The brains behind the bling-bling

Sunday, January 16, 2011

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 past 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," Charnas writes. " '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 such as 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, such as 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.

But hip-hop had the potential to sell more than just records. Rappers, unlike rock stars, could pick up endorsement deals without being cast as total sellouts. The Fat Boys inked a deal with a Swiss watch company and helped make Swatch synonymous with the '80s. Run-DMC wrote "My Adidas." During the '90s, New York City-based rap crew the Wu Tang Clan took things a step further - founding a Wu-Wear clothing line that was marketed directly to fans via catalogues included with the album art. "Wu Tang became the first group in hip-hop," Charnas writes, "perhaps in all of pop music, to not only launch themselves as a successful American brand outside of the entertainment industry, but to own that brand."

At 600-plus pages, "The Big Payback" is a doorstop. Charnas opens with Alexander Hamilton and closes with rapper-cum-label-president-cum-clothing-impresario Jay-Z inducting hip-hop originators Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.

Charnas catches the business in its infancy - when future moguls struggled to deal with the day-to-day busywork of running a record label. Some of them had a long way to climb. Charnas recalls Bill Stephney, an early employee of Def Jam records, who called the label "the combined work experience of ten days at an Orange Julius." The juice-pumping gig had been label founder Russell Simmons's only pre-Def Jam employment. Co-founder Rick Rubin couldn't even claim that on his resume.

In maturity, rap music achieved the power to annoy major corporations - the scandal surrounding "Cop Killer," a song by rapper Ice-T's heavy-metal band, Body Count, spurred a national boycott of Time Warner, the label's parent company. "I got my 12 gauge sawed off, I got headlights turned off, I'm about to bust some shots off, I'm about to dust some cops off," shouted Ice-T over screeching guitars.

"Cop Killer" is a rock song, though, and Ice-T sings the lyrics instead of rapping them. That distinction is enough to keep the song out of "The Anthology of Rap," though the volume does include some of the MC's more traditional rhymes. The book compiles important verses drawn from throughout hip-hop's history. It's strange to see the lyrics printed on Bible-grade paper and placed in an academic context, but leafing through the book, one can get a sense of how rapidly the genre evolved. "Now if your name is Annie get up off your fannie/if your name is Clyde get off your back side," rhymed Kurtis Blow in the 1980 song "Rappin Blow (Part 2)." Thirty years later, hip-hop language is a little more po-mo. "I walk right in hip-hop like, 'Where my dinner be at?' I ate that and was like, 'Where my dinner be at?' " raps Lil Wayne on "Live from the 504," from a 2007 mixtape. There's plenty of room for serious study.

"The Big Payback" may be a book that favors desk-jockeys over disc jockeys, but Charnas doesn't shortchange the passion that both parties poured into hip-hop. The music united as often as it divided - inspiring artists and entrepreneurs to set aside class and race differences. While studying at Harvard, Jon Shecter, founder of the Source, brought rapper KRS-One to campus to speak in a panel discussion. When the floor opened for questions, some black students tried to take Shecter down a peg. From their perspective, a white guy had no business running a hip-hop magazine. "KRS-One had the power, in that moment, to make or break the reputation of the magazine," Charnas writes. The rapper backed Shecter up: "If you think you can do better, outdo them."

Aaron Leitko's work has appeared in The Washington Post, Pitchfork, Washington City Paper and "Best Music Writing 2010."

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