Published Feb 20, 2011At roughly 650 pages, you could say that Dan Charnas' The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop is a book that authoritatively weighs a ton. Charnas, who worked under the auspices of Rick Rubin at the Def American label for several years and as an early hip-hop journalist is ideally placed to trace hip-hop's economic strategies roots from number runners in Harlem to the cross-platform mogul model that exists today. While the interviews Charnas scores with people like Russell Simmons and Damon Dash lead to some jaw-dropping and revelatory anecdotes that make the book consistently entertaining, Charnas also takes care to reveal the many "unlikely shepherds" behind the scenes who played instrumental roles.
"These were the guys who cut their teeth on the dance music scene and they quickly seized on hip-hop in a very changing musical atmosphere and were the ones who gave the world ― aside from Def Jam ― the rest of the golden age," he says. Indeed, the book, which provides sometimes unflattering yet in-depth and balanced reportage on hip-hop movements from Sugar Hill to Roc-A-Fella, shows the influence extends past the music business itself. Showing how countless people from various cultural and class backgrounds played integral roles in fashioning hip-hop radio, media outlets, businesses and ultimately the music, it illuminates a highly influential cultural art form and economic product we often take for granted. "Over and over again we see folks taking a chance and fighting for this art and the people who really fought for it were the people who were behind the scenes," says Charnas. "I didn't see any of that story out there and frankly I think you can't understand anything about hip-hop unless you understand that."