Thirty years ago, hip-hop was background noise at small house parties in Harlem and the South Bronx. Now, it's a multibillion-dollar empire. A new book, The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop, tells the story of the genre's humble beginnings — from one person behind a few turntables and a microphone — and how it morphed into a way of life, with designer clothing lines, political movements and vast wealth.
"Sometime in the middle to the end of the last decade," author Dan Charnas tells NPR's Guy Raz, "BusinessWeek estimated that the hip-hop business had grown to, on the music side, about $1 billion a year, and on the fashion side, $2 billion a year."
But in the early days of rap, a lot of the money stayed with the label owners, not with the musicians. Charnas notes that some hip-hop dignitaries railed against "how onerous recording contracts were and how tilted the relationship was between artists and record companies."
One of the key figures in hip-hop's shift in wealth was a most unlikely hero: Wendy Day. In his book, Charnas writes: "Few on first glance would have taken Wendy Day for a rap fanatic. She was white, overweight, and, at the age of 30, old for a hip-hop head."
Day took a personal fortune of about $500,000, and working with a team of lawyers, extricated some of her favorite hip-hop performers from their imbalanced contracts. But she went even further than that.
"She becomes instrumental in the landmark deals that Master P landed in the 1990s, Eminem, a label called Creator's Way got a deal with Atlantic Records that The Source called the best deal in the history of black music," Charnas says. "The biggest deal she ever did was for a label that has a lot of currency right now called Cash Money. They did an unheard-of deal with Universal for 80 percent of the wholesale price and a $3 million advance against records that they haven't even sold yet."
Day's efforts signified a shift not only in the business of hip-hop, Charnas says, but in the very balance between the races.
"For the first time," he says, "black artists were really not only embracing but insisting on their own self-worth."