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The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop by Dan Charnas

February 17, 2012

In the past 30 years, no other art form has had a larger impact on popular culture than hip hop. From the street corners of the Bronx and the disco clubs of New York City in the late 1970s, rap music and hip hop culture exploded out of the cities and across the U.S. (then worldwide) in the 1980s. White suburban kids were buying rap tapes at the mall, wearing baggy pants and high-tops like rappers they saw on MTV, installing car stereos with window-rattling bass and speaking in a whole new hip-hop slanguage. Hip hop was to my generation what rock ‘n’ roll was to my parents’—a new form of music, expression and rebellion all rolled into one. For white suburban kids, and particularly for their parents, rap was dangerous, born out of a predominantly African-American street culture. But long before the first rap video hit MTV, before kids like myself had ever heard of Run DMC or the Beastie Boys, long before my band teacher talked about how amazing MC Hammer’s dancing had been at the Grammy’s the night before, a few creative DJ’s in New York’s disco clubs improvised a new kind of performance art. They started talking, or “rapping,” over the intros to their songs, which evolved into talking over the breaks in the middle of the songs (the parts without lyrics). The crowds at the clubs were eating it up, so the DJs searched for songs with longer breaks. Then, so they could rap longer, they started mixing songs together to extend the breaks. Thus was born a new form of music.

But as with any cultural phenomenon, the artists (and they wouldn’t have considered themselves artists—they were just spinning records) were only part of the equation. It took some keen business minds to recognize an opportunity and exploit it. People like Joe and Sylvia Robinson, founders of Sugar Hill Records. Although “Rapper’s Delight,” by Sugar Hill artist The Sugarhill Gang, wasn’t the first rap album, it is widely considered the track that broke rap worldwide. As Charnas points out, so different was this new form of music that the first verse of “Rapper’s Delight” begins: “Now what you hear is not a test–i’m rappin to the beat.” The MC is literally explaining the music to the audience.

The Big Payback is a history of this important mix—the artists and the businessmen. Hip hop has, for better or worse, always been an art form that embraces, often celebrates, its economic forces. Making money—and lots of it—is nothing to be shy about. Rappers often brag about their riches, wear them or drive them around. Likewise, there is no such thing as “too commercial” when it comes to hip hop. More than most musicians, rappers have long realized that they are brands. They baldly promote products without fear of being labeled a “sellout.” And, seemingly more than any other artistic culture, hip hop embraces the cross-over—the artist who extends his or her name into clothing lines, movie deals, perfume, jewelry, whatever makes money.

Perhaps it’s because hip hop grew up in the age of materialism. Perhaps it’s because hip hop grew out of a street culture where material status symbols carried quite a bit of weight. Or perhaps it’s because rap proved, after years of radio stations refusing to play it (and even MTV dragging their heels), that it would not be stopped. Rap was going to be the next biggest thing. And whenever that happens, the businessmen come to get their piece of the pie. Yes, hip hop certainly has its share of amazing artists, savvy promoters and visionary entrepreneurs, but like any business it has plenty of greedy douchebags who will do whatever it takes and screw whoever it takes to get ahead. The Big Payback has its heroes, but it also has plenty of villains.

The reason Charnas wanted to cover business of hip hop and not just the the art of hip hop is that the two are inseparable. And while including the business might sound like it would make the book less interesting, it’s quite the contrary. It’s often the conflict between the art and the industry that provides the narrative tension. Charnas does an excellent job of delivering fairly dense material in an interesting, often riveting way. He covers the dry stuff—the mergers, contracts and legal proceedings, but he never wanders too far into the weeds. And with so many intense, sometimes unstable characters involved, any time Charnas takes us into a board room, odds are it’s because the meeting ends with someone throwing a chair, pulling a gun or chasing someone else out of the room with a baseball bat.

Whether or not you agree with the final conjecture in the book—that the rise of hip hop is largely responsible for the election of the first African-American president—one can’t deny the powerful influence that hip hop has had on American culture in its relatively short lifetime. And no book gives a better, more readable overview of the artistic and market forces behind the rise of hip hop than The Big Payback. 

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