Originally published at The Well Versed
Per Q-Tip, industry rule 4,080 holds that record company people are shady. Journalist and author Dan Charnas is here to shed light on that piece of “conventional wisdom.” In his new book, “The Big Payback: The History Of The Business of Hip-Hop,” Charnas documents the untold story of the game from its humble beginnings to present days. He sat down with The Well Versed to discuss how Cash Money, The Bay Area and Master P changed the game, the commercialization of hip-hop, white executives in a black business and more.
The Well Versed: Why a book on the business side of hip hop?
Dan Charnas: My first job was working for one of the seminal rap labels, Profile Records. The home of Run DMC, Rob Base and others. I was exposed immediately to some of the war stories by my bosses. How they almost went out of business until they decided to produce rap records. They spent their last $2,000 on a rap record, which turned out to be “Genius Rap,” which allowed them to sign Run DMC. As I went from job to job, I hear similar stories and experienced some myself. How difficult it was to get this music into the mainstream. This was our generation’s rock and roll. We have a lot of books out, but almost none of them talk about what it took to get hip hop to the point that it is today.
A lot of writing on hip hop is just punditry—misogyny and violence in hip hop. In telling the story of the business, I could also talk about what hip hop meant to America.
TWV: One of the things you do is tell the stories through a human side regardless of whose perspective it is. Given the relationship artists have had with executives—Q-Tip’s “Rule 4080″ for example—did you think the book would be a tough sell to the public?
DC: Never. It might’ve been controversial with a lot of folks who hued to the cliché of “great wonderful artists and bad record company.” The reality is much more nuanced than that. Everybody gets to be human. I want to show you why companies gave piss poor contracts. But I’m not justifying it.
TWV: Was it difficult to get people to go on the record?
DC: Surprisingly no. People want to tell their stories. Nobody had ever asked these [executives] what it was like for them. Maybe Rick [Rubin] and Russell [Simmons], but others, no.
TWV: Were you referred to other people during your interviews?
DC: Chris Lighty wasn’t originally a target of mine. I interviewed Sophia Chang and she said, “You have to talk to Chris Lighty.” This guy is the archetype—he’s the personification of hip hop: came from the Bronx, didn’t have anything and look what he became. He’s a consummate business man. It’s Lighty who engineered what could be the largest deal in hip hop—50 Cent’s Vitamin Water deal.
TWV: You also touch on the story of Wendy Day. Where do you think hip hop would be without her?
DC: When I first met Wendy, it was an adversarial relationship. I was working with Rick Rubin’s American Recordings and I signed Kwest The Mad Ladd. We had a lot of problems getting to market, distribution issues, sample clearance issues. It was an awful situation for Kwest. Kwest went to Wendy Day because she developed a reputation and had established Rap Coalition. To me, at first it was like, “Who is this white woman wearing dashikis and hoodies and how is she going to represent my artist to me?”
She sent me a form letter indicating that she knew Kwest was signed with American and wasn’t getting enough support. It would’ve been easy for me to be offended by that. What I did instead was try to be open with her. What I got for being open with her was seeing that she was there to help. She actually ended up helping me help my artist. It didn’t end up well for Kwest or anybody at American because the company was ill—sick company. But Wendy earned my trust. I didn’t realize how big her role was and how many deals she got until I started writing. I had no idea she’d get a quarter of a chapter. And she did it all unselfishly.
I didn’t want to overwhelm this book with too many white characters. I wanted a balance but Wendy Day was so compelling that I had to. There’s a really interesting end to her story in the book involving her and Cash Money.
TWV: Regarding the Cash Money story, did you reach out to them to see what they had to say?
DC: I read the entire passage to their publicist in hopes that somebody would respond. They didn’t. After repeated calls.
TWV: How far ahead of their time were the Bay Area and the Southern rappers with their business?
DC: Like E-40?
TWV: Like E-40 and Master P?
DC: I wouldn’t say they were ahead of their time so much as that the business was ready for them. What I will say is that they changed things. It was a combination of being locked out from major labels and having a target market who was ready for hip hop. It was a fertile ground.
TWV: You discuss the Sprite “Obey Your Thirst” campaign. Do you feel that people weren’t cognizant of the unintended consequences of commercialization?
DC: It’s a hard question to answer because everyone has an opinion. Regarding “Obey Your Thirst” in particular, what did you have to compare it to? In comparison to earlier Sprite commercials, you had Heavy D, Kurtis Blow and Kid and Play. But that? To have Grand Puba rhyming over “Impeach The President,”Five Percenter imagery and Voltron. I guess you could look at that as selling out, but I don’t know. When I look at Jay-Z doing a commercial for Budweiser, I’m proud of them. I’m proud of hip hop and the phenomenon it’s become. That if an artist wants to, they can access that level of commerciality.
TWV: In the final chapter of the book, you write, “Perhaps hip-hop’s lasting legacy won’t be the creation of an independent power base, but the penetration of the power structure…
DC: You’re asking a bunch of questions nobody has asked.
TWV: Do you feel that penetrating the power structure as opposed to subverting it is a good thing?
DC: I don’t know. I came in at a time when we were all talking about subverting the power structure. The fact that white kids across the country were into Public Enemy and you had Ed Furlong wearing a Public Enemy shirt in Terminator 2—a summer blockbuster—all of that meant something . We thought it was about subverting the power structure and creating something outside of it. We thought there would’ve been black owned distributors. What ended up happening was more of a joint venture. Some companies are black owned, some multiracial ended up interfacing with corporations.
I have no more prognostication of how Obama will deal with the power structure as a black man than Jay-Z will deal with corporations as a black man. I think corporations can dehumanize and take the wings out of any unit. But power can also be harnessed cleverly. I don’t know which way Obama is going or which way Jay-Z is going. What I do know is things change. There is no black distributor or black person in Hollywood that can green light a movie other than Will Smith. What I do know is that the culture I grew up in—where you couldn’t get a black artist on a pop station—is completely different. I wanted to talk about the positives of that. This is the story of how hip hop changed America.
TWV: Isn’t that a revolution in itself? You have Chuck D on VH1 and Jay-Z doing commercials.
DC: What generation did it before? Who else got this degree of participation? The hip hop generation got written off by the older generation. It’s an interesting time. One of the things hip hop showed us was that black businesses aren’t always the best caretakers of black music. What do we say about Suge Knight’s or Cash Money’s track record? Say what you will about Lyor Cohen, but look at his track record versus Suge Knight’s; it’s a little different. [But] for every Death Row, BET and Cash Money there is a Motown or 40 Acres & A Mule or Uptown… all great caretakers
TWV: Do you think guys like Lyor and other white executives—not to say they’re perfect—get too rough of a time because people consider hip hop to be black music?
DC: I don’t think white executives deserve a due because they’re white. I wanted to turn a light on. There were some people—black and white and Asian and Latino—that worked really hard to elevate this culture. I don’t want to invalidate the Suge Knight’s because there’s a space for all of them. Hip hop writing tends to focus on the celebrity. I wanted to focus on how it works.
Many executives fought for hip hop with the same amount of passion as the artists did. This was a co-created venture.