© 2024 All Rights reserved WUSF
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Quan Millz is out to make a buck, one street lit book at a time

Quan Millz's given name is Colby Durden. He was raised in Miami in a two-parent household.
Quan Millz
/
Quan Millz/Tiktok/Screenshot by NPR
Quan Millz's given name is Colby Durden. He was raised in Miami in a two-parent household.

Quan Millz knows that his writing is provocative. That's the whole point.

With titles like "Pregnant By My Mother's Gay Husband" and "My Pastor Got A Stripper Pregnant," the self-published Millz has carved a very specific niche in the urban fiction space.

"I decided to try to experiment with different titles that were like very on the nose, very controversial, salacious that I just knew would just grab people's attention. And it worked," Millz told NPR.

When Millz commissioned his first book, "Ran Off on the Plug Twice" – named after a popular rap song of the time – he never really expected the novel to gain much traction.

He had just been let go from a job at a Chicago law firm and was feeling burned out from the corporate scene.

"At first I was like, you know, I'm not doing that. That's weird," Millz said of writing urban fiction.

But in need of money and inspired by a friend who was self-publishing her own books and bringing in a comfortable income doing it, Millz decided to dive in.

His first book landed with a bit of a splash, but it wasn't until he tapped into increasingly controversial titles that he truly found his audience.

His next title, "My Bad White B*tch," was his first step in that direction.

"I saw this one cover, it was very different from the standard urban fiction cover. It had a white woman on it, blonde hair, a Lamborghini, drugs, guns," Millz said of a premade cover he found online.

"Those other elements are very common for urban fiction covers. But the white woman wasn't.'"

So he hired a ghostwriter and published the novel. The book earned him somewhere in the neighborhood of $10,000 in two months.

"That sudden infusion of cash was a life saver in a way," he said.

"But also it was the signal that, okay, there's something here with the titles," Millz said. "It's going to grab people's attention, and you're going to make money."

Who is Quan Millz?

Millz, whose given name is Colby Durden, was born and raised in Miami, but now lives with his wife in the suburbs of Chicago.

"If you would have asked me 10 years ago, would I be doing this, I would be like, hell no. In fact, it's interesting because I actually do have a background in working for nonprofits," Millz said.

The 39-year-old was raised by both parents in what he describes as a "solidly middle class" household and had long envisioned himself working in politics.

It wasn't until 2017 when he lost his job as a proposal writer that he explored street lit.

"I was like, 'Hey, you know what? Screw corporate America. I'm not going back. I'm going all in with urban fiction.'"

But as he amassed a following – churning out book after book, sometimes spending as little as a weekend penning a piece – Millz found himself embroiled in controversies with readers and in competitive spats with other writers.

Following the shooting death of hip-hop artist Nipsey Hussle in 2019, Millz made an uncomfortable joke about conspiracy theories surrounding the rapper's death.

"I started seeing all these conspiracy theories floating on Facebook that he was killed by the LAPD for trying to make a Dr. Sebi documentary," Millz said. "I just wasn't thinking. And I tried to crack a joke in the spirit of Clayton Bigsby, which was a Dave Chappelle character. And I unfortunately used the hard R version of the [n-word]."

That, coupled with his use of an obvious nom de plume and generally faceless online presence, led to theories that the writer behind titles like "Old THOT Next Door" was actually a white man mocking the genre.

Millz, who admits to having a trolling nature at times, ran with this newfound identity, joking in another post, "Yup, I'm enjoying my white life on the sunny beaches of California," further fanning the flames.

"What they saw was, oh, this makes sense. This is the guy who wrote this book, 'This Hoe Got Roaches In Her Crib,' ... It makes sense that it would be a white guy writing these types of books because no self-respecting Black person would do this."

Even as Millz has gone more public with his appearance on TikTok, capturing a new, younger audience and making clear that he's Black, some people still accuse him of cosplaying his Blackness.

But Millz responds to those comments as "one of the stupidest internet conspiracies known to man."

'Slapstick'

Millz is far from the first to dive into the urban fiction genre.

Titles like "Pimp" from Iceberg Slim, "Whoreson'' by Donald Goines, and Millz's biggest inspiration, "The Coldest Winter Ever" by Sister Souljah, paved the way for Millz's works.

Jacinta R. Saffold is an assistant professor of African-American literature at the University of Delaware. Saffold, whose research focuses on street lit at the turn of the century, has not read Millz's work. But based on his titles and her expertise in the area, Saffold said his salacious titles remind her of some of the less serious ventures into urban writing, like Shawn Wayans' 1997 comedic title "150 Ways to Tell If You're Ghetto," as opposed to a genuine commentary on the Black experience.

She said even though the genre of street lit is known for its gritty, urban realism, there's a history of over-the-top humor, like the kind Millz employs.

"I believe there is a difference between a kind of slapstick book that is intentionally trying to cause a reaction in their readership versus authors that were intentionally trying to capture the unmitigated circumstances of hip-hop, in trying to do what gangsta rappers were doing for hip-hop music, in print," Saffold said.

And it's often when artists make the switch from difficult subjects to less serious work that they can find broader success, she added.

"So without an author like Sister Souljah having a successful rap career with Public Enemy and going toe-to-toe with Bill Clinton before she picked up her pen and started writing things like 'No Disrespect' and 'The Coldest Winter Ever,' I'm not sure if 'The Coldest Winter Ever' or 'No Disrespect' would have been met with such critical acclaim."

So far, Millz has about 70-plus published works — a handful of which were ghostwritten — and about 150,000 units sold, he said. Many of these titles sell for as little as a buck on Amazon.

Borrowing from the imagination of another urban fiction writer, Shameek Speight, whose "Child of a Crackhead" series had been well-received on Amazon, Millz fully leaned into stereotypical hood motifs of sex, drugs, unambitious women and their ultimate downfalls.

"I'm going to take that formula and I'm going to run with it, but I'm going to add my own spin to it," Millz said.

It's been a strategy that's served him well professionally.

Millz now works full time as an author and says he's generated over half-a-million dollars in book royalties across reader platforms, including paperbacks, audiobooks and ebooks.

On Facebook, groups dedicated to the author have tens of thousands of followers.

One of those followers, 28-year-old Taylor Oliver, said she's been reading Millz for about five years, describing the author's writing as "gripping" storytelling – totally different to the man she and thousands more frequently interact with on TikTok and Facebook groups.

"He just comes across as, like, a totally genuine, yet just really intelligent and articulate guy," she said.

"It's the funniest thing because from his writing, you wouldn't expect that his demeanor is so kind of cool, calm and collected, and you would think that he was a lot more like some of the characters that he writes. But that's just a testament to his skills."

Harmful to the Black community?

Despite the high praise he receives from fans, critics say that Millz's work is an exploitative and overly simplistic vignette into Black life.

"It's commodifying the Black experience," said University of New Haven professor Randall Horton.

Horton is an award-winning author who served five years in prison on seven felony convictions.

Some of the topics that Millz discusses in his books – drugs, infidelity, poverty – Horton said, are things he and other Black people have actually experienced, not just fodder for outsiders to laugh at.

"I spent 30 years on the streets hustling and smuggling all kinds of things. Went to prison. I did time," Horton said.

"I wanted to talk about all of these things that [Millz is] talking about. And I did, you know, in my own way."

But what Millz is doing, Horton said, seems more like a cash grab.

"If you're just in it to make money, then maybe that's the path for you. And you don't have to think about any of the consequences of whatever happens."

Millz is aware of the reactions he provokes.

"Of course, there are people out there who have valid criticisms and concerns that my books are a misrepresentation of Black people," Millz said.

"And I'm not oblivious to those criticisms because at times I do go back and I reflect on my own work and I wonder like, wow, okay, I was a little bit too heavy-handed here," he said.

Still, he has no plans to change tack.

"But at the same time, I'm not the first to do this and I won't be the last."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tags
Alana Wise is a politics reporter on the Washington desk at NPR.
WUSF 89.7 depends on donors for the funding it takes to provide you the most trusted source of news and information here in town, across our state, and around the world. Support WUSF now by giving monthly, or make a one-time donation online.