The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop
Reviewed by Thomas Fawcett, Fri., Dec. 10, 2010
The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hopby Dan Charnas
New American Library, 660 pp., $24.95
For most hip-hop books, a discussion of the founding fathers would address the contributions of Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash. The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop is not most hip-hop books. The opening pages begin with Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington, while connecting the origins of American currency to the Sugarhill Gang. It's all about the Benjamins, baby. In his exhaustive study of how hip-hop went from Bronx block party to global phenomenon, former Source magazine writer Dan Charnas takes the long view of history, but it's the details and insider anecdotes that give the more than 600 pages the intrigue of a Slick Rick tale. The riveting dialogue culled from more than 300 interviews makes it seem as if Charnas was in the room for every deal that ever went down in hip-hop, and sometimes he was. The Big Payback naturally chronicles the stories of self-made moguls like Russell Simmons, Master P, and Jay-Z ("the soul of a poet and instincts of a killer"), but also the stories of countless behind-the-scenes shakers (Wendy Day, Chris Lighty) who are anything but household names. Charnas explores Ice-T's "Cop Killer" controversy in astonishing depth and levies a stinging indictment against the record labels, radio stations, and magazines that profited from fueling a trumped-up East-West rivalry in the mid-1990s, but Payback is ultimately a classic American success story: "This isn't crossover anymore. It is takeover. America has officially been remixed."