I recently finished reading Jeff Chang’s book, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. It was recommended to me by my friend Mark. Even though I’m a slow reader, I had some extra time off over Kent State University’s Winter Break. And that created the perfect opportunity to burrow into a big, complicated book with a big, complicated story. I consider myself a longtime admirer of Hip-Hop music and culture. Most of the events in this book played out over the course of my own lifetime. Still, I learned so much from Can’t Stop Won’t Stop!
One of my initial points of intrigue for this book was its coverage of the complicated relationship between the Black Community, the Jewish Community, and the Korean Community in the United States (and in New York City and Los Angeles, particularly). I believe this is what first prompted Mark to recommend the book to me. We were talking about recent anti-Semitic rhetoric from Kanye West and Kyrie Irving. And Mark told me that Can’t Stop Won’t Stop documented the way that these tensions were actually nothing new.
Jeff Chang notes that these dynamics go back to tensions over housing in the Bronx during the 1970s… the rise of Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam… a public disagreement between the founding members of the ground-breaking Hip-Hop group, Public Enemy… a lack of supermarkets in South-Central Los Angeles… And even that summary of the dynamics might be too simplistic! Still, it gives a glimpse into the way that Chang approaches these historical trends and the rise of a “Hip-Hop Generation.” History is complicated, multi-faceted, nuanced. So, it makes a lot of sense for a history book to reflect this.
The book starts with Jackie Robinson and Reggie Jackson (baseball players in New York). It goes on to describe the confluence of jazz, reggae, and rock in Jamaica. There’s an explanation of the way that advances in sound system technology gave rise of the DJ. And then, from there, Chang goes on to describe the emergence of DJing (music), MCing (words), B-boying (dance), and Graffiti (visual art), which he describes as the four pillars of Hip-Hop Culture. The art is a huge part of the story, but I found it even more interesting to see how the art illuminates the history.
Hip-Hop provides a fascinating vantage case study for understanding the bridge from the 20th Century into the 21st Century. I had no idea, for instance, that America’s “War on Drugs” had a pretty direct correlation with the Cold War. The U.S. government was concerned about the proliferation of Communist regimes. So, it looked the other way regarding trade in cocaine and opiates, as a way for strategic rivals in Central America and Southeast Asia to fund themselves. Consequently, the poor neighborhoods of American cities sustained a sort of collateral damage from the Cold War. And to add insult to injury, they ended up being cast as antagonists in America’s “War of Drugs.” I never even considered these angles as a white kid learning to “Just Say No” to drugs in north-central Ohio.
I learned a lot of other stuff from Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, too: the history of gangs… the origins of the Bloods and the Crips… the tension between East Coast rap and West Coast rap… the militarization of the police throughout the “War on Drugs.” There’s no way I could possibly summarize everything I learned from this book. Suffice to say: It’s a fascinating read. Kind of dense. Not exactly a gripping page-turner. But super-insightful and engaging.