I was about seven or eight years old when I spent one afternoon helping my grandma clean up the upstairs attic bedroom. As in many of our families, grandma’s house was the place to come and stay until you got on your feet, and my older brother was the latest to have moved in and moved out. What started off as a chore turned into me discovering magazines with Biggie and Puff Daddy on the covers. What is this? I wondered. I had heard him listening to their music but didn’t know that there were actually stories written about them. I flipped through those pages, already realizing that I was holding something that was special. The very first time I picked up a copy of VIBE Magazine, my life changed and if you were a kid who grew up during the early 90s, I’m sure you have a similar story.
Hip-Hop Archivist Syreeta Gates is on a mission to make sure that those stories don’t just get told, they get preserved. Write On: The Legend of Hip-Hop Ink Slingers tells the stories of the journalists (Elliott Wilson and Danyel Smith, Kierna Mayo, Datwon Thomas, Joan Morgan, Michael Gonzales, Mimi Valdez, just to name a few!) behind this epic era didn’t just shape a culture – it defined it.
For every person who’s still got issue of VIBE, XXL, The Source, Honey, King, Word-Up!, Right On!, etc stashed away at their mama’s house, Syreeta has created and directed a documentary that’s for you. We’ll let her tell you the story.
Interview by Melissa Kimble
MK: Write On: The Legend of Hip-Hop Ink Slingers is a documentary about journalists that influenced Hip-Hop culture. Why the focus on writers? Who did you make this documentary for?
Syreeta: I decided to focus on this topic because it never been done and I was actually confused as to why. These writers were the ones that not only curated the story but they created the language for how we interact with hip-hop culture. It was also a personal story for me as I was the editor-in-chief of an online hip-hop publication and then I realized that I didn’t know any hip-hop journalists. So I went to the Googles and Google couldn’t even help me solve my problem because their work wasn’t online specifically in the eighties, nineties and early two thousands. So I decided to create the change I wanted to see in the world and that’s how we got Write On!
MK: You’ve interviewed 30 plus writers for this project and they all have stories and legendary careers. How did you manage to nail them down and also get them to share their stories?
Syreeta: Last fall we have interview 34 writers in a few different states and we have about 20 or so more to go. How it happened is a whole ‘nother story that I might share during this documentary process so that people can really understand what happens when you keep your word in your mouth. I nailed them down by keeping them in my conversation so when I found out who these hip-hop journalists were, I did more research and I started following them on Twitter and on Instagram. I tried to read as much on these writers as possible. I’m a Kinesthetics learner so I had to physically do something with the information that I was getting. I think I’ve always been transparent with the writers, like this is my first documentary, this is my age, this is what I’ve learned so far but it’s a lot that I don’t know. I think them knowing me and my commitment to always put the writers on is why they said yes and I’m grateful!
MK: Write On involves so many different moving pieces and parts. What do you think was the most challenging part about working on this project and how did you overcome it?
Syreeta: The most challenging part has been not knowing the process of getting a film done. This is my first film – but certainly not my last – there’s a lot of stuff that I didn’t know. I’m thankful to YouTube and I’m thankful for filmmakers that I follow on Instagram (Twitter shout out to Ava Duvernay one time!) and the countless other filmmakers who share their story online. I’m also grateful to the many people that my friends connected me to throughout this process. Their insight has been so valuable. There has been many challenges throughout this process but when you are committed to greatness you have to do what you need to do to make it happen.
MK: Not only do you have this doc, but you’ve also balanced this project with Stay Hungry and The Gates Preserve. How do you keep yourself on task and focused on a daily basis?
Syreeta: Building a team is everything and so The Gates Preserve is the Hub. It’s a multimedia experience company committed to archiving and preserving and hip-hop in such a way that it last forever. So there is no way that I could take on such a large endeavor without a team. I always use the phrase #teamUS and for me it’s a verb so, every project weather STAY HUNGRY or this doc or whatever is next, it needs to be in alignment with the commitment. So every project that’s created must have a team! Though I’m the visionary for the doc we have Kathy Landoli who is the Screenwriter, Herman Jean-Noel who’s the Director of Photography and a host of other people who not only said yes but have put in time and work to make this happen. The same for STAY HUNGRY – we have a team of people internally shout out to Kat Delva who runs the ship and Executive Chef Airis Johnson who keep the wheels turning. But we have chefs and production teams and other people who say yes. More importantly than them saying yes they have receipts that are in alignment with them getting the work done. So collectively we’re just out here making history. I will always talk about the team. I live in a world in which Everybody Eats B! In terms of keeping focused and being on task this was the first year that I’ve planned out the whole year. That alone was a game-changer! So I’m clear of what I can and can’t commit to based on what has been created. I love Post-It notes and I have some apps on my phone that supports me with knowing what the day, week, month and year looks like.
MK: What excites you the most about this documentary coming to life?
Syreeta: Acknowledging the writers and sharing their stories! Knowing that some young person in some small town in any city in America and or abroad can watch this and make the decision to become a writer because they know that the power is in the pen. They are now clear that there is power in the word as soon as they write it down that’s it. Also I’m high key hype about the world knowing a lot of untold stories in hip-hop. *Rubs hands like Birdman*
MK: This project also seems like it was a huge undertaking and sometimes, even when we’re creating something we love, we can get overwhelmed. How did you find (and continue to find) joy throughout this process?
Syreeta: This is a phenomenal question. I’ve been overwhelmed have had so much anxiety and have been uncertain about this project possibly more than any project to date. But what supports me find joy is always remembering my purpose. My boy Kleaver Cruz has a project called #TheBlackJoyProject I go there when I need that boost, I go to Yaba Blay’s #ProfessionalBlackGirl when I need to be reminded how lit I am. I wanted people to know these writers like how I’ve known them. I’m clear that I have a team that supports me as a human. They are committed to my joy my happiness my growth as a person and I think when you have those type of people around you it’s much easier to go through the s*** that you can’t control.
MK: We know you must have a ton but what are some of your favorite stories from this project? Was there anything that you learned that really surprised you?
Syreeta: Oh my gosh there are so many stories – I learned so much. It was just crazy – it’s like going through this project has been like going through undergraduate program or putting yourself through your own school. All the things surprised me! Like imagine you’re a hip-hopin shorty rock and then you get the context for your favorite artist. It’s mind blowing! You’re going to have to wait till the documentary comes out to find out all the goodies!