Friday, January 7, 2011

Paid In Full: An Interview With Dan Charnas, Author of "The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop" (Part 1)

The one thing any true hip-hop head craves is an insider’s perspective.  Even in today’s apathetic climate, rap fans are quite given to swallowing misguided rumors wholesale and regurgitating them to each other them as indisputable fact.  This creates an impenetrable subterfuge that not only makes it hard to see the music industry for what it is, but allows falsehoods regarding hip-hops short history to persist throughout the years.  Hip-Hop is as viable an art form as anything else birthed in the 20th century and deserves to be treated as such from a journalistic stand point.   The often shoddy journalism offered by otherwise respectable hip-hop institutions must eventually give way to something more fact based and scholarly.

Author Dan Charnas is more than qualified to lead the charge to improve hip-hop’s journalistic standards.  He apprenticed at various hip-hop institutions in their formative years (or shortly thereafter) and worked directly under people who are now considered legends in the record business.  The knowledge he accumulated during that time period provided the basis for his amazing new book "The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop," possibly the most comprehensive and accomplished book of its kind (read my glowing review here).  He recently took time out of his busy schedule to discuss the mindset behind the book, as well as his perspective on American race relations and hip-hop as a whole.  Read and learn.

Scott Tre: Dan, why don’t you give my readers a bit of background on you so they know who they are hearing from?

Dan Charnas: Okay, Dan Charnas. I got my start in the hip-hop business straight out of college, after which I went to work in the mail room of a company called Profile, which was at the time home of Run D.M.C and Rob Base and Special Ed, a lot of seminal hip-hop groups.  It was there that I got some of my first education in the rap business, working for Cory Robbins and Steve Plotnicki who founded the label.  It was also through some of the journalism that I had done in college that I began writing for magazines like The Boston Phoenix and for The Source when they first moved from Boston to New York.   

In college I had also done a thesis on racial segregation in the music business and because of that I met a guy named Bill Stephney, who was then president of Def Jam and one of the co-founders of Public Enemy who introduced me a few years later to Rick Rubin, the co-founder of Def Jam and I went to work for him.  About two years after I started working at Profile I joined Rick Rubin as the head of his rap department out in Los Angeles for Def American Recordings which then became American recordings.

A Young Rick Rubin

So my book The Big Payback is based in a lot of those early experiences in terms of just the knowledge that I gained working in the business, working amongst the artists, and just observing the industry.  I returned to journalism from the record business  in the last decade...  got my masters in journalism at the Columbia graduate school of journalism, won a Pulitzer fellowship and kind of formulated this book while I was there.  I decided that there was a hip-hop history that really needed to be written, not just on the artists and the music but actually how those records got made and how those artists were pushed out into the world.  

The thing that really fascinated and frustrated me the most being in the business was what a struggle it was to get this stuff out to the world.  Nowadays a lot of kids can’t remember a time when Jay-Z and Sean Combs weren’t on their radio, when you couldn’t hear somebody like Lil Wayne on radio or see him on TV or hear hip-hop in TV commercials and movie soundtracks and things like that, couldn’t go to the movie theater and see Will Smith and Queen Latifah.  Twenty years ago it was a very, very different time and the story of that incredible success had never been detailed, that incredible transition.  That’s the story that I wanted to tell and thought I could tell.

Scott Tre: Rap music is well over thirty years old and has proven itself both commercially and culturally, yet there still seems to be some prejudice against it in the music industry.  Why does that prejudice linger?  Has any other genre of popular music ever experienced that kind of lasting prejudice?

Dan Charnas: That’s a really good question.  The reason it (prejudice against rap music) continues to linger is white supremacy.  We still live in a racist society and while hip-hop has changed the equation for a younger generation I think that there is a generation that is still in power and institutions that are still around that haven’t been as permeable to the magic of the influence of hip-hop as it has on the younger generation.  So that’s why the resistance continues, and you can see it in a recent Boston Globe article on hip-hop academics
The second part of the question you asked, has any other genre experienced the resistance that hip-hop has and I would again say no, interestingly enough.  I think that that’s because, what other genre of music has been so unabashedly black, so unabashedly African American, and has asked of all of its acolytes, whether black, white, Asian, Latino, or other to respect that fact?  Again, there are people in the younger generation who respect that fact and a lot of people outside that generation who can’t.  We’re still dealing with very much a generational divide.  

Scott Tre: Back in 2007 there were quite a few stories in the press lamenting the decline of hip-hop in popular culture and in terms of record sales.  They constantly noted that rap music was experiencing bigger sales declines than other genres of music.  Were those reports exaggerated or were they right on the money? 

Dan Charnas:  It’s so funny you bring that up because it was such bullshit (laughs).  I think the reports were exaggerated and I think that the mainstream media, again at that generational divide, leaped at the chance to nail the lid on the coffin of hip-hop so to speak.  Reports of hip-hop’s death were very, very premature.  I think the music industry is dying and I think a lot of the old way of music making is dying.  I think all genres seem to be experiencing a kind of cultural malaise, a creative malaise.  Music itself isn’t as influential in our broader culture as it was twenty years ago.  You can tell because it’s not quite as valued monetarily.  So yeah, the long answer to your question is that I absolutely think those reports were exaggerated.  

Scott Tre: What initially attracted you to hip-hop culture and what made you want to become professionally involved with the rap music industry?

 Dan Charnas: I think growing up, especially where I grew up which was a planned city called Columbia, Maryland in between two big black metropolises, Baltimore and Washington (D.C.).  Black culture was very influential and Columbia was slightly more enlightened, I think, than most places in the United States when it came to issues of race.  Not a perfect place by any means, but an inspiring place to grow up.

The People Tree Sculpture in Columbia, MD

Aside from immersion in black music and black media, one of the things that really got me was that when I grew up in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, it was still a really segregated time for American music.  My classmates were very, very divided in their loyalties to certain types of music.  There was the pop station that rarely played any black acts and then there were the urban soul stations that did play them.  This was before even Michael Jackson and Prince came along to integrate things a little bit. 

 The sometimes violent reaction of my white classmates to the idea that I would listen to and like and admire black music really created a political consciousness in me to try to find out why this was so.  That was what eventually lead me, in addition to loving and performing and playing and producing music, to write the thesis on musical apartheid in America while I was in college. I basically decided based on my research that white America had four hundred year long relationship of ambivalence to black culture that was in many ways being resolved in favor of love rather than repulsion.

 It was the institutions of popular culture, record companies and radio stations that enforced that segregation rather than the people.  In other words, kids didn’t need white artists to translate black music for them.  If you let kids hear the real thing they would like the real thing.  I think that hip-hop is proof of that.  It became proof of that.   So my life has sort of been dedicated to the racial politics of culture. 

Scott Tre: Why put this book (The Big Payback) out now as opposed to ten years ago?  What makes now the right time?

Dan Charnas: Because I hadn’t written it yet (laughs). 

Scott Tre: The obvious answer (laughs).

Dan Charnas: I mean if your saying I should have written it ten years ago, maybe I should have (laughs).  First of all, ten years ago Jeff Chang’s book (Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation) hadn’t been written.  Jeff Chang was the first person to actually attempt a somewhat linear epic history of Hip-Hop.  I always saw my book as inspired by Jeff’s and hopefully a compliment to Jeff’s.  Where Jeff traces the origins of a culture and what it meant to a generation, especially politically, I wanted to do something a little less ethereal.

Jeff Chang's Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation.

I wanted to talk about how the records were actually pushed out into the world and the fight that had to be waged in order to do that and what that fight meant, which in many ways I think is the same message that Jeff Chang was pushing through in his book in that whether it’s business or culture, what we’re talking about is a time of real change and transformation in American history, a real turning point in the way that America deals with race.  Hip-Hop, I think, has been a big, big part of that turning point if not one of the real cruxes of that turning point. 

Scott Tre: The Big Payback pays a considerable amount of attention to the involvement of white and Jewish Americans in hip-hop, particularly those who played the behind the scenes roles that you just mentioned.  That’s an aspect of the business side of hip-hop that I think a lot of people don’t know about.  Have you received any criticism or resistance for focusing on that?

Dan Charnas: Well actually I just read the L.A. Times book review which was generally favorable but at the end, and I don’t know whether the person who wrote the review is white or black or Latino or whatever, but they said that the book revealed my bias as a white man because I was kinder to Rubin than to Simmons and kinder to Lyor Cohen than to Damon Dash, which I don’t necessarily agree with at all.  I think in some ways I’m more scared of what Rick Rubin might think of the way I portrayed him than Russell Simmons.  So I don’t know.  So that’s as much as I’ve gotten so far, and listen, everybody is entitled to their opinion. 

I am Jewish and I am white and I do have a cultural perspective and it’s gonna be different than somebody who’s African American and grew up in the inner-city.  All you can try to do as a human being is to be aware of your biases as you’re writing and try to do justice as a journalist and as a human being to all sides of the equation.  I really didn’t intend to cover say more white folks or more Jewish folks than anything else, but the fact of the matter is that most of the first entrepreneurs were white and many of them were Jewish.  So in order to tell those stories I have to include them and their ethnicity, and I think their ethnicity is actually a fascinating part of it. 
Why did so many white ethnic folks get involved with black music all along?  I think that’s a fascinating discussion.  It’s also sort of a metaphor.  Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons coming together to form Def Jam is a racial metaphor.  As you can see in the way that their partnership ended, when white and black folks got together it wasn’t always paradise and it didn’t always mean that people understood each other.  But it did mean something.  So I think the book does dwell rightfully on partnerships being racial partnerships whether it’s between Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons or between Dame and Jay on one hand and Lyor on the other, whether it’s between Dave Mays and John Shecter and one hand and James Bernard and Ed Young on the other.  All of these partnerships mean something. 

Def Jam Records Co-Founders Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons

Scott Tre: Suge Knight was once regarded as the most feared man in the record industry.  Your book talks about two different confrontations between Chris Lighty and Suge Knight in which Chris Lighty showed absolutely no fear of Suge.  Is it fair to say that industry people like Chris Lighty held a different view of Suge Knight than the one popularized by the media?

Chris Lighty

Dan Charnas: Well all I can say is that Chris Lighty knows who he is and because Chris Lighty knows who he is and because he came from the background he came from he didn’t really have fear of Suge Knight.  That was very important for him and important for Def Jam because Chris was sort of representing Def Jam at that time.  When you talk to Chris about Suge Knight, Chris has nothing but respectful words for Suge.  Most people get scared of Suge Knight, then they go right to the ‘f**k you’ and Suge says ‘f**k you too’ and they’re going to war.  Chris, in my interview with him, always said that Suge listened to business reason.  But maybe Suge listened to business reason from Chris Lighty because he didn’t feel he could intimidate Chris Lighty.  Because let’s be real: Suge Knight is not a mogul.  Suge Knight is not much of a business man.  Suge Knight is a bully.  Suge Knight is muscle.  Although I think that Suge is probably pretty intelligent, I don’t think that that intelligence exceeded his M.O., which was to bully his way in and to scare people.  That was his currency.  That currency doesn’t last very long in life and in business.


You can find out more about Dan Charnas and The Big Payback over at



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