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Herb Sundays 56: Dan Charnas
The NYC journalist and author of Dilla Time and The Big Payback plots a road trip with post-disco funk and soul standards. "Some people call it 'Boogie.' Whatevs."
Here’s Dan on his playlist:
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“For the last decade, my wife, my son, and I have spent nearly every summer with my wife's family in Detroit. Last year, I was burrowed in a house in Corktown, finishing the Dilla book. This year, I had a chance to be social and thank a bunch of people for their help and support. The long drives from New York to Detroit and back are an opportunity to listen to new music (this summer was Beyoncé’s latest), but more often I’m looking for sonic comfort food.
For me, that’s the music that I grew up listening to during my teenage years in Maryland, on radio stations like WHUR— Howard University’s FM outlet — WKYS and WOOK in DC and WXYV in Baltimore. This was the post-disco funk and soul of the early 1980s… the stuff that wasn’t getting played on pop stations or MTV. The realization that this music and these Black artists were being shut out of the mainstream during one of the most segregated times in pop music left me livid, even at 13 years old. It politicized me, and led in a real way to my career in hip-hop journalism, which culminated in The Big Payback, a book about how hip-hop eventually broke through that logjam of sonic white supremacy.
Of course, many people know some of this music now because of hip-hop sampling, or through the indefatigable revival efforts of Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak. With its prior obscurity and breathless rediscovery, some folks have even given the music of that period a new name: boogie. I hear tell that it is a latter-day British-ism to denote the liminal period, and that makes sense, because this period gave us an Afro-Brit creative explosion: Billy Ocean, Loose Ends, I-Level, etc.
in America, back then, nobody ever called it boogie: it was funk or soul. But the term is interesting in that it shows how those artists’ voicelessness continues even now. We’ve given them a name they themselves never used and never asked for.
One of my great delights during the writing of Dilla Time was discovering the mix tape that Jay Dee gave to Peter Adarkwah during the making of Welcome 2 Detroit. I realized that James, whom I met and worked with only once, and I had some similar tastes, centered around this precious musical period, the one right after disco and right before Michael Jackson and Prince’s Great Crossover changed the texture of Black music yet again.
The more I think about it, in the funk of the early 1980s (or boogie if you must) we witness a fruitful, once-in-a-lifetime negotiation between machine time and human time, between synthesis and human sounds, and it makes perfect sense that this era was interesting to James in particular: four on the floor, but still on the One. Driven by a machine-like pulse and by synthetic sounds, but always soulful.
This is the playlist for the road there, and the road back.”
-- Dan Charnas, September 2022
The four years and 200 interviews that comprise Dilla Time (released this past February) or the definitive biography of James Yancey (aka J Dilla, Dilla, Jay Dee, etc.), the mc/producer who was “gone before the world knew who great he was” were all worth it. As an outgrowth of a course on J Dilla he developed at NYU in 2017, it’s simply a miracle this book exists for fans, and future fans, alike.
Charnas wrote the The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop (2011) which if you asked me for a of history of Hip-Hop in two books, I’d suggest Jeff Chang’s Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (2005) and then The Big Payback, in that chronological order. He is also the author of Work Clean, a book that deconstructs chefs’ organization techniques. Dan’s music industry career started in the mailroom of Profile Records in 1989, and his TV career began with comedy writing for MTV’s Lyricist Lounge Show and then BET’s Comic View, and more recently was the creator and executive producer of the VH1 movie/TV series The Breaks. Charnas lives in Harlem and teaches at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts.
I was able to meet up with Dan recently for the first time and ask some questions. Before I went in, I wanted to gush a bit. My own Dilla fandom is strong and I told him that when the book was announced, my friend Reilly Brennan (more on him in a future Herb) and I, plus probably a lot of Dilla fans, were nervous. Dilla’s posthumous legacy output had been scattershot and we couldn’t handle another disappointment.
The book has been a success (in sales and for fans) and just last week, a documentary based on the book was announced from the team behind 2021’s Summer Of Soul documentary. I expressed that it was indeed a miracle (I used that word) that he was the one who wrote the book and there's a lot to admire about Charnas' work. When faced with feedback that Dilla Time (which will be published in paperback next year) is too long, Charnas is unremorseful. He says it was necessary to do it for the fans and in doing so, you get a lot of private moments you would likely see cut in other books. Between the moments of Dilla rubbing up against his more famous peers like Dr. Dre and Kanye, you get asides like Detroit radio mixshow legend DJ Fingers teaching James how to live on dialysis.
Charnas is also refreshingly anti-myth. In his care, Dilla doesn't produce Janet Jackson's "Got ‘Til It’s Gone" or cradles an MPC in a hospital bed. The story is better than the myth and it makes it even more powerful and honest when a very unwell Dilla performs in a wheelchair in France, like a hobbled Isiah Thomas dropping 25 in the third quarter of a finals game against the Lakers in ‘88. It’s just what happened.
Charnas also needed to capture James Yancey, not as a buttoned-nosed cartoon "idea" of a person (a trope he has been reduced to on bootleg Etsy tees), but as a real person stuck between binary worlds. An artist moving between both fame and obscurity, life and death.
He also had to get Detroit right (I love this twitter thread about meeting his wife and some of the Dilla Time origins), which like any city, has its own values and internal logic. He had to really understand Dilla's community and how it fit together and this book is also about the local communities (both Detroit and LA in this case) that enable the greats. The phone call chain that ensues in Dilla's passing is indeed like a movie and you get a sense for his people and the champions who helped him find a public including DJ Househoes (Herb 44), designer Jeff Jank, and Eothen Alapatt (Herb 24).
And finally, the last aspect, one that is crucial to the book's title, is explaining Dilla's influence on contemporary music, writ large. Through his use and misuse of swing and space, he created a new musical language around musical time. Charnas’ own experience as a producer helps him go God Mode on the "grid" or the production barriers of Dilla's beloved MPC3000 sampler, a machine Charnas actually purchased in advance of his class to better understand how Dilla worked. Dilla’s own MPC3000 is displayed behind a glass at DC’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Dan’s mantra (as stated in the foreword to The Big Payback), is “everyone gets to be human” and it’s immediately clear that tells stories with empathy and care, seeking truth, and often needing to work between two or more parties to get the actual truth. He goes into his process in conversation with Rick Rubin on the Broken Record podcast with his former boss at Def American/Warner Bros., where Charnas was VP of A&R and Marketing from 1991-1997.
The book is a major achievement and you get the sense that, in the words of El-P on another topic, Charnas "left nothing for the swim back." All out.
He's a remarkable guy and I'm so glad he shared this mix which is both diary and love letter to another era of black music where man and machine found beautiful harmony.
My own Dilla fandom, which seems modest compared the fans (and unfortunate Stans) that have emerged since his death, was given voice in a 2006 blogpost on the night of his death. Looking back I can see this rambling missive is definitely the template of Herb Sundays, part eulogy and part memoir. I remember being overwhelmed and banging it out my office on E. Huron St in Ann Arbor as the sun set. Even though I had only met a few times, and Ghostly’s involvement with Dilla (as captured here by Dillahead Kelly Frazier) was modest, it felt incredibly important to document. It just arrived to me with no agenda in mind but I think I was afraid Dilla’s legacy would be buried. Luckily that has not been the case.
When I read Dan’s quote about why he did the book, I was moved and maybe even validated. It’s a shout against the impermanence of time and memory:
“Ultimately it’s really about me saying to everybody who loves Dilla: ‘You were not wrong. Your affection was not misplaced,’” he said. “He is special, more special than many of you all even know.”
-Early 80’s boogie, or whatever you want to call it, is also one of my fave musical periods and Dan’s mix made me want to dust off my own playlist which I updated and made public on Apple and Spotify.
-When I met with Dan I asked which of Dilla’s batches, or his beat tapes for MCs, was his favorite and he shared it was this one from 1998. This is the one Dilla burned for Dabrye and I when we hung out with him (I always wanted to hear Jay-Z on “Hydrant Game”) along with an early mix of Ruff Draft and Jaylib.
-FLEX MODE: Dilla gave Ghostly a shoutout (around :33) in the original Shouts outtro from 2003’s Ruff Draft:
-Dan’s mix, as stated above, is based on this ace mixtape Dilla made for BBE’s Peter Adarkwah:
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