9 Questions With Shea Serrano, the Man Behind Hip-Hop History Book ‘The Rap Year Book’

After collaborating with Texas hip-hop icon Bun B on his first book, Bun B’s Rap Coloring and Activity Book, San Antonio-native Shea Serrano and his growing family decided they needed a new house. To help foot the bill for the new crib, Serrano recently delivered The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song From Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated and Deconstructed, which quickly sold out online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million.

With a second printing already in the works, Serrano has fully embraced his voice as a hip-hop author, completing the long journey from his beginnings as a fledgling music freelancer. In addition to creating bomb adult coloring books and rap chronicles, Serrano is currently a staff writer at Grantland, and has contributed to LA Weekly, XXL, MTV, Village Voice, The Source, and Vice, among others.

Illustrations for the book were done by Dallas-based artist Arturo Torres.
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I caught up with him right after the release of his new book to discuss music, writing, and the most important song of 2015.

What was it like growing up in San Antonio and falling in love with hip-hop?
You don’t realize what’s going on at the time. You’re just sort of doing what you do. I didn’t feel like I was planning for anything. I had never intended to be a writer. I was just doing what every Mexican kid in South San Antonio did at the time. It feels different now because I can look back and go like “Yo, that’s where I came from. That’s crazy.” Neither one of my parents graduated from high school. Nobody had ever been to college. It’s weirder now to think about it then to try to remember at the time what was going on.

How did your parents respond to your enthusiasm for TLC and hip-hop informed Fiesta events like La Semana Alegre?
They were all for it. They were good parents. They were working hard and telling me ‘just do what makes you feel good and we’ll take care of all the rest.’ I’m thankful I grew up in a house like that where they just let you express yourself.

What did you learn as a writer while working on the first book, ‘Bun B’s Rap Coloring and Activity Book’?
I had no idea how publishing worked, so I learned that whole system. That was the main thing. You just learn the process of putting together a book. It’s all new until you try it. It was more fun than anything because at that point I had already been writing for a while. Doing a book is just a different experience. You know when you do this it’s gonna live out there. You write a blog post and people forget about it in a few hours.

What did you learn this time around with The Rap Year Book?
The second one was way different than the first one, because the first one was just a coloring book, so it didn’t include a whole bunch of writing. It was all art stuff. Most of my time with the first one was taken up trying to get permission from these rappers to use their face in the book. With the second one, I didn’t necessarily have to do that. I didn’t have to get anyone’s permission because I was writing. I think I had to learn how to research to write something as expansive as a book chapter is. Summarizing a whole year of a gigantic thing down to 2000 words can be tricky. You have to learn how to do that.

Who are some of the music writers that influence your work?
Nobody looks for stuff to read from a certain writer if you’re not a writer. I wasn’t looking at byline[s] until I started writing, [and] there were a few guys who always jumped out. One of them who covered hip-hop was Kris Ex. He’s still out there doing his thing. He’s an amazing writer. He’s probably the best one in the country. If not that, he’s [top] two or three. He was a big influence. I could never write in the same style that he does – just the fluidity that it has is something that I always wanted to try and emulate. Working on the book though, you come across [someone] like a Nelson George. Anytime I found something by Nelson George it was always unbelievable. He became my main go-to guy if I wanted to read something that happened in hip-hop.

Your writing style is pretty structured and straightforward. Where does that come from?
Whenever I’m writing, I want it to sound the way it does when I talk. That’s my whole plan. If I’m going to explain something, I’m usually gonna tell you up front: ‘This is what’s going on. Here’s what I’m going to try to get across.’

Despite the fact that Latinos have been present in hip-hop culture from its inception we’re often looked at as outsiders. Where do you fit within that?
Yeah, I’m definitely an outsider. I know about it. I’ve studied it but it’s always been, I guess, anthropological, that sort of thing. You evolve and you listen to it and you absorb it and it becomes a part of our job. You’re looking at it from a bigger picture. I don’t feel like I’m part of the hip-hop community for sure. It’s just not the way I feel about it. It’s something I really like and enjoy, the same way I would with something like the NBA. I really love the NBA and I know a bunch about it, and I research it, but I’m not a part of the NBA. You can care about something and enjoy it and write about it without being a part of it. Maybe you eventually become a part of it. I hear people tell me things like that when I‘m promoting the book, ‘Yo, I love that you did this for the culture,’ but that’s not the intention. The intention is to do stuff I think is cool and hopefully it works out.

Is there already a most important song for 2015?
It’s pretty clear to me it’s going to be “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar. It’s basically taking all the stuff happening in black America and turning it into a declaration of independence almost, this we won’t be broken type of assertion. So that’s the most important song. I listen to Kendrick a lot. I listen to a lot of old stuff still. I probably listen every day to Doggystyle, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, or 400 degrees, that sort of thing. I have a really big spot in my chest for stuff that was around when I was growing up. Kendrick is the most played album on my thing right now. Also this guy named Cousin Stizz, I really like him a whole bunch.

Do you have a top-five when it comes to emcees?
It sort of changes depending on what I’ve been listening to, but it’s gonna be something like Missy Elliot, Tupac, Biggie, DMX and Mos Def or something goofy like that. If I was only allowed to listen to their music for the rest of my life, I’d be straight. People say ‘Jay-Z, throw Jay-Z in there’ but I don’t want to listen to Jay-Z for the rest of my life.