Walk This Way: The Commodification of Hip-Hop

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

Now here's a little story, we've got to tell, about the business of hip-hop, you know so well. It started way back in history, from Alexander Hamilton down to Jay-Z.

"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."

Book: The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop

Author: Dan Charnas

Publisher: New American Library

Publication date: 2010-12

Format: Hardcover

Length: 672 pages

Price: $24.95

ISBN: 978-0451229298

Image:'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!"

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