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.
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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.
Hip-hop’s commercial breakthrough came in 1979, with the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” The extended version, as Public Enemy’s Chuck D recalls in Chang’s book, achieved the improbable feat of condensing the energy and excitement of an all-night hip-hop party into fifteen minutes. Once the genie was out of the bottle, an industry was born. Its meteoric rise dovetailed with Reaganomics; Iran/contra; crack; MTV; Spike, Nike and Mike; run, Jesse, run; Farrakhan at Madison Square Garden; and the hate-crime demonstrations that defined New York’s racial politics in the ’80s–a first phase that could be said to have culminated on that April day in 1992 when the Rodney King verdict came down and NWA’s “fuck tha police” became more than a catchy chorus composed in honor of police chief Daryl Gates’s private army SWAT.
In his subchapters on Public Enemy and Ice Cube, Chang lays bare the giddy hopes and inherent instability of a politics built upon African-American invention, Black Nationalist poetics, lighthearted locker-room misogyny, lumpen-proletariat rabble-rousing, Jew-baiting, youthful exuberance, climbing the Billboard charts and selling your soul for malt liquor endorsements. Hip-hop’s other epic tale of mutually assured self-destruction, that of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, is strangely given short shrift by Chang. Yet their murders at the hands of what we now heavily suspect were gang and police operatives speak volumes about how life decimated art as hip-hop’s success moved it from the radical fringe to a ravenous corporate mainstream that came with real gangsters in tow. Chang attributes hip-hop’s loss of innocence and its declining political advocacy to censorship as much as commodification. After the dual attacks on NWA and Ice T initiated by national police organizations and Tipper Gore’s PMRC, corporate labels shied away from hip-hop in its more militant incarnations.
The surgical separation of hip-hop and politics effected by its insertion into the mainstream has had a wounding but not dispiriting effect on hip-hop activist-intellectuals of color like Chang. Like him, many of them have carried the political passions engendered by agitprop avatars PE, KRS-One and NWA into adulthood, academia and street action on both coasts. It may be for this reason that Chang ends his book in 2000, with a report on a live hip-hop rally against Proposition 21, the draconian Gang Violence and Juvenile Crime Prevention Act. That demonstration culminated in a rainbow coalition of black, brown, yellow and white fists raised to the sky against the powers that be–clearly meant as an antidote to the hypersexual, ultraviolent image that commercial hip-hop cultivates today, partly in service to its corporate masters. This parting shot from life before Bush also allows Chang to skirt the obvious question that hip-hop politics, like all progressive movements, faces in the wake of 9/11–how to utilize its cultural and technological savvy to awaken the digitally narcotized and dramatically intensify the terms of American political debate.
In a landscape where thoughts of grand action are overwhelmed by fears of what Bush, Blair and bin Laden might do tomorrow and how Fox will spin it for the masses, the notion that today’s machine-programmed hip-hop nation will once again sing of fighting the power can seem quite quixotic. But as Bakari Kitwana argues in Why White Kids Love Hip Hop, there is an organizing potential in the interracial millennium generation for whom hip-hop is still a centrifugal force, and who continue to draw sustenance from those aspects of hip-hop that aren’t corporate controlled. Kitwana, a former editor at The Source, is the author of The Rap on Gangsta Rap and the Hip Hop Generation. He was also co-founder of the National Hip Hop Political Convention, established in part as a response to what some saw as the co-optation of hip-hop activism by Russell Simmons’s Summit Action Network. In many ways Kitwana’s title is misleading, since the book is largely about the potential for future coalition-building among hip-hop activists across class and age lines. Despite its promise of prescriptions, it’s a reflection on the hip-hop progressive’s internal strife rather than a battle plan, proving that hip-hop activism already suffers from that uneasy middle-age condition common to the left, whose time and energy are vitiated as much by the war within as by the war without.
S. Craig Watkins’s Hip Hop Matters covers everything from hip-hop’s relationship to the 1990s war on youth civil liberties that emerged in various California crime bills, to the emergence of Detroit’s Kwame Kilpatrick as the nation’s first self-proclaimed hip-hop mayor, to Sean “Puffy” Combs’s glammed-out Vote or Die youth registration drive in 2004. If Chang’s book is the best to date on hip-hop’s social, political and aesthetic history, Watkins’s study is the best yet on the hip-hop industry. Watkins has provided nothing less than a political economy of hip-hop, one that doesn’t shy away from the dirty business hip-hop has become–especially as the shift from selling dope beats and rhymes to the selling of ass and overpriced leisurewear became the movement’s primary (and, not incidentally, most lucrative) focus. He’s also attentive to the way hip-hop was affected by the appalling rates of incarceration and AIDS in black communities.
People tend to get a bit heated if you don’t distinguish between hip-hop and the hip-hop industry. What’s often forgotten is that hip-hop used the evil empire of the industry to further its own ends–subverting the mechanisms and formulas of pop to forge platinum hits with little or no airplay, music video or promotion–as witness the rise of Public Enemy. But hip-hop also paid a price for the ticket of inclusion. By making a devil’s bargain with hyper-capitalism, hip-hop lost not only its freedom of speech but its powers of speech: the gift it once had to artfully and hypnotically articulate the social fallout from public policies that have consigned one in ten Americans to poverty. Watkins adeptly frames and critiques the gulf that hip-hop’s ascension to a $12 billion-a-year market has inevitably opened between urban reality and hip-hop-derived ghetto fantasies like the Xbox game Grand Theft Auto.
One day a book will be written about the continuities between the Harlem Renaissance era, the Black Arts Movement and hip-hop. When that epic gets written, one of its ur-texts will be The Black Arts Movement. James Edward Smethurst’s scholarship makes it abundantly clear that the precedent for cutting-edge African-American musical and poetic forms and politics was established, respectively, by Langston Hughes in the 1920s, Richard Wright in the ’40s and Amiri Baraka in the ’60s; the book also reminds us that, as with hip-hop, the center of gravity of the black radical cultural movements of the ’60s swung from the North to the West Coast to the South. As it happens, the Black Arts Movement came into being between 1965 and 1973, when much of the first hip-hop generation was busy being born. The question of who belongs to that generation is up for grabs–many of the founding fathers, like Herc and Bambaataa, were born in the late ’50s, while its core audience today was born between the mid-’70s and early ’80s. Most of the hip-hop audience barely (if ever) experienced it as a radicalizing political force, and for new listeners it’s merely another Internet menu item.
My own definition of a hip-hop generation is generous and circumspect: anyone who between the years 1977 and 1998 caught the fever for the flavor of the culture, and believed it was going to change the world against the naysayers and nabobs who thought it wouldn’t last. For a brief moment we got to stand on top of the mountain and pop Cristal or organic cranberry juice, as the case might be, when it did bum-rush the record industry. Where we are now is somewhere on the other side of that mountain–a place where the big question on the table for hip-hop’s progressive wing is whether a generation that came to politics through a pop-music subculture can continue to run with that subculture at a time when politics is increasingly defined by what the right does with military power rather than by what oppositional citizens do with their own.
Neither Chang, Kitwana nor Watkins discusses Iraq, 9/11 or the Patriot Act, or how any contemporary discussions around race and racism must include South America, Asia and the Middle East. Du Bois’s observation that the problem of the twentieth century was the color line still stands for the twenty-first. But the hip-hop generation’s notion of American racial politics is in need of a little post-9/11, post-Patriot Act color correction. Kitwana and his cohorts envisioned a hip-hop-generation takeover of the Democratic Party during the last election’s youth-voter efforts. Romantic as that was, today’s progressive politics have never hurt from a blushing ardor for the sleeping dragon of people’s power. And if hip-hop culture, more politically asleep now than ever before, can produce a few more active dreamers with the wit, realism and enthusiasm of Chang, Kitwana and Watkins, progressive politics might not have to seem as Jurassic as the Bushies have made it appear to America’s vast, Twin Tower-traumatized daydream nation.