By Scott Tre
The story of hip-hop culture, from its inception to its current state, has been told plenty of times. Usually it focuses on the artists and/or the music and comes from a rather familiar perspective. That perspective has always left out a rather crucial piece of the puzzle, one that authors have mistakenly decided that the general public would never be interested in: The businessmen who battled it out behind the scenes, often in board rooms with narrow minded executives, to bring a musical culture born in the ghettos of the Bronx to the prominence it enjoys today. That story, with all of its supposedly boring details, is just as crucial to understanding hip-hop as an encyclopedic knowledge of all the classic songs that have been released and battles that have taken place.
Dan Charnas, who has served Hip-Hop culture in a variety of different capacities within the music industry, has now decided to lay out the tale of Hip-Hop’s corporate and cultural takeover. The Big Payback: The History Of The Business Of Hip-Hop, is perhaps the most ambitious book of its kind ever attempted. In the span of a more than substantial 660 pages, Charnas gives a detailed account of how hip-hop culture overcame skepticism, racism, and boardroom politics to become one of the most influential forms of pop art and culture in American history. In a most amazing fashion, Charnas’s reach exceeds his considerable grasp; he not only achieves his mission with flying colors, but performs above and beyond the call of duty.
The book's chapters are called “albums,” each divided into two “sides.” The story is laid out in way that allows the reader to understand the obstacles that Hip-Hop has had to overcome over the years. The story opens with a brief history lesson on Alexander Hamilton that becomes more substantial and integral to the books central theme as it progresses. The story progresses through the various stages of rap music’s corporate and industrial development, from the first rap songs ever pressed on vinyl to the first ones to make it on radio station playlists and become hits. Hip-Hop’s infiltration of MTV is covered, as well as Hip-Hop’s eventual and perpetual presence in all forms of mainstream media.
While neither the artists nor the music itself is the book's sole focus, such contributions are not merely relegated to the periphery, in fact it’s quite the contrary. The most important artists of each respective era covered in The Big Payback maintain a constant presence in the proceedings and none are short changed. Though the chapters that chronicle the founding and maintenance of the Def Jam empire largely focus on Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin, the reader is made to understand the role that acts like Public Enemy, The Beastie Boys and L.L. Cool J played in establishing Def Jam as the enduring hip-hop label of all time. The exact same approach is taken with the in regards to Hip-Hop’s early years in the Bronx and Harlem, as well as the founding of Rap music first dynasty, Sugar Hill Records.
While many of the more well known biographies and magazine articles focus on the various beefs that have made Hip-Hop infamous throughout the years, they often do so in a scandalous and tabloidesque fashion. The Big Payback chronicles many of the same events, but from a surprisingly level headed perspective. In that sense, it transcends the still relatively young medium of hip-hop journalism and becomes something much more credible in the process. Charnas seeks to inform, not to titillate or facilitate hero worship. He often speaks from a first hand perspective, not relying on unsubstantiated rumors or unnamed sources. The most scandalous stories are presented as matters of historical fact, rendering them much more believable than they would be otherwise.
The Big Payback is a monumental achievement, one whose significance cannot be overstated. It will be considered an indispensable resource in years to come. Anyone who considers themselves even a casual fan or appreciator of hip-hop culture should peruse the pages of this book until it becomes second nature. Detractors should also take note, as the epic journey laid out in this book is the most American story imaginable, and makes an airtight case for Rap Music being the heir apparent to Rock & Roll and not just a distant cousin. hip-hop was birthed by Blacks and Latinos who existed largely in anonymity, yet it speaks to everyone who decides to listen. The Big Payback is, quite simply, the best book about hip-hop ever written.