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.