February 28, 2007
If you don’t know, you better ask someone. And if you don’t know hip-hop, you might want to ask Jeff Chang, to be exact. And that’s not just because, as one of the foremost hip-hop scholars in existence today, he will actually take the time to think deeply about your questions and nicely deliver some well-researched answers. Rather, it’s because ever since he came up in Hawaii in love with hip-hop and graffiti, and followed that formative start by managing the California-based indie-hop label Solesides (home to DJ Shadow and Blackalicious), he has lived the culture every minute and every hour of his still-young life.
And that’s how he likes it: Hip-hop as passive mainstream entertainment achieved via remote control is as corrosive to him as highbrow mainstreamers still dismissing the street-smart art. Both camps refuse to see how our hypercapitalism has made hip-hop the preferred mode of artistic expression in the new millennium, and how such commodity fetishism has sucked away some of its racial, economic and sociopolitical contexts.
These mind-bending issues of authenticity, identity and expression are tackled with ease in Chang’s latest effort Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop (Basic Civitas, 2007), an edited compilation featuring input from artists like DJ Spooky, Adam Mansbach, Danny Hoch and more, as well as bigshot journos like Greg Tate, Harry Allen, Oliver Wang, Mark Anthony Neal and onward. Put simply, Chang’s book and mission is to make sense of both the fissures in hip-hop culture as well as the fusion, and do it humbly. He’s that rare thing in scholarship circles: An approachable teacher. And for that, you can thank hip-hop.
WireTap: How did you negotiate that balance between totalizing hip-hop art and aesthetics and exploring its diversity?
My approach was to just put it out there, see what the artists want to talk about, and just go. It was only in final stages of the book did it occasion some sort of organization, hence the title. There has been a huge explosion in hip-hop criticism over the last several years, but it is largely focused on mediating the voices of these artists; there are few primary-source documents out there. So that was the first principle of the project. The second was that hip-hop art is way bigger than rap music, and in fact it is probably one of the biggest arts movements of the last few decades. I figured that somewhere between those two organizing principles we would find a wide variety of voices and ideas. I think it worked out well. There are always going to be holes, things you wanted to cover a bit better. And the more people you talk to about these issues, the less confidence of having The Answer, with a capital A.
WireTap: How about the subtitle? “Art” seems to connote a creative force, while “Aesthetics” would seem to connote a critical one. I find that tension throughout the book, especially in Danny Hoch’s manifesto, which goes so far as to lay out themes and terminologies.
I can see that. Danny wanted to write a hip-hop arts manifesto, and a lot of other people didn’t. (Laughs) That was part of the reflection of what the different artists brought to the table, and I really love Danny’s piece because you can argue or agree with it, and even take issues with the form. But at the same time, it is the first time, that I have seen, a hip-hop artist say, “This is what we’re all about.” All of the artists came to the book with different concerns, which reflects their individual mindset. For example, Rha Goddess’ piece talks about issues of scarcity and exploitation and how they relate to the artist’s sense of being in the world, as well as how to deal with competition. How does one create a sustainable self in hip-hop, and how do you create a sustainable hip-hop at all? Of course, there is a whole range of concerns in the book: Debates about racism, sexism, homophobia, globalization, the legacy of arts movements over the years, all of which are important for us to have. Especially when most of the discourse has been largely limited to rap music.
WireTap: It also seems to point out the possibility that what makes hip-hop so revolutionary is that its artists have taken up the mantle of criticism.
I might take a little issue with that, because of hip-hop’s mythology and growth arc from youth to adult culture. It’s not like the Italian futurists: “We’re the Italian futurists! Everything that came before us is crap. We are about to lead you into the future. Come along or die!” Hip-hop never really said, “I am hip-hop, and this is why.”
WireTap: But yet we have no shortage of artists and critics declaring, “Hip-hop is dead.”
Yeah, that’s the oldest story in the book, for sure. And it all has to do with the tension between hip-hop as youth culture and hip-hop as a culture for the formerly youthful. (Laughs) People get older and look at it and say, “That’s not my hip-hop.” And it isn’t. Their hip-hop happened when they were 15-25 years old, and now you have a whole new set of 15- to 25-year-olds defining it. That tension creates some serious debate, and the book captures a lot of it.
WireTap: How much do you think the hypercapitalism you speak of in the book has played a role in the explosion and proliferation of hip-hop arts?
It’s crucial. We can’t really talk about hip-hop becoming a global art form without talking about the role capital played in distributing it. At the same time, you have to consider the ways in which capital has influenced the methodology of hip-hop journalism itself. Many of our objects of study are objects of capital; it’s pervasive, especially when you consider the scarcity and exploitation we were discussing earlier. Quite clearly, you see it happening in discussions of gender, identity and the transformation of long-standing genres, or the fact that this book even exists. I mean, here we are dealing in a pragmatic sense with the fact that capitalism has power to move the message out to the people.
WireTap: How did that change the game?
In the past, arts movements would be setting up institutions in which to ply and promote their art, and the hip-hop generation departed from that. They were interested in taking away the independence of those institutions because they understand the bargain: In exchange for giving up their autonomy, they will reach a mass audience. And you can’t put that genie back in the bottle. It’s a situation that runs across geographic and sociopolitical boundaries. What happens when you export 50 Cent to Cuba or Ghana, for example? These are issues that I talk about in my interview with Eli Jacobs-Fauntauzzi in the book, as well as the discussion of documentary film with Michael Wanguhu, Eric Arnold and others.
WireTap: Which is one thing I like about this book and your last: It tackles polyculturalism in ways other hip-hop examinations do not.
Well, hip-hop is conditioned by forms that emerged from the African diaspora, so you can’t escape the blackness, to sort of paraphrase Blvd Mosse’s “U Can’t Escape the Hypeness.” And this is a diversion, but one of the things I’m recently seeing in hip-hop journalism is a trend towards formalism and deracination. If you’re dealing with someone who is only experiencing hip-hop through their iPods or MTV, then what you end up with is critics who talk about why they love a Neptunes beat or the flow of Lil Wayne, all while ignoring the context of those records. And I think that is increasingly emerging in the art weekly and major newspapers. To a certain extent, it’s a correction, because for a long time you couldn’t talk about the former issues without getting sidetracked into a debate about identity or gender.
WireTap: “It’s a black thing, you wouldn’t understand.”
Yeah, or “God, this stuff is so violent and awful.” Which I think is more common. So hip-hop criticism used to be conditioned in many cases by contextual issues, but these days it’s not like that. It’s more about the particular content without engaging that content’s entire milieu. And that’s a big shift. Which is interesting, because hip-hop began as an antidote to the excesses of formalism, and now we’ve come full circle. It’s a bad development for hip-hop scholarship. But it gets me back to the point that Total Chaos, by centering the artists’ voices, serves to put those kinds of critics in check. As you noted, polyculturalism is crucial. It may be easy to retreat into formalist deracination, but if you step away, as I argue in the introduction, from the frame that commodity capitalism provides for hip-hop, you see a very different picture.
WireTap: That brings up your book forums and tours, which seem to do the same thing: Get out and live the culture rather than passively receive it on the couch.
There is a groundswell of interest in these issues, and these forums featuring artists who participated in the book — as well as some who didn’t — will be able to hash all of it out. And then we get the call-and-response loop from the audience, who talk about their feelings on these issues. I am really looking forward to it. It’s going to be one of the highlights of my work.
WireTap: That’s what I like about you, Jeff: You take your show on the road.
Well, it’s the community-building aspect of what I do. Again, hip-hop is meant to be about that, bringing people together and raising the roof. But we are moving father away from community and deeper into isolation, and I just don’t see the point. What good is a culture if all it is going to do is make you feel alone? I’m a knucklehead about this, a cockeyed idealist in a way. Maybe it’s not cool anymore, but I don’t want to be a part of any hip-hop culture that separates me from others, or the possibility of building something better.
Chang Slang: A Total Chaos Glossary:
A system that captures the complexities of an issue through one broad theory or methodology.
Postmodern capitalism, where the manufacture and use of a commodity is replaced with its exchange value, a value that shifts depending on whom is using it.
An evolution beyond multiculturalism that accepts the intrinsic value of cultural and racial diversity, rather than a hierarchical power relationship between ethnicity and authenticity established by the dominant culture.
An analysis of culture and art that refuses to consider anything outside the work or movement at hand, including historical, sociopolitical or economic realities.
The process of eliminating race from the consideration of an issue, movement or phenomenon.
Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.