Effete Liberal Book Club: Dan Charnas' 'The Big Payback'

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NAL Hardcover

by Oliver Wang

Since I first picked it up a few weeks ago, I've been singing the praises of Dan Charnas's incredible history of the hip-hop industry, The Big Payback. Obviously, I'm not the only fan around these parts and if you haven't picked this up yet: you should.

I wrote up an extensive set of thoughts on the book for my own site and don't want to crib too heavily from myself.[1] Instead, I wanted to better explicate one of the things I appreciated most about the book: its approach to discussing the hip-hop history from a perspective that's been relatively lacking.

Say what you will about the quality of hip-hop books over the last 30 years, but even as early as the mid 1980s, rap histories have tried to engage what one might call a "sociological" dynamic by situating hip-hop's roots in a particular space and time where race and class are inherently part of the narrative. By the 1990s, a slew of books built on these ideas, though most explained hip-hop's rise from what you might call an artist-centric p.o.v.[2]

Jeff Chang's 2005 Can't Stop, Won't Stop was a powerful expansion in the trend towards a social engagement with hip-hop by tackling many heretofore unknown and under-discussed stories relevant to the context and conditions in which hip-hop came about, particularly in South Bronx of the mid/late 1970s and South Central L.A. of the early/mid 1980s. However, where Charnas comes in—and why I think his ranks amongst the most important books ever written on hip-hop—is from a different angle and one that, surprisingly, hadn't been as thoroughly tackled before: What were the structural mechanisms and forces by which hip-hop was able to get its start and thrive?

Quick, personal rewind: my graduate training heavily emphasized a cultural studies approach, which tends to lean more towards "textual analysis" (though "texts" here can mean songs, videos, etc., not just literature). That's all well and good and it certainly aligned well with my side career in music criticism. However, when my friend—and outstanding scholar of hip-hop—Joe Schloss[3] first introduced me to Howard Becker's Art Worlds, it totally blew my mind in introducing me to what should have been an intuitively obvious way to approach the sociology of art/culture.

One of Becker's most frequent suggestions to young scholars is to stop worrying about "why?" and instead, focus on "how?" In other words, the question of "why culture is created/finds an audience?" is, in many ways, easier to address once you explain how it was able to do so via specific chains of decisions, personnel, and institutions who make what we call "culture" possible. In Art Worlds, he breaks down the social organization of art by looking at how many people are involved in, say, bringing a painting from inception to a museum wall (or into your Dwell-approved living room).

Sure, if you're the painter, you are obviously rather central here. But in terms of the other necessary players, there's the people who make your brushes, make your paint, build your canvas and frames, and rent you studio space. And even after you've crafted your masterpiece, there's your agent (if you have one), the gallery owners who might be willing to showcase your work, the movers who transport said work safely, the art critics who help you build a rep, the museum procurement staff or end consumer funds your future work by buying your current one, and the auction house who might eventually help sell that painting once you're hot shit. All told, these dozens, if not hundreds of people and institutions—what Becker calls an "established network of cooperative links of participants"—all have a hand to play in that painting even if it's your hand that has to create it.

Like I said, if you think about how this works, it's all completely intuitive: of course art and culture is made possible through the cooperation of many different people throughout society. But for me (and I suspect, many others), it's 1) only intuitive in hindsight (which, I suppose, negates that whole "intuitive" dimension) and 2) it doesn't mean people actually bother to explore and explain that web of links. As a scholar though, this has become a huge part of my approach to studying cultural phenomena (and I might talk about this later this week in regards to my book-in-progress).

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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