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).

The Big Payback isn't a comprehensive "art worlds" study; Charnas focuses on a specific (but important) set of "cooperative links" in hip-hop, especially labels, radio stations, magazines, and the personnel/execs at each of these. His attention to detail is insanely meticulous when tracing those particular histories (I especially loved his discussion of hip-hop radio in New York and California) and does, in my mind, an incredible job of explaining how these different players all did their part to help hip-hop grow a local, regional style to become America's most important youth cultural force of the last quarter century.

One has to remember: no cultural trend is guaranteed to succeed. You can point to how Washington D.C.'s go-go scene had similar roots to hip-hop in the South Bronx and Harlem; it was another local, funk-influenced Black music/club scene that bubbled up by the late 1970s. However, despite a few hits by Chuck Brown, Trouble Funk, E.U. etc., go-go never really caught on past the D.C. metro area. Under other circumstances, perhaps hip-hop would have met the same fate: vibrant and exciting, but ultimately, local. However, what Charnas shows is that hip-hop was able to grow not just because of individual luck/talent—for example, Sylvia Robinson's doggedness in putting rap on record, via "Rapper's Delight"—but because there were many other forces conspiring to help rap find bigger audiences—and markets: intensely competitive radio DJs at rival stations, major label execs eager to cash in on what they thought was a hot fad, hip downtown scenesters such as Blondie's Deborah Harry, and European television channels (who were way ahead of the curve of MTV's clueless—and arguably racist—programmers/execs).

Throughout Charnas's near 700 pages, he shapes intersecting narratives that flesh out these previously understudied aspects to hip-hop's history. It all still comes back to the artists and records, naturally, but those people and their music didn't circulate in a vacuum. They had to be plugged into a complex infrastructure of production, promotion, distribution, and consumption and you might be surprised at how exciting and engrossing it is to read about those stories. They are an integral part of that larger mythology, you love to hear again and again, about how it all got started, way back when.

In that regard, I don't want to undersell this point too: the book is a deliriously fun read. Charnas is an exceptional writer, knows how to build and weave narratives, and turns his attention to stories that you may not think would be that interesting (like the background behind Sprite's "Obey Your Thirst" campaign) but turn out to be surprisingly affecting.

This isn't the hip-hop-book-to-end-all-hip-hop-books. Rather, it points out how much rich history has yet to be delved into and written about. That it may inspire such future authors is as powerful a reason for the book's greatness as any other.[4]


Notes:

[1] I do think it'd be worth discussing, maybe in the comments, Charnas' meta-thesis that hip-hop changed American race relations for the better.

[2] The ultimate realization of this artist-centric p.o.v. As I described it when it first came out, it's the ultimate love letter to hip-hop; 10+ years later and I still think that's the case.

[3] Act like you knew, suckers.

[4] I, for one, am waiting for someone to write a definitive book on the history of hip-hop production—including a discussion of the key equipment and studios, in addition to beat-makers themselves. I know this has been talked about for years, including by some major league music journalists, but so far, nothing's come to fruition. Make it happen, people!

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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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