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. 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.
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?