Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Book I'm reading now: Can't Stop, Won't Stop

Categories: , , music

I'm going to try to do this regularly from here on out. How long till this declaration mocks me and my lack of follow-through?

I'm reading Jeff Chang's Can't Stop, Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (New York : St. Martin's Press, 2005) right now. I'm nearly done with it--despite it's fatness, it's a quick read.

The subject matter is really interesting, especially at the beginning of the book. The first chapter sets the scene with a harrowing description of Bronx in the early 1970's, victim of "urban renewal" projects and escape-Manhattan highways. (It actually helped me understand what i had seen when my family went to Yankees games in the mid-80's!) He makes the connection between Jamaican sound systems, early Bronx DJ's like Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash, and the beginnings of hip hop.

The early sections are fascinating--things I learned (off the top of my head):
* pioneering DJ's like Herc, Flash, and others weren't the first to cut records because they didn't see what they did (live turntabling) as something that should be recorded, so the Sugar Hill Gang's Rapper's Delight was a total studio production, from the song (written by the record producer) to the group (assembled from a trio of kids who's done some rapping but weren't a performing group).
* there was an interesting (but often tense) relationship between the early hip-hop scene and the early punk/downtown scene. Graffiti artists got downtown gallery shows, the Clash had Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five open for them in 1981 (can you imagine that? They weren't well received.).
* Break dancing was so named because they danced to the song breaks. I think I always thought it was because you risked breaking something to spin around on your head, but the showy stuff developed out of the street dancing rituals that allowed gang rivals to blow off steam without outright fighting. Whoa.

Chang does a great job of contextualizing hip hop--in presenting what was going on in the Bronx, in South Central, when their hip hop scenes broke out. I didn't know a huge, city-wide gang truce was being brokered at the very same time the L.A. Rodney King riots were breaking out. Obviously, being, what, 15 when it happened, and living in a very white, suburban area, I wasn't privy to the inside scoop on the news out of Compton and Watts, but this completely changed my perception of LA in the early 90's and Bronx in the mid/late 1970's.

This past spring, I read Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude, which was a fictional first-person account of a white kid growing up in a black Brooklyn neighborhood. Reading these two books together (or within the year, I guess) makes for a whole new perspective on a time period and a place I missed out on--kind of. It's weird to think of this whole other world that existed just two hours away from Shimerville, PA, and during my lifetime, that seems so foreign, and yet not so.

Anyway, I'm rambling (but this is my blog, and i can ramble if i wanna!).

The major weakness Can't Stop, Won't Stop has is poor editing. Chang gets carried away with using lingo and casual references, but he often doesn't explain the lingo, or if he does, does so poorly or way too late in the book (for example, he refers the Five Percenters over and over, throughout the first half of the book, but never explains who they were until about halfway through. It didn't take that long to describe them, but it was silly to assume that most of his readers would know who they were). A glossary would have been super-helpful.

The book is also messy--it's rambling at times, going back and forth in time and theme, and at times reads like a collection of separately written articles clumsily mashed together to create a book. It's a good 546 page book, but it could have been an incredible 350 page book. It loses steam about halfway through--the pace slows down, it gets repetitive, and it loses focus. I'm not sure if I'm going to finish it or not--I just read a chapter about the founding of The Source, which I really don't care about--and I might just return it to the library unfinished (though i think I'm at least 450 pages into it).

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