[soulhead First Read] Payback Is A Pilot: A Conversation with Dan Charnas By Thembisa S. Mshaka

Payback Is A Pilot: A Conversation with Dan Charnas
By Thembisa S. Mshaka

For his first interview since the news of his latest media venture The Breaks broke online, Thembisa S. Mshaka chops it up with Dan Charnas, author of the acclaimed hip-hop history tome The Big Payback, which is the source material for a new dramatic pilot optioned by VH1. Listen in as two decades-long friends, business authors and former record industry players talk hip-hop, TV, and the preservation of creative integrity.

TM: How did the TV pilot come about?

DC: When the book came out, there were almost immediately a lot of Hollywood folks sniffing around the project. Initially, I thought that it would be really great to do an HBO ‘Late Shift’ kind of treatment of the book that they made about the nighttime war between Letterman and Leno—I thought a real depiction of dramatic fiction would work well. I knew that after working for four years on the book, one thing I didn’t want to do was a documentary, where I would have to re-report the book all over again. Wait for Damon Dash and Andre Harrell once, shame on you—wait for them a second time, shame on me—with all respect due, of course.

That said, even the people interested in doing something dramatic were scared of dealing with life rights issues, so I slowly began to see that doing something fictionalized and dramatic was probably the only way to go if I wanted to do it big. And right away there are problems with that too—because I don’t think TV or movies have ever truly gotten the music business right; movies a bit more than TV as far as creating a fictional music world. But because Seith Mann, who did The Wire among other things, I began to see this in those terms. The Wire fictionalizes Baltimore—and I’m from Baltimore, but it doesn’t bother me. I feel like we can do it right because Seith is in the creative driver’s seat.

TM: And how did it get to VH1?

DC: My producer Maggie Malina started to have some real success with scripted at VH1 as the show was making the rounds. She and Bill Flanagan made it possible for me to pitch the idea, and they optioned it.

TM: Writing on this show meant going from author to screenwriter, from non-fiction to fiction. How has the lane change been for you creatively?

DC: I wrote the story, but Seith wrote the script—and as you know if you want to get it made, you want someone who’s done it before to do it. And I have chops from writing for BET and MTV, but I haven’t written fiction on that larger level–and I wanted it done on the level that Seith operates on.

TM: How did you meet Seith?

DC: When VH1 put this into pre-production we were looking at a ton of scripts. And reading one of his feature length scripts was just an a-ha moment. He was the one. Then I had a chance to meet him and kick it with him, and I found out we both grew up in suburban Maryland. And unbeknownst to me, he’d been trying to option the book for some time. It was a happy circumstance for him and for me.

TM: How do you take 300 interviews about real people and composite four key characters for The Breaks?

DC: For The Big Payback, I condensed 40 years into 600 pages, and that was a feat. It meant I had to think archetypically—and that’s all that good fiction is: a parable. The characters are stand-ins for us. The people in people in The Big Payback are archetypes: the young twenty-something disco label guy who has rap fall into his lap and saves his company. That’s a Cory Robbins (Profile), Tom Silverman (Tommy Boy), Eddie O’Loughlin (Next Plateau)

TM: A Neil Levine (Penalty)…and so on.

DC: Right. I wrote The Big Payback to tell the story of this impossible thin. Hip-hop becoming the world’s pop music is fucking impossible. And Thembisa, you know more than most what it took just to have a rap column at Gavin, or have rap at a convention. The grander story is an American success story. And we love American success stories—especially the ones tinged with irony, failure and the prospect of everything falling apart. You know; you were there.

TM: (Joking) But I didn’t make it into the book!

DC: Doesn’t matter. You were a bricklayer.

TM: Thank you. Along with artists and executives of color who knew what hip-hop could be and demanded to be paid in full–to quote Eric B & Rakim.

DC: Unlike jazz, and much of R&B, hip-hop was the location of Black artists finally insisting on having equity. And some people aren’t happy with that narrative because it doesn’t confirm the “conspiracy” to jerk Black artists. The Big Payback is the story of Black enfranchisement. It changed everything, and not just for Black artists–for ALL artists. The courage of Russell Simmons, in the middle of the crossover era—put Run-DMC out with rock guitar in their songs…

TM: And at the time “Walk This Way” hit, it was Run-DMC that brought Aerosmith back from obscurity.

DC: And you’re absolutely right. And Russell refusing to put out wack shit or lighten up and whiten up what he was doing, or dealing with the wrong people is why we can all eat. Russell set a precedent that way.

Hip-hop’s on top now, but it’s not saving the lives of Trayvon and Michael Brown. We had a really interesting moment in time, where hip-hop could have gone any way—and it went a particular way. The Big Payback tells the non-fiction story of how it went the way it did. The Breaks will tell it in grand dramatic fashion.

TM: How do race and gender figure into the story? Are they just there or are they pivotal?

DC: Race was everything for hip-hop in the 1990s. Afrocentrism is a main factor. In The Breaks, we have a Black woman dating a Jewish guy—not the easiest thing to do in 1990. And at the same time, you also know that when you walked into RUSH in ’89 or ’90 you saw a collaborative effort led by people of color among a diverse group. Multi-racial, multi ethnic collaboration, even in the midst of Afrocentrism. I have always felt that what Black power and Black equity create is more collaboration. It was racially fraught, but it produced some of the most fruitful ways for Americans to work together.

TM: Certainly RUSH was a model for how American corporations could function in the future.

DC: And now, it’s the way our West Wing operates. Race and gender will be extremely important, but by manifesting themselves in the drama, without being heavy-handed. My sense is that all the hip-hop related shows we’re seeing right now are trying not to be wack.

TM: Speaking of all this hip-hop dramatic programming, the music industry narrative on TV is strong right now: Power, Empire, even a non-urban version, Nashville, is a huge success. What distinguishes this film pilot in your view?

DC: A caveat: I haven’t seen those shows so I can’t draw a comparison, but what I gather is that one of the key differences is that The Breaks is a period piece about a moment in the past that created our present and explains how we got here. And in it, there will be many narratives within it, just like hip-hop itself.

TM: What role does music itself play in the pilot? As additional character? Is it all original?

DC: I am going to play that question close to the vest, but I am very proud of our concept for how we use music. What I can tell you is this: you understand the monumental significance of the meaning of the title itself. The breaks are the musical building blocks of hip- hop. Even if you’ve never heard of Joni Mitchell, you’ve heard Joni sampled by Janet. We are breaking down the dramatic fundamentals of hip-hop are, not just musically, but in terms of its relationship to America itself.

TM: On the network side, do you feel more diverse storytelling is happening? Do you see the culture represented more at these pitch meetings and business environments? How much translating and stewardship did you have to do when you share your concept with networks?

DC: One of the reasons I was comfortable about going with VH1 is because I don’t have to explain what anything means—they completely know. I know people take issue with some shows they run, and I understand that—but it’s not just a VH1 phenomenon, reality TV is an industry phenomenon. But my memory of VH1 is as the first network that broke the segregation of playing black music videos for the mainstream, and they have a good legacy when it comes to music.

TM: Behind the Music was a game changer for sure.

DC: They did And Ya Don’t Stop, and The Tanning of America, both very strong documentaries. Now, I’m not a film person, but in the ‘90s, we had an amazing run of great hip-hop related films.

TM: You had Black directors and producers working steadily. That was the power of the Black point of view being in control of the narrative.

DC: I hope Ava DuVernay is leading the way for a post-Ferguson, Post-Obama interpretation of important moments on film.

TM: Yes, so do I. It’s crucial that these moments also be captured and interpreted by people of color. And you see that her interpretation has come up against an urgent need to fact-check a dramatization, like her vision of Selma is somehow less legitimate. Similarly, my concern is whether today’s executives are really paying attention and respect to hip hop as a culture, or looking at it through what is called the “white gaze”, like: “know your place, rap guys and girls”.

DC: Seith, Maggie, Bill and I would not do this with anyone who had that attitude about it.

TM: The good news is they want to make it and they know yours is a team that is committed to the integrity of the era, the music, and the source material. And in the end it reflects back on all the people in the book.

DC: God bless.

Thembisa S. MshakaThembisa S. Mshaka is an award-winning recorded music campaign writer (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill among many others) and journalist whose byline has appeared in Yahoo! Music and Essence.com. She is working on the second edition of her critically acclaimed business career guide, Put Your Dreams First: Handle Your [entertainment] Business Check out some of her work for soulhead.


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