Dan Charnas

About this speaker

Dan Charnas is a bestselling author, award-winning music and business journalist, producer of records and television, and professor. Recipient of both a PEN Literary Award and a 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 latest book is Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, The Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm (2022). A New York Times Bestseller, Dilla Time is the winner of the 2023 Pen/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography, and was named a 2022 Notable Book by the Library of Michigan, and made 2022 “Best” lists for Pitchfork,Vulture, Rolling Stone, New York Times, Financial Times, Amsterdam News, Spin, HipHopDX, Esquire, and Variety. The product of four years of research and nearly 200 interviews, Dilla Time emerged from 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. Dilla Time has been called “one of the few hip-hop sagas to take the music as seriously as its maker,” by Publishers Weekly; and “a new gold standard for writing about music” by Mojo Magazine. For more information, visit the Dilla Time site at www.dillatimebook.com.

Dan’s first book, The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop (2010) was called “a classic of music-business dirt digging as well as a kind of pulp epic” by Rolling Stone. The Big Payback inspired the 2016 pilot for the VH1 series, The Breaks. He is also the author of Work Clean: The Life-Changing Power of Mise-En-Place to Organize Your Life, Work, and Mind (2016), exploring what great chefs can teach the rest of us about their particular way of relating to time, space, motion, and resources. Work Clean arose from two years of research and over 100 interviews with culinary professionals. Charnas is the coauthor of Def Jam: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label (2011) with Bill Adler and Cey Adams. He has been a contributor to NPR, Billboard, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times; and his writing has appeared in the Financial Times, the Chicago Tribune, Complex, Village Voice, Spin, and more. He has appeared as a guest on CNN, the BBC, PRI, and Bloomberg, and in a number of documentaries.

At the Clive Davis Institute, he serves as Director of Writing, History, and Emergent Media, 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.


Cash Rules Everything

August 04, 2023, 06:00 PM
Chubb Rock DreamDoll Mr. Cheeks Dan Charnas


Queens Public Library


In 2021, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) awarded $425.7 million through grantmaking, research and policy development, to advance, support, and empower America's museums, libraries, and related organizations.