Feature Article

Can't Stop, Won't Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation

A look at the ground breaking book by acclaimed Hip Hop author Jeff Chang

Published By: St. Martin's Press

By Jon Minners

Let the Links Guide You:   A History of the Hip Hop Generation      A Review of the Book      Can't Stop, Won't Stop: The Website 

A History of the Hip Hop Generation

Author Jeff Chang    The Bronx; it is long considered the birth of Hip Hop, but when one hears the words Hip Hop, most think of music, like what’s playing on mainstream radio and video music stations everyday.  However, Hip Hop is capitalized for a reason, for it is a culture all of its own complete with its own music, language, style of dress and varied forms of expression.  Like Generation X, Hip Hop has its own generation and that too started in the Bronx; fully examined by one writer whose new book takes a look at the true roots of Hip Hop and where it has evolved today. 

    Fighting back from years of neglect, rising from the ashes of burnt out homes in the South Bronx, a new set of pioneers ignited the world with a brand new art form that included music, graffiti, dance battles, called b-boying, and a unique style of dress that soon took off and reached homes across the world, including that of Jeff Chang, an author from Hawaii who has written on race and culture for over two decades in The Village Voice, The Nation, The Washington Post and URB.  His latest book, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation looks at the true roots of the Hip Hop movement before the first “yes, yes y’all” was said over a mic until today when Hip Hop activism leads a generation into a new direction. 

    “When I created this book, I was not trying to write the History of Rap Music,” said Chang, who was originally going to write a story solely based on Ice Cube’s groundbreaking and controversial album, Death Certificate, but changed his mind when he saw a bigger book dealing with the socio-political aspects of Hip Hop that were evident from Cube’s work and throughout Hip Hop’s history.  

    “You can see how much of the DNA of Hip Hop is specific to certain neighborhoods and it can be seen in the way certain acts just become natural; the way people carry themselves and they way kids interact with each other in the Bronx,” continued Chang.  “So, I thought, now I have the beginning of my story.  This was a story of the Hip Hop Generation; the essences of the generation; before DJ Kool Herc threw that major party in 1973.  There were conditions going on in the Bronx that brought about the Hip Hop Generation.”

    And so, Chang’s book begins 25 years before Sugarhill Gang's Rapper’s Delight put Hip Hop into the global spectrum and several years before pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash and others were performing on stage in three-hour sets that many thought was too long to translate into mainstream friendly records and radio play.  The book begins in 1969, a year after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and the year that Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised the black fist at the Olympics.  It was a time of social unrest in the Bronx when Robert Moses’ dreams of vast highways displaced many Bronxites, the borough was abandoned by the state and a white flight led to a re-segregation and increased poverty concentration that brought about new gangs, floods of drugs into the community and the fires that ravaged the Bronx.

Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation    Chang interweaves these tales together to showcase the real roots of Hip Hop, changing people’s perceptions of what went on through interviews with gang members from the Black Spades, the Savage Nomads, the Savage Skulls and others who ruled the Bronx during its lawless days.  “There is an idea that everyone just stopped fighting and started doing Hip Hop,” said Chang.  “Hip Hop did start in the Bronx and it has saved millions of individual lives, but it was the gangs, themselves, that stopped fighting with the signing of the 1971 Peace Treaty.  That was such an important moment in our history and in Bronx history, that is a falsehood to say that Hip Hop ended the gang areas.”

    Chang discusses how the idea of the individual started to take over the mindset of urban youth, as many put away their dirty and grimy colors and decided to express an individual style, which included a style of dress, way of dance and, of course, style of graffiti.  “As gang territories started to vanish, kids now were able to find a place with likeminded kids to show their styles off,” recalls Chang, who used 14-years of research and articles to write his view of the Hip Hop Generation.  “What park do I go to if I want to catch Grandmaster Flash, instead of what block do I avoid.  This was a driving force for the Hip Hop Generation.  It is important to show that this was going on; that people decided that they were going to dance today; not fight, but it is important not to romanticize it and instead discuss the true reasons why it took place the way it did.”

    Hip Hop evolved due to the urban blight occurring in the Bronx, according to Chang.  As police abandoned certain areas, kids started to act out in ways to have fun.  However, at the same time, Hip Hop saved the Bronx and brought people back to the borough.  “Kids were screaming against invisibility,” said Chang.  “They had style and they wanted to make themselves known.  Bringing attention to yourself brings you attention from interested outsiders.  While you were having art galleries putting graffiti art on display, authorities suddenly began to focus on the Bronx again, calling graffiti lawless, putting it in the same league as rape, murder and assaults with new quality of life campaigns.  It’s a double-edged sword.  If graffiti writers are not out there, it doesn’t give a gang member the vision of what life could be like without a gang and it doesn’t get people to start taking a real interest in the Bronx again.”

    Chang’s book expands looking into the rise of Hip Hop throughout the world, including its roots in Kingston, Jamaica, its transformation to Gangsta Rap in Los Angeles; the political ramifications of various quality of life initiatives, the Rodney King beating, the following riots, the use of Hip Hop as an activist tool against Apartheid in South Africa and the commercialism of Hip Hop that has led to the culture taking over the way people dress, express themselves and listen to music.  But the 450+ manifesto on Hip Hop, which took Chang from December 2001 to write, is not its definitive history. 

    “This is not the last word on Hip Hop,” said the author.  “You could talk to a pioneer and learn so much more that takes you in a different direction.  Everyone keeps the cipher going and when you step into the cipher, you need to bring something to it.  Everyone leaves the cipher with much more than they entered with.  That’s what this book hopes to achieve, but there is so much more that could be discussed.”

    Chang hopes to tackle this subject in future printings and the forthcoming paperback release.  Chang also hopes to write about Hip Hop’s impact on other forms of art.  As Hip Hop continues to change and evolve there is an idea that Hip Hop will die like many generations before it, but Chang is not sure when that time will come.  “I ended the book so suddenly, because Hip Hop is still forming ourselves and you can’t close the book on us yet,” he said.  “In my discussions with Richie Perez, former leader of the Young Lords, he said to me, ‘every generation has its moment, its time in the spotlight.  That moment passes very quickly.  Our time in the pop culture limelight may be moving.  My hope is that we will move on graciously.”

    Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation can be bought at all major bookstores and on www.amazon.com .  For more information and a further examination of Hip Hop culture, go to www.cantstopwontstop.com.  


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