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The Big Payback ()

A History Of The 'Big' Business Of Hip-Hop

Dec 9, 2010 (Fresh Air)

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In 1979, producer Sylvia Robinson heard hip-hop music at a birthday party in Harlem and had a hunch that it would be commercially successful.

She called her son, Joey Robinson Jr., and asked him to gather a group of musicians who could perform like the rappers she saw in Harlem. She then held makeshift auditions for a rap group outside a pizza parlor in Englewood, N.J.

"She put these three guys together who had never met each other before, had the backing track all ready and created a record in a matter of minutes," says Dan Charnas, a former rap industry executive who chronicles the history of hip-hop in a new book, The Big Payback.

The group that Robinson put together, Charnas says, would become the Sugarhill Gang, and the track they recorded was "Rapper's Delight," the first hip-hop single to break into the Top 40 charts.

"Basically, it's a record that created an industry," Charnas says. "Nobody thought the stuff that was in the streets was even music. It was stuff that people did at parties. But Sylvia Robinson had the notion that she could turn it into a record. And she did, and it was extremely successful, due in no small part to her own production genius."

Dan Charnas has worked on projects with Rick Rubin, Sir Mix-A-Lot, DJ Kool, Special Ed and Run-D.M.C. His articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Scratch Magazine, The Chicago Tribune and The Source. He was also a music supervisor on the Showtime program Interscope Presents: The Next Episode.


Interview Highlights

On Sugar Hill Records' Dwindling Influence In The 1980s

"Sugar Hill had a lock on the business in the early 1980s, which I believe they frittered away over the years, partly because of the bad reputation that they developed for paying artists and partly [because of] hubris. There's a story in the book of a young concert promoter from down south named Cedric, and Cedric has this idea that he's going to create this three-ring circus of hip-hop that includes DJing and MCing and breakdancing. He wants to get Sylvia Robinson excited about this concept, so he flies on his own dime to New York, he goes to Sugar Hill's offices and he meets with Sylvia. She literally curses him out and throws him out of the office, saying, 'Why do I need you? I was the first person to put a rapper on tour.' So Cedric Walker walks out of this meeting, goes back across the river, and his Plan B is to talk to this minor, lesser artist-manager by the name of Russell Simmons, who has some budding rap acts like Houdini and Run-D.M.C. — so it's Russell Simmons who gets to make this deal, and that tour idea becomes the Fresh Fest, which was the first successful national rap tour. It symbolizes how Sylvia Robinson and Joe Robinson were eclipsed by people like Russell Simmons."

On The Difference Between Sugar Hill Records And Russell Simmons

"I think Sugar Hill saw themselves as riding out a fad. I don't think they had any particular belief that this was a powerful culture that had staying power. We'd just come off of the disco era, which turned out to be very, very short-lived, and I'm sure that a lot of people, including Sylvia and Joe Robinson, thought that the same would happen to this rap stuff. The difference was that Russell Simmons did not like the records that Sugar Hill was turning out because they didn't sound to him like the hip-hop that lived in the streets and the parks and the clubs, which was very raw, very beat-oriented, and didn't sound like disco at all. And so Russell Simmons' key innovation, when he made Run-D.M.C.'s first record, was to basically order his producer-partner Larry Smith to take out all the music. 'I just want to hear a beat,' he said."

On Rick Rubin

"Rick Rubin was a college student who heard 'Sucker MC's' and was inspired to make his own record. He said, 'This stuff is so much better live. Why can't we make a record that sounds like hip-hop does live?' So he created a song called 'It's Yours.' The irony was he wanted to make it with a group called the Treacherous Three, who ... had exclusivity with Sugar Hill. He had to make it with the brother with one of the people from the Treacherous Three. Russell Simmons hears this record and goes bonkers. He wants to know who did this record. And he finally meets the person [and] he doesn't believe that this white, Jewish college student actually made this record."

On Jay-Z

"Essentially, the Roc-A-Fella ethos was that hip-hop can be everything to its fans. It's not just music, it's not just entertainment, but it can be the clothes that they wear, it can be the language that they speak, it can be the books that they read — it can be even the money that they spend. So I think Jay really is a product of that. and acts according to that ethos. So he ends up diversifying into nightclubs and a sports team and a cosmetic line."

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