Bonz Malone Interview: 2007
Author's Note: This interview was originally published in one of my favorite magazines Stop Smiling Issue 30 in 2007.
Bonz Malone Interview
By Michael A. Gonzales
Although pioneering hip-hop scribe Bonz Malone is only a few months shy of forty-years old, it is still hard to believe that we have been friends for twenty of them. Going way back to the early days when hip-hop culture was moving from a New York City novelty to a worldwide industry, Bonz and I met at a Profile Records party for the long-forgotten female rapper L.A. Starr. At that time there were only a few Black writers documenting this musical terrain (including Nelson George, Greg Tate, Barry Michael Cooper and Harry Allen), Bonz was by far the boldest.
Though I read his poetic street rants (at the time, Malone wrote everything in his own special brand of ghetto phonetics) of this Brooklyn based wild-boy in the pages of Spin and the Village Voice, I had no idea he was such a passionate soul. Like a combination of Cameron Crowe (his youthfulness) and Lester Bangs (unafraid of the edge), the man-child who had once tagged trains and worked for a crack cocaine crew kicked in the door of music criticism and refused to leave.
While in real life, punk-ass writers like myself romanticized about the dark side of street life, Bonz not only lived it but he put it into his work. Of course, that gritty bravado sometimes made him a little scary to be around, but we were all a little richer for the experience.
Everybody that was around in those early days has a Bonz Malone story; in the rap-set world that we travel in, more than a few have even morphed into urban legends that rival alligators in the sewer. There was Bonz throwing M-80s after a 3rd Bass concert at the Beacon, there was Bonz handing in stories handwritten on loose-leaf, there was Bonz bombing the system one day and partying with Russell Simmons’ the next.
A ghettocentric renaissance man who has written wonderful articles, guest-starred in acclaimed films (Slam) and signed Mobb Deep to their first deal, Bonz Malone put a certified stamp of truthfulness on every endeavor. In Malone’s life and work, the main thing one could count on was his brilliance.
Michael Gonzales: First, where did the name Bonz come from?
Bonz: Well, there were two meanings. The first being that ‘bonz’ represented the skeletons in the closet. You know, those things we had done in the past. I would tell people, if you open my coffin a hundred years from now, that’s what you will see, bones. That’s the realest shit. So, when I started writing graffiti, that was the name I chose.
MG: What was the other meaning?
Bonz: (laughs) It also stood for Black Fonz, because I always saw myself as the
Fonzie nigga. Henry Winkler was a dope dude. How many Jewish actors you know can play an Italian better than real Italians?
MG: What was your hip-hop experience that made you want to be down?
Bonz: Man, it was the night that Wild Style opened in Times Square in 1983. I was 12 years old, and I had to wait for my grandmother to go to sleep so I could sneak out. I put my life on the line, but it was worth it. The theater was so crowded, I had to sit on the stairs. And, the whole movie was in the audience. I saw Grandmaster Caz, Rock Steady, Grandmaster DST and Lee.
MG: I know you wrote graff for years. What was that like?
Bonz: That’s the first element of hip-hop. Man, bombing trains was what I loved to do, that’s who I am. Even today, I have to fight myself not to write on the train. I never did any of those huge masterpieces outside the train, but I tagged in the train. Once we moved to Brooklyn, I was doing the 2’s and 5’s. Those trains went through the South Bronx, so people knew my name.
MG: You went from writing on walls to typing on paper. Talk about that transition?
Bonz: I started writing for the high school newspaper and Bill Adler, who was then the publicist at Def Jam, saw my clips and hooked me up with Spin magazine. The first professional piece I wrote was a review was a review of De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising.
One of the things that made me what to write for print was reading Jimmy Breslin in The Daily News, because I didn’t like the way he wrote about the Black community in New York City. Breslin stirred a lot of racial shit in his columns, and it was obvious he knew nothing about Black people. Through my writings, I wanted people to know who were and the beauty that hip-hop represented.
MG: Were you paying attention to other hip-hop writers of that period?
Bonz: I was aware of the others like you and Harry Allen, but I wasn’t really paying attention. I was working with John Leland and Joe Levy, and both of those guys taught me a lot. I considered my work to be graffiti writing in print. They later gave me a column (Radio Graffiti), but it was real sporadic because I kept getting locked-up. Every magazine I’ve written for—Spin, The Source, Vibe-have all bailed me out of jail at one time or another.
MG: What is your favorite album from that golden period?
Bonz: To me, the number one hip-hop album is Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Def Jam, 1988). When that fucking record dropped, I thought the end of the world was coming. I worn gray and black everyday. The first time I heard that record, I almost cried. Nothing made today could go up against that one disc. Nothing.
SS: Didn’t you and Chuck D. get into a little thing back then.
Bonz: Yeah, because he dissed me for no reason. He called me a “house nigger,” because I wrote for a white magazine. Hell, there weren’t any real hip-hop magazines out then, but he was mad because I was writing about rap in a rock magazine. We talked about it later, and now we have nothing but respect for one another.
MG: At one time rappers talked the world, now they just talk about themselves.
Bonz: You’re so right.
MG: After your Spin days, you went over to The Source.
Bonz: Originally The Source was a college fanzine, but when they decided to move to New York and become a glossy, they contacted me over at Spin. I wrote a Queen Latifah cover story, I wrote a Tribe Called Quest cover story and I wrote the first Biggie story. We didn’t make much money, but we sure got a lot of free t-shirts.
MG: Talk a little about your time as rap A&R at Island Records under Chris Blackwell.
Bonz: That was in the early ‘90s. I almost signed Biggie. We lived two blocks away from each other. I had heard his demo around the same time Puff was trying to sign him. Biggie told me if I won a craps game, he would sign with Island instead. We shot dice on the roof of Island Records for three hours, but I lost.
MG: But, you did sign Mobb Deep.
Bonz: My man Matty C. ran the “Unsigned Hype” column at The Source. He played their tape for me, and in the first eight seconds, I wanted them. Nobody was making that kind of music except NWA. Nas hadn’t even come out yet. To me, Mobb Deep was the NWA of the East Coast.
MG: I know you worked for and partied with Russell Simmons years ago. Any insights?
Bonz: I liked Russell better when he was broke. He was cool and hungry, and not so self-absorbed. Russell has done many things for many people, but I’ve seen him become an asshole.
MG: What are some of the stories you’ve written that stand out?
Bonz: I covered the 1987 Grammy Awards for Spin; when Millie Villnilli won for Best New Artist, I almost got thrown out for screaming, ‘Ya’ll can’t even sing!’ as they were walking-up to the podium. Later, when I was writing the story, I said Dick Clark’s teeth were made of wood. As far as the rap side, I guess it was going to the studio to interview De La Soul, because they gave me a copy of 3 Feet… before it came out. At that time, something like that meant a lot.
MG: I know you kick-started your acting career with a part in Slam (1998).
Bonz: Yeah, I had been friends with Marc Levine for a long time. Originally, I was supposed to star in that movie, but, once again, I was in jail. I had introduced Marc to Saul Williams, so he got the lead instead. I wasn’t, mad, because I still got another part in the movie. That film changed our lives.
MG: What do you think about hip-hop culture in 2007?
Bonz: Rap music is a joke these days. It’s not hip-hop culture, its rap life. Rap life is more concerned with what it can get for itself, not what it can contribute. These niggas just want to make money, but they have very little to offer. I come from an era when rappers didn’t even curse, now you got all these cats cussing instead of rhyming.
MG: What about hip-hop writing?
Bonz: I have respect for everybody, but it was always my thing to be the best motherfuckering writer there was. I feel like I blasted the door open for a lot of people. A lot of writers today barely know there history, while other so-called ghetto lit writers like Relentless Aaron is just using writing as a hustle.
To paraphrase (graffiti artist) Iz the Wiz, a writer is somebody you want to write with or fight with; those words are burned into my heart.