Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Can’t Stop Won’t Stop:  A History of the Hip-Hop Generation by Jeff Chang

I don’t want to hear people saying that they don’t want to be role models.  You might already have my son’s attention.  Let’s get that clear.  When I’m telling him “don’t walk that way, don’t talk that way,” you’re walking that way and talking that way.  Don’t just be drug dealer, like another pusher.  Cut the crap.  That’s escape.  That’s the easy way out.  You have the kid’s attention.  I’m asking you to help me raise him up.

Those lines are from DJ Kool Herc’s forward to this comprehensive, scholarly and deeply opinionated history of hip-hop.  Chang begins before the beginning, establishing that each of the big three fathers of the genre – Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Africa Bambaata – are West Indian immigrants and that their approach to music grows out of the highly political practice of sound system dances in Kingston and other cities of Jamaica, and continues through to the more pleasure centered work of Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre.

Chang is not simply examining the roots of the music here, but arguing that hip-hop has always been a political voice of the black community.  He persuasively argues that both MCs and DJs have been heavily involved with street gangs and have consistently worked as part of anti-violence strains within those gangs.  He places hip-hop within the context of African American self-help tradition arguing that often the message of rap is confused by the fact that the intended audience is black youth who experience street violence from a different perspective than white critics.  He sees the primary work of hip-hop through the 1980s as voicing positive alternatives for embattled communities.

Chang’s is a fan’s perspective.  He makes no attempt to hide his love of the music and chooses the artists he focuses on accordingly (plenty of Public Enemy, very little Tupac).  However, his primary focus remains the music’s social impact and Chang does an excellent job of placing variations of hip-hop in historical and cultural context.  In that sense, the book becomes a vivid social history of the 1980s and I had a wonderful time reliving moments I had lived through but perhaps not given proper attention.  If you want to rethink Eleanor Bumpers and Michael Stewart in addition to Flavor Flav and Ice Cube, you will want to read this book.

Chang is especially strong on hip-hop’s meaning to other minority communities and writes with clarity and insight about the tensions between blacks and Asians in the 1980s – in both Brooklyn and Los Angeles.  He is weaker when discussing the images of women in hip-hop and I couldn’t help get the feeling that he was letting his love of NWA get in the way of his analysis of their music.  It is important to look at misogyny in hip-hop within the context of misogyny in pop music generally (“Runaround Sue” anyone?) but Chang doesn’t go there.

The book includes an extensive appendix that lists supplemental readings, films and an extensive playlist of music for each chapter.  His music recommendations alone are worth the price of the book. 

There is no doubt that the history and significance of hip-hop will be subject of ongoing debate and I will leave the details of that debate to those more knowledgeable than myself, but clearly this is a book that will be important to that debate for some time.

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