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So What Do You Do, Nelson George, Writer, Producer and Filmmaker?

The self-proclaimed 'city kid' talks movies, music, and having a mixed bag of media gigs

By Janelle Harris - August 18, 2010
Tough times call for diversity -- in your skill set, that is. And if ever there was a media pro fortunate enough to have a hand in just about every platform, it's Nelson George. For more than 20 years, he's covered subjects that matter to him, that he enjoys, that have defined his career as an author and print journalist. He's also the executive producer behind BET's American Gangster and VH1's Hip Hop Honors, the director of Life Support, a film based on the life story of his HIV-positive sister that earned Queen Latifah a Golden Globe award, and the travel expert-at-large for American Airlines' BlackAtlas.com site.

Even with so many credentials packed into his journo portfolio and his latest book, Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson, now in stores, the Brooklyn-bred writer is back to his roots, spending quality time with his keyboard to pound out a page-turner that he will only divulge is a "novel about hip-hop." Here, however, he talks freely about his multimedia multitasking and how he hones a thought into a full-blown project.


Name: Nelson George
Position: Author, filmmaker, television producer, critic and travel expert-at-large for BlackAtlas.com
Resume: Started career as an intern at the Amsterdam News before being hired as black music editor, first for Record World, then for Billboard. Became columnist for the Village Voice. Published more than a dozen novels, biographies and nonfiction books. Produced films and documentaries, including Strictly Business and She's Gotta Have It. Won a Grammy for his contribution to the liner notes on James Brown's Star Time boxed set. Current host of Soul Cities on VH1 Soul, travel expert-at-large for American Airlines and documentarian working on a project about Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Recently released two books, City Kid: A Writer's Memoir of Ghetto Life and Post-Soul Success and Thriller: The Musical Life of Michael Jackson.
Birthdate: September 1
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY
Education: St. John's University with a degree in communications arts
Marital status: Single
First section of the Sunday Times: Arts or Sports
Favorite TV show: The Wire
Guilty pleasure: Ring Dings
Last book read: "I'm reading The Great Gatsby right now."
Twitter handle: @nelsongeorge

Has moving from being a journalist to an author been a natural progression for you?
I was a journalist because I needed to figure out how to make money before I could write books. My goal has always been to create books. That was my dream since I was a little boy. The number one thing that journalism gave to me was an expertise. I became really well known for writing about and covering black music and black culture, and that became my calling card and my entry point into the world of writing books.

How did becoming a filmmaker come into play?
I've always liked movies and I've always been a big moviegoer. That was our big treat on a Friday or Saturday night, was to go to a movie. In college, I began getting more insight into how movies are put together. It probably wasn't until I met Spike Lee in 1984, 1985, when I moved back to Brooklyn and he had already shot most of She's Gotta Have It. The idea that someone new who was my age, someone who lived near me, could make a film was really quite an extraordinary experience. So I saw the whole journey from him trying to sell it to it coming out and becoming a big phenomenon, and that was a big inspiration.

"I became really well known for writing about and covering black music and black culture, and that became my calling card and my entry point into the world of writing books."

What's your creative process like? When do you generally get your best ideas?
[Ideas] come [from] all over the place. They can come at the end of a yoga class. They can come while I'm getting a haircut. I mean, it's not about the inspiration. Everyone gets ideas. Something comes to fruition when you begin to refine it and develop it and make it into something. Anybody can have a good idea but to make a project work -- be it a book, a film, a TV show -- you have to have internal follow-up, that development process of how you think it through and figure out how to practically make it happen. Inspiration's not overrated, but inspiration's just one part. It's not the total idea.

Tell us about your new book on Michael Jackson. Why did you want to write it?
I was initially hired to write a book about the Thriller album. I was working on that last summer. And then Michael passed. So it became a little bit more about his legacy than it did just about the one album. The focus is really Thriller because I felt like that's the centerpiece. But through Thriller, you can learn a lot about his process before and after. You can really get a perspective on his career and all of the different forces that influenced him creatively. So it's really a book about the many sides of his artistry, particularly his songwriting, his singing and the impact of his work -- how he was influenced by artists before and how he's influenced artists since.

Did you discover any new or overlooked aspect to his career or life in writing this book?
Well, he's one of the only artists that we have on record from when he was 7, 8, 9 years old up until the time he was 50 years old. So it's a unique journey to literally hear someone's life on record. As I'm writing the book, the journey of his voice and how his voice changed and how he began using it in different ways is really quite interesting. That's one of the things I really enjoyed about the book: listening to those records and hearing the vocal journey from this unique artist.

"Everyone gets ideas. Something comes to fruition when you begin to refine it and develop it and make it into something."

You've worked with and written about a lot of celebrities. What do you think is the key to conducting a good interview with a high-profile subject?
Try not to ask the same questions they've been asked a million times. That's a good start. Some things are inevitable but if you've got to ask it, ask it in a different way. So it's always about trying to find an angle that's different. One of the most important things is to know their body of work. Artists love it when you know about not the hit records or the hit books or the hit movies, but the things that weren't as successful. Be aware of their complete body of work.

Who have been some of your favorite people to interview?
Back when I was starting my career, I interviewed Prince. It was his first time coming to New York and doing interviews. It was a fascinating conversation. I've interviewed Quincy Jones a number of times over the years. Always an interesting person to interview, just a totally charming and interesting man. And I've interviewed George Clinton. He asked me for a business card and then used it to snort some cocaine. Then we had dinner that night -- me, George, his wife, I guess, and a stuffed monkey. The stuffed monkey had a table and chair and ordered wonton soup. I'll never forget that. That was sometime in the early '80s, I think.

What is your definition of success? Have you achieved it yet?
I think success is being able to continue to work and to get your work out there. There are different levels of money you're going to make. Some projects you're going to make a lot of money; some projects you're not going to make any money at all. Some projects are going to be very successful -- beyond your expectations -- and some won't be as successful as you want. I think as long as I'm continuing to do work and be happy, that's what success is, because you can only truly judge for yourself whether you're internally satisfied. And I am. I'm pretty happy. It's been a good journey.

What advice would you give a recent J-school graduate with dreams of media grandeur?
Become a specialist. If you're a good enough writer, sure, you can write about everything. But I do think to become a well-known force, you have to be known for being an expert -- being very versed in economics, being very versed in health, being very versed in music, being very versed in sports. People are looking for people who seem to know a lot about something. That's why blogs are so interesting, why some websites and TV shows, too. So I think having an area of specialization or expertise is very important.

You also appear regularly as a commentator on TV. How did you break into that? What advice would you give to other journos who want to position themselves as experts for television?
People were just doing documentaries on music in the '80s when I was still a full-time music critic and asked me to turn up and talk in them. And that's how it started. So it's just me talking about things I was already writing about. But people will come to you if they think you know about a particular topic. That's how you end up on these shows. To be interviewed by 20/20, you just need the people to think you'd have something to say about it that's really important.

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Janelle Harris is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. She documents her editorial adventures at www.thewriteordiechick.com.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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