Rhap­sodic over rap: From the Sugar Hill Gang to Lil Wayne.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Aaron Leitko’s work has ap­peared in The Washington Post, Pitch­fork, Washington City Paper and “Best Mu­sic Writ­ing 2010.” leitkoa@wash­post.com

Whether you’re talk­ing jazz, disco or rock-and-roll, in Amer­i­can mu­sic rags-toriches is the rul­ing nar­ra­tive. But if the record in­dus­try has one truly Ho­ra­tio Al­ger-wor­thy tale to tell, it’s the as­cent of hip-hop. Over the past 30 years, rap mu­sic has risen from the street cor­ners of New York City to be­come a global mil­lion-dol­lar cul­ture ma­chine. The vi­sion­ary art was only part of it. Hip-hop also needed a few good sales­men. In “The Big Pay­back,” Dan Char­nas, a for­mer tal­ent scout man for Pro­file Records and a writer for the rap mu­sic and cul­ture mag­a­zine the Source, chron­i­cles the his­tory of hip-hop as told by the record com­pany ex­ec­u­tives, ra­dio pro­gram­mers and mag­a­zine moguls who helped guide the genre from ur­ban sub­cul­ture to mass-mar­ket be­he­moth.

Hip-hop should not have needed so much pro­mo­tion. Its com­mer­cial ap­peal was ev­i­dent from the get-go. Sales of the Sugar Hill Gang’s 1979 sin­gle “Rapper’s De­light,” rap’s first break­through hit, tal­lied in the mil­lions. But the main­stream was slow to catch on. Even as late as 1991, ma­jor ra­dio sta­tions, even black-owned ones, were openly hos­tile to the genre. “ The slo­gans were great,” Char­nas writes. “ ‘No rap and no hard rock’ (B104 in Bal­ti­more). ‘No kids, no rap, no crap’(KHMXinHous­ton). WBMX in Bos­ton aired a TV spot that fea­tured gold chains be­ing pulled out of a ra­dio while the an­nouncer said, ‘No rap!’ ”

Char­nas digs up true be­liev­ers who helped break the em­bargo. Some were re­gional per­son­al­i­ties — ra­dio ex­ec­u­tives such as Greg­gory Macmil­lan of Los An­ge­les’s KDAY and Keith Naf­taly, pro­gram di­rec­tor of San Fran­cisco’s KMEL, who made a point of mak­ing their sta­tions hip-hop friendly. Oth­ers, such as Ted Demme, who pro­duced the ground­break­ing hour-long mu­sic-video block “Yo! MTV Raps,” will be fa­mil­iar to any­body who spent the late ’80s with a re­mote con­trol in her hand.

But hip-hop had the po­ten­tial to sell more than just records. Rap­pers, un­like rock stars, could pick up en­dorse­ment deals with­out be­ing cast as to­tal sell­outs. The Fat Boys inked a deal with a Swiss watch com­pany and helped make Swatch syn­ony­mous with the ’80s. Run-DMC wrote “My Adi­das.” Dur­ing the ’90s, New York City-based rap crew the Wu Tang Clan took things a step fur­ther— found­ing a Wu-Wear cloth­ing line that was mar­keted di­rectly to fans via cat­a­logues in­cluded with the al­bum art. “Wu Tang be­came the first group in hip-hop,” Char­nas writes, “per­haps in all of pop mu­sic, to not only launch them­selves as a suc­cess­ful Amer­i­can brand out­side of the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try, but to own that brand.”

At 600-plus pages, “ The Big Pay­back” is a doorstop. Char­nas opens with Alexan­der Hamil­ton and closes with rapper-cum-la­bel-pres­i­dent-cum-cloth­ing-im­pre­sario Jay-Z in­duct­ing hip-hop orig­i­na­tors Grand­mas­ter Flash and the Fu­ri­ous Five into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.

Char­nas catches the busi­ness in its in­fancy — when fu­ture moguls strug­gled to deal with the day-to-day busy­work of run­ning a record la­bel. Some of them had a long way to climb. Char­nas re­calls Bill Steph­ney, an early em­ployee of Def Jam records, who called the la­bel “ the com­bined work ex­pe­ri­ence of ten days at an Orange Julius.” The juice-pump­ing gig had been la­bel founder Rus­sell Sim­mons’s only pre-Def Jam em­ploy­ment. Co-founder Rick Ru­bin couldn’t even claim that on his re­sume.

In ma­tu­rity, rap mu­sic achieved the power to an­noy ma­jor cor­po­ra­tions — the scan­dal sur­round­ing “Cop Killer,” a song by rapper Ice-T’s heavy-metal band, Body Count, spurred a na­tional boy­cott of Time Warner, the la­bel’s par­ent com­pany. “I got my 12 gauge sawed off, I got head­lights turned off, I’m about to bust some shots off, I’m about to dust some cops off,” shouted Ice-T over screech­ing gui­tars.

“Cop Killer” is a rock song, though, and Ice-T sings the lyrics in­stead of rap­ping them. That dis­tinc­tion is enough to keep the song out of “The An­thol­ogy of Rap,” though the vol­ume does in­clude some of the MC’s more tra­di­tional rhymes. The book com­piles im­por­tant verses drawn from through­out hip-hop’s his­tory. It’s strange to see the lyrics printed on Bi­ble-grade paper and placed in an aca­demic con­text, but leaf­ing through the book, one can get a sense of how rapidly the genre evolved. “Now if your name is An­nie get up off your fan­nie/ if your name is Clyde get off your back side,” rhymed Kurtis Blow in the 1980 song “Rap­pin Blow (Part 2).” Thirty years later, hip-hop lan­guage is a lit­tle more po-mo. “I walk right in hip-hop like, ‘ Where my din­ner be at?’ I ate that and was like, ‘Where my din­ner be at?’ ” raps Lil Wayne on “Live from the 504,” from a 2007 mix­tape. There’s plenty of room for se­ri­ous study.

“ The Big Pay­back” may be a book that fa­vors desk-jock­eys over disc jock­eys, but Char­nas doesn’t short­change the pas­sion that both par­ties poured into hip-hop. The mu­sic united as of­ten as it di­vided — in­spir­ing artists and en­trepreneurs to set aside class and race dif­fer­ences. While study­ing at Har­vard, Jon Shecter, founder of the Source, brought rapper KRS-One to cam­pus to speak in a panel dis­cus­sion. When the floor opened for ques­tions, some black stu­dents tried to take Shecter down a peg. From their per­spec­tive, a white guy had no busi­ness run­ning a hip-hop mag­a­zine. “KRS-One had the power, in that moment, to make or break the rep­u­ta­tion of the mag­a­zine,” Char­nas writes. The rapper backed Shecter up: “If you think you can do bet­ter, outdo them.”


1. Jam-Mas­ter Jay 2. D.M.C. 3. Run 4. Method Man 5. Fla­vor Flav 6. Eazy-E 7. Tu­pac Shakur 8. Snoop Dogg 9. Jay-Z 10. Kanye West 11. Lil Wayne 12. Eminem 13. Big­gie Smalls 14. Ice Cube 15. Dr. Dre 16. RZA 17. O.D.B. 18. Ghost­face Kil­lah 19. GZA

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