Nelson George on D’Angelo and How His New Book Is Like The Lord of the Rings

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Nelson George Photo: Rommel Demano/Getty Images

For more than 20 years, Nelson George, the filmmaker, former Village Voice columnist, and music-cultural critic, has been dealing less with churning out think pieces on R&B divas or swagged-out rappers and concentrating more on fiction, ranging from semi-autobiographical to romance to crime noir. His latest, the recently released The Lost Treasures of R&B (Akashic Books), is the newest volume to feature D Hunter, a tormented, HIV-positive bodyguard-investigator who comes back to live in a Brooklyn he hardly recognizes and tries to solve a few mysteries, mainly the whereabouts of a rare 45 featuring Otis Redding and Diana Ross on vocals. Now 57, the born-and-based Brooklynite talked to Vulture about his new book and the fun he had bringing his love for soul and fiction together.

You’ve always been one of the few music writers and critics who take R&B as a serious, credible genre. What made you decide to basically make a detective novel set in the world of soul music?
Well, I’m an R&B baby. I grew up in a house where my mother played Otis Redding and Gladys Knight and the Temptations and the Four Tops and, later, Al Green. My mother was a real soul-music fan, so that’s my core music. You know, I write about hip-hop and other things but, ultimately, this is who I am. This is how I was raised. So, I love R&B.

Where did the idea come from to have Hunter look for an ultra-rare 45?
I read a lot about the Northern Soul scene in the U.K., where they have a whole scene in the north of London of clubs and D.J.'s, and they play a lot of really obscure records that weren’t hits here in the States. There was one record that I read about, by a guy named Frank Wilson, on Motown. Now, Frank went on to become actually a pretty successful record producer at Motown. He produced some of Eddie Kendricks’s dance hits in the ’70s, and he was a successful staff writer there. But he apparently made a few records as an artist. I remember reading that one of his records was highly sought out in the Northern Soul scene, and the first D.J. who had a copy hoarded it. He had found this obscure 45 in Detroit and he brought it back to the U.K. It had become a phenomenon, and eventually even led to the record getting reissued in the U.K. That’s a great story.

You also have a lot of characters in the book who are named after R&B artists. In one scene, you practically reunite some of the members of Jodeci at a funeral.
I wanted to steep the book in the culture. If you’re someone who really knows, you know, “Oh my God, that’s blah-blah-blah!” If you don’t know, it just washes over you. So I just thought it was fun. If I’m going to have characters that walk through — you have your supporting characters in any narrative — why shouldn’t I enrich that a little bit with some fun? D’Angelo’s real name is in this book. You could do a whole glossary version of all the people who are actually named characters in the book, and that was very intentional. I thought if I wanted to steep the book in R&B culture, I’m gonna just go as deep as I can. All the chapter titles are R&B-song titles. I have a little playlist in the back of the book of what artist recorded what. If you’re gonna delve in the music, just get in there and have fun with it.

Speaking of D’Angelo, you have a soul-singer character named Night, who’s been in previous D Hunter volumes as well as his own novel, Night Work. He was more D’Angelo-esque in the other books, but he really seems to resemble D’Angelo a lot in this book, as he makes a comeback touring and recording after years of silence. So you must be quite happy D’Angelo has returned with a new album right around the same time you have this new book out.
What’s really interesting about the D’Angelo thing is, two years ago, I did a doc called Finding the Funk for VH1, and I got D’Angelo to do an interview. We talked about, basically, the music that he loved: Sly and P-Funk and the roots of a lot of what influenced him. We got along really well, and I ended up interviewing him last summer at a public interview with Red Bull Music Academy.

I finished the book last spring, so I had no idea. What’s really interesting is I put all this D’Angelo lore into the book, with no clue as to when his album was ever coming out. So the fact the album has come out and the book came out — within three months of each other — is really weird to me. It’s just wild. It’s strange that it happened like that.

You find a way to bring your characters from previous novels back into your later books. In The Plot Against Hip Hop, the last D Hunter novel, you killed off the protagonist from Urban Romance, your first novel. What made you want to make your novels all part of the same universe?
I love James Ellroy’s work, and he does these sprawling, narrative books where characters from this book show up here and they’re in a different place. I just read his last novel Perfidia, which is actually a prequel in a sense to L.A. Confidential. So, I like this idea of playing with this reality. So these three books — Accidental Hunter, Plot Against Hip Hop, and Lost Treasures — are all driven by D Hunter. As you mentioned, Night Work is more about Night’s story, with D as a supporting character. And people seem to have enjoyed this kind of relationship. I’m already sketching out another novel, which would involve D, Night, and some other characters, probably based out of L.A., to write about them in that world out there.

But I think it’s fun for me as a writer to have this universe where you have these whole relationships that evolve and change. Any series of stories where you have these relationships, the reader is taken with that world. It’s like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I love all of those series like that. So this is my chance to really have that kind of fun, to play with these people, to put them through their paces, to have them go through ups and downs, and you have a backstory that you can draw upon and turn to the relationships. If you’re just reading the first book, you see and you hear that [D and Night] were friends. But if you know the backstory, it becomes even richer.

So, you’ve been writing fiction for over two decades. What have you gotten from it that you wouldn’t have gotten just writing nonfiction all the time?
There’s just a freedom to writing fiction that’s lovely. If I’m going to write a book on D’Angelo, that’s a certain kind of work that I have to do, a certain kind of factual basis you have to deal with. If I’m going to write about Night, I can take D’Angelo but I can write and take stories I’ve heard about Gerald Levert or Teddy Pendergrass. I’m not locked in at all to having to be true to anybody’s particular biography. I can just take the best pieces of a lot of people and invest those in the story, and I love that about fiction. I love to be able to move in and out of reality, and to use facts as a basis for some kind of truth. It’s so much fun. I had a great time with this book.