The PFG Book Club: The Big Payback by Dan Charnas

Cash Rules Everything Around Me

Friends, I love hip-hop. This is not new to you. You know I’ve read a number of books on the subject, since I’m always writing about them and making lists of recommendations.  You might think [as did I] that there wasn’t a lot left for me to learn about the widescreen narrative of the culture’s genesis and rise to prominence.

We would be wrong.

Dan Charnas’s The Big Payback will likely be the best book I read this year.  Had I squeezed it into mu holiday reading, it would have taken 2010 hands down.  It’s easily one of the best books about hip-hop ever written, a product not only of things Charnas witnessed as an A&R man for Rick Rubin’s Def American label but of dogged research and tireless interviewing.  Initially, the book’s subtitle gave me pause.  It’s a hefty book [600+ pages] and I didn’t know if I didn’t know if I could get it up for that many stories about licensing agreements and royalty points.

But Charnas has been a journalist for a long time, and from reading the book, you suspect he’s done his fair share of DJ’ing, too: he knows how to move the crowd, seamlessly blending stories of the radio programmers, party promoters, label heads, managers, journalists and ad men who took their love of the music and the culture and made it into arguably the most dominant and lucrative form of pop culture of the last 40 years.  He weaves in and out of their stories seamlessly, moving across geography and industries with a deft hand:  Def Jam founder Rick Rubin’s move to LA gives Charnas the opportunity to shift his focus from New York to the moves being made on the West Coast.  Some stories don’t engage as well as others: the rise of Wu-Wear, while important as an early instance of artists controlling their own branding,got skimmed by me, and the early career of Rap Coalition founder Wendy Day was a snoozer.  But the stories about Def Jam, the rise of rap radio, or the founding of indie  labels are essential reading for anyone who considers themselves students of the culture. I mean, I’m a kid who actually had brand loyalty to some of these indies:  Tommy Boy was my shit growing up because they had De La Soul, Digital Underground and Naughty by Nature.  Learning the history behind the label I swore such fealty to in my youth was a joy.

I’m just now moving into the final segment of the book, which brings the story into the present, and promises to cover everything from 50 Cent’s deal to buy into Vitamin Water [seeking ownership instead of a fast payday] to affluent brands like Cristal’s growing unease at being appropriated by Black culture’s flossy aspirations to the rise of Jay-Z, the man who once told the world he wasn’t a businessman, he was a business, man.

The music business is a shady one though, and to Charnas’s credit he never gets into the muckraking business.  Working under the simple precept, ‘Everyone Gets to Be Human,’ Charnas goes to great lengths to make sure no one featured in the book is portrayed as gleefully greedy, culture appropriating profiteers, an easy trap to fall into given how often in the culture’s history the work of Black artists has been championed by White entrepreneurs [Ted Demme got Yo! MTV Raps on the air; Jon Shecter and Dave Mays started The Source magazine, all of them white]. If things get heated, a footnote can usually be found offering the second side of the story.

Coming from Thomson’s $12-Million Stuffed Shark, Charnas’s easy prose and expansive yet tightly packed narrative was a welcome reminder of what happens when a compelling topic gets into the hands of a skilled writer.  I should not have cared about Sprite’s increased market share in the mid 1990s, but I devoured those pages, happily remembering the ads that resulted from the campaign.  The book is clearly the product of a labor of love for Charnas, and that affection comes through on every page.  Just an awesome and fascinating book that I can’t recommend highly enough for lovers of hip-hop and you Michael Lewis types who love to read about how art marries commerce.

Below, Charnas tells you why he wrote the book.


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