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I am obsessed with The Godfather. Thirty-two years after its release, I still watch it over and over. I often wish that somehow I could once again see it for the first time. Then, instead of knowing every line by heart, I could re-experience the movie as something brand new.
After reading Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation, I have some idea what that would feel like. Although the general outlines of hip-hop history are as familiar to me as the plot of The Godfather, on nearly every one of 467 pages Chang had me saying to myself “I didn’t know that” or “I never thought about it like that.”
Can’t Stop Won’t Stop emphasizes why things happened, dissecting the contradictions of hip-hop and the larger world it emerged from. It begins with the relationship between the South Bronx and Jamaica. It goes far beyond the obvious--the influence of toasting and sound systems carried from the Third World to First World shores--in support of Kool Herc’s assertion that “Hip-hop came out of Trenchtown.” Chang points out that at the same time (1971-75) that U.S. aid to Jamaica was cut by 83%, New York’s city planners had built the Cross Bronx Expressway and consigned the South Bronx to the tender mercies of the arson industry. The moment was pregnant with musical change, and Jamaican dub was the midwife. “Dub’s birth was accidental, its spread was fueled by economics, and it would become a diagram for hip-hop music. A space had been pried open for the break, for possibility.”
This is Jeff Chang at his best--artfully summing up decades in a sentence or two. He does it throughout Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, as he captures the struggle between art and commerce (“Dr. Dre’s mercenary willingness to sell his creativity in exchange for security would prove his downfall over and over again”), describes the growing clampdown in America (“After the riots, a generation raised on the politics of abandonment saw that it now also faced a sharply evolving politics of containment”), or quotes Hugo Martinez of United Graffiti Artists (“Graffiti writing is a way of gaining status in a society where to own property is to have identity”).
The plot line that weaves throughout the book is the attempt in hip-hop to define a unified point of view, a coherent ideology. This proves impossible because hip-hop is always moving in at least two directions at once.
That starts with the music itself: “The visions of ‘Planet Rock’--universal communion and transcendence--and ‘The Message’--ghetto strife and specificity--could only be brought together on the dance floor.” Later, “the same dialectics [that] had played out between ‘The Message’ and ‘Planet Rock’… would continue with Chuck D and Rakim, Marley Marl and the Bomb Squad, NWA and De La Soul, Mary J. Blige and Erykah Badu, and in Outkast, Black Star, and Quannum.”
It was impossible to develop a clear perspective based on class, even though Chuck D once told Right On! that one of Public Enemy’s goals was to bring back communism. The liberation that may seem inherent in Bill Stephney of the Bomb Squad declaring that “Hip-hop was not just a ‘fuck you’ to white society, it was a ‘fuck you’ to the previous Black generation as well,” is undercut by the fact that most hip-hop artists wanted to join both of these targets on the high side of a brutally unequal society.
The attempt to fashion a parallel universe of “alternative” hip-hop has met the same fate as “alternative” rock. “What materially separated Jay-Z from a rapper like Talib Kweli?” Chang asks. “The answer was in the marketing. Media monopolies saw Jay-Z as an artist with universal appeal, Kweli as a ‘conscious rapper.’ A matter of taste, perhaps, except that the niche of ‘conscious rap’ might be industry shorthand for reaching a certain kind of market--say, college-educated, iPod-rocking, Northface backpacking, vegan, hip-hop fans. In this late-capitalist logic, it was not the rappers’ message that brought the audience together, it was the things that the audience bought that brought the rappers together.”
The book peaks about three quarters of the way through in a chapter called “The Real Enemy,” which begins with a fascinating description of a long conversation between Ice Cube and Angela Davis in which they debate gender, language, and revolution. This segues into the controversy over “Black Korea,” Cube’s call for arson in response to the March 1991 killing of customer Latasha Harlins in a Korean-owned liquor store. Chang goes deep into the conditions of Korean storeowners, which include soul-destroying overwork and racism by white wholesalers. He manages to paint an almost sympathetic portrait of Harlins’ killer, Soon Ja Du, without ever wavering in his support of the black struggle.
The power of that chapter still resonates at the book’s conclusion at the 2000 Democratic convention, with the Dems in full support of an emerging police state. Reading that ending in 2005, an unwritten question leaps out: With hip-hop’s leading publication, The Source, in full support of the war in Iraq and bling bling in full ascendance, is this the end of hip-hop history?
Rock & Rap Confidential / 2005