The history of hip-hop

Friday, January 14, 2011; 12:33 PM


The History of the Business of Hip-Hop

By Dan Charnas

New American Library. 660 pp. $24.95


Edited by Adam Bradley and

Andrew DuBois

Yale Univ. 867 pp. $35

Whether you're talking jazz, disco or rock and roll, in American music rags-to-riches is the ruling narrative. But if the record industry has one truly Horatio Alger-worthy tale to tell, it's the ascent of hip-hop.

Over the last 30 years rap music has risen from the street corners of New York City to become a global million-dollar culture machine. The visionary art was only part of it. Hip-hop also needed a few good salesmen. In "The Big Payback," Dan Charnas, a former talent scout man for Profile Records and a writer for the rap music and culture magazine "The Source," chronicles the history of hip-hop as told by the record company executives, radio programmers and magazine moguls who helped guide the genre from urban subculture to mass-market behemoth.

Hip-hop should not have needed so much promotion. Its commercial appeal was evident from the get-go. Sales of the Sugar Hill Gang's 1979 single "Rapper's Delight," rap's first breakthrough hit, tallied in the millions. But the mainstream was slow to catch on. Even as late as 1991, major radio stations, even black-owned ones, were openly hostile to the genre. "The slogans were great," writes Charnas. " 'No rap and no hard rock' (B104 in Baltimore). 'No kids, no rap, no crap' (KHMX in Houston). WBMX in Boston aired a TV spot that featured gold chains being pulled out of a radio while the announcer said, 'No rap!' "

Charnas digs up true believers who helped break the embargo. Some were regional personalities - radio executives like Greggory Macmillan of Los Angeles's KDAY and Keith Naftaly, program director of San Francisco's KMEL, who made a point of making their stations hip-hop friendly. Others, like Ted Demme, who produced the groundbreaking hour-long music video block "Yo! MTV Raps," will be familiar to anybody who spent the late '80s with a remote control in her hand.

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