Walk This Way

The Commodification of Hip-Hop

by Quentin B. Huff

3 February 2011

Portrait of Jay-Z in black and white swarovski crystals (partial shown here). Used with permission from Gemstone Creative.com 

Album Three: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

Side A: Don’t Believe the Hype
Charnas is definitely an advocate for the art form. As a result, The Big Payback is written with a passionate but historical eye. Objectivity is often praised in historical accounts, and The Big Payback mostly portrays its historical figures and their fascinating business deals with a mixture of detachment and curiosity, like a movie camera alternately shooting from far away (with big picture portions) and zooming in close (with a person’s thought bubbles in italics). The overall perspective offers an aerial view of these third person accounts, allowing us to see the happenings of likeminded individuals in their respective roles and jobs.  We see the similarities and differences in their ambitions, the parallels in their methodologies.

The strength of Charnas’s account is the focus on individuals, some famous and others unsung. As an educational tool, it’s great to have The Big Payback as a resource for so many names and dates, which is why the index is invaluable. Without it, keeping track of the many entries and exits of key figures would be infinitely more daunting. More importantly, though, is the humanizing effect this has on the subject matter. For a book about business, a topic that generally elicits thoughts of cold and calculating maneuvers, the ability to humanize the historical cast is a triumph itself. “Everyone gets to be human,” was Charnas’s motto.

What we learn from this is that artists are not always pure of heart, creative souls who only care about the integrity of the art. Sometimes, they just want to “get paid”. Likewise, record executives and managers in The Big Payback aren’t uniformly portrayed as trend chasing, expression-stifling automatons.  Interestingly, hip-hop has a long tradition of songs vilifying the record industry.  There is no love for the corporate side of the biz in songs like Ice Cube’s “Record Company Pimpin’” or in Q-Tip’s oft-quoted line in “Check the Rhime”, “Industry Rule Number Four Thousand and Eighty / record company people are shady.”  Here, though, Charnas finds gradations on both sides, so that greed and altruism aren’t mutually exclusive, and the featured personalities are guided by a multiplicity of motivations. Sometimes record companies extend offers that aren’t so great, sometimes artists have to take them, and Charnas doesn’t shy away from pointing this out.

Alongside hip-hop’s unique business dealings, it’s intriguing to read situations in which record executives take chances on behalf of their artists. One particularly poignant example involves Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin and his public defense of the song “Cop Killer” by Ice-T’s rock band Body Count.  Despite a boycott against Time Warner by law enforcement officials and an array of protesters, Levin unequivocally defended the record on freedom of speech principles.  In fact, it was Ice-T who eventually decided to remove the song from the Body Count album.  Levin’s defense of the album raised the ire of his colleagues and peers, and probably threatened his standing within the company. Later, when the book refers to the murder of Levin’s son Jonathon, a schoolteacher, Charnas deftly conveys the irony in the elder Levin’s tremendous loss: after the roaring public and corporate debate over the “Cop Killer” record, the police were supportive and sensitive in their investigation of the murder.  Sobering, poignant stuff, this. Sometimes it really is bigger than hip-hop.

Side B: What Side You On?
With humanity comes hubris, errors of judgment, and mistakes, and it’s difficult to humanize a story without taking sides. For the most part, Charnas manages to accentuate the positives while avoiding condemnations but the basic setup does rely on a third person omniscient lens that tends to give us a little more of one specific individual’s view point, flavor, and pizzazz. 

Certain protagonists emerge, specifically Fab Five Freddy, Rick Rubin, Russell Simmons, Jon Shector, Keith Naftaly, Lyor Cohen, Chris Lighty, Sean “Diddy” Combs, The RZA, and Damon Dash.  These protagonists are treated almost in a literary fashion, with certain truisms informing their narratives. The story of Russell Simmons is that of a rap promoter whose apparent fringe interests in such things as fashion and television ended up showing the world the benefits of “marketing a lifestyle”.  Rick Rubin is the creative genius who plays Abbott to the world’s Costello and eschews the extremes of high brow and low brow in favor of a “middle brow” aesthetic. Fab Five Freddy puts things in context, provides perspective—he is the “man with the gift for framing things.” Chris Lighty is the manager who works to shed his street life tendencies to allow his cooler, business minded side to prevail. Despite the author’s aspirations for objectivity, there are occasions that allow more sympathy for one side of a controversy than the others, perhaps a foreseeable consequence of shaping real lives in narrative form. I felt a profound sadness for Damon Dash when the book reached the end of his business relationship with Jay-Z.

Although there are no true antagonists in the book, one rather intriguing point is the handling of anti-rap spokeswoman C. Delores Tucker.  Her appearance in the book is marked by her financial indiscretions as Pennsylvania’s Secretary of State, setting the tone for her seemingly opportunistic take on rap music and, as described here, her eventual ouster with the loss of her credibility. About her financial entanglements, she is quoted as saying, “Maybe it is wrong, but it is a way of life.” It seems that hip-hop’s pursuit of money and opportunity, at whatever cost, is tolerable in the least, and a “success” at best. Tucker’s pursuit of the same is somehow less acceptable. It could be that, with regard to Tucker’s motives, this is where the evidence leads, but it’s still curious, in light of this, that the interpretation of hip-hop’s opportunism as a universal good receives less of a challenge.

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