Interview: Dan Charnas, The Big Payback

(Photo credit: Rue Sakayama)

Culled from more than 300 interviews and nearly a decade’s worth of research, Dan Charnas’s The Big Payback (Signet, 672 pp, $31) is a riveting, eye-opening, and mind-bogglingly thorough look at the history of the rap industry. Charnas—who has worked in and around the world of hip-hop, in different capacities, for decades—tackles this complex subject with gusto and in widescreen, using bite-sized anecdotes from various radio DJs and record label executives to precisely trace the origins of what he calls a uniquely “American success story.”

In short, it’s a must read for anyone with even a casual interest in hip-hop. (The only thing missing? A 500-song soundtrack or two.) Charnas recently spoke with mevia email and answered a few questions about compiling such a large book, the relationship between the music and business, and their shared future together.

* * * * *

The Big Payback is, as the subtitle says, “the history of the business of hip-hop.” But in order to tell that side of the story, you basically ended up having to tell the story of hip-hop itself. When you first conceived of the project, did you have any sense it would end up as expansive as it did?

Dan Charnas: Not at all. I mean, I wanted the scope to be expansive, but not necessarily the page count. I tend to overreport and overwrite. That’s why my nickname in the writers’ room on MTV’s Lyricist Lounge comedy show was “Shorty Longsketch.”

Rappers seem to have no qualms bragging about how much money they have, though for most people finances are still a fairly private subject. How did you approach the people you interviewed—rappers and executives—about getting these kinds of sensitive details from them?

DC: I just asked. Most whom I did were surprisingly willing to share.

The book has a very interesting, character-driven structure, where each 1- or 2-page mini-section is framed around one specific person. Why did you decide to organize it this way?

DC: Many hip-hop histories end up being surveys based on topics or geography (let’s talk about LA and gangster rap, and then let’s go to Atlanta and get crunk, and then let’s do a chapter about women in hip-hop… and hey, we’ll stick Canada in the “international” rap section!). Conversely, the approach that most appealed to me was a character-driven linear narrative. So instead of going wide, I went deep. It makes ultimately for a better experience for the reader (even though it’s a tad harder on the writer).

You’ve been around hip-hop for decades, as a writer for The Source as well as an employee for Rick Rubin’s Def American label. How much of this story did you already know, and how much were you learning as you went?

DC: Hard to quantify. I could have sketched out the rough outline of the book from what I knew. But it took interviewing folks and re-interviewing the people I knew to get the real gold—stuff I had forgotten, and lots of stuff I never knew.

Business and hip-hop have been linked since the beginning. Are there any events that, to you, encapsulate the nature of that relationship—or maybe different events that sum up how it has changed over time?

DC: Compare the signing of Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde to Profile Records in 1981—where they got $2,000 for their entire publishing catalog—to Jive’s deal with E-40 in the mid-1990s, where pre-existing sales gave him leverage to demand a million dollars for each album. That came because artists like E-40 started seeing that they did have power and the ability to earn money even without the assistance of the record labels.

The Big Payback talks a lot about the importance of rap in grand terms: for American culture, entrepreneurship, race, and class. But why is hip-hop important for you, personally?

DC: It’s the music I grew up listening to. It’s the art form that, in giving myself to it, it gave my own life purpose and meaning. Hip-hop—in setting a paradigm for a new society and a new relationship between people of different ethnicities—is the thing that gives me hope for our country, for our world, for my child’s future. 

What kinds of artists, producers, or labels got you interested in rap in the first place? Who do you think of as the all-time greats?

DC: While Run-DMC and Rick Rubin drew me in on an artistic level, it was KRS-One, Chuck D, and Rakim that really captured me intellectually. From there on, I knew I wanted to be involved. So these folks will always be great to me. While I ended up signing artists more known for their lyrical abilities (like Chino XL and Kwest Tha Madd Lad), I am more of a beats fanatic. So Primo, Neptunes, Timbaland, Kanye, Ski, Dilla… they’re in my hall of fame.

Coming off of this huge retrospective project, how do you characterize the state of hip-hop today, as an art form?

DC: I think that both hip-hop and the music business are in flux. Again, the two go hand in hand more than folks might expect. Subcultures come from humans wanting to sing their circumstances, but they become mass culture when there’s a combination of excitement and new ideas on one hand, and opportunities to distribute and get paid for them on the other. And right now, the music industry has contracted to the point that I believe the level of ideas and level of recompense are down significantly. Making music is not attracting the best and the brightest in our age. What this means for hip-hop has yet to be seen. But I do see an interesting and encouraging trend in artists like Kanye and Nicki Minaj to express themselves as freely and extravagantly as possible. That’s a nice change from the “Keep it real” era.

What about as a business model?

DC: As stated above, the business model is in flux. How can you make money making music when the worth of your sound recordings are almost nil? The artists who succeed are the artists who will be able to secure as broad a collection of income streams as possible.

(interview also appeared in Vue Weekly, February 24, 2011)

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