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Before Bling 

Hip-hop’s storied past

Thursday, Mar 10 2005
Photo by Henry ChalfantDeep into Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, something both sobering and undeniable is realized: What’s touted these days as “hip-hop history” is nothing more than the latest edition of American pop-culture folklore. Lionized moments like DJ Kool Herc mixing the first loop with two copies of the same record in 1973 or the night Grandwizard Theodore first scratched vinyl in ’77 are no different from Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil down at the crossroads all those eons ago. Fuzzy facts mixed with a healthy dose of embellishment and myth have evolved into stories that even your kids can recite verbatim (thanks to reinforcements like VH-1’s endless repetition of hip-hop history–spouting specials like And You Don’t Stop). None of which is to slight Chang’s extensively researched and meticulously written tome of hip-hop’s storied past, from its roots in Jamaican sound systems, through the Bronx, to the culture’s impact on the 2000 presidential election. He takes a fresh approach to make his point, opening the book in Yankee Stadium during the 1977 World Series, when Chang suggests that racial tensions sparked riots in the South Bronx and caused sportscaster Howard Cosell to utter the famous words: “Ladies and gentlemen, there it is. The Bronx is burning.” This is a book that should be on the shelves of every high school and college library, an engaging and entertaining full-blown excursion into American inner-city culture’s rapid proliferation into every nook and cranny of culture at large. The details of legendary U.K. punk expressionists the Clash tapping Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five to open shows at the New York disco Bonds International only to get booed and bottled offstage have yet to lose the real sense of urgency that underlies these early attempts at crossing such disparate cultures. It’s impossible not to get sucked into the back story of the tension and infighting among Public Enemy in the early ’90s, culminating in Professor Griff’s now-infamous anti-Semitic tirade in the Washington Post, which eventually brought the group to its knees, never to fully recover. So this is a solid book that more than delivers on the title’s promise. Chang takes an overarching approach to his subject matter, showing how music-industry advancements, such as the implementation of the point-of-sale bar code–reading Soundscan system to faithfully track records, changed the Billboard charts forever: “Soundscan told the music industry what the kids had been trying to tell them for years. Broadcast culture was too limiting . . . The emerging niche model favored fluid, proliferating, self-organizing grass-roots undergrounds with their tiny economies of scale and their passionate, defensive audiences that always seemed caught between discovery and preservation, boosterism and insularity.” It’s at moments like this that Can’t Stop Won’t Stop truly shines, as Chang’s own passion for hip-hop culture pushes through the timeworn tales to really show itself. This explanation of subcultures at large is an underlying theme throughout the book, as he never ceases to show the way hip-hop has always policed itself. Chang outlines the rise of the first generation of hip-hop journalists in the late ’80s, such as Greg Tate, Nelson George and Joan Morgan, whose personal and profound treatises were often as wrenching and confrontational as the music they were writing about. The lines were self-consciously blurred. Rappers threatened writers who had the audacity to write bad reviews, citing a credo of “Don’t mess with my livelihood.” It’s all very sensational and thought-provoking, the sordid inner workings of the burgeoning hip-hop industry. Things get really interesting when hip-hop’s influence is co-opted by the world’s biggest marketers, once they concede hip-hop’s hold on the world’s youth-oriented consumer culture. It began with Nike utilizing Michael Jordan, and then red-hot Spike Lee to blast Nike past Reebok and into hip-hop history with the Air Jordan campaign starring Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It alter ego Mars Blackmon. Careening through the rise of hip-hop magazines like The Source (and subsequent spinoffs like Vibe), Chang pulls into the station by winding things up at the end of the 20th century with a heartfelt look at hip-hop’s political leanings. Which leaves us in a precarious position. The Ice Cube presented in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop is “the nigga you love to hate,” a galvanizing figure at the heart of L.A.’s Korean–African-American tensions and ultimately the race-riot explosions kicked off by the televised police beating of Rodney King. It gets ironic when you realize this is the same Ice Cube who this year opened a family-oriented movie atop the box-office charts with an even more ironic title: Are We There Yet? On the now-omnipresent billboards for the upcoming big-budget movie Be Cool, it’s hard not to notice Outkast’s Andre 3000 standing prominently alongside mainstream actors like John Travolta and The Rock. Just last week, rapper Jay-Z sat in prime seats at the Kodak Theater for the Oscars as his girlfriend Beyoncé trilled her way through three of the nominated tunes for Best Original Song. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop illustrates the blood, sweat and fears hip-hop has spilled over the years to create this brave new world. Now rappers like Nelly can record a duet with country star Tim McGraw (“Over and Over”) and top sales charts previously unknown to both (McGraw on the Top 40, Nelly on the Adult Contemporary chart); they even gathered for a cross-cultural Bud Light commercial that pokes fun at the disparity between the two when each accidentally gets on the other’s private plane. Get a laugh as Nelly is confronted with ten-gallon-hat–sporting good ol’ boys and McGraw is faced with steely-faced homies from the hood. But no worries — it’s all good. Even the Hot Topic new-school punk set has been infiltrated by the boom-bap, as Minneapolis workhorses Atmosphere have successfully brought their emo-rap to the Warped tour for two years running like a b-boy version of the Promise Ring with their punkish approach to beats and rhymes. This is the true power of hip-hop. Chang’s book chronicles the tenets upon which these previously insane notions are now accepted and even mundane aspects of the current Us Weekly–powered celebrity culture. Today, “hip-hop history” is made every time Scion gets a couple of old-school legends in the house and actually pays them to play (and given the way many of these originators were ruthlessly spit out by the industry back in the day, this is not nearly as heinous an activity as naysayers would lead one to believe). On the artistic front, classic acts like De La Soul acknowledge the cream of the new-school crop by working with underground favorites like L.A.’s own Madlib and Detroit hero Jay Dilla to record their best album in years, The Grind Date (on the urban subsidiary of Sanctuary records that’s run by none less than Beyoncé’s father), not to mention their upcoming tour, which pairs almost-free shows (tickets are slated to be an economical $1.20) with spoken-word seminars at nearby universities. There is definitely no stopping in hip-hop’s future, both on the real and the blinged-out of control. But given the quantum leaps made over the past 40 or so years, it’s safe to say that no one knows just how far it’s going to go. Unless you’re already predicting the whole “repping your particular borough on the moon” trend that’s sure to come. Scott T. Sterling is the editor in chief of URB Magazine. CAN’T STOP WON’T STOP: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation | By JEFF CHANG | St. Martin’s Press | 546 pages | $27.95 hardcover

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