The birth of hip hop, and how it grew and grew and grew by Marjorie Arons Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons Barron’s own blog.


This week marks the 50th anniversary of hip hop music, and many platforms, including National Public Radio and the New York Times, are celebrating the phenomenon. For those of us immersed in or more comfortable with Beethoven, the Beatles, Mahalia Jackson or Peter, Paul and Mary, the wonderment should not be underestimated.

In fact, I must admit that I had to resort to YouTube to research the sound of Rapper’s Delight by the Sugar Hill Gang or a recording of Genius Rap. Rush-DMC? Rick Rubin? What and who?

Want to be in the know? I recommend a big book highly recommended to me by my brother-in-law, Fred Barron.

The Big Payback – The History of the Business of Hip-Hop by Dan Charnas is a huge, minutely detailed story of the evolution of rap music from the early days of rock and roll and disco. What started as a gritty social phenomenon in the Bronx became a widely embraced economic powerhouse with major impact on the American economy and beyond.  It certainly moved me out of my musical comfort zone, but it opened my eyes wide to this mega business that has found expression across our culture.

From its earliest days,  hip hop was wildly danceable. Its appealing beat was energized by disc jockeys who would rhythmically manipulate the sounds on records and rap in rhyme. Initially, the dynamic scene was limited to east and west coasts.  Black record companies and radio stations got in on the action, from vinyl records to live acts before huge crowds moving to the driving beat and lip syncing the lyrics.

Rap captured the language of the streets and was embraced by White and Black kids alike. It spread to MTV and then feature films. With steady growth in the market and big money to be made, mainstream media companies soon big-footed the early entrants, cutting deals with rising artists and producers.

Black artists also cashed in as celebrity sponsors of sneakers and sportswear, co-branding with mainstream products like Sprite and Reeboks. Celebrity performers (think Jay-Z and Puff-Daddy (P Diddy) became rich co-branding with various products. Wanting to control their own work and profits, they started to form their own companies. They went on to put together their own multi-company corporations, shaping the tastes of a generation in clothing, soft drinks, and lifestyle products.

Charnas doesn’t shy away from reporting on rappers whose “art” was laced with violent language and misogyny and whose behavior when not performing was clearly criminal.  This nearly 700-page book is about race relations, marketing, doing deals and double dealing, street crime , gangsta’ rap, and, yes, music and artistic expression. A definitive history, well researched and exhaustively written. Not for everyone, but a tour de force. It’s a different take on The American Dream.