The Breaks is the ’90s hip hop TV show of our dreams

An interview with Dan Charnas, author of The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip Hop and co-author of the new VH1 TV pilot based on it.

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The cast of The Breaks

Dan Charnas’s 2010 non-fiction book The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip Hop tells the story of the birth, growth and explosion in the commerce of rap music, from flamboyant NYC radio personalities in the 1960s, to the first record rub in the 70s, to 50 Cent’s 21st century reflections on “selling quarter water in bottles for two bucks.”

Published four years before Dr. Dre became hip hop’s first multi-billionaire, The Big Payback nonetheless remains the go-to guide on how rap hit the big time. Closing out just shy of 650 pages, it’s a big beast of a read, alive with detail in its recounting of improbable circumstances turned unmitigated success stories, time and time again. Music, fashion, cars, travel, the soda we buy; hip hop has had a hand in all of it, in a huge way, since the 1990s.

It could easily have made a serial documentary or non-fiction film series, based on the sheer entertainment factor Charnas’s narrative brings to these true-life tales of passion, drive, failure, persistence and glory.

But U.S. television network VH1, famous for its perpetual homage to throwback culture, saw a different potential to tell the same stories in a new light. So Charnas, along with co-writer and director Seith Mann, put the pieces back together for a new medium, with new faces, designed to bring the drama of the book to a fictional setting, based in fact.

If you haven’t yet met Nikki Jones, DeeVee, Dave, Barry Fouray, D-Rome, and Ahm, you’d do well to stream the 95-minute pilot of The Breaks, a VH1 original movie likely to become a TV series in the very near future.

With DJ Premier and Phonte Coleman on the assist with original music, a soundtrack that evokes golden-era New York nostalgia, and believable, often hilarious characters based on industry archetypes, The Breaks is as true-to-life a representation of the full spectrum business of hip hop as the world has ever seen.

We talked to Dan Charnas about his book, his movie, how one became the other, his Wire-infused dream cast, his attention to detail and the era he chose to focus on in this in-depth interview with a true-born hip hop scholar, scribe and historian.

Illustration by George Blott

Darcy MacDonald: So here you are, it’s been eight days since your movie, based on your book, has debuted to high numbers and significant praise. You’ve gotta be feeling pretty good.

Dan Charnas: Well, you know, I…how can I put this? I try to stay…what’s the word I’m looking for? I try to stay non-attached to things. And my main disposition throughout this whole TV project has been one of committed non-attachment. If good happens, good. If bad happens, good. No matter what happens, it’s good.

DM: So do you think that stance paid off, as you moved forward and the film became a reality? Did non-committed attachment…wait, was that what you said?

DC: No, no! (I said) non-attached commitment! That would be very bad, non-committed attachment! That’s the opposite.

But it’s funny because that’s the state of most folks, anyway. Non-committed attachment. You know, attached to the result but not committed to the work it takes to get there! Thanks for reversing that, Darcy.


Hey listen, I mean I’ve had, in the course of doing press for this TV show, I’ve had a whole new exposure to a different side of media. Billboard ran a piece on, you know, “who the real characters of The Breaks are based on.” And despite everything that I told Billboard, that it wasn’t based on me, they credited David (as being based on me) because I had been an intern at WBLS. And I never interned at WBLS. I never interned or worked at any radio station, ever.

So it’s just like, you have to be so careful with today’s journalism. There’s not really a layer of fact checking.

And all that is to say, committed non-attachment, not non-committed attachment.

DM: So how did that commitment and attachment compare to writing The Big Payback?

DC: There was a lot more attachment (to the book). There was a lot more riding on it. Stakes were very high for me there. I think because it was my first book, because I felt a real obligation to get the story right, and because I knew that if I didn’t write that book those stories wouldn’t come out at all.

DM: So did taking that stance help the outcome? This is a unique situation where, as a writer, your history book is being turned into a work of fiction. So if you had gotten too involved, could you have screwed the pooch?

DC: Well, I didn’t say “not involved,” I said non-attached. I was involved more than I ever dreamed that I would be. Especially on set, because I had this other book that I’m working on that was due this summer. So I figure, okay, the book’s due in August. In June, I’ll just sit on set, I’ll sit in one of those comfy little director’s chairs, and I’ll tap-tap-tap-tap away on my laptop, and finish the book while the crew and the director do their thing. My work is done here.

But in reality, first of all, the director’s chairs aren’t that comfy. Second of all, I was needed and made myself useful every single day on the set. I really did produce my ass off every day, and it was a “Surprise!” And I don’t regret it. But it was definitely, like, checking wardrobe to make sure that that’s fine; double-checking dialogue so that later slang doesn’t make it in. Really looking at the accurate actions, especially around the music, and beat-making. Making sure the stuff on the walls is period-appropriate and accurate. Also, on set, I designed those WPPS posters for Sampson King, a 1970s poster, the ’80s poster, the ’90s poster. So yeah, so, that was a bit of a revelation.

But I will say the non-attachment helped, because TV is a collaborative medium, and you have to let go because not all of your ideas are gonna make it. And you can’t fight for everything.

One of my co-producers has this saying that I thought was just really wonderful, when we would get to a point of potential conflict. Like let’s say the network wanted something and we wanted something else, my co-producer would say, “Well, I’m not sure I wanna die on that hilltop.”

You know? You don’t wanna die on any hilltop! You wanna just keep it going, and keep it relatively together and move it forward, and you save your temper tantrums — and none of us had any really — but you save the potential temper tantrums for the things that are really worth it. And the thing that was so great about The Breaks is that everybody — even the network, network executives included — was working towards the same goal of trying to make a really cool, period-appropriate piece that was compelling.

DM: So had you worked in television before this in any capacity?

DC: Yes. I was a segment producer/comedy writer for MTV’s The Lyricist Lounge Show‘s first season. And then I was also segment producer/comedy writer for BET’s ComicView for one season. So that is the sum total of…wait woops…I also (worked on) FitTV’s…what the hell was that called? Yogi To Go? Oh no, Guru 2 Go. Because of my experience in yoga, I helped the host of that show. So that was reality TV. And then I was also music supervisor, for a time, for an Interscope show called The Next Episode that really never saw the light of day.

DM: When I read the (viewership) numbers for the premiere I just thought, “Isn’t media amazing?” How long would it have taken for 2.6 million people to read The Big Payback, you know?

DC: Well if they’re all Aliya King, just one day. Aliya King says she read it cover to cover in one day. I believe it, too.

That’s also the power of fiction. My wife, the inimitable poet and essayist Wendy S. Walters — who just had her book out this year, Multiply/Divide, which made a lot of the year-end lists — she intimated in the preface of her book that fiction can sometimes tell more truth than non-fiction. She says, you know, if you’re a non-fiction writer, you can write a memoir of your life, but if you leave out some significant details, then you really haven’t told the truth. Like an abusive spouse, or a conflict with a sister, or something like that.

And conversely, fictional characters can often tell a better truth. For instance, The Wire. I mean, when has a portrait of the American city been told so well as with these fictional characters? And in the end, who cares that, you know, Mayor Carcetti is a stand-in for Martin O’Malley. What’s important are the archetypes. And we created The Breaks out of these very, very true archetypes.

DM: I’ve watched the film three times now and the characters seem more like fleshed out composites of real people and places, without being caricatures. By the end of the pilot they are reasonably relatable people. So how did you (and Seith Mann) go from true life to these fleshed-out, fictional characters?

DC: A lot of that rests on the writing of Seith Mann. I wrote the story but he wrote the script and that is a very important distinction to make. I wrote the characters, but he put the words in their mouths for the most part, and I think that his writing and visual storytelling helped make them human. The archetypes themselves are true, and that helps the characters be true.

The battle between Sampson King and David Aaron, as black program director and white, Jewish intern (respectively) may seem odd to audiences now, but it was very true back then, and I can think of at least four examples from The Big Payback of that dynamic happening. You know, young white kid advocating for hip hop as the older, Civil Rights generation black executive leaning away from it. And since all of that is true, and because we are intimately familiar with the predilections and personalities and motivations of those people, it’s easy to write those characters and to write that script because it’s true. It really happened.

The Big PaybackDM: Did you have a dream cast in mind, or when you started to see the short list from casting, were there actors you really championed, or people that didn’t make it that you would have liked to see cast, or perhaps bring in later?

DC: I think the casting was really built around Mack Wilds (The Wire). Seith likes to say “by hook or by crook,” and he wanted to get Mack in (the role of rookie rap producer DeeVee) as just this really pure, earnest, but ultimately very tough kid. Who better for that than Mack? And I think Mack really wanted this role, too, because it was sort of halfway between very commercial, Beverly Hills 90210 and the sort of cult of The Wire. I don’t want to speak for Mack but I think he sort of split the difference between those two things. And he loves the culture, Mack loves 1990s hip hop, the music and the time period. So it started with him.

I think that Wood (Harris, also of The Wire fame) was also a shoo-in to play (hip hop mogul) Barry Fouray, an excitable management executive. But (characters) David and Nikki and Ahm were wild cards. We considered well known names and unknowns, and Afton Williamson rose to the top in auditions for the part of Nikki because she’s young, but she has this sort of…it’s funny, she has this rock ‘n’ roll-ness to her, like, a cool chick. But she’s got this gravitas, too, that is really compelling. So Afton was a huge casting. David Call was just rock solid.

And the hardest part, and I’ve spoken about this in other media, but do we cast a rapper who can act, or an actor who can rap in the role of Ahm? And we were very lucky to find Antoine Harris, who prepared so well in audition to show us that he could handle a verse from, say, Jay Z. And he was coachable and teachable, allowing (us) to come in and literally turn him into a convincing rapper.

The biggest victory for me was that we got the music right.

DM: Man, I had some of those (original) songs in my head for days after. Like, “What is tha..oh, it’s the music from The Breaks!” I know Phonte (Little Brother) collaborated on original music and lyrics for the (other) characters, but I sort of wondered if A-F-R-O wrote his own stuff.

DC: A-F-R-O, actually, that song was his own, he had done that with Premier some months before we tapped him for The Breaks. We heard that song and we were like, you don’t even have to change the lyrics, it seemed like it was about that time period. A-F-R-O was kind of a miracle, too — this 18, 19-year-old kid who doesn’t listen to anything but old school hip hop, and rhymes in that style.

But we needed two things: lyrics for Ahm and lyrics for this character named Joe Rock, who’s supposed to be the opposite of Ahm. So we needed something really, really insightful and eloquent, and then somebody who just embodies every cliché of 1990s hip hop in the book.

Just like there was only one person on my list for music, for production — it was Premier to me, I was always, just, gonna go get Premier — it was similar: I know this one guy who has a sense of humour, of seriousness, and of history, all in balance, who can do this. And that was Phonte Coleman. And I was just so grateful to both of them for signing on to do this. And we honoured our agreements with them. We weren’t some bullshit producers coming along going, “Hey, we wanna make a movie about rap,” you know? They knew we were serious and we created a movie worthy of their talents.

DM: I think that aspect is a real treat for true rap fans. So this year we saw the NWA movie, The Get Down (a Netflix series about the ’70s heyday of hip hop culture) is coming soon. To a certain degree the Hip Hop Family Tree comic series, albeit a different medium, is part of this as well: have we entered the new era of hip hop films? Or is it coincidental?

DC: I think it’s a bit of both. First of all, I think that culture goes in cycles, and that we’re at a 20th, 25th anniversary period for a lot of things. Also, the people who grew up on this stuff are now in positions to be able to execute and push the button on doing (these types of projects.) There are people, probably, at Netflix, who appreciate, say, the 1970s, so they would greenlight something like that. The people at VH1 had been chomping at the bit to tap into their own musical legacy from the 1990s. So I think it’s a mix of (those factors).

And lucky for us, The Breaks doesn’t come near anything else in development right now. The Get Down is about ’70s New York and not the ’90s music business, which is a whole different thing from Empire, which is a whole different thing from the West Coast in ’88 as seen in Straight Outta Compton. I feel that all of these things coming out right now, while they all sort of draw on the same sort of energy of hip hop, are all in their own lane.

DM: Having read the book I have half an idea as to the answer here, but why did you choose 1990 as the pivot point? You could have started with the Def Jam story, but instead it’s like, Nikki gets off the plane, she’s in NYC, it’s summer 1990 – let’s go! Was it a no-brainer or did you consider the possibility of going a little further back in the past, or perhaps a little further ahead into the future?

DC: It was predestined, in that VH1 very much knew that the demographic they were after is into ’90s culture. I suppose that we could have gone back into the ’80s and explored that, but at the same time we didn’t wanna make, like, Krush Groove.

I also feel that there is something very important about that summer, and that time. Hip hop was just expanding in the ’80s, but it was bumping up against the ceiling in the early ’90s. Anytime you have that combination of really, really intense creativity, but that creativity has to happen in a box, you create pressure and conflict. And as you know, drama unfolds from pressure and conflict. And there’s more pressure and conflict happening in 1990 than there is, say, in 1985 or 1986, where it’s like, “Hey look, we sold one million! Oh, we sold two million!” You know what I mean? (laughs) Where everything just keeps getting better and better.

DM: And what’s next? Did you meet that deadline for your new book?

DC: I did meet the deadline, though I’m still reading it because you don’t finish a book once, you have to finish it like five times. And it has absolutely nothing to do with…well, I won’t say “nothing,” but it’s not about music. It’s actually a book about the ways that chefs and cooks all over the world organize themselves and think about their work. And being from Montreal, you’ll know the term mise-en-place. (Author’s note: Arranging and preparing a kitchen, literally translates to “put in place”). So it’s about this culture and the philosophy of mise-en-place and deconstructing it so that people from outside the kitchen environment can tap into it. So I interviewed over 100 people for the book from the culinary world, and it’s coming out in May. I actually interviewed two chefs from Montreal: Riccardo Bertolino at the Ritz (Maison Boulud) and François Nadon at Bouillon Bilk.

DM: I look forward to that. And to squeeze one last question in real quick: do you ever think about updating or revising The Big Payback?

DC: I never think of it, to answer your question. The story is told. It’s not about tracking hip hop through the years. It’s about a period in American history. And that period is over. Hip hop may have a new chapter but I don’t think I’m gonna be the one to write it. ■

Check VH1’s schedule for future screenings of The Breaks pilot episode, or stream it on their website.