Author Dan Charnas began his career in the mailroom of seminal rap label Profile Records, home to Run-DMC. He wrote some of the first cover stories for The Source, and eventually went on to become the VP of Hip-Hop A&R for Rick Rubin’s Def American Recordings. Over time, Charnas collected stories of the rap industry that few fans and outsiders knew. After a decade working in the music business and another four years of painstaking reporting and research, Charnas has created the first-ever definitive re-telling of the creation and growth of the industry, The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop. Culled from over 300 interviews, The Big Payback spans 40 years, from 1968 to 2008. In this exclusive for Complex, Charnas distills some of the book’s essence into a master list of The 25 Biggest Business Power Moves in Hip-Hop History.
Famed singer/songwriter/producer Sylvia Robinson wasn’t first person to conceive of putting the “raps” of New York City’s burgeoning MC-and-DJ culture onto a record; that distinction likely goes to Bill Curtis of The Fatback Band, who in the summer of 1979 recorded MC Timothy Washington on a song called “King Tim III (Personality Jock).” But it was Robinson’s record—a 15-minute rap marathon by three unknown New Jersey MCs over a sound-a-like version of Chic’s “Good Times”—that marked the true debut of hip-hop in pop culture. “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang quickly became the best selling 12-inch single of its time (Sugar Hill Records claims two million copies were sold domestically and eight million copies worldwide), and transformed Sylvia Robinson’s (and her husband and partner Joe’s) nascent Sugar Hill Records into a successful, Black-owned independent label.
At first, major record labels had no idea what to do with rap music, so they didn’t do much of anything. To most corporate music executives, the “rapping record” thing had all the makings of a fad; in the wake of the disco crash, few had the stomach to tempt another one. The upscale Black staffs of the majors’ so-called “Black Music” departments viewed rap as a vile, unwanted visitor from the ghetto.
And so, even with the success of “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979, the lightning-fast singles sales of rap 12-inches in the early ’80s, and the platinum success of Run-DMC’s album in 1984, the six major labels turned their backs on the burgeoning and profitable hip-hop culture—with the exception of Kurtis Blow, who had a gold single for Mercury Records with “The Breaks” in 1980. Fittingly, it would be Blow and Run-DMC’s manager, Russell Simmons, who landed the first legitimate major label partnership with a rap-oriented independent in 1985 for the label he co-owned with Rick Rubin, Def Jam Recordings.
Al Teller, the general manager of Columbia Records, started to become curious about the rap music scene around the same time that a new A&R executive named Steve Ralbovsky—an acquaintance of Simmons’—came to work for the company. Teller asked Ralbovsky what he thought of doing a distribution deal with Tommy Boy Records. Ralbovsky told Teller that he had a better idea, and brought Simmons in for a meeting. Columbia gave Def Jam Recordings a six-figure production deal, one that immediately paid off with the success of L.L. Cool J.’s debut album Radio, and became hugely profitable with the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill in 1986. More importantly, the Def Jam deal presaged the entrance of other major labels into indie partnerships, with Columbia rival Warner Bros. purchasing Tommy Boy Records in 1985, and giving Cold Chillin’ a distribution deal a couple of years later.
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