Sitting down with Shea Serrano
Morgan Hunt sat down with New York Times best selling author and Twitter celebrity Shea Serrano to talk about his books, the power of having an army of followers on Twitter, and, of course, Kanye West.
This interview was recorded on a cell phone. The audio quality may be fuzzy; it has been edited for clarity.
Morgan: So, The Rap Yearbook is a chronological best rap song of every year. How did that idea come about? Because there’s nothing like that.
Shea Serrano: That actually wasn’t my idea is the crazy part. I was working with this publisher called Abrams Books and we had done a book together previously. It was a rap coloring book, like a filthy little thing we just did and put together real fast. It ended up doing ok- you know, it didn’t sell a ton of copies. But, it did enough where they wanted to do another book together. I didn’t want to do another coloring book so I was trying to figure out something to write and an editor there, this woman named Samantha who is super smart and very insightful, had the idea for the book. It was her idea- one-hundred percent. She said “hey, you should do a book where you write about the most important song from every year and every chapter is just a different year and you focus on just that”. I didn’t want to do that. It sounded super boring to me when she told me because I was picturing, in my head, a straight-up textbook. So, I passed on it. I said “no, I don’t want to do that”. A month or two pass, and my wife and I decided we were going to try move into a house, we were living a town home at the time, so we needed the money. I called Samantha back and I was like “that was a pretty good idea you had”. Once I started working on it is when I figured out it could be something cool. They agreed to make it full color, which is a big thing. They agreed to let me put all of the art in it. They basically said “just do what you want” and I said cool. They let me make it how I wanted to make it. But, yeah It was all Samantha’s idea.
M: Oh, that’s very cool. When you were choosing the songs for each year, was it a matter of personal opinion or did you look at charts? How did you choose those?
S: The way that we handled that is: for every year I put together a list of the fifteen biggest songs of the year, the fifteen songs that came out that year that were memorable. Then we would take each of those and try to distill it down into a one or two sentence blurb about why this song was important and once you do that you were able to see which songs were more important than the other ones. You look at something like “The Breaks”, the 1980 Kurtis Blow song, and the blurb for that one I remember very clearly. It said “this was the first rap song to have a chorus in it” and all of the other ones said what they said, but they didn’t hit that. Then every rap song, for the most part had a chorus in it, so that was the most important one. You just do that for every year, try to figure out which one figured out what happened after it and that’s all it was. It wasn’t super hard once we had the criteria set up. It wasn’t a thing like “what was the best song” or “what song sold the most copies”… which lead and had forward thinking… That’s what we were looking for.
M: Have you caught any flack for any of your choices?
S: I mean, yeah. People will mention things every once in awhile. It’s gotten to the point now where who can say anything? If you called me right now and said “I’d like to argue with you about this song in your book”, I’d be like “Cool… What are your credentials? Because I’m a New York Times Best Selling Author of this book so I know what I’m talking about and you’re just a dude on Twitter who’s angry at me”. So yeah, every once in awhile I hear something, but for the most part, no. People will read the chapter, and they’ll see the argument, and even if they don’t agree they’ll say “I see why you picked this song”.
M: Before we move on, and are still on the topic of hip hop, I need to ask you two very important questions. First one is… Do you Drake is actually a good rapper?
S: Yeah, he’s a fantastic rapper.
M: Interesting. And two, what do you think the best Kanye West album is?
S: I have a personal connection to Graduation, so I would pick that one. That’s my favorite Kanye album. But the best, if we’re just talking objectively the best, is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
M: Yeah, we’re on the same page with that one. Actually, in middle school, my best friend had to carry Graduation around in his backpack because he didn’t want to be away from it, so he had to carry it around with him.
M: It feels really weird and unconventional to be asking about a book that doesn’t come out for another 6 months, but now you’re working on Basketball And Other Things and that’s where the interesting part about your Twitter comes in. There’s a big push to get you X amount of presales, what’s that number up to now?
S: I haven’t checked recently. It’s somewhere right around 8,000.. That’s where it was last time. We usually do around a couple hundred a week if I’m pushing it, but I haven’t been pushing it, so I’m guessing somewhere around 8,000.
M: Why do you think people are ordering so many copies in a world where people don’t always reach for a book and digital books are becoming so popular?
S: Most of it is just that people are nice. They say “oh! I follow this guy on Twitter and he makes me laugh every once in a while, so if he has a book, let me buy the book”. That’s really all it is, because nobody has seen a thing. People have seen the cover, maybe, but beyond that nobody has read anything. Nobody knows if it’s good or not. The only reason that they would be pre-ordering this, or buying this thing, is because they like me. That’s the only reason anybody would do it right now.
M: I have seen the cover. How did you get to put a giant squid on the cover of your book about basketball?
S: The squid makes an appearance inside the book. He’s part of a different piece of art. We knew we wanted to do the basketball game for the cover, and I knew I wanted to be representative of what the book is, so there should be a couple of things on there that make you think “why is this on here”. That’s all it is. I thought it looked cool.
M: No, it does look very cool. It’s just very funny for a basketball book. So, you have this personal and twitter philosophy that has to do with basketball. It’s “Shoot Your Shot”. Can you explain to people who don’t know what that means what “Shoot Your Shot” is?
S: That’s just a thing that they say. It boils down to just trying to do the thing you want to do. Just try it. That’s all that it means. People really like saying it, it’s like a funny thing to say. I wish I had a better answer for you, but that’s all it is.
M: So, now that I’ve brought up the FOH Army, when did that grow into what it is now?
S: That started when The Rap Yearbook was coming out. Someone who follows me gave it the name FOH Army after we started causing a little trouble on the internet. We crashed one store’s website and sold out the rest of the book. Somebody gave it the name and then we just started using it anytime I was talking about a group of people who were hanging out on Twitter. It’s grown the same way that the writing career has grown: it’s grown slowly. It’s gotten a little more serious recently. We started doing more charity and donation situations. But, that started when the book was coming out, in October of 2015, and it’s just gotten stronger ever since then.
M: You brought up the charity thing, that’s incredible. How did that begin? Did people come to you with things they want to rally around or are they more just things that are personal to you?
S: For the most part, they have been personal to me. The way that the charity thing started was that Arthur and I were doing the newsletter, Basketball and Other Things. I was in between writing at Grantland and writing at The Ringer, I was just kind of doing my own thing. So, we’re doing the newsletter and we’re offering it for free and somebody along the way mentioned that they wanted to pay for it. “Let me send you a dollar or 5 dollars”. It just started happening more and more often. They kept prying, so finally after like 4 or 5 newsletters I posted a link in there and said “Okay, if you want to send me some money, if you want to donate to the newsletter: send it here and Arthur and I are going to spend it”. We did that and people sent in several thousand dollars.
M: Oh my gosh!
S: Oh, it was crazy. This was over the course of 2 hours that a few thousand bucks came in. So, I turned the thing off and we just took that money. I didn’t want to spend it, because I didn’t need it. I was collecting a check because I had a job. So, we took that money and we donated it to a women’s shelter where when Arthur was younger he and his family lived for awhile. That place was meaningful for him, so we took that money and donated it there. We didn’t tell anyone that we were doing that ahead of time so we just said “haha, look what we did with your money” and that’s how it started. We did it again after that for a Meals on Wheels type thing for kids that’s in Houston. We did it again around thanksgiving and bought a bunch of turkeys for people. That’s how it started. It’s just grown since then. They get a little bigger each time. The last one we did was for Planned Parenthood. It was like twelve thousand bucks we donated which was cool. I got a special email from the president of Planned Parenthood. They just get a little bigger every time.
M: That’s really awesome. You don’t really think of Twitter as a platform where people are able to give back, so that’s really cool. Aside from being an author and a writer and a Twitter celebrity, I suppose, you’re also a parent. I just want to throw it out there that I think your next move should be a parenting book solely because of your tweet about when your kids brought home the recorder and you said you were going to teach them to play a Future song, which I think is incredible. Do your kids color exclusively in your rapper coloring book?
S: No, they don’t care about it. They don’t care about and are not impressed by any of the stuff I do. It’s just like whatever. We were at a bookstore when the rap book came out and I was like “hey, look, they’ve got my book up on the shelf” and the boys were just like “who fucking cares? I wanna go home”.
M: I guess we can go ahead and wrap this up with one last question: what are you listening to right now?
S: The Kendrick album that just came out.
M: Yeah, we didn’t get the second part to that. There was that rumor about the second part that was supposed to come out Sunday.
S: That was just you young people being selfish and not appreciating the one thing you got. You’re just looking for more.
M: I guess that’s true.
S: Yeah, I was hoping for that. I’m always just hoping for new Kendrick music, but that’s what I’m listening to right now.