“Go read a book you illiterate son of a bitch and step up yo’ vocab.”
Having lived my life vicariously via the rap media for roughly two decades, I’ve developed that curious habit of picking up any tome with a vague mention of hip-hop culture. The result? Shelves heaving with hardback and paperback rap-related literature. I don’t regret a single purchase, but the good quality ratio is deeply askew. I respect Toop’s ‘Rap Attack’ but it’s a little dry and dated (and yes, I picked up versions 1, 2 and 3 for those extra chapters) and favour ‘Spraycan Art’ over ‘Subway Art,’ simply because I read it first and MODE 2 is that dude. My personal favourites are the dirt-digging drama of Ronin Ro’s possibly semi-fictional (who Brian Cross aka. B+ called, “a clown” on these very pages) ‘Have Gun Will Travel’ and ‘Gangsta,’ the aforementioned Mr. Cross’s ‘It’s Not About a Salary,’ ‘Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop’ by Jeff Chang, Brian Coleman’s ‘Rakim Told Me’ and ‘Check the Technique,’ both ‘Ego Trip…’ tomes, Cheo H. Coker’s ‘Unbelievable’ Biggie bio and now Dan Charnas’ ‘The Big Payback.’
There’s been histories of hip-hop, but who wants to hear some half-baked tale of gang violence quelled by dancing, the Sugarhill Gang, Run-DMC and other second, third and quadruple-hand smoke? The good stuff happened behind-the-scenes. To reinforce earlier sentiments, this is the best history of hip-hop ever written. The industry’s in flux now—Elliott Wilson at ‘Respect’ and Combat Jack at ‘The Source’s online operation are a reason to be optimistic. ‘Complex’ is bridging multiple gaps too. But as long as reaction videos and Twitter quotes are the norm, rap journalism won’t reach those Mind Squad glory days. Charnas creates a vast patchwork that cleverly overlaps each anecdote, resulting in perfectly pitched trivia.
Rap fans are hardcore gossips, and this’ll sate that appetite in some style, but those looking for superior writing, research and total enlightenment will be rewarded too. It’s a huge story of marketing, risks and exploitation, and the 600+ pages here ensure that Charnas has space to keep it thoro’ but it never turns arrid despite that phenomenal attention-to-detail. If Stacy Gueraseva’s fine ‘Def Jam Inc.’ whetted your appetite for smart writing, myth busting and information overload, Don just took it to the next level. Hyperbole? Yes. But it’s justified hyperbole.
Crucially—as rap marketing evolves digitally but critique dumbs down to a sizzurp crawl where four decades of painstaking progress and broken ground is written off by stoned YouTube commentators as being Freemasonry—we need a comprehensive history to piece together just how powerful hip-hop culture became. Magazine heads in particular will spontaneously combust at the tales of Shector and Mays’ meeting of minds (Charnas was an early Source scribe) and the trash-talking early days of ‘Vibe.’ It’s nice to see hip-hop get the book it always deserved. Those four years this book spent in development certainly weren’t wasted.
Here’s my ten favourite things I learnt from ‘The Big Payback’ (there’s much, much more where these came from)—
1. T La Rock worked in a pharmacy.
2. Ann Carli thought that Lyor Cohen was handicapped because he was “lumbering” and sounded like he had a speech impediment, thanks to his USA/Israel upbringing.
3. Russell Simmons dismissed any notion of Will Smith being the next Eddie Murphy in 1988 by announcing that, “He might be as big as Malcolm Jamal Warner.”
4. The adult film star that Rick Rubin dated was Melissa Melendez.
5. Kangol Kid from UTFO recorded a message on Jon Shecter’s parents’ answering machine with the lyrics, “Jon and Jane went to get a snack / But if you leave a message, they’ll call you right back / Take it from me, the leader of the pack.”
6. Ed Lover used to be a security guard. The initial ‘YO!…’ gig payed marginally more than he was getting each fortnight.
7. Timberland’s chief executive officer really did tell the New York Times that the urban market for their product was miniscule and that the target market was “honest working people.”
8. Phil Knight was one of SRC’s (Steve Rifkind Company) earliest clients, after recruiting them for the Chilly Tee release in 1993. He invited Rifkind and some of the crew to Beaverton and they learnt about global marketing from Nike’s team to add to their street marketing savvy.
9. Oliver Grant from Wu Tang aka. Power was integral to the birth and growth of Wu Wear. He wore a full Coca-Cola outfit accompanied by Barkley Nikes (Alpha Force IIs?) to woodworking class and got glue all over it. Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter was in the same class that day.
10. As part of a genius Chris Lighty-assisted move, 50 Cent’s ‘Formula 50’ Vitaminwater flavour is based on grape “quarter waters”—hence his ‘I Get Money’ brag, “I took quarter-water, sold it in bottles for two bucks.”