With Channel 4's highly publicised Street Summer season about to begin, SceneTV caught up with Lawrence Lartey, Associate Producer on 'How Hip Hop Changed the World', which airs this Friday (12th August) at 10.25pm.
To begin, can you tell us a little bit about your career background?
I started off as a print journalist. Back at school I liked media studies; that’s what I studied at university covering all the disciplines including journalism, video production and marketing. With journalism, while I’m not the best writer, I just had a passion for it. I then got into music journalism just because I love music really – I can’t sing, I can’t play an instrument so I guess what I could do well was write about it!
Which publications have you written for?
I’ve written for the Guardian, the Daily Record in Scotland, London Paper, Now Magazine, Music Week, Mixmag – quite a few, but I started out at Touch Magazine and for me that’s probably what I’m most proud of. Touch Magazine was started by a guy called Jaimie D’Cruz; he now has a production company which produced Exit Through The Gift Shop which is also part of the Street Summer season. I’ve known him for about 15 plus years now and basically, I bugged him to let me write for Touch and it took about a year before anyone in the magazine got back to me! So for me, this is what I’m proud of because I went from work experience at Touch, to a contributor, to a contributing editor. From there, it led on to other more mainstream and national publications.
The documentary ‘How Hip Hop Changed the World’ is airing on Friday 12th August on Channel 4 and is presented by Idris Elba; how would you sum up the documentary in a couple of sentences?
Basically it’s looking at Hip Hop and how it has infiltrated mainstream culture; from fashion to music, politics, economics. It’s looking at Hip Hop and its impact on the world.
Time to name drop! Who will we see being featured in the documentary giving their comments and perspectives on the topic?
Well, from the UK front you have So Solid Crew, Roll Deep, Goldie, Jessie J, Professor Green, Tinchy Stryder. Then you’ll see the American heavy hitters like Nas, Rakim, will.i.am, Damien Marley and Snoop Dogg. Then there are people like MK Asante, who is an amazing author, scholar and film producer. He’s written a book called ‘It’s Bigger than Hip Hop’ and made a documentary with Maya Angelou. People like Kevin Liles who used to be the President of Def Jam and helped run Barack Obama’s campaign – he got all of the music people involved, which was a really important moment. Then people like Cookie Pryce from the Cookie Crew; so it’s a good mix and that’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to reflect the mix of people not just the usual suspects.
(Just a few of the artists providing comments in the documentary – clockwise from top left: Rakim, Cookie Pryce from the 'Cookie Crew', Kevin Liles, Nas, Jessie J, So Solid Crew, Tinchy Stryder, Professor Green)
Who was behind the whole production?
Channel 4 did the Indian Summer season last year and they decided to do the Street Summer this year. Loads of independent production companies pitched in for it and Fresh One Productions, which is who I worked for and is Jamie Oliver’s company, we made two programmes for the season – the Street Dance documentary and How Hip Hop Changed the World.
How did you get involved with Fresh One and the project?
Initially, I came on as a consultant and then within two weeks my role changed to Associate Producer. I authored the Jay Z MySpace special and an Executive Producer at Fresh One saw it. Later, we were just having a conversation about Hip Hop and they had put the idea to Channel 4 and I had given them some ideas like ‘you need to look at x, y and z’. This conversation went on for about a year so when they finally got the commission, they asked me to join as a consultant. It was for 2 weeks initially, but it turned into however many months. Once I started consulting, to be honest, I didn’t want to come of the project because I loved it and I was passionate about it.
What was the process, how did it all come together?
Initially we were in the office for about 2 weeks brainstorming, reading, looking at key moments, speaking to journalists and people from music and TV to decide how we wanted to shape the documentary. We then decided on 100 key moments and put them to a panel made of people from both the UK and US – for example Charlie Dark, Cookie Pryce and a few journalists – and we managed to get down to 50 moments and put them into some sort of order. Being a producer is like being a journalist because once we had those 50 moments, we had to create a story around each one – so it’s like telling 50 stories but in way that even if you don’t like Hip Hop, you would be able to understand and be interested.
Do you have any stories from going over to New York and meeting all of these key figures in Hip Hop?
I’m lucky that I’ve met a lot of my heroes through the job that I do. We went to Jay Z’s Roc the Mic studio then Diddy randomly walked in, so we were just chilling in the room together. But the moment that I was really like ‘wow’ was when I met Snoop Dogg. I really like Snoop; I loved Doggystyle and Snoop was one of the people I’d never met. He was one of the last interviews and when I sat down and was interviewing him, I really felt like a fan. And that came across in the interview because we were laughing and joking and he was really cool. You’ve heard Snoop talk about East Coast/West Coast but not to the point where he was almost choked up talking about Suge Knight, Tupac and how he thought he was going to die. For me it was just nice to be a fan again. So that and just being taken around the Bronx and hanging out with Hip Hop legends -it was a great time.
Many people would be inspired by what you have done in your career. What advice would you give to young people who are starting out and they probably want to be where you are in a few years time?
That’s so weird because I remember looking at people when I was younger and thinking ‘I want to be like that person’. There’s a guy called Matt Ross, he used to be the marketing manager at Columbia/Sony and I wanted to be like him. I think that’s quite healthy, there’s nothing wrong with having that ambition and wanting to be like someone who is successful. I wasn’t looking at the drug dealers or the thugs thinking ‘I want to be like you, I want to drive that car'. If people aspire to do what I’ve done then I’m humbled, I think that’s good. I’ve got to where I am because I’m just passionate about what I do. The way things are going now, you have to be good at a bit of everything. I focused on media but I did journalism, radio, TV; I’ve got transferable skills so I take my journalism and apply it to other areas. I also have my own marketing agency Question Media Group, so I take all my skills and apply that within my company too. Just keep your game tight with what you’re doing, work hard and be consistent.
Even though you have vast knowledge about Hip Hop, what did you learn about the music or the culture while working on the project?
You learn every day! The history of Hip Hop, about Kool Herc who is said to be the orignator, so much. The main thing I learnt (which I didn’t know and some might crucify me for it!) was that Hip Hop kind of started when they built a motorway through the Bronx. The Bronx was originally quite an affluent area, they built the motorway and it divided the city – one side was the affluent side and the other was the poor side. So on the poor side, people were born into poverty and that’s part of the social element that formed the beginning of Hip Hop. And that’s what it was like – every day just learning something new and hopefully people will learn something new when they watch the documentary too.
In your own opinion, how has Hip Hop changed the world?
In many different ways; it’s affected race relations because of people like Eminem, where white people understand and feel part of the culture because of people like him. It’s changed business because of people like Jay Z. It’s changed politics, because the current President of the United States called on Diddy and Jay Z to help on his campaign. It’s changed fashion because of Rocawear, Phat Farm and FUBU. It’s changed marketing because of multi-million pound endorsements. It’s changed so much, I can’t put it on just one thing.
Hip Hop is often blamed for a variety of problems in society and more recently, certain people have attributed blame for the London riots on the influence that Hip Hop has on young people. What are your thoughts on this?
When football hooligans rioted in the ‘80s and ‘90s did they blame the music they were listening to? When Hitler decided to murder innocent Jews did they blame the music he was listening to? When Anders Breivik decided to murder all those innocent young people in Norway, did they link that to his choice of music? Is hip hop to blame for the riots? Well you decide.
Fair point. You must be excited that a documentary on Hip Hop is getting a platform on one of the major broadcasters.
I think it’s important. Channel 4 did something called The Hip Hop Years a while back and it was done really well. It’s good that they stick their neck out and do different things. I mean, people might not agree with certain things about the documentary or the list – I just think it’s good to look at the culture and celebrate it.
Finally, in regards to television, what does diversity mean to you?
For me it means showing different perspectives that reflect the audience. There’s something really good on BBC Three about short people and disabilities. It might be a Gypsy wedding programme on Channel 4. It might be an arts programme on BBC Four. That’s what diversity is, showing different programmes that reflect the audience in the UK.
A big thank you to Lawrence for taking part in the Scene Profiles series. Remember to watch 'How Hip Hop Changed the World' on Friday 12th August on Channel 4 at 10.25pm.
For more information on Channel 4's Street Summer season, click here.