By Marona Lowe

Talent comes in many forms and
Booker T. Mattison is blessed with multiple artistic ones. The
rapper/producer turned filmmaker has added novelist to his résumé.
Mattison, who won acclaim for his screenplay and direction of the
film adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’s “The Gilded Six Bits,”
published Unsigned Hype in 2009. While Mattison has received rave
reviews for his literary debut, he is not resting on his laurels.
MOSAEC caught up with Mattison to discuss his future plans as well
as his hip-hop infused tale.

What inspired you to become a novelist?

I have to admit that I was not pursuing a career as a novelist. I
am a filmmaker by trade. So when the opportunity to write a novel
came to me, I was working on an original screenplay that I was
planning to direct. However, I have been a writer for most of my
life. I started writing my first novel when I was nine years
old!

Why did you want to tell Tory’s hip-hop infused
tale?

It can be argued that hip hop culture has more influence on youth
and young adults than parents, educational institutions and
religious institutions. And at the same time, the fallout from that
reality has, in many instances, been detrimental to our community.
The deception is so complete, that a lot of folks aren’t even aware
of just how much trouble we are in as a people. For that reason, it
was important for me to tell a story that communicated the
importance of things like character, integrity, truth and faith,
and put those principles in a hip hop context to make them
palatable to a generation that devours media that tends to promote
wanton materialism, win at all costs and a post modern worldview
that says that right and wrong is relative.

Unsigned HypeWhat appealed to
you most about writing Unsigned Hype?

I enjoyed telling a story that had depth and meaning and that is
set in the world of hip hop. As much bad press as hip hop has
gotten, hip hop is still something that defined me when I was
coming up and continues to define me to this day. Hip hop is not
inherently evil or destructive, despite what some would say. Hip
hop is a vehicle that can be used to reach people. Seeing the
overwhelmingly positive response to Unsigned Hype has been
awesome.

As an adult, how were you able to capture the voices of the
teenagers in your tale? Stated differently, was there a particular
process that you undertook to ensure that the teenage voices and
inner thoughts rang true to your audience?

Not at all, I am a former rapper and hip hop producer who was
seriously pursuing a career in music. The only reason I stopped
rapping and making beats was because I went to film school. The
graduate film program at NYU was too demanding for me to reasonably
do both so I had to choose. That being said, I just tapped into
many of my own personal experiences and recalled the way that I
looked at life when I was a head strong, teenage hip hop head.

I must also add that even though the Tory, the main character, is a
teenager, anyone that is into hip hop, music or African American
literature will enjoy this story. The book has resonated with
people in their 30s and 40s as much as teens and readers in their
20s. That’s because Unsigned Hype presents a realistic portrayal of
the entire African-American community, complete with a diversity of
voices and characters. It grapples with class differences;
generational relationships to hip-hop; and secular and Christian
debates in the black community. All of this is set against a
backdrop of African American music history as seen through the lens
of hip hop.

In what ways does your past inform your novel?

Unsigned Hype flowed out of many of my own personal experiences. I
think that’s why the characters in the book resonate with so many
people. Essentially, each character in the book represents an
aspect of my life or a particular part of my personality. The
beauty of fiction is that you can take snippets of your life, use
them and even embellish them because you’re not “chained to the
facts” as you are when you write non fiction.

Unsigned Hype is steeped in the NYC hip-hop scene. What is the
significance of the neighborhoods and communities that are
highlighted in your novel?

I have a personal connection to every neighborhood and community in
Unsigned Hype. My close friends and family members get a kick out
of reading the book because they know all of the connections! For
example, I was born in Mount Vernon, lived in Harlem, attended
Norfolk State University, and now live in Newburgh. All of those
places are in the book. Furthermore, my dad taught school at PS 175
in Harlem just like Tory’s father did. As a matter of fact, nothing
in the story is arbitrary, even down to the details such as Tory
standing up while he rides the 2 train downtown from 241st in the
Bronx!

In addition to being a novelist and filmmaker, you are also a
teacher. What lessons do you hope readers will learn from Unsigned
Hype?

The most important lesson that readers can learn from Unsigned Hype
is that you can work hard and achieve your dreams without selling
your soul. Our world is so materialistic that riches and fame are
pursued regardless of the cost. A wise man once said, “What does it
profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul? Or what
would a man give in exchange for his soul?” I wish that more people
in our communities would seriously consider these questions.

What advice would you offer to the fledgling Torys and Fat Mikes
that read your novel?

Know your purpose. This will allow you to easily determine if
something is an obstacle or an opportunity to you fulfilling your
God given purpose. If you have no idea why you were put on this
planet (and believe me you were put here for a specific reason)
your life will lack fulfillment and you will constantly be in
search of happiness. There can be nothing worse that getting to the
end of your road and realizing that you were going the wrong way
your entire life. Trust me, no matter how much money you make, you
will feel like your life was a waste. And to a certain extent it
was. God put you here to accomplish something, and the only thing
you accomplished is what you thought was right. That won’t benefit
you in this life or the next.

Any plans to bring Tory’s tale to life on the screen – big or
small?

That is presently in the works. Producer Stephanie Allain Bray
(Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan) is attached to produce. She
is pitching Unsigned Hype to studios and networks as either a
feature film or an episodic television series. We have gotten
interest from a couple of networks and production companies, but
the process is ongoing until we settle on what situation makes the
most sense in the current market.

What other projects are you working on?

My second novel Snitch will be published in the spring of 2011. It
is a social commentary on snitching in the African American
community. I’m really excited about that! I will be finished with
the manuscript in the next couple of months. Parts 2 and 3 of
Unsigned Hype will come out after Snitch. Prayerfully, Unsigned
Hype the TV show will be coming soon to a network near you!

Even with your success in film, did you find that you had to go
the extra mile to establish your “street cred” as a
novelist?

A major part of the marketing for Unsigned Hype has emphasized that
as an ex rapper who became a filmmaker who directed hip hop music
videos, I am versed in the world that I write about in Unsigned
Hype. Fortunately, the book has gotten incredible reviews,
significant press coverage and has won and been nominated for a
couple of awards. So at this point, the novel has developed legs of
its own and speaks for itself.

What are your thoughts on the predicted obsolescence of the
printed word on paper?

Obsolescence will never happen, even as we see a rise in the use of
e-books. There will always be a market that requires and/or desires
bound books. The prognosticators said that radio would become
obsolete once movies came out. Then they said that movies would
become obsolete when television came on the scene. Now they’re
saying that television will become obsolete due to the rise of the
computer. However, what we have seen (and I contend that printed
words on paper will follow a similar pattern) is that the shifts in
the market and changes in the frequency of usage have not resulted
in obsolescence for any of the aforementioned mediums.
M

December 2009

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