MusicHip-hop historian Dan Charnas hopes "gangsta rap doesn't come back"
We spoke to the author of 'The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-hop' about moguls, the culture of the 90s and how now it's "the activists who are doing the work, not the rappers."
In the early 90s, hip-hop was considered too dangerous for the mainstream, corporate America to touch. Songs like Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” and N.W.A.’s “Fuck The Police” sparked national controversies. But gangsta rap flourished outside the major record label system anyway, without corporate endorsement or radio play.
Twenty years later, everything has changed. Today, N.W.A's Dr. Dre is a billionaire. Straight Outta Compton, the biopic portraying the story of the Compton hip-hop collective N.W.A. in the early 90s has blown away the box office, staying at number one for two weekends and raking in more than $111 million so far. Along with the movie, Dr. Dre released his first album in 16 years, Compton, which sold 286,000 copies in its first week. But not all of the old controversy has vanished: Dr. Dre apologized in the New York Times last week for abusive incidents from his past, a history that wasn't included in the film.
We spoke to Dan Charnas, the author of The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-hop, about how culture has changed since the 90s, the reason there aren’t any more hip-hop moguls, and why he hopes gangsta rap never comes back.
Author of The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop and Work Clean, former contributor at The Source and Associate Arts Professor at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, Tisch School of The Arts, New York University
HOPES & FEARS: In your book, you spend a lot of time talking about the fear that corporate America had of hip-hop in the 80s and 90s. In light of this very successful film, which is about some of the rappers who were once most feared by the establishment, would you say that tension is gone or do you think it has just taken a different form?
DAN CHARNAS: It’s such a different world now. I think that, for the most part, hip-hop has been mainstreamed. Gangsta rap, as it was, is not an active real subgenre anymore. It's not like we have a current day N.W.A, this sort of nihilistic crew. They were threatening to law enforcement. They were lawless. There are no rappers that present themselves like that [today]. [At least] not in the mainstream. The tone of hip hop has changed somewhat, so I think that N.W.A., even though they never had any kind of corporate blessing back in the day, is essentially a toothless relic of history now. Dre is a capitalist now. He's a businessman. Ice Cube is a matinee star. The things that were done in years past are much more sellable, but then again of course the entire relationship between corporate America and hip hop has obviously changed. That change happened really in the 90s and 2000s when hip hop was mainstreamed.
H&F: In the last year we’ve seen a lot of parallels to the early 9d0s, in terms of Black Lives Matter movement and the focus on police brutality. Why have the reactions of the hip-hop community to these events not been seen as threatening, the way N.W.A. was in the 90s?
DC: You are assuming that the resistance to hip-hop was based on the politics of hip-hop. It was not. Nobody was afraid to program or help Public Enemy because they were militants. They were afraid to program Public Enemy because they thought that their radio station wouldn't make money. They thought they’d lose listeners if they played them. Right?
Same thing for gangsta rap. It wasn't the political or militant messages that people were afraid of. It was Time Warner and companies like that basically having to tangle with cultural conservatives who were more incensed about violent language than any sort of fear that “hey, these folks are rabble-rousing”. What cultural conservatives were reacting to was the rebuke of law enforcement, which is not in itself a political thing.
I just don't want people to get the impression that the powers to be were afraid of Public Enemy. They wanted whatever looks like the easiest way to a buck, right? If they can make a buck off of N.W.A then that's what they'll do. Of course, they could have made money off N.W.A. [in the 90s], they just didn't know how.
H&F: So, is hip-hop less political today than it was in the 90s?
DC: [The last few years have seen] the unveiling of police brutality for the mainstream through social media and activist [groups]. Black people have always known about it. Yes, there have been some artists like Kendrick [Lamar], like J. Cole who have been very much aligned with that movement. [But] it is not the hip hop folks who are in the lead. It's the kids who are in the lead and the music is following. That's the difference nowadays. A Kendrick song could be a rallying cry for sure and definitely gives comfort to the activists, but it's really the activists themselves who are doing the work, not the rappers. Because of that, the music itself is not threatening. Kendrick Lamar's not leading the political movement and he shouldn’t. He's an artist. Cultural conservatives aren't coming after him. You want to know why? Because the cultural conservatives are too busy dealing with the people in the streets. It’s not some symbolic artist lyric. Now there's really some shit going on in the streets.
H&F: It sounds like you're saying there’s more hope for change now than there was in the 90s. It’s not just a song or a concept that people are afraid of now, it's an actual, political, and in some ways a physical threat to the establishment.
DC: Yeah. I'm proud of these kids. They're doing great work and they're doing it where they're supposed to be doing it, in the streets.
I came up in the generation when culture was supposed to lead what was going on in the streets. I don't know. Maybe we gave culture a little bit too much credit.
H&F: When you were writing your book, did you sense that there was a nostalgia for gangsta rap growing or do you feel like that's something that's happened in the last year or two?
DC: Other than this movie, what's the nostalgia? It's a biopic coming out. Brian Turner and those guys decided that it was time to make a movie and they had the juice to make a movie and they did it well. That's what it is.
The Big Payback is the inspiration for something that we're doing at VH1, and then there's a bunch of other hip-hop-based TV projects that are supposed to be coming out. I think 25 years is a good time for people to start looking back on a particular era. It's a very interesting era so there's a lot of juice there. The birth of the classic hip-hop radio formats too. It's more [nostalgia for] that time. It's not gangsta rap in particular. I don't know anybody who's nostalgic for gangsta rap and frankly, a lot of us have reconsidered [liking it] and are a bit ashamed that we didn't do... not that we could have done anything, but some of us are feeling like is there more we could have done back in the day because it seems like the N.W.A thing led to a lot of misogyny later on in hip-hop.
As the words come out of my mouth I hear the falseness ring in them because... no writers at The Source magazine could have ever stopped N.W.A from being anything. No radio DJ could have stopped N.W.A. N.W.A did not need radio or magazines to sell to the kids. It was the kids who were buying it. I think, oh, we could have done more and then I'm like no, we couldn't have. We were all trying understand it. Maybe we could have made fewer excuses for misogyny. Again, misogyny is a problem that’s not going to be solved just in culture. It's got to be solved everywhere. Music is only one part of it.
H&F: Though misogyny clearly doesn't come exclusively from culture, it does seem that the battles have been happening in culture and over cultural icons. In the last week, there has been an uproar around things that Dr. Dre did that have been not in the public eye for most of the last 20 years.
DC: No, totally and that's what I can't stand about the Dre stans who feel that have to protect Dre's honor saying like, "Where were you guys 25 years ago? Why are you bringing this up now?" First of all, don't try to make me feel bad because a billionaire is trying to take his victory lap, okay?
It's Dre who decided to make his biopic and choose what he wanted to put in and what he didn't want to put in. He chose that. We also didn't choose for Dee Barnes [the journalist who accused Dr. Dre of assault] to pick this time to really tell her whole story. Which actually happens to have a lot of bearing on the movie because her cameraman back in the day was Gary Gray, who directed this movie.
We all thought it was horrible what [Dre] did to Dee. He was persona non grata for awhile. Then he put out The Chronic. The Chronic was every bit as much of that gangster personality as he had before. It's not like Dre changed. He created a hot album and everybody was like, oh, he's still a hot artist.
H&F: It sounds like what you're saying is that you can't stop culture from spreading if it's the right moment.
DC: If you look at The Source, we were the first to put out an issue about gangsta rap. We were actually the first to name it. The Source’s article was the very first piece that actually said "gangsta rap" and grappled with it. You can only grapple with it because it's a thing that's larger than all of us. It comes from the culture.
The Big Payback was about demystifying this idea that corporate America decided to promote gangsta rap. Corporate America was running away from gangsta rap. The fact of the matter is hip-hop really began to be popular when the lyrics more closely aligned with capitalism. When it became more about being a hustler than about being gangster.
H&F: Even if there’s no nostalgia around gangsta rap, it seems like the film is creating its own surge. Right now the original album, 'Straight Outta Compton', is at #4 on the Billboard 200 chart. Dr. Dre's new album is at #3.
DC: It's not. It's marketing. Don't make a trend piece out of this. You’ve got to read it for what it is. Of course Dre's album is number 3. He hasn't put out an album in 15 years. Of course the soundtrack is doing well. The movie is doing well and some people have never heard this music before and it's amazing music.
My God, I hope gangsta rap does not come back. Let's keep on with what we're doing. I like Dre's album but it's not gangsta rap.
I think what is interesting is that Dre has managed to stay on top of the game. He and Russell Simmons I think have been the most continuous presences in hip-hop.
H&F: In the last sections of your book, you talk a lot about the rise of capitalism in hip-hop, and hip-hop figures becoming moguls. You focus a lot in that section on merchandise and fashion, like Rocawear and Phat Farm. Fashion was how these people were making money in the 2000s. Now it seems like it’s shifted more towards technology. Dre, in particular, has called himself the first billionaire in hip-hop and that's largely because of his headphone brand, Beats by Dre, which was bought by Apple.
DC: [Beats are] a consumer product. That's not technology. Headphones have existed well before apps and all that. If you listen to some people they're not very good headphones either.
H&F: Regardless of the quality of the headphones, it's still the deal with Apple that’s made him so much money. Do you see other artists trying to follow in his footsteps? Who do you think will be the next billionaire in hip hop?
DC: I have absolutely no idea. I don't think that we're making any new entrepreneurs at this point. I think hip hop entrepreneurship arose because corporate America would not touch hip-hop. Corporate America would not touch Jay-Z, so Jay-Z made his own company. You don't have that now. You don't see Drake, or Kendrick, or even Kanye really being successful entrepreneurs because there's no need for it. They can go ahead and be artists just like all the other artists. They don't have to be moguls as well. That's a good thing for their art in the short term, but maybe not such a good thing in the long term, because when you don't control the art then somebody controls it for you.
H&F: We have seen some other attempts to get into technology, like Jay-Z with Tidal, which was considered a failure.
DC: It's a harder business, especially when you can't trade on your name. Jay-Z alone is not going to make people sign up for his service. It's got to actually be a good service. Wearing Rocawear is different from subscribing to a monthly service.
H&F: You end your book talking about the rise of hip-hop moguls. Now you're saying that chapter of hip hop history is over. If you were going to write the next chapter of the book…
DC: Oh God, no.
H&F: You're never going to do it?
DC: No, that’s not going to happen.
H&F: Well, if you didn't actually have to write it but just chose what the subject would be, what do you feel like the next chapter is in the history of hip hop economics?
DC: When I think about what the book was about, it was about how a subculture became world culture. I'm not sure so much has changed between 2008 and now except to say that [hip-hop] has stayed mainstream. It's not gone anywhere, although people have lovingly predicted its demise over and over again. I think the two things that interest me the most are the lack of hip hop entrepreneurship after mainstreaming and how hip hop is not in the lead culturally anymore as far as politics is concerned.
I think hip-hop very much affected the way that kids were thinking and talking and reading back in the late 80s and early 90s. It's not the case anymore. I think that kids are doing it on their own and yet artists can be a comfort to them. I don't think hip-hop is leading us politically anywhere. It's a tool. It is not the leader. I think the kids are leading and thank God.