Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation

Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation (New York: Picador, St. Martin’s Press, 2005).

Jeff Chang, using a journalistic lens, attempts to answer the question: how does the political economy affect cultural production? He introduces the reader to the originators of Hip Hop, offering politically informed biographies of Hip Hop pioneers Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Baambaata, and also of individuals involved in the commodification of rap music in California (Dr. Dre and others at Death Row Records). Chang’s credentials include over a decade of Hip Hop journalism with publications in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, Vibe, The Nation, URB, Rap Pages, Spin and Mother Jones. He is cofounder of a Hip Hop label Quannum Projects and was senior editor at Russell Simmons’ Clearly Chang has been one of the agents in the legitimation of Hip Hop culture and has had an active hand in making the history that he writes about. His narrative voice shifts easily from that of a scholar to that of a street-credible hipster, making this book accessible to many audiences and especially useful for teachers.

The biographies presented in this volume depict a cultural movement that in its three decades of existence has grown from a community-level event into a billion-dollar global industry: from a cultural expression to a commodity.

The history of Hip Hop consists of a series of battles. The author begins in 1977 with an anecdote about the New York Yankees, whose stadium is in the Bronx, Hip Hop’s ground zero. He recounts the tumultuous relationship between the highest paid baseball player, Reggie Jackson (a black man) and the white owners, managers and other players on the Yankees. The fact that manager Billy Martin opposed signing Jackson and when angry referred to Jackson as “boy,” even though Jackson was earning three million a year, fits neatly with the experiences that would generate Hip Hop. Jackson commented: “It makes me cry, the way they treat me on this team. The Yankee pinstripes are Ruth and Gehrig and DiMaggio and Mantle and I’m a nigger to them… I don’t know how to be subservient.”

During this same time in Jamaica the Black Nationalist movement of the Rastafari developed, following the teachings of Marcus Garvey. Struggles for power between the Rastafarian-supported People’s National Party (PNP) and the dominant Jamaican Labour Party (JLP), still under colonialist rule, led to the murderous “clearing” of the Back-O-Wall ghetto, the home of two Rastafarian sects. Though Manley’s PNP had won popular support and ushered in social reforms, his move to reestablish relations with Cuba brought a disinvestment from First World countries which included a decline in US aid from $23 million in 1971 to $4 million in 1975. By 1976, Jamaica was under a State of Emergency (comparable to U.S. martial law), due to the high levels of gun violence between rival gangs linked to the JLP and the PNP. Kool Herc, the man who brought rap to the U.S., grew up in this hostility and embraced the music that became the bridge to quell the violence. Kool Herc brought the melodies, riddims, and toasts from Jamaica to the Bronx; he brought the politically conscious music of Jimmy Cliff, Toots and the Maytals, and Bob Marley; and he brought the practice of talking over the music which set the stage for what would become rap. The development of Hip Hop, as Chang argues, arose from the struggles between structure and agency, between racism and democracy, and most importantly between producers and consumers of culture.

Chang describes the Bronx as a necropolis, a city of the dead. Though the role of deindustrialization in the rise of Hip Hop is well known, Chang provides descriptive statistics that even non-academics can find useful, numbers that help to explain the social context from which a new culture was formed. With the loss of 600,000 manufacturing jobs in the 1970s (a 40% percent decline), average household income in the Bronx dropped to half the New York City average and to only 40% of the national average. Youth unemployment was reported as 60%, but Chang suggests that in some neighborhoods it was closer to 80%. Indeed, as blues was said to come from an oppressed labor force, Hip Hop was to come from joblessness.

Chang provides anecdotal evidence of systematic oppression of inner-city residents. In one instance he describes the new economy that was on the rise with landlords who, suffering from the general loss of renters due to the structural shift in the labor market, found they could prosper through insurance fraud, and subsequently hired “rent-a-thugs” for as little as $50, to burn their buildings down. In the necropolis this was good business: the owner was left with a large insurance payout, often as much as $150,000, the thugs were paid, and even the remains of the burned out buildings provided capital in the form of copper pipes, fixtures and other hardware left for junkies to pilfer. Insurance companies also profited as they in turn sold more policies. This common practice led Joe Conason and Jack Newfield to write: “In housing, the final stage of capitalism is arson.”

As with Jackie Robinson, the issue of race trumped the real materialist issue of authority and control. These fires were interpreted by many as proof of the inability of Blacks and Latinos, the groups living in the South Bronx, to live peacefully and to create a secure living space for their own families and community. In a memo to Richard Nixon, Daniel P. Moynihan (who would later become Senator) cited Rand Corporation statistics on the fires and linked them to the rise in radical activity from groups such as the Black Panthers. He suggested: “The time may have come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of ‘benign neglect.’” Using mathematical models to legitimate their decisions, city officials cut the funding for seven fire companies and started a long trend that is neatly termed “deindustrialization.” In less than a decade more than 750,000 people left the Bronx; 43,000 housing units were lost (a rate of four square blocks a week between 1973 and 1977); 30,000 fires were set in the South Bronx alone; and in 1975, forty fires were set in a 3-hour period. Chang correctly notes these were not the same fires that were seen in Los Angeles, or in Watts, fires that were of “purifying rage”; these were fires of abandonment. The cumulation of joblessness, arson, loss of public services, reductions in local spending tethered to property taxes, and urban development in the forms of expressways ripping apart neighborhoods led to the development of a community where street gangs ruled. And from these gangs a new culture was born.

This same process of political struggle existed in Los Angeles as gangs fought each other for profit and control of street activities, and people of color took to the streets after the televised beating of Rodney King. In the throes of these struggles, in times of tremendous conflict, people still came together to party, to listen to music and, as George Clinton (Priority 1978) once said, “… to dance my way out of my constrictions.” This is the story of Hip Hop.

The community events of the three Bronx DJs included dancers (beat-boys and beat-girls), DJs mixing sounds and samples, and rappers toasting and playing the dozens over beats in concert with one another. Such events took hours to unfold. But after the release and success of the Sugar Hill Gangs’ “Rapper’s Delight” (Sugar Hill Records 1979), this collective action was reduced to songs fit for commercial airplay: songs that focused on rappers and no longer on the community investment that was the event. Hip Hop had died and was reborn as a commodity with the help of punk rock entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren, whom Afrika Bambaataa called a “culture vulture.” McLaren fabricated a myth linking rap music to South African folk music, beat-boys and girls to Africa, and dancers and toasts to ancient stories, thus providing the commercial appeal that others had sought without success.

What had started as relief from urban decay was transformed into the second-most profitable music genre in U.S. history and has, as a commodity, seeped into global consciousness. The music that was once pure resistance seems now impotent to challenge the structure it once opposed. But the beat don’t stop: as Chang reminds us, it can’t stop, it won’t stop.

Reviewed by Darby E. Southgate
Ohio State University

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