Dan Charnas talks being a hip-hop executive and helping Kwest Tha Madd Lad make a name for himself.
“Wow, ‘my production,’” Dan Charnas chuckles. “I haven’t heard that in a while: ‘Following my production.’”
As strange as it may seem in 2021, author, journalist, podcaster, and professor Dan Charnas used to be a producer. Hell, he even used to run the hip-hop division of American Records, the imprint created by musical visionary, Rick Rubin. Over the last three decades Charnas has become a jack of all trades, excelling in every field that he tackles.
Charnas is perhaps best known as the author of The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop (2010), considered the definitive book in that area. The book served as the inspiration for The Breaks, a TV movie and drama series, created in-part by Charnas, which aired on VH1 for a season. Hence, when it comes to hip-hop, Charnas knows his shit.
I spoke with Charnas about his role as in the hip-hop industry. Specifically, I spoke with him in-depth about his involvement in the career of Thomas “Kwest Tha Madd Lad” St. John. Charnas signed Kwest to American Records in the mid-1990s, and executive produced his debut album and sole project for the label, This Is My First Album (1996). The album was first released 25 years ago, and while it didn’t achieve commercial success at the time, it’s held in high esteem by hip-hop heads who know the deal.
By the time consumer could hear This Is My First Album, Dan and Kwest had known each other for years, meeting while Kwest was an up and coming artist and Charnas was a working his way up the ladder at Profile Records. They met, hit it off, and became genuine friends.
Getting This Is My First Album done was by all accounts a joyful process most of the time. Charnas produced three songs on the album, including two of its singles, the beloved “101 Things To Do When I’m With Your Girl” and “What’s the Reaction?” He also produced another of the project’s best entries, “I Met My Baby at V.I.M.,” a tale of finding your soulmate while shopping for discount clothing.
Unfortunately, putting together the album was also a process marked by difficulties and conflict, particularly when it came to getting the album released to the public. Kwest’s debut sat on American’s shelves for two years after Kwest finished recording it. “This Is My First…” was completed in 1994, but couldn’t get on the label’s release schedule.
The frustration of the album getting shelved at times strained Charnas and Kwest’s friendship. However, they put past disputes behind them a while ago, and still remain friends to this day. It’s kind of hard to hold any grudges a quarter of century later.
Bear in mind, time has its own effect on memories. Charnas and Kwest each have different recollection of how they met each other. But both are on the same page that they were given huge amounts of freedom to record the project, which let do all sorts of shit creatively.
Charnas took the time to talk to me about his role in Kwest career and the process of putting together This Is My First Album. We discuss what made him want to sign Kwest, what was the reason behind the album’s delay, and how Kwest was likely the victim of the times.
JD: So how did you meet Kwest?
Dan: You know, I was just thinking about that. And the moment really is lost to me in time. I do not think it was at a battle. But I think somebody slipped me his demo. And I was working at Profile Records at the time, which was the home of Run-DMC, Rob Base, you know all that. And I was doing A&R and promotion. I was very junior employee, literally just freshly promoted out the mailroom. And writing for a little magazine in Boston called The Source. And they had not even yet moved to New York.
Anastasia - YouTube Music
Provided to YouTube by The Orchard Enterprises Anastasia · Kwest Tha Madd Lad These Are My Unreleased Recordings ℗ 2013…
So it was like summer of 1990, I think, when I met him. Which just shows you how long we knew each other before his records actually started coming out. And the thing that got me was he had this song called “Anastasia,” a demo. And it was to this old Tony D beat, Tony D who’s the producer of Poor Righteous Teachers. PRT were my group at Profile, but I was sort of like their project manager, for lack of a better term. I had written their bio and all that shit.
And so he used this beat from a Tony D beat tape that I knew. It was dope, just a dope beat. And then he starts telling the story about meeting this girl. And you know, it’s a Kwest cadence is super casual and fluid and almost like a nonchalant sloppiness about his pronunciation that is just very him. And then the story and things, so he takes this girl home, they have sex. He wakes up the next morning. And he can’t feel his dick anymore because it’s running around on the floor on fire. “Aaaahhh! Call the fire department!” So he’s having a conversation with his penis that is running around in flames. Why wouldn’t you reach out to the person who created that thing? I ask you just how? Didn’t it make sense that you would want to get to know this person?
JD: I can’t imagine a world where that would not be the logical next course of action. So how’d you track him down from there?
Dan: I think his phone number was on whatever demo had. I don’t know if he had a manager at that time or not, but in any case, I think he came through Profile. I think I slipped his demo to Cory Robbins and I don’t think anybody cared. Which was sad to me. But I couldn’t let an artist just go. So there was an artist E&J who had been signed by Brian Chen, the same guy who signed Rob Base and Special Ed. And E&J did not do well their first single and they didn’t have money from the company to do a second one. It was like, if you guys want to do something, go ahead but, you know. So I ended up producing their demo. When Profile didn’t want to mess with Kwest, I was like, come by my place, we’ll work on some shit. And that’s kind of how we started, just working on stuff together.
I always told him, whatever happens to me in my career and I’m going to try to get you put on because you’re fucking brilliant. And as the story goes, in something like, it was either late 1990 or early 1991, Rick Rubin calls me and asks me to come meet him. And I had two artists that I wanted to get to him. The first was the Art of Origin with Kerri Chandler and Chino XL. Kerri Chandler would later go on to great fame as a deep house producer. But he was part of that duo back then. And then Kwest Tha Madd Lad. Although I waited a bit on Kwest, I think. I don’t know why I waited. I was kind of an idiot back then. It was that whole Virgo thing, I wanted to do one thing at a time. Right. Which is stupid. But then again, we were in our twenties. And so, there’s just lots of the stupidity of being in your twenties.
But in any case I think I played “Anastasia” for Rick. And Rick was just like, this is the most hilarious thing. Go ahead and make a single, right? But then the thing becomes, how can I get Rick to do an album? Because I didn’t want to go single by single with my artists. And that was the whole struggle with Rick. He just came from this time where you could just put out a 12 inch. This was before Yo! MTV Raps, before album sales, and the environment just wasn’t like that anymore. So we booked a cheap studio in New York, like $25 an hour. And just did demo after demo after demo, and then with the help of Glen Boyd, our hero from Seattle who used to work for Nasty Mix records, who I got hired at American, Glen helped me convince Rick that what this guy needed was a whole album. And that’s how we got the budget to do this album. Which I exceeded and got in great trouble for.
JD: Was it worth getting into all the trouble?
Dan: Of course. There’s nothing about that album that I regret other than having put the records initially through Tommy Boy’s distribution system.
JD: I didn’t realize that.
Dan: And that was the reason in some way, for the delay of the album.
JD: How’d the Tommy Boy distribution lead to the delay?
Dan: So Tom Silverman is a friend. He was a mentor to Rick. Def American/American went through the Warner Brothers system, which was hugely clunky and expensive and didn’t really have good back promotion or sales. Tom Silverman was starting to think about, okay, how can I make Tommy Boy into a distribution system rather than just a label? Even though Tommy Boy was co-owned by Warner Bros, they did not go through the Warner distribution system. They did not go through WEA, Warner Elektra Atlantic. Which required, if you wanted to get your stuff into stores, you had to be a big artist. You really had to press the flesh to get the salespeople, the distributors, and the various branches to know what your record was. It was just hard. It was hard to do anything but albums, big albums through WEA.
But Tommy Boy, we figured, they know how to do singles. They can get to the mom and pop stores. We could probably sell a little more. But the problem was, we didn’t have any of Warner’s promotion help for pop radio. We could do the groundwork, but then there was nobody there to sort of hand it off to because Tommy Boy was not going to do that service for us. And then Tommy also said, well, if your single doesn’t do well in the way that Tommy Boy usually measures success, then I don’t want to put out that album yet.
So I had like, “Lubrication” popped off in Chicago. I think we put out “101 Things To Do While I’m With Your Girl,” and it started to pop on pop radio, but there was just no real help from Warner and no real help from Tommy Boy. So that’s the biggest regret, like that I just didn’t really have good partners above me because I was a one-man department, really. Other than, we had someone who was our promoter for the first leg, for the first couple of singles. He did great. But there was only so much we could do. And so there was sort of the fucked up-ness of the distribution arrangement and trying to figure out, okay, how do we make rap records, cheaply, while everybody else is spending gobs of money?
This is when Bad Boy starts to take off. This is when all of these major labels are starting to really invest and Rick is still thinking like it’s the pas, I don’t really have the leverage with him … do you know what I mean?
JD: Yeah. Unless it’s like Sir Mix-a-Lot on that label, it’s going to probably be tough to leverage.
Dan: So you can imagine it was immensely frustrating for Kwest. And I completely, completely understand that. What ends up saving this project, the sort of the push, came from a friend of mine named Sheena Lester. Because there were people who heard this album and thought, oh my God, this is a great. So Sheena Lester said, I want to put him on the cover of Rap Pages.
But I couldn’t give her a release date. So now she says, well, I’m not going to put them on the cover if you don’t put the release date down. So that alone helped me get it on the Warner schedule. So I left Tommy Boy and I started putting all … then we did “What’s the Reaction?” as the next single and we did a video. And so we actually spent the money and went through the Warner system, came out and it did what it did. But at that point also, Def American’s situation was kind of falling apart with Warner. So it was just like, ill timing, and then sort of ignorance on my part.
I just was too much of a creative person and not shark-y enough in the system to champion the artists that I produced in the way that they needed to be championed. But I will say that obviously Rick Rubin deserves credit, because he saw in Kwest what I saw. I mean, without Sheena Lester, I don’t know that the album ever would have seen the light of day.
Wendy Day also deserves a lot of credit because when Kwest got really frustrated with the label, he went to her. And Wendy sent me a letter like, hey, we hear that your artists are Kwest Tha Madd Lad is not getting the kind of treatment that he wants at your label and we want to talk to you about this. I always joke with Wendy, like I felt some kind of way about it because I’m not the evil label. I’m trying to get the money! I’m trying to get the money. So she became my ally. We became teammates in getting American to do the right thing. And for the most part, I think that they did.
So I will just say this, because this is probably the most important point. There’s this old Soprano’s episode that I hate, because usually when you show hip hop on any kind of pop culture show or TV show, like dramatic show, they always do some stupid … So they had Bokeem Woodbine starring as this rap star called Massive Genius. It was just like, Massive Genius. It’s like, why did you have to make it a joke?
But one of the things that Hesh, the old Morris Levy type archive record dude says like, the question is, is it a hit? And he says, a hit is a hit. Right? I could jump up and down all I want about “101 Things To Do While I’m With Your Girl” as being just an incredible song, an incredible pop song. And enough people saw it. It got added to Power 106 in LA. There were radio stations across the country that played that record. But a hit is a hit, right? And it just wasn’t a hit, because it wasn’t a hit. It was a great song, it wasn’t a hit.
Why do I say that? One of the reasons that it wasn’t, I believe, was that the culture had really changed underneath our feet from when Kwest and I first started working together. When Kwest and I first started working together, the following people had robust careers: Biz Markie, Slick Rick, Dana Dane, Kwame. Those were great sort of quirky, funny storytellers of the genre. But by the mid 1990s, as you know, the whole scene had been like, now it was the focus was keep it real, keep it real, keep it dirty, keep it … And I get that, right? Because some of that, some of Biz Markie’s success came from the fact that it feeds into this kind of silliness. The way that pop can ingest hip hop is through the silliness of it. “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” right?
But hip-hop lost something too. It lost its sense of humor. And the hope was somebody like Kwest Tha Madd Lad can bring that sense of humor back. And it just didn’t happen because I think hip hop was too far gone. I mean, we hadn’t even lost Tupac and Biggie yet. We were on our way to doing that. Which is why artists like Chino XL kind of resonated a little bit more at that time than Kwest Tha Madd Lad. But I will say as a work of art, as a complete thought, that album is the shit. And it doesn’t matter that it wasn’t a hit, because now we’re in a different environment where things like that have long tails. And number one, I’m proud of that album. Number two, I’m proud of him for what he endured being an artist. I still believe in that dude.
I’m most grateful that we are still friends. I’m in my fifties, he just turned 50. Like, yo, how great is that, that we still talk? We went through all of that and I loved that, for me. And I’d still work with him to this day, if that’s what I was doing, I would do it.
JD: I know you produced three songs on the album. Was that some of the first production work that you had done for a major label?
Dan: Yeah. And I was very conscious too, whatever money that I got from that, it was the lowest. You know they say they have most favored nation status. I was, it was like least favored nation. Whatever the low fee that we paid any producer, that’s the fee that I got. Because I didn’t want to put myself in a position of, if you wanted my beat, I didn’t want to be negotiating with my own artists for that.
JD: Could you imagine a world where you took the demo to Profile and they said, “Yeah, sure. Let’s do this”? And then you kept Kwest at Profile, and then he might’ve put out music during that era where there was the Biz Markies and the Kwames and the Slick Ricks, and how things might have gone in that direction?
Dan: Could have. The thing about working with Profile is that it would have been a very different working situation. Like with Rick, we had the freedom to do whatever we want. Nothing beats the feeling of having just done the craziest shit. … Any idea that Kwest has that’s crazy, we’ll do. If he wants to do a song called “125 Pennies For Your Thoughts” about getting nabbed by the transit cops, we do it. He says, I have a song called “101 Things To Do While I’m With Your Girl.” It was just a song title. It didn’t have the beat or anything. And I said, oh, do it over this beat. And we did it. He said, “I want the first track on the album to be, “I always wanted to start my album off with a bang.” And he just sticks a tape recorder under his bed while he’s doing some girl. We wouldn’t have been able to do something broad like that with Profile over the course of time.
One idea that I had, again, just this crazy idea. Because if you grew up in New York during a certain time listening to WBLS and Kiss FM, you grew up listening to Chuck Leonard as the voice of this discount clothing store, V.I.M. And so literally I got the tape of that from KISS FM. I got a whole commercial to sample. We got permission from Chuck Leonard to use his voice. Then I went over to Dick Griffey’s record company, SOLAR Records, and got The Deele record from them directly from the record company.
We mashed the two together and created this song, “I Met My Baby at V.I.M.” And I give it to Rick and two days later, Rick calls me from the car. He has the car phone. And Rick says … I pick up the phone and he’s like, yo. He goes, “V-I-M!” Just the satisfaction that Rick got the joke. Of course he got the joke, because he grew up with those commercials.
Bill Stephney wanted to wanted to put it in Crooklyn and Spike Lee didn’t feel it, for whatever reason. But just all these little near misses and shit. But it’s those things that … Like, hey, you know what? We did that. We just did some crazy ass shit that needed to be done. I mean, we measure the worth of things in how many people know about them and we measure the worth of things in how much money they made. And those are two ways that we cannot measure the worth of this album. Another profound way to measure its worth is in the depth of thought of it. And it’s just like, this is a completely other beautiful, creative side of hip-hop that’s just not with us anymore.
JD: Let’s say you took your 50-something brain now and went back into your 20 something, 30 something, your old self when you were working in American, is there any way you would have approached this differently? Or dealing with the infrastructure differently?
Dan: Yeah, absolutely. If I could go back in time, here are the things that I would do differently: Number one, I would have definitely put that out through Warner Brothers rather than trying to do it through Tommy Boy. No dis to Tommy Boy, just they were not trying to do what I needed to have done. And I would have spent whatever money on more independent and street promoters to get the word out. Number two, although I love everything about the album, I think I stressed Tommy out a lot about certain edits of things, whatever. Just like the smaller points I would have just let go. I just, you’re in your twenties; you don’t know how to handle people, handle artists. I just, I would have been a little less hands-on, I think, because I think the album would have been fucking fantastic no matter what. So I probably would have given him a little more latitude.
Here’s a very important thing: I would not have allowed Kwest to sign to American through that production company he signed to. He signed himself to a middleman that took a chunk of whatever advance he’d have. And if I had known, I would’ve been like, you know what? I’ll sign you, but I am not going to sign you through a company. You have to sign to me directly. And if you want managers, then you’re going to pay them as managers. But they are … because those people, again, I didn’t have necessarily problems with them, but they didn’t really contribute anything to the process.
So he would have had more money. He would have had a little more freedom. I would have rushed shit out. And I may actually I wouldn’t have fought the whole singles thing so much. Like, it’s got to be an album. Because I was in the albums. This was the age of 3 Feet High and Rising. You don’t relate to De La Soul because of “Me, Myself, and I.” It certainly helped people know who they were, but I would have let him develop a little bit before trying to do that album. I would have. I would have like, “Yo, let’s put out a bunch of cool singles…” But maybe that would have been a wrong thing. I mean, maybe this … Again, it’s all second guessing.
JD: Right. 20/20 hindsight.
Dan: But I think he would’ve had a better shot. Had it come out a little earlier. And I would have just wanted to make the situation a little more profitable and a little bit less stressful for him. And for me.
JD: Any other memories that you have making the album?
Dan: God, so many great memories. … You know what? I’ll tell you, it’s not the funniest memory, but it’s one of my favorite memories, is that when we were doing “What’s the Reaction?”, I had one particular bassline on it and he’s like, I like it, but I don’t like that bassline. I was like, “Fuck, it’s great!” He’s like, no, the baseline should go like this. And I went, no, that sounds horrible for the whole song. And I was really tight about it, like we were having this disagreement about a bassline.
And then I said, fuck it. I’ll put both of them together. I’ll do this during the verse and I’ll do this during the chorus. And it ended up being better than it would have been had it been just my idea or just his idea. And I still think about that moment to this day as a professional, working with people, when I was working on The Breaks at VH1. Whenever I do anything collaborative, I think of that moment where I just let go and decided to try shit, even though I thought, my way sounded better, that I end up doing something even better because I listened and because I collaborated, and that was huge for me.