A winner of the American Book Award, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation author Jeff Chang implored a new generation of hip-hop heads to explore the roots and origins of the culture. The critically acclaimed book chronicles the early days of hip-hop through the voice of the artists who helped shape the foundations of the genre. Jeff followed the success of his debut book with the release of Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop in 2007. Having lent himself as one of the most respected critics of hip-hop music and culture, Chang’s body of journalistic work also includes writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Vibe, Spin, The Nation and Mother Jones.
Jeff Chang sits down with Format to discuss his books, the status of hip-hop and his interview with Democratic Presidential Candidate Barack Obama.
“Commercial rap is clearly dying. . . . but I never fear for the hip-hop movement.”
Format: Tell us about Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop. It’s been a couple of years since its release. What were your goals for that book and do you feel you have since achieved them?
Jeff Chang: My goals for Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop were modest: that some people might be able to read it, discuss it, and perhaps be inspired to put their own stories in the global cipher. I was far from the first word, and I wanted to be far from the last word. I’ve just been humbled by the response to the book.
Format: What is discussed in Total Chaos that differs from Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop?
Jeff Chang: Total Chaos looks at the development of the hip-hop arts movement, focusing particularly on non-rap aspects, from hip-hop dance and theatre to graphic design and visual arts. It’s a multitude of voices, not just my own, and there are a lot of cross-currents of agreement and dissent. In that way, it’s just like the hip-hop arts movement itself.
Format: With the advent and popularity of so-called ring-tone rappers and the rejection of snap music by many hip-hop artists, is this a cause for concern in hip-hop art and culture?
Jeff Chang: I never understood this notion. People will have different tastes in rap music based on who they are, where they come from, how old they are. In some ways, it’s all hip-hop to me. What ought to be of real concern to hip-hop arts and culture is the corporate consolidation of media, a fact that has affected the culture and movement in much more harmful than benign ways over the past decade.
Format: Do you see the evolution of hip-hop today deviating too much from its origins whereby the art fails to retain any of its original essence?
Jeff Chang: No. Within the hip-hop movement there are always correcting forces, always people and artists who are keeping the flame and/or innovating the forms well into the future. We don’t recognize these forces enough – whether they are the pioneers/first voices, musicians, visual artists, dancers, scholars, or activists. That said, commercial rap is clearly dying. Sales have dropped more than 60% since 2000. But I never fear for the hip-hop movement.
Format: Which artists, or rather, what qualities of an artist do you feel truly embodies the spirit of hip-hop and progresses the art in a meaningful way?
Jeff Chang: I think hip-hop heads who are about understanding and expressing the links between its deep history and its far future are the ones who have always been and will always be the most enduring.
Format: Do you believe that a lack of major sales for an artist has lead to decline in the quality of hip-hop?
Jeff Chang: I think the rap industry has killed itself by limiting avenues of creativity, period.
Format: So would you agree that there’s been a recent decline in the quality of hip-hop music at all?
Jeff Chang: Absolutely not. Not if you know where to look for it. I’m always inspired anew.
Format: As a journalist who helped to usher hip-hop into an academic arena, do you feel that hip-hop’s recognition among scholars validates the art to a greater degree?
Jeff Chang: As an art and cultural movement, hip-hop will never need academia to validate it. At the same time, I think that the study of hip-hop is an excellent way to dive in and grapple with the most important issues of our time – from how to understand and fight the politics of containment and abandonment to the ways we can preserve creativity and foster social change.
Format: Can you describe what hip-hop activism is?
Jeff Chang: Hip-hop activism was best articulated by the person who coined the term, Harry Allen. “It’s the idea of using the power of hip-hop to both activate minds for and through hip-hop.” Since then, millions of young people have done just that all around the world.
Format: You interviewed Barack Obama for Vibe. What was that like for you?
Jeff Chang: Interviewing Barack Obama was a great moment. It was a beautiful thing to be able to speak to another son of Hawaii who had traveled such an amazing distance mentally, spiritually and psychologically to get where he was.
Format: Can you offer an explanation as to why he’s received overwhelming support from the hip-hop community?
Jeff Chang: I think Barack Obama represents a new attitude to the hip-hop generation. We’re a generation who has seen four decades of policies that have left us abandoned or contained, and who is extremely distrustful of a government run by elders. Obama does not interact with us the way that baby boomers and other elders have – quick to dis than dismiss us. (Think Bill Clinton and Sister Souljah.) Obama does not start with criticism, but with realism. He does not pander, and he inspires. He’s refreshing in that way.
Format: While there are cultures and groups of people who continue to reject hip-hop for artistic, musical and even racial reasons, do you feel that hip-hop has successfully communicated its art to cultures worldwide?
Jeff Chang: I just returned from Korea, where one of the biggest B-boy competitions in the world, R16, was held. Seeing young people from Brazil, Russia, France, Scandinavia, China and the U.S., and of course Korea, getting down in the spirit of a community center jam before crowds of tens of thousands of screaming girls and boys, even grandparents, was more proof of the power of hip-hop than almost anything I could download from iTunes.
Format: Hip-hop itself, aside from what we recognize as the four elements that comprise it, is not definitive, especially within the realm of the music. What is indicative of an artist that is truly hip-hop, as opposed to one that simply claims he is?
Jeff Chang: Afrika Bambaataa turned everything he touched in his crate to hip-hop – whether Kraftwerk, the Rolling Stones, or Disco Italiano. Hip-hop is a spirit of expressing oneself as a complete person in the world – unadulterated, uncut, whole. To me, M.I.A. is hip-hop, TV On The Radio is hip-hop. It’s the length your imagination can take you that makes you hip-hop.