Jeff Chang grew up immersed in the first wave of hip-hop. He heard the seminal rap single “Rapper’s Delight,” by the Sugar Hill Gang, at age 12 in Honolulu. As a student at the University of California at Berkeley in the late 1980s, he took part in the anti-apartheid movement during the day and spun hip-hop records on campus station KALX at night.
Today, hip-hop is a multibillion-dollar industry. While some of Chang’s peers have cashed in on the action, failing to confront homogenization and a solipsistic turn in the culture, he has continued to define hip-hop as a movement with goals greater than the pursuit of “bling.” He co-founded an influential record label and the magazine ColorLines. He writes about hip-hop for numerous publications–including The Nation–and he works as a political organizer around issues including electoral reform and juvenile justice. As if that weren’t enough, his new book, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (St. Martin’s Press), is one of the most ambitious and successful histories of hip-hop written to date.
Chang stopped by The Nation in early February to talk about his book, the origins of hip-hop and the state of what he has dubbed “the hip-hop generation.”
What is hip-hop?
A lot of people see hip-hop through the lens of music videos, rap music or the controversies that sometimes follow certain rap celebrities around. That’s just a little slice of what hip-hop is about. Hip-hop is the “big idea” of our generation, the way that civil rights or black power or third-world liberation was the “big idea” for the baby boomers. Hip-hop organizes the way that we view the world–everything from what kinds of shoes we buy and how we lace them up to how we look at political candidates and whether we vote or not.
Where does your history of hip-hop begin?
The book starts in 1968 in the Bronx; 1968 is a very critical year. For baby boomers, it’s become sort of a mythical year. You have students in the streets, revolutions in the air. There’s a lot of noise, there’s a sense that a generation is coming forward to take a stand and stake its place in the world. But in the Bronx at the same time in 1968, it’s completely different. There’s a deathly silence on the streets, there are abandoned buildings. Half of the whites have left the borough between 1960 and 1970. Municipal services are being pulled out of the area. Fire stations are closing, so when buildings catch fire, there aren’t enough people to go and fight the fires. In the end, what you get is a generation of abandoned kids.
The year that revolution is in the air around the world, the Bronx is the exception. You have gangs coming back to the Bronx at that particular time as a defensive thing to deal with the larger social conditions that they’re up against, but also to deal literally with being able to get from one block to the next. These protective, enclosed types of social structures replace the ones that are being removed wholesale by the authorities.
Hip-hop culture comes out of the gang peace movement. Traditionally, we don’t think of gangs as being part of social movements. We think of them as outcasts or even the opposition to social movements. But in this particular instance, and in many instances throughout our generation, when the gangs have organized into peace movements, you’ve had this creative explosion follow. In 1971 in the Bronx, there was a massive gang peace treaty that unleashed all of this creative energy. Gang turfs, this sort of grid of territories, just melt away. Now it’s about expressing yourself and making a name. It’s about establishing that you have style–the way you dress, the way you rap, whether you can dance.