(Dream Hampton has written about music, culture and politics for 20 years. She was an editor at The Source in the early 90s. Most recently, she collaborated with Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter on the book Decoded, which I have read twice. A longtime member of the human rights organization Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Hampton helped to organize the Black August Hip Hop Concert Benefit to raise awareness about U.S. political prisoner for ten years. She also directed The Black August Hip Hop Project, a film about the concert series, political prisoners and MXGM. I was honored to go one-on-one with her.)
Brother Jesse Muhammad (BJ): Regarding the book Decoded, how long did you work on this with Jay-Z? How do you feel about the final product?
Dream Hampton (DH): We basically knocked it out in six months of just really steady working. I couldn't be happier with it. A big part of it was always going to be the layout and design. And that came out beautifully.
BJ: How important is Decoded to hip hop and its history?
DH: There are two things. On one hand, there's the Jay-Z part of it. He has a body of work that is not going anywhere. So this is just him kind of continuing the conversation. So in that regard, it is important. On another hand we had hoped to make this one of the greatest hip hop books up there with Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop.
There are a couple of really good books that have been written about hip hop and so that's the phase we're in with hip hop. We're at the phase now, which makes me scared because in some ways that makes it not a living thing once it moves to a library or the shelf. It becomes no longer a living thing. But it is where we are. And so in that sense I'd hope to contribute in that way.
We definitely want to situate it in an era which deals with my book, my memoir, the era. The way that Jay and I connected as friends 15 years ago. It very much tells our story, our generation's story. It tells the backdrop to what our generation faced in terms of the crack industry, Reaganomics, and everything that happened in the 80s that produced my generation. The same way the things that produced Assata. Her generation would be about the assassinations of Malcolm and Martin, Elijah Muhammad, Muhammad Ali, the Vietnam War and the Voting Rights Act. All those things are what created Assata. That's the backdrop to her story. So with Jay it was about telling about what created our generation.
BJ: You're going to write your own personal memoirs? What inspired that?
DH: Well, it's something that people have been asking me to do for a long time and I sat down with my agent and really knocked out something that made sense for me. Some of it I guess has to do with what that decade 1990 - 2000 means to me and having enough distance to focus on a decade. An autobiography is about trying to tell your whole life story, whereas a memoir is focused on a period. You could write a memoir about a night, a weekend, your childhood, or an affair. So this is just a particular decade I am going to concentrate on.
BJ: What are five particular things that stand out during that decade that made you want to focus on that time period?
DH: I had a child, my daughter. A film was released that reinforced my childhood dream of being a filmmaker. I met Assata Shakur. In 1994 I fell deeply in love, probably the first time ever in my life. And I began a seven year friendship with Biggie, who I think about almost every day.
BJ: I saw the film The Black August Hip Hop Project and I was so moved by that piece. I wanted to ask you about that meeting with Assata. How was that experience for you?
DH: Well when I was 19 I read her book a brother gave to me and it changed my life. Her story is heroic. You know given that up until, I would say about seven years, before meeting her, I had been working on either her co-defendants case or the people accused of her liberation, in terms of raising money for their cases through Black August. So by the time I met her I had been working on stuff around her or related to her for like some years. So it was just amazing. It wasn't like just coming to her like a fan. But it was coming to her as someone who had done like as much work as I could around keeping her safe and honoring the people who had risked so much to make sure that she was free.
BJ: Like others, I’ve been able to keep up with you more via Twitter. What projects have you been working on personally outside of Decoded?
DH: I've always been doing my thing. I have always been writing and it's always been published. I've been raising a daughter. I've been doing film. I've been making Black August. I've been doing work around racial justice and human rights so I mean the same stuff I have always been doing. I mean it's just that with Twitter I guess you got the chance to talk about it but that's not important to do in terms of the work. This whole notion of constantly telling people what you are doing on Twitter, it's just a little corny to me. It's not how I get down, how I ever got down. You see how I use Twitter. I prefer to use it to talk about ideas and to share information. I understand the self-promotion aspect of it. But it seems the least appealing aspect of it to me.
BJ: The state of hip hop journalism today--what's your assessment of it? I rarely pick up a hip hop magazine anymore to even read. Thought provoking content seems to be lacking.
DH: Well, I don't even like the phrase hip hop journalism. I don't know if it's the hip hop part of it or the journalist part of it. I don't really consider myself a journalist. I mean I definitely have written and am a writer. But there are journalists out there and they go around and they report and they get secondary sources and they do all that stuff. I'm an essayist. I've been a cultural critic but I wouldn't consider myself a journalist.
I'm not surprised at the content. It is a little empty. Part of it has to do with the kind of outlets for it and the other part of it has to do with there not being much to write about anymore. And that happened in rock music. There's a whole decade when Rolling Stone just kind of went dark. It really wasn't until Seattle kind of re-emerges on the scene to invigorate rock in the 90's that rock journalism becomes interesting again. And so I can see how that has become true in hip hop too.
BJ: When you tweet “I gotta get offline, I got a deadline to meet”, what goes into Dream Hampton's life when she has to meet deadlines? How do you stay focused, when some of us, we get easily distracted?
DH: I turn everything off. I punish myself. I say I'm not gonna take a shower until I finish this. So sometimes I just be stinking like "Oh my God if I don't finish it" you know, or I'm not gonna eat or whatever it is I'm not gonna go see Harry Potter. Like whatever I want to do, you know, it could be anything. Whatever it is I'm not going to do it until I finish.
BJ: In addition to the memoir, over this next five years or so what else do you have that you will be working on?
DH: I don't like to talk about stuff you know. You know I'm doing Industry Rules with Q-Tip. I hope to do more film stuff. Film stuff is very dependent on capital, so it's no point in talking about that until you are wrapped and ready to show it. But I'm trying to raise a caring, beautiful, and responsible daughter. That's what I'm charged with first and foremost.
Brother Jesse: Thank you!
DH: I appreciate your support.
(For more information on the works of Dream Hampton visit her site: http://dreamhamptonarticles.blogspot.com and follow her on Twitter @dreamhampton313)