be afraid of researching and digging deep. Try to ask questions that aren’t answered in the bio, press releases and liner notes. Don’t be afraid of asking offbeat questions. Don’t fear the blank screen, because you can always change the text. Try to make your deadlines, but if you don’t, call your editor. The worst thing you can do is hide from your editor.
What artist or trend are you most interested in right now?
While I do read about newer artists I don’t listen to a lot of them. I like HER, Anderson .Paak, The Weeknd, Lana Del Ray, but the majority of my listening for both work and pleasure is so 20th Century. Recently I was writing a long piece on Isaac Hayes and I had to take a deep dive into the Stax library. There’s so much good stuff in there. My friend S.H. Fernando has a great book about the Wu-Tang Clan coming out this summer (From the Streets of Shaolin: The Wu-Tang Saga) and he writes a lot about the obscure Stax singles Rza sampled to make his masterpieces.
What’s your favorite part of all this?
I love it all, except transcribing. But, even that has an upside. In the last few years I’ve written a lot of longform pieces, so I really go deep into researching and interviewing process. I also love the writing and rewriting. I’ve driven more than a few editors crazy by submitting a new version of a story hours after I sent them the first version.
What were the best track / video or film / book you’ve consumed in the past 12 months?
I watch a lot of movies and read a lot, but in the last 12 months I finally watched Dirty Dancing and really enjoyed it. I can’t believe it took me 34 years to finally see it. One of the extras in the movie was a woman named Jennifer Stahl, who, years later, became a musician, singer and weed dealer. She was murdered along with a couple of her friends in 2001. She was the weed dealer of an old friend, but I hadn’t thought about her in years, but watching Dirty Dancing inspired me to write a piece about her.
If you had to point folks to one piece of yours, what would it be and why?
I think it would be “Love in the Age of Prince,” an essay I wrote about my eight year relationship with publicist Lesley Pitts. Lesley was the love of my life. We met in 1991 when she worked at a publicity firm Set to Run. At the time we met she was working with 3rd Bass, Black Sheep and Ice Cube. At the time of her death on August 3, 1999, she was Prince’s publicist. Both of us were huge Prince fans, so it was a dream come true for her. My essay serves as cultural criticism and a chronicle of the ‘90s mixed with personal memoir. It’s one of my favorites because it’s a salute to my favorite woman and my favorite artist. Two days after it was published I received a nice note from Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) telling me how much he enjoyed it; that felt good.
Anything you want to plug?
I actually have three things I’d like to plug. I have a column I’ve been writing for years called “Slept on Soul.” I do it for Soulhead.com, and maybe one day I’ll turn them into a book.
There is the recently released Fade to Grey: Androgyny, Style & Art in 80s Dance Music edited by Adrian Loving. It’s a very cool book that I wrote two essays for: one on David Bowie, the other on Prince.
Last, I’d like to give a shout-out to Maggot Brain editor Mike McGonigal who just overcame a health crisis and hospital stay. He published my very long article on obscure British soul artist Ephraim Lewis. He released one brilliant album called Skin in 1992. I worked on that piece off and on for several years, and was happy to see it find a home in such a cool magazine.