Rapper's delight

Jeff Chang's remarkable history tells the story of hip-hop, the most important music (and youth) movement of our time.

By Peter L'Official
Published March 31, 2005 8:00PM (EST)

Charlie Ahearn, famed writer-director of the 1982 old-school hip-hop film classic "Wild Style," broke my heart about a quarter of the way through Jeff Chang's "Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation." Asked about the double-edged impact of the Sugar Hill Gang's 1979 chart-topping, crossover hit "Rapper's Delight" on break dancing and DJ culture in the clubs, he observes, "Nobody was dancing. Period! Rap became the focal point. MCs were onstage and people were looking at them." The song, apart from enlivening the then-waning Bronx club scene, helped cast the DJ down from his heretofore prominent position as ruler, sole controller and cold-rocker of the party. The days of kids decked out in denim cut-sleeves sporting well-manicured 'fros at clubs "gettin' they dance on" were done. Dancers became spectators, DJs cut records for profit, and silver-tongued Bronx kids rhymed over those records, enacting the culture's transition from DJ-dominated live performance to the more formulaic, highly marketable, studio-ensconced iteration dominated by the rapper. This leads to Ahearn's heart-stopper: "This is 1980. In other words, hip-hop is dead by 1980. It's true."

Now, hip-hop's death has been decried so many times that it's become nearly a theme of the music itself (and not just every time Puffy re-reinvents the remix). But I was born in 1980. As a matter of fact, I was born in New York City, and have lived the greater part of my life in the Bronx, the internationally known and locally respected birthplace of hip-hop. It's a lil' badge of honor that I enjoy carrying around, and a fact that almost assuredly annoys friends and others alike due to my constant and often public claim to that heritage. My favorite music came from where I came from. It's a neat and simple bit of history that I keep close to my heart -- nothing more, considering I came rather late to hip-hop block-party consciousness, being blissfully pre-pubescent for its glory days -- and it's kept so close that I can't help but feel concern for the culture that's grown up, out, around and away from the two turntables and a microphone that helped start it. And no matter how many times hip-hop has "died," it's still troubling to hear from one of its elder statesmen that the music you grew up listening to was dead before you knew it existed.

But baby -- and I'm addressing hip-hop directly here -- I love you, as 50 Cent so playfully rapped once, "like a fat kid loves cake." And after completing Chang's epic endeavor (546 pages including appendices, indexes, notes and the obligatory shout-outs), I can tell that he does too.

Yet it's not just the music that he loves, because hip-hop isn't just about dope beats and rhymes, or at least it shouldn't be. In some strange and I suppose logically impossible way, Hip-Hop in the grand, elevated, generational sense is "bigger than hip-hop," in the words of the duo dead prez (a group so -- undeservedly -- under the mainstream radar that they don't even get capital letters). I know what you're saying, how can a thing be bigger than itself? I'll attempt to answer that with simple stoner logic: What if the thing is not the thing you thought it was in the first place? (Can I get a Keanu? "Whoa!" Thanks!)

Hip-hop in its purest sense offers both a means to decide whether you should cop that bangin' new mix tape from the cat on the corner, and a forum to decide whether you think Colin Powell's a punk for copping to the neocon playbook and selling us on those WMD. Hip-hop was born in the Bronx, yes, but it has been reborn countless times -- to borrow Secretary of Defense and hype-man extraordinaire D. Rummy's words -- north, south, east and west of there, too.

Like it or not, hip-hop's been co-opted by our media monopolies as both dominant mode and signifier of youth/outsider/disenfranchised culture. Having transcended its branding as a niche market of music, it has come to stand for -- and brand -- urban culture itself. (Referring to the seminal West Coast rap group N.W.A.'s meteoric rise to the top of Billboard's charts in the 1990s, Chang slyly writes, "Apparently lots of suburbanites and whites were down with a 'Niggaz 4 Life' program," keenly identifying the music's potential to both identify and define a lifestyle.) Hip-hop has become both universal aesthetic and adjective, from the Dirty South to South Africa, with its spirit manifesting itself in the unlikeliest of places, often in more unfamiliar guises.

Holler if you hear me. Allen Iverson is hip-hop, sure. But if you've ever watched the elegant, world-class French striker Thierry Henry celebrate after scoring a wonder goal, you'd know he's hip-hop, too -- and not merely because he's friends with San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker and once sat next to Spike Lee and Jay-Z at a Knicks game. Same goes for the kids chilling out in Tokyo's Harajuku district, sporting Nike sneaker styles that hip-hop heads in America would absolutely bug out over. Though he would no doubt protest, Stanley Crouch is a little bit hip-hop, too. Just ask critic Dale Peck.

Chang, a freelance hip-hop journalist with a background in ethnic studies and a decade-long investment in the art form (which includes co-founding an influential indie hip-hop label that helped launch acts like DJ Shadow and Blackalicious), approaches the palimpsest of hip-hop pedagogically. Which is to say, his scope is operatic, sprawling, and concerns itself with the people, places and politics that drove hip-hop from its infancy -- at a party thrown by DJ Kool Herc's sister on 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx -- to its now-ubiquitous and rather decadent cacophonic pimping of your TV, radio, cellphone and, of course, your ride. He writes, "My own feeling is that the idea of the Hip-Hop Generation brings together time and race, place and polyculturalism, hot beats and hybridity. It describes the turn from politics to culture, the process of entropy and reconstruction. It captures the collective hopes and nightmares, ambitions and failures of those who would otherwise be described as 'post-this' or 'post-that.'"

What hip-hop provides -- from Chang's perspective, and that of the downtrodden denizens of Rio's favelas and Paris' banlieues, marginalized and impoverished much like the South Bronx population of the 1970s -- is a way to look at the world. And that's exactly what "Can't Stop Won't Stop" does: It looks at the world through the words, eyes and deeds of the culture's true, oft-forgotten architects and revolutionaries over the past three and a half decades. Chang isn't interested in rap's big, boldfaced names and endlessly echoing voices as touchstones for his narrative. While he pays homage to founding fathers Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc (who writes the book's introduction) among many others, Chang grounds his copious research with those whose stories have been overlooked, co-opted or abandoned: the street gangs of 1960s-70s Bronx, the b-boys (break dancers) whose loose-limbed poppin' and lockin' became novelty once the MC grabbed the mike, and the graffiti artists whose brief brush with art world fame came, then went, with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. These are but some of the heretofore ignored to whom Chang gives voice. There's nary a Diddy in sight.

It is what Chang calls "the politics of abandonment" that seemingly drove him to write the book, and which accounts for the seething menace -- masked by cool understatement -- he shows when dealing with real-life villains such as megalomaniacal urban builder Robert Moses, or pretty much anyone involved with the LAPD. A boombox Boethius, Chang employs a central metaphor not of a wheel, but instead, a loop -- of history, of a sample, of cassette tape -- around which he structures and organizes the book.

Chang begins his tale temporally in 1968, a time when youth and revolution seemed poised to seize the world by storm. But in the South Bronx, gang culture -- fueled by the influx of heroin and the mass exodus of whites to the suburbs made possible by Moses' destructive monstrosity, the Cross-Bronx Expressway -- took root, and street violence became the reality. After years of Nixon's and city officials' policy of "benign neglect" had taken its toll, the raging fires that razed communities and made the Bronx the nation's symbol for urban failure, the gangs themselves declared a stunning truce in 1971. That's when people like Herc, Flash, and Bambaataa (himself a member of a gang, then leader of the Zulu Nation) stepped in. The creative energy they unleashed in a seven-mile radius from the Bronx's Crotona Park in the late '70s rather fittingly "sampled" the same rebellious, avant-garde spirit of a decade before.

As Chang writes, in making his most trenchant point: "They were about unleashing youth style as an expression of the soul, unmediated by corporate money, unauthorized by the powerful and protected and enclosed by almost monastic rites, codes, and orders. They sprung from kids who had been born into the shadows of the baby boom generation, who never grew up expecting the whole world to be watching. What TV camera would ever capture their struggles and dreams? They were invisible.

"But invisibility was its own kind of reward; it meant you had to answer to no one except the others who shared your condition. It meant you became obsessed with showing and proving, distinguishing yourself and your originality above the crowd."

That these kids "never grew up expecting the world to be watching" perhaps accounts in part for why modern hip-hop has seemingly lost its way in comparison to the vibrant folk art it once was; today, everybody expects the world to be watching.

Regardless of hip-hop's inspirational woes today, it is this cyclical progression of events that forms Chang's loop, repeated in Los Angeles between the late '80s and early '90s, culminating in the post-Rodney King verdict riots, the 1992 Watts peace treaty, and a similar flowering of creativity, leading to hip-hop's eventual entry into the mainstream.

Chang's narrative ends, rather unfortunately, in the year 2000 at a demonstration at the Democratic convention, with fists raised defiantly in the air in front of the Ronald Reagan State Building. It's a conclusion, necessarily so I suppose, that completes the revolutionary loop from 1968, but so much has happened in these past years that I felt cheated to have taken such a remarkably detailed ride through history, then to be forced to get off earlier than I expected. It's a rather evasive and jarring ending to an otherwise comprehensively researched and well-written history.

The history of hip-hop music in many ways still mirrors the history told by rapper Common in "I Used to Love H.E.R.," a single from his 1994 classic "Resurrection." Employing a trope, well, common to the genre, Common raps as if hip-hop is a girl he grew up with. (The very fact that I'm citing Common will perhaps out my current musical allegiances with regards to the gangsta/poet, thug/backpacker debate, which Chang addresses intelligently in his book.)

I met this girl, when I was ten years old
And what I loved most she had so much soul
She was old school, when I was just a shorty
Never knew throughout my life she would be there for me
On the regular ...

And later ...

I might've failed to mention that the shit was creative
But once the man got you well he altered the native
Told her if she got an energetic gimmick
That she could make money, and she did it like a dummy
Now I see her in commercials, she's universal
She used to only swing it with the inner-city circle
Now she be in the burbs lickin rock and dressin hip
And on some dumb shit, when she comes to the city
Talkin about poppin' glocks servin' rocks and hittin' switches
Now she's a gangsta rollin with gangsta bitches
Always smokin blunts and gettin drunk
Tellin me sad stories, now she only fucks with the funk
Stressin how hardcore and real she is
She was really the realest, before she got into showbiz

All that is generally still true, and the cycle has repeated itself since then in some form or another -- and this rap is only 11 years old. (Some might remember that Common and Ice Cube didn't exactly see eye to eye after this song was released, since Cube thought himself obliquely referenced here -- so excuse me for one sec ... Cube, I ain't got nuthin' but love for ya baby!) So Chang's loop theory seems to hold water -- especially when put in context of a comment made by the Source magazine's co-founder and CEO David Mays in 1993: "This isn't a niche market, or just an ethnic market ... Hip-hop is like rock and roll twenty-five years ago. It's a music-driven lifestyle being lived by an entire generation of young people now ... This market is dying to be marketed to."

In the wake of 50 Cent and the Game's exquisitely timed "beef" (and 50's first-week sales massacre of all Billboard chart rivals), Mays' words might seem funny or prophetic, despite the fact that the threat of someone dying has become the marketing ploy. (Chang pays particular attention to Mays and the other co-founder of the Source, Ray "Benzino" Scott, both of whom have stakes in the music business and thus have more conflict-of-interest issues with the magazine than Dick Cheney has with Halliburton.) Who knows if we're truly at the nadir of Chang's loop, but if we are, then there's nowhere to go but up.

"Can't Stop Won't Stop" reads like a history textbook -- albeit one of the cooler history textbooks you could find -- and that's a good thing. It is essentially a people's history, a sociological text that delves deep into the racial and economic climates of the times that produced hip-hop culture. Of course, Chang gets to supplement his sociology with the occasional critical consideration of the lyrical stylings of a Rakim or an Ice Cube, but for the most part the focus is on cold, hard, often political fact, which is what makes it both fascinating and important. Chuck D, the famous Public Enemy frontman, was renowned for saying that hip-hop was black America's CNN. Given that CNN is now devoted to hard-hitting, 24-hour coverage of the Michael Jackson trial, that seems a less flattering comparison. But using that same analogy, perhaps Jeff Chang is hip-hop America's Howard Zinn.

Peter L'Official

Peter L'Official is a writer living in New York.

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