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.
Clive Campbell, aka DJ Kool Herc, who moved to the Bronx from Kingston, Jamaica, at age 12 in 1967, is credited as the man who “started hip-hop.” What exactly did he do to start it?
Kool Herc grows up like any other kid that moves to the Bronx in that period. He joins the gangs, he doesn’t like them, so he moves out of that. When the ship comes, he finds ways to make a name for himself. In order to do that, he has to get over the fact that he’s an immigrant. He’s seen as an outsider, he’s teased for the way he wears his clothes, his accent, so he begins to express himself by making a name based on his differences. He gets involved in the graffiti movement very early on with the Ex-Vandals, one of the original New York graffiti crews. He listens to the Temptations and James Brown, and he listens to radio personalities like Wolfman Jack and Cousin Brucie. By listening to these folks he’s working on his accent, learning how to speak “American.”
Becoming a DJ–a uniquely Jamaican thing–was another way of making his name and establishing himself within the Bronx. He throws a party, and then he takes the party outside as the parties get bigger and bigger. People start migrating from across the borough, because the gang turfs have melted away. They come from across the borough to see him play, and he’s playing a lot of music that’s not on the radio–a lot of black power music from James Brown and stuff with hard, funky breaks.
The next generation of DJs is inspired by his outdoor parties. In the same way that the gang idea took root and spread as a virus, you now have this idea of partying spreading like a virus across the borough, from the west where he’s at, east to the southeast Bronx, the Bronx River Projects, where [pioneering DJ] Afrikka Bambaata is at.
Hip-hop is commonly thought of as an exclusively urban, African-American and male culture. The history often belies that stereotype. So who owns hip-hop?
That’s a difficult question. On the one hand, you have corporations that “own” it, and they’re trying to play safe bets. They’re spending $2-3 million on one or two records that they think have a really good chance of blowing up. That’s a process of highlighting particular kinds of narratives and stories and images that may be stereotypical, may fall into our well-worn regressive ways of understanding race in this country, and gender as well, because the biggest losers in this commercialization process were women.
During the late ’80s, major labels were like, “Damn, we know we have to be on this train, but we don’t know what to do–so, oh, there’s Ice T, let’s sign him up. There’s Public Enemy, let’s sign them up. Let’s sign up Boogie Down Productions. Let’s sign up Paris.” And at some point it becomes clear that these folks are not necessarily on the same corporate team as the execs who signed them. They want to criticize Bush, they want to talk about police brutality, about creating 5,000 black leaders, and they become liabilities. Not just political liabilities, but liabilities to the bottom line. And there’s this period where there’s a purge of rappers that are speaking explicitly from major labels. Ice T gets kicked off of Time Warner because of “Cop Killer,” [and similar situations arise with] Paris and other acts. The money moves in a completely different direction, and since then it’s been a “safer and safer bet” type of thing. As the monopolies get bigger and bigger, they get more and more divorced from what’s actually happening on the grassroots, and so artists are not necessarily coming up from the grassroots anymore. So the public is getting a very small picture of those who are creating and performing hip-hop.
In a memorable passage in the book, you write that “living young and free in the Bronx was a revolutionary act of art.” Is hip-hop still acting in revolutionary ways?
In many cases, yes. You have hip-hop activists across the country–under the radar–changing things. The League of Pissed Off Voters is a great example. They’re the ones who provided the margin of victory in Wisconsin, if you really get down to it. They’ve turned out city councils in Albuquerque that were trying to run a highway through Petroglyph [National Monument, a twenty-eight-kilometer-long surface covered with 30,000 petroglyphs, including many left by Pueblo Indians between 1300 and 1700 CE]. They’ve stopped the building of juvenile justice facilities in the East Bay in San Francisco. They’ve worked on environmental justice issues in the Bronx, as well as in Atlanta and Selma. Young activists are out there doing their thing every day.
You were involved in something called the National Hip-Hop Political Convention last year. Could you tell us a little about the convention’s goals and outcome? Was it different from the other “hip-hop” organizations involved in the election, which were mostly driven by celebrity?
The convention began with a long session called “the intergenerational dialogue,” and it went all over the place. It was the first attempt for folks to be able to forge a political agenda. It came out of a feeling that we had to figure out a way to take power. We’d established ourselves with a certain amount of cultural power–I say a certain amount because it’s not necessarily all good. We still don’t have control of the images that are out there, but at the same time, compared to two decades ago when I was a teenager, you can see people of color all the time on TV. Hip-hop had a lot to do with that. Converting that into political power has been difficult. You had thousands of folks ranging from 16 or 17 to their 40s, all people who consider themselves part of the hip-hop generation. It’s a wide swath now, and it was a difficult process, because we’ve never done it before. There’s been a huge break in terms of passing the baton of leadership in the communities that a lot of hip-hop folks come from.
People tend to look at hip-hop in terms of the cultural production, but [the convention attendees were] thinking very strongly and very strategically about political movements. It was never a thing of “let’s make this a celebrity event and then figure out how to do the politics later.” It was about “let’s figure out a way to create a grassroots effort that will then feed itself into the making of an agenda.” Whether you were a celebrity, a kid on the street or an organizer, you had to register fifty people to vote to become a delegate to the convention and to be able to vote on the agenda. It didn’t matter if you were Slick Rick or Dougie Fresh or Wyclef Jean or whoever. You had to bring fifty people to the table, and I think that’s how it had to be done. That’s not to say that those folks that are doing celebrity-driven activism are doing it the wrong way. You need both.
But just because a person can get up and put a bunch of words together in a nice flow over a beat, we think that person is automatically going to be our leader. I think the previous generation looks at it like, “Hey, these folks have as much visibility as the Black Panthers had back in the day, so those are the leaders of the hip-hop generation,” and that’s not the case. We’ve got to make people who are leaders, and we’ve got to let the artists be the artists. At the same time. you have to be realistic about it: If you want to leverage culture power into political power, you have to deal with the fact that we have a celebrity culture.
Clearly, one of the most urgent issues in your book and for hip-hop activism is juvenile justice. For example, in 2000 a California ballot initiative, Proposition 21, made it easier to try juveniles as adults and expanded juvenile sentencing–three years of jail time for $400 worth of vandalism and the death penalty for “gang-related” homicide. How does the hip-hop generation respond to these “divide-and-conquer” tactics?
You know, the hip-hop generation has still not been able to get through the terror unleashed in the mid-’90s. You had, at that time, folks who had fought for civil rights and for black power turning on their own youth and saying, “We need to increase incarceration of these folks, we need to establish curfews, sweep ordinances, gang injunctions, a whole battery of laws that make juvenile justice more punitive.” Between 1992 and 1998, something like forty-eight of the fifty states made the juvenile justice laws much, much more punitive. At the same time, the juvenile crime rates are at their lowest since the ’60s. This was a “culture war” hysteria, basically, and it was pushed a lot by our elders. That’s where hip-hop activism comes in, because [our] people are like, “We don’t like the misogyny in the music either, we don’t like the homophobia in the music, we don’t like the regressive stuff in the music. But we’re not suggesting that we lock ourselves up, or that all of these things that came in with the war on gangs be intensified!” In fact, [leaders in the previous generation were] almost saying, “I’ve done such a bad job at taking care of the next generation, let the government deal with them.” [They were] writing us off. That’s where a lot of the genesis of hip-hop activism comes in, this idea of “damn, we’re really on our own, we’re going to have to go out and do this for ourselves.”