It took me about a week but I finally finished all ~700 pages of Dan Charnas’ The Big Payback. Some (extensive) thoughts…

First up, I’m not exaggerating when I say I think this isn’t just the most important book on hip-hop that’s come out in years; it’s one of the most important books on pop music, period. After all, hip-hop has been the most powerful musical force – in the world – of the late 30 years and The Big Payback enriches our understanding of the music and its global impact through the vastness of its scope, its insanely meticulous detail, and the richness of its stories.

Keep in mind: the book doesn’t replace or supplant existing books covering rap’s rise. Rather, it fills in a crucial blank that’s existed; the actual mechanics and wheeling/dealing that made hip-hop’s success and visibility possible. Of course, the talent is key. Hip-hop would be nothing without the artists and music who inspire our interest. But culture doesn’t just sprout magically forth in a vacuum; it requires a complex infrastructure that helps fund, promote, distribute and circulate it. Most of that history hasn’t been well documented, let alone assembled into one comprehensive tome.

And all this in a package that’s as enjoyable as it is dense. If you know anything about hip-hop at all, you’ll be delighted at how Charnas give detail to stories most of us only heard about in whispered rumors or partially sketched in too-short magazine features. Some personal favorites:

1) The history behind KMEL. I knew, when I moved from LA to the Bay, in 1990 that KMEL was something special. LA obviously had KDAY (though, alas, not for much longer) but the commercial radio stations in LA, frankly, sucked when it came to hip-hop. But KMEL was programming shit like Ice Cube’s “Jackin’ For Beats” in the middle of the day which blew my fucking mind. And then the “Wake Up Show” debuted and against all assumptions, it really felt like SF was shifting the center of hip-hop out west. Charnas breaks down just how pioneering, risk-taking and prescient KMEL was in those glory years, before Power 106, The Beat or Hot 97 rose to power.

2) The history behind the early NYC rap shows. I’m drawn to the radio stories, not only because of my own history with college and public radio, but because radio is the most accessible conduit between the corporate world of the music industry and the hip-hop fan. Radio is certainly big business but what it promotes – the music and the DJ personalities behind them – feel far more intimate in ways that no multinational record company can replicate. And while I didn’t grow up listening to Mr. Magic or Red Alert, I really enjoyed reading about their strange, unlikely path into rap lore at a time when radio seemed to more or less hate hip-hop, with many powerful DJs trying to marginalize rap music any way they could. (Chuck D. immortalized that resistance on both “Rebel Without a Pause” and “Bring the Noise“). The competition at these stations was fierce, the key people hated one another, and it was a constant game of oneupmanship where hip-hop records became the aces in the hole that allowed some stations to rise and others to fall.

3) The history behind Sprite’s hip-hop campaign. This may not seem like an intuitively interesting story, especially given that the relationship between hip-hop and corporate marketing has usually made idealistic fans feel uncomfortable but I found myself surprisingly taken by a simple anecdote: a young marketing exec at Coca Cola named Darryl Cobbin had been trying to revive the Sprite brand (then, the forlorn stepchild within the larger Coke family) and got his bosses to green-light a hip-hop-themed campaign (the birth of the “Obey Your Thirst” ads).

For one proposed ad, Cobbin wanted his partnering ad agency, Burrell Communications, to approach Primo for a beat but had to explain that Primo = DJ Premier. Someone from Burrell called him back, almost immediately. I quote from the book here:

“I’m Reginald Jolley. I’m creative at Burrell. Did you just tell someone to ‘Go get Primo?”
“Yes,” Cobbin said.
“Who the fuck are you, man?!”

That may not seem like much but it’s a “game recognize game” moment that any hip-hop fan over the age of 30 can probably identify with – that point of discovery that you and someone else both share a mutual love for hip-hop despite being the only ones in their social or work circles who do. That initial moment, on the phone, when Jolley and Cobbin realized that they had something in common that few of their co-workers shared, would have profound implications down the road, given that their campaign reaped extraordinary benefits for Sprite, boosting Cobbin up the Coke corporate ladder and, in a serendipitous way, leading Jolley, years later, to become the ad man behind 50 Cent’s Vitamin Water campaign.

That’s just three out of dozens I could have chosen. Given the chronological scope of the book, you’ll likely find many stories that will enliven your understanding of hip-hop in whatever era you first came upon it.

I don’t have critiques of the book so much as ruminations on the challenges of trying to pull off a book of this scope and ambition (and let me be very clear in stating that I don’t ever imagine I could have pulled off even a fraction of what Charnas accomplishes here).

1) A rumination on content. The most obvious challenge is simply choosing what stories to tell. Even if the book is bigger than a phone book, it still has to make choices about what to focus on and what to exclude. Charnas’ approach seems to favor a top down approach that focuses on the “big” stories, either in terms of long-term influence (so “Rapper’s Delight” for example, is covered extensively) or literal dollar amount (such as uncovering the details behind 50 Cent’s Vitamin Water partnership and investment).

The drawback though is that any number of small/medium stories and people are left out of the discussion. This isn’t as apparent in the first few hundred pages or so since, at the dawn of hip-hop, everything was “small.” Really, prior to the early/mid-90s, hip-hop was a David, not Goliath story. But once hip-hop’s dominance of the record charts, then radio, then retail becomes manifest (the last third of the book), it feels as if nothing less than a multi-million dollar deal is required to gain inclusion. That still covers a good deal of ground; not only do you get an insanely extensive history of Def Jam (Charnas could have spun this off into its own book, easily), but he also looks at the rise of Wu Wear and traces the specifics of Cash Money’s unprecedented deal with UMG (though it’s more like a back story to talk about Wendy Day).

However, what’s left out of the book is a discussion of the “3rd wave” independents that cropped up in the 1990s, i.e. those labels that went outside of the majors for distribution: Solesides, Fat Beats, Def Jux and perhaps most obviously, Rawkus (which is a pretty fascinating story on its own merits). I wholly understand that talking about the Wu Tang’s innovation in “crew branding” is incredibly important but on a more modest level, the Hieroglyphics were doing something very similar, at the same time, but there’s no mention of that.

This applies to rap publications too. Charnas goes deep into the history of The Source and Vibe but there’s no mention of other publications that had their own role to play in the evolution of rap journalism: Rap Pages, ego trip, XXL (the latter gets a single mention but that’s it). Likewise, if you’re interested in radio, you’ll get a fantastic background about Mr. Magic or Sway and Tech or the Baka Boyz but with community/college radio stars like Stretch and Bob or Kevvy Kev? Nada.

Obviously, there’s a question of scale/influence here. The Baka Boyz were a big deal insofar as Power 106 in Los Angeles was a ratings leader in a way that Stretch and Bob’s WKCR in NYC was not. Likewise, Murder Inc. sold a shit load more records than Fondle ‘Em ever did. If you’re looking at the influence of the business of hip-hop, then it makes sense to focus on those entities or artists who impacted the most people. That said, it still presents a particular history that looks at the giants and leaves the grassroots largely ignored after a certain point in time.

I’m not criticizing Charnas for this; as noted, he was faced with an impossible task of trying to write a comprehensive history but he can’t possibly include everything. Readers may quibble, for example, about whether it was really necessary to review Chris Lighty’s entire career history at the expense of talking about, for example, the cottage industry created by the Miami/Orlando bass scene. But those quibbles would have existed with any single book; more than anything, the particular slant of The Big Payback only highlights the importance of there being future books that can focus on all the other stories out there. Six millions ways to write, choose one.

Along similar lines, it should also be noted that Charnas follows a fairly conventional, canonistic history of hip-hop, which is to say, it’s highly NY-centric, with a lesser focus on LA and very little outside of those two cities. Folks who think the South continually gets marginalized could certainly use this book as further proof of that slight (I’m particularly surprised that Jermaine Dupri and So-So Def didn’t figure in more prominently, let alone dozens of other Southern labels/artists who thrived despite being left outside the NY/LA dyad). Again, I don’t think these choices fatally undermines the book but it does highlight the complexities of trying to write any kind of inclusive history of hip-hop.

2) A rumination on ideas. On the one hand, The Big Payback manages to avoid outright hagiography even though it has a “great men of hip-hop” dynamic to it. There are very few clear “heroes” in this tale; rather, there’s a lot of deeply flawed people in the mix, some more than others, but each has their roles to play (this is especially clear in the profiles of Russell Simmons, Lyor Cohen and Damon Dash).

However, there are two big, rousing ideas the book wants to make, one of which I think is successful, one that is less so. The successful one is that hip-hop’s success didn’t require it to crossover; it took over. And that’s a rather important point, especially when you trace the deep paranoia that rap fans had that hip-hop was always on the verge of being co-opted and selling itself out. But by the time the book reaches the early 2000s, it’s clear that rap music was in the position to buy-out rather than sell-out. Its success happened largely on its own terms despite having to overcome a parade of skeptics in almost every era and Charnas takes great care to really accentuate that David-beats-Goliath narrative and it is a very powerful impression the book leaves you with.

The other big idea is that hip-hop transformed social/race relations in Ameria and helped get Obama elected. These are not unique ideas to the book, of course. But they are something that Charnas tries to hammer home whenever possible and I don’t think he’s as successful in making this stick. On the one hand, I think – absolutely – hip-hop helped bring together different kinds of people in a way that other forms of popular culture had not. However, there’s two things here.

First, though Charnas often focuses on how hip-hop’s success often involved a mix of White and Black business folks collaborating, this doesn’t seem particularly unique to hip-hop. I can’t think of a single American pop music genre (except maybe country) that did NOT involve some level of extensively integrated staffing and collaboration. So that to that extent, hip-hop seems to follow a long-established trend rather than trailblazing a new one.

Second, racial contact/unity in the form of commerce isn’t immaterial (I mean, by definition, it is material!) but I’d have to contrast that to the ways in which race relations did *not* improve over the same timeline. Segregation, in many cities, increased. Educational access between Black and White remained disparate, if not worse. Incarceration rates of Blacks far outstripped Whites over that time. In other words, through many other metrics one could apply, the real-world inequalities between Black and White worsened even if, on a cultural level, there were profound, shared commonalities.

None of this would bother me so much if not for how the book pushes this meta-narrative of what hip-hop’s success meant to America. My first response would be, “well, it hasn’t seemed to go far enough.” I’m especially skeptical of the claim that hip-hop indirectly helped get Obama elected since A) I’m not sure how one could ever prove or disprove that suggestion and B) Obama’s election was the result of myriad influences (and strokes of fortune; see another great book, Game Change for those details), of which hip-hop certainly could have played a role but not, in my mind, an essential one (i.e. that without hip-hop, it couldn’t have happened anyway). (This all said, I’m totally blown away and tickled at the fact that Obama was college friends with James Bernard).

3) A rumination on style. I thought Charnas did an exemplary job of writing this. It kept my rapt attention, it was dramatic in the right points, it knew how to trace interesting narratives in non-linear ways, etc. However, I did feel like he engaged in too much “drum rolling” which is my way of describing the writing technique in which you introduce a character by deliberately withholding their name until the very end of the section. This can be a totally effective, time-honored technique to building narrative tension. However, like all writing tactics, it’s best used in moderation and because this book is so damn long and has so many damn characters, Charnas ends up doing a lot of drum rolling (esp. in the first half of the book) and after a certain point, the reader becomes too aware of it (which undermines its usefulness as a narrative device).

For all this, it goes without saying that I still can’t commend the book enough and as I’ve stressed, for any hip-hop fan, I think it’s an absolutely essential read.