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March 17, 2006

Can't Stop Won't Stop: Book Review

Can't Stop Won't Stop

Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation
by Jeff Chang; Introduction by DJ Kool Herc

Beginning in the harrowing and desolate Bronx of the late '70s and ending in California, which will always suck, Bay Area rap writer Jeff Chang's Can't Stop Won't Stop is a ridonkulously long and heavily politicized overview of the myriad social issues facing members of the hip-hop generation.

Rather than a proper history of rap music, which is what I imagine a lot of people might expect this book to be, it's more of a tale of the various ways the white man has kept his boot on the neck of the poor, unfortunate black youth for the past 30 years or so.

In fact, the coverage of actual rap music is pretty weak. It basically skips from the Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" to Rakim and Public Enemy (lots of Public Enemy) to Ice Cube's Death Certificate and that' it. Unless I'm mistaken, Death Certificate is the most recent album mentioned in the whole book.

That said, the book, misleading title aside, doesn't purport to be a strict history of rap music. And who needs a history of rap music anyway? The only conceivable market for something like that - Asian kids - already knows everything there is to know about rap music. They're dedicated like that.

Damn near half of the book deals with hip-hop in the era from about 1974-1984, and it's here where the book gets bogged down quite a bit. You get the idea the author might feel he's making some sort of political statement by covering this era in such depth, but the truth of the matter is that there's really not too much interesting to say about it, at least at that level of detail.

More interesting are the later chapters having to do with the Public Enemy anti-semitism debacle, Ice Cube's row with LA's Korean community over "Black Korea" and Death Certificate, and the story of the great downfall of Rayzino and The Source magazine. Granted, we've heard all these stories before, but probably not with this level of detail and historical perspective.

Here's the thing: So few books have been written about hip-hop that even the worst of them are indispensable in a sense. Chang's book is definitely one of the better of the lot, but I still found it quite a chore to read. I recommend it, but I wonder how many people will be able to sit through it.

Part of the problem is that Chang lacks a certain facility with the English language. For being a hip-hop book, his prose is pretty flat and tedious throughout. He attempts to compensate by doing that dumbass thing you see so often in hip-hop magazines where he'll occasionally drop in bits of hip-hop slang and song lyrics, which couldn't be any more grating. For shizzle.

Then there's the matter of Chang's politics. I don't know if it's an Asian thing or a Bay Area thing or what, but his views on most of these issues seem knee-jerk to the point of being ridonkulous. The author seems entirely reticent to hold black youth accountable for their own behavior, except for in one case in which he goes out of his way to make an excuse for a Korean store owner who shot a young black girl for calling her a bitch. (She was tired from working a double shift.)

But otherwise, the rule of thumb is that anytime some jig spray paints a building, it's an astute political statement, but anytime the owner of said building moves it to another part of town, it's a racially motivated act of "abandonment." As far as Jeff Chang's concerned, that's the story of hip-hop.

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Posted by Bol at 11:07 AM | Permalink

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