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Interview with Jeff Chang, Activist, DJ, Label Owner And Journalist
Author Of 'Cant Stop Wont Stop' And Winner Of The American Book Award
By Tamara Harris, Cinque Zenith
(more articles from this author)
2006-05-17
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Jeff Changís hip-hop prose is a key to demythologizing a sonic movement whoís commercial existence swirls in a white supremacist media miasma. The veteran music journalistís first book, ďCant Stop Wont Stop,Ē pulls a fine intellectual rake through hip-hopís history from the standpoint of an activist, DJ, label owner and journalist.

The origins of the MC battle, West Coast hip-hopís gang interaction and misogyny are a few of the subjects within the culture that Chang explicates in his modest but sharp writing style. Corporate narratives that recast hip-hopís significance as temporal purchases co-signed by the machine and the current tastemaker dissolve under the weight of Changís pen. Hip-hopís eternal drives are uncloaked and the raw verve of the earliest dance/graffiti/dj/ collages appear on the pages from the viewpoint of an invisible insider.

For starters, readers learn that Kool Hercís cross-pollination of his Jamaican roots with his Bronx relocation cleared a path for the hip-hop producer, the genreís party atmosphere and twisted the soundsystem raps into the fantastic microphone check. These archives are unstuffed to reveal a peopleís history of hip-hop.

Changís passion to maintain hip-hopís first ethos of giving a voice to those not heard also lead him to found Solesides Records, home to hip-hop specialists Blackalicious, DJ Shadow and Lyrics Born. He has written for numerous publications including URB, The Village Voice and Vibe among others. Hip-hop ambushed his senses as a little boy and he has been articulating his feelings about it for years.

The appeal of ďCant Stop Wont StopĒ is educating diverse groups of people about hip-hopís history and its power earned Chang an American Book Award. On his visit to Ann Arborís University of Michigan to give a lecture he took time to speak with me about his work, American radio and the state of hip-hop journalism.

[Tamara Harris] Why another book about hip-hop?

Jeff Chang Iíve been writing about hip-hop since í91 at the same time I was a DJ and an activist, so all of those three kind of came together. You know, over time I kind of wanted this weird sort of tangential career path. At different points I had run record labels. Iíve been a community and labor organizer, and I had been a writer as well like a journalist and an editor and stuff, so with the book it all kind of came together.

The idea was to kind of create a way to talk about what had happened and the differences between the civil rights generation and the hip-hop generation. I had had a lot of sort of painful debates and arguments with older folks about politics, and I think ďCant Stop Wont StopĒ was a way to say Ďlook, thereís a reason why our generation is the way it is. You down us all the time, but we in fact have a pretty amazing and heroic type of history as well.í

[Tamara Harris] What have been the strengths and weaknesses of hip-hop journalism?

Jeff Chang Hip-hop journalism didnít come out of this sort of mutual objective ideal of journalism - it came out of this idea of ďweíre not being represented at all so we need to go out and do it ourselves.Ē And so I think that hip-hop journalism came from that same impulse that drove a lot of the folks during the Ď80s to create these great works of art, like Spike Lee or Julie Dash or Public Enemy. All these different types of folks didnít see their stories being told, and so they wanted to get out in the media and tell them. I think that thatís one of the strengths of hip-hop journalism.

I think what has been a weakness is because we never had a lot of detachment. Thereís not a lot of self-critique about the fact that hip-hop journalism has increasingly become celebrity journalism and [is] falling into the same traps that celebrity journalism falls into. This isnít to say that celebrity journalism canít be enlightening about questions of aesthetics and politics or any of that. Obviously, folks have proven time and again that celebrity journalism can ask larger questions. But the sort of downfall of celebrity journalism is at its worst it basically fetishizes the person, and I think that thatís a part of whatís going on in popular culture: the dumbing down of pop culture. Weíre not critical enough of that.

[Tamara Harris] How did it feel to win the American Book Award?

Jeff Chang It was really humbling. It was a big thing because the American Book Award has actually been good about hip-hop authors. Theyíve given awards to Tricia Rose, Nelson George and to be included on a list of those kinds of folks, to meet Ishmael Reed, all these kinds of things are like unbelievably humbling. The other thing about it is I have to say my namesí on the jacket, but hundreds of people wrote the book. I honestly felt like this is a validation of all of their stories as well which I was just a vehicle. The award was just really. really cool in that sense. Kool Herc and Cindy came out to receive the award with me and it was definitely one of the highlights of the short life so far.

[Tamara Harris] In the book you chronicle the end of dancing in hip-hop with the arrival of NWA. Has hip-hop danced at all since then?

Jeff Chang Oh yeah, itís all about dancing now. The last five years, itís been all about the dances. Jamaican dancehall brought that back, but that was a welcome thing. In the mid and late Ď90s there wasnít a lot of dancing in the music, and I think you start to see that coming back like in recent years. There are people that say people are dancing because they donít want rap talking about the war or about politics or that kind of thing. But honestly, itís something that I never want to see leave hip-hop.

I was just talking in there about how often what happens in hip-hop history [and] pop music history, generally you have these periods where itís all about dance crazes. Then they give way to quote unquote serious music about messages and about more the brain - this sort of mind body split, the way that pop culture swings.

I was talking about the Juvenile video and that whole kind of swing, and [Hurricane] Katrina and what thatís done. I think itíll be interesting to see what happens in hip-hop out of Katrina because the records will start getting probably later this year. Juvenileís record is probably the first to capture that anger and rage that is coming out of what we saw happen in New Orleans, so Iím interested in seeing how that goes.

I wouldnít like to see people not dancing anymore, and I think writing that particular part in the NWA section was meant to be ominous, to show that, hey, for a lot of folks it wasnít fun anymore. You couldnít go and gather, you couldnít go and celebrate, it was all about the anger of it, the angst of it.

[Tamara Harris] Your book pays a lot of attention to context. Why the focus on soci-political history than say the making of particular albums or other aspects of hip-hop?

Jeff Chang Thatís just who I am. Like I said, Iíve been an activist, and DJ. My politics have always informed my aesthetics and my aesthetics have always informed my politics. Thatís just the way I look at the world. I very much wanted a book that just wasnít going to be about rap music or just about the four elements of hip-hop, but that was gonna go into the context that the culture emerged from as well as the content that came out of that culture. Thereís a lot of shifting back and forth from content to context.

I think that in the end, I was more interested in painting a portrait of a generation than I was instead of doing a great man history, which is what I think a lot of things end up being. Itís just one way of looking at it, so many more stories that havení t been told yet. In that sense, Iím really humble about the fact that I was lucky enough to get this opportunity

[Tamara Harris] As far as the merging of hip-hop and commerce, do you think that African-American culture has something already built-in that makes it prone to branding?

Jeff Chang No, not necessarily, but I think what has happened is hip-hop. I do take that back. This is what hip-hop culture does; pop culture used to be about this top-down thing where you would have folks at the top, say, this year everybody is going to buy this it use to be a real top-down thing. Then we had a couple of seasons where hula hoops didnít sell and people said we want the Rubiks Cube, and these kind of phenomenons grew out of nowhere and took over the entire country.

Hip-hop is that; hip-hop generates those phenomenons that then takes over the country on a yearly basis. Every year some kid somewhere is saying ĎIím not going to wear that anymore, Iím going to wear that.Ē Somebody sits looking at him and says, ďWow thatís interesting.Ē

[Tamara Harris] What do you say to the people who say hip-hop is dead because it only speaks to itself?

Jeff Chang Well, there are a lot of people who want to listen. And, I think that itís always been that way. I think in order to go pop, hip-hop had to stop speaking to itself to a certain extent. I write about ďRapperís DelightĒ and how it was a pop record that none of the pioneers probably could have made. It had to be this no-name group from New Jersey that came out with ďRapperís DelightĒ and blew through the roof with it because most rappers at that time were thinking about their club gigs on the weekend. And their routines were geared toward the patrons that would be going to those club gigs every weekend.

A lot of the early rap records are just that these routines that are put onto wax, and ďRapperís DelightĒ did the neat trick of having these stories that have a universal pitch to them. These days, with hip-hop being such a rich global style generator, itís almost important for artists to be obscure again, to speak to their own audiences because thereís that element of voyeurism, quite frankly, that pop culture allows.

A Young Jeezy is popular. Thatís not necessarily an experience people in the suburbs have access to on a daily basis. They can be voyeuristic. When you get somebody like E-40, that has all this lingo thatís particular to the Bay Area, people are intrigued they donít know what it means. It adds to the appeal of it.

I think thatís a lot of what drives the fascination with hip-hop, why hip-hop is such a powerful force. Because every once in a while you get someone like a Ghostface Killah, that you have to write down his rhymes line by line to figure out what the hell he is talking abou,t and even then you canít.

[Tamara Harris] You wrote a piece last year on the death of the alt. press. Between the selling of a paper like the Voice and the mostly glossy magazines on the American newsstand, how do you think those things affect and will affect hip-hop journalism?

Jeff Chang Because alternative weeklies and hip-hop magazines in general have shortened their word counts, what that does is it doesnít allow us sometimes to get the big issues. You need the long form to really be able to get deep into certain kinds of things. The longest story in Vibe magazine now is not going to be more than 2,300 words. Thatís about 50 percent or less of what the long form used to be.

Hip-Hop is an idea generator. Iís something thatís like Tricia Rose put it: itís discursive, itís the kind of thing where people call and then thereís a response and out of that, a really interesting dialogue can come about. So I think that the demise of the long form in journalism really has some serious effects on the way that folks do it.

There is a preponderance of journalism that is going to be about trying to sell stuff, whether that be a new CD or a movie or a this or that. Itís not as if we havenít fallen into that trap already ... itís been, like, since the dawn of hip-hop journalism. Itís always about the new record thatís coming out. The difference is that itís now going to be about the hundred words that summarizes what the record sounds like or the eight-hundred words that summarizes what the artist wants to tell you about that. And what gets cut is that dialogue, that interesting stuff all of those ideas generated by these records, by these pieces of theater, by these works of art. Thatís a serious loss.

[Tamara Harris] How have the past few years and key events like 9/11, Iraq, Katrina and oil affected hip-hop?

Jeff Chang Thereís always a time-lag effect of the time it takes to produce a record, but like with Katrina, weíre going to start seeing this year the effects of that. Quite frankly, I think the music is going to get a lot more topical. I think itís going to be lot more angry. I think thereís going to be a very, very overt direct reaction to it. Itís the same thing that happened with the war immediately after 9/11. You would hear Wu-Tang talking about Osama come in my neighborhood. Ghost basically issue a challenge, this sort of idea of you come in my neighborhood then weíll take it to you.

As time has gone on I think weíve seen a shift to where a lot more people are openly critical of the war. Jay-Z had those lines about marching against Iraq in the record by Punjabi MC. ďMoshĒ by Eminem and ďWhyĒ by Jadakiss, and all of these other types of records came from this changing sense of what the world was really about where Bush was going with it.

The thing that I think happens after these crises is a rush by the media to kind of be like ď9/11 happened, so why isnít any rapper making any records about the war?Ē or ďWhy are they making reactionary records about the war?Ē My answer is people just donít understand the rhythms of hip-hop. People donít understand it takes a while for a record to come out, for a rhyme to be made, for ideas to crystallize.

But at the same time a lot of folks were organizing benefits in the south that nobody wrote about, that hip-hop journalists didnít write about. Thousands of people in the south organized at the drop of a hat. People like David Banner and MTV [are] there, but the hip-hop journalists werenít. Thousands of folks going down, just brigades of folks going down to the gulf coast to help out, thatís what theyíre not reading about. Weíre all focused on the next record thatís coming out, on whoís going to be hot.

There is also a way we have to take responsibility and lead sometimes. So I give Elliot Wilson a lot of dapt for this because Elliot put Juvenile on the cover. He wrote, I think, in the next issue after that ĎWe put Juvy on the cover because it was the right thing to do but bottom line is, itís one of the worst-selling copies weíve had.Ē Itís a really interesting dilemma. I remember when they put Juvy on the cover 4-5 years ago and the same thing, which shows XXl, sells with East Coast rappers on the cover. I understand that thatís part of whatís going on here.

As a writer though, Iíve been frustrated because there are fewer outlets for me nowadays to be able to talk about the stuff Iím interested in talking about then there were after 9/11. For two years I was getting a lot assignments. People were kind of interested in going there. And then after a while, itís like that sign in the Juvenile video ďYou Already Forgot.Ē Itís like the media cycle turns and people are not there to sustain it.

But thatís not to say thereís not a demand for it. Itís just that most people havenít had any kind of faith to make that work. For instance, there are a lot of now hip-hop talk radio shows across the country that are extremely popular. You got this cat Antwon Gun in North Carolina, you got Davey D that does breakdown FM, you got like Fidel Rodriguez in LA who does Divine Forces Radio. You got Hard Knock Radio in Berkley. In New York City you have WBAI. You have a lot of folks out there who are using the airwaves to kind of put stuff out, do what some folks consider to be counter-programming the mass media portrayal of hip-hop. But nobody wants to pick them up.

All of the talk shows have are baby-boomer folks, older folks. And respect to all of them, Tavis, Ed Gordon, respect to all of them, but there are a lot my age who are not being heard. Thatís because people donít want to take a chance on people of color over 25. If you turn 30 in America and youíre a person of color, youíre going to feel like youíre going to be in a void for about 10-15 years unless youíre a baby-boomer. From the time youíre 30 till youíre 45, there are not going to be any radio shows for you. There may a couple of TV shows to watch, The Wire. Thereís no magazines directed at you.

Itís something people in media talk about all the time nobody has anted up and said weíre going to take care of these folks, and I guarantee if someone does it they will make a lot of money. The oldies stations they play like the Mary Jane Girls, Maze, they play Ď70s stuff. Thatís what happens with Black music in this country. There are stations that will play alternative rock these are oldies stations for the 30 to 45 age group of folks who are white theyíll play Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots, Nirvana theyíll play all these acts but they wonít do that for hip-hop.

I want a station where I donít have to listen to the latest act theyíre breaking all of the time. I think when Power 106 launched, they were doing some interesting stuff. This is Power 106 in New York. They were mixing in old school stuff in with new stuff, and they were testing it out, try to go for a bit more of a demographic. But theyíve since gone back because thereís no incentive for them to maintain it. It was like weíre going to bring you guys in and once we got our numbers up, thatís where weíre gonna stay.

For more information about the author, click on the authorís name at the top of the page.


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