Review by Jeanne Doherty, MLIS Day
This is my week for hip-hop. The release of ‘Hustle & Flow’ on video just happened to come on the heels of the paperback release of this outstanding, wide-ranging history of hip-hop and of the social conditions that led to it. This music may very well be the significant artistic and cultural innovation of my generation, and it would be an exaggeration to say that I was unaware of some of its creation myths. How could I remain completely ignorant? Run DMC, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and N.W.A. effectively ruled the airwaves (and hallways) when I was a kid, but really, I was too young, and too far removed from the birthplace to see the full picture. I am grateful that I have the chance to catch up on what I missed, and that Jeff Chang has so carefully placed the cultural manifestation of rap in to its rightful, and still relevant, sociological and political context.
Chang is clearly passionate about the music, and about the people involved with its creation, and his prose fairly rings with his perfectly justified rage at the conditions under which hip-hop flourished. The book, in addition to being so well-paced and so packed with insider stories that one races through it as if it were a mystery novel, is a bracing (and infuriating) reminder that the terrible situation in the “inner city” did not happen merely by accident. We all know part of the story, and anyone living in a big city has seen the ravages of it firsthand: in the late 60s and early 70s, the assassination or imprisonment of virtually every potential or actual leader for the black community dovetailed synergistically with deindustrialization and other factors to exacerbate poverty and hopelessness in poor urban neighborhoods like the Bronx. When crime in these areas quite understandably began to escalate, city, state and federal government in many places responded to the problem with a policy bearing the euphemistic moniker of “benign neglect.” Another way of putting it is that cities like New York began to pull essential infrastructure and social services out of these neighborhoods that needed them so desperately, and left those who couldn’t afford to move away to soldier on without the support one would optimistically suppose to be universal in a “First World” country.
With a miraculous alchemy common to folk arts everywhere, this lead-bullet of a situation was the cradle for what would become the biggest, most lucrative and most controversial art of my generation. It is this alchemy that ‘Can’t Stop Won’t Stop’ attempts to capture. What is amazing about Chang’s book is his ability to synthesize the many disparate and complex elements in to a heart pounding, race-to-the-finish narrative. Weaving policy statements from politicians, first-hand accounts gleaned from hundreds of personal interviews, and quotes taken from essays by leading scholars with observations about market forces, international politics and cultural heritage, he has managed to create a document that is rich with detail, and confounding in its scope. I don’t want to ruin his game, so I won’t even try to give any further synopsis. It’s a task that would be nearly impossible anyway. After taking us on this roller-coaster, Chang closes the book with several riffs on a quote from William Wimsatt, made in the wake of the increased commercialization and co-optation of hip-hop: “Young people are noticing that the only thing that can’t be bought, sold, co-opted or marketed anymore is substantive political organizing and dissent.” Amen to that. I’ll see you there…but first read this book.
To purchase, go here:Powells Books
For another viewpoint on ‘Can’t Stop Won’t Stop,’ go here.