Interview: Author Dan Charnas on the Past and Future of Hip Hop

December 13, 2010

Record industry veteran and longtime journalist Dan Charnas recently had his first book, The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop, published by New American Library/Penguin. And while the title might suggest an academic tutorial, the opposite is true: Rather than give an accountant's tale of rap's rise to dominance, The Big Payback teaches its business lessons through Charnas' seemingly endless anecdotes and interviews with the culture's biggest figures. It's a chunky and fascinating read for anyone interested in how hip hop went from the Bronx to the world, and we asked Charnas for a little background behind the book and what he thinks the future holds. Read the interview after the jump and buy The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop for someone this holiday season.

What was your initial inspiration or motivation to write this book?
My first job out of college was working in the mailroom of Profile Records, home of Run-DMC, Rob Base, Special Ed, etc. Here was a small company, just shy of ten years old, that had become successful funding and distributing hip-hop when no major labels would. And I never forgot the story that Cory and Steve (the co-founders of the company) would tell us about how, early on, they almost went out of business. They were down to their last $2,000 when they decided to produce their first rap record, a remake of Tom Tom Club's "Genus of Love." That became "Genius Rap" by Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde. The record saved the company, It enabled them to go on and sign Run-DMC, to get the first rap video on MTV, to change music, to change culture, and become multimillionaires in the process.

Cut to 15 years later. Hip-hop histories are beginning to hit bookshelves. Reading most of them, you'd think that hip-hop artists walked right onto the charts and into America's hearts. There was almost no discussion of the great struggle, no notion of just how hard it was—impossible, improbable—that this culture would ever be mainstream. And while the artists were the public face of that struggle, behind them were legions of business people like Cory and Steve—who worked their asses off trying to promote hip-hop, whose stories had never been told. I wanted to write a book that would tell their stories.

Much of the discourse in hip-hop seems to take it as a given that hip-hop was welcomed by money-hungry corporations who couldn't wait to manipulate the culture for their own nefarious ends. And that's such bullshit. It didn't go down that way at all. It was a fight to even get corporate America to pay attention. In many ways it still is.

You give a pretty lengthy disclaimer in your foreword. Were there any stories you were concerned might get you in some hot water?
My main concern was to lay out for the reader that this was a work of journalism—not a memoir, not punditry. I interviewed over 300 people for this book, including people whom I knew from my own years in the industry, including my own friends. And that led to the other concern of mine—the fact that I was once a part of the industry meant that I had existing relationships with people, which can be both beneficial and problematic for journalists. I just wanted to come clean about those connections beforehand.

As far as the stories themselves, I wasn't worried about burning bridges—not too much anyway. I made sure to offer to read back completed passages to my sources, and even when those passages were critical, most of my sources were surprisingly okay with the portrayal.

What was the best story that didn't make the book?
A great question. The book is over 600 pages. It could have been double that!

One story I would have loved to tell was about the signing of Black Sheep to Mercury Records in 1991. I got a fantastic, six-hour interview from Ed Eckstine (then the co-president of Mercury, and the first black president of any major label), and another equally fantastic interview with Dave Gossett, the guy who signed the group. Ed and Dave had an interesting mentor-protege relationship, almost father-son. And the climax of the story is when Black Sheep is just about to release their album, which begins with a spoof about gangster rap. The folks at Mercury think that the spoof is real, and the record almost doesn't come out. Gossett has to fly to Europe to meet with Alain Levy, the chairman of Polygram, to argue the case to release the album. Great stuff, and it ended up on the cutting room floor.

Who was your most surprising interview?
I was surprised over and over. Ann Carli, the former head of marketing for Jive Records, for example: That was a great interview, surprising because she knew so much about everything, had connections that I didn't even know about, and was more important than I had previously surmised. It was Ann who wrote the first words in print about some guy named Will Smith. It was Ann who put the symbolic Kangol under the wheel of Kool Moe Dee's Jeep on his album cover, helping to spark the rivalry with LL Cool J, who was managed by her then-love interest, Russell Simmons. It was Ann who started the Stop The Violence movement. She was instrumental in R. Kelly's career (still is), and in Will Smith's rebirth as a rapper in the late 1990s.

But Ann's is only one of many conversations. Even Rick Rubin, for whom I worked for seven years and with whom I spent countless hours over the years, surprised me.

With the declining influence of major labels and fewer artists given access to their money and industry, how do you see the next generation of hip hop maintaining its position in the power structure?

So hard to tell. In a time of chaos, the winners and losers are difficult to predict. Historically, when hip-hop won, it did so because it was willing and able to go outside the power structure and established modes of communication, and create new ones. To the extent that the culture can still do that, it can still win. But so many young acts still have the anachronistic "get a label deal" mentality. And so many established folks have gotten used to being associated with powerful institutions that are now in flux. Those are losing propositions, I think.

If there was one thing young readers could take away from your book, what would you want it to be?
That they are the heirs of a movement both creative and commercial that was really special. The country that they live in now—although still fractious on the issue of race, but more multicultural than at any time in history—was shaped in a big way by the ascension of hip-hop. That, despite hip-hop's flaws, they can be proud of that.

Twenty years ago, people were saying that hip-hop was dead, and its just as tempting to say it today. The music today surely is only the faintest echo of the Bronx street culture of the 1970s. But what lives is the thoughtform that gave rise to hip-hop: "I'm here. And you will know who I am, respect me for my skills, and I will force you to deal with me as an equal." That's hip-hop's greatest cultural legacy, quiet as kept.

Interview: Author Dan Charnas on the Past and Future of Hip Hop