Dan Charnas

Dan Charnas witnessed and participated in hip-hop’s explosive growth from a 1970s New York subculture to its status today as one of the world’s most predominant cultural movements.  The New York native worked for record labels and was a journalist, both helping promote rap records that mattered and discussing them in the media.

Charnas’ just-released book, The Big Payback: The History Of The Business Of Hip-Hop, is a must-read for anyone serious about hip-hop culture and its evolution.  In the following Q&A, Charnas discusses the genre’s growth, how it was able to thrive and how he would like to see it presented.

Dan Charnash Quick Bio

  • One of the first writers for hip-hop publication The Source
  • Began his music business career in the mailroom of the seminal rap label Profile Records
  • Rap A&R and Promotion Manager
  • Has worked  on projects from Run-D.M.C., Dana Dane, Rob Base, Special Ed and DJ Quik
  • Has written comedies for both MTV and BET
  • Graduated Phi Beta Kappa, Summa Cum Laude with Distinction from Boston University
  • Received Master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism
  • Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship Winner at Columbia University
  • Born and raised in New York City

Q&A with Dan Charnas

You demonstrate how rap was able to desegregate several things, including people, radio and record companies.  What was it about rap that enabled it to do this in a way that nothing else before it had been able to do?

When you listen to people like [former Def Jam Records executive] Bill Stephney or Russell Simmons talk about what it was like to try to promote hip-hop or to sell hip-hop to the folks who were in charge of the black music departments of the major labels in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, you get this sense of this amazing, bitter culture clash between the older generation of black folks and the younger generation of black folks. 

Russell talks about this a lot, his struggle to get [the black executives within major record labels] to pay attention to his clients.  Eventually, what he was forced to do was go outside the system, first to the white-owned, Jewish and Italian entrepreneurs who owned those disco labels that then became rap labels, like Profile Records, and then secondly to create his own institution, Def Jam.

With hip-hop, it was basically going outside the system and using other means of promotion to show that white kids actually do like black music, that they don’t need stuff watered down, that they liked LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Run-DMC, Big Daddy Kane.  It took that hip-hop spirit to break the major labels’ intransigence and what did that was the major labels and radio stations in particular seeing success happen outside their realms and then finally succumbing to the capitalist impulse to want some of that. 

Hip-hop basically woke everybody up and it became a situation where the culture and the music was just too undeniable, too powerful, too profitable.  I think hip-hop entrepreneurs never saw themselves as having to become beholden to corporate masters for a piece of the pie.

You do a great job of explaining the New York radio landscape during rap music’s inception and formative years.  So why do you think rap radio thrived first in Los Angeles, then San Francisco and then in Los Angeles again before New York radio truly embraced the music that was created in its own backyard?

New York is the No. 1 radio market in the country, which means that corporate interests are ratcheted up to the nth degree, meaning that it’s much difficult to make a move and take a risk in a larger market than it is a smaller one.  It also had to do with the people in place at these institutions, as well.  We start basically, with KDAY, in Los Angeles.  It just so happened that there was a guy named Greg Mack who took a chance on hip-hop at this AM station. 

There was no Greg Mack in New York at the time.  A big part of KMEL’s ability to do it was the confluence of two things.  Even though there’s racism and racial injustice, there’s something about the vibe in San Francisco that allowed a bit more multi-culturalism in the approach of a pop station.  The second factor other than multi-culturalism is [KMEL program director] Keith Naftaly.  Here was a Jewish kid that went to black schools and didn’t have to be sold on black music.  Then again in Los Angeles, [vice president of programming for Emmis Broadcasting] Rick Cummings saw what was happening at Power 106 and saw that young Latina women weren’t listening to the Cover Girls and Latin freestyle anymore.  They were listening to hip-hop and Cummings was courageous enough to take a chance at Power 106.  Those factors weren’t present in New York.

There’s a smile on my face when I think about what those times were.

Regardless of race or the level of success executives and entrepreneurs had achieved, you discuss how there was a sense of a willingness to help others – and remain true to noble agendas, like The Source not accepting liquor or cigarette advertising -- early in the early rap industry.  What made that happen?

There’s a smile on my face when I think about what those times were.  It’s not like there wasn’t competition, but there was also a sense, that everybody kind of saw themselves as sort of fighting the good fight on behalf of this music for whatever reason, whether it was profit, whether it was because they liked the music.  But they were all fighting together. 

What was the goal of writing this particular book?

Dan Charnas: I love so much of what has been written about hip-hop and it has been written by people who love hip-hop.  But I always felt the story was incomplete without telling the story of actually how these records got made.  No book had really told the story of how improbably it was, that hip-hop went from being this nothing culture just on the streets to being the world’s predominant pop culture.  And I was particularly attuned to that because I felt like, “This is the new rock and roll.”

And like rock and roll, hip-hop is a culture.  From the business end, how was hip-hop culture able to thrive?

At the end of the book, I point out how people were like, “What the fuck is Russell [Simmons] doing?  Why is he opening a modeling agency?  What does fashion have to do with hip-hop?”  Of course the joke at the end is that it has everything to do with hip-hop.  Russell had this vision that hip-hop could be everything to the hip-hop generation.  It could be not only the music they listened to, but the movies they saw, the TV they watched, the money they spend – with the RUSH card – the clothes that they wore.  Russell had a very expansive vision.

Hip-hop is a turning point in the American narrative about race.

What concerns you about the way hip-hop is presented?

Often, people who love hip-hop speak about it and write about it out of concern:  what’s wrong with hip-hop?  How can we fix hip-hop?  But we’re the people who are supposed to be saying, “Look what hip-hop did for this country.  Look how hip-hop changed the fabric of the way we relate to each other.  Say all you want about violence in hip-hop.  I understand that misogyny in hip-hop can be very oppressive to young women.  I get it and I’m not trying to dismiss that.  However, the fact that young black women and black men now have these concrete examples over and over again of them creating their own institutions  and being successful entrepreneurs.  That’s one example. 

And then, what’s the education that white kids got from all this?  I think that it’s never been celebrated and never really been seen as a positive and I wanted to show it.  You cannot understand America right now and why we look the way we do, why we’re fighting the battles that we’re fighting, why Obama is where he is without understanding the impact that hip-hop has had on the younger generation.  This is not the end of the fight.  This is the beginning of the fight.  Hip-hop is a turning point in the American narrative about race.


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Follow Soren Baker on Twitter: @SorenBaker


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