Influential author Dan Charnas is long-considered a pioneer of Hip Hop journalism and preservationist of the culture. As one of the first writers for The Source, he covered all aspects of the culture and propelled it further into the jugular of mainstream society. His career writing about artists like Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Ice Cube and A Tribe Called Quest eventually led him to a job with Def Jam-founder Rick Rubin, who asked him to run the rap department at his new Warner Brothers venture, American Recordings in 1991.
In 2010, he published his first book, The Big Payback, which has been called “the most comprehensive journalistic account of Hip Hop ever written” by The Boston Phoenix and “Pulitzer-worthy” by Spin. The 660-page book dives head first into the inner workings of the every facet of the industry. Over the course of four years, Charnas interviewed over 300 people—record executives, entrepreneurs, artists, managers, producers, DJs, journalists—all of whom shared a fundamental belief that Hip Hop could be as big, if not bigger than, any American culture that preceded it.
The native New Yorker’s most recent endeavor, VH1’s The Breaks, has been equally as successful, and was officially picked up as a series mid-February of this year. Ratings were off the charts for the premiere, which aired in January. It collected over 2.6 million viewers.
“I was really happy,” Charnas says from his home in New York. “We put so much of ourselves and so much work into making The Breaks to make it really authentic to the period. From the music you would hear to the original music, it had to sound like it came from that period. There were certain flows that people had in 1993 they didn’t have in 1990.”
From the clothing and the hair to the pop culture references and lyrical content of the original music, The Breaks nailed the early 90s Hip Hop scene, which was most important to Charnas. He wasn’t as nervous the night it aired as he was when he screened it to some of the industry’s biggest names. Profile Records’ Cory Robbins, Tommy Boy Records’ Monica Lynch and Def Jam/Rush Artist Management’s Bill Adler were just a few of the heavy-hitters who initially saw the film.
“I felt more pressure a month earlier on the night we had our first press night at the Red Rooster in Harlem, where we invited 60 members of the press to see it,” he explains. “That was nerve-racking because nobody outside of our crew had seen it or even cosigned it. I had friends in there and people who’s opinions I trusted. So press night was nerve-racking and the cast/crew night. Some of the people who inspired the characters were in the room.”
Clearly, it was a hit. The Breaks’ success made VH-1’s decision to pick up the series a no-brainer. Charnas’ journey from journalist to lucrative author and executive producer is a perfect example of how tenacity and hard work results in, yes, a big payback.
“People loved the music,” he says. “We are so blessed to have folks at VH-1 that understand the culture and respect it.”