Interview with Dan Charnas

Those of you that have not had the opportunity to read “The Big Payback” by Dan Charnas need to run to your local bookstore and pick up a copy now. Simply put, this book is a must read for any discerning fan of hip hop culture. I recently had the opportunity to catch up with the man behind this engaging story and this is what he had to say…

Dan what was your initial introduction to rap music? How did you break into the business?

My introduction to rap music was the same as most kids in suburbia: Hearing “Rappers Delight” for the first time, in the fall of 1979. I broke into the business about 10 years later, actually, by doing my college thesis on racial segregation in the music business. Instead of people interviewing me for a job, I was interviewing them. It allowed me to pick the people I wanted to meet — and at least one of them proved instrumental in my career moving forward.

Discuss your motivation for writing “The Big Payback”. What were some of the challenges you faced in the making of the book?

I wrote “The Big Payback” because nobody had at that point really told the story of how hip-hop actually got so big. It was actually an impossible, improbable American success story, and I framed it as a piece of American history. The biggest challenges were doing the thousands of hours of interviews, and finding the time to write a 600+ page 40-year narrative all while working a day job.

How have the dynamics of the rap game changed over the course of the last 30 years?

The success and mainstream acceptance of hip-hop has actually has dampened a bit of the entrepreneurial ardor that gave us unstoppable characters like Sean Combs and Jay-Z. When you have to fight your way into the game and build your own career, that’s a very different energy than having records accepted almost immediately as pop music.

Initially rap was considered a “fad” by critics. Rap now has a rich culture and history and has become a mainstay in popular culture. What were the forces that enabled this to happen?

First, there had to be a culture worth spreading. Genres and styles are more likely to end up as fads or crazes when the culture behind it isn’t strong or complex enough. Hip-hop had a multifaceted culture (music, verse, dance, visual art, and style) by the time the first records surfaced. Second, there had to be a way to make money at it. Third, there needed to be folks willing to take the gamble.  My book is about those folks.

I understand you teach yoga. What role does that play in your life?

I started doing yoga and meditation directly as a result of my relationship with Rick Rubin, working out in California in the 1990s. Basically, I got sick, and yoga healed me. After that, I came to understand that yoga isn’t a set of exercises, but a set of instructions, an owners manual to the human body. At base, yoga is about the power of vibration, the power of the word, and about self-empowerment. Which, for me, puts it in perfect alignment with hip-hop.

How have you grown as a writer over the course of your career?

Writers need good editors. We grow by being challenged. I’ve been blessed in my life to have some stellar ones, among them Jon Shecter at The Source, Rich Leiby at the Washington Post, and Kim Nauer, David Blum and Sam Freedman at the Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. Without them, I’d be a hack. Or, at least, more of a hack than I am now.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

See above. Get yourself a good editor and position your head on their chopping block.

Discuss the work you are involved in currently. Any special projects we need to know about?

I’m circling around a few new possible projects in print, TV, and the Web. Haven’t settled on the next one just yet. But it’s coming.

What are your 3 most prized possessions?

I’m past possessions, which tend to end up possessing you. Instead, I have blessings: my wife, my son, my health.

Thanks for your time Dan. Much respect for the time and dedication that went into the making of this book.

**Interview by Jason Armitage for Roots Forward Records – May 2012.



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