[3 February 2011]
“I’ll never have dinner with the President,” was one of O’shea “Ice Cube” Jackson’s insults in his song “No Vaseline” against former NWA band mates Andre “Dr. Dre” Young, Lorenzo “MC Ren” Patterson, Antoine “DJ Yella” Carraby, and Eric “Eazy-E” Wright and their manager Jerry Heller. It was 1991 and Ice Cube, citing financial and management issues, had split from the group to launch a solo career. “No Vaseline” was return fire for NWA’s lyrical shots, including the warning on NWA’s Niggaz4Life album that the group would cut Ice Cube’s hair off and sodomize him with a broomstick. Eazy-E had received, and accepted, an invitation to a Republican fundraising luncheon at the White House, during President George H. W. Bush’s term. Apparently, an effective way to discredit those taking an anti-establishment stance is to link them with the norm, the status quo—the dreaded establishment itself. Therefore, pointing out that a “gangsta” rapper had a meal with the President of the United States was a way to tarnish said rapper’s street cred. It was a diss.
Side B: Changes
Fast forward to the 21st century and the election of Barack Obama as the 44th US President. There isn’t a hip-hopper around who would diss you for having dinner with that President. Well, maybe Immortal Technique would. Even when we take into account the things that make President Obama distinctive as a president—his ethnicity, the historical and symbolic nature of his election, the rap artists he says he has on his mp3 player—a president, any president is still the president, still part of the government, still a component of what we conspiracy theorists like to call “The Powers That Be”. Somewhere between 1991 and 2008, something changed, something dramatic that made hip-hoppers feel like “insiders” instead of outcasts. Rappers are “players” now, no longer “rebels” or “revolutionaries” who weren’t invited to the game.
Album Two: It Was Written
Side A: The Message
Dan Charnas’s The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop offers a sweeping and detailed explanation. The Big Payback chronicles hip-hop’s trajectory from the ‘70s to 2010, pinpointing the deals, acquisitions, and alliances that animated the art form’s rise as a lucrative commercial vehicle. In short, hip-hop gained “insider” status when it started earning big bucks. In the author’s opening note, Charnas calls hip-hop’s increased access to capital and mainstream exposure an “American success story” and a “triumph”, citing as evidence such points as “a precipitous rise in Black entrepreneurship” and realizing “the Black Nationalist dream of economic independence”; the desegregation of radio stations, video channels, and “the upper echelons of Hollywood”; and a generation with higher rate of interracial and intercultural marriage than “their parents”. This description is somewhat recalibrated later, in the epilogue, where Charnas states that hip-hop “was not the sole cause of this cultural transformation” and notes that however long hip-hop’s “cultural legacy” might be, “it’s economic coattails for the Black community seem short.”
It’s tough to identify the proper position. Maybe the original description slightly overstated hip-hop’s case. Then again, perhaps Charnas is right on both accounts, to the extent that hip-hop has accomplished incredible feats, but there is still more progress to be made. Whether you can reconcile these seemingly differing points, Charnas is unequivocal that hip-hop changed popular culture and was in turn changed by society. As he writes in the epilogue, American “has officially been remixed” by hip-hop and its “winning paradigm…seems to be the joint venture.”
Wrought from a foundation of personal interviews, archival research, memos, court documents, films, as well as his own tenure in the entertainment business, Charnas structures The Big Payback as a series of “albums”, eight in all. These albums consist of two “sides”, always “A” and “B”, in lieu of the usual “parts”, “sections”, or “chapters”. This approach mirrors the old days of records and cassettes, especially those of the ‘80s and early-‘90s when cassettes contained two sides of the musical program, sometimes labeled as “street/explicit” and “radio/clean” sides, or something clever like the “Homiside” and “Suiside” faces of Big Daddy Kane’s tapes. Like a rap song packed with pop culture references, namedrops, shout-outs, and inside jokes, The Big Payback‘s album series chronicles the people, locales, and relationships both business and personal that contributed to hip-hop’s rise.
While the book follows a timeline, the individual narratives typically break sequence. First, the personal narrative opens with an introduction that obscures the subject’s identity until, at last, the person’s arrival into the chronology is announced (“But [Russell] Simmons didn’t know anything about the label that released [Jazzy Jay’s] record, Def Jam, nor the person listed as the song’s producer, Rick Rubin”). Next, there’s a flashback of sorts that explains the person’s background and upbringing (“A White, Jewish college junior hailing from suburban Long Island, Frederick Jay Rubin operated ‘Def Jam Recordings’ out of his dorm room…”). That’s followed by a swift push back into “present tense” to resume the story. Occasionally, these breaks feel like interruptions when the “present tense” dilemma is so compelling you’d rather find out what happens next, but the flashbacks are a practical solution to the problem of back-story. Plus, Charnas smoothly weaves moments from an individual’s past into the “present-tense” drama as symbolism or as a recurring theme. Over the book’s 650-plus pages, individuals overlap, as some standout while others recede, and some keep popping up while others stay gone for good. In this way, we get a sense of the complex web of relationships that occurred across the span of a single career and over the decades of rap’s expansion.
This extends to racial and cultural overlap, leading to more than a few rather amusing ironies. In one example, Charnas notes:
The Beastie Boys were a White group with a Black DJ, managed by a Black man and his White Israeli-American lieutenant. Their Black-sounding hip-hop records were produced by a White man and promoted to White radio programmers by a Black man. They owed their careers to the endorsement of a Black rap supergroup; and the White MCs now crusaded for a new pro-Black political rap crew whose Black friend had just dissed the White rappers in print.
There are also times when rap’s multiculturalism feels euphoric yet sentimental, as if people are able to overcome their perceived cultural and racial differences simply by liking the same type of music or rejoicing over a single election. Hip-Hop, in this way, functions as a proxy, rather than a facilitator, for actual conversation and the much-needed exchange of ideas and feelings. As noted by Charnas, as well as other writers, mutual appreciation for hip-hop can be a step toward interpersonal and intercultural understanding, but it’s not the entire process.
Side B: Small World
The title, The Big Payback, of course recalls the classic James Brown tune, a funky tale of revenge that, along with many other Brown tracks and vocals, comprises the backbone of hip-hop’s world of beats and rhymes. Certainly a book title culled from the discographies of George Clinton (including the Parliament-Funkadelic material) or Isaac Hayes would have also been appropriate. Something like Flashlight: Hip-Hop’s Business Deals or New Horizon: Hip-Hop & the Business World, maybe? The title could also refer to EPMD’s “The Big Payback”, which opens with the line, “Open sesame, and let down the main gate,” perhaps a harbinger of hip-hop’s access to wider avenues.
The words the big payback naturally suggest a karmic force, powered by kismet, as the book’s account begins with Alexander Hamilton, “the man who invented American money.” He was also the first United States Secretary of the Treasury, and he helped establish the US Mint and the first national bank. Charnas notes that Hamilton’s name and mark are all over Harlem. This, along with his stance as an abolitionist, works as the historical backdrop to hip-hop’s story.
Money, it seems, has set so many things in motion, and motivated as many persons and industries. Hip-hop’s ascendancy from commercial outcast to mainstream titan goes to the essence of “payback”—to the realization of dreams left unfulfilled from the Civil Rights Era, to the radio programmers who refused to play rap because they thought it was a fad, to the anti-rap crusaders who bulldozed rap CDs in the streets, to the social and economic conditions that resulted in class conflict and a lack of cultural exchange. Not does rap’s success signify a return on an investment, much of rap’s rise feels like a big, “Aha! You didn’t think we could do it, did you? I thought I told you that we won’t stop!”
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.
Side A: Please Listen to My Demo
The question is whether hip-hop’s commercial viability is as great as The Big Payback claims it is. Our preconceived dichotomies are at play here as well, pitting the idealistic artist who is impervious to charts and album sales against the rapper willing to “sell out” for a hit record. Music in hip-hop’s perpetually touted “golden age” has been characterized as “positive” and steadfastly in opposition to “going pop” or being “too commercial”. EPMD’s “Crossover” (1992), ironically employing a variant of the processed vocal hooks that have been ruling the ‘00s, is the quintessential song for rap’s perceived need for self-preservation. In it, rappers are taken to task for “selling their soul” and changing their image to suit the sensibilities of pop and rhythm ‘n’ blues, all for what Gang Starr later in 1994 bundled under the banner of “mass appeal”.
Some argue that hip-hop has deteriorated. Where its excesses were once balanced by the “positive” and “uplifting” side of the art, the argument is that it has been riddled with violence and moral decay precipitated by its commercial and corporate annexation. Charnas takes issue with this stance from the outset, calling all of these assessments “unfair.” Although his characterization of hip-hop’s rise as a “triumph” is well taken, The Big Payback arrives at the conclusion without directly evaluating the side effects of hip-hop’s financial success and bankability, particularly as those side effects impact hip-hop consumers.
To be honest, the point of The Big Payback isn’t to join a debate. Rather, the stated purpose is to examine the “business of hip-hop” and the “relationship between artist and merchant”. Nevertheless, this is something we often do, as admirers and critics of hip-hop: we are quick to point out how meaningful and revelatory hip-hop can be for the people it spreads to, but we tend to overlook what hip-hop means to its “core” audience. Perhaps this is because it seems obvious that the “core” audience is rooting for hip-hop. What we will find, however, is that hip-hop’s “core” consists of a diversity of ideas and views, so investigating what seems obvious is worth the effort.
Let’s, as an example, suppose a multinational conglomerate manufactures soft drinks. One of the company’s drinks—let’s call it “Sprinkle”—is moderately successful among American teenagers. Sprinkle contains no caffeine, has “extra fizz”, and touts a “lime sprinkled with cayenne pepper” kick with each gulp. “Drink Like a Boss” and “Drink for the Gusto” are the official Sprinkle slogans. An executive at the company studies the market and, inspired by the findings, says to upper management, “I know how we can increase Sprinkle’s share of the market.”
The executive figures that since the teens in the market study love hip-hop, they will be responsive to an advertising campaign in which hip-hop is prominently featured. Further, the “Drink Like a Boss” and “Drink for the Gusto” slogans seem to fit hip-hop’s competitive and entrepreneurial outlook. With approval for the project, the executive designs a series of hip-hop flavored ads consisting of classic rap battles, graffiti art, break dancing, spotlights on rap pioneers, and strategic inclusions of rap tunes (rapper E-40’s “Sprinkle Me” is resurrected for airplay). The ads also utilize bits of worldviews that are popular in rap, such as Five Percent Nation ideology, Black Nationalism, Eastern philosophy, martial arts, crime movies, and blaxploitation flicks. The company’s management didn’t think the campaign would make much of an impact, but it does—Sprinkle nabs an unprecedented share of the market, in fact, and our fictional executive gets the credit, a sizable bonus, and a well-earned promotion.
Is this a triumph for hip-hop? The Big Payback might argue, “Yes, because the company realized the commercial viability of rap, even and especially rap marketed in as undiluted a form as possible, with rap pioneers gaining visibility and safeguarding the credibility of the project.” There are hardcore hip-hop fans who would agree. Besides, shouldn’t rappers make money? Shouldn’t they hope to sell millions of records? Why can’t they promote other products to increase their visibility?
Side B: The Crossover
Yet, there are legitimate reasons why some hip-hop consumers would take issue with the reality of rap as a mainstream commercial commodity.
First, there are no filters for the products hip-hop can be used to promote. From videogames to vodka, you can find a rap, a rapper, a phat beat, or a hip-hop producer to help sell it. As such, the naysayers would argue that hip-hop no longer operates as an art form that serves an underrepresented community. At one point, it provided a mode of expression for the politically voiceless, now it is a vehicle for selling products to the world as well as back to its original demographic. Drinking “Sprinkle” isn’t going to aid in expressing the views of the underrepresented, not even if you synchronize Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” throughout the commercial. Hip-hop may reference products and pop culture in its rhymes, but that’s arguably part of the art. Becoming spokespeople for a multinational corporation, on the other hand, changes the game considerably, and it’s this type of “change” that warrants discussion.
Second, even as hip-hop continues its mainstream march, there are still many aspects of the culture that hip-hoppers feel is “insider” information. Although “outsiders” are not excluded from learning, there’s a bitter taste that comes from seeing the hip-hop’s trade secrets trotted out for a few DJ scratches and some cameo spots. It’s like snitching, and it transforms layers of meaning and shared experience into a commodity. Meanwhile, all the hip-hop consumer gets out of the deal is the satisfaction that rap is getting bigger and, of course, a sweet carbonated drink to help wash it down. This probably says more about hip-hoppers than the ad campaign of our fictional Sprinkle soft drink, but it’s another aspect of change that needs to be addressed.
Finally, there’s the simple contradiction of having a rap personality declare on record that he or she will “never sell out” or “never be a corporate tool”, only to turn on the TV and see them selling something like “Sprinkle”. A soft drink, of all things! Hustling (a.k.a. “marketing”) is fast becoming one of the major elements of hip-hop (alongside the established DJing, MCing, graffiti, and breaking elements), and we all understand the need to make money, but the devotees to this music are entitled to be confused.
I suspect fellow performers are also entitled to be confused. For instance, Jay-Z seemed genuinely stunned in 2010 to learn that MC Hammer took offense to Jay-Z’s line in Kanye West’s “So Appalled, “The Hammer went broke so you know I’m more focused / I lost thirty mill so I spent another 30 / ‘cause, unlike Hammer, 30 million can’t hurt me.” Hammer responded with a diss record (“Better Run Run”) and a video in which Hammer, who is also a preacher, appears to baptize Jay-Z.
Hammer is probably as well known for his financial woes as he is for his hit single “U Can’t Touch This” and his dancing. Other people have made fun of Hammer’s financial fall. There’s a reference to this very thing in the movie The Goods, starring Jeremy Piven. Hammer didn’t record a diss track against the movie. Hammer even appeared in an insurance commercial making fun of himself. So why the problem with Jay-Z? Publicity stunt? Maybe, but I wonder if Hammer had trouble accepting the idea that he was crucial to the advancement of rap’s commercial viability, got vilified and ridiculed for being so “commercial” in his day, and then after all these years he finds himself being made fun of by Jay-Z, an artist who is arguably a direct beneficiary of Hammer’s inroads.
I’m not saying consumers, artistic colleagues, or even good taste should have veto power over an artist’s ability to advertise, do testimonials, or otherwise participate in the expansion of their brand. I’m saying there has to be an understanding that hip-hop created a brand of its own. That original “brand” signifies something different than it used to. We should evaluate these differences as we appreciate the work and resourcefulness that The Big Payback represents.