Can Flow Will Flow

'Give them an apocalypse, and they would dance': Jeff Chang's monumental hip-hop history

Even if "generations are fictions," as Jeff Chang writes in his new book, they are addictive, identity-giving fictions that reinvent pop culture. Can't Stop Won't Stop gives us the bustling, rumbling, all-or-nothing personality of the hip-hop generation while launching us into a desire for its ideals. "Concede them a demand and they would demand more," he writes. "Give them an apocalypse, and they would dance."

Dancing in the streets is the eternal image in Chang's powerful new history of America in the last three decades. Scattered legend is now transcribed: America built the 'hood, which created a global culture of ghetto chic and hip-hop couture. As celebrity threatens hip-hop's integrity, it propels the movement to look for its roots. Who does hip-hop belong to, if anyone? Where were you when it all began?

The culmination of 10 years of research by Chang (a Voice contributor and Colorlinesfounder), CSWS creates a geography for the nostalgia, a cure for the identity angst. Chang asserts that hip-hop's raison d'être will not disappear if we respect its history, and its core will not corrode if we honor its birthplaces. He plunges us into a world of Uzis and knives, Rastafarianism and Islam, vinyl and hot beats. His steely, economical style reveals the story inside rap, straight up without any rhythmic painkillers. Though obviously a rap aficionado, Chang doesn't try to appropriate their stylin' in writin' legendz outta hidin'. He keeps it real by writing straight.

Chang: A geography for hip-hop nostalgia
photo: B+
Chang: A geography for hip-hop nostalgia

Literally starting with concrete, Chang builds the space of hip-hop culture first, mourning the architectural experiments of misguided city leaders and planners: "High modernism met maximum density" and resulted in "monotonous slabs of housing rising out of isolating, desolate, soon-to-be crime-ridden 'parks.' " With inverse or perverse ordering, these concrete jails came first, then crime: "Gang colors transformed the bombed-out citygrid into a spiraling matrix of beefs." Beef and concrete exploded into fiery destruction as landlords razed their slabs for insurance. Chang's first chapter provides a cycle to dominate the book: neglect, fire, chaos, rebirth. This last phase often translated into utter control: martially organized gangs, mastery of all joints in B-boying, hyper-discipline of the voice in rap, and obsession over detail in graf.

Chang chronicles the lives of the icons like Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, and DJ Kool Herc, who pens the moving introduction to CSWS. The ideologies of these forces of goodness are reincarnated, but the hip-hop movement never quite finds versions of them again. Bambaataa's efforts to spread Pan-Africanism and Zulu nation were truncated as the ghetto burned up in freebase fires.

Amid this tumult, art has never been so politicized, violence never so creative. The rhetorical and visual ingenuity of hip-hop gave language a new lease on life, took no single letter for granted, and blazed them across trains, bridges, and beats with a kind of battle glory. Graffiti spurred existing-while-black arrests but brought graf writers to Soho, including Jean-Michel Basquiat. Spike Lee, called "trendoid" and perceived by some movie critics as politically dangerous in the '80s, became a film pioneer. Rappers became rhetorical disciples for their generation, flanking Farrakhan and Jesse Jackson when needed. Baffled rapper Bill Stephney asked, "Now that our community leaders cannot take up their responsibility, you're gonna leave it up to an eighteen-year-old kid who has mad flow? What is the criteria [sic] by which he has risen to his leadership? He can flow?"

With the hip-hop view as the point of reference, the parallel universe of Reagan's "bright white America" seems surreal. Visualize the Gipper riding "into office like a celluloid cavalry colonel coming to the rescue of the beleaguered frontiersmen" and the televised Iran-Contra affair, Ross Perot's campaign gimmicks, and the parentally paranoid censor Tipper Gore. Through the '90s, legislation made even the extreme Ice Cube sound sensible: "Every motherfucker with a color is most wanted." With legislation like the "three strikes" law and lifetime sentences for drugs, the police became empowered to commit injury—witness Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, and Rodney King.

Fire spread quickly to engulf the other coast. The L.A. riots would claim more Latino lives than African Americans and an estimated billion dollars' worth of destruction—roughly half being Korean American property. This fire lit up the image of an America at war with itself, and made the stakes for rap rhetoric even higher. Did African Americans now have the quota on anger and neglect as a population, or did the thousands of "illegal aliens" killed or arrested in the riots suffer more? Such entitlement issues threatened to explode into wars again, forestalled by peacekeeping leaders like Angela Brown and Alex Sanchez.

The bling and ka-ching success of rap has begun to divide the rich, charismatic rappers from the voiceless population. Chang's book ends with a photograph of battle-ready fists in the air, an indication that though rap has far exceeded its local boundaries, the concerns of the African American community have not been resolved. Such silence resonates: In the summer of 2004 I walked with BOM5 (one of Chang's interview sources) to look up a tag in the Bronx that he had sprayed for the Red Skulls crew in the '70s. It had survived, faded into a crimson fungus on the concrete, yet still defiant.

 
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