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Lavin speaker and award-winning hip-hop historian Jeff Chang talked to The Nation recently about race and Jeremy Lin. Chang is currently finishing his second book, Who We Be: The Colorization of America. From The Nation:
“It hasn’t just been a big couple of weeks for Jeremy; it has been for all of us who have been talking about how Asian-Americans are racialized. In two weeks, the discourse on Asian-Americans in general and Asian-American men in particular has moved up from the college campus level to the highest levels of the media. Issues that we’ve been talking about for years are now on the minds of the entire world. That has blown me away.”
“Part of me is over all the chatter about what Jeremy means, but the other part of me realizes that we’ve just turned a page in the way Asian-Americans are represented in the United States.”
It seems as if Nathan Williams, of the band Wavves, loves Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop almost as much as we do. Chang’s seminal book, subtitled “a history of the hip-hop generation,” landed on Williams’ top book picks list in a recent interview with The Fader, even if the circumstances that led to him reading it were less than legal:
I met Jeff Chang at Powells Books in Portland, Oregon. He was there for a signing, and I got him to autograph a copy of this book for me. Then I stole it. I was 19 and had no money. That’s the whole story.
Jeff Chang, author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, talks about the impact hip-hop culture has had on politics, especially among youth. Hip-hop sprang from the marginalized youth of the Bronx in the late 1970’s, of whom nothing was given and even less was expected. They essentially had to create their own world. As the ideals and messages of hip-hop gained momentum and bubbled up into the mainstream, they inspired grassroots political movements and empowered youth—especially those who had come up through hip-hop culture—to make their voices heard. “In hip-hop, culture changes, and eventually there’s a desire to gain power out of that.” Today, Chang reminds us, we’re seeing just how powerful that change can be.
Indie kingmakers Pitchfork have compiled a list of their favorite music books and Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, by Lavin speaker Jeff Chang, is on it. A strong choice for University Common Read programs, Chang’s sweeping masterwork of vivid cultural reporting hedges closer to urban history than music writing per se; it’s more Mike Davis than Lester Bangs. As Pitchfork writes, Cant’ Stop Won’t Stop is “less concerned with legend and more invested in the political and social circumstances that allowed the music and the subculture to exist in the first place.” Chang continues to give select keynotes and is currently working on a multicultural history of America, Who We Be.
Most hip-hop histories deal in mythic imagery: the early graffiti heroes who turned dilapidated subway cars into rolling art galleries or block parties with soundsystems that would dim streetlights. In Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, Jeff Chang is less concerned with legend and more invested in the political and social circumstances that allowed the music and the subculture to exist in the first place. In the first chunk of the book, music barely enters the equation; instead, we learn about crippling South Bronx poverty, epidemics of arson, civil rights movements, racial tensions, and gang meetings that Chang depicts as a less-cartoonish version of the opening scenes from The Warriors. So when music eventually does come into the picture, we know a whole lot more about the world of the people making it.
Chang’s history leans heavily toward certain historic eras, and it includes virtually nothing about rap scenes outside of New York and Los Angeles. But Can’t Stop is absolutely essential for the picture Chang creates of some truly epochal moments: the 1973 West Bronx party that launched DJ Kool Herc’s legend, the brief era when uptown rappers and DJs hung out with downtown punks and artists and sniffed coke at the Roxy, the L.A. gang truce that (as Chang tells it) contributed to the sense of euphoria Dr. Dre built on The Chronic, the editorial battles that transformed The Source from a vital voice to a single criminal’s mouthpiece. And what really makes Can’t Stop Won’t Stop pop is Chang’s vivid, humane writer’s instinct. The man knows how to tell a story, and there are great stories here.