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[MUSIC] Interview with Hip-Hop Historian Jeff Chang

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  • madchinaman
    Everyday Struggle A Conversation with Hip-Hop Historian Jeff Chang by Mark Hatch-Miller http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20050314&s=hatchmiller Jeff Chang
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 28, 2005
      Everyday Struggle
      A Conversation with Hip-Hop Historian Jeff Chang
      by Mark Hatch-Miller

      Jeff Chang grew up immersed in the first wave of hip-hop. He heard
      the seminal rap single "Rapper's Delight," by the Sugar Hill Gang,
      at age 12 in Honolulu. As a student at the University of California
      at Berkeley in the late 1980s, he took part in the anti-apartheid
      movement during the day and spun hip-hop records on campus station
      KALX at night.

      Today, hip-hop is a multibillion-dollar industry. While some of
      Chang's peers have cashed in on the action, failing to confront
      homogenization and a solipsistic turn in the culture, he has
      continued to define hip-hop as a movement with goals greater than
      the pursuit of "bling."

      He co-founded an influential record label and the magazine

      He writes about hip-hop for numerous
      publications--including The Nation--and he works as a political
      organizer around issues including electoral reform and juvenile
      justice. As if that weren't enough, his new book, Can't Stop Won't
      Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (St. Martin's Press), is
      one of the most ambitious and successful histories of hip-hop
      written to date.

      Chang stopped by The Nation in early February to talk about his book,
      the origins of hip-hop and the state of what he has dubbed "the
      hip-hop generation."

      What is hip-hop?

      A lot of people see hip-hop through the lens of music videos, rap
      music or the controversies that sometimes follow certain rap
      celebrities around. That's just a little slice of what hip-hop is
      about. Hip-hop is the "big idea" of our generation, the way that
      civil rights or black power or third-world liberation was the "big
      idea" for the baby boomers. Hip-hop organizes the way that we view
      the world--everything from what kinds of shoes we buy and how we
      lace them up to how we look at political candidates and whether we
      vote or not.

      Where does your history of hip-hop begin?

      The book starts in 1968 in the Bronx; 1968 is a very critical year.
      For baby boomers, it's become sort of a mythical year. You have
      students in the streets, revolutions in the air. There's a lot of
      noise, there's a sense that a generation is coming forward to take a
      stand and stake its place in the world.

      But in the Bronx at the same time in 1968, it's completely
      different. There's a deathly silence on the streets, there are
      abandoned buildings. Half of the whites have left the borough
      between 1960 and 1970. Municipal services are being pulled out of
      the area. Fire stations are closing, so when buildings catch fire,
      there aren't enough people to go and fight the fires. In the end,
      what you get is a generation of abandoned kids.

      The year that revolution is in the air around the world, the Bronx is
      the exception. You have gangs coming back to the Bronx at that
      particular time as a defensive thing to deal with the larger social
      conditions that they're up against, but also to deal literally with
      being able to get from one block to the next. These protective,
      enclosed types of social structures replace the ones that are being
      removed wholesale by the authorities.

      Hip-hop culture comes out of the gang peace movement. Traditionally,
      we don't think of gangs as being part of social movements. We think
      of them as outcasts or even the opposition to social movements. But
      in this particular instance, and in many instances throughout our
      generation, when the gangs have organized into peace movements,
      you've had this creative explosion follow.

      In 1971 in the Bronx, there was a massive gang peace treaty that
      unleashed all of this creative energy. Gang turfs, this sort of grid
      of territories, just melt away. Now it's about expressing yourself
      and making a name. It's about establishing that you have style--the
      way you dress, the way you rap, whether you can dance.

      Clive Campbell, aka DJ Kool Herc, who moved to the Bronx from
      Kingston, Jamaica, at age 12 in 1967, is credited as the man who
      "started hip-hop." What exactly did he do to start it?

      Kool Herc grows up like any other kid that moves to the Bronx in that
      period. He joins the gangs, he doesn't like them, so he moves out of
      that. When the ship comes, he finds ways to make a name for himself.
      In order to do that, he has to get over the fact that he's an

      He's seen as an outsider, he's teased for the way he wears
      his clothes, his accent, so he begins to express himself by making a
      name based on his differences. He gets involved in the graffiti
      movement very early on with the Ex-Vandals, one of the original New
      York graffiti crews. He listens to the Temptations and James Brown,
      and he listens to radio personalities like Wolfman Jack and Cousin
      Brucie. By listening to these folks he's working on his accent,
      learning how to speak "American."

      Becoming a DJ--a uniquely Jamaican thing--was another way of making
      his name and establishing himself within the Bronx. He throws a
      party, and then he takes the party outside as the parties get bigger
      and bigger. People start migrating from across the borough, because
      the gang turfs have melted away. They come from across the borough
      to see him play, and he's playing a lot of music that's not on the
      radio--a lot of black power music from James Brown and stuff with
      hard, funky breaks.

      The next generation of DJs is inspired by his outdoor parties. In the
      same way that the gang idea took root and spread as a virus, you now
      have this idea of partying spreading like a virus across the borough,
      from the west where he's at, east to the southeast Bronx, the Bronx
      River Projects, where [pioneering DJ] Afrikka Bambaata is at.

      Hip-hop is commonly thought of as an exclusively urban,
      African-American and male culture. The history often belies that
      stereotype. So who owns hip-hop?

      That's a difficult question. On the one hand, you have corporations
      that "own" it, and they're trying to play safe bets. They're spending
      $2-3 million on one or two records that they think have a really good
      chance of blowing up. That's a process of highlighting particular
      kinds of narratives and stories and images that may be stereotypical,
      may fall into our well-worn regressive ways of understanding race in
      this country, and gender as well, because the biggest losers in this
      commercialization process were women.

      During the late '80s, major labels were like, "Damn, we know we have
      to be on this train, but we don't know what to do--so, oh, there's
      Ice T, let's sign him up. There's Public Enemy, let's sign them up.
      Let's sign up Boogie Down Productions. Let's sign up Paris." And at
      some point it becomes clear that these folks are not necessarily on
      the same corporate team as the execs who signed them. They want to
      criticize Bush, they want to talk about police brutality, about
      creating 5,000 black leaders, and they become liabilities. Not just
      political liabilities, but liabilities to the bottom line. And
      there's this period where there's a purge of rappers that are
      speaking explicitly from major labels.

      Ice T gets kicked off of Time Warner because of "Cop Killer," [and
      similar situations arise with] Paris and other acts. The money moves
      in a completely different direction, and since then it's been
      a "safer and safer bet" type of thing. As the monopolies get bigger
      and bigger, they get more and more divorced from what's actually
      happening on the grassroots, and so artists are not necessarily
      coming up from the grassroots anymore. So the public is getting a
      very small picture of those who are creating and performing hip-hop.

      In a memorable passage in the book, you write that "living young and
      free in the Bronx was a revolutionary act of art." Is hip-hop still
      acting in revolutionary ways?

      In many cases, yes. You have hip-hop activists across the
      country--under the radar--changing things. The League of Pissed Off
      Voters is a great example. They're the ones who provided the margin
      of victory in Wisconsin, if you really get down to it. They've
      turned out city councils in Albuquerque that were trying to run a
      highway through Petroglyph [National Monument, a twenty-eight-
      kilometer-long surface covered with 30,000 petroglyphs, including
      many left by Pueblo Indians between 1300 and 1700 CE]. They've
      stopped the building of juvenile justice facilities in the East Bay
      in San Francisco. They've worked on environmental justice issues in
      the Bronx, as well as in Atlanta and Selma. Young activists are out
      there doing their thing every day.

      You were involved in something called the National Hip-Hop Political
      Convention last year. Could you tell us a little about the
      convention's goals and outcome? Was it different from the other
      "hip-hop" organizations involved in the election, which were mostly
      driven by celebrity?

      The convention began with a long session called "the
      intergenerational dialogue," and it went all over the place. It was
      the first attempt for folks to be able to forge a political agenda.
      It came out of a feeling that we had to figure out a way to take
      power. We'd established ourselves with a certain amount of cultural
      power--I say a certain amount because it's not necessarily all good.

      We still don't have control of the images that are out there, but at
      the same time, compared to two decades ago when I was a teenager,
      you can see people of color all the time on TV. Hip-hop had a lot to
      do with that. Converting that into political power has been
      difficult. You had thousands of folks ranging from 16 or 17 to their
      40s, all people who consider themselves part of the hip-hop
      generation. It's a wide swath now, and it was a difficult process,
      because we've never done it before. There's been a huge break in
      terms of passing the baton of leadership in the communities that a
      lot of hip-hop folks come from.

      People tend to look at hip-hop in terms of the cultural production,
      but [the convention attendees were] thinking very strongly and very
      strategically about political movements. It was never a thing of
      "let's make this a celebrity event and then figure out how to do the
      politics later." It was about "let's figure out a way to create a
      grassroots effort that will then feed itself into the making of an

      Whether you were a celebrity, a kid on the street or an organizer,
      you had to register fifty people to vote to become a delegate to the
      convention and to be able to vote on the agenda. It didn't matter if
      you were Slick Rick or Dougie Fresh or Wyclef Jean or whoever. You
      had to bring fifty people to the table, and I think that's how it
      had to be done. That's not to say that those folks that are doing
      celebrity-driven activism are doing it the wrong way. You need both.

      But just because a person can get up and put a bunch of words
      together in a nice flow over a beat, we think that person is
      automatically going to be our leader. I think the previous
      generation looks at it like, "Hey, these folks have as much
      visibility as the Black Panthers had back in the day, so those are
      the leaders of the hip-hop generation," and that's not the case.

      We've got to make people who are leaders, and we've got to let the
      artists be the artists. At the same time. you have to be realistic
      about it: If you want to leverage culture power into political
      power, you have to deal with the fact that we have a celebrity

      Clearly, one of the most urgent issues in your book and for hip-hop
      activism is juvenile justice. For example, in 2000 a California
      ballot initiative, Proposition 21, made it easier to try juveniles
      as adults and expanded juvenile sentencing--three years of jail time
      for $400 worth of vandalism and the death penalty for "gang-related"
      homicide. How does the hip-hop generation respond to these "divide-
      and-conquer" tactics?

      You know, the hip-hop generation has still not been able to get
      through the terror unleashed in the mid-'90s. You had, at that time,
      folks who had fought for civil rights and for black power turning on
      their own youth and saying, "We need to increase incarceration of
      these folks, we need to establish curfews, sweep ordinances, gang
      injunctions, a whole battery of laws that make juvenile justice more

      Between 1992 and 1998, something like forty-eight of the fifty
      states made the juvenile justice laws much, much more punitive.
      At the same time, the juvenile crime rates are at their lowest since
      the '60s. This was a "culture war" hysteria, basically, and it was
      pushed a lot by our elders. That's where hip-hop activism comes in,
      because [our] people are like, "We don't like the misogyny in the
      music either, we don't like the homophobia in the music, we don't
      like the regressive stuff in the music. But we're not suggesting
      that we lock ourselves up, or that all of these things that came in
      with the war on gangs be intensified!"

      In fact, [leaders in the previous generation were] almost
      saying, "I've done such a bad job at taking care of the next
      generation, let the government deal with them." [They were] writing
      us off. That's where a lot of the genesis of hip-hop activism comes
      in, this idea of "damn, we're really on our own, we're going to have
      to go out and do this for ourselves."
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