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The Taproots of Rap

Bay Area writer Jeff Chang goes deep with his new cultural history of hip-hop.

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Jeff Chang, author of the hip-hop history Can't Stop Won't Stop, sees the birth of the music and its culture as a demonstration of the butterfly effect. "Little things can have such a big impact," he says. "Like how a gang peace treaty in the South Bronx can set things in motion that we're still feeling 30-plus years later."

Chang's book, published earlier this month by St. Martin's Press, is a lively and ambitious work of cultural scholarship, remarkable for the depth of his research and the comprehensive picture he develops--most chronologies of hip-hop begin a few years before the release of the Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" in 1979, but Chang fixes his starting point in the late 60s. A companion CD, Can't Stop Won't Stop: The Next Lesson, mixed by Bay Area DJs D-Sharp and Icewater--part of the extended family of the Quannum Projects label--is a collage of rare old hip-hop tracks, interview clips, and readings from the book by Quannum artists like Gift of Gab and Lyrics Born. Chang, who lives in Berkeley, is in the middle of a promotional tour that will bring him to Three Walls Gallery on Wednesday. Though the CD is usually sold on its own, at the gallery he'll be giving the disc away to anyone who buys a copy of the book.

Chang, 37, was born and raised in Hawaii and moved to northern California to attend the University of California at Berkeley. After graduating in 1989 he worked briefly as a lobbyist on behalf of public university students, and in the early 90s he began his career as a hip-hop journalist, writing for Urb and Rap Pages. He cofounded Oakland's Solesides label, home to the likes of DJ Shadow and Blackalicous, in 1992, and served as its business manager until it folded in 1997. Though Solesides was reborn a few months later as Quannum Projects, by then Chang was no longer involved. "I looked at what I'd learned and absorbed over the years and thought, 'If I can put it all together in one creative form, what would that be?' So I decided to write a book."

Chang's first idea arose from his conflicted relationship--as a hip-hop fan on one hand and an Asian-American on the other--with Ice Cube's 1991 album Death Certificate, which ratcheted up interethnic tensions in the months before the Rodney King riots by apparently advocating black violence against Korean shopkeepers. Chang had written a much-talked-about essay on the record for Urb and hoped to expand that into a book. He pitched the idea for several years and collected plenty of rejection letters. "No one understood what the heck I was trying to do," he says.

He kept writing, though, freelancing for Spin and Vibe and helping to launch the journal ColorLines, which concerned itself with race, culture, and political organizing. In March 2000 he became the politics editor for 360hiphop.com, a fledgling online publication founded by Russell Simmons, and moved to New York.

The move opened Chang's eyes to new truths about the roots of hip-hop. He learned that many of the genre's earliest figures had come from South Bronx street gangs of the late 60s and early 70s, products of the economic ruin of the neighborhood and localized youth unemployment rates of 60 to 80 percent. As Chang writes on his Web site, "1968 is when heroin floods the streets, the gangs come back and the fires begin. What follows leads to the emergence of hip-hop culture." He sees the gang peace treaty of December 1971 as a turning point--in just a few years the violence and nihilism that had accompanied the municipal abandonment of the Bronx gave way to an equally intense explosion of creativity.

Chang interviewed seminal artists like Afrika Bambaataa, BOM5, Jorge "Popmaster Fabel" Pabon, Lady Pink, Crazy Legs, and Alex Sanchez. Kool Herc, credited with inventing breakbeat DJing in the mid-70s, ended up writing the foreword to Can't Stop Won't Stop. "Talking to the pioneers was mind-blowing," Chang says. "It was like having Charlie Patton tell you about the birth of the blues firsthand."

When 360hiphop.com laid off its editorial staff in 2001, Chang threw himself into the book. Though his first finished draft ran more than 700 pages--and the published version weighs in at 546--he doesn't see Can't Stop Won't Stop as an exhaustive history. "I don't think any one person could write that," he says. He explains that his purpose was to explore the way hip-hop shapes people's identities. "Hip-hop is the big idea for this generation, the way civil rights or black power was for a previous generation. In every generation, there's a big idea that comes along and sweeps everyone up and carries them along," he says. "So it's no surprise you see people calling themselves hip-hop intellectuals, hip-hop activists, hip-hop designers, hip-hop businessmen."

Chang tries to understand hip-hop by starting with ground-level historical context, not by fixating on pop-cultural notoriety. As an example he points out how the real significance of Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle was forgotten after it became a platinum-selling symbol of hedonistic west-coast hip-hop. "People look back at that as the downfall of conscious rap or whatever. But if you put it back into its local context, it's pretty amazing, because that record was documenting a moment in time where because of the [Watts] gang peace treaty of 1992 there was total freedom. So you could actually roll down the street smokin' endo, sippin' on gin and juice, and being laid-back--without the fear of getting shot."

Can't Stop Won't Stop closes with Chang's coverage of several key political protests in 1999 and 2000--California activists were mobilizing to defeat ballot initiatives they saw as unfairly targeting youth, minorities, and illegal immigrants, and New Yorkers were out in force against police violence after the killing of Amadou Diallo. Chang believes those events prompted the rebirth of hip-hop activism, and he's working to keep that spirit alive. He serves on the platform and protocol committee for the National Hip-Hop Political Convention, which attempts to spur grassroots political engagement all over the country--one of the requirements for delegates is that they must have registered at least 50 voters. The first convention, held last year in New Jersey, drew almost 5,000 participants for four days of concerts, seminars, and meetings; the goal, according to the convention's mission statement, was for everyone to "vote on, adopt and endorse a political agenda for the hip-hop generation."

The second convention will be in Chicago in the summer of 2006. "They chose Chicago for a reason," says Chang. He points out that the city's scene is coming into its own: Kanye West, Twista, and Common are high-profile successes; influential indie labels like Chocolate Industries and All Natural Inc. are based here; and local college radio stations like WHPK and WNUR air progressive hip-hop programs.

The bicoastal approach of Can't Stop Won't Stop gives short shrift to Chicago, but Chang says that if he were to write an epilogue he'd set it here, in the present day. "Just like the beginning of the book in the Bronx, I would take it right back to the street . . . into a scene in the midwest, like Chicago," he says. "'Cause I'm always looking for where the next butterfly effect is gonna start."

Jeff Chang

WHEN: Wed 3/2, 7 PM

WHERE: Three Walls Gallery, 119 N. Peoria, #2A

PRICE: Free

INFO: 312-432-3972

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/B+.

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