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'Payback' chronicles the players in the hip-hop money machine

Jay-Z is part-owner of the New Jersey Nets.

Ice Cube pops up on TBS spouting the channel's catch-phrase, "Very funny."

Ice-T is on "Law and Order."

Will Smith is the most bankable movie star in Hollywood. And Snoop Dogg appeared on a daft CBS reality show called "I Get That a Lot." Seriously.

Hip-hop, then, is big business, and "The Big Payback" is a big hip-hop doorstop of a book, and an important one.

Subtitled "The History of the Business of Hip-Hop," it is easily the most researched, detailed and downright monumental book ever written about the genre of music that continues to electrify, dominate and grow in equal measures.

The business side of hip-hop is, of course, essential to its existence. As author Dan Charnas, a journalist and music industry vet, writes in the opening, "the culture could not have survived without the people who founded, promoted, and sold it." Therefore, he says, his book is "about the business of hip-hop, and the relationship between artist and merchant -- who, in hip-hop, are often one and the same."

Understanding this link is crucial to understanding hip-hop. And Charnas understands it all. Finally, hip-hop has a book on its birth and growth into a money machine that's worthy of being called essential.

"The Big Payback" is a stunner, a gripping, colorful, insightful look at the genre's journey from fringe subculture to an international phenomenon.

"In 1977 hip-hop was a marginal urban subculture, largely confined to two of the most notorious ghettos in the United States, Harlem and the South Bronx," writes Charnas. "Over three decades later, hip-hop has become global culture itself, spanning music, language, film, television, books, fashion, sports and politics. Hip-hop supplanted rock and roll as the signature creative expression for a new generation. It became a multibillion-dollar industry."

It's no surprise that much of what is included in "Payback" has been heard before: the early days, with DJ Kool Herc, Kurtis Blow, Fab Five Freddy; the odd-couple pairing of Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin; the mainstream success of Run-DMC, N.W.A. and Public Enemy; the crucial creation of MTV's "Yo! MTV Raps"; the gangsta rap wars, etc.

Even M.C. Hammer and Vanilla Ice are included, and the book could make readers feel some renewed interest in these pop-culture-punchlines. Well, in their stories, at least.

Take Ice -- real name, Robert Van Winkle. Charnas tells how this white kid from the South was whisked by promoter Tommy Quon to a video shoot for "Ice Ice Baby": "Van Winkle was so broke that he had run out of gas on the way to the shoot. The production assistants had to push Vanilla Ice's lifeless Mustang past the camera. Throughout the shoot, Quon made sure to surround Van Winkle with black dancers -- for credibility's sake, he thought."

These little tales make "Payback" relentlessly readable.

Take, for example Ice-T's appearance at the thrillingly titled Time Warner Executive Forum soon after his song "Cop Killer" was the subject of a boycott and intense media criticism. Forum host Fab Five Freddy asked Ice -- the audience was "about two hundred suit-and-tie-clad executives" -- the question "on everybody's mind":

" 'If you had a minute to address the police in Texas who started this whole thing, what would you say?' "

"Ice-T, the rapper Kahn picked for his communication skills, answered with just two words. 'F--- you.'

"A collective gasp issued from the audience. In the uncomfortable aftermath, Freddy waited a few moments. And then he said, 'Well -- supposing you had a few minutes more?' "

The "Cop Killer" story came at a crucial time in hip-hop's growth. Today, when Snoop Dogg does Pepsi commercials and Kanye West appears on a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, the idea of hip-hop igniting such a major controversy seems far-fetched. What better indicator is there of how far it's come?

It will be interesting to see what a follow-up to "The Big Payback" will tell us. Is hip-hop better equipped than most genres to weather the wacky winds of illegal downloading? Will young fans, especially, continue to find it the ultimate musical expression of their own frustrations and fears?

Probably. Hip-hop isn't going anywhere -- it is too large to be stopped, and too vital to be ignored.

Christopher Schobert is on the editorial staff of Buffalo Spree and is a freelance Buffalo critic.

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The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop

By Dan Charnas

NAL Hardcover

672 pages, $24.95

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