Hip-hop’s success as a culture had a lot to do with the way it sold itself. So much so, veteran journalist and former record-label executive Dan Charnas argues in his first book, that discussing the business is discussing the entire genre. Monumental in every way, The Big Payback: The History Of The Business Of Hip-Hop delivers not simply a new version of a well-known story, but one that’s a constant revelation. Every page is loaded with fresh, acutely detailed, great stories delivered in bite-size, and Charnas’ snappy pace makes getting through its 650-some pages a pleasure.

Charnas begins where all hip-hop histories begin, with DJ Kool Herc spinning records in the Bronx in 1973. But the focus is on Herc’s most basic reason for getting into the DJ game—the money. Charnas tracks the early breakbeat culture, profiling key early figures like Sal Abbatiello, who ran Disco Fever, a Bronx club and crucial hip-hop incubator; and Nick deKrechewo, owner of Downstairs Records, located in a midtown-Manhattan subway station, where lots of early DJs sought out rare breakbeats. He portrays the savvy artist Fab Five Freddy as he brokers connections between hip-hop, punk, and the art world before going on to host Yo! MTV Raps.


As hip-hop gains cultural traction, Charnas tracks every wrinkle. Some of the stories are comic, as when a promoter for a hip-hop talent show in 1983 speaks to some of the older women working for Radio City Music Hall: “[Lynda] West told them how she planned to stage a show that included rapping and break dancing. ‘Break dancing?!’ one of the ladies said. ‘Breaking what?!’ West realized this woman actually thought that people were literally going to break things onstage.”

As the music—mainly via the hard-rock sound of Def Jam, the brainchild of the mogul-minded Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin, whose ultimate compliment was “That is the worst shit”—gains in popularity, Charnas tracks every development, from the rise of pop-oriented hip-hop like MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice to the founding of The Source and Vibe to the careers of Sean Combs (whom Charnas pointedly refuses to ID by any of his many aliases) and Jay-Z, the most visible hip-hop success stories. Charnas also pays detailed attention to the role of radio in hip-hop’s rise, as when New York’s Hot 97 courts rappers for on-air appearances: “Flavor Flav came [to Hot 97] to do morning traffic. ‘The GWB is messed up, g!’ Flav shouted over the helicopter noise.”