Interview: Matt Diehl, Author
When we typically think of controversial books, we envision lurid exposes of deceased royalty. We picture tell-all memoirs from well-connected upper class madams naming the names of their famous clientele. We see stacks of books about global warming, economic theory, the war on terror, or examinations of political administrations.
However, the controversy doesn’t need to be on a grand scale. It just needs to be there.
After years of success writing for magazines, Matt Diehl started publishing books and “figured out that for a book to exist, it has to be controversial in some way,” he says. “Almost every book I have written is, on some level, controversial.”
Diehl grew up in Evanston, Illinois. The area wasn’t truly urban and neither was it completely in the suburbs. But it was intellectual. “I always say it is where the hippies went to get rich,” he laughs. Reading was an important activity to the Diehl family. But he really got into journalism through punk rock.
His mother gave him a Sex Pistols record when he was 9. For his first punk show, an 11-year-old Diehl saw the iconic Johnny Thunders. At an age when most boys are still playing with GI Joe figures, he also saw the Damned, the Dead Kennedys, the Bad Brains, and the original lineup of the Misfits. As a teenager, Diehl played guitar for one of Chicago’s seminal punk bands, Nadsat Rebel. The band’s first show was opening for Big Black. The second gig was in support of Husker Du. They later appeared with Samhain, GBH, Articles of Faith, the Effigies, Naked Raygun and others.
Diehl bought into the do-it-yourself ethic of punk music, and set out to develop his literary skills as well as his riffing skills. “I felt like if I was going to be a true punk revolutionary, I had to both play punk rock in a band and write about it to further the cause,” he says. “I wanted to test in theory and in practice.”
Throughout his high school and college years, Diehl wrote for as many publications as he could find. “I never stopped writing and I never was concerned about whether it was the greatest publication or the worst,” he says. He sought to work with editors who could teach him to be a better writer and who could validate his efforts. After graduation, he eventually settled in New York City and went on to write for Rolling Stone, Spin, GQ, Vibe, The New York Times, and others.
In addition to possessing enough “punk points” to stand toe-to-toe with just about anyone, Diehl also developed an extensive knowledge of rap and hip hop. He wrote a thorough examination of pop rap for The Vibe History of Hip Hop, pubilshed in 1999. Diehl coldly critiqued the cultural place of acts like PM Dawn, Young MC, MC Hammer, and others without sneering at the often novelty acts. He also showed how the pop rapper’s goals weren’t really that different from more “serious” acts.
So what do we mean by “pop rap,” anyway? Most simply, the word pop (as in popular) signifies music that’s reaching for the biggest conceivable audience. For many rap fans, such an approach inherently means gentrification of hip hop–yet hip hop’s original intent was always about sucking the biggest possible audienceinto its groove. When DJs like Kool Herc cut up vinyl in Bronx parks back in the ’70s and early ’80s, they were trying to move as big a crowd as they could. And in the late ’90s, supposedly “underground” rappers still rhyme about getting paid, insulting their peers whose albums don’t go gold or platinum.
In 2000, after interviewing the band a number of times, Diehl endeavored to write a book about The Wu-Tang Clan. He pitched the idea to an agent, who “completely shot the idea down,” Diehl remembers. Several years later, a Wu-Tang Book written by someone else appeared. Seeing that title in the stores was a harsh lesson. “Because I didn’t know anything about writing book, I felt like this gatekeeper’s idea of what could be popular, or be saleable, or commercial, or viable, or even interesting, was sacred,” he says. “When in fact, it isn’t and it wasn’t.”
A mutual acquaintance then introduced Diehl to snowboarding instructor Danny Martin and the two collaborated on No-Fall Snowboarding: 7 Easy Steps to Safe and Fun Boarding. The book, published in 2005, challenged the notion that learning to snowboard has to be a torturous process full of bruises and aching muscles. “It was the perfect thing to sort of kick my ass and get me to start writing books,” Diehl says.
Diehl followed that effort with Notorious C.O.P.: The Inside Story of the Tupac, Biggie, and Jam Master Jay Investigations from NYPD’s First Hip-Hop Cop in 2006. Derek Parker had been with the New York Police Department from 1982 to 2002. He was assigned to a clandestine “rap intel” squad within the organization’s gang division. As such, he participated in a number of high-profile investigations involving the biggest names in rap.
By that point, Diehl was a fairly well-known journalist on the rap scene. Parker, the so-called hip hop cop, approached Diehl to write his story. The resulting book was a detailed, and controversial, look inside police procedure and law enforcement’s relationship with the rap community.
Diehl’s most recent book was originally conceived by the publisher. St. Martin’s Press wanted to produce a biography of Brody Dalle and The Distillers. They approached Diehl, the accomplished music journalist and lifelong punk fan, to write the book. But he had a different direction in mind. “I said, well, why don’t I do a book using the Distillers as sort of a test case with which to talk about the current state of punk rock?” he says. “Because nobody has really done a book like England’s Dreaming [Jon Savage’s 2002 England Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond] about punk rock today.”
Diehl signed with St. Martin’s for the punk book without having to go through the proposal process that is part of so many nonfiction publishing ventures. “I might have written like a paragraph or a page of something,” he says.
However, Diehl actually recommends that aspiring authors create a proposal. It forces you to plan ahead and provides a roadmap to your work over the coming months and years. “Writing a proposal is all the hard work of the book,” he says. “You have to figure out what your book is about, you do a chapter breakdown. The books I have written without proposals are far more difficult.”
In addition to providing a heavy dose of Distillers biography, Diehl conducted an overall examination of punk for My So Called Punk: Green Day, Fall Out Boy, The Distillers, Bad Religion—How Neo-Punk Stage Dived Into the Mainstream. From the get-go, the book proved to be controversial. “Every body has an opinion about punk rock,” he says. “You put out any book about punk rock, people argue about it.”
Indeed, finicky readers were quick to argue about which bands were included, which were excluded, who said what, and who got the most space. One punk fan offered his version of literary criticism on a message board. In an ideal punk world, the book would be produced in Kinkos and then burned before reading because “punx don’t read,” the critic wrote. Meanwhile, another commentor simply proclaimed, “reading books isn’t very punk rock.”
It’s not hard to imagine readers debating the book since its pages are full or contradictory statements from the musicians themselves. Brett Gurewitz, head of the immensely influential Epitaph Records and a founding member of Bad Religion, reminisced about the early days of punk. “Part of the appeal of punk rock, and on of its defining characteristics, is its populist nature,” he told Diehl. “Punk music is for anybody—anybody can do it. You don’t have to be a virtuoso, you don’t have to know music theory, you don’t have to be fucking skinny like Jimmy Page, you don’t have to have cheekbones like Mick Jagger. All you have to do is have heart and put yourself out there. It’s inclusive.”
Years later, Brody Dalle of the Distillers recalled a different punk scene. “Punk rock was so cliquey: you know, your hair had to be a certain way, and you had to have the right patch on your backpack,” she said. And Tsunami Bomb’s Agent M disputed the credibility of many venerable punk establishments. “As far as places with punk values, I feel like a lot of the clubs that are known for their classic punk ethics are actually just elitist,” she told Diehl.
This swirl of contradictions and controversy provided the perfect fodder for Diehl’s examination. “Well, punk rock has always been like high school,” Diehl says. “It has always had this hypocrisy and that is kind of what made it fun in a way. When I started in punk rock, people would make fun of you if you wore the wrong T-shirt to the concert.”
In spite of his love for the art form, Diehl refused to ignore controversy or gloss over the genre’s problems. But he does seem to be optimistic about it’s future. While many current punk afficionados complain about the MTV popularity of bands such as Good Charlotte, Diehl believes they serve a purpose.
Remember the gateway drug analogy: if you start a kid on Blink-182, he or she might progress to (gasp!) the Clash, and Black Flag, and then Dead Kennedys, and then, most dangerous of all, the selected musical accomplishments of Steve Albini. Most likely, he or she may choose to stay in the comfort zone of mall punk, with the familiarity of its Hot Topic clothes and MTV bands. But maybe, just maybe, punk rock will open the mind of this youth the way it opened mine.
And the journalist in Diehl saw the current punk environment as a fascinating study. He likens the role of a music critic to that of political pundits. “If you are a political writer, you don’t get to choose the president,” he says. “Often it is the worst president that makes the most interesting stories.”
Diehl offers aspiring authors a few words of advice about writing those stories. First, include as many perspectives as possible. Keep searching for more insights, more facts, more opinions. “I wrote a profile of someone and I sent it into the editor,” he says. “And they said, well, it’s good, but you only have one source here.” Diehl learned that “the most important thing is to get as much of the information from as many sides as possible.”
Second, aspiring authors should always, always meet their deadlines. “Even if you are a terrible writer and you make deadlines, you will get more work. They will love you,” he says.
And third, he believes new writers should constantly push themselves beyond their comfort zone and areas of expertise. The lifelong punk rocker, art history major, and respected music critic says you shouldn’t hesitate to review “someone on American Idol,” he says. “It may be against your value system on some levels. But you actually might learn something. That is being a professional writer. Take writing assignments that you would normally turn down for whatever reason and see what you do with them.”
In regards to publishing, Diehl suggests aspiring authors simply get their work in the public eye as much as possible. Be willing to start at the lower publications and work your way up. But do whatever you can to build an extensive body of work. “When they came to me to write a music book, I had written thousands of music articles,” he says. It wasn’t a leap where the publisher had to entrust an unknown, unproven writer with their project. Instead, they had a proven commodity.
And finally, you just have to put in the toil of writing. “It is hard when you are working a terrible job and all you want to do is write, but you make do,” he says.