Reflection Eternal 

Author Jeff Chang traces hip-hop's past to reveal its future.

These days, the insular, cliquish world of hip-hop journalists is all atwitter about Village Voice scribe Greg Tate's recent rant bemoaning the transformation of the hip-hop of his youth. In response, the blog engines hissed out synaptic steam like a scene from Metropolis played out in cyberspace, as various talking heads, observers, fans, and cultural commentators try to answer the age-old question raised once again by Tate's rambling essay: "Is hip-hop dead?"

The funny thing is, hip-hop is quite possibly more alive then it's ever been. Somehow, by whatever means necessary, the culture is still breathing, even if the pan-African dream of a "Hip-Hop nation" once forecast by old-guard media assassins like Tate, Harry Allen, and Nelson George has dissolved into a post-9/11 mist, made hazier by 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 Joplin-esque death of 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 NYC 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, and also inherently linked to activism's double-edged sword of violence and peace.

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.


"I'm not gonna say hip-hop is dead," the Berkeley resident muses over a cup of hot tea. "It's still a vibrant culture. It's not dead, by any means." As proof, he has brought over the mix-tape 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 soundbites, 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. It's also a brilliant cross-marketing technique: Rather than merely identify the breakbeats used on Afrika Bambaataa's seminal "Death Mix," Chang created a killer mix of his own, an edutainment-heavy funkin' lesson that puts Pieces of a Dream next to Pop Master Fabel, features a hip-hop creation myth by Joyo Velarde, and remembers to include King Tee & Mixmaster Spade and the Goodie Mob -- as well as usual suspects like the Tom Tom Club and the Treacherous Three.

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. Similarly, while Bam's status as a leader of the Black Spades gang has been explored by other writers, the story of how the Bronx gangs were a direct result of urban redevelopment and white flight -- not to mention their 1971 peace treaty (which laid much of the groundwork for what would become hip-hop) -- had remained untouched by journalists until now.

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 -- the weapon of what he calls the "global media monopolies" -- 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, Pro Tools software, and iTunes.

Back in the day, Chang notes, a meticulous production like the CSWS mix tape, using the pause buttons on a cassette and maybe an old reel-to-reel, would have taken months, if not years, to make. But thanks to modern technology, he and his DJ pals did it in just two weeks. And while the Technics 1200 remains the industrial standard for the DJ arts, Chang -- once known as DJ Zen on KDVS in Davis, and later the cofounder of influential indie label Solesides (aka Quannum) -- rhapsodizes about the "simulacra" of the new CD turntables, which can do everything a 1200 can do and more.

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.

"Making the sound system boom, that was a technological innovation," Chang says, giving props to Herc -- widely-known for having the most massive system in his borough -- yet implying that the boom-bip itself has become a tradition that has carried hip-hop far farther than the boundaries of the Bronx b-boy culture in Herc's era. 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."

If you want more evidence of hip-hop's inherently sociopolitical nature, just look at its fashion statements. Chang agrees that ski jackets and bubble coats were an early form of hip-hop futurism -- proven by the fact that they're still in style today -- while the minimalist dress codes of Keak da Sneak and Run-DMC went right along with their street-level perspectives, separated by decades and the Continental Divide, but not all that dissimilar, when you think about it.

By that same token, nothing quite says "fuck you" to the status quo quite like baggy, oversize jeans, hoodies, and sneakers -- a point not lost on Eminem, who turned the black sweatshirt into a political referendum urging youth empowerment in his "Mosh" video. Such actions are examples of what Chang calls one of hip-hop's primal characteristics: "Using culture to establish an identity."

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 importantly, 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.

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