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Herb Sundays 94: Nelson George
The Brooklyn-born author, culture critic, journalist, and filmmaker with a mix of reflection and love.
"The themes here are reflection and love, and how satisfying it can be to find harmony amid the chaos of life through an embrace of romance and introspection. - Nelson George
He has directed numerous documentaries including Finding the Funk (VH1), The Announcement (ESPN), and Brooklyn Boheme (Showtime), and was a producer on the award-winning documentary, The Black Godfather (Netflix) on music executive Clarence Avant. He is currently editing a documentary, A Great Day in Hip Hop Revisited, and is an executive producer on the recent Allen Hughes-directed Tupac Shakur documentary series, Dear Mama (FX).
I’ve never met Mr. George in person but I’ve been reading/watching his stuff for over 20 years. I sat rapt as a teen in a Michigan movie theater watching CB4 (1993), the “rap Spinal Tap” he wrote with Chris Rock and I still have my hardcover of Hip Hop America (1998) which I’m sure I wrote a bullish book report on. But if I’m honest, my core Nelson George memory is in video segments, mainly of him as a talking head in various documentaries, where he absolutely reigns supreme. He’s the coolest guy in any of these situations, he brings a clarity of thought to complex conversations on music, race, appropriation, and more. He doesn’t need to over-amplify his stories, they just sort of unfold, so I found his Substack, The Nelson George Mixtape, which has been firing on all cylinders, I decided to reach out.
Similar to some of Craig Jenkins’ (Herb 84) work, he’s been ruminating on how we’re losing more and more of the greats, particularly black artists, and while he doesn’t consider himself an activist he carries a lot of weight, taking on subjects such as HIV in his projects. He’s also become an advisor and researcher on films such as Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis (2022) where he helped connect the true roots of Elvis’s influence, which is often reduced or simplified.
As a sort of cultural telegraph, George tends to be close to the stuff and has mixed it up with some of the best. His Instagram makes me think of another culture king (they also follow each other) Michael Chabon (Herb 66), in that it recounts his cultural diet of films/shows/books/etc, and acts as a gallery of greats: Jim Brown, Pat Riley, Orson Welles, Susan Rogers, Andre Harrell, Pam Grier, Joan Didion, and more.
On Hip-Hop’s 50th anniversary, it’s important to take stock of those who were there and have been telling the stories, of all races and genders, as it forms a particularly American story about innovation and monetization. George has been covering the beat as long as anyone and even sent a letter in protest to Rolling Stone for their quality/lack of coverage which turned out to be prescient. George has published two excellent volumes of his work THE NELSON GEORGE MIXTAPE Volume 1 and 2 (available here) which I’ve been enjoying.
"In the summer of ‘78 I was twenty years old, a college student, and a wannabe music journalist when I first witnessed DJ Kool Herc play breakbeats for a crowd of teenagers in the schoolyard of Taft High school in the South Bronx. I’d seen DJ’s rock block parties with disco beats all over the city, but Herc’s mix was different, more obscure, more defiantly funky. By publishing an account in the New York Amsterdam News that July I became one of the first people to report on what we now call hip-hop."
For his Herb 94 mix, George lays down a perfect set of R&B/Jazz/Soul including Herb stalwarts Sade and Maxwell, and some great cuts like Black Ivory’s “You and I” (produced by Patrick Adams), Smokey Robinson’s “Baby That’s Backatcha” and even a Buena Vista Social Club cut.
Like the mix, George’s work revolves around unity, not division, whether it’s the Stop The Violence-focused “Self Destruction” song/video or last year’s excellent Say Hey, Willie Mays! (2022, HBO) documentary which chronicles the baseball legend (my dad’s fave player ever) not just for his career but for what he meant (and didn’t mean to some) to the civil rights movement. I marvel at the ability to be involved in so many powerful stories, year after year. The flame remains lit.
Herbs In The News
A lot of activity for Herbs out there, sharing a few I’ve noticed. Herbs grow up so fast.
- Salek (Herb 16) on a number of projects.
- (Herb 34) who wrote the brilliant essay The Sound of Grief won an award for music journalism at the Reeperbahn festival and Hua Hsu’s (Herb 13) Pulitzer Prize-winning Stay True is now in paperback.
Justin Montag of(Herb 71) is helping continue the print renaissance with Long Leash (“A Printed Community”) which is serving an LA newsstand for zines, a new publishing arm, and a plethora of indie titles.
- (Herb 80) for his ace Substack on account of the Kompakt empire’s 25th anniversary.
- , the art king of Herb Sundays is posting a new site featuring select pieces from his Ghostly collaborations and gives us a sneak peek.