The Sound of Young America: Dan Charnas, Author of The Big Payback

Episode 21

25th March 2011

Dan Charnas is the author of The Big Payback, a new book that traces back the history of hip hop by looking at the business side of how records actually get made.

Episode notes

Dan Charnas is a veteran of the hip hop business and one of a few early writers of hip hop journalism. His newest book is The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip Hop.

JESSE THORN: It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest on the program is Dan Charnas. He’s held basically every position there is to hold, outside of artist, in the world of hip hop; and has made the transition from a record company guy to writer. His new gargantuan book is, I think, one of the better books about hip hop I’ve ever read. It’s called the Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip Hop. Dan Charnas, thanks for being on The Sound of Young America.

DAN CHARNAS: Thanks for having me.

JESSE THORN: The obvious question is: there are all these books of hip hop history, such as Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop and Brian Coleman’s Check the Technique and a million others; why did you think it was important to write a book that was specifically about the business side of hip hop?

DAN CHARNAS: That’s a really good question. I want to note that Jeff Chang’s book Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop was really one of the big inspirations for writing this book, because what Jeff did was – – he really wrote the first linear history of the culture and more specifically of the generation. None of the great books of hip hop really talked about how the records were made; not in terms of how they were made in the studio, but how the artists got signed, how they got developed, how they got pushed out into the world. But then the larger question of how did this obscure street culture that nobody knew about from the streets of New York become, within 30 years, the world’s predominant pop culture and a multi-billion dollar business. You can’t tell that story, which is a great American story, without talking about the business people.

Click here for a full transcript of this interview.

JESSE THORN: How do you think the relationship between hip hop as a form of culture and certainly as a form of music and its business side is different from the relationship between rock and roll and its business side or soul music and its business side or gospel music and its business side or electronic dance music and its business side?

DAN CHARNAS: I think that’s because hip hop, more than any of those other genres, really began shut out of some of the major institutions that really helped birth those other forms and genres of music. Hip hop was shut out of the clubs – – really the kids who created hip hop were shut out of the night clubs in New York City, so they had to go to the parks and create their own little parties. When this stuff started to jump on to record the major labels wanted nothing to do with it, so it fell to the independents to work with this music. Over and over again you get the phenomenon of being shut out and as a result of being shut out you have to create your own institutions.

That isn’t to say that hip hop doesn’t have some of the same tensions between art and commerce that a lot of these other genres have, but I think rock in particular has this very anti-commercial streak. It’s not cool to sell it. I think hip hop almost unabashedly sells itself. They talk about the four elements of hip hop: DJing, MCing, break-dancing, and graffiti, and sometimes they talk about a fifth element which would be style or fashion; I think that there’s a sixth element, that of marketing.

JESSE THORN: Let’s talk a little bit about this history from a linear historical perspective. What was the birth of hip hop as a business?

DAN CHARNAS: The first real guy to look at this stuff and try to make a buck on it, who wasn’t a part of it, was a guy named Sal Abbatiello who founded a club called The Disco Fever in the South Bronx. The Disco Fever really provided the first regular venue for DJs like Flash to come in off the streets and have a home, a residence. The jump to records really happened in 1979; although Rapper’s Delight wasn’t the first record, it really was the record that started the hip hop business in the sense that it was so successful, so huge. The record, Rapper’s Delight, even outperformed the song that it recreated, which was Good Times by Chic.

JESSE THORN: Which was no small hit in and of itself.

Let’s talk a little bit about Rapper’s Delight, the record that brought rapping to the masses. Frankly, I wasn’t even born when this record came out, but I remember my mom telling me the story of her best friend in DC calling her on the phone and saying, “I was out at a club, and I heard this song, and you’re not going to believe it.” This was a song that was not even recorded by what one might call actual rappers.

DAN CHARNAS: That’s right, that’s right. It was a pre-fab group, the pre-fab three, put together by Sylvia Robinson. Sylvia’s story is really interesting. She had a big hit in the 1950s as part of this act Mickey and Sylvia. The song’s called Love is Strange. Again, she had a disco hit, or sort of a pre-disco hit, with Pillow Talk in 1973; but by 1979 she’s basically gone on the skids. She’s at this religious revival in New Jersey and she prays for a miracle and that night in Harlem she sees her first rapper at the club Harlem World, and she decides she’s going to make a record with one of these rapping guys.

The problem is, she can’t really find anybody, so her little son, Joey or Joe Jr. goes and finds a couple of his friends to audition and it turns in to this big mass audition in her car outside of a pizza parlor in Englewood, New Jersey. They all go back to Sylvia’s house and the audition continues and she decides on these three guys and she points at them and says, you are now The Sugarhill Gang. You three are married, and then she goes off to take a nap.

JESSE THORN: It’s sort of like she just says, hey, can you bring me some teenagers?

DAN CHARNAS: Right, exactly. I want to give The Sugarhill Gang a little bit of its due here; yes, they were not MCs from the scene across the river in the Bronx, but what Big Bank Hank and Wonder Mike and Master Gee were able to do vocally, performance wise, was pretty darn good, and if it hadn’t been good I don’t think Rapper’s Delight would have done as well as it did, and a lot of it is owed to the production genius of Sylvia, who recreated Good Times almost perfectly in the studio and was able to create a song that didn’t have a chorus but had a lot of dynamics in it. Of course the genius of her husband Joe Robinson who promoted the hell out of this record until it got on to the pop charts in 1979. The first rap record actually makes it on to the pop charts and sells millions and millions of records; some people even believe it is the best-selling 12 inch single of all time, except we will never know because Joe Robinson never let the RIAA, Recording Industry Association of America, take a look at his books.

JESSE THORN: It really is a 12-inch single, too. This thing is due in part, as you write in the book, to Sylvia Robinson’s mission from God. It’s like a 15 minute long song.

DAN CHARNAS: She says this is the way the Lord gave the song to me; I’m not changing a thing.

JESSE THORN: It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest, Dan Charnas, is the author of a new history of the business of hip hop; it’s called, The Big Payback.

Let’s talk about the so called “new school,” the rappers and musicians who came after that very first generation of performers. What was the difference from a business standpoint, and apart from an aesthetic standpoint, between Run DMC and Melle Mel and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five or The Sugarhill Gang.

DAN CHARNAS: That’s another great question. Aesthetically it’s very simple. Melle Mel and the Treacherous Three and those first generation of records from say, ‘79 to ‘82 or ‘83, they were really rapping over disco records, rapping over disco instrumentals. They weren’t even rapping over what was originally considered to be the canon of breaks, which were these really gritty funk and soul records that people like Herc and Flash would play in the streets.

JESSE THORN: The sort of impeach the president type songs.

DAN CHARNAS: Exactly, yes. They didn’t rap over that stuff. It sounded like rap over disco. What Run-DMC represented was a return to the beat.

Run-DMC basically stripped all the music away and took it down to a beat, and that was their first single It’s Like That and Sucker MCs. They were the sonic brainchild of Russell Simmons, who basically didn’t want – – he knew that rap music didn’t sound like that in the streets, and he wanted to make records that sounded a little more authentic. Business-wise, Russell really packaged Run-DMC. Run-DMC was a visual package, it was a sonic package, they sounded like themselves, they had a unique name that actually Run and DMC hated when Russell suggested it because it didn’t sound like the Funky Fours and the Furious Fours and all that, it was just Run-DMC; it didn’t even make any sense. But it did once people started hearing the music and seeing them on videos. That really brought in that next era of hip hop, what we might call the beat box era.

JESSE THORN: This was all going down at a time that was not very long after the anti-disco movement, which was a movement that was in part fueled by aesthetics but also in part fueled by racism and homophobia. The idea that rap might be more than what disco was, which is to say a sort of three or four year phenomenon, was not certain. What was the relationship in this very beginning of the new school, in this time of the beginnings of Run-DMC and the first successes of Kurtis Blow with the national business world; the big record labels, the big radio stations and so forth?

DAN CHARNAS: It was exactly as you portray it; it was viewed as sort of a bastard child of disco. Really nobody in major labels or in pop radio stations or black radio stations, for that matter, really knew what to do with this stuff, so they just didn’t do much. Kurtis Blow was signed – – becomes the first rapper signed to a major label in late 1979 just because he writes a Christmas song and it does well. He gets to stay on Mercury until the mid-80s. Between Kurtis Blow signing and the deal that Def Jam does for itself in 1985, there really is nothing on the major labels as far as rap is concerned.

JESSE THORN: You already talked a little bit about Russell Simmons, but tell me a little bit about what was so unique about Russell Simmons’ vision that led him to, essentially, help change the course of world culture.

DAN CHARNAS: We discussed a part of it in terms of his willingness to see rappers as artists with a certain amount of dignity, and artists with images and artists with fan bases, and I don’t know if Sylvia and Joe Robinson had that vision for their artists. But the big part of Russell’s step up was when he basically becomes partners in a record company.

He is approached by a young college student at NYU named Rick Rubin who produced a record that Russell absolutely loved called It’s Yours; because, again, it was one of these beat driven, no music kind of hip hop records. Rick comes to him and says, I want to start this record company and take it to the next level, you know how to promote this stuff; I’ll do all the work, you just be my partner. And that’s how Rick, this college student, gets Russell Simmons, one of, if not the, best promoters in rap to become his business partner. Their first record together is a record called I Need a Beat by LL Cool J who we all know, and that begins the life of Def Jam as the transcendent hip hop brand. And as Sugarhill begins to fall, Def Jam begins to rise and that’s when they get their big major label distribution contract with Columbia/CBS.

JESSE THORN: It’s The Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest, Dan Charnas, is the author of a new history of the business of hip hop; it’s called The Big Payback.

Let’s talk a little bit about the ways that the hip hop business changed in that key turning point period that for hip hop music fans is often known as the golden age of hip hop; the years between the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s.

As Def Jam and New York hip hop are flourishing in New York City and starting to make real impact across the country, there are these other places where other hip hop things are going down. As a person of my age and being a native of San Francisco, the story of the Bay Area is particularly important to me. How was the Bay Area hip hop scene in 1988 or 1990 different than what was going on anywhere else in terms of business?

DAN CHARNAS: In the Bay Area, specifically, there arose this incredible network of college radio shows, just because of the geographic concentration of so many different little cities and metropolitan areas in the Bay Area; San Francisco and Oakland and San Jose, there were all these shows available. I think at one point there was something like 100 hours of hip hop programming per week in the Bay Area on college radio alone. And there were these personalities that emerged in the Bay Area, too, that became the founding fathers of the Bay Area rap business, Davey E, David Cook who was a transplant from the Bronx, and his friend who also went to high school with him in the Bronx Kevy Kev, who does the long standing rap show on Stanford’s radio station KZSU.

All of these guys have created this atmosphere in the Bay Area where rap artists can come in to the bay and get their records played on all these different stations, kids are hearing it, so it makes it possible for a pop station like KMEL to play rap in the daytime and it be not too much of a thing; everybody’s kind of used to it. It just becomes a really fertile area and KMEL becomes the very first pop station in the country to have a dedicated rap show on its programming schedule, and that’s the Wake Up show which debuts in 1990.

JESSE THORN: Sway and Tech, who were the hosts of The Wake Up Show, were guests a few years ago on The Sound of Young America; really interesting, amazing guys. I remember that time in Bay Area radio, although I have to admit I was probably a bigger Tony! Toni! Toné! fan than I was an E-40 fan. There was this thing going on where – – first Too Short and then E-40 and then from that Master P were creating essentially completely independent empires that were almost purely regional, but they were making so much money off of regional records, which is something that still goes on in the Bay Area, that they didn’t even need to make a national impact.

The example of Digital Underground and Hammer who had had these monster hits, was there, but on the other hand when E-40 could sell 40 thousand records in Vallejo, a city of 50,000, they didn’t really need it. How did having these people entering the national business in such a strong position of power, people like E-40 and then Master P who founded No Limit Records, change the relationship between these musicians and the people who ran national record companies?

DAN CHARNAS: It upended it, it really did. Those artist/entrepreneurs that you speak of, E-40 and Master P, and then Cash Money out of New Orleans, really upended the relationship between artists and labels, and between black artists and their art. For the first time black artists in America began demanding that they keep most of the equity for what they produced, which is just unprecedented and amazing; and I can’t forget also that New York had its own local version of this in the Wu-Tang Clan, although it plays out a little differently in that the Wu-Tang Clan doesn’t create its own independent record empire like Master P does — but what they do is say, we have so many members that we’re going to sign each of our members to a different major label, and as a result, every major label will be promoting us and serving us. So the early 1990s saw this real radical change in the relationship between big business and hip hop and that hip hop starts to really become big business.

JESSE THORN: There’s a lot of tension in the early to mid-1990s between big business and, I guess what you could loosely call street business. A lot of the capital in these small operations – – these small record operations, are coming from less than legal sources, as is often the case. You write about the role of numbers running in the 60s and 70s in the very beginning of the book. Tell me a little bit about that relationship between these people who had made their stake in drugs and these people who were record executive type dudes.

DAN CHARNAS: I tend to look at it as both a hip hop fan and a writer and a thinker of this type of stuff, I look at it less from a legal perspective and more of a, “What is the economy in this neighborhood, what is the economy of this community?” And how can these people make a living for themselves in this completely de-industrialized, underdeveloped, abandoned place. And the answer is people hustled; people did whatever they could. The fact that people went from drug dealing to hip hop as opposed to the other way around I think speaks to the ethics and the deep love and the deep artistry and the deep soul of all of these people who made that journey.

I think Jay Z is a good example of that. Jay-Z was making tons of money on the street in the late 1980s. I think he has a line in his album, “Still spending money from 88.” He may very well be, but he wanted to give that up for a career that could very well have turned out to be much less lucrative, and he did it because he was called to do it, it was his vocation. I think that hip hop provided, in many ways, a whole other economy for a group of folks who lived in places that had been almost purposefully underdeveloped by public policy, by neglect, by white supremacy. So yeah, there is a lot of back and forth between the hustle, whether it be the numbers game or the drug game or whatever, and the record business. I think in many ways it shows that given control of its finest product, a community will flock to that; will create businesses around that. That’s another one of the great achievements of hip hop and a great American story that I think needed to be told.

JESSE THORN: It’s interesting to me, and I wonder what you think of this, that as the hip hop business and as all these entrepreneurs fought to extricate themselves from the street and from those kind of high risk/high reward illegal businesses, that at that same time the rhetoric of hip hop was shifting dramatically toward the street; and that has been, in some ways, the dominant rhetorical mode of hip hop for something between 15 and 20 years. Why and how do you think that happened?

DAN CHARNAS: I think you’re right, nobody got away clean. When you’re coming from that community it’s really hard to get away clean – – to get away quick, to get away clean, to leave it behind. Jay-Z talked about it recently when he was promoting his book Decoded. Just because I got a record deal doesn’t mean that I’m not going back to the place that I live, doesn’t mean that I don’t have the same friends around me and friends that are still very much in that mode, and it takes a while when you’ve grown up in trauma, and for many folks the hustle is trauma; it takes a while to get out of that mode.

I also think it’s important to note that violent braggadocio does not have its roots in gangster rap; it is very much part of the African-American oral tradition. Roger Abrams, a sociologist, wrote a book in 1963 I think, called Deep Down in the Jungle, where he went out to the street corners of Philadelphia and basically recorded the impromptu rhymes and routines of African-American men who stood around on street corners. If you read those rhymes, they end up in so much hip hop.

From Schoolie D, a Philadelphia rapper in the 1980s, to the Beastie Boys, to NWA, to Ice-T, that all of this stuff has deep roots in street corner culture where what’s really important is talking “S”, that’s what you’re doing. It’s almost a synonym for rap. Rapping is to talk “S”. And one of the wonderful things about the golden age of hip hop is that it was this sort of self-regulating system that came up among these artists; most of them who were in New York, but a lot of non-New York artists who were welcome into this hip hop nation as well. This was around the time that artists got together to do songs like Self Destruction, the Stop the Violence movement, we’re all in the same gang. There were certain things that artists did back then that were kind of frowned upon. If you strayed out, if you said something wrong about black women, if you went off the ranch a little too much, you kind of got smacked back. Hip hop, as it became successful, lost that self-regulating mechanism for a number of reasons.

JESSE THORN: It’s the Sound of Young America, I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest Dan Charnas is the author of the new history of the business of hip hop, it’s called The Big Payback.

I want to steer the conversation back towards aesthetics for a second. The other great conflict in hip hop as it developed from exciting musical genre to global super force was an aesthetic one, and while I’m not old enough to remember a lot of the stuff in the first ten years of hip hop’s history, I do remember this one. That is, hip hop had developed an aesthetic that in some ways anathema to what was on the radio; it was created as an oppositional force. In the early 1990s – – between the early 1990s and the mid-1990s, the aesthetics of hip hop changed pretty significantly, especially the hip hop that was on the radio, in terms of essentially embracing pop music and especially R&B, although the history of the last 20 years of pop music is essentially an R&Bification. Tell me a little bit about how the business side of things like rappers having singing on their songs developed as the landscape changed.

DAN CHARNAS: It’s funny, because when I think of – – it’s true. To me, when I listen to a lot of so called hip hop now, it sounds like pop music to me in terms of the actual aesthetics; the chord changes, very simple construction, very simple chords and harmony, very simple melody. It wasn’t like that in the mid-90s to me, it was very complex and jazzy and you had, even though I think a lot of hip hop producers didn’t think in these terms, you had tensions all over the places, 11ths and 13ths and stuff like that. When you listen to the music of Tribe Called Quest and Dilla, you would hear music like that. How did we get form this very complex art form to this very simple and perhaps musically dumbed down art form?

JESSE THORN: If I could interject, I think you can say that about Jay Dilla or Tribe Called Quest, certainly in the early/mid-1990s, but parallel to that, most of the huge hits of – – I don’t think anyone disagrees that Notorious B.I.G is a great rapper – – are very reliant on pop melodies.

DAN CHARNAS: I see your point, and I think that that had a lot to do with the production ethos of Sean Combs. What Puff did in the studio was to take things that were already hits and have people rap over them in the tradition, in many ways, of DJ Hollywood, and the rapping DJs of the disco and Harlem in the 70s.

JESSE THORN: Some of the same records, too.

DAN CHARNAS: Yes, some of the same records, exactly. So I think that, yes, Puff had a lot to do with that. Of course there was a counter movement to him and that would have been the Wu-Tang Clan, which was very dirty, rough, rugged, and raw. But ultimately I think it’s Puff’s ethos that wins, and I think that Jay-Z helps carry it to another level, and maybe a symbolic turning point of that aesthetic movement of which you speak would be Hard Knock Life by Jay-Z, where you’re actually taking not only a pop song, but a Broadway show tune that children all over the country and the world know. I grew up with my little sister singing that song in the car, and it was part of the hottest hip hop tune of the late 1990s.

JESSE THORN: Let’s actually hear that song, I think a lot of people dismissed it as the stupidest pop song ever when it came out, but I think it’s a really great song. Let’s hear Jay-Z and Hard Knock Life produced by the 45 King, if I remember correctly.

In this period of inflection, the mid-1990s, one of the biggest things that made hip hop’s cultural impact be more than just as a form of music, was its openness to essentially branding and business partnerships. The first huge national brand that essentially staked its business on hip hop was the soda pop, Sprite. Let’s hear a little bit of one of Sprite’s early commercials in their Obey Your Thirst campaign.

So this is, essentially, a B-minus 7-Up, a soda that didn’t have much of an identity, and they made what was then a very revolutionary choice to say, “We’re going to be the soda of hip hop.” Again, at the time, a very revolutionary choice, they said, we’re going to do it by being as credible as we possibly can. In other words, we’re not going to hire – – maybe Pepsi hired Michael Jackson and MC Hammer, but we’re not going to hire them, we’re going to hire Grand Poobah, and we’re going to let him talk about odd nations of gods and earth five percenter stuff in our national television commercials. How did that change the business of hip hop?

DAN CHARNAS: First thing I would say is that Sprite wasn’t sold on that idea, they had to be sold on it by a young black marketing executive named Darryl Cobbin, who mastered the internal computer system that crunched all the data in Coca-Cola, so he was able to prove that if you put a little money against this, that Sprite could not only win with its core demo, which were mothers and kids, like soccer moms basically and little kids, but also in the African American and Latino markets. Armed with this data and armed with some cultural knowledge, he commissioned some commercials from an ad agency in Chicago called Burrell, which specialized in the African American market. Even Burrell had to be sold on it, because there was only one guy in Burrell who understood hip hop culture.

There’s this great moment in The Big Payback where Darryl Cobbin calls Burrell and tells somebody, “I need you to get Primo to do the beats for this commercial.” The person at Burrell says, “Primo?” And Darryll Cobbin says, “DJ Premier, Primo, get me Primo.” So he hangs up the phone and about five minutes later somebody from Burrell calls him and says, who are you? Just this disembodied voice. He introduces himself and goes, “No no no, did you just call here asking from Primo? Who are you?” And that’s the voice of Reginald Jolley, who works at Burrell, who finds his analogue at the Coca-Cola company. Two guys in these very stiff corporate environments who love and understand hip hop, and it’s these two guys, Batman and Robin, who create this campaign called Obey Your Thirst, which within two years doubles Sprite’s market share, and makes it the fastest growing soft drink in America, and eventually, in power of Sprite, they take away the NBA sponsorship from Coca-Cola.

Lemon lime soft drinks weren’t supposed to succeed against colas. It just didn’t happen. But then again, hip hop wasn’t supposed to succeed against pop, but that’s exactly what Sprite did – – and that sprite campaign is sort of a metaphor for what hip hop did.

Darryll Cobbin likes to say that what the Obey Your Thirst campaign did for corporate America was that it proved to corporate America that, it’s okay Proctor and Gamble, it’s okay IBM, Sprite took a chance on hip hop and it’s beating everybody. It’s at that point that Sprite sets the archetype for dealing with hip hop straight on. Dealing with black culture and by extension black people straight on, rather than trying to water it down, make it slap happy, and that was sort of a feature of some “minority geared advertising” for many years. Hip hop helps to change the tone of that.

JESSE THORN: I think you could find a lot of Grand Poobah fans that are wary of those kinds of partnerships. Even now, even 15 or so years later. Do you think that that can fairly be described for hip hop culture as a success story?

DAN CHARNAS: I’m sure that there’s some folks who would not think that that’s a success story. They’re the same folks who in rock and roll said that when endorsements started coming in it ruined rock and roll. And yeah, whenever anything becomes mainstreamed and moneyed it becomes debased. There’s no question that the intersection of art and commerce, commerce always sort of sullies the art, but I think it also goes the other way, too. I think that hip hop began to color the rest of our culture in some really great ways. You have to have one to have the other and there’s no stopping it. If something is powerful and if something is profitable, people are going to find a way to make money doing it. I was as happy as a person in the business and as a fan that for the first time in American culture the artists and entrepreneurs of the culture found a way to take part in that process rather than be shut out of it and simply exploited and sent away.

JESSE THORN: Thank you so much Dan, it was really a pleasure to have you on the show.

DAN CHARNAS: Oh man, it’s awesome. This is one of the most fun interviews I’ve done.

JESSE THORN: Dan Charnas is the author of a new history of the business of hip hop. It’s called The Big Payback.

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