Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop

Despite frequent editorials to the contrary, hip-hop is not dead, nor is it dying.  Hip-hop is as dead as jazz is: that is to say, there’s still great music being made, even if mainstream media ignores said music.  It’s also true that I won’t hold my breath for the next Bird, Monk, Ornette, or Trane to lay down a style-wide marker for before and after artist x, and just the same I am not expecting a new Chuck D or Rakim to make everyone in hip-hop pay attention and re-evaluate.  Hip-hop is either commercialized or underground, the former pernicious, the latter often as great as the Greats but rarely known outside of a tiny group of fans and, one has to think, not making a great living at it.

My wife borrowed this book from the library and then, half-way through or something, bought it.  Jeff Chang‘s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop was indeed worth the money, I discover, particularly when one buys a used copy.  It’s subtitled “a History of the Hip-Hop Generation,” rather than of hip-hop, and this it is, all for the better.

Chang excels at context, which to me is both the mark of a clear thinker and, completely related to this, the most important consideration in understanding anything in its social aspect.  Indeed the book, as much as documenting hip-hop itself documents the broadening context of the movement (of which I am prone to follow in its musical form, rap) which to my read can almost entirely explain hip-hop’s changing form and content.

The book begins in the 1970’s Bronx and Jamaica–the island nation, not Jamaica, Queens–and clearly documents that hip-hop’s originators were people totally abandoned by their governments and societies.  Particularly of value for the reader in the United States is the material on the Bronx, simply because public discussion of poverty in the United States has not really happened for some long time, certainly since Johnson’s Presidency.  As an aside, there is much talk under Obama and a real measure of action to shore up the beleaguered middle classes of which I am a part, all well and good, but totally ignoring the growing number of people this country has all but left for dead.  Chang documents how thoroughly the Bronx was targeted–not hyperbole–for destruction.  Urban planners, police chiefs, and the racist swine Daniel Moynihan are correctly fingered for the crime.

I was one of the white kids who got really turned on to hip-hop when Public Enemy put out It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.  I was a freshman in college when it came out, and I bought it that summer.  It’s hard for me to overstate how important Public Enemy was and continues to be for me.  I had grown up a massive Beatles fan, and had always wanted to know the feeling I’d read about, when Sgt. Pepper’s came out, when everybody was listening to it and talking about it, and when it seemed to lay down one of those cultural markers, like those of Bird and Ornette, of before and after.  It Takes a Nation was precisely that.  I had long discussions about it and, particularly the “Fight the Power” 12″ (which was the greatest single record I could remember being released) with my friends Greg and Ross.  I took Chuck’s advice and listened to Farrakhan, and like Chuck I took what was valuable and discarded that which was not.  I was a good white kid with good intentions before PE, but Chuck D put me on a better road than that.

I say this because I came to the book with opinions and expectations about N.W.A. in particular and “gangsta rap” in general.  I appreciated Chang’s depiction of the controversy Straight Outta Compton engendered, not so much in the mainstream media but within hip-hop itself.  I participated in these discussions, very much on the fringe of a tiny group, in college.  I wasn’t really one of the hip-hop crowd, but was close with some people who were (as problematic as that sounds) and I was indeed obsessed with Public Enemy.  That said, I remember feeling that N.W.A. was a betrayal, and voicing this to a friend who was himself from Compton and truly one of the hip-hop crowd.  I leveled all the appropriate criticisms, and my friend, while agreeing with all of my substantive points, said, “yes, but it’s real,” meaning simply that Ice Cube depicted things that were part of his world, though by no means things he was close to personally involved with.

Chang more or less takes the line my friend took, and that’s fair enough.  In recent years I will admit that my thoughts on “gangsta rap” have taken on a conspiratorial tone.  I think it was after reading Mike Davis’ City of Quartz years ago–don’t blame Davis for my errors–and digesting how thoroughly the various powers that were and continue to be in L.A. used gang violence as a pretext to implement genuinely genocidal policy in working-class black and brown neighborhoods, I over-conflated the beginnings of “gansta rap” with those policies.  Chang clearly demonstrates how thoroughly grass-roots N.W.A. were in their beginnings, and indeed I found myself having some sympathy for them and Eazy-E in particular as people who had dreams of doing something big but who were, because of where they were from, total underdogs.  Compton–and Chang makes this point explicitly–and South Central L.A. in general were left for dead in the 1980’s just like the Bronx was 10 years before.

What Chang misses in this, the only part of the book that I had any real prior knowledge about, or rather what he leaves out, is a contextual critique of “gangsta rap.”  I remember being furious at Rolling Stone’s one-star review of Public Enemy’s Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age, in which the idiot reviewer (significantly, I can’t find a link to the review online) called PE out of touch, because things had moved forward–not my opinion–with “gangsta rap.”  I did not have the language for a critique at the time, but in hindsight I do, and I wish Chang had pursued this line: we know that the big market for hyper-violent rap is white.  N.W.A. may have themselves, at least to begin with, been truly D.I.Y., but we have to put ourselves in the shoes of white media execs and ambitious white journalists with no personal stake in the future of positive hip-hop.  It doesn’t take an idiot to know that you will have an easier time selling a black musician who confirms white racist stereotypes to white people than you will a black musician who confounds them.  That is the contextual story of “gangsta rap,” and Chang doesn’t really pursue it.

That said, great read, and as far as I can tell indispensable if one wishes to understand the last quarter of the 20th century in the United States.

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