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Interview with Dan Charnas: “Different types of writing require different levels of immersion.”

Dan Charnas is an award-winning music and business journalist; producer of records and television; and professor.

Recipient of the 2007 Pulitzer Fellowship for Arts Journalism, he is the author of four books; was the co-creator and executive producer of the VH1 TV series The Breaks; and is an Associate Arts Professor at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University. 

Charnas’s book, Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, The Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm (2022), is the product of four years of research and nearly 200 interviews. 

The book was an outgrowth of a course on J Dilla developed by Charnas at NYU in 2017, but its roots go back to Charnas’s time in the record business, when he first made the trip to Detroit to work with the producer then known as Jay Dee. 

At the Clive Davis Institute, he teaches Creative Music Entrepreneurs, a history of the pop music business; Recycling Pop Music, exploring the relationship between creativity and copying; and topics courses on hip-hop and other artists and subjects. 

In the early 1990s, Dan Charnas was one of the first writers for The Source, becoming part of a generation of young writers who helped create hip-hop journalism. He penned cover stories, features, reviews and columns for a variety of publications on artists like L.L. Cool J, Ice Cube, A Tribe Called Quest, N.W.A. and Public Enemy. 

During this time, Charnas began his music business career in the mailroom of the seminal rap label Profile Records, eventually becoming Rap A&R and Promotion Manager — working on projects from Run-D.M.C., Dana Dane, Special Ed, Rob Base, Special Ed and DJ Quik. 

In 1991, he was recruited by Def Jam-founder Rick Rubin to run the rap department of his new Warner Bros. joint venture, American Recordings.  Charnas, as VP of A&R and Marketing, oversaw projects including Sir Mix-A-Lot’s double-platinum single “Baby Got Back” (the #2 Billboard Pop Single of 1992), DJ Kool’s gold anthem “Let Me Clear My Throat,” and Chino XL’s acclaimed “Here To Save You All,” which influenced emcees from Eminem to 50 Cent.

Charnas received his Master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He was born in New York City, and lives there with his wife, the poet and essayist Wendy S. Walters, and their son.

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Hi Dan, really great to have you with us today, I’m such a fan of all your books. For those who may not know, can you please tell us a little bit about yourself?

Thank you! I’ve been writing about hip-hop in particular for as long as I have been writing professionally. As a historian, I have a particular dual perspective on the growth of hip-hop as I was one of the writers for The Source, which was the first truly national hip-hop magazine; but also working in the music business during that time as well. So my interest is in how art and commerce interacted to create the culture over several decades. 

Talking about hip-hop for a second, in your opinion, why is J Dilla the greatest hip hop producer of all time? 

I don’t rank artists and producers like that, and I have actually never made the claim that Dilla is the “greatest”—because I think that term is meaningless. Is he one of the most important hip-hop producers? Yes. But he’s more than that: He’s actually one of the most important figures in the evolution of popular music, period. J Dilla is not a “best” of anything. J Dilla is an “only.” He is the only producer to emerge from hip-hop to actually change the way traditional musicians play and feel rhythm.

I consider your 2011 book, The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop, the bible of hip hop business history. Can you take us behind the research process for the book?

Thank you! The Big Payback was, at base, rooted in my personal experience in the hip-hop business over the course of 15 years. But it is not memoir — it is reported, nonfiction narrative. Reporting is my religion: I interviewed around 300 people for that book (as I interviewed nearly 200 people each for Work Clean, my book about mise-en-place; and Dilla Time). 

My reporting and fact-checking does not stop when I turn in the manuscript. I report and report until they pry the galleys from my hands. A big part of my process — since I write in the third-person omniscient voice — is the readback, meaning that I read back sections of my prose to sources when that prose reflects their actions or thoughts or feelings. I am more concerned with representing those things accurately and getting good corrections, which happens often, than with the discomfort that can come from exposing a source to the prose, which happens rarely. 

What does a typical writing day look like for you?

My writing routines move in phases depending on what time of year it is and what my family and work responsibilities are. I am fortunate to teach full time at NYU, which affords me a great deal of flexibility in my schedule, but I am also a husband and father, and those routines are paramount and much less flexible. 

What writing requires is “Immersive Time,” which is a block of time that is free from the “noise” of the day — emails, routine tasks, calls, other appointments — which I call “Process Time.” These are both terms I coined in Work Clean. I find that mornings make for the most immersive writing time for me when I can push the “noise” of the day to the afternoon. It’s more difficult for me to settle into writing once the “noise” of the day has begun. 

That said, one of the things that I cultivated during the pandemic was to be able to carve out brainspace to write in almost any physical space and at almost any time. During the completion of Dilla Time, my son was staying with his grandmother, so I worked for 18 hours straight for about two weeks. And a lot of that time was, of course, used for last-minute reporting as well. 

I’d also add that different types of writing require different levels of immersion — fiction requires the most walled-off time and space for me. Editing non-fiction requires the least. That’s the journalist in me, I suppose.

Do you have a target word count that you like to hit each day? 

That depends on what I’m writing, and how much synthesis the prose needs to accomplish. I suppose 500 to 1000 words per day is a good benchmark for me, but there are days when 250 is understandable and others where I can crank out words in the thousands. Suffice to say that goals are important, whether I count those goals in words or in time spent conjuring them. 

Can you talk about some of your must-have writing tools? 

I am a Scrivener person: It’s a perfect word processor for longform writing because it frees me from the tyranny of writing everything in linear fashion and liberates me to write in chunks here and there, while keeping track of the overall structure. It helps me to see what I have already done and what more I need. It helps me keep track of notes and interviews. It helps me create quick alternate versions of prose. Indispensable for me.

Whenever you hit a roadblock during a writing session, what are some of the methods you use to get back into the flow of things? 

My RW1 professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, Kim Nauer, used to say: “Reporting enables writing.” So if I am writing nonfiction and I have reached an impasse, 9 times out of 10 I am missing some reporting or research that would unlock that chunk of prose. 

For fiction, “reporting” translates into making time for brainstorming and sometimes trial and error — giving yourself permission to flesh out an idea even if you think it might be a dead end. And of course, I always think of Anne Lamott’s admonition to give yourself permission to write a “shitty first draft.” All of that is a valuable way to get words on the page, even if they come one word at a time.

What does your writing workspace look like?

Almost any place can be a workspace. For my last book, Dilla Time, I spent countless hours at a table in a public atrium at Columbia University; at a desk in my mother-in-law’s house in Michigan; at a dining room table in a friend’s house in Detroit; at my desk in my NYU office in Brooklyn; at my wife’s tiny white desk in our bedroom; on the floor of my son’s room; and at my own desk (pictured here) which sits in our living room, which has a few totems of my personal journey, including a graven image of Thoth, the Kemetic God of Writing.

Before you go…

Each week, we spend hours upon hours researching and writing about famous authors and their daily writing routines. It’s a lot of work, but we do it out of our love for books and learning about these authors’ creative process, and we certainly don’t expect anything in return. However, if you’re enjoying these profiles each week, and would like to send something our way, feel free to buy us a coffee!

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