Dan Charnas's story is bigger than the music
CREEPS TO GEEKS Charnas delivers detailed goods that could surprise even the most learned rap aficionado.
Dan Charnas is aware that some disgruntled rap purists may eschew his epic tome on planet hip-hop's animated cast of titanic dick swingers. The author says so right there in the intro: "My approach may not appeal to hip-hop fans who believe that the culture existed in some pristine state before it was sold, nor to those who believe that corporate executives assembled in a room and decided to promote violent, misogynistic hip-hop for profit and the degradation of Black people." His point is understandable - the rise of rap in the mainstream is a black-and-white tale only in terms of its characters. But in many ways, The Big Payback validates the spite that righteous heads have for contemporary bastard-issue boom-bap, and it confirms the notion that nefarious interests have always threatened authenticity and stained the commercial face of hip-hop.
It turns out that the story behind the rap business, though at times confusing, isn't very complicated. The dozens of leading and peripheral personalities portrayed by Charnas can be divided into three basic categories: salesmen who believed in hip-hop as an art form, sharks who dabbled just to stack chips, and dopes who rejected rap altogether and in turn faded out. But though Charnas is an industry veteran of Profile Records, Def American, and the Source magazine, he presents them all objectively, from the creeps to the geeks. The Big Payback isn't just the most comprehensive journalistic account of hip-hop ever written — it's a mature, Pulitzer-worthy work, an integral account of essential urban history on a par with Robert A. Caro's The Power Broker.
And though casual rap fans may find lessons and amusement in these pages, for hardcore hip-hop enthusiasts this is a feast, as well as an elaborate complement to such established staples as Nelson George's Hip-Hop America. In sections that both parse and transcend distinguishable categories (New York and Los Angeles, record labels and radio stations, and so on), Charnas delivers detailed goods that could surprise even the most learned rap aficionado. His account of slimy Sylvia and Joe Robinson's Sugar Hill Records is riveting; the rifts among the Def Jam founders have rarely been so explicitly aired; some monumental contributions from promoters and disc jockeys are reported for the first time. And there are some delicious trivial minutiae. Who the hell knew that Jon Schecter, who helped build the Source from a Harvard dorm room, was in a rap group called the White Boys with a friend who inherited the same NYU dorm room where Ric Rubin first recorded L.L. Cool J?
Overall, the author creates compelling master narratives that intertwine those in his sights - record breakers and decision makers from Wu-Tang and Bad Boy to Death Row and Cash Money. Without a hint of academic noise or overreaching, Charney offers stories that are universes bigger than the music itself and that respect the architects without pandering. Most admirably, there's much more showing than there is telling. The number of renowned individuals from outside rap's immediate realm who make cameos - from Al Sharpton and Vincent Gallo to Barack Obama - attests to how severely this genre vandalized the American tapestry from early on. By his own admission, the author himself was not enough of a power broker to appear in his own book. But when it comes time to write a history of hip-hop scribes who ignore mythology in order to reveal inconvenient truths, Dan Charnas will be the first name mentioned.
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