Frank Meyer is a well-spoken, established writer with deep roots in the music scene. He has 8 published books and directorial credit for his new film Risen: the story of Chron “Hell Razah” Smith. Before interviewing this man of many talents I took some time to learn about my subject. Though an elementary writer myself, I still know the importance of doing research and in doing so I learned Meyer was a bit of a jerk of all trades himself; a perfect subject to feature! While he hails from the west coast, Meyer has many stories he shares exclusively with readers about New York and the east coast. Meyer has written about both rock and roll and metal in On The Road with the Ramones, Megadeth, as well as on being a parent with Diaper Dude. He is now also opening his film Risen: the story of Chron “Hell Razah” Smith, and is a member of several So-Cal bands himself including Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs and Blind House.
I wanted to get some tips about writing for the benefit of fellow writers and journalists alike and to improve my own craft. Meyer was humble and more than happy to oblige. It was a treat to have a learn from such an exciting character.
So what was going to be an interview talking about Meyer’s latest film project evolved as I learned through our conversation that he had such a deep personal history of music. This only served to complement the film which shows such an intimate side of Hell Razah that could have only been revealed through a trust and friendship between subject and director in his latest documentary release Risen, a solid story with the perfect amount of information about the hip-hop scene and Wu-Tang specifically to suit true fans and general docu-heads alike.
In the beginning…
The whole thing started back when Hell Razah and I first met back in ’97. I was working at a record company, doing PR as a publicist at the time while I was playing music. I was a big Wu-Tang Clan fan and Red Anthad signed Sunz of Man, one of the first of the Wu-Tang offshoot groups when Wu-Tang got big and exploded. They all did these solo deals and signed these groups.Sunz of Man had put out some singles, I was a big fan of those and I heard we were going to do the record. I asked to be the point person on that project. I met them while they were recording the official album The Last Shall Be First. We were shooting their EPK so I actually went in the studio with them when they were recording with Earth Wind & Fire, and Wyclef Jean and Ol’ Dirty Bastard in Ocean Way studios, this gorgeous recording studio. I was there when they did all the video shoots, and on a lot of their West Coast tour dates at the time. I saw them at Rikers Island perform in front of prisoners, which was crazy.
Eventually, I was working at an NBC-owned tv networked called G4TV as a producer. It was in the early days of podcasting when everyone was doing digital programming to support tv shows. One of the things I developed there was a podcast called Freestyle 101 where rappers would come in and talk about rapping, their influences, and technique. I was a rock ‘n’ roll guy growing up but I’ve always loved hip hop.
From the West Coast to the East Coast
My boss at the time was Robert Juster. We had done an episode with Razah. Then I heard about his brain aneurysm in 2010 and later that year I went out to visit him. He was way worse off than I had imagined and way worse off than he was leading on to the public. He had enough unreleased raps so he was continuing to put out music, but all that stuff was recorded ahead of time, so he was kind of fooling people for a little while. Between 2012-2015 I kept shooting and going back to the east coast as much as possible and shooting guys out here on the west coast, it was a long haul.
What was the hardest part of working on this, aside from the travel?
It’s funny that you say that, travel was the hardest part. I’m from LA and Razah is from NY. I didn’t have a budget for this, basically, it was me, Rob and Paul Harb and we were paying for shit along the way trying to keep it as reasonable as possible. I had this great cinematographer Jason Valdez who was in it for the long haul and did a lot of work for nothing just cause he loved Razah and he loved the story.
Focusing on a Larger Broader Story
The other hardest part was the fact I filmed for so long and there was so much content, at some point I had to kind of skinny it down, a lot of cuts about his religious journey, the nation of Islam, a lot more history of his career, but I had to kind of keep my eye on the project. I’m a huge fan of all this music, but not everyone that watches the movie wants to know about every single each member of the band recorded. I do, but I couldn’t assume that everyone was going to be knee-deep in the culture the way that I was, or the way that a hardcore Wu-Tang fan was, so there was some stuff I had to consolidate a little bit to make it easier to digest. I didn’t want to make the movie for Wu-Tang fans, so I had to make the movie for people who want to see an interesting story about a talented guy losing everything and having to rebuild, rehabilitate and reevaluate.
Also, one thing I had to be aware of, was that if you’re not a fan of these guys, it’s a lot of crazy names being thrown here you know Prodigal Sunn, 60-Second Assassin, Killah Priest, Hell Razah, Cappadonna, if you don’t know who all these dudes are and you’re not familiar with that world it can get a little confusing.
I’d written a lot of non-fiction books and some oral history type books, which was very helpful in terms of keeping the story in line and figuring out the best way to bring it all to life.
I’ve written eight books, all but one have been published. There’s one that has not been published and unfortunately has a super sad story to it. It was a book about the company Lip Service, a goth rock n roll clothing co, where Drew Bernstein the guy who hired me to essentially tell his tale then committed suicide. That one was fortunately finished but never came out. Besides that dark tale, I did a Ramones book and I worked with Dave Mustaine of Megadeth on what became his first book. I did a Van Halen book with Neil Zlozower, a Phil Spector book. I did a book with Walter Iooss Jr. a big sports photographer, of football of all things, then I did a book From Dude To Dad and a book called Diaper Dude. It was a hard left but since I was a single father that raised a now 16-year-old daughter, the other thing I know besides music was how to raise kids, so I got involved with that and those books did very well.
In 2015 I did a whole bunch of shoots over the summer. I felt like we were making progress, his life was taking a few different turns so the story was developing and the whole time I was waiting for the ending to appear, the whole thing about doing a documentary is you don’t know what the ending is necessarily. On one of my trips, he had a big medical breakthrough and we happened to be there for that great achievement, it was coming after a lot of many dark moments so we were feeling like that was a real good place. I knew we weren’t going to reunite Sunz Of Man and get him on stage rapping, they’re all friends and stuff but those guys live in different places, there wasn’t a way to get them all together and Razah can’t rap onstage the way he used to. Depending on the situation he’s on crutches or a cane. He can construct his raps in the studio but he can’t go on the stage and blast out a 24 bar high energy rap, it’s just not realistic. So I had been talking to him for years like hey can we get you on stage, even doing spoken word, something just to get you back in front of fans doing your thing, and he was always like, “Nope I don’t want to do it I don’t want fans to see me compromised.” There was an opportunity that came where a bunch of guys from his group were gonna be at a gig out there and suddenly he changed his mind and wanted to go to the gig, we had a great night, we got great footage and some good elements to build an ending to. I spent my last dime on that last trip, and I was going to start editing and then a week later I find out about this show that he was going to do and I was like alright I guess I’m heading back to New York again, so we went back there and between those last batch of shoots, we had our act 3.
On The Road with The Ramones
The first book I wrote was called On The Road With The Ramoneswith Monte Melnick who was thetour manager of The Ramones. He was there from the very first gig to the very last, on the tour bus, in the studio, and he’s considered to be the 5th Ramone. He had a unique point of view as far as the Ramones story goes cause he was there for everything, and there was a lot of tumultuous drama in the Ramones and he had a front seat for all of it, sometimes a back seat for all of it. I’m a huge fan of New York and a lot of New York music was very influential to me. The New York Dolls and The Ramones, specifically. I met Monte through a guy named Lonn Friend, he was the editor of a magazine called RIP back in the day and he worked with Larry Flint and Larry Flint Publications. Lonn introduced me to Monte who had a book deal and needed someone to help him write the story and he wanted to do kind of like an oral history type of thing, interview people from the group and other crew members, telling the complete story. I went to New York for a few weeks and stayed at Monte’s place. We interviewed everyone we possibly could and wrote his story. I just helped him put it together and kind of find his voice and I’m a pretty organized guy, a lot of times with non-fiction stuff such as an oral history book or a documentary movie like Risen a lot of it is just knowing the story, knowing the voice and being very organized and doing a lot of planning. That’s the secret. It’s as much about being organized as anything else when it comes to non-fiction.
The Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs have been around since ’95. I was doing the Cheetahs when I first met Hell Razah back in the day. We were signed by Bomp Records with Greg Shaw, and then we were on Triple X Records doing a Detroit New York-style kind of MC5 chainsaw rock ‘n’ roll vibe. The band did about a 10-year run, broke up for a decade, then got back together. When we originally were touring we were part of the whole scene with Turbonegro, Nashville Pussy, the Supersuckers, and the Hellacopters, and all those Sweedish and Norwegian rock’n’roll bands that were coming out here at the time, and a lot of the American garage rock bands like Reverend Horton Heat,Zeke, New Bomb Turks. I toured constantly, lived in a van, cut my teeth playing every punk-rock shithole in Europe and the United States. We would do about 150-200 dates a year for 10 years straight. I only stopped when I had a kid and decided I didn’t really want to raise a kid from the back of a van or just not be there.
The thing I kept doing throughout my entire career that sort of ties it all together was writing. Writing the books, working on movies, music, it’s all writing in some way shape or form. The Cheetahs did a bunch of records from about 1995-2005 and then we broke up. In 2014 or so we got back together and did a tour, had a blast, made a single, and we decided not to break up again and we’ve been doing it ever since.
I play in a Long Beach band called Blindhouse as well I started about a year ago with members of the Cadillac Tramps and Social Distortion, so I’ve got my Long Beach band Blindhouse, I’ve got my LA punk band The Streetwalkin Cheetahs, and then I sing with James Williamson the guitarist of Iggy & The Stooges, we did a record together about a year ago called James Williamson and the Pink Hearts. I just finished writing and working on a record with him and Deniz Tek from Radio Birdman that will be out in a few months on Cleopatra. I also play with this heavy metal guy Thor the rock warrior, the Canadian heavyweight champion of “gladiator rock”. Somehow I connected all these things that have no connection except that I just sort of go in a bunch of different directions.
I played with Wayne Kramer for 2 years, and played with Cherie Currie from The Runaways, we played the Coach house too. I did a tour with Bob Dorough of Schoolhouse Rock the guy who wrote and played piano and sang on all those Schoolhouse Rock songs.
What is some advice you can give to aspiring writers, being a published author of such great books?
Up until books it was just hustling, like anything else, when I got to the book level I kind of never turned back at that point. A lot of these things have been serendipitous, and just continuing to do it. There are certain rules as a writer of non-fiction, you can’t make shit up and you can’t fill in the blanks, it’s like writing a research paper. Outline the entire story ahead of time, do a lot of organization and pre-production, and figure out the best way to approach the story which might change along the way but you’ve got to start somewhere. Once you’ve got a super detailed outline to tell part of the story, then you just divide it up into very manageable small tasks for each day, not some insane amount that is going to overwhelm you. Keep it going, start editing, then shape your book. I’m a big fan of editing but don’t get too hung up on editing right away, save editing for later. Get your ideas out of your head and onto the page, onto your computer, or the track of music or whatever it is and there’s way less pressure, you can see it for what it is and then develop it. What happens with a lot of people is they get too hung up on the first line, or the title and somewhere they get tripped up. Don’t worry, this is just the first draft. Too many artists shoot themselves in the foot with all sorts of reasons why they can’t go on. The main thing is to get the ideas out, stay focused, don’t get frustrated when things aren’t coming out the way you want and most importantly to keep moving forward.
Do you have any last words you’d like to say?
The documentary is called Risen: The Story of Chron Hell Razah Smith, it’s available on Amazon and Amazon Prime, and will be hitting other platforms soon. If you’re a fan of hip hop documentaries or music documentaries this is for you, but you don’t have to be a fan of either one. This is a unique story of a talented kid who had it all, lost it all and had to struggle his way back to where he wants to be in life.
The Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs have a new single We Are The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For available on Youtube, Spotify, Apple, Amazon, and iTunes.
Blind House has a new single called California Sound, and is available on all platforms. The record with Deniz Tek and James Williamson comes out on Cleopatra in a few months, I wrote a bunch of songs on that as well.
Connecting all of these things in this very diverse, scattered career is storytelling. They’re all stories here.
When writing songs the idea is that you’ve got 3 1/2 or 5 minutes to tell a story, you’ve gotta be compact and chose your words carefully and your ideas carefully but have fun along the way. These are the things I enjoy most in life is being creative, having fun, and moving forward.