The Asian Reporter 19th Annual
Scholarship & Awards Banquet -
The Asian Reporter's
THE DUB SIDE. Jeff Chang is a second-generation hip-hop journalist who has written extensively on topics of race, culture, politics, art, and music. His book Canít Stop, Wonít Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation traces the history of hip-hop as a cultural movement. (Photo courtesy of B+)
From The Asian Reporter, V16, #21 (May 23, 2006), page 13 & 16.
Interesting and necessary dub history
By Ian Blazina
Jeff Chang is a second-generation hip-hop journalist who has written extensively on topics of race, culture, politics, art, and music. Chang considers himself a hip-hop activist in the ilk of journalist Harry Allen, offering social critique and lending a powerful voice to the culture. He has helped organize the National Hip-Hop Political Convention, serves as board director of the League of Young Voters, co-founded the influential indie hip-hop label SoleSides (which helped launch the careers of DJ Shadow, Lyrics Born, and Blackalicious, among others), and writes for a long list of publications including The Nation, Vibe, Spin, The Village Voice, and Mother Jones.
In addition to these and many other accomplishments, Chang authored Canít Stop, Wonít Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (St. Martinís Press), a book The New Yorker called "one of the most urgent and passionate histories of popular music ever written."
In his prelude, Chang discusses the concept of generations, noting that "generations are fictions. The act of determining a group of people by imposing a beginning and ending date around them is a way to impose a narrative. They are interesting and necessary fictions because they allow claims to be staked around ideas." After acknowledging the tendency of generational definitions to follow from the preceding generationís "great difficulty imagining what could come after themselves," Chang attempts to change the paradigm by defining the hip-hop generation from within the culture ó a culture that includes "anyone who is down" and ends "when the next generation tells us itís over."
Canít Stop, Wonít Stop traces the trajectory of hip-hop from its roots in Jamaicaís urban yards and 1960s New York Cityís burning, forgotten slums, to its current manifestation as a global, politically active cultural movement. Chang fills the space between then and now with poetic descriptions of the significance of dub, breakbeats, and the "scratch and mix technique" in the value-system of hip-hop. He contextualizes the history of hip-hop as a "dub history" of the late sixties (a perspective "not represented in the official version") and allows many of the mythic figures of the movement (Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Jazzy Jay, Grandmaster Flash, etc.) to comment on and define the social engine they created.
The result is a gripping alternative history of Americaís civil rights era in the vein of Howard Zinn, a strong attempt to develop a coherent, progressive, and empathetic hip-hop worldview, and a testament to the wide-ranging passion inspired by a genre of music that was once confined to the seven mile radius of the Bronx neighborhood.
Canít Stop, Wonít Stop is the culmination of a decade of research and interviews, and Changís dedication is evident in the comprehensiveness of his work. The lists of influential graffiti artists, DJs, and MCs could be overwhelming to a reader not familiar with the movement, but the inclusion of topics like broken windows theory, the effects of urban renewal on street culture, and the transition from folk art to high art will satisfy any outsider interested in the development of this "music-driven lifestyle being lived by an entire generation of young people."
In an interview with Jeff Chang, the author shared his thoughts on issues of ethnicity and the current state of hip-hop culture.
Asian Reporter: Your book delves into the influences on hip-hop of New York Cityís gang culture of the 1960s and í70s, where African Americans and Puerto Rican Americans created the fundamentals of hip-hop as a social movement. Do you feel like the movement has an ethno-specific quality beyond its roots?
Jeff Chang: Hip-hop comes from the African diaspora, but itís given a voice to people all over the globe. Iíve been really interested in whatís happening, for instance, with a new generation of indigenous people around the globe using hip-hop to express their native cultures. Itís a movement that ties in to these rich and deep traditions. I think itís important for people to recognize and respect the roots of hip-hop as they take the culture into new spaces and places.
AR: You contend that hip-hop encompasses more than African-American culture and more than urban culture. With the popularity of hip-hop fully entrenched in suburban America, is it still a creative force "from the bottom of society?" What are the boundaries of the culture?
JC: I think hip-hop still offers a worldview that looks from the street corner up. You can see all kinds of things from that vantage point. From the top down, the details always get lost. Iím not sure what the boundaries are ó people keep finding new frontiers every day.
AR: At what point does hip-hop stop being part of the "politics of abandonment" and become a commodity? When does it make the transition from social movement to pop-culture ephemera?
JC: I think that the politics of abandonment and the politics of containment provide part of the context for the commodification of hip-hop. Weíre at a very interesting point in history: at the same time that we have representations of a multicultural world pervading the media, we also have a reality that social indicators for most people of color have become worse in the past three decades. Culture is not enough. The challenge of the hip-hop generation is to leverage this new cultural power to transformational political power. Commodification of hip-hop began with "Rapperís Delight." Itís the reason that the culture has become globalized, and in many cases, some would say trivialized. Yet itís still powerful in that it can reflect back the realities of what the politics of abandonment and the politics of containment have wrought the world over, from the suburbs of Paris to the ghettos of Cape Town and back to the U.S.
AR: Your history of the hip-hop generation is largely devoid of Asian Americans (with the exception of the Korean-American community in Los Angeles being a target of aggression during the Watts riots). There are several iconic Asian Americans in the scratch scene (Q-bert, Kid Koala) and some outstanding Asian DJs (DJ Krush comes to mind), but there donít seem to be many AAs in the mainstream of hip-hop. What role do you see for AAs in the hip-hop culture?
JC: Well, that would depend on how you define "mainstream" and "hip-hop." Does mike shinoda count? Is Zhang Ziyi hip-hop even though she probably doesnít listen to Nas? But I take your point to be about the relative invisibility of young Asian Americans. All that said, the Asian-American presence in hip-hop has been crucial and is expanding. Asia One is responsible, in many ways, for the current b-boy and b-girl revival because of the b-boy summit she created in San Diego in the early í90s. Graf writers and post-graf artists like Slick and Twist continue to impact the visual arts world heavily. Turntablism has been transformed by Asian Americans and Asians inspired by the Skratch Piklz. Asian-American rappers like Blue Scholars are touring nationally, while places like L.A., the [San Francisco] Bay, and New York ó not to mention Shanghai, Seoul, or Taipei ó have developed very vibrant scenes. We havenít even begun to talk about how Asian Americans have impacted hip-hop style, fashion, and design, with people like Jeff Staple at Staple Design or Kevin Imamura at Nike or Brent Rollins at Ego Trip or the Kicks Hawaiíi crew. Nor have we talked about hip-hop journalists like Chairman Mao, Serena Kim, Celine Wong, Todd Inoue, Marian Liu, Hua Hsu, or Oliver Wang. Weíre all here and weíre not going away.
Jeff Chang is currently working on an anthology entitled Total Chaos: The Art & Aesthetics of Hip-Hop. For more information, including interviews, a web log, and excerpts, visit <www.cantstopwontstop.com>.