All of these books are as much about politics as popular culture and the art of the MC–not to mention his cousins the break dancer, the turntablist and the spray-can artist. This will surprise no one who knows that black art, black pop and black politics have long been intertwined modes of resistance in the African diaspora, from the coded liberation theology of plantation spirituals to the oppositional wit of Delta blues, New Orleans jazz, swing, bebop, Motown and Stax soul, free jazz, funk, black rock, salsa and reggae. Reading these books about hip-hop can provoke a sense of nostalgia and paradox for someone like this writer, who has watched and occasionally abetted the light-speed journey hip-hop has made in less than twenty years from folk culture to commercial subculture to global youth culture to global capitalist marketing tool. The nostalgia derives from a pronounced sense of loss, the kind former Black Panther Elaine Brown captured in the title of her memoir, A Taste of Power. The moment when we held that power on our own terms, when hip-hop was considered mad-scary, dangerous and actionable by Congress and national law-enforcement agencies, has turned to dust–or, more accurately, the fool’s gold of nouveau bling fortunes. The paradox comes from feeling that hip-hop was sooo twentieth century, so prefigurative and definitive of the late century, and yet just as full of portent for our twenty-first-century nervous systems. Our current vision of the millennium–that of a world rocked by organized terror, cybernetic capitalism and creativity, and a growing antidemocratic apparatus of policing and surveillance–is the world hip-hop has been reporting on since the early 1980s.
How and why hip-hop predicted today’s cultural politics is the bailiwick of Jeff Chang’s tour de force chronicle Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. Chang is a widely published journalist and activist based in the Bay Area, and his writing cogently and elegantly combines street reportage, music criticism, mother wit, semiotics and political analysis. As you’d expect, he begins his tale in the Bronx. What’s surprising is that it opens not with Zulu Nation founder and hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa but with Yankee Reggie Jackson, the roaring antiracist mouth of the 1977 World Series, whom Chang identifies as an outspoken Bronx-based black pop icon of the day. As Chang observes, what made the South Bronx what it was back in the day–a crucible of Afro-diasporic rage, rampage and culture–were the projects, that archipelago of isolated sky-rise housing prisons to which black and Latino populations had been relocated by Robert Moses.
Any hip-hop fan with an old-school issue of The Source knows that before there was hip-hop there were gangs, and that Bambaataa (a k a Bam) was a major player in both. But Chang digs deeper, taking us back to the summer of 1971, when gang leader Benjamin Melendez and friends–members of the legendary crews the Ghetto Brothers, Savage Skulls and the Savage Nomads–tried to mediate a peace accord and become community power brokers at City Hall. (Their failure and destruction as a result of forces both external and internecine mirror those of the Young Lords and the Black Panther Party, and later efforts on the part of Bloods and Crips, Jim Brown and Minister Louis Farrakhan in LA after the Rodney King rebellion.) Their example, a rechanneling of gang fervor and flavor toward constructive communalism, set the stage for the sonic revolution launched by legendary DJ Kool Herc.
Herc, a Jamaican transplant who struggled to lose his island accent and become a homeboy, re-created the kind of massive sound systems that had dominated the fervent ghetto culture of his Caribbean years. Of hip-hop’s four celebrated elements, three–break dancing, rapping and turntabling–pretty much began at Herc’s parties. The fourth element, graffiti, or graf (also known as spray-can art or aerosol painting or simply writing), had a parallel history, Chang reveals, in the multiethnic, cross-class, interborough, interstate East Coast youth-culture scene. That history would eerily and errantly predict hip-hop’s ability to dissolve social and geographic boundaries among diverse young’uns with style and rebellious comradery.
Chang’s incisive portrait of Bambaataa locates the source of hip-hop’s current global outreach in the incipient Pan-Afrikanism of Bam’s adolescence. That collective vision of Africans at home and abroad drew not only on his folks’ admiration for Marcus Garvey but on the warrior tactics he’d observed in the 1964 Michael Caine film Zulu, the doctrines of the Nation of Islam (an active presence in the projects) and a trip to Africa he made after winning a high school essay contest. Extraordinarily prophetic, Bam sensed that hip-hop would attain global significance at a time when Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, who would become the world’s first hip-hop supergroup, declined a recording offer in the late 1970s because they felt no one would pay to hear some guys talk over a record. Flash was hardly alone in his bleak and, as it turned out, utterly mistaken analysis of hip-hop’s creative possibilities and market potential. In fact, as late as the mid-’90s hip-hop was still considered a fad.