NEW YORK – Though he couldn’t pass up the fried plantains, Toure never drank the mojito. Too predictable.
So, in typically unpredictable fashion, the award-winning journalist and pundit forgoes the mojito in favor of the less pedestrian caipirinha, a Brazilian libation concocted of cachaca (sugar cane rum), lime juice and sugar. It’s a drink with integrity that packs a heckuva kick.
Much like the man who ordered it.
Toure, 35, for more than 10 years a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, now host, writer and producer at BET News, has made a steady, if meandering, rise through the ranks of hip-hop journalism, emerging as a celebrity himself. Some of his most provocative essays appear in his new “Never Drank the Kool-Aid” (Picador, $15), a collection culled from such publications as the New Yorker, the Village Voice and, of course, Rolling Stone.
In the last decade, the Brooklyn resident has gone from obscurity to gaining recognition as one of the country’s most astute observers of pop culture. He’s made a name for himself – one name – as a writer who speaks truth to power, especially in the insular, loyalty-demanding world of hip-hop celebrity.
So it’s no wonder that Toure chose “Never Drank the Kool-Aid” as his title, given that he prides himself on never buying into what an artist tried to sell him. (The title refers to the 1978 massacre in Jonestown, Guyana, when cult leader Jim Jones instructed followers to commit suicide by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.)
“I go into situations without being fan-enthusiastic,” says Toure, sipping his caipirinha at his favorite Cuban haunt in Soho. “If I’m doing a story on Jay-Z or Beyonce, I don’t want to be so souped that I can’t ask them a question … . I’m not there to extend their brands.”
That doesn’t mean he’s not a fan. Anthony DeCurtis, a senior contributing editor at Rolling Stone, remembers the young Toure as a hip-hop head who was “gripped” listening to “The Chronic,” the 1992 Dr. Dre/Snoop Dogg classic. “But it was never any sense of ‘Oh, I gotta meet these guys and hang out with them,’ ” says DeCurtis, who also teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania. “Toure never took himself any less seriously than those guys.”
In “Kool-Aid,” Toure writes of fearing for his life while riding shotgun in a Cadillac Escalade at breakneck speed with rapper DMX, of playing poker with Jay-Z and hooping one-on-one with Prince, of standing in the prayer circle at Lauryn Hill’s Christmas party.
With access granted, Toure doesn’t just observe. He unabashedly asks the “Oh-no-he-didn’t!” question, as when he challenged Kanye West, after the Grammy-winning MC flashed his diamond-and-platinum “Jesus piece,” a $25,000 medallion: “Doesn’t it bother you to sport a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus?” The answer led to a revealing look into West’s impressionable psyche.
His disarmingly telegenic looks (he comes from the Jimi Hendrix/Bob Marley/Lenny Kravitz school of handsome, amusing considering that he thinks Kravitz is “lame”) have landed him gigs with MTV and CNN. Never mind that both places let him go. Another of Toure’s enduring qualities is his ability not to take setbacks personally and keep it moving.
“He tends not to respond emotionally,” says Toure’s Beirut-born wife, Rita Nakouzi, 31, a fashion consultant. “He’s not reactionary. He’s very passionate, but in that passion there is a lot of self-reflection.”
Toure is easily accessible, and almost chameleon-like. Later on, he will do a book-signing downtown that draws a mostly white crowd in their 20s. The day before, he signed books in Harlem before a group that was 90 percent black. He is equally comfortable in both settings.
“You’re not going to ask me my mother’s name, are you?” Toure asks, because revealing her name would reveal his last name, which he has abandoned. “Like many African-American (surnames),” he explains, “it doesn’t mean anything to me.”
Growing up in Boston, the younger of two (his sister’s a doctor), Toure attended the prestigious Milton Academy, where he’d often go toe-to-toe with white teachers over their perspectives on black history: “I’d be alone, arguing with the teacher. I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, like Arnie Becker on `L.A. Law.'”
He spent his afternoons with other African-Americans “at this ghetto tennis club in Dorchester, where there were holes in the nets and cracks in the courts.”
In the elite prep school and at the ghetto tennis club, the one unifier was hip-hop – De La Soul, Run-D.M.C., Public Enemy, KRS-One, Rakim. Toure was a disciple.
And writing came easy. He never kept a journal -“too arduous” – but he always held the craft in high esteem.
What Toure did do, while a student at Emory University in Atlanta, was launch a student newspaper, The Fire This Time, a forum for black students to voice concerns. Soon after, in the summer of 1992, he landed an internship at Rolling Stone.
DeCurtis remembers a confident kid “who carried himself like a star … I think that bothered a lot of people.”
“I was big on delegating,” Toure says. “I would delegate to the other interns, and they never questioned me. That left me a window of time to talk to the writers.”
That got him fired, but he was rehired a few years later. A checkered job history would become as much a part of his resume as his edgy, center-of-the-book profiles for Rolling Stone.
He wrote for MTV News in the mid-’90s, but was let go after getting facts wrong, which caused the cable channel to report a story that was untrue. Toure dismisses the incident as too inconsequential and too long ago to go into, but says the firing was “totally deserved.”
In 2002 he became CNN’s first-ever pop culture critic. His reports were more analytical than interview-driven. For instance, he’d talk to music executive L.A. Reid about ways in which Michael Jackson could come back from child pornography charges. “Change his song strategy, his clothes, no videos so we don’t have to see the weirdness of the face…,” Toure said. After two years, he was told his job had been eliminated for reasons that are still unclear to him. (CNN won’t comment.)
Now, at BET, Toure’s goal is to write TV shows. He’s already written fiction: his novel, “Soul City,” and a short story collection, “The Portable Promised Land,” have been well-received.
That versatility, says fellow Brooklyn music journalist Nelson George, is what sets Toure above other hip-hop scribes who came into the game in the ’90s. “Toure never saw himself solely as a hip-hop writer,” says George, who was best man at Toure’s wedding. “He’s not just reading rap lyrics. He’s reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie. That’s why he’s been able to move forward as a artist.”
He’s also moving forward as a pundit. “There are certain people who distill the conventional wisdom and regurgitate it,” DeCurtis says. “Toure is actually thinking.”
“I like being in the position of explaining things,” Toure says. His caipirinha is almost gone. “Some of the other journalists I’ve read may watch but they don’t explain properly. I feel like I can.”