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From the Bronx to South Central
Jeff Changís epic history of hip-hop

The problem with most serious books about hip-hop is that the outside world shadows every note of music, each carefully managed pose. The result is a trickle-up history wherein gangsta rap comments on post-industrial America, MC braggadocio offers glimpses into modes of gender, and Eminem forces a confrontation of the Whiteness Question. Critic and activist Jeff Changís ambitious and thorough Canít Stop Wonít Stop might be the best book ever written on hip-hop, precisely because he treats it and its attendant generation as the coda rather the song. Changís book is as much about the outside world as it is about hip-hop, but the trickle from one to the other (and then back again) is slow, inching, and passionately reported. (I should add that heís a former editor of mine.)

Chang begins by whisking us to hip-hopís mythic birthplace: the Bronx, the late 1970s. We find ourselves in very unlikely seats, however: the bleachers of Yankee Stadium. Itís 1977: modern life is falling apart, New York is a profoundly ugly place, and the Bronx is burning. From there, we step backwards again: to Kool Herc and the Jamaican diaspora; to urban powerbroker Robert Mosesís dream for New York City; to the rise and fall of the 1960s street gangs; to Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam; and to Freeway Rick and the young days of crack. Somewhere on page 129, a bunch of guys record "Rappersí Delight."

The strength of Canít Stop Wonít Stop is that there are no straight lines. The history Chang offers is a scatter of now-famous faces and touchstones bundled together by larger and sometimes accidental momentums. He fixes on critical, overlooked moments in the history of hip-hop, like the founding (and later spiritual dissolution) of the influential magazine the Source, or the moment when New Yorkís gallery scene courted the uptown graffiti kids. One chapter recounts the history of the Bronx gangs and how a series of tangents and truces shaped the generation of young people who would give birth to hip-hop. A later one fleshes out a 1980s post-civil-rights scene of anti-apartheid activists, class semi-mobility, and Louis Farrakhan before you realize that the punch line is Public Enemy. He spends even more time maneuvering through the labyrinthine streets of Los Angeles, pointing to street corners where chapters of Black Panthers (and, later, gangs) rise and fall. Now N.W.A makes more sense than ever.

Then thereís the moment when he uses the phrase "Dub history" to explain why he thinks of George and Jonathan Jackson whenever he hears the courtroom shootout fantasy of Eazy-Eís "Boyz-N-the Hood." In 1970, Jonathan Jackson tried to spring his older brother George from prison by taking over a Marin County Courthouse at gunpoint. Nurtured by Georgeís radical politics, Jonathan and his comrades took a judge hostage. Police fired on all of them, killing the judge, Jonathan, and two prisoners. Chang suggests that "Boyz" (which was written by Ice Cube) alludes to the story of the Jackson brothers.

Itís this mixture of gumshoe reporting and freewheeling imagination that gives Canít Stop Wonít Stop its power. Chang is obsessed with the directions in which ideas and fashions travel, and he listens for the faint echoes of influence. His kind of associative thinking doesnít always yield the firmest arguments ó still, as the title suggests, this is a book about generations, not just records and sales. And just as generations pass along whispers, rumors, and traditions, so does Changís version of hip-hop. It doesnít matter whether "Boyz" is really about the Jacksons, only that these are all pieces of the same culture, the same generational myths and the same "dub version" of official America. Hip-hop isnít about one thing ó hip-hop is about everything. And this book captures what those who created it and those who have lived and loved under its spell have done with it.

Issue Date: June 10 - 16, 2005
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