Dan Charnas’ epic The Big Payback (New American Library/Penguin) retells the saga of hip-hop’s rise from ghetto defense mechanism to global cultural powerhouse through the eyes of the businessman who sold it, first to America’s kids, then to the corporate world. A former Source writer and the a&r man behind Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” Charnas has walked through the inferno of hip-hop business himself, allowing him Dante-like insight into the minds of some of its most misunderstood figures. Turns out Russell Simmons, Lyor Cohen, and even duplicitous Sugar Hill Records founder Sylvia Robinson are human. More fascinating, though, are the contributions of lesser-known figures: DJ Hollywood, the Harlem club personality who first turned rhyming over beats into an income stream; the White radio programmers, like KMEL’s Keith Naftaly, who broke through years of institutionalized racism to bring rap to the airwaves; and the ad agency guys who helped triple Sprite’s market share with commercials starring Pete Rock & CL Smooth and Grand Puba. On Sunday Charnas, who argues in The Big Payback that hip-hop’s roots are just as firmly in Harlem as the Bronx, will discuss the book at the Studio Museum of Harlem. We caught up with him beforehand to chat about what the world owes hip-hop, and what hip-hop owes Sprite.
Do you think business is more embedded into the DNA of hip-hop than rock ‘n’ roll or jazz?
Rhythm and blues, when they renamed it rock ‘n’ roll, was sort of born mostly as art without any kind of commercial aspiration. Hip-hop was always aspirational. Not to say that there weren’t dueling schools of thought. That’s why, in the book, there’s this dichotomy between the South Bronx and Harlem. The South Bronx is more sort of, “We’re doing this for the culture,” and Harlem is, “We’re doing this so we can go from club to club and get paid.” It’s the difference between [DJ Kool] Herc and DJ Hollywood. You can see that theme of commerce versus art continue when Wu-Tang represented one end of it and Puffy represented the other.
You have a unique vantage point, having worked for two pivotal entities in hip-hop’s development in Rick Rubin and The Source. How much did this help you to tell the story?
I don’t feel my personal accomplishments were enough to turn myself into a character in my own book, but being a fly on the wall or perhaps a bit more helped me understand the story of hip-hop in a way others might not have. I thought that was the gift I could bring, and the understanding that everybody gets to be human. Q-Tip uttered the famous line, “Industry Rule #4080/Record company people are shady.” I feel that was also an inspiration for writing this.
To humanize the greedy, industry people who rappers are always demonizing in lyrics and interviews?
Let’s be real. Without those people — call them shady all you want — nobody would know who you are. Without [Jive Records executives] Ann Carli, Barry Weiss, and Jeff Sledge, without the late Sean Carasov, God rest his soul, and the people that promoted and had to cajole — programmers and record-store owners and TV bookers — there is no story of A Tribe Called Quest or anybody else. I wanted to show how hard people had to fight to do this. Radio was the most segregated institution in America, next to record companies. It took courage for people like Keith Naftaly at KMEL and Rick Cummings at Emmis and Hot 97 to break with that tradition, and when they broke with it, they literally smashed the gates open, and it was a different America after that. I would say the same thing for Ted Demme and Pete Dougherty at MTV.
I have such a distinct memory of Hot 97’s switch from dance music to hip-hop. That was huge for New York at that time. It was fascinating to learn how that actually happened.
In my original vision for the book, I wanted to come back to Hot 97 in 2005 when these big protests were going on about the “Tsunami Song,” to talk about how the hell Rick Cummings went from the first person to open the door to hip-hop on radio to being vilified. That would have been such an interesting story to tell, but I already had a 600-page book, so what was I gonna do? When Obama was elected, that presented itself as the end of this book. It became apparent that that was what hip-hop wrought. People think this book’s about the business of hip-hop. What it’s really about is how hip-hop changed America. It’s sort of an apology for hip-hop. Whenever anybody discusses hip-hop in the media, it turns to violence or materialism, crime. Even people who passionately love this music don’t stand back and say, “Thank you hip-hop, look what you did for America.”
You mentioned you wanted to give everybody a fair shake. Are there any all-out villains in this story? I think the two who come the closest are Sylvia and Joe Robinson. Are they villains?
That’s a question I struggled with. The extent to which people seem to be villains or one-sided in this book is almost directly proportional to my access to them. Sylvia is a recluse, so it’s very hard to get her side of the story. There’s people whose side of the story I got, and when you read it, they’re still crazy. Puff is another one who could have added a little more complexity. Reporting around him, you kind of get the bad shit. But I suppose he wants to tell his own story. That’s OK. The point of this book wasn’t to tell the story of the famous. It was to tell the story of the people who made the famous famous.
Lyor Cohen has the most interesting trajectory in this book, from Run-DMC’s awkward Israeli tour manager to heading Warner Music. He’s this misunderstood, behind-the-scenes guy to begin with, but I think I understand him less now. You said he started out promoting punk parties?
Don’t think he was promoting punk parties because he was close to the punk ethos. He was a guy working for Israel’s national bank in Beverly Hills, and found a way to make some money. Whether it was rock or hip-hop or r&b, I don’t think Lyor particularly cared. I don’t think Lyor represented an aesthetic or a lifestyle.
He’s been directly involved with hip-hop for 30 years, but I get the impression he probably never listened to or enjoyed the music.
Cey Adams, who did the art for Def Jam, once went to Lyor’s house and saw a wall of jazz CDs, and he says, “Lyor, you listen to music? Since when?” I think Lyor deserves a little more credit than folks give him. If not for loving music, then just for being good at what he does by either brute force or incisive intelligence. He’s a smart guy.
You compare Sprite’s “Voltron” commercial — with rappers from different regions like Fat Joe and Mack 10 after Biggie and ‘Pac were killed — to the Stop the Violence Movement’s “Self Destruction” and the West Coast All-Stars “We’re All in the Same Gang” from the late ’80s. Could getting different factions together to sell soda have the same impact as message music?
I have an easy answer: Absolutely not. [The late ’80s] was a very special time in hip-hop. Even though it was a small market, people didn’t feel they were competing against each other — you know, my success is your success. I was trying to say, in the absence of that energy coming from artists, some of the love for hip-hop culture was coming out of an ad agency. From this guy Reginald Jolley, who passionately argued for corporate money to do this bizarre Anime commercial that had symbolic value for all of hip-hop. Sprite can be nothing but proud of the work they did and the people they empowered to do it. I just wanted people to know those folks’ names, too.