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The Big Payback

4.33  ·  Rating Details  ·  577 Ratings  ·  81 Reviews
The Big Payback takes us from the first $15 made by a "rapping DJ" in 1970s New York to the recent multi-million-dollar sales of the Phat Farm and Roc-a-Wear clothing companies in 2004 and 2007. On this four-decade-long journey from the studios where the first rap records were made to the boardrooms where the big deals were inked, The Big Payback tallies the list of who lo ...more
ebook, 672 pages
Published December 7th 2010 by Penguin Group (USA) (first published 2010)
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Please Kill Me by Legs McNeilChronicles, Vol. 1 by Bob DylanLove Is a Mix Tape by Rob SheffieldOur Band Could Be Your Life by Michael AzerradPsychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs
Best Non Fiction About Music
243rd out of 840 books — 769 voters
Can't Stop Won't Stop by Jeff ChangBomb the Suburbs by William Upski WimsattDecoded by Jay-ZEgo Trip's Book of Rap Lists by Sacha JenkinsTyrell by Coe Booth
Hip Hop History & Currency
32nd out of 106 books — 41 voters


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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 1,508)
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Tyrone Mitchell
Feb 26, 2011 Tyrone Mitchell rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was a great reference for filling in many of my missing links in hip-hop. You get an idea of who the artists are as people, how they got into the industry and how they were discovered.

What you also get is a window into the depths of the music business - more than "industry rule 4080/record company people are shadyyyyyy". It explains how some execs short artists, make colossal mistakes and eventually get around to having an upper hand.

I didn't pay much attention to the business side of hip
...more
Zack Greenburg
Dec 13, 2010 Zack Greenburg rated it it was amazing
“The man who invented American money lived and died in Harlem.”

Thus begins The Big Payback, a tour-de-force of a book that details the rise of rap music from the burned-out blocks of the South Bronx in the 1970s to the top of the international mainstream music world today. Tracking more than 30 years of hip-hop’s history, it gives readers a peek at the origins of all the major players in the genre today–and the pioneers on whose shoulders they stand.

This sweeping narrative reminds readers that h
...more
Jesse
Jan 17, 2011 Jesse rated it really liked it
Wonderful for about the first 500 pages. Charnas is great on how people started recording rap (great bits on how the Robinsons of Sugar Hill records had the first rap smash with "Rapper's Delight," then squandered it by remorselessly ripping off their artists), how Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin started Def Jam, how rap got on the radio (a particularly sharp exploration of how the business worked and how the Bay's own KMEL played a major role in making rap part of a community's listening), and a ...more
Amanpreet
May 06, 2012 Amanpreet rated it it was amazing
This is an encyclopedic guide to hip-hop history and hip-hop business deals which I would recommend to anyone interested in modern music history. The first half of this book reads incredibly well, as Dan Charnas is able to weave together various, seemingly unrelated stories with such ease. This book is pretty dense and I was barely able to read a page without jotting down a name or label or song to look up later. You can tell that Charnas not only has a lot of knowledge about hip-hop, especially ...more
Chris Faraone
Jan 26, 2013 Chris Faraone rated it it was amazing
Dan Charnas is aware that some disgruntled rap purists may eschew his epic tome on planet hip-hop's animated cast of titanic dick swingers. The author says so right there in the intro: "My approach may not appeal to hip-hop fans who believe that the culture existed in some pristine state before it was sold, nor to those who believe that corporate executives assembled in a room and decided to promote violent, misogynistic hip-hop for profit and the degradation of Black people." His point is under ...more
Troy
Apr 12, 2011 Troy rated it really liked it
All the other reviews had it right; great for the first 500 pages, and then the later developments of JayZ and Rocafella took over.

What I don't get is how a book of this magnitude, focusing on the business of hip-hop, completely ignored Rawkus Records, a mainstay in indie rap for almost ten years. A label that brought us Pharoahe Monch, Mos Def, and others, isn't even MENTIONED. And the way they plummeted would be VERY interesting reading, but they're not even mentioned. Def Jux' omission is a b
...more
bfred
May 14, 2012 bfred rated it it was amazing
This is hands down the most interesting hip-hop history book I have ever read. Radio, record labels, journalism, marketing—"The Big Payback" goes beyond the common myths and typical artist bios to uncover the often overlooked pioneers who helped push the genre to the forefront of American culture. Even hip-hop's most overexposed stories feel new with the level of exhaustive detail and fresh analysis Mr. Charnas brings to the table. As far as I'm concerned, this book sets the new standard. I'm em ...more
Jill Edmondson
Dec 28, 2013 Jill Edmondson rated it it was amazing
WOW! Detailed, filled with interesting backstories and histories. A thorough look at the birth and growth of the Rap music world. An interesting read for anyone interested in music/contemporary history/popular culture... even if you're not a Hip Hop fan (and I'm not!). Heavy lifting but worth the effort. Reads like a novel. Really, a terrific, engrossing book - very hard to put down!!!
Sarah
Feb 24, 2011 Sarah rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-in-2011
Certainly the best-researched book on hip-hop I've read (pro tip: stay away from anything labeled "oral history"--bound to be full of errors and half-recollections). The author did a good job keeping the business dealings as interesting as possible. I was surprised he didn't mention how sampling, specifically the need to pay for samples, changed the industry by changing the music. A must-read for fans.
Patrick
Jan 05, 2014 Patrick rated it really liked it
This is both an excellent and tedious book. It is big--630 pages. There is a through line, but Charnas is telling a bunch of interconnected stories and it does get bogged down at points. I was riveted for about the first quarter to third of the book, but then it started to be a slog. For me, the slog factor increased until the very end.

Charnas does an excellent job of providing a context for everyone in the book, he always provides a background and description. This is important because so many
...more
Byron
Nov 12, 2014 Byron rated it it was amazing
This is too thoroughly detailed and well put together to give any less five stars, but I could spend all day nitpicking it if I wanted to. (I've got a lot of free time, but I've also got a lot of "hobbies.") So I'll just point out a few things.

(1) The author is a lot less clever than he thinks he is, and a lot of these anecdotes and coincidences aren't as interesting as he thinks they are. Charnas is the worst kind of elderly barbershop raconteur.

(2) He's also more reverent of and less skeptical
...more
Maya Frank-Levine
Jan 05, 2011 Maya Frank-Levine rated it it was amazing
Well researched, well written, and generally awesome.
Ashley
Sep 23, 2013 Ashley rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
So dense, but so worth it.
Kris Herndon
Jun 12, 2013 Kris Herndon rated it really liked it
I started to lose momentum around the time we got to the Wu-Tang clan, so maybe I was just in it for the 80s nostalgia. But overall this is a very thorough history with a lot of good sources and first-hand information.

Quibbles: I was a little irritated by the dismissive way the author discussed the issue of sexism and violence in rap music and rap culture. For example, he faithfully recounts the big Warner Bros dust-up from the POV of an insider who labels board member Beverly Sills immoral and
...more
Jordan Ferguson
Friends, I love hip-hop. This is not new to you. You know I’ve read a number of books on the subject, since I’m always writing about them and making lists of recommendations. You might think [as did I] that there wasn’t a lot left for me to learn about the widescreen narrative of the culture’s genesis and rise to prominence.

We would be wrong.

Dan Charnas’s The Big Payback will likely be the best book I read this year. Had I squeezed it into mu holiday reading, it would have taken 2010 hands down.
...more
Dylan Suher
Mar 10, 2013 Dylan Suher rated it it was amazing
"The man who invented American money lived and died in Harlem"

The brilliant beginning to the best book on hip-hop that I've ever read. Long as hell, and, like any long book, it develops tics that are irritating but ultimately endearing (every dramatic reveal of a hip-hop personality, the staggering jump cuts from one part of the country to another). But any book with a mission this ambitious would have to be this long: it seeks (and generally succeeds) in tracing hip-hop's rise to market dominan
...more
Blog on Books
Jan 24, 2011 Blog on Books rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Make room on your book shelves next to Fredric Dannen’s “Hit Men” and Fred Goodman’s “Mansion on the Hill”. Former scribe for The Source and rap exec Charnas’ exhaustive – but never exhausting – 638-page account of the history of the rap industry essentially dissects its explosive growth from its beginnings in the Bronx in the mid-to-late ’70s to its current apogee. Charnas traces the evolution starting with original Harlem disco DJ Hollywood, who talked over the records, through pioneers Kool H ...more
Keith
Mar 24, 2013 Keith rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction, music
I've read 'Can't Stop Won't Stop'. I've read 'Decoded' and a litany of other hip-hop books, so I thought I was coming into this book prepared and expected to hear mostly stuff I already knew.

But quickly I realized I either have forgotten what I knew and didn't realize how shallow most of my knowledge was of stuff I did.

For a fan who cares about what the culture came from and the business people behind them who helped defined it as much as the front man, this is a must read. It's written as a sto
...more
Andrew
Jul 18, 2015 Andrew rated it really liked it
This is an exhaustively researched but accessibly written financial history of the commodification of hip hop music and culture. Despite its massive length, this is a quick read. Most of the stories will be familiar to avid hip hop fans and/or people who watched too much VH1 when they were younger, but Charnas does a great job of describing the characters involved and giving you a sense of the cultural import of hip hop's ascendance as an art form and mainstream youth culture. He also hits on so ...more
Tim Jin
Dec 06, 2013 Tim Jin rated it it was amazing
Even though I may not like Hip Hop as much as other genres, this is the most comprehensive book that I ever read on a particular subject. No matter if you like Hip Hop or not, you will love this book because it's the most interesting read in a culture that is so popular among all ages.

Reading about how the legends got started in the scene was the best, like Run DMC, Beastie Boys, House of Payne, Dr. Dre, and the business, like Def Jam Records. The most interesting part is how they got into the
...more
Sheehan
May 10, 2011 Sheehan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Loved this book, best of 2011, I may even put it a hair ahead of Jeff Chang's Can't Stop, Won't Stop, and just by the slimmest margins. (and I'm a total fanboy for Jeff Chang, met him in the Library, he's dope.)

Different than Chang's history of hip-hop, Charnas engages the back-end business side of hip-hop history which has a wonderful way of interweaving all of the aspects of the culture, and makes very clear the infrastructure behind the art form, is just as responsible for the contemporary c
...more
Matt
Oct 27, 2011 Matt rated it it was amazing
This is the story of entrepreneurship as told through the history of hip hop. Business in the context of hip hop ends up being an amazing combination, because so many of the major players were self-made. Almost every story involves someone making something huge out of essentially nothing. Sure, there's beef, and lots of politics, but that's business too. I can't think of a better way to learn about the real world of business than to see it through the lens of an emerging cultural phenomenon, one ...more
Velanche
May 04, 2015 Velanche rated it it was amazing
Shelves: music
I found out about this book very recent--that is, the audiobook edition--but I learned more about the world of hip-hop than anything I've read previously. A lot of gaps were filled, a lot of history shared, and a lot of egos. I really can't recommend it enough, even if you just have a mild curiosity about hip-hop; it's a great read on a musical history with a long road to where it is today.
Mark Tallo
I am a person who did not listen to too much Rap music growing up. I really wanted an education and I guess I learned something. Can't tell you how many times I went to groove shark because of this book.

He constantly gave us stories about people but never in enough depth and then he moved on. So I wish the book was larger or that he concentrated on a shorter time period. Towards the end it got tedious and I struggled to finish it. I really stopped caring about the subject because of it's simpl
...more
Gabe
Aug 20, 2011 Gabe rated it really liked it
An interesting look at the development of the marketing side of the hip hop business, really deeply researched. One downside of focusing so much on marketing is...well who cares if Lyor Cohen and Russell Simmons make $30 million or $50 million for selling off half their company? So in a way the first part of the book, focusing on the breakthroughs into the mainstream, was more interesting and compelling. An underdog narrative is more fun to read than toting up massive figures on a corporate scor ...more
Feiz Najmi
May 09, 2014 Feiz Najmi rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
What a trip down memory lane as the eras in hip hop are described in painstaking detail not only the artistic developments but the business, political and social happenings are tied in. I don't know how many times I said I remember that. And it just like it's very close cousin the book "Tanning of America" "Payback" shows hip hop's influence globally and it's rise both as the leading music genre but a genuine global culture. Also it outlines the ways not only the music business but all business ...more
Vin
Apr 07, 2014 Vin rated it it was amazing
Awesome - a must read for any hip-hop fan. Lots of good historical tidbits and stories telling the back story of hip hop, but with a focus on the business side of the game, not just the artists.
Eric
Apr 01, 2011 Eric rated it really liked it
wrapped The Big Payback. It kind of ran out of steam at the end, I think but that may be because its focus on Sean "Puffy" Combs and Jay-Z didn't really interest me. My dislike of Combs wasn't lessened but it wasn't really enhanced either.

Overall, it's an excellent excellent excellent book dealing with the hidden side of hip hop. There are some glaring omissions though (notably in the rise of Death Row records) and there's a lack of focus on things like modern mix tape culture (how does giving
...more
Benjamin Jones
Dec 10, 2014 Benjamin Jones rated it it was amazing
Tremendous book. A must read for any fan of hiphop or music in general. Enlightening with tons of behind the scenes info. One of the most researched and thorough books I've ever read.
Tim
Sep 25, 2015 Tim rated it it was amazing
I really enjoyed looking up the songs referenced as I proceeded through the book. Well-researched and a lot of fun.
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