The SPB Mailbag: On Interviewing Beyonce, Diddy, Rodman & other assorted superstars

I really enjoyed your Prince interview. What was the best interview you ever did?” ~ D.E.

Thanks for the nice words, and no thanks for that hard question! Only because as similar as they can be in structure, tone and style, in many ways no two celeb interviews are the same. Maybe because no two celebs are the same? (That’s debatable; if you ever wanna believe in cloning, hang out in hiphop for a few days…just kidding!) Also you can almost never tell, before-hand, what you’ll get out of a subject and whether what you do get out of them will be useful to you or interesting to the reader. So, to answer your question fairly: I’ve had a few “best” interviews ever, either because of the “subject,” the situation or the outcome of the story.

The subject (a tie): Dennis Rodman and Beyonce. Dennis because, come on, could you find a richer subject than The Worm in all of American sports in the mid-90s? He was not only wrecking the league in rebounds and defense, but he was also a cross-dresser! He ran with drag queens (or female impersonators, as he’s wont to correct people, fabulously)! He talked about his potential bisexuality! What (black?) athlete is giving you all that? Also he let what was supposed to be an hour-long lunch interview turn into a whirlwind three days in Chicago, letting me completely inside his clubbing/Taco Bell-eating/vintage-shopping/Pearl Jam-loving world. You can’t ask for more than that from an interview subject. Well, you can, but then you’d probably be killed after getting the lowdown.

Beyonce, because she managed, it seemed, better than any other “superstar” I interviewed, to play “star” and “friend” at the same time. We talked about being Virgos; we sang Dreamgirls lyrics together; we canoodled on the couch in SONY Studios. Okay, that last thing didn’t happen, obviously. Sue me for daydreaming. What I’m saying is that homegirl knows how to be a star yet remains down-to-earth enough to make you feel like everything between you is cool—not exactly a secret, but a nice little pact of privacy that feels almost like a protective shell; she’s taking care of you so that you’ll take care of her—in print. You can hear some of the interview (and one of our giggle-fests) here at Giant.com

The situation: Sean Combs/Puff Daddy/P Diddy/Diddy. I’ll just call him Puff here, since that’s what he was going by when I did the article. My time with Puff taught me two things: 1) how to be insinuating enough that you can turn an allotted “hour or two” with Prince or Rodman or Shaq into a coupla days or more and 2) sometimes having as big an ego as your subject can net you quite a few gains. In Puff’s case, I sorta knew him from the scene, just cause we were both 20-something kats running around the hiphop world of 1990s NYC. We went to the same parties, fashion shows, openings and restaurants. And as a result he, luckily, sorta thought we were on similar trajectories (you see how that turned out). So even while the interview was going on, there was still that little bit of territorial wariness that came from us being popular peers on the scene. Funny moment: In a cab, my pager (pager! whoa! dating m’self!) goes off again. Puff says: “Damn, nigga, you get as many pages as me!” Surprise went to respect went to trust. I didn’t get all his secrets, but I got enough. And I was able to be the first one to get the info about his “firing” from Uptown Records, literally having to stop the VIBE presses to get it into the story.

The outcome of the story (another tie): LL Cool J and Eminem. LL because I was able to indulge my fandom of my favorite rapper and somehow subsume it into the SPIN cover story I did about him. That was the moment in my career when I decided that being myself was the only way I’d be able to sustain a career, especially as a young black writer trying to break into the lily-white world of music journalism. I had to stay true to my beliefs and the themes that spoke to me as both a music fan and a critic yet be able to articulate those concerns into readable prose that readers would enjoy. So I wrote about LL as a sex symbol. I’m not exaggerating when I say that no one was writing about rappers as sex symbols or objects back then. It was all about the “urban warrior,” the “hood kid who made good,” the “brotha with skills.” Well, I believed that rap stars had sex appeal just as much as rock stars did, maybe even more because of the historically twisted relationship American culture had with black male sexuality. I got many calls from other writers, and some readers, basically telling me that I couldn’t/shouldn’t write about rappers like that. Of course what many of them were intimating, and only one saw fit to say outright, was this: rap was straight man’s music; anyone who slept with men couldn’t/wouldn’t get it and shouldn’t be writing about desire or pleasure or masculinity. As I told one kid, “Fags nod their heads as hard as straight guys do, so step the fuck off.” I won’t even go into how this “gays in rap” track continued on, through the fraught creation of VIBE to the “who’s the gay rapper?” witch-hunt of the late 90s/early 2000s. It was just important for a brotha to say, “I’m queer. I’m here. And I rock rap music, too. So get the fuck used to it.”

Eminem for a very simple reason. My feature profile of the Detroit kid allowed me to finally really write about class in hiphop culture and where it intersected oh-so-interestingly with the issue of race and whiteness. Luckily my interview with Em took place in 1999, before he became the biggest thing in rap, so I had incredible access and got to observe him in as unobstructed a way as possible. I got many letters after that piece, from poor white kids who saw themselves in Em and in my piece and from black kids who said things like “I never really thought about white people being poor before.” As John Mellencamp—who I came close to interviewing once, except for that high hurdle of racism that brothas had to leap in order to write about a white artist back then—once said, “Now ain’t that America?”

{More Mailbag next week!}

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