Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation by Jeff Chang

I finished Can’t Stop Won’t Stop (amazon; wikipedia) a couple of weeks ago. It’s a hefty book, weighing in at 500+ pages and it’s not a quick read like some of the mostly light fiction I’ve been burning through since, but I found it a compelling read.

I was looking for new books at an Eslite here in Taipei and saw this book. I’d heard of it before and I’d thought about getting it when I saw it at the Kepler’s in Menlo Park a few months ago, but had too many unread books at the time. Now with too little to read and plenty of time, I picked it up without hesitation.

Given that it is a non-fiction history of art in a sub-culture for 30-some years, its a surprisingly smooth read. It’s well-researched and all the various areas and stories are fit well into an overall story arc. It gave me a new and interesting perspective on the culture and socio-economic background that spawned this art.

The subtitle is important here: it’s not a history of rap music or the history of hip hop culture (though the latter is closer), it’s a history of the hip-hop generation. Hip hop, as defined in the book is the four arts of MCing, DJing, b boying and graffiti. If you’re only looking for a history of the music, you’ll find extra material here. There are also points of the book that delve into areas that are integral to the history of the people, but not of those arts, necessarily. For instance there is a chapter or two–many pages–about the LA riots following the Rodney King trial and the impact on the music is only discussed for a page or two.

There are a few points I feel like I should bring up is this: one is that I think the book’s racist. Here’s one example. The book makes the distinction in a few places that things can be pro-black without being anti-white. In most instances, this book is unflinchingly pro-black and that’s fine. But when a book specifically uses the following nomenclature consistently, one has to wonder if it’s also anti-white: Black, Latino, Korean, Asian, white. (Granted Korean is properly capitalized–can anyone find me a style manual that says the others should be as well?) Pro-everything-except-one-thing is sort of like being anti-the-one-remaining-thing in my book. If you pick every kid but one for a basketball team on a playground and tell each one that they’re all great, some one would be sure to mention that you’re not treating the last kid very well, even if you’re just being pro-all-the-other-kids. There are other points in the book where there are many black characters that are described and talked about in great detail (as one may expect from a book about the history of a hip hop culture) while some groups of whites are painted with a pretty broad brush.

Another thing I found myself grumbling at while reading was that while most of the book was meticulously footnoted and referenced, there were some claims about the causes for such-and-such [1] that weren’t referenced and, even if they weren’t wrong–and I remember thinking at least one didn’t agree with my understanding of economics–they certainly weren’t self-evident. Obviously the book was well-researched and the claims may not have been furthering the overall story so I would have just left them out.

[1] I regret not having particular passages from the book to reference here.



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