Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation
A book reviewer for salon.com wrote that “perhaps Jeff Chang is Hip-Hop America’s Howard Zinn.” If this is true then Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop is definitely Hip-Hop’s A People’s History of the United States. Much like Zinn, Chang obviously does a lot of research and like A People’s History this book tells the story from the perspective of the underdog, only this time it’s the underdogs who created Hip-Hop music and culture, made it a force to be reckoned with, and brought it to the forefront of mainstream America. From the ghettos of Jamaica, New York, and Los Angeles, Chang not only tells us about the history of MCs, DJs, graff writers, and b-boys, but also about social, political, and economic struggles that have always been the motivation behind the music and the movement. The book gives the Hip-Hop generation their due place in American and world history as the victims of colonization, exploitation, and degradation that rose above it all and still had time to have fun and in the process create a powerful artistic social movement.
The book is written in four parts that Chang calls “Loops” which are arraigned in chronological order, but always have a 2 year overlap. Loop 1 is entitled “Babylon is Burning: 1968-1977” and covers of the political and social instabilities in The Bronx and Jamaica that gave birth to the sounds and styles of Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaata. Chang discusses at great length and detail the oppression and rebellion in Jamaica from Bob Marley to the CIA. He also writes about the deliberate effort to turn the Bronx into a forgotten land full of neglected project buildings, poor education, limited opportunities, and criminal activity. Changs makes the connection between the Bronx gang culture of the late 70s and early 80s and the beginnings of Hip-Hop house parties, tagging styles, and overall swagger.
Loop 2 “Planet Rock: 1975-1986” focuses on the on the initial “blowing-up” of Hip-Hop music and graffiti from being something done by mostly young black and brown people to the era of million dollar art shows and gold records. Chang spends a large part of this section on the pioneer breakdancers, graffiti artists, and DJs who built a lot of bridges, put in a lot of work, paved a lot of roads in Hop-Hop and often don’t get the credit they deserve and whose achievements and contributions to the culture go unappreciated. From Fab-5-Freddy, the Cold Crush Brothers, Rock Steady Crew, Rammellzee, Wild Style, and on and on. The last section in Loop 2 is called “End of Innocence: The Fall of the Old School” which is not a bad thing. In fact when something loses its innocence it then can begin to get its hands dirty, and that’s what Hip-Hop started to do.
Loop 3 “The Message: 1984-1992” focuses on the turn that Hip-Hop began to take towards becoming more socially conscious, aggressive, and even revolutionary art form, from “The Message’ and “Hard Times” to “Fuck the Police” and “Fight the Power.” Chang covers a wide variety of examples of the early Hip-Hop political movements from police brutality demonstrations, the apartheid South Africa boycotts, new Black militant organizations, and of course the LA rebellion of 1992. The writing is all over the wall (sometimes literally), Hip-Hop has had a direct link to most poor, people of color, and struggling communities and has nurtured the social movements that have come out of those communities. Again, following the Loop theme, we are brought to the end of an era, the Public Enemy/Ice Cube era of rebellion and resistance to new era of big money and Hip-Hop being co-opted by corporate interests.
Loop 4 is therefore called “Stakes is High: 1992-2001” and holds a double meaning for the content discussed in this section. The first meaning is to say that the stakes are high in the political and social movement that Hip-Hop has created. Major unrest in the inner-cities, riots, massive incarceration, racism, education, poverty, etc…are all big problems and if we don’t step up and solve them we may be headed for catastrophe. Organizing gangs and the youth, discovering the CIA’s involvement in the coke/crack trade, using Hip-Hop culture as an artistic and economic outlet are some of the positive achievements. On the other hand, police forces becoming more militarized, the rise of the prison industrial complex, and Hip-Hop being completely sold out to corporate interests are obviously the negative. The second meaning of the “stakes are high” comes from those corporate interests. There is so much money to be made through Hip-Hop these days that there is little motivation to focus on anything else. In other words, why do a song for the movement and be broke when I can be safe and get signed to a major label record deal? One example that Chang focuses on is the rise and fall of The Source magazine from a small time ‘for the love of Hip-Hop’ one-sheet to the multi-million dollar company that eventually became corrupt and greedy for its own interests.
In conclusion this is a must read for anyone who calls them self a member of the Hip-Hop generation or simply wants to learn more about Hip-Hop history, culture, and politics. This book should also be recommended to anyone interested in getting a fresh new look at an alternative United States history that often goes untold, misrepresented, or covered-up. Following with the quote at the beginning of the review, the book is kind of like Howard Zinn set to break-beats.
Also recommended: Jeff Chang’s Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop, Mike Davis’ City of Quartz, Hip-Hop America by Nelson George, and Hip-Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement by S. Craig Watkins