Dan Charnas, The Big Payback

A cover story in Time magazine from 1999 argued that hip-hop “is perhaps the only art form that celebrates capitalism openly”. Never has the connection between those two forces—rap music and commerce—been explored as satisfyingly, or in as much detail, as it is in Dan Charnas’s new landmark account.

The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop is the kind of book that the word exhaustive was invented to describe. Charnas, a veteran hip-hop journalist and industry insider, tracks the genre in minute detail over its 30-year journey from block parties in the Bronx to its current pop-culture chokehold.

His decision to view the whole thing through the unique filter of business is an inspired one. Initially, it was (overwhelmingly white) record and radio executives who tried to control how this music reached mainstream America, but in recent years there’s been a complete reversal of power.

As Charnas notes in his preface, he’s writing about “the relationship between artist and merchant—who, in hip-hop, are often one and the same.”

That’s why he’s as interested in Run-DMC’s partnership with Adidas as he is in their pioneering sound; in the Wu-Tang Clan’s groundbreaking 10-part contract as he is in their intricate, self-made mythology; and in 50 Cent’s canny investment in Vitamin Water as he is in however many times the dude got shot.

It’s a riveting book, and thanks to Charnas’s bite-size, personality-driven sections, one that’s accessible and relatively easy to follow, too. The executives that populate the chapters occasionally blur into one another, since most of them don’t have the same eccentricities as do the rappers (though there are some major exceptions, notably the mercurial Lyor Cohen and Damon Dash).

But that milieu of mergers, contract loopholes, and talent-poaching is actually of a piece with the culture of hip-hop itself, which, in its entrepreneurial spirit, has been deploying the exact same language for years. Jay-Z—one of the rappers who has best bridged this gap between music and finance—has penned songs with titles like “Takeover”. He also wrote the oft-quoted couplet, “I’m not a businessman/I’m a business, man.”

The Big Payback does a superb job illustrating just how accurate that statement really is.

Signet, 672 pp, $31, hardcover

(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, February 10, 2011)

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