In the late 1990s, Selwyn Seyfu Hinds edited hip-hop’s The Source magazine like an upscale Condé Nast publication with Ivy League-level journalistic ambition. Before the burst of the dot-com bubble, Hinds next carved out space for hip-hop on the Internet, running rap mogul Russell Simmons’s eventually defunct 360hiphop.com as executive vice president. In 2002 Simmons praised that the Guyanese-born, Brooklyn-bred writer’s essay collection, Gunshots in My Cook-up, did for hip-hop culture what poet Langston Hughes did for jazz—a neat segue into Hinds’s next book project: To a Young Jazz Musician, with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.
But the Princeton grad’s stellar résumé doesn’t end there. Boomerang director Reginald Hudlin took the reigns of BET in 2005, and installed Hinds as an executive producer for four years. Hudlin, also writer of Marvel Comics’ Black Panther series from 2005-’08, may have inspired Hinds’ current move into the world of adult-themed four-color comics. Beginning this week, Selwyn Seyfu Hinds launches a Vertigo Comics series of his own creation—the supernatural, New Orleans-based Dominique Laveau: Voodoo Child—with legendary African-American comic-artist Denys Cowan.
EBONY: Tell us the premise of Dominique Laveau: Voodoo Child.
Selwyn Seyfu Hinds: Dominique Laveau is a Tulane grad student busy with her life in post-[Hurricane] Katrina New Orleans when she’s ambushed by a bloody new reality: In less than 24 hours she goes from college student to fugitive; unimaginable things try to rip her apart; and the life she had stands revealed as a lie—because Dominique’s actually the heir to the Voodoo Queenship of New Orleans, a destiny that’s news to her.
This is a series about the tragedies and triumphs of a unique American city. It’s a series about a young woman’s hard journey from outcast to acceptance. It’s a series about what lies between real and ethereal. And, ultimately, it’s a series about choice and consequence, about the decisions made after that proverbial fork in the road.
EBONY: What attracted you to Vertigo?
SSH: Man, that sounds like I picked Vertigo out of a lineup of sexy suitors clamoring for my attention. Hardly! For the uninitiated, Vertigo—an imprint at giant comics publisher DC, home of Superman, Batman, etc.—is like the HBO of the comic book medium. It’s the place you dream about as a creator, the home of much of the smartest, most literary, most groundbreaking work in the space. Stuff like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (probably The Sopranos equivalent in our HBO analogy), Lucifer, Preacher, 100 Bullets, Hellblazer, Fables, and more series than I can name right now.
My own path to Vertigo happened because I was concepting a (insert top-secret and recently-greenlit project here) with my mentor and homie Reggie Hudlin and Denys Cowan. Karen Berger, executive editor at Vertigo and a real legend in the game, happened to see that project, wanted to meet the writer, and the rest is history. I still pinch myself every now and again.
EBONY: As editor of The Source, did you expect to be a diehard hip-hop fan your entire life? When did you stop paying as rabid attention as you used to?
SSH: I did, but I was twentysomething years old! In fact, we should all be washed clean of the youthful sin of exuberant pronouncements when we turn 30. To be fair, I’m still a fan. But I’m a 40-year-old fan. I’m not the 23-year-old kid who got a cassette of The Roots’ Do You Want More?!!!??!! and spent the entire summer of ’94 listening to it every day before writing a review essay in The Village Voice. I’m not the 25-year-old music editor who frantically stalked Lauryn Hill for a week just so I could get her to fact-check her verse for The Source’s “Hip-Hop Quotable.” I still bang the latest Pharoahe Monch, I’ll go far and wide for anything blessed by J. Dilla, and I’ve been checking out these L.A. cats—Kendrick Lamar, Odd Future—who seem like the Good Life crew come again. And I’ve always loved dope beats, so I’ll bop along to the latest Kanye or Rick Ross, or whatever’s bumpin’ when I’m out. But I lost my rabid hip-hop fervor a long time ago.
Part of it is simply growing up. Good art has to provoke a response in you, initiate an inner conversation, make you give a damn. And there’s not necessarily much that an 18-, 19-, or 20-year-old can say to move me. Which is as it should be. They shouldn’t be making music for someone my age. But the other part of it, to my mind, is the death, at least on a mass-market level, of hip-hop’s lyrical ambition. For me, that’s at least a decade-old phenomenon, somewhere after [Jay-Z’s] The Blueprint. Without getting all rosy with nostalgia, I think it’s fair to say that there was a time when being the dopest, being nicer than the next cat on the mic, meant something. I’m not even sure what the contemporary equivalent to a lyric like “….argue all day about who’s the best MC, Biggie, Jay-Z or Nas” would be. That hunger to be the nicest on the mic doesn’t seem to drive today’s MCs in the same way.
EBONY: “Hip-hop is dead” is an old trope, but when would you pinpoint when things became decidedly less interesting in the culture?
SSH: I dislike that “hip-hop is dead” trope because it’s clearly alive to somebody. I think cats of our generation who suffered through the sideways looks from our elders when we were banging Rakim, or Public Enemy or N.W.A are hardly in the position to look down upon young cats for the hip-hop they’ve come up with. Hey, I’ve got my hip-hop, you’ve got yours. At the end of the day, disenchantments are personal and subjective.
That said, I guess my own cultural disenchantment traces back to two moments.
The first is something I’ve only realized with the passage of time, and that’s the deaths of Tupac and Biggie. I don’t think any of us could have understood then. How could we? It was such a double-hammer blow it left you staggered before you realized how hard you’d been hit. But just look back. Within five years of their passing, the kind of archetype that Big and Pac represented—fully rounded artists with passion, technique, and substance—was a dying breed. And yes, it’s fair to cite Jay or Eminem, not to mention Nas, as counter to this charge. But I would argue that by ’02 or ’03, both of those guys were in their own stratosphere of outlier success, while hip-hop, at its most mass, marched in another, less lyrical direction, away from what Big or Pac represented at their best. I’d challenge anyone to play me a hip-hop record post ’97 that exhibits flow and lyricism more powerfully than Biggie’s “Kick in the Door.”
The second disenchanting factor for me is not so much about the music itself as how technology has altered the way we experience it, especially since the advent of “iEverything” in the ’00s. Technology created today’s individualized world of niche choice and music on demand. But it destroyed the communal listening experience that was once synonymous with hip-hop. Paid in Full drops in ’87: I heard that album for the first time with a roomful of high school homeboys. Low End Theory drops in ’91: I marveled at that record in a dorm with my college crew. Hard Knock Life drops in ’98: Dame Dash comes by my office at The Source with the advance tape and everyone bugs out to Jay’s new stuff. That idea of “slip the tape in and gather folks to listen” is an old tradition, as ancient as the art of oral storytelling itself, the impulse to gather around the fire to share a tale. Today, that communal experience has been exported to Twitter and the inter-webs. Which, I suppose, represents progress. But it’s forever changed an essential part of how we once experienced hip-hop. And that can’t help but slowly color your attitude as well.
EBONY: Were you able to steer BET at least slightly in a different direction than the course it was on in 2005?
SSH: Far be it from me to claim solo credit in steering anything anywhere. I was part of a crew of cats—Nelson George and Touré among them—who Reggie Hudlin brought on in ’05 at BET. For three years we busted our collective butt, along with a lot of other folk who were already at the network, to do good work. We had our successes. And we took our lumps. People will make their own judgment, but as far as I’m concerned, the successes won out. In terms of my little piece of the programming pie, I think the Hip-Hop versus America town halls made a difference. I think the news and documentary shows, from The Chop-up to The Truth with Jeff Johnson, made a difference. In the end, you just hope to leave a place a little better than how you found it. The first thing I helped produce at BET was the aid telethon after Katrina. The last thing I produced was the live coverage the night Barack Obama was elected president. That’s as good an arc as one could hope for.
EBONY: So what’s next?
SSH: Well, the last few years for me, since BET, have been about making a complete transition from journalism to dramatic writing, particularly in the comic book and screenwriting space. I’m excited that a lot of that work will bear fruit in 2012. Vertigo starts publishing Dominique Laveau: Voodoo Child on March 21, so I’ll be busy writing and promoting the series as the year goes on. And, fingers crossed, I’ll have some exciting news on the film front soon, so you’ll have to stay tuned for that. Being a journalist has been a fantastic privilege, but the chance to live in worlds you’ve constructed with characters you’ve created is what motivated me to write in the first place. And I’m thrilled to be doing that now.