Why Biography’s Rule: If Written With Care
How exactly did you spend your summer? Staycationing, because you, like many Torontonians, were too broke to travel to Tunisia? Or how about getting a tan at that fake man-made beach that rhymes with booger at Jarvis / Queens Quay East (hey, some Oakville teens ran amok with them tanning beds, and now all Ontarians have to pay the price as my namesake, Premier McGuinty, is issuing a ban to protect teens from the risk of skin cancer). These are clearly issues I don’t have to wrestle with, if you’ve ever looked at my headshot, so for me it was back to the laptop. My summer was spent polishing off my first biography.
Interestingly, I wrote my first book, an autobiography, in 2002, back when Linkin’ Park and ex-Raptor Vince Carter mattered. Fast forward to now, and I decided to take a kick at the old unauthorized bio can. Why? Because the proposed subject, actor/rapper Drake, was too juicy to turn down. After fielding a few offers as “Canada’s foremost expert on hip hop culture” to do something on Drake, the pop culture gods at ECW Press decided to help fund this journey. I naturally tried to get at Drake by asking his lawyer, his label and his right hand man to collaborate and/or grant new interviews, but the kid made over $20 million-plus in earnings this year according to Forbes, and his house in California has waterfalls, so I figured that unless your name is Margaret Atwood or your making (Jim) Balsillie bank, good luck in trying to convince his people to return your lowly queries and emails. I learned that the hard way while working as Content Manager for CBC’s Hip Hop Summit, where I was able to assemble all of the icons of the last 25 years of Canadian hip hop, including K’naan, K-os, Shad, Maestro, Kardinal Offishall, Dream Warriors and Michie Mee among others, to perform on one stage for one historic night. Everyone but Drake. All of my emails and texts went unreturned. Not sure why, but the show had to go on!
Whether you are into Degrassi: The Next Generation andrap music or not, Drake’s life story is fantastic, and his body of work begged a literary tribute piece. As a longtime journalist who’s covered everything from the run up to the US presidential elections to the Toronto Police, and who’s interviewed a whack of Grammy Award winners, I generally work with the feeling that I have the creative license to write and talk about somebody, even if I can’t get to talk to them directly for whatever reason.
Despite having booked Drake to perform at an artist showcase I produced at my day job, and having seen him perform a number of times up close, before he was Drake, I still had to attack the biography form head on, much like a grad fresh out of Simon Fraser University’s Master of Publishing Program. First, I went on a self-imposed biography binge. I pored over biographies about dead white guys (Bob Dylan), deceased brotha’s (Jimi Hendrix), and checked out some bio lit. action on icons who are very much alive too, like Jay-Z. There’s a new biography about hockey executive Gary Bettman that I’m aiming to check out too now, because of the pathetic recent NHL lockout. If the Toronto Maple Leafs’ upcoming season gets sidetracked, like, who am I supposed to boo and diss for 2013 now? It’s not like they were going to make the playoffs or anything like that.
Anyway, during the writing process, because everyone asked me “do I know Drake,” and my reply was “not personally, but yeah, in the capacity of a music booker, and I know many people around him that one can argue were partly responsible for him learning the ropes before he became Drake,” this was a fun, interesting project that kept the juices flowing. I’ve been kicking around the celebrity trenches long enough to understand that sometimes its better when biographers aren’t in bed with their subjects, so there’s more objectivity, less spin doctoring and even fewer sound bites being massaged by their PR handlers. Besides, oftentimes iconoclastic artists and entertainers are too busy creating history to be thinking about book publishing, telling their life story and/ or sharing tales of how they made it.
Professional writers just want to tell good stories, that’s it, and from what I’ve witnessed in the world of autobiography writing, a few really good potential stories about important people get kiboshed in the 11th hour by the subject because of cold feet or delayed because of present career fixations, and justifiably so. For example, if you’re a professional football player, and things are going good for you, is there really much point in telling your life story right now, while the iron is hot? Perhaps. Or maybe not. What I do know is that I had to leave out some priceless bits of info in my first authorized biography to not burn any bridges for my subject. But sometimes by doing that, you’re giving your readers short shrift, instead of telling the truth and just laying the controversial issues out there for people to dissect and discuss. I always try to imagine what a Bob Marley autobiography — if he had written one — would read like? Would he go into any of the details surrounding his philandering ways, like the film about his life Marley did? I’m not so sure.
I am quite proud of this Drake project, because I did what no one was really doing when they talk about the guy, and that’s to write about the conditions in Toronto that helped create the Drake phenomenon. His dizzying success did not occur in a vacuum, and as the lone hip hop book publishing dude out here, I decided to give him his proper respect in the literary world, as an entertainer, and put him on the same pedestal as Jay-Z and Justin Bieber. Having documented the Canadian rap music scene before it became cool — from when comedian Russell Peters was a hip hop DJ — Drake’s wildly interesting, partially Made In Toronto narrative had to get told. I mean, the guy’s uncle Larry Graham Jr. mentors Prince!