“The young … have no reference for the time before hip-hop: when rappers couldn’t get their records played on radio or show on TV; when Black artists of any genre were asked, literally, to make their music sound and make themselves look Whiter; when Black actors and actresses didn’t star in summer blockbuster films; when Black women who actually looked like Black women didn’t grace the covers of magazines; when Black men and women didn’t own multimillion-dollar companies based on selling their own culture to the nation and the world.”
–from Dan Charnas‘ The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip Hop
Most of the books I post about here are about the cartoon business, though on rare occasions I’ll let you in on what’s on my personal bookshelf. Rarely, seeing as my reading tastes are often off the beaten path of cartoons; fiction-wise I read mysteries almost exclusively. But in non-fiction I spend a lot of time (too much time) reading about pop culture (including a lot of animation), with a lot of focus on the behind-the-scenes machinations on the business behind the culture. (It probably explains why, when I stopped playing piano, I flipped onto the other side of booth and started recording music, which eventually led to producing television and film.)
Today, a twitch from Mark Zuckerberg makes headlines, but back in the day a simple rock star’s simple statement could shake the world. Before internet philosophy came to dominate world thought, music culture –more than movies, television, and yes, sadly, cartoons– defined American culture and therefore, at least in our last century, world culture. And, of course, to anyone who’s paying attention, whether one loves The Beatles or Megadeth or Josh Groban or Fela Anikulapo Kuti, or even the Monsters of Folk, the defining force in music (and back around, for the whole world’s culture) for over 100 years has been American black music.
Last year, my obsession was Record Makers and Breakers: Voices of the Independent Rock ‘n’ Roll Pioneers (Music in American Life) by John Broven, about the indie pop record business in the second half of the 20th century, which, along with Arnold Shaw’s Honkers and Shouters, gave me a thorough view of the cutting edge of pop culture. Both those books trailed off before hip hop, the last defining black musical –and cultural– explosion of the century.
Dan Charnas has done a great job reporting the cross currents of “joy and pain, triumph and failure, grace and greed” (Jeff Chang) that created, nurtured, and eventually, got the better of hip hop. I’ve tried to read a lot of hip hop histories over the years, but inevitably been turned away by the terrible writing, editorializing, and inaccuracies. But the final chapters Tony Fletcher’s excellent All Hopped Up and Ready to Go: Music from the Streets of New York 1927-77 and Jay-Z’s Fresh Air interview last month whet my appetite for more and Charnas delivers the first book that makes me want to get over my listening limitations (after Rapper’s Delight I was a big fan from “Sucker MC’s” through the mid-90s, but I pretty much got lost at Wu-Tang).
Whether you care about hip hop or not, if you’re reading this blog you’re involved with pop culture. If you want to know more about what makes it what it is, read The Big Payback. If you like to read, you won’t be disappointed.
Bonus track: Here’s what started the whole thing, the Sugarhill Gang’s original 12″ of Rapper’s Delight.