NELSON GEORGE IS a creator — and chronicler — of art in many forms. Over the course of a career spanning almost four decades, George has moved easily between journalism, history, novels, and filmmaking, producing over 20 books and 15 films. In addition to long stints with Billboard magazine and the Village Voice, he has published books about the music industry and African-American culture — including The Michael Jackson Story (1983), The Death of Rhythm and Blues (1988), Elevating the Game (1992), Buppies, B-Boys, Baps, & Bohos (1993), and Hip Hop America (1998).
George has also worked extensively in television and film. In 2007, he co-wrote and directed the HBO film Life Support, which earned Queen Latifah a Golden Globe. He has directed a number of documentaries, including A Ballerina’s Tale (2015), about the ballerina Misty Copeland, and Brooklyn Boheme (2011), a celebration of the vibrant black arts scene of the 1980s and 1990s in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill. He was also a writer/producer on the Netflix series The Get Down.
George has published three crime-fiction novels featuring D Hunter, a bodyguard turned investigator. To Funk and Die in LA is the fourth installment, and the first set in Los Angeles — specifically the vibrant, shifting areas of Koreatown and Crenshaw. D travels to Southern California to solve the murder of his grandfather, who was affectionately known as Big Danny. But as D digs into Big Danny’s past, he untangles a web of associations and secrets, some of which date back to Los Angeles’s civil unrest of 1992. D must decide which leads to pursue and which to leave alone, what to share with his family and what to keep to himself, all while pursuing a missing music icon and coping with his feelings for a Korean-American realtor who has closer ties to him than he knows.
NINA REVOYR: Many of your books have been set in Brooklyn, where you live. What drew you to the idea of writing about Los Angeles?
NELSON GEORGE: I have been traveling to Los Angeles for business since 1981 and have come to accept that it is actually my second home. I’ve lived in the city for several stints — most of 1981 and ’82, most of 2006 and 2014 — and have been back and forth between Los Angeles and New York in the years in between. I have friendships here that have endured 30 or more years. So I have seen L.A. transform, just as I have Brooklyn, and have memories of restaurants, scenes, and relationships that have ended. I’ve always found Los Angeles a complex place full of hidden mysteries and closed societies. It’s why it’s always been such a good film noir location — its length and variety challenge you as a visitor, and certainly as a writer, to look underneath the glamour to find its humanity. There is a lot of desperation in this city. People who come here seeking success or just access to the dream factory. When they don’t get what they sought or just get a taste of it, this can breed an anxiousness that can turn to internal or external anger. And, of course, navigating L.A. traffic is good way to rattle a person’s nerves. All in all a good town to find interesting characters in.
You’ve been a music writer, you’ve written novels and nonfiction, and you’ve also worked in television and movies. What are the joys or frustrations of working in these different forms? Are there things you can do in one form that you can’t do in others?
The core of any good story is someone seeking something and the things that help or prevent them from achieving it. I think that’s true in writing a profile of a singer, as well as a character in a TV show or movie and certainly a novel. Now each form requires internally a bunch of information, be it in music history or a three-act structure. I am one who believes a good storyteller can move work in any of these areas, but it will take time to make these transitions from form to form. I learned tons working with the writers on The Get Down. Not everything I learned was actually good! But the point isn’t perfection since that’s an impossible goal. The point is to explore process and to be able to see different ways to approach storytelling. If you are a writer, it’s fun to test your limits. As a human being, it’s absolutely essential. When you write you have to be like a child anyway. You have to be open to being playful and going outside your comfort zone. I’ve done that a lot in my career. I have definitely stumbled. But, end of the day, accepting the challenge is what enriches your life.
In a previous D Hunter novel, you tackled gentrification in Brooklyn. Now you’re taking on gentrification in Los Angeles — particularly areas like Crenshaw and Koreatown. How is gentrification similar or different between the two cities?
Because of the population density of NYC and the spread out geography of Los Angeles, it’s hard to compare the two cities. What they do share is a sinking black community, rising Latino and Asian populations, and investment by banks and the city government in areas that were once red lined and ignored. Cities are living things with long histories of evolution and change. I think the changes to Los Angeles are more surprising since the racial segregation here was enforced by freeways that allowed whites to live full L.A. lives and never see where blacks, Mexicans, et cetera, lived. As the city has become more “urban” with the Metro’s growth, Uber, high-rise development, and rising housing prices a lot of those geographical barriers are disappearing. Koreatown, for example, was once a outlier in Los Angeles. Now it is one of the city’s most vibrant communities. It’s these changes in the city that I really tried to capture in To Funk and Die in LA.
To Funk and Die in LA — like the city itself — is a mix of people and cultures. It’s filled with characters of various races who sometimes clash, and other times cross racial lines for friendship and love. Do you see the racial mix of Los Angeles as emblematic of urban America? Or is there something particular and specific about L.A.?
I think the black, Mexican, and Korean relations here are unique to Los Angeles. The traditional black communities abut Koreatown with Pico-Union on the other side. On Western Avenue you see strip mall signage that’s in English, Korean, and Spanish. There are funk and soul parties in this town where there will be Mexicans spinning old R&B 45 singles for other Mexicans and hip-hop parties where Asian kids are old-school break dancing. So there’s a cultural mix here, especially east of Western, that strikes me as unique and that I find very stimulating.
Los Angeles’s last civil unrest — which serves as the historical underpinning of your book — happened 25 years ago. What do you see as the legacy of that period? And how does it compare to more recent events in Ferguson and Baltimore?
I was out here during the trial and then flew out here the morning after the [Rodney King] verdict. I remember sitting by the Mondrian Hotel pool and counting the fires visible from up there. I traveled down Western a few days after the curfew was lifted to see the destruction and debris. Between the O. J. trial and the uprising, Los Angeles was home base to events that laid bare the racial divisions in the country. Add to that the fierce gangsta rap records that came out during that period and the often brutal policies of that era’s LAPD and you have a historical epoch we, as a national culture, keep revisiting in documentaries and fiction. I think the scars are still here. I think the uprising is one of the reasons that the numbers of black Americans in this city have shrunk. I know that there used to be a very vibrant black nightlife scene in Hollywood, West Hollywood, and even Century City that is just gone. I think the fallout from the uprising has something to do with it. I do think Ferguson and Baltimore’s impact was magnified by the internet. There were literally hundreds of Rodney King videos made in those cities. The downside is that we’ve grown sadly used to police brutality on our smart phones.
The beat of music — past, present, and yet to be made — is everywhere in this book, and in your writing. You’ve also written about — among many other things — basketball players and dancers. Do you see commonalities between these various forms of expression?
I did a documentary on the great ballerina Misty Copeland and I did a 30 for 30 [ESPN] on Magic Johnson and I see both as athletes. In Misty’s case, she is an athlete artist. But the training and the physical sacrifice that comes with the glory is immense. Whether you are wearing ballet slippers or Nike sneakers these people push their bodies to incredible extremes and they don’t care — the joy of movement compels them.
I know it’s clichéd to talk about an investigator being a loner, but D does seem to have an existential loneliness, which is complicated by his HIV-positive status. The more we learn about his grandfather, Big Danny, the more we learn about Big Danny’s private losses. To what extent is these characters’ isolation a function of the broader human condition? How much of it is also related to things like health status, age, and race?
When I was younger, I felt my status as a writer made me an outsider even when it looked like I was in, whether it was hip-hop or Hollywood or a friend’s house. I spent so much of my time being an observer I isolated myself in many social situations. I think D is really product of me looking at what it’s like to be at the party but not of it. That’s actually the role of a bodyguard. To be in that social space but to be removed enough to spot danger and protect clients. I don’t quite feel that isolated anymore but D allows me to access that part of myself.
The book features several great female characters — including D’s Aunt Sheryl; Michelle Pak, the street-smart realtor who’s also D’s potential love interest; and the wonderfully named Serene Power. Where does D come by his appreciation for such strong, complex women?
I came up in a house full of forceful women and I love writing them. I don’t think of them as “women” characters so much as dynamic people. These women all have objectives in the story, goals that conflict with D’s. So it’s fun to have women who are not in the story to service D or just mirrors to reflect his manliness. They are there to get what they want and their scenes with D reflect their goals and not his. I think that’s why they are fun — because he doesn’t set their agenda and they will get what they want, whether he agrees to help or not. I don’t like women characters written without an inner drive.
Dr. Funk — the legendary musician who everyone is looking for — is a complicated character to say the least. Do you see his dissolution as a symptom of mental illness? As guilt or self-punishment for his past? Or something else?
Dr. Funk is all the wild geniuses I’ve been lucky enough to meet over the course of my life. They come up with crazy ideas, marry them with skill, and, for a period of time, can move the culture or, at least, influence others who move the culture. But genius is not its own reward. It can burn itself out, it can be abused and it can be broken apart. Dr. Funk knows who he was. He knows that spark is still inside him. But he’s lost the will to be the person. He’s guilty about the chaos that his genius caused and doesn’t know how to make amends. He wanders the City of Angels alone, hiding his heart in plain sight.