The funny thing is, hip-hop is quite possibly more alive than it's ever been. Somehow, the culture is still breathing, despite recent events like Hot 97's insensitivity toward tsunami victims, Irv Gotti's arrest on money-laundering charges, Missy Elliott shepherding around faux-American Idol wannabes, ODB's Janis Joplinesque death from a heart attack brought on by a mix of cocaine and pills, and speculation that all the rage disappeared from rap the minute P. Diddy remade Public Enemy's rebel anthem "Public Enemy #1" in the same calculated, blasé way he jacked David Bowie and Sting. In the process of its content becoming mainstream, some say, the context of hip-hop was lost.
That's a compelling argument, but one emphatically rendered moot by Jeff Chang's long-awaited book Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (St. Martin's Press, $27.95). In the prelude, he writes, "When does it end? When the next generation tells us it's over."
For the next 523 pages, Chang proceeds to remind us exactly what hip-hop's context is, forecasting its future by focusing on where it's been. He searches out pioneers like Kool Herc (who contributes the book's intro), Doze Green, and Kool Lady Blue, painstakingly traces both the N.Y.C. street gangs who became hip-hop's first generation and the Bronx riots that ignited the culture's pilot light, and delves deeply into interesting tangents like Jamaican sound systems and South Central Los Angeles' volatile mix of Crips, Bloods, and Koreans. President Ronald Reagan, agitprop rap kings Ice Cube and Chuck D, urban planner Robert Moses, "culture vulture" Malcolm McLaren, murdered graffiti artist Michael Stewart, Def Jam publicist Bill Adler, the California Raisins, and Source publisher Dave Mays (to name a few) are all ultimately linked through hip-hop's six degrees of separation.
These personae, and their contributions to the culture's bigger picture, are reflected and refracted through the prism of Chang's pen, which reveals that hip-hop is -- and has always been -- inherently socioeconomic and sociopolitical.
Far from invisible, hip-hop's rage is omnipresent, continually seething below the surface, even as its public face is decked out in $200 sweatsuits, $150 sneakers, and $5,000 timepieces from Jacob the Jeweler. Rap may no longer be "black America's CNN," gays targeting Eminem may have replaced Jews targeting PE's Professor Griff, and the Source's Mind Squad may be a thing of the past. But amazingly, Chang says, hip-hop has persevered.
"It's still a vibrant culture," the Berkeley, California resident muses over a cup of hot tea in his home city. "It's not dead by any means." As proof, he has brought over the mixtape soundtrack to his book, which he produced with the help of DJs D-Sharp and Icewater. The tape is an audio companion that not only traces the book's chapters through sound bites, raps, rare grooves, and riddims, but eliminates any lingering sense of dryness that might result from reading such a well-researched historical tome complete with references, footnotes, and all that scholarly shit.
While the trend in mainstream hip-hop journalism has been to emulate Maxim's "less content, more fluff" approach, CSWS just about makes up for all those lame Ja Rule cover stories in one fell swoop, even if that swoop took six years to complete. "My thing was to go and tell stories that have never been heard," Chang explains. And while the tale of how Kool Herc became the first hip-hop DJ has become an urban legend, before Chang, no one had ever thought to interview Herc's sister Cindy Campbell or his father Keith Campbell about their supporting roles in the birth of a historic culture.
It was necessary to return to the essence of the culture, Chang says, because commercialism has "changed the way hip-hop is presented." At the same time, technology has also filtered down into the hands of the marginalized, multihued masses that made up hip-hop's original audience. "The promise of the technology is to make it more democratic, to de-eliticize," he explains. "Hip-hop basically fits like a glove into all these technological improvements" -- from samplers, drum machines, and direct-drive turntables to MP3s, ProTools software, and iTunes.
Furthermore, Chang adds, commercialism isn't always a completely bad thing -- after all, it has fueled both hip-hop's global expansion and its regional comeuppances. Sure, purists clinging to the "four elements" ideology (DJs, MCs, graf writers, B-boys) may scoff at the rise of the Southern crunk movement, but it's worth noting that Lil Jon brought back the 808 drum sound -- the same one heard on Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" in the '80s.
While Chang is as knowledgeable about the old school as anyone not named Grandmaster, he freely admits that Lloyd Banks' recent single "On Fire" is bangin', and professes his admiration for the poignancy of Juvenile's new video, which depicts a funeral scene for the late Soulja Slim: "That's what hip-hop is meant to do."
Chang's history of hip-hop, while not absolutely definitive -- it purposely ends in 2001, just prior to the flashpoint of 9-11 -- does connect many of the culture's loose ends into a tightly wound ball of narrative threads. Perhaps most important, CSWS reaffirms hip-hop as a culture moving in an apparently endless cyclical loop, sampling itself and the outside world with equal parts reverence and irreverence.
"What I'm trying to do," he concludes, "is tie together hip-hop's context with its content." For some, that context is martyrs like Yusuf Hawkins, Michael Stewart, and Rodney King. For others, it's Ice-T c-c-c-ripping through "6 'N Tha Morning" or Ice Cube debating Angela Davis. For others still, it's the Rocksteady Crew snorting cocaine in a club with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jody Watley, and being embarrassed because their parents showed up -- not to take them home, but to join the party. For Chang, it's all of the above, and then some.