As far as I know, there’s still no great alternative history to Jeff Chang’s magisterial tome on hip-hop, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. The best complementary narrative, though, might be Dan Charnas’ new book, The Big Payback, about the business behind the culture. In the former title, Chang depicts Sugar Hill Gang’s 1979 hit “Rapper’s Delight” as what it seemingly was: both an instant revolution and a crass, cheap betrayal of hip-hop’s early creative potential. Charnas, however, is more interested in Sylvia Robinson, the producer who founded Sugar Hill Records, assembled the Sugar Hill Gang, and was shrewd enough to see hip-hop’s commercial possibilities. Charnas traces hip-hop’s ascent from Brooklyn block parties and Harlem discos to its own industry via the characters selling, not making, the music, and he finds plenty of would-be villains. He also ends up humanizing them, Robinson included. That’s the most obvious lesson here: At the end of the day, you can’t knock the hustle.
CHARNAS SPEAKS AT 6:30 P.M. AT BARNES & NOBLE DOWNTOWN, 555 12TH ST. NW. FREE. (202) 347-0176.