Monday, January 10, 2011

Paid In Full: An Interview With Dan Charnas, Author of "The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop" (Part 2)

In part two of this amazing interview (click here to read part 1 if you haven’t already), Dan Charnas elaborates further on how the rise of hip-hop culture has impacted race relations in America.  He also offers some insight into the enigma that is Rick Rubin, as well as what events lead to mainstreaming of west coast gangsta rap.  Read on to find out why everything you thought you knew about the ascension of hip-hop was wrong…

Scott Tre: Many people, including hip-hop journalists themselves, consider hip-hop journalism an oxymoron or a contradiction in terms.  The quality of journalism and writing in The Big Payback is very high.  Do you consider yourself as having a higher standard than most hip-hop journalists?

Dan Charnas: Oh, I would never say that.  There are so many journalists that I respect.  I think that there are a lot of journalists of the hip-hop generation that are doing great work both about hip-hop and about other subjects of importance to the hip-hop generation.  But I do like to think of myself as having high standards. Of course I can never live up to my standards, and that’s the problem. 

As I wrote the book I was in constant agitation and worry about getting things right, what it took to get things right and getting another interview and another confirmation.  Because of the realities of commerce and selling a book to a publisher and having a deadline, there are things you wish you did that you never got a chance to do.  There’s always another interview you can do.  That’s just my outlook as a journalist.  Part of that comes from my own ethical sense and another part of it comes from the training.  I’m very proud to have been a graduate of Columbia Journalism School.  I represent for them.  When I go out into the world I try to represent my crew and represent my ethics and represent hip-hop.  Hip-Hop deserves good journalism.  Hip-Hop deserves an epic history.  I think that folks like Jeff Chang and hopefully me are doing that.  

Let’s not forget Brian Coleman.  We can mention everybody.  What about Ethan Brown, his incredible investigative journalism in Queens Reigns Supreme?

Scott Tre: That’s an amazing book.  I read that back in 2005.

Ethan Browns Queens Reigns Supreme

Dan Charnas:  Here’s the thing, and maybe this is what you’re getting at.  I wanted a hip-hop book to be more than just about somebodies opinion.  What I can’t stand anymore is punditry, hip-hop punditry.  So much of what passes for hip-hop writing is just punditry.  Its somebodies opinion or somebodies thoughts about how the music business works or how hip-hop happened, and it didn’t go down that way.  So when people write without question about certain entrepreneurs as being shady, whether it’s an artist like Q-tip or a journalist sort of echoing Q-tips words, not to single Q-Tip out, you know what I’m saying, but it’s the best illustration.  It’s like people just take it for granted, you know?

Scott Tre: What is the biggest difference between how the music industry regarded rap in the late 70’s compared to how it’s regarded now?

Dan Charnas: Well, I don’t think the music industry regarded it at all in the late 1970’s.  In 1979 there were only a few singles that hit market.  I think that they viewed it as a fad, something that would go away in short order just like disco had.  I think in 1985 they were still thinking it was gonna go away, and even in 1990 with the signings of MC Hammer and  Vanilla Ice, the music industry almost took a step to ensure it, right?  But it didn’t happen that way.  MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice, their pop hits did not basically change the appeal of “real” hip-hop to real kids all across the country.  

I think that the change started to happen with Yo! MTV Raps in 1988, but really started to take hold in the mid 1990’s once radio turned.  Radio had long been just the most segregated industry in the country, where white radio programmers could look in an executive's face and say “I’m sorry, that record is too black.”  I mean imagine like that, that that’s what they did.  Over and over and over again for years, until a few brave radio programmers tried to change things and then did.  And then after pop radio started opening its doors to hip-hop, you couldn’t really stop the floodgates.  Again, once kids heard the difference between the real and the fake and chose the real then, I think hip-hop began to enjoy its true share of prosperity and became the heir to rock n' roll.  And in many ways, like you said, it was more effective in some ways than rock n' roll.

Vanilla Ice, the type of artist that the music industry once mistakenly believed was needed to "interpret" rap music for suburban white kids. 

Scott Tre: You don’t really talk about the rise of southern hip-hop or the independent movement in southern hip-hop, which is now dominant and has been dominant for a while.  Do you feel that subject is best left for another book?  

Dan Charnas: Well listen, when you’re writing a book like this you have to make real tough choices.  I’m going to be living with those choices for many, many years.  One of the main choices was I had to talk about culture to illustrate why the business was meaningful, but I still had to keep things about the business.  So there are certain artists who are important as artists but not so important on the business side, and certain businesses who were important culturally but not necessarily important business wise if you know what I mean.  

So I didn’t talk about the rise of the indies, sort of the backpack indies in the 1990’s whether it be Rawkus or any of those really, really important labels culturally.  Were they viable businesses for a time?  Absolutely, but they didn’t really fit into the narrative that I was writing.  As far as southern hip-hop, I think Rap-A-Lot is really important.  I didn’t really have the chance to cover the Rap-A-Lot story but I tried to talk about why the south was important through the story of Cash Money.  Cash Money is obviously still very relevant today, because it fathered in many ways Young Money.  

Obviously there are issues of, am I not covering it because I can’t really find the business justification to do so, but also there are so many books that seem to do a better job than I could ever do on southern hip-hop.  I mean whole books dedicated to southern hip-hop.  How could I even approach?  I mean it was one of the reasons that I didn’t approach some of the more salacious aspects of the Suge Knight/Death Row story because how do you top what Ronin Ro did in his book?

Scott Tre: Have Gun Will Travel.

Ronin Ro's Have Gun Will Travel: The Spectacular Rise And Violent Fall of Death Row Records

Dan Charnas: How do you top what Cheo Coker did in Unbelievable?  I’m not gonna devote yet another book to wondering who shot Biggie and Tupac.   In a book about the hip-hop business, that is sort of immaterial.  What’s material is the effect that that rivalry had on the business, and that I hope I did do that.

Scott Tre: When you talked about the breakup of Def Jam (In The Big Payback) there were certain things that seemed kind of unclear, not due to your writing but simply just the situation itself.  Rick Rubin left when Def Jam became what he and Russell Simmons had always wanted it to become.  His attitude toward hip-hop seemed to take an unexplained turn.  The chapter on Def Jam ends with a comment he makes to Russell that I don’t know what to make of.  I don’t want to spoil it here.  I do know that Rick Rubin is a provocateur with the whole Abbot & Costello thing you mentioned throughout the book, but there are little signs throughout the story that there was a certain animosity there and I think you know what I’m getting at.  For me, the way the chapter ended sort of leaves a question mark as to Rick Rubin's attitude toward hip-hop, Russell Simmons and black people.

Dan Charnas: Okay, well let’s take Rick’s attitude towards hip-hop.  I put those stories in there to show you a couple of things.  It’s so multi-layered, I don’t wanna interpret it for people, you know what I mean?  Because on the one hand, Rick uses the N-Word as a provocateur and it’s obvious that he does that.  I don’t think that he would have spent his life in partnership with black folks to the degree he did if he felt any other way, but that’s not to say that Rick has a particular racial consciousness in that way.  To me and MC Serch, hanging around with black people has a lot of cultural and political significance to us because we think that way.  Whereas to Rick I think it’s just who he happens to be hanging with.  I think that Bud Abbot will break anybody’s balls (laughs).  Whoever Rick happens to be hanging out with I think he’s gonna break their balls.  In the world of hip-hop that’s one way that Rick proved he was still kind of a bad ass.  When I was around Rick he always made those comments in what I would call good nature, but even more than that I think to the black folks he made those comments to, I think that they always recall those stories with a sort of “Oh, that’s Rick being Rick.”  

Rick Rubin standing next to one of his more unusual home decorations

There’s one story that I didn’t put in the book where Rick is accepting the gold plaque for The Black Crows album, and Russell Simmons and Bill Stephny and Nelson George are sort of standing in the audience.  As Rick gets up to accept the plaque he tells this black joke, basically, where the punchline is the N-Word, and literally the only three guys in the place that are laughing are Bill, Russell, and Nelson.  See what I’m saying?  In some ways, Rick's use of that kind of humor around his black friends denoted a certain level of comfort that went both ways.  I can’t speak for Russell, I can’t speak for Bill, and I can’t speak for Nelson.  But to me they had to know that Rick didn’t mean the shit that way (laughs), because I don’t think they’d stand for it otherwise.  It was a way to sort of illustrate the complexity of the relationship between black and white people in hip-hop in the 1980’s leading into the 1990’s.  So I wanted to show sort of the his use of the N-Word is just a motif in a way to show how black and white folks related and in some ways it was a very different way then both had related to each other in the past. 

And I think there’s an evolution even beyond that once Rick and the Beasties leave the scene, then you have folks like John Shecter and MC Serch who are sort of more politically conscious and more cautious and more deferential.  And I think at that point it sort of becomes known that, You know what?  Black folks are gonna be in charge.  They’re gonna be in charge of this culture, they’re gonna be in charge of this music.  They’re gonna be in charge of themselves, and they might be in charge of you as a boss, as an entrepreneur, as whatever.  And you know what?  That’s okay, because that’s the way America is going.  We’re moving towards a multicultural meritocracy, whether the tea partyers or anybody likes it or not.  One of my arguments, not made blatantly, one that I real feel is that hip-hop lead the way, and is leading the way.

Scott Tre: I always look at it as though The Chronic ended MC Hammer’s career.   Well not really ended it, but put the period on the end of the sentence as to what kind of hip-hop would be accepted by mainstream America, Being that Dr. Dre kind of came up with a formula for turning gangsta rap into pop music.   

Dan Charnas: He sure did didn’t he? 

Dr Dre's classic album The Chronic

Scott Tre: What would you say is the bridge between the Please Hammer Don’t Hurt Em era and The Chronic era?  What facilitated that change in the tastes of the mainstream audience?

Dan Charnas: Well I guess what I’m saying is I don’t think that the taste changed.  I think the taste had been cultivated over many years.  These kids had grown up with Run D.M.C to a certain extent and L.L. and the Beastie Boys on the other hand.  Just the fact that Hammer and Vanilla Ice came along with two huge outside pop hits, it didn’t change the fact that that audience was also willing to hear “Bonita Applebum,” was also willing to hear “The Humpty Dance,” was also willing to hear “Just a Friend,” You know?

Scott Tre: And also 2 Live Crew and so on and so forth.

Dan Charnas: Right.  I think what Dr. Dre was able to do, he wouldn’t have been able to do even one year earlier and that’s because at the very moment that Dr. Dre released The Chronic, Power 106 in Los Angeles was changing formats from a Latin leaning, Latin freestyle dance station, to a unprecedented format that literally accepted hip-hop and branded itself as a hip-hop station.  It had never before been done in the history of American radio, not even at KDAY.  KDAY didn’t have Hip-Hop anywhere in its slogan.  But LA power 106 invented the slogan “where hip-hop lives.”  As the Baker Boys where starting their show in Los Angeles, it was those first singles from The Chronic that were hitting the airwaves.  So it was this sort of really divine timing between those two things.  And one year later, when the format of Power 106 migrated to its sister station in New York, Hot 97, what new record company was waiting in the wings in New York?

Scott Tre: Bad Boy

Dan Charnas: That’s right.  So, it’s not a mystery.  That’s why the business part of hip-hop history is so important.  Because if you don’t understand that, then you’re gonna think “oh well, it’s just corporate America, you know, they push these images of gangsta rap and ostentation.” No, that’s not what happened.  What happened was a sort of coincidence of radio finally opening its doors to hip-hop too late for the great political arc that peaked in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.  Public Enemy had already made its best album by that time.  A Tribe called Quest and De La Soul had made their best work by the early 1990’s.  G-Funk, and Puffy’s sort of glitzy gangsta stuff, was ascending.              


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