tripping the life unbalanced

Friday, January 20, 2006

#6: Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation

After starting off my 50 Book Challenge last week, I submitted the titles to the library hold list and waited excitedly to see what would come in first (it doesn't take much to excite me, "ooohhhh the automated library lady called me!") And 10 came in all at once, as we all knew would happen.

I went to pick up the 10 books, pouring over each one. There were some novels and non-fiction I really wanted to start, but one book stood out among the rest. And as much as I tried to actually start 2 other books, it was this one book that kept calling me back. It was Jeff Chang's Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation and you better hold your breath because I am about to launch into a short lecture that should be titled "what a fucking awesome book."

The short of the long is this: the 450 + pages trace the history of hip-hop from its beginnings in Jamaica and the Bronx in the late 60s-early 70s, through to the more recent narratives of the early 21st century. As the book jacket says, it "chronicles the events, the ideas, the music, and the art that marked the hip-hop generation's rise from the ashes of the 60s into the new millenium". It is the story of DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash and the famous Bronx parties and the record companies who jumped on the rising stars of hip-hip and then co-opted their music. It is the story of Chuck D and Public Enemy and grafitti artists and Ice Cube and poverty and drugs and gangs and the LA riots. It is the story of the systemic racism that ensures American institutions appropriate an art form with one hand while holding down the communities who built it with the other.

And then of course there's the music. The awesome can't-not-start-dancing music.

But it is so much more than just this, and I feel like my short description does the book a disservice.

Chang manages to place a generation within the historical events which shaped it, without falling victim to a contrived narrative. In his prelude, he makes clear that this is just one version of history, and he encourages other stories from this history to emerge. His definition of the "hip-hop generation" is one of the better I have seen that (even apart from the music) best encapsulate a poorly-named Generation X:

"My own feeling is that the idea of the Hip-Hop Generation brings together time and race, place and polyculturalism, hot beats and hybridity. It describes the turn from politics to culture, the process of entropy and reconstruction. It captures the collective hopes and nightmares, ambitions and failures of those who would otherwise be decribed as "post-this" or "post-that." (page 2)

Can't Stop is one of those books that you pass by on the shelf because it looks so long and textbook-like and you will be thinking "hey, that looks kinda cool but I just want to read something fun right now." But you will be wrong. You will truly be missing out on something incredible if you pass it by, and I can only urge you to have your own experience with it.

As some unnamed bloggy friends know from the other night at an empty bar on Queen Street East in Toronto, I just can't stop, won't stop talking about this book. So I will end this here. Get it. Read it. Pass it on.


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