News & Politics

Back to Beat Street

Jeff Chang's new book sheds light on – and puts in context – the contingencies of American youth who are using hip hop as a point of departure for their own generational rebellion.
Forget what you've heard or seen, if that's possible. Because though it may seem from the hyperreal videos reliably rotating on MTV and BET that hip hop is reveling in the diamond life of Cristal, Hummers and ten-carat arm charms, that is only half the story – one that the kings of capitalism have carefully created for you. Manufacturing illusion and consent has been the job of mainstream media since its inception, after all, and Gil-Scott Heron's activist adage that the revolution will not be televised still holds true, no matter what they are telling you on CNN or Fox. Which is another way of saying that the globally mediated and consumed hip hop beamed into basic cable households across the world may be a consensual fantasy, but it is still a fantasy nonetheless.

For hip-hop scholar Jeff Chang, the musical movement that has exploded into a full-fledged lifestyle still functions best at its lived, local level, where it can be used to raise consciousness and fists alike to rail against the still-entrenched systems of oppression and racism that all those champagne-soaked videos would you rather forget as they encourage you to have another sip and grab some ass. What gets lost in that curious translation is the roots of hip hop itself, which painfully snake back to an abandoned Bronx leveled by years of Carter's apathy and Reagan's cruelty, to social programs and fire houses left for dead and a borough's population left to sift through the aftermath.

Or, as the first chapter of Chang's brilliant new book, Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (St. Martin's Press), puts it: "Here was the new math: the South Bronx had lost 600,000 manufacturing jobs; 40 percent of the sector had disappeared. By the mid-seventies, average per capita income dropped to $2,430, just half of the New York City average and 40 percent of the nationwide average. The official youth unemployment rate hit 60 percent. Youth advocates said that in some neighborhoods the true number was closer to 80 percent. If blues culture had developed under the conditions of oppressive, forced labor, hip-hop culture would arise from the conditions of no work."


csws_chang
Chang: "If you look at hip hop on the local level, that's where all the activism is. There is no national concentration for committed hip-hop activism, like there was for the civil rights movement back in the '60s."
Hip hop may have outgrown its impoverished upbringing in some corners of the mediasphere, but the majority of its offspring are nevertheless still struggling to stay alive in an environment teeming with a host of new and time-tested oppressive policies, including rampant media consolidation, racial profiling, police abuse and much more. Those are still the thorny issues of hip hop you will never see tackled on BET and MTV, because they don't sell the fantasy. Which is this: Everything is fine. Keep drinking that 40-oz. And whatever you do, don't organize.

Chang wants to change that, and in the process shed light on the motivated contingencies of American youth who are, like their forebears, using hip hop as a point of departure for their own generational rebellion rather than sitting on the recliner and watching 50 Cent eyeing the ladies.

"It's a matter of scale," the author explains. "Today, hip hop is vastly larger and more influential than it has ever been. The sheer number of rappers, b-boys, DJs, and graffiti artists today is overwhelming compared to 10 or 20 years ago. But if you look at hip hop on the local level, that's where all the activism is. There is no national concentration for committed hip-hop activism, like there was for the civil rights movement back in the '60s. Back then, if you gathered half a million people at the Washington Mall, you could ride that momentum into some real change. There's no chance of that today. Could we pass a comprehensive youth education and protection bill, as opposed to a youth crime bill? No way. These days, politics has shifted to the local level; that's where all the big fights are taking place."

According to Chang, if you crawl beneath the apathetic mainstream, you'll find thousands of determined people and organizations, from The League of Pissed-Off Voters to the National Hip-Hop Political Convention, forwarding progressive platforms on immigration reform, affirmative action, reparations and more – issues that have been conventionally at the heart of hip hop since it first blossomed beneath the boots of the NYPD.

"Hip-hop activism won't show up if you're looking at it from a top-down perspective," Chang adds. "But once you look at it from the street level, all these coordinates start showing up on the radar. That's the thing you're missing if you're judging it solely on the basis of what you see on MTV and BET, which are both owned by Viacom anyway. What you're seeing is what gets distilled at the highest levels of capital and power. But hip hop is still the thing that kids practice on the streets, whether in San Francisco, Sao Paulo or Dakar. There is always something new to learn."

Similarly, those reading Chang's heavily researched, well-written love letter to the genre that hooked him hard as a kid growing up in Honolulu will no doubt learn something about hip hop that they didn't know. Whether Chang is meticulously documenting the early contributions to hip-hop's essential elements – the DJ, the MC, breakdancing and graffiti – by pioneers like DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Lee Scratch Perry, Rock Steady Crew and Public Enemy, or uncovering the hidden histories of what the author calls the "bad policy and regressive politics" of government officials and public servants alike that gave hip-hop its relentless rebel spirit, he is committed to the "each one teach one" philosophy that has informed almost everything important that hip hop has ever accomplished, from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message" to Public Enemy's "It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" to The Coup's "Steal This Album." Which means that he is less interested in the salient musical productions of hip hop and more interested in its cultural worth as a vibrant, local movement that still never fails to inspire and incite, even if no one's interested in covering it anymore.

"Hip-hop scholarship has changed with the industry," Chang says, "focusing less on local cultures and more on the mainstream analysis of the work itself. What you see in the video or hear on the album is now the object of study, but there was a whole period when the covers of The Source were talking about local hip-hop scenes, whether in Atlanta, Miami, Compton, New York or wherever. Which fit in with Chuck D's famous maxim that hip hop is black America's CNN. Back then, you could get a real flavor for what was happening on the street in a given city, and I'm not saying it's gone from the music. But it is gone from hip-hop journalism and scholarship in many respects."

That obfuscation or avoidance of hip hop's local impact can be damaging, especially when the disaffected and disenfranchised of the world are searching intently for alternatives to an alienating mainstream. Which is where Chang's book comes in. "With this book, I was interested in getting people back to hip hop's local culture," he explains, "because that's how it all began, in an abandoned borough in New York City, one that whites and money had already fled for safer environs."

And just because so many miss that crucial connection while flipping through videos doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. Nor does it mean that today's hip-hop fans, of any color, are less invested than the generations preceding them. Far from it, Chang argues. "I see kids breaking in New York subways like my friends did 20 years ago. I see thousands of classes taught in high schools, after-school programs, universities, and street ciphers. So I'm confident that the old way – passing knowledge on one-to-one – is still alive and thriving. There's a hunger for history in our generation, humility about our place in the world, and a desire to circulate these hidden histories to keep hip hop moving forward in a vital way."

"When people complain about how hip hop has changed," he adds, "I like to qualify it. Hip hop has indeed become a much larger part of the global media marketplace. It doesn't deal strictly on the street corner anymore; it's now onscreen in Times Square 24-7. But the picture has become distorted – there is less balance in its voices, particularly those of women. But I don't think it's any less conscientious than before relative to 1988, when the range of voices was a bit more equal. But there are indeed huge disparities between the top-selling rappers and the bottom-selling ones. So it's a matter of perspective."

It definitely transformed Chang, who like many first encountered hip hop through its early cinematic entries like Beat Street, Wild Style and Style Wars. The fascinating swirl of breakdancing, graffiti, rapid-fire MCs and convention-defying DJs was simply too much culture for a budding local organizer like Chang to ignore.

"When [I saw] those last two movies, it hit me," Chang confides. "It was the real deal, life-changing stuff. So I got into graffiti, and organized a graffiti art show at my high school; it was a pretty big deal, definitely a first for the islands. It was in all the papers. Kids came from all over to check it out, and folks that met through that show ended up becoming some of the biggest crews on the island. Hip hop was a connection we all shared, especially since it was still somewhat underground and not totally mainstream. Everyone was arguing how it was just a fad, but we knew it was going to stick around."

That opinion would turn prophetic, especially once Chang got to college at UC Berkeley and realized that all of the activists around him had already employed hip hop's fiery noncomformist spirit to forward socially progressive agendas. As Can't Stop Won't Stop convincingly argues, "In the fight against apartheid," and its collective goal of divestment in South Africa, "the post-civil rights children found a desegregation battle to call their own, something in which to find their own claim to history." That political imperative steered hip hop away from its more sensational manifestations, whether onscreen or on record, and into a golden age of activism and expansion. Chang, like so many millions of global citizens, was as much a participant as a chronicler.

"It was at the height of the anti-apartheid movement," Chang recalls, "which quickly changed into the anti-racism movement on campus, which was about saving affirmative action, pushing for an Ethnic Studies requirement and implementing a more diverse curriculum. It was all of a piece. I was basically rallying and protesting during the day, and hanging out over at Berkeley's radio station, KALX, at night. The days were for politics, and the nights were for music and culture, and it all flipped back and forth. I do remember that there was a huge convergence in the late '80s, because you had East Coast groups like Public Enemy and BDP rapping about the same kinds of things we were fighting for at school. So hip hop became the soundtrack for that period."

That it has since become the soundtrack for so much more of global culture is not distressing to the author, who understands that even under so large an umbrella, there will be those who nevertheless still aim to use hip hop as a tool to get citizens involved in one way or another.

"I think there are a lot of folks out there who are using hip hop in exactly the same way we used it. Last year, the National Hip-Hop Political Convention had 5,000 people coming together under the banner of hip hop, old fogies and kids alike. It was completely inspiring. It's amazing that hip hop as a culture can still glue those who are trying to put forward progressive agendas together."

What Chang isn't too happy about is the relative complicity of the left when it comes to trashing what hip hop can do. "I won't mention any names," he says, "but there are many leftist institutions that I've pitched this book or similar articles to that just didn't get it. The fact is that even the progressive press is Boomer-dominated, and has been closed off to much of what American youth are doing to make a better world for themselves, which is serious considering that the right wing is already trying to incorporate the hip-hop generation. Only a few days ago, the president's State of the Union address talked about how his administration was going to show the youth of America how to get out of gangs and respect women. Sure, most of us would sit there and say, 'What? Laura Bush in Watts? Fuck that!' But the fact of the matter is these right-wingers are thinking, once again, two steps ahead of the progressives. They're the ones that initiated the politics of abandonment and containment for the hip-hop generation, and now they're turning around and saying, 'OK, we've abandoned and contained you, now we're going to assimilate you.' And the left has no answer for that."

But hip hop, Chang insists, will survive both the left's apathy towards it and the right's efforts to assimilate it. Because it is here to stay, which is even more reason to read Can't Stop Won't Stop and understand how a response to civic deterioration became a movement that has taken over the world. Whether it remains the clarion call to oppressed individuals worldwide or metamorphoses fully into another capitalist consensual hallucination is yet to be determined, but Chang seems convinced that no matter how big hip hop gets, it can never outrun its humble beginnings. As Can't Stop Won't Stop ably demonstrates, the pull of history is simply too great. Hip hop will always inspire opinion, conflict and argument. And that's what matters the most to its author.

"This book is not by any means a definitive history," Chang confides. "But I wanted to capture events the way I and perhaps others felt they experienced them. I'm just hoping that it inspires dialogue. And that it represents."
Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com, while finding the time to rant for Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, AOL and others. His first novel, The Dangerous Perhaps, should be done by the time the War on Terrorism is over.
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