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The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop Hardcover – December 7, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Charnas tells the story of hip-hop in this stylish, lavishly detailed love letter to the genre and industry. He follows the money and œthe relationship between artist and merchant—who, in hip-hop, are often one and the same from hip-hop™s early days as a œmarginal urban subculture in Harlem of the late 1960s to its insinuation into—and eventual domination of—mainstream popular music. Charnas makes an elegant case for how hip-hop is the consummate American art form, one that reflects American society in all its volubility and violence—as well as possessing the power to alter it. In its promise of economic security and creative control for black artist-entrepreneurs, it is the culmination of the dreams of black nationalists and civil rights leaders. Charnas spent seven years working for Rick Rubin, famed producer and cofounder of Def Jam Records, and writes with the authority of an insider, the passion of a fan, and the cool eye of someone who has maneuvered through the day-to-day working of the business. Nuanced treatment of the impresarios behind signature sounds and recording empires, and brisk, dramatic vignettes, give this history of a leaderless revolution impressive momentum. (Jan.)
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"Pulitzer-level reporting."

"A classic of music business dirt-digging as well as a kind of pulp epic."
-Rolling Stone (4-star review)

"As gripping and dense as a prime Jay-Z rhyme...Charnas has done a real service to pop history."
-New York Daily News

"Essential...The Big Payback focuses not on the beefs you know but on the back-room battles you don't."

"[An] exhaustive, engrossing history of the genre"
-Entertainment Weekly

"In a year that has seen plenty of hip-hop books, The Big Payback stands out as a must-read for any fan - or detractor - of the genre."

"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."
-Austin Chronicle

"Dan Charnas captures an epic story full of joy and pain, triumph and failure, grace and greed with the skills of a journalist, the wisdom of an insider, and the passion of a microphone fiend. Call The Big Payback a hip-hop version of David Halberstam's The Reckoning."
-Jeff Chang, author, Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation

"With an insider's connections and an outsider's perspective, Dan Charnas has written the otherwise untold story of the business of hip-hop. His cast of characters -- producers, agents, label executives, talent scouts -- is every bit as compelling and dramatic as the musicians themselves. In the tradition of such great music journalists as Fred Goodman and Frederic Dannen, Charnas takes us way behind the scenes. It's an unforgettable odyssey."
-Samuel G. Freedman, New York Times columnist and author of Upon This Rock, Who She Was, and Jew vs. Jew

"The Big Payback is a stunning achievement. Not only does it manage to pack in countless unprecedented anecdotes about hip-hop that you can't find anywhere else, the read is effortlessly smooth. First there was David Toop's Rap Attack, Ego-Trip's Book of Rap Lists, then Jeff Chang's Can't Stop, Won't Stop, and now this book, the one ring that rules them all."
-Cheo H. Coker, co-screenwriter of Notorious and author of Unbelievable: The Life, Death, and Afterlife of the Notorious B.I.G.

"How did hip hop's shoot-from-the-lip outlaws and go-for-broke gamblers become the entertainment industry's new landed gentry? Dan Charnas brings a fan's devotion, an industry insider's savvy, and a reporter's unblinking eye to chronicling a cultural revolution that is as contradictory and complex as the country that produced it. Payback is a bitch."
-Fred Goodman, author of Fortune's Fool and The Mansion on the Hill


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 672 pages
  • Publisher: NAL Hardcover; 1St Edition edition (December 7, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0451229290
  • ISBN-13: 978-0451229298
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 2 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (56 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #289,014 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Dan Charnas -- journalist, screenwriter, record producer, teacher -- was one of the first writers for The Source and part of a generation of young writers who helped create hip-hop journalism.

Charnas penned cover stories, features, reviews and columns for a variety of publications on artists like L.L. Cool J, Ice Cube, A Tribe Called Quest, N.W.A. and Public Enemy.

Dan began his music business career in the mailroom of the seminal rap label Profile Records, eventually becoming Rap A&R and Promotion Manager -- working on projects from Run-D.M.C., Dana Dane, Special Ed, Rob Base, Special Ed and DJ Quik.

In 1991, he was recruited by Def Jam-founder Rick Rubin to run the rap department of his new Warner Bros. joint venture, American Recordings. Charnas, as VP of A&R and Marketing, oversaw projects including Sir Mix-A-Lot's double-platinum single "Baby Got Back" (the #1 Billboard Pop Single of 1992), DJ Kool's gold anthem "Let Me Clear My Throat," and Chino XL's acclaimed "Here To Save You All," which influenced emcees from Eminem to 50 Cent.

In the late 90s, Charnas met actor/director Forest Whitaker and became VP of Music for Spirit Dance Entertainment, where he managed Whitaker's label deal with Sony/Epic. It was at Spirit Dance that Charnas resumed his writing career, this time for film and TV.

Charnas has written comedy for MTV's "The Lyricist Lounge Show" and BET's "Comic View." He was a Music Supervisor for Showtime's "Interscope Presents The Next Episode." He was also the Head Writer for FitTV/Discovery Channel's "Guru 2 Go."

In the magazine world, Charnas was Editorial Director for Aquarian Times, an international yoga magazine; and a columnist for Profile Magazine (the online magazine about dating & relationships).

Currently, Charnas writes about culture, race, and politics for a number of publications, including the Washington Post and the New York Press. His writing has also appreared in Scratch Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Austin American Statesman and dozens of other newspapers.

Charnas graduated Phi Beta Kappa, Summa Cum Laude with Distinction from Boston University. His thesis, "Musical Apartheid In America," examined white America's 400-year-long relationship of ambivalence to Black culture; the legacy of racial segregation in the music industry; and the potential of hip-hop in resolving that ambivalence, transforming the industry and the entire culture.

Charnas received his Master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where he won a Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship, the school's top honor. Charnas was also awarded the Lynton Fellowship for Book Writing, and the Sackett Graduate Award.

His book, "The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop," is the epic, 40-year narrative of the executives, entrepreneurs, hustlers and handlers who turned rap music into the world's predominant pop culture. Culled from over 300 interviews with top industry figures and artists, and nearly a decade of research, "The Big Payback" will be published by New American Library/Penguin in 2010.

Currently, Charnas is the managing editor of InteractiveOne, overseeing websites like,, and

Charnas has been a teacher of Kundalini Yoga for nearly a decade, certified by the Kundalini Research Institute. He teaches regular classes in New York, and contributes regularly to

He was born and lives in New York City.

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By David Lee Ressel on December 13, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
What "Hit and Run" did for exposing rock music, "Country Music, USA" dissected for Country Music and "Three Blind Mice" examined in Television, "The Big Payback" does for hip-hop. Almost every book on hip-hop has been overly academic, a cash-in or hagiography of the stars. Nobody has touched the nexus of commerce, culture (in particular race) and history in such a suspenseful narrative as "The Big Payback." Primarily, especially for those of us who grew up with hip-hop, this book opens the doors of what lay behind the music without the hype. And, it is more than just "Mo, Money, Mo' Problems." In particular, the historical roots of the music on the streets of Harlem add The Bronx. I found it impossible to put down. I only wish that the electronic version might have contained a soundtrack or maybe a video to punctuate the text.
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Kevin A. Mitchell on December 9, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is the most detailed and real to life accounting of the business of music ever written. Details are provided about the "behind the scenes" activity of how the hip-hop business grew into a billion dollar business. The book is vivid and informative to anyone aspiring to pursue a career in the music business. The author Dan Charnas' account is second to none and a must read for any fan of entertainment. Nothing like this exists to my knowledge. It provides the process of the development of an American art form that has transcended from the streets of the Bronx to the shores of Tivalu. Hip-hop music transformed life and culture in the 20th and 21st century and its fair to say it affected the election of an American president. I haven't put it down since I picked it up. Go grab this asap!!!
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Zack O. Greenburg on December 13, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"The man who invented American money lived and died in Harlem."

Thus begins The Big Payback, a tour-de-force of a book that details the rise of rap music from the burned-out blocks of the South Bronx in the 1970s to the top of the international mainstream music world today. Tracking more than 30 years of hip-hop's history, it gives readers a peek at the origins of all the major players in the genre today-and the pioneers on whose shoulders they stand.

This sweeping narrative reminds readers that hip-hop has merged with mainstream popular music despite the naysayers who, even today, write it off as a passing fad. One need look no further than the obscure DJs spinning in sweaty South Bronx clubs in the book's early chapters to the rap stars starting their own companies by the book's end to realize how far hip-hop has come, and where it may yet go.

In a year that has seen plenty of hip-hop books, The Big Payback stands out as a must-read for any fan (or even any detractor) of the genre.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By J. Bosiljevac on February 17, 2012
Format: Paperback
In the past 30 years, no other art form has had a larger impact on popular culture than hip hop. From the street corners of the Bronx and the disco clubs of New York City in the late 1970s, rap music and hip hop culture exploded out of the cities and across the U.S. (then worldwide) in the 1980s. White suburban kids were buying rap tapes at the mall, wearing baggy pants and high-tops like rappers they saw on MTV, installing car stereos with window-rattling bass and speaking in a whole new hip-hop slanguage. Hip hop was to my generation what rock `n' roll was to my parents'--a new form of music, expression and rebellion all rolled into one. For white suburban kids, and particularly for their parents, rap was dangerous, born out of a predominantly African-American street culture. But long before the first rap video hit MTV, before kids like myself had ever heard of Run DMC or the Beastie Boys, long before my band teacher talked about how amazing MC Hammer's dancing had been at the Grammy's the night before, a few creative DJ's in New York's disco clubs improvised a new kind of performance art. They started talking, or "rapping," over the intros to their songs, which evolved into talking over the breaks in the middle of the songs (the parts without lyrics). The crowds at the clubs were eating it up, so the DJs searched for songs with longer breaks. Then, so they could rap longer, they started mixing songs together to extend the breaks. Thus was born a new form of music.

But as with any cultural phenomenon, the artists (and they wouldn't have considered themselves artists--they were just spinning records) were only part of the equation. It took some keen business minds to recognize an opportunity and exploit it. People like Joe and Sylvia Robinson, founders of Sugar Hill Records.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Laura L. Ohata on January 23, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Dan Charnas' book, The Big Pay Back, is one of the 3 best books I've read in the past ten years. Hip-hop fans will find lots to learn here, while the narrative is engaging enough to entertain and enlighten the most distracted entrepreneur. I place it up on the shelf right next to Sun Tsu's Art of War. Yes, it is that good!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By E. B. Pondelik on January 5, 2011
Format: Hardcover
The Big Payback is a wonderful history of the behind the scenes action of hip-hop from the 70's on. It focuses on New York and California almost exclusively and Def Jam in particular. Rap-A-Lot gets a name check and Cash Money gets a few pages. The evolution of hip-hop radio is very interesting since I haven't seen it explored before. The book isn't encyclopedic in it's scope. It covers a wide range of topics and leaves a few loose ends for those in the know. For instance, The Source gets a lot of coverage, but the story ends with the break up of the original owners. It doesn't get bogged down in the further slide of that magazine. These omissions don't hurt at all. The book builds to a very satisfying conclusion. It builds from a type of music no one wanted to put money in to a industry where deals in the tens of millions of dollars aren't uncommon. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants a history of how hip-hop got to where it is today with a little behind the scenes gossip thrown in.
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