INTERVIEW: Shea Serrano Pinpoints Hip-Hop’s Milestone Shifts in His “Rap Year Book”

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Shea Serrano the gawddd. Responsible for Bun B’s Rap Coloring Book published in 2013 and my day-to-day distraction from doing any real work. A staff writer for ESPN’s Grantland, Shea is a rap writer’s writer, the right combination of certified opinion, expertise and Internet snark that make for absolute zero productivity in the office because who doesn’t prefer a good ol’ rap debate? Thanks to Shea, his latest book, “The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song From Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated and Deconstructed,” (which is out today) is the mothership of said discussions. The title says it all and with illustrations from Arturo Torres, Shea’s book takes rap fans down its main vein of history, cultural shifts and influence but not without the signature gusto of someone who’s seen it firsthand. Hit the jump for the exclusive interview and pick up the book today.

The 5th Element: How did you come up with the idea to make the Rap Year Book?
Shea Serrano:
To be honest, I didn’t even come up with the idea, the publishing company did. My editor for this book is the same one I had for the Bun B Rap Coloring Book, and once we had finished that one we started talking about doing another book. This is entire book was her idea — we pick the most important rap song of every year and explain why, but my job was to figure out how to make it interesting. Honestly when she first told me the idea, it sounded super boring to me; I didn’t want to read a book about a rap song from 1983, why would I want to write one? But we did our research and we managed to figure something out and now we’re just really excited that it’s finally finished and ready for folks to check out. On top of that though, at the time, we were trying to buy a house so… *laughs*

5th: Was there any collaborating or debating with any colleagues of yours in choosing any of the songs?
SS:

Yeah, I talked to a few different people: Evan Auerbach, he runs a photo Tumblr on rap so he knows a lot about hip-hop; Chris Weingarten, who’s an editor for Rolling Stone, is a good friend of mine. So I put my list together that I thought would be the most important ones and I sent it to them to see what they thought; I also hit up Combat Jack, who was really involved in hip-hop culture in the late 90’s, early 2000’s; he was an entertainment lawyer for Jay-Z at one point, but I sent the list to him also. I was just really nervous about if there were any I missed, or I didn’t understand, or if I under or overestimated how important my choice was.

5th: 

Did you set any type of rules or guidelines for yourself when you picked the song?
SS:
The only rule I really followed to take into consideration when the single was released; it didn’t matter if the album came out in 1993, if the single came out in 1992, it was going to account for ’92. Other than that, there were a few chapters where a song might’ve had multiple versions of it come out; the 2004 chapter, for example, the song picked was Mike Jones’ “Still Tippin’.” That record actually had three versions come out before the official version, but it was the single that made the impact so I had to run with that one.

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5th: I feel like a lot of people align the “most important song” with “biggest hit song” of the year, but there’s clearly a difference. How were you able to avoid that for the book?
SS:
It’s easy to differentiate those because a lot of times the most popular song isn’t necessarily the most important, as far as impact. In some cases it certainly was, like with Kanye’s “Gold Digger,” but other ones it wasn’t so obvious because some songs’ importance wasn’t realized until years later after everybody else tried copying it. Like, Clipse’s “Grindin’” or Wu-Tang’s “C.R.E.A.M.,” those songs came out and it wasn’t a big thing about it — no one realized how great those songs were. I had been writing about music for about seven or eight years, so you get accustomed to seeing music that way after a while.

5th: 

Were there any terrible songs that had to be listed as important for any given year?
SS:

I think the one that got the most push back out of all the picks was Macklemore’s “Same Love.” Some people really liked the song, other people think it’s an awful song just because of who he is. But it’s an important song, I don’t think there’s any denying that. It’s not like he was the first one to rap about being homosexual or being gay or anything like that, but it was the first time it was a mainstream song. There were never really any instances where I justified a song I picked and folks were like, “That’s an awful song,” it would just turn into a discussion of “this other one is more important and this is why.” All of the chapters in the book have a blurb from other music writers to argue against the one I selected, because that’s what makes this whole thing fun, is the debate around this specific topic.

5th: Which era was your favorite to pick?
SS:

I was a teenager in the 90s, so of course that era was just super nostalgic when it came down to picking the songs for that time. 1993 was probably my favorite year for rap, and Snoop’s “Doggystyle” is my favorite album from that year; I would say from then until 2003 were my favorite eras to work with for this book.

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5th: As it got closer to the Internet era, was it harder to wither down your picks, especially when you consider the whole introduction of blogs and the idea of songs going viral?
SS:

I mean, it wasn’t so much about picking songs that best represented the Internet because the Internet didn’t get a big rap star until Drake; he’s really the first one. It tried to jumpstart itself with guys like Kid Cudi and Wale — they were the ones that tried figuring it out first, but Drake was the one who figured it out in 2009 with “So Far Gone.” Those songs were easy to pick because they marked milestone changes within rap. If you start in the 80’s, there’s a straight line you can follow to see where the big shifts and changes were.

The first chapter in the book starts in 1983 with (Sugarhill Gang’s) “Rappers’ Delight” because it was the first radio hit; the next shift you see is around ’85-’86, where Rakim comes in and he’s introducing a whole new style of rapping as an art form and using this elaborate wordplay. Then the next big shift is in the late ‘80s with gangster rap; after that you go into the 90’s with Native Tongues, late 90’s with Puffy and Bad Boy, then the new version of gangster rap with 50 Cent in the early 2000s. Then you see another shift that starts with Rick Ross where it isn’t so much what you’re saying, but how you say it… it was really important to stick with that line and being able to pinpoint which songs created these shifts and that determined which was important.

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5th: Have you mentally prepared yourself for any kind of flack you might receive for your picks?
SS:
Half the fun is having debates about these topics. 
That’s the whole point of making a book like this, or any list for that matter. I think that anytime you write anything and put it on the Internet, you’re going to get some sort of blow back. I mean, I hope that something I write sparks debates, the only time I wouldn’t get somebody arguing with me about what I wrote was when I was writing for tiny papers that nobody was reading. The bigger the profile, the more chance you’re going to get some jackass trying to argue with you. Anything I write, I get like 100 messages on Twitter about it so hopefully the same thing happens with the book.

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Nina Tabios

Nina Smoove aka Champagne Ninang. Certified hooligan. $F Bay Area born and bred.

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