Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Can't Stop Won't Stop: The History of the Hip-Hop Generation - Jeff Chang

When Jeff Chang examines the history of the Hip-Hop Generation, he goes deep. How deep? He starts the story in 1953, with the building of the Cross-Bronx Expressway by Robert Moses (who "led the white exodus out of The Bronx"). There are three lengthy chapters, one setting up the landscape of the post-civil rights Bronx and detailing the history of how it got there, one tracing a parallel history in Jamaica, and documenting the rise of dub reggae, and one chronicling the history of gang culture in The Bronx, before we even begin with the life story of Jamaican-born Bronx immigrant DJ Kool Herc, the man who started it all. This rich building of backstory is repeated throughout the book. When it's time to discuss Public Enemy, we get a history of the "blackening" of Long Island, and a lengthy study of the anti-apartheid movment. A chapter on NWA takes us back to the 1930's for a history of Los Angeles race relations, immigration patterns and police brutality. This book is clearly not some lightweight social history.

Chang is not just a thorough historian, but also a gifted writer, with a talent for threading images through his lengthy narrative. The cipher turns up again and again in different forms, from the circle in the crowd where b-boys compete to the ring of baton-weilding cops surrounding Rodney King. The insurance fires that spread through The Bronx in the 70's provide a thematic image throughout the book, echoed in Jamaica and Los Angeles, and when b-boys begin referring to their competitive dancing as "burning" Chang labels it a "hard-won irony."

The book is a thorough examination of the development of DJing, rapping, b-boying ("breakdancing" in white guy parlance--I'd always been confused on this point, and thought b-boying just meant something like "being part of the hip hop scene") and grafitti writing, and the culture that developed around these artforms, but it's also as powerful a critique of right-wing, racist policy in America as I've ever read. Chang paints American history as a cycle of oppression and neglect, in which the results of racist policy are always used as justification for even worse policies. This reaches a climax in the apocalyptic chapters leading up to and including the '92 L.A. uprising.

I remember getting into an argument with my conservative boss after the riots. He blamed the media for showing the images of the beatings over and over without showing the lead-up to it (so people could see what King had done to convince police he was dangerous enough to be subdued with billy clubs), and I argued that it wasn't about the 5 minutes leading up to the beating, but the 50 years leading up to the beating. But I was basically talking shit. I "knew" Daryl Gates' LAPD had a reputation for being violent, racist and corrupt, but I only really knew that from listening to Black Flag and NWA. The reality, as documented here, is much worse than I even imagined. After reading this book, there is no question--the LAPD was conducting a war on black people.

There is also a fascinating examination of the much trickier issue of Black-Korean relationships in South Central. During the riots, Ice T notes, Korean businesses were targeted by blacks who felt "Koreans were one step above them, so that's the closest step to the system. They didn't know the Koreans are just as broke as them." In reality, as laid out by Chang, Koreans were actually a step down the economic ladder from blacks, running the liquor stores that black owners had sold because they were a shitty investment in the first place. Blacks were unable to see it, but they had taken the place of white folks in this battle, trying to keep the newcomers out of their neighborhoods.

If there is a fault to the book, it can be read in the subtitle. This is a history of the hip-hop generation, not of hip-hop music. It offers a comprehensive history of the development of the music, but it's primary focus remains on the social history surrounding that music. If you're looking for a definitive examination of the careers and signifigances of Kurtis Blow, Busy Bee, Kool Moe Dee, Doug E. Fresh, Slick Rick, 2Live Crew, KRS-1, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, The Notorious B.I.G., or Outkast, keep looking. Nowhere is this more evident than in the treatment of Run DMC, generally identified as the single most important group in the development of hip-hop. They get about 6 pages, which they share on a less-than-equal basis with the rise of Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin's Def Jam label, and are treated mostly as a John the Baptist prelude to the coming of Public Enemy. Compare that to the 22 pages dedicated to Ice Cube's second solo album. Dr. Dre's classic The Chronic barely gets two pages.

In writing the history of an artistic movement, the challenges become greater as one advances through time, and the different permutations of the movement spread further from the center (see the later chapters of Ken Burns' Jazz documentary). And it is in the last 60 pages of the book, following the climactic chapters on the L.A. Riots and the Million Man March, that this sociological approach proves the most rewarding. If this were merely a history of hip-hop as music, these final chapters could have been a banal cataloguing of the different permutations of the music at the turn of the millenium: mainstream commercial rap and the empires built by Puffy and Master P, underground hip-hop, turntablism, progressive producers like DJ Shadow, hip hop-influenced techno from the Chemical Bros. to 4Hero, a survey of hip-hop as it exists throughout Latin America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, the hip-hop-influenced metal of Korn, Rage Against the Machine, and Limp Bizkit, the use of hip-hop production techniques by pop groups like Garbage, and on and on and on, along with a long chapter on the Biggie and Tupac murders (a subject that Chang, thankfully, avoids almost entirely, only hinting at it with an aside about Shug's calling out of Puffy and Bad Boy at the 1995 Source Awards).
Instead, Chang first demonstrates faith (perhaps too much) in his readers attention span by devoting an entire chapter to the rise of The Source and Vibe, complete with behind-the-scenes drama. This sets up a discussion of the economics of hip-hop marketing, and it's co-opting by the mainstream, a subject summed up nicely in this quote:

What materialy seperated Jay-Z from a rapper like Talib Kweli? 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.

A somewhat cynical view, but only if you naively (perhaps dangerously) subscribe to the idea that you can be defined by the media objects you choose to fetishize.

Finally, Chang sidesteps the potential chaos of defining hip hop music (or even culture) of the early 00's by focusing in the final pages on "hip hop activism," contrasting the activist youth of the hip-hop generation with those of the civil rights generation. It's a fascinating portrait of a culture that embraces contradiction, one where "feminists chant sexist rhymes, reformers boogie to money lust," as journalist Danyel Smith is quoted. "White people sing along to songs that curse their existsnce on the planet. Black people memorize joints that exist only to extol self-destruction. Are we close to hip-hop? Yes. Where else to be but close to the truth?"


Blogger Danyel said...

wow. smart review. a nice surprise to see that bit from me noted, too. seems like I wrote it a very long time ago.

cool blog. I'm glad I found it.



1/26/2006 12:22 PM  
Blogger Chris Oliver said...

Thanks. It's a great quote.

1/27/2006 7:58 AM  
Blogger BBQ Junkie said...

Amazing review, I might have to get me a copy.

1/31/2006 11:35 AM  

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