What Do Rapper Young Jeezy and Journalist Tom Wolfe Have in Common?
A few weeks ago, I was preparing to interview the rapper Jeezy. I’d actually interviewed him before, and if you’re an active participant in hip-hop, you don’t need to study much to know what he’s about.
Directly ahead of the interview, Jeezy dropped an EP called Politically Correct, plus a handful of tracks from his forthcoming LP, Church In These Streets, which he’d been tossing out on Sundays under the clever hashtag #SundayService.
When I listened to Jeezy’s new music, I felt his songwriting had gotten more honest and confessional. The song “Sweet Life,” featuring Janelle Monae, in particular, really stood out.
Behind the scenes — and that means, specifically, in emails to editors — I remarked that it sounded like Jeezy had really honed in on writing. That I always felt his delivery and topicality carried him, but that as a lyricist, he could be better. And now, it seemed, he was getting there.
When we linked up for our interview, I asked Jeezy what changes he made. He said:
Everything that you’re hearing [now] is me taking the approach of writing songs like a diary. I have a pad; I’ve never had pad before in my whole life. One of my partners was like: “You’re a poet, you should write in your diary.” I’m like: “I don’t really got time for that shit, maybe I could just try and write my music.” So I’m just sitting there and writing it as if I was writing a letter, because I’m good at writing letters and shit like that.
Tom Wolfe is a journalist and author whom people of a certain age and cultural awareness are likely familiar with. In the 60’s, he got famous for popularizing a literary-influenced style of writing called New Journalism.
This kind of writing was founded on the principles that the writer could become part of the story, that there would be multiple scenes and points of view, lots of dialogue — it was basically the foundation for what we consider non-fiction journalism today.
Vanity Fair recently published an article written by Michael Lewis — he of Moneyball and Flash Boys fame — about going to meet Wolfe, delving into his treasure trove of correspondence (his “papers,” in literary parlance), and essentially trying to figure out exactly how, in the span of just a few years, this guy from went from a basic newspaper journalist to a literary giant.
It turns out that the source of Wolfe’s genius, like Jeezy’s, comes down to the simplest of things. In the early 60’s he was hired by Esquire to write a straightforward article about Los Angeles’ burgeoning custom car scene. But he struggled mightily.
He sits down to write and … he can’t do it. The words simply won’t come. In the end he calls up his editor, Byron Dobell, and tells him he just can’t get the piece out of himself. Dobell tells him that Esquire desperately needs something, and soon. They’ve spent $10,000 on a photo spread and they need the text to explain it. Just write up your notes in a letter to me tonight, says Dobell, and I’ll have someone hammer out the text for the piece. And that’s what Wolfe does. “Dear Byron,” he writes — though he might just as easily have written “Dear Mother and Father:”
Wolfe winds up writing a 49-page letter. Esquire removes the “Dear Byron” part and publishes it. In the months that follow, Wolfe’s workload increases and his star really begins to rise. His articles turn into books, then movies, and it isn’t long before he’s non-fiction royalty (he also wrote at least one great novel, 1987’s Bonfire of the Vanities, not to be confused with the terrible Tom Hanks and Melanie Griffith-starring movie adaptation).
But to hear Wolfe tell it, the source of things really comes back to letters.
“There are two kinds of writer’s block. One is when you freeze up because you think you can’t do it. The other is when you think it’s not worth doing. I suppose I kind of feared doing something different, because I was doing this other thing — [newspaper journalism] — perfectly well. But pretend you are writing a letter and you are all right.”
I don’t know what the reaction has been to Jeezy’s new music, but from my end it seems particularly muted. Not saying nobody cares — because I’m sure many people do — but it feels like some of this material, despite its obvious brilliance, is going over people’s heads.
And I have no idea if Tom Wolfe means anything to anyone outside of intellectual circles. It often feels like that era of journalism happened in another lifetime. It’s hard to even imagine it existing at all. Whither Grantland.
But the fact that both Jeezy and Wolfe seemed to find their real groove in the midst of treating their art in the most personal of ways — letter-writing — is not a coincidence.
In the past, I’ve written about how personal correspondence tends to reveal truths that most traditional creative methods do not. Meanwhile, rapping and journalism are not all that different — in fact, there’s a reason why hip-hop was originally called the Ghetto CNN.
Rappers are reporters, giving their takes. Sometimes those takes are informed by first-person knowledge, like drug-dealers who turn to MC’ing to escape the streets. They just do it over beats, instead of on blogs and in newspapers.
The lesson here, I think, is that your truest expression comes from somewhere deep inside yourself, and that the way to make the most intimate connection with readers and listeners, is to speak to them directly, as if they were a close friend.
In other words, write them a letter.