Hip-hop journalist Dan Charnas tells the story of the corporate battles and street scuffles that made hip-hop in The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop.
You're so good at writing swift and evocative descriptions of hip-hop artists and entrepreneurs. If you were to describe yourself in the book, how would it read?
[Laughs] Oh, man—I suppose I'd be the "eager, naive college grad who entered the business willing to do anything to help hip-hop take its rightful place in history." I was lucky enough to work for some great, historical figures—Cory Robbins of Profile Records, Rick Rubin. That allowed me to be a fly on the wall for a few key moments and get insight into countless others. And I lived to see some of my fondest hopes for hip-hop come true. But my own accomplishments weren't quite substantial enough to merit making myself a character in my own book. Perhaps my contribution ultimately was to write the history, rather than make it.
I read that Q-Tip made less than 20 grand on A Tribe Called Quest's first album, People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. Could you give a rough breakdown of how hip-hop artists were paid before Wendy Day, Wu-Tang, and Cash Money—during what many would consider the golden age of hip-hop?
Q-Tip might have pocketed less than $20,000 as an advance for Tribe's first album. But that deal, I am told, was $250,000 all in. Subtracting huge management and producer fees and recording costs, $20 grand to each member of the group for a first album isn't exactly a livable wage, but it isn't anywhere near as bad as it could have been for a new artist—it wasn't uncommon for new artists to get very little or no cash advance for first-time releases. Tribe got $250,000 for their first album. Profile Records' Poor Righteous Teachers, released around the same time, got less than $20,000 all in! The difference was that Tribe was in a bidding war. PRT was not. But the record company ethos, especially for small, independent labels, has always been that you suffer until you sell.
What's the situation today? How does an artist make enough money to keep making records?
It's harder because nobody's making any money. Sound recording copyrights aren't worth a damn anymore—the recordings are so easily procured for free! The money is in ancillary streams now—touring, merchandising, sponsorships, and consumer products.
Hip-Hop seems similar to professional football in the respect that the pioneers who broke ground when there was little money to be made are venerated in public, but privately, they're struggling to provide for themselves—while the new generations became multi-millionaires. What can you tell us about how some the legends are supporting themselves?
DJ Hollywood, for example, seems to pick up club gigs here and there when he can. Grandmaster Flash has parlayed his fame into more high profile gigs—DJing for the Chris Rock Show on HBO, a book deal, electronics endorsement deals. The economic outlook is as varied as the artists themselves.
As a former record executive, what slept-on songs/albums do you think would have been huge if they had dropped at a different time?
[Laughs] My own! Releasing a comic-rap album from Kwest Tha Madd Ladd in the middle of the "keep it real" era of the late 1990s was a real disconnect. There just didn't seem to be any more room in hip-hop for a varied palate of expression. Tribe, of course, are hip-hop demigods now, but back in the day, their first album had trouble cracking a half-million, while artists like Too Short and Luke sold records in the millions. Folks have little understanding of how much of a struggle it was to sell records without the aid of radio back then—especially for non-gangster, non-salacious, highbrow rap like Tribe. Tribe made great radio records; radio just didn't play them. That's one of the reasons that hip-hop lost its variety. By the time radio got on board, folks like Public Enemy and Tribe had made their best records, and the ascendant brands were Death Row and Bad Boy. And we all know how that turned out.
The book deals extensively with the Ice-T controversy of Ice-T's song, "Copkiller." How successful were censorship proponents, C. Dolores Tucker and Rev. Butts, really? Or did hip-hop already have sufficient momentum, and all we were actually hearing was censorship's extremely loud death rattle?
They did indeed wreak some havoc, but Butts and Tucker and Bill Bennett ultimately lost that battle. You can scare corporations, but you can't put a muzzle on the streets, and some other corporation or entrepreneur is always going to scoop up that money if there is money to be made.
How integral do you think the move away from sampling (or at least the move toward interpolation and away from outright jacking) was for hip-hop's ultimate success?
The most important event in the sampling saga was Judge Kevin Duffy's ruling about Biz Markie's interpolation of "Alone Again (Naturally)" by Gilbert O'Sullivan. That situation, so mind-bogglingly mishandled by Warner Bros. and Cold Chillin Records' lawyers, set an awful precedent. Duffy actually said, "Thou shalt not steal." And it isn't stealing! I was always a proponent of this postmodern way of music making—sampling is inseparable from hip-hop. It's not the only way to make hip-hop, but it's a core tactic. Duffy's ruling made sampling more expensive—but it also made producers cleverer, so there were some creative wins for hip-hop in that. The saga continues today. Drake's huge hit "Best I Ever Had" was an amazing use of a triggered sample—if only they had cleared it, they wouldn't have gotten sued.
The pop side of hip-hop seems cemented, and the true underground heads will always be able to find what they want, but is hip-hop in danger of losing its middle? Ten years ago, we had Unsigned Hype and the Hip-Hop Quotable of the Month; we had a vibrant mix-tape scene. For the semi-casual fan, it was not hard to stay up on what was respectably hot. Does an emerging artist who aspires to be the next Rakim have to be as skilled with a computer as he is with his rhymes? Does he have to also succeed in brand management? Can the next Rakim ever reach as many fans as the original Rakim without excelling at something other than rhymin'?
That's a really good line of inquiry. Yes, easy pop stuff gets bumped by the record companies and radio stations. Yes, the underground heads have formed a network of their own. But what about developing mid-level artists, the Tribe Called Quests of today? The route isn't so clear. In the past, Tribe's development was sustained by their record company and a robust community of smaller media outlets. That community has dispersed and the media outlets are waning. I'm not sure I can answer that question except to say that this is a time of great flux in the music business, and those who look to the older means of distribution are going to be disappointed. Hip-hop thrived because enthusiastic entrepreneurs, artists and fans created their own institutions when shut out of the mainstream. And it will take that same kind of energy to cut a "middle path" for hip-hop in the future.
If you could lock any artist and producer in a studio until they finish an album, who would you choose? (Feel free to specify a time, such as Nas ‘93 and Rick Rubin '89, or throw as many people in the room as you would like.)
I just want Dilla back. Dilla could make a beat for any MC, in any era.